Joss Whedon’s The Avengers: A review (of sorts)

The AvengersJoss Whedon’s The Avengers has robbed me of my critical mojo! If you’re a regular reader of this site, you’ll know that my reviews of SF and fantasy media tend towards critical analysis. I don’t apologise for that. Entertainment is never just entertainment and there are values and messages both subtle and overt embedded in all forms of writing – sometimes intentionally but more often than not merely implicit to the beliefs of the writer. When we don’t take seriously the entertainment we consume so enthusiastically, there’s a risk that we fail to understand the messages that wash over and through us as we’re being entertained.

Iron Man, The Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor and Captain America gave me no trouble when it came time to apply myself to a critical analysis. Each in turn introduced us to the mythos and characters of the Marvel Universe, expanding it piece by piece and setting four uniquely individual superheros on a collision course to this one moment in The Avengers when they must unite, or in pursuing their own course of action watch humanity fall. But I’ve seen The Avengers and frankly I’m stumped. Joss Whedon has stopped me in my tracks. I know I should write something critical and profound about this latest addition to Marvel Studio’s increasingly crowded stable of superhero movies, but every second word that occurs to me is profane, not profound, and the rest are the sort that I try to avoid when critiquing a movie precisely because they are uncritical.

Still, I’ve clearly committed myself to writing something about The Avengers so for better or worse, here goes (although this is the abridged PG version):

Joss Whedon’s The Avengers is absofrakkinglutely awesome!

There, in one fell swoop I’ve lost all credibility as a critical reviewer, but what the hell. The Avengers is a gift and Whedon has crafted such an amazingly entertaining, thrilling, exuberant experience I was thoroughly immersed for its entirety, not once jarred from a blissful suspension of disbelief. Which is not to say that the movie is unworthy of critical attention, and perhaps on a third or fourth viewing I might apply myself to such a purpose but for now I’m content to let the experience wash over me, relishing each moment without applying myself to its analysis.

Another reason this “review” won’t be a critical analysis is that I refuse to give away any of the movie’s many surprises, although the broad outline will be known to any who have followed the story arc in the preceding movies: an enemy threatens world security and Tony Stark (Iron Man), Steve Rogers (Captain America), Bruce Banner (The Hulk) and Thor, along with Natasha Romanoff (Black Widow) and Clint Barton (Hawkeye) are called upon to unite under The Avengers Initiative to save the day. The narrative arc is simple and inevitable: these super-ego superheroes must come together as a team, or we all fall. The enemy, Loki, is familiar but he is not alone, and when a god bends the knee, you can be sure he is not the worst enemy we can expect.

The performances are all top-notch. Robert Downey Jnr is back in top form (after a disappointing follow up to Sherlock Holmes) in a role that brought him back from the wilderness. Chris Hemsworth’s Thor has matured, which is only to be expected after his experiences in Midgard and Asgard, and Hemsworth somehow succeeds in delivering those stilted, archaic lines with conviction, timing and great charm. More so than the others, The Avengers is a continuation of Captain America’s story, and Chris Evans succeeds in conveying the vulnerability, great heart and humanity of Steve Rogers so recently shipwrecked in his own future. Hawkeye and Black Widow who we’ve encountered in Iron Man 2 and Thor are finally fleshed out and both Scarlet Johansson and Jeremy Renner rise to the occasion. The new kid on the block of course is Mark Ruffalo as The Hulk and his performance as the troubled scientist with a big heart and bigger fury is one of the great delights of the movie. Tom Hiddleston’s Loki is memorably maniacal, hinting at vulnerability but deceiving us in that as in everything else.

The Avengers showcases Whedon’s strengths as a writer and director and he succeeds brilliantly where few others could in bringing together an ensemble cast of actors and a bunch of characters unused to sharing centre stage. The challenge of this movie was always going to be providing each of these established characters with a significant place in the sun and Whedon pulls it off admirably in a script that captures the uniqueness of each character, gives them the space within this crowded stage of egos to be themselves, but also the potential to grow individually and ultimately as a team. A strength of Whedon’s writing is his ability to convey the humanity of these characters despite their superhuman or even divine qualities, and for all their superiority the strengths and weaknesses of his characters are identifiably human qualities and passions.

The action and effects are superb as is only to be expected and the 3D is unobtrusive, but if truth be told the real joy of this movie is in the writing, in particular its remarkable humour. In series such as Firefly Whedon has demonstrated his skill as a writer of comic dialogue and situations but he surpasses himself with The Avengers with hilarious dialogue delivered to perfection by a cast in top form coupled with some outstandingly funny situational comedy.

Is The Avengers flawless? No it’s not. While I won’t elaborate, the action and narrative in the middle section of the movie, which occur on board a giant flying aircraft carrier, arise through Loki’s manipulation of events but for all the explanation provided or hinted at, Loki’s purpose is obscure to say the least. Ultimately however the real motivation appears to be Whedon’s desire to gather all the players in one place, showcasing the individuality of his superheroes before they can be seen to come together as a team. Does the plot make sense? I’m not sure. Does it make for great cinema? Oh yes, and as Damon Young, philosopher, author, commentator and my good friend observed “And let’s remind ourselves: IT’S A GOD-DAMNED FLYING AIRCRAFT CARRIER. There’s no logic that can un-awesome that.” And he’s absolutely right. When all is said and done, Joss Whedon’s The Avengers is absofrakkinglutely awesome!

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