Joss Whedon, the man behind TV sensations Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly, is tasked with bringing the much anticipated Avengers movie to the big screen. How did he get on…
The Avengers is the culmination of several years’ planning by way of Marvel Studios’ collection of superhero movies beginning in 2008 with Iron Man. The result is the sort of action-adventure comic book fans have been salivating for. Teaming up against an otherworldly foe (in the form of Thor’s adoptive brother Loki and his monstrous army), The Avengers must put aside their individual differences and band together to save the planet.
Headed up by Nick Fury (Samuel Jackson), this ace team of superheroes that includes Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) must track down a powerful energy force known as the Tesseract. This destructive energy has been stolen by Loki (Tom Hiddleston) for an extraterrestrial race known as the Chitauri whose leader promises the Asgardian god an army that will allow him to rule earth. With Loki’s maniacal endeavours surely too much to handle for one hero, the “Avengers Initiative” – effectively the superhero dream team – is activated to combat the threat.
The Avengers’ biggest challenge was to live up to almost unprecedented expectation. The studio has been building towards the film since 2008 when it released Iron Man. The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor and Captain America followed, introducing us to both the heroes and the principle villain that would go into battle in The Avengers. That it achieves this feat and lives up to the heightened anticipation, even of hardcore fans, is an accomplishment in itself. In many respects it is the only hurdle it had to overcome.
Of course, hiring the hugely talented writer-director, and self-confessed comic book nerd, Joss Whedon to helm was the masterstroke. His sprightly direction, eye for well-timed, self-referential humour, and ability to balance the egos and eccentricities of this assortment of super men and women makes for great entertainment of the crash-bang-wallop kind. Above all, his undiluted love for the characters and the world in which they exist explodes from the screen, settling like a comfort blanket upon the audience.
Yet, inevitably, with so many characters to feed with screen time The Avengers can sometimes feel like a dazzling display of flashy CGI and glittery costumes without the substance. It would be unfair to criticise it for having little under the hood as the story is brimming with great imagination and well-drawn characters but the sheer scale of it all threatens to derail Whedon’s best intentions. Like a punch to the head, the film overwhelms then dazes, leaving us to feel the impact of the hit but wonder where it came from.
Robert Downey Jr.’s self-satisfied wit consistently drew me towards his character Iron Man throughout the film, reminding me why I enjoy his movie outings above the others within this series’ story arc. But, with the crowded stage, Downey Jr.’s screen time is reduced to allow the other Avengers some of the spotlight. This would be fine if they were half as engaging but Chris Hemsworth’s Nordic muscleman Thor and Chris Evans’ WWII science project Captain America, for example, are far too one-dimensional in their presentation. Both were better with room to breathe in their individual movies. Quite rightly, Whedon hands plenty of screen time to Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow, an ultra sexy spy and powerful female figure within the story, but not enough to Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk. It’s a balancing act that perhaps has no perfect formula. But it highlights how, by compacting such dense, grandiose story ideals into two and a half hours, there’s every chance the whole thing might burst.
Certainly, there’s a giddiness to proceedings that perfectly encapsulates Whedon’s passion for the project. It permeates the screen and is the ideal fuel to stoke the fires of fervent, excitable fans. However, it can be distracting. The pat-on-the-back celebration of bringing so many iconic Marvel characters to cinematic life has an instant gratification but it also disengages us with the story. For all the impending doom I never felt a sense of real danger. Although the threat in the form of Loki and his army is overpowering and unyielding, it is the overstuffed backdrop to a bunch of celebrity superheroes shaking their tail feathers.
Also, the frenzied activity is inherently superficial. We get to see another U.S. city blown to pieces in much the same way it was blown to pieces in bloated action-adventure films of previous years. Indeed, The Avengers has disconcertingly too much in common with the insipid Transformers 3: do we now simply add and subtract the heroes and villains we want to do battle over our cityscapes depending on the title of the movie?
In addition, while other directors have tried to bring Hulk to the screen with mixed results, Whedon has similar troubles with the guy ridden by anger management issues. His transformation into his super-self – seemingly involuntarily during one sequence, later voluntarily (both bringing different actions and reactions as he vents his “anger”) – were confusingly at odds. One minute he’s uncontrollably destroying everything and everyone in sight, including those on his side, the next he’s targeting his strength at the enemy. Like Hulk himself, there’s an unpredictability about the character that is both a defining quality and logistical nightmare.
I think to criticise The Avengers for feeling more like a Joss Whedon in director-for-hire role would be unfair. The talented writer, director and producer has done darker, funnier, more subversive and inventive work elsewhere (see television projects such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly, and his directorial film debut Serenity), however, The Avengers is about pushing the right buttons. Like a firework display, the glorious explosion of colours and shapes against a night sky instantly enthralls, yet they die away and leave an empty sky. You have the gratification and the enjoyment but you’re still out of pocket with nothing to show for it. Whedon’s film does everything it needs to excite its core audience but when the fireworks have died down there isn’t the invention to warrant another go-around.
Review by Dan Stephens