Columns / Discourse / May 16, 2012

Check the Reel: The Avengers strikes back

It’s still breaking records and playing to sold-out theaters. It hit the billion-dollar mark faster than you can say “James Cameron’s ‘Avatar.’” Now it’s the first new film of 2012 I’ve seen twice. “The Avengers” deserves, in light of its accolades, further reflection beyond last week’s review. Does it hold up on second viewing? What new details and impressions stick out? This list should answer both questions …

1. For all “The Avengers” does right, it does one thing notably wrong: it begins on a weak note. None of the characters we know and care about, exempting Nick Fury and maybe Hawkeye (for comic fans — he’s still an enigma to everyone else), are on the scene yet. The audience is just beginning to pick up on the central conflict and Loki’s main motivations. Without a solid anchor to root our experience, Joss Whedon launches into a padded chase scene through a crumbling, underground base. It’s a big, pretty and good spectacle — but the audience has nobody and nothing to invest in. None of this matters, of course, once the Avengers are on the scene and the substantial action kicks off. By that point, some filmgoers have probably forgotten how the film began. And trust me: the wait is worth it.

2. I took my dad to the second viewing, and he made a very good point once the movie finished: bang-slam-whiz action works when it doesn’t take itself too seriously, when the screenplay knows how to kid itself amidst the drama and catastrophe. I mentioned this a little in my review, but it bears emphasis. Michael Bay’s “Transformers” similarly levels an urban landscape with robotic, alien warfare, but it treats the devastation like a funeral service, and the upcoming “Battleship” looks more the same. “The Avengers,” though, perfectly juxtaposes drama with comedy — even the death of a beloved side character earns laughs with its tears, and the destruction of New York is mixed with moments of goofy heroics.

3. “The Avengers” also trumps another blockbuster misstep: the “Pirates of the Caribbean” sequels, where a sense of scope and breadth — multiple parties vying for control in morally ambiguous situations — negated all sense of “fun” from the original. The trouble with “Pirates of the Caribbean” is that it tried to give the impression of great things afoot, which “The Avengers” does too: only “The Avengers” succeeds through withholding enough information to blur the lines around the film, creating a larger world outside the story. Who is the council that Nick Fury addresses during the film? What prompts S.H.I.E.L.D. to develop weapons? We never find exact answers but there’s no need: Whedon delivers exposition where it benefits the immediate events or hints, without bopping on the nose at something deeper. “Pirates of the Caribbean” lost itself in the exposition and never quite got out.

4. Aspiring screenwriters, take note. Of all the things Whedon does right, his best skill is clear delineation of sub-scenarios in a larger scenario. All the major action sequences split the Avengers into separate groups pursuing different goals. In less able hands these scenes would be hectic, unbalanced and frenetic, but Whedon invests us in each group’s action by making it clear what they want at any given time. Whedon proves he’s a pro by going even further and adding new goals and conflicts every few beats. “The Avengers” is a textbook example of handling an ensemble of big, powerful personalities.

5. Aspiring actors are no exception either. Comic book movies besides Nolan’s “Batman” give little ground for probing a character’s deepest psyche. The screen time afforded to the nuances of drama acting is severely cut down in superhero flicks, and the strong actor learns to depend on physical tics and habits to convey their emotions. From Hiddleston’s compulsive, demeaning smiles as Loki to Ruffalo rubbing the bridge of his nose, fending off a Hulkish migraine, “The Avengers” provides a healthy supply of physicality-as-characterization.

6. While we’re on the subject of Ruffalo, his success can’t be praised enough. The New Yorker has a great piece by film blogger Film Critic Hulk on Ruffalo’s performance that hits all the points I wish to make and is well worth reading. I’ll just add that after a career of mostly indie drama and rom-coms, Ruffalo has proven his worth in the big budget, superhero world. Great things await him (hopefully).

7. Be sure to stay through the credits. Not only is there an early teaser revealing the next film’s antagonist, but also, after the long scrawl of names and special effect studios, you’re rewarded with a fun, silent punch line and proof that the Avengers can sit around in silence — we’ll still appreciate them.

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