The Main Event
There’s never been a release strategy quite like it; a series of movies, five in all, acting as character introductions for an epic on screen meet up. Marvel are coy; they call it their cinematic universe, but we know it’s a super-franchise, a property pile-up, or, if you stubbornly insist on looking at it from a storytelling point of view, the canny layering of character and context. If these previews of coming attractions have never bested b-movie material, comic book fans were tolerant; they knew they were chewing on starters. All eyes were on the main course.
You might think The Avengers, renamed Avengers Assemble for Britons, in a slight to their intellect, is a new staging post in a cycle than began a thousand years ago with Bryan Singer’s X-Men (2000). This original screen super-group did it the hard way; there was no ten-hour prologue. Introductions were brief, growth limited; valuable screen time was invested in orienting the audience in the movie’s world. How quaint that seems now. Marvel’s Avengers need no bedding in; there’s not an ounce of fat on the finished product, but there’s no character development either. Joss Whedon cuts to the quick; this is straight out of the bottle and into the glass. Does it matter? Only if you care to savour the moment, or allow characters space to breathe. Whedon’s movie is strictly utilitarian. It gets the job done, but there’s more to good movies than joining the dots.
Perhaps conscious that in storytelling terms, it’s all a little rough round the edges, Whedon applies his special balm to the affected areas; he mollifies with humour. If that’s a substitute for heft it works rather well. His team of super-heroes have smart mouths. Tony Stark, again imbued with Robert Downey Jr’s easy charm, becomes Whedon’s mouthpiece; he keeps it light and jaunty, turning his co-stars into straight men.
While you’re enjoying Iron Man’s dismissal of Chris Hemsworth’s Thor as “Point Break”, you’re distracted from the fact that there’s no organic relationship between these characters. Bringing disparate heroes together requires high-end orchestration. Is it beyond Whedon’s gifts? He tries hard. Black Widow (such curves!) and Hawkeye share a past, Stark and Bruce Banner are gadget fetishists, Thor and The Hulk, alpha competitors, with a nice line in mutual animosity. Fine though this is, and effective in lifting the film’s middle section, it doesn’t feel like a movie with a beating heart, rather one of Stark’s mechanical substitutes.
That isn’t to say The Avengers runs cold. Whedon’s affection for the characters, borne of the very fandom he hopes to masturbate, shines through. If we can’t have characterisation, we’ll take quips, and one-liners that hit like stinger missiles: “Mewling quim” might be the insult of the year. But in place of the A-picture depth that remains an unmined commodity in Marvel’s Cinematic Universe, there’s an attempt at reviving the kind of simple, clean-cut heroism embodied by the likes of Captain America.
Whedon uses the stars and stripes man to make frequent call backs to World War II and the good fight. The New York City that gets pummelled by an otherworldly enemy is not the city of 9/11 but the simpler movie stronghold of yore. Whedon rolls back the moral complications and chiaroscuro landscape of the Noughties, opting instead for binary distinctions, colour and razzamatazz. If Alan Silvestri’s score wasn’t so anonymous, you could almost believe it was the 1980s.
What reminds you that Marvel’s movie is modern, and sadly no marvel, is that it talks a good talk in being old fashioned without utilising classic storytelling values, the kind that might have impastoed those comic book panels. The on-screen team up is mirrored behind the scenes; every major effects house has come together to stuff the frame with computer generated destruction. But this, like its predecessors, is still a b-movie. There’s no moment in The Avengers to compare with the slaughter of Bruce Wayne’s parents in Batman (1989) or Jonathan Kent’s collapse in Superman (1978). These were the scenes that defined characters and added emotion. They reminded you that you were watching a movie and not just enjoying a product. We’re still waiting for Marvel to serve us a main meal that feels that satisfying. In the meantime, Tony Stark reworking the “I’ve got a Donk” joke from Crocodile Dundee II will have to suffice.
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