Revisiting the Recent: The Avengers (2012)

Sometimes things — ideas, experiences, nouns in general — require more than a knee jerk reaction.  In Revisiting the Recent, I look at pop culture from the not-so-distant past to see how my opinions have grown or changed.  In honor of this upcoming weekend’s big release, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, here are a few thoughts on a recent second viewing I had of its predecessor, 2012’s  The Avengers.

Rating: Four stars (out of five)

Properly cast, characterized, and scoped (?), Joss Whedon’s take on the super team remains the gold standard for ensemble superhero movies. Unlike the franchise-ification of other films in the genre — the worst offender being The Amazing Spider-Man‘s insistence on obfuscating Peter’s familial backstory to give a sense of mystery that hints at a possible resolution in theoretical later installments — The Avengers tells a self-contained story. Of course, it incorporates elements from the earlier Marvel films, but this plot opens and shuts itself without insisting on other chapters to finish its story for it.

Each character gets a proper introduction that shows off their personalities, each of which is genuinely distinct.  Nobody speaks in the same voice, a bigger feat for this type of movie than it would (or should) seem.  It’s a credit right off the bat, even if the pattern of “here’s this character, then here’s this character, now here’s this guy, and so on,” to open a movie designed for big thrills isn’t the most organic introduction.  The scope of the story gets properly huge even in comparison to the Shakespearean drama in Heaven that was Thor.  This group of heroes really does need to save the world, and Whedon makes that abundantly clear with the barnstorming climax.  Everyone learns to deal with each other’s weaknesses, be it Tony Stark’s (Robert Downey Jr.) narcissism, Bruce Banner’s (Mark Ruffalo) being the epitome of a wild card, Thor’s (Chris Hemsworth) haughtiness and entitlement, or Nick Fury’s (Samuel L. Jackson) constant meddling and manipulation for the greater good.  It’s a huge movie grounded in character arcs, always a pleasing surprise.  And it does it well, just like it does everything else, like editing, score, CGI, and character designs.

And yet, it’s still not transcendent.  That’s a lot to ask of something created as pure entertainment, but for every box it checks on what we consider solid filmmaking, it lacks a spark to truly send it over the edge.  It’s a prime candidate for the Hall of Really Good, like Alan Trammell.  But it’s not something we will hold up as the best cinema has to offer.

And that’s all perfectly fine.  I’d gladly take 30 movies a year done with as much care for craft and character as this one does.  I would beg for it, in fact.

But let’s explore for a bit what makes The Avengers very good, not great.  What is it missing?  It’s odd to say this for a movie that has so much of what I call “bang zoom,” but it’s not a film with a particularly interesting visual style.  For all the CGI pizzazz (again, it’s great and doesn’t look like it will be Escape from L.A.-level laughable in five years’ time), Whedon shoots everything matter-of-factly.  He does not have a style to call his own.  J.J. Abrams’s lens flares have been derided for years, but they’re a signature.  Steven Spielberg has perfected the Vertigo push-in/zoom-out to instill fear, confusion, and awe in his characters’ faces.  Whedon has his characterization and witty dialogue, plus a seeming strength in working with actors (though these are actors returning to characters they had created elsewhere, except for Ruffalo’s recast Bruce Banner, so Whedon may not have had to do much to get them ready to play these scenes), but it’s hard to remember specific shots or angles he uses.  He does not have a stylistic flair for telling visual stories the same way some of his peers do.  It’s all paint-by-numbers in what has become the Marvel house style.  Again, this is all fine, but it lacks in pure cinema, the way of using the camera and moving pictures to create something impossible in other mediums.  Whedon’s work animates some of the best elements of the comic books that spawned these characters, but he does not make them as truly cinematic as have other adaptations from different mediums. It keeps The Avengers from burrowing its way into a viewer’s mind.

Something tells me nobody, including me, will mind returning to it for the characters, adventure, and wit, though.


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