The long-awaited Marvel’s The Avengers hit screens nationwide yesterday. Most of the characters in the film have already been featured in their own films, such as Iron Man, Thor, Hulk, and Captain America. Two more characters made appearances in those films and are included among the Avengers, Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow and Clint Barton/Hawkeye. They must team up to defeat Loki and keep him from opening a portal to another universe, where an army stands ready to help Loki conquer Earth. Meanwhile, the government agency SHIELD that brought them together has a deep secret that may just make their mission a moot point. Can the Avengers put aside their personal differences and defeat Loki and his allies?
Frankly, if you don’t know the answer to that question, this may be your first movie ever. No one goes to these comic-book films to see the villains win, after all. What counts is whether they make it interesting, stylish, or at least entertaining. The Avengers mainly succeeds on the latter point, thanks to elaborate effects and primarily the work of Robert Downey Jr, whose Tony Stark is by far the most interesting of the characters in the film, including the antagonist Loki. Otherwise, the affair seems more like a retread of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, with updated toys and effects.
Downey’s Stark is the only actor to break out of the cliches that rule the plot and most of the characters. Mark Ruffalo has a couple of interesting moments as Bruce Banner, but the rest of the cast seems satisfied with archetypes. Stoic determination is in large supply, as are the interpersonal conflicts that will eventually all get resolved. It’s a remarkably grim affair, made even more so by Samuel L. Jackson’s performance as Nick Fury, who seems less furious and more cheesed off. Usually in this genre, the villain gives us the most entertainment, but Tom Hiddleston’s Loki isn’t much more interesting or nuanced than his opponents. The cinematography deepens the grim feel; at least Thor had a visual presentation that was stunning and creative. With a couple of momentary exceptions — including a very funny one near the end with the Hulk that had me laughing out loud, and a cameo from a veteran character actor that is the slyest of inside jokes — nothing unexpected happens. At two hours and twenty-two minutes, that’s a long time for grim and predictable.
Still, The Avengers isn’t a bad popcorn film. Fans of the Marvel series on which the film was based should enjoy themselves, but everyone else had better lower their expectations to that of an average comic-book movie. Given the talent and the resources behind The Avengers, and especially with Joss Whedon as one of its writers, it should have been something more special.
The Avengers is rated PG-13, but it has a significant amount of screen violence and some mildly gory sequences in the film. It will be too intense for younger children, but teens shouldn’t have any problems handling the material.
Update: It’s only fair to point out that Rotten Tomatoes has a critic-rating Tomatometer on this film of 93%, so I am in a small minority on this film. Keep that in mind. I’m much more excited about The Dark Knight Rises to see whether this comic-book series maintains its ascendancy over the genre.