By Lon Harris
During the climactic battle scene in “The Avengers,” I was more than once reminded of a moment from the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. Legolas is running beside a galloping horse, and using just one arm, flings himself gracefully on top of the animal. It happens very quickly and it’s shot from a distance, yet it’s kind of remarkable in a way. Here’s a purely visual moment that gives the audience so much insight and information about the experience of being an elf. Peter Jackson doesn’t just suggest but shows us how different this race is from our own.
Writer/director Joss Whedon has this same kind of insight, but about a muscular, angry green behemoth.
I know, I know, it’s a long-anticipated movie about a legendary superhero TEAM, not just The Hulk. Fine, fair enough. But it has to be said that Whedon is the first filmmaker who has successfully realized Hulk in live action (and many have tried.) I’d suggest it’s because he’s NOT really reaching for the Hulk-as-metaphor-for-inner-turmoil angle, Ang Lee-style, but instead just making him work as a character in his own right, an extension of Bruce Banner rather than a CG villain. This Hulk has inner life and personality. He’s not just a disaster movie in purple pants like his prior incarnations.
In a larger sense, what works about the Hulk in “The Avengers” is what works about the entire movie. Whedon had no easy task ahead of him meeting the insane expectations for this movie, but he did have something of a leg up on other filmmakers who have tackled iconic comic book properties.
He and his audience both have a bit of history with these characters. Not having to develop endless backstory EXPLAINING such-and-such about gamma radiation or this-and-that about rainbow bridges means more time for things like action and comedy and fun little character moments, which is pretty much what audiences want out of these movies in the first place.
He wisely capitalizes on this opportunity, making a first “Avengers” movie that’s generally light on plot. We spend more time catching us up with all of our heroes than establishing the threat against humanity they’ll be battling. This is a good thing. Even so, and despite an exciting pre-credit sequence set at SHIELD HQ, the movie takes about 20 minutes to click into place. Once the entire cast is present, things get moving.
The story in short:
Thor’s villainous (adopted) brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) has made a deal with a powerful villain from deep space. (It’s so much fun to have comic book movies finally dealing with the really far-out fantasy elements of their universes, by the way, not feeling tethered to Earth and everyday “realism” any longer. Marvel’s off to a far better start at introducing their cosmos than DC in the largely-reprehensible “Green Lantern.”)
Anyway, Loki says he will provide this alien overlord with the artifact known as The Tesseract, which was introduced in the films “Thor” and “Captain America,” and in return, he wants to be granted dominion over Earth and its human residents. (This is explained by Loki’s rivalry with Thor, who has sort of adopted Earth as a second home, but also because Loki’s just kind of a dick.) The alien also provides Loki with an army of aliens known as the Chitauri.
Back on Earth, Loki steals the Tesseract from SHIELD headquarters, alerting Nick Fury (Sam Jackson) that something is deeply wrong. And Fury then assembles the Avengers.
That’s… basically… it. At least as far as the story goes. Much more focus is put on the characters all, well, assembling, having interpersonal conflicts and basically refusing to work as a team. In particular, there’s much concern over bringing in the unpredictable and largely unstoppable-when-angry Dr. Bruce Banner (played by Mark Ruffalo, because no one likes Ed Norton.)
Certainly, some complaints could be registered, were I feeling curmudgeonly. Though I come largely to praise Mr. Whedon here, there are some moments here reminiscent of his less-successful work on, say, “Serenity.” Conversations that feel a bit overly blustery and theatrical. Obvious sitcom-style setup-punchline jokiness. There’s one scene in particular, where Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) interrogates Loki, that seems sort of endless and winds up not serving much of a purpose aside from getting ScarJo’s backside an extra 4 minutes or so of screen time. Don’t get me wrong… it’s a nice backside… but in a movie so packed with character and incident, you’d think Whedon would be keen to push things forward.
But let’s not nitpick. There’s a lot to love in “The Avengers” for action movie fans – face-offs and throw downs between iconic superheroes, narrow escapes from collapsing buildings, assaults on invisible flying aircraft carriers. But few effects-driven sequences in ANY superhero or comic book film to date can stand toe-to-toe with the Manhattan-set battle sequence that finishes off this film.
Whedon’s never really worked in full-on effects-heavy action mode before, but he out-Bays Bay with this one. This sequence is massive, bringing all of the characters together in a dramatic, complicated and, as I said, extended alien attack on NYC. Yet we’re never confused about who’s doing what, or lost in the swirling digital chaos that tends to define the 2012 action movie experience. (I saw the film in 3D, and though I doubt it would lose too much in the standard 2D format, I was delighted to find that the picture wasn’t dark or blurry as I’ve come to expect. The 3D is largely used in a subtle fashion, save for one goofy shot of alien guts flying at the camera.)
Best of all, the scene isn’t just cutting between different Avengers heroes in different scenarios all happening simultaneously, which we’ve become kind of trained to expect from these kinds of big ensemble pieces. The whole climax establishes the notion that these characters are now a TEAM of soldiers under the command of Captain America, using their individual talents to function as a single unit. (One long take in particular whizzes around the New York skyline showing us each Avenger playing his or her part in the war effort, and it’s as close as films will likely get to a comic book “splash page.” It’s awesome.)
And yes, finally, we’re back to The Hulk, the purest embodiment of “The Avengers” sense of fun, and ability to ground these far-out fantastical goings-on by sprinkling in dashes of humanity here and there. Watching him fling himself between buildings and smash flying alien jet skis is alone worth the price of admission.