Sax von Stroheim writes:
I finally caught up with the year’s biggest hit. I’m a longtime reader of super-hero comics, and while the Avengers comics by Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, et al. aren’t my favorites from Marvel’s Silver Age, I do like them quite a bit.
Here’s what I liked:
1) There’s a very Marvel comics-style moment where Hawkeye – the world’s greatest archer – shoots some kind of super, high tech arrow at a computer so that it plugs directly into its USB port to give him access to it. It’s goofy, but I smiled because it’s exactly the type of thing that would happen in an Avengers comic.
2) There’s a very Joss Whedon-style moment near the end, where the bad guy, Thor’s evil step-brother Loki, is starting to deliver a pompous, gloating, villainous monologue to the Hulk, and the Hulk cuts him off by grabbing his leg and swinging him repeatedly into the floor. It reminded me of the great moment in “The Train Job” episode of Firefly, where a bad guy is threatening to take revenge, and Mal (the Han Solo-like leader of our heroes) kicks him into a spaceship’s engine intake, killing him instantly. In both cases, Whedon gets a laugh by tweaking our genre expectations of what a hero usually does when confronted by a raving villain (i.e., listens to him rather than doing something sensible).
3) After he’s told that he can’t compete with Thor and Loki because “they’re gods”, Chris Evans as Captain America delivers the movie’s best line: “There’s only one God, and I’m pretty sure He doesn’t dress like that.” Evans plays it completely straight, here and throughout the movie, never condescending to Cap’s old-fashioned idealism.
4) Tom Hiddleston as Loki was good. He nails the Stan Lee-style faux Shakespeare dialogue.
Here’s what I didn’t like:
1) The visual effects are poorly integrated, both with the “live action” and with other visual effects. Michael Barrier joked that the movie could be called The Battle of the Visual Effects Houses, and I agree. I never had the sense of a coherent aesthetic vision behind any of the CGI. This leads to several problems:
a) The seams are showing all over the action sequences. It’s very noticeable every time we go from effect to effect, so the spaces all feel needlessly chopped up.
b) There’s a very apparent change from actor to videogame avatar every time one of the heroes does something heroic. CGI-Captain America doesn’t move anything at all like Chris Evans as Captain America. That was a problem I had with the Sam Raimi Spider-Man movies, too, but I was kind of surprised that after ten years they haven’t gotten the technology to the point where it looks any better.
c) Relatedly, every time Robert Downey Jr. speaks as Iron Man (i.e., when it’s not him on screen, but just a CGI’d suit of armor), he sounds like he’s phoning in voice-over work on a videogame.
d) More on videogames: I guess if you don’t play videogames, you might not notice and be bothered by the way these movies feel like videogames. A friend described the alien army in the movie’s climactic battle sequence as “a bunch of video game extras”, and, well, they are. I felt something similar while watching “Prometheus” earlier this year: all these people were raving about Sir Ridley’s sense of design and all that, but the movie just seemed like it had been cobbled together with bits and pieces from HALO and Dead Space. To be fair, those games were deeply influenced by the original “Alien” movies, but still…
2) Putting a drippy fan-service character – Agent Coulson – at what’s supposed to be the “emotional center” of the movie. In case you aren’t familiar with the term, a “fan-service character” is common archetype in contemporary super-hero comics. He (or very, very rarely she) is supposed to stand in for all the comic book fans of the world. He usually parrots, in the world of the comic, the same kind of feelings that the fans have towards their favorite characters. Sometimes, in the comics, this works, and I’d be happy to provide examples if anyone actually cares. Most of the time, though, it comes across as one of the more masturbatory things in an already ridiculously masturbatory genre, as it does here. The problem is always that the love/admiration the fan-service character has for the super-heroes isn’t based on anything in the comic book, or, in this case, the movie, itself, but on the feelings the writers are presuming we already have for the characters.
It’s a way to use our pre-existing feelings of nostalgia for these characters as a replacement for having to write scenes that express any kind of honest, emotional connection between them. Actually, I didn’t just “not like” this aspect of the movie: I outright hated it. I agree with Michael Barrier that it’s a sign of the movie’s emptiness that Coulson is at its center: it turns the movie into a game of fill-in-the-blank.
3) Samuel L. Jackson. He just seemed to not give a shit. Which, normally, a guy getting paid to walk around in a big CGI spectacle, not giving a shit? Normally, I think that’s fine. Sometimes, I think it’s kind of admirable! But Jackson threw a Twitter fit when A.O. Scott gave the movie a mixed review, and if you’re going to throw a fit about a movie you’ve made, at least try to throw it for a movie that it looks like you gave a shit about when making it.
4) Oh yeah: out of the billions that this movie made, virtually none of it went to any of the guys who actually created these characters and these stories in the first place.
To sum up: though I had a few laughs along the way, “Marvel’s The Avengers” really demonstrates how the Marvel Movie Method works: take some charismatic, funny actors and blend them in with some shitty CGI and indifferently directed action sequences. Since audiences will happily drink this stuff up, I guess I don’t blame them for not bothering to make better movies. Still, that philosophy just seems to add insult to injury, considering it reveals just how little they really comprehend and/or care about the artistic legacy of Jack Kirby (and others) that is, unfortunately, under their stewardship.