This isn’t going to be a review of the film. By the end of this weekend, according to foreign and domestic box office estimates, you will have seen Marvel’s The Avengers and you know how you feel about it. And if you didn’t see the movie, like, because you’re grounded or you hate joy for some reason, then you can read any or all of the official reviews written by people who get paid to do this stuff.
This, instead, is going to be a character review for all of the principal characters in the film, based on order of appearance in the movie, and treated as a response to the observations, criticism and questions I addressed in my overviews of the heroes in the movies leading up to this. These comments are preliminary impressions from a viewer who has not slept much, so I’m going to try and keep it simple. Because I’m so good at that.
Up to this point, Nick Fury, Director of S.H.I.E.L.D., has been more of an orchestrator, pulling strings from behind the curtains and dishing out plot devices as dramatic reveals and fanboy easter eggs. You’d hardly think of him as a man of action. Until now. The first twenty minutes of the film is all S.H.I.E.L.D., and we see exactly how Nick Fury could rise to his still-shadowy place of unfathomable power. He’s a master manipulator, but he can also jump out of a helicopter before it crashes, stand toe-to-toe with the God of Menace, and–because he’s Samuel L. Jackson–he can fire the $#@% out of a bazooka.
Fury’s job is to put all of the disparate personalities of the Avengers on one functioning team so they can save the day. It takes a lot of chaos, a lot of collateral damage, and a heartbreaking loss, as well as a bit of cold, shrewd manipulation, but he makes it happen. The problem is, now that the Avengers are assembled, what is Nick Fury’s role? There’s plenty of buzz about a Nick Fury or S.H.I.E.L.D.-centric solo movie to follow. Honestly, that and Captain America 2 are the only places I can really see Nick Fury working well without feeling forced. He brought the team together: mission accomplished. Now he’s a man without a mission.
Agent Barton, the S.H.I.E.L.D. operative known as Hawkeye, had the least screen time and character development leading into The Avengers. With all of the other higher profile characters we’ve come to love, I expected Hawkeye to be pretty thinly drawn and underutilized. Well, he definitely didn’t lack for screen time in this go-around. By “compromising” Barton, effectively making him a villain for the first two-thirds of the movie, writer/director Joss Whedon found a brilliant way to make the character relevant and present without having him vie for attention in a room with Iron Man and Thor.
We still don’t get a lot of character development from Barton, and what we do learn of him (as my wife pointed out to me while I was drooling over the Hulk) we learn from other characters, specifically Black Widow. Her connection to and concern for Hawkeye makes him a character we want to follow and root for. What’s more, Hawkeye gets to exploit some rather unconventional aspects of archery and marksmanship so that his character doesn’t feel like a low-rent Legolas. More importantly, in the climactic showdown during the last half hour that ravages New York as the Avengers fight off an alien invasion, Hawkeye never feels like an afterthought. It never feels like he’s not in the same league as Thor and Hulk.
By a wide margin, Natasha Romanoff is the biggest surprise of the film. In my previous post, I commented on how the Black Widow was offensively mishandled in Iron Man 2. Everything the character should have been was absent in that movie, but it’s all present and accounted for in The Avengers. Her roots as a foreign assassin with buckets o’ blood on her hands before defecting to S.H.I.E.L.D. is referenced multiple times, not so much it becomes distracting, but enough to tell us what Natasha’s driving motivation is and why she’s involved with this group of gods-among-men. She even speaks Russian!
Black Widow gets plenty to do in this movie already crowded with Alpha males, and that owes a great deal to Whedon, whose track record for sculpting powerful female heroes is well established in TV and film. Widow is the most focused, objective-oriented character in the film, more so even than Captain America and Nick Fury. But she never feels as coldly out of place or even bored as she did in Iron Man 2. Whedon gets a lot of untraveled miles from Scarlett Johansson, letting her play vulnerable and wounded in two different “interrogation” scenes, only to have her flip roles in each scene. But the contrived fear she shows Loki and some Russian mobsters has nothing on the genuine terror that all-but swallows her whenever she’s near Bruce Banner in one of his bad moods.
The Hulk is my favorite Marvel superhero, if you can even call him a superhero. He’s been the star of two well-intentioned but extremely flawed movies, and a lot of critics and viewers considered the character unworkable on the big screen. The Avengers proves them wrong. Proved me wrong, too. I thought Edward Norton was the perfect Bruce Banner in The Incredible Hulk. He had the lanky–scrawny almost–frame of a bookworm physicist that contrasts so well against the hulking monster that comes out when he loses his temper. Norton’s Banner was tortured, haunted, obsessed with ending his wretched existence, either through cure or death. It’s an engrossing portrayal, yes, but it’s also really damn depressing. And maybe that has been the fatal mistake of Hulk movies past, that Banner is too sad to be likable for two hours.
Joss Whedon and actor Mark Ruffalo take a different approach in The Avengers. Ruffalo’s Banner has, for all intents and purposes, accepted his fate. He’s not trying to kill the Hulk, he’s just trying to live with him. And it’s clearly a struggle. Throughout the film Banner looks like he’s clenched up; his hands clasped together, or arms folded over his chest, as if he has to physically hold himself together. Like if he’s not constantly squeezing, his dark brother will rip through his skin and destroy everything. It’s an incredible take on the character, and for the purposes of the movie, it works terrifically. This is how the Hulk should be done in movies, and it’s a testament that the Jade Giant gets not only some of the biggest shock-and-awe action beats of the film, but some of the biggest laughs, too.
My biggest fear about Captain America going into this movie was that he would look small compared to some of the other characters, that Chris Evans simply didn’t have the star power to stand with Robert Downey, Jr. and not be totally eclipsed. Well, those fears were justified somewhat. First, I do give Evans credit for his performance; he’s got a better handle on the character than writer/director Joss Whedon does. I think Whedon tried to force some old-fashioned-sounding lines out of Cap that just felt corny. Cap’s loneliness about being a man-out-of-time is never more than teased, possibly to allow for more exploration in a Captain America sequel movie. Evans does his best work in the smaller scenes with characters like Fury, Banner, and Agent Coulson. There’s a sense of him wanting to be the big brother that people can depend on that feels very natural for the character. It shows how central the concepts of service and duty is to the character without making him a S.H.I.E.L.D. soldier following every order he’s given.
But in the scenes with Downey, Jr., he’s just in over his head. It’s not even fair. They don’t have a lot of chemistry on screen, and unfortunately, it makes the Living Legend of WWII look like a slow, lumbering dinosaur. From the beginning, you never believe the Avengers is anyone’s team other than Tony’s. He makes or breaks the team; the story is quite clear on that. And during the final apocalyptic confrontation, Iron Man defers to Cap’s strategic judgement. Captain America doesn’t take leadership of the team; he’s given a hand-off. Of all of the Avengers, Cap was the biggest disappointment for me. Also, his costume sucked. It’s a thin needle to thread to make his costume not look preposterous, but they made it work in his solo movie last year. The changes they made are stupid and he looks silly.
Hulk and Black Widow were the happiest surprises of The Avengers. Iron Man was just a surprise. It makes sense that the movie would emphasize his character considering he’s the most successful and popular character of the franchise, but I figured they would use him more strategically for humor and cool visual effects, considering he’ll be in a third solo movie next year. I figured much of the screen time would go to Cap and Thor, but that is not the case. I don’t know why this should surprise me, I mean, it’s Robert Downey, Jr. playing Tony Stark. If you can’t make a good movie with that formula then filmmaking is not your true calling. Joss Whedon knows what he’s doing and plays to the strengths shared by Downey, Jr. and Stark.
In many ways, Tony Stark is the emotional center of the movie. His romantic interest from the Iron Man films is not only revisited in this film but expanded upon in both funny and touching ways. Tony’s journey through the film is learning to trust and finding strength in numbers. The Avengers team does not come together without him, making him really the star of the movie. Downey, Jr. didn’t just get top billing because of his contract. He is the star of The Avengers.
Thor, like Captain America, was another mild disappointment. I expected him to have a much more significant role, both dramatically and emotionally, in The Avengers. His little brother, Loki, is the villain of the movie. All of the mischief, menace and mayhem caused by Loki’s machinations, Thor must feel deeply, intensely guilty about to some degree, but we don’t get a whole lot of that. At the center of Thor’s conflict is the question: what is more important, protecting his brother out of family obligation, or saving the lives of a human race he has come to care about. In the context of who Loki is, this question is a no-brainer, and the fact that Thor seems to struggle with it doesn’t do his character any favors.
More than that, though, the conflict between Thor and Loki feels incidental. Loki makes this conflict personal for all of the Avengers. The grudge Black Widow, Hawkeye, Nick Fury and Iron Man hold towards Loki is more immediate and relatable than the sibling rivalry. If Thor has a stake in the movie’s outcome, it’s negligible. If he has a character arc, it is brief. But he does get a ton of frenzied and fun action beats, and that forgives a lot of the limits of his character. Also, his sleeveless costume in the first two-thirds of the movie is sooo much tougher-looking than the faux-chain-mail armor that covers his arms in the final battle.
Cliff’s Notes Recap
The Hulk and Black Widow are both redeemed by this movie. The Avengers shows what these characters can and should be. I look forward to a Hulk movie staring Ruffalo and a Black Widow movie could be as awesome as any of the Bourne movies, or that Angelina Jolie movie, Salt, which I think was like Bourne with a vagina.
Nick Fury and Hawkeye benefit from pure added exposure. These guys finally get a chance to do something, and they do it well.
Iron Man didn’t need any additional screen time, but he gets plenty of it. This movie feels a little like Iron Man 2.5, in the way Tony becomes the heart of the team.
Captain America and Thor are sadly underutilized. They don’t lack for action or dialogue or heartfelt moments with the other characters, but neither do they seem to gain anything from appearing in this movie. I don’t know more about Cap at the end of The Avengers than I did at the end of his own movie. Ditto Thor.
Okay, this movie is out of my system. I can start writing about important shit again.
When does the next Batman come out?