I never thought I'd live in a world where I can choose from three different sets of illustrations with the theme "what if the Avengers were dinosaurs," but apparently we as a species have reached this point.
2012 is a year inundated with projects that seem like licenses to print money. We had 3D re-releases of the first instalment of a pop culture phenomenon and one of the most successful films in cinematic history, and we have yet to look forward to the finale of Chris Nolan's shockingly lucrative Batman series, the return of Ridley Scott to the Alien universe, and the first half of a cinematic prequel to what is undoubtedly one of the biggest fantasy film success stories in recent memory. The Phantom Menace, Titanic, The Dark Knight Rises, Prometheus and The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey would be sure things in any one year, but fate has brought them all together - and to top it all off, in the same year as a film many comic fans considered an impossible dream not five years ago.
I saw The Avengers on the 26th of April with my ever-tireless assistant. In a year filled with undeserved flops like John Carter and infuriating successes like Wrath of the Titans,* I really could do with a blockbuster that wasn't criminally underrated or undeservedly successful, at least in my estimation. It remains to be seen whether The Avengers gets the type of money Disney were looking for, but I would be astonished if they didn't.
There are a few things which cause me pause in regards to The Avengers. First is Marvel's continuing appalling lack of respect to the estate of Jack Kirby, which is almost comparable to DC's treatment to Siegel and Schuster: it did not sit well with me that few of my pennies would be going into the pocket of the co-creator of many of the iconic figures appearing on the big screen.
Second is my frustration at Disney's handling of John Carter. Whether you believe in some Producers-esque conspiracy to write the film off as a tax dodge, or just think Disney really were that clueless, it's pretty evident that the usual barrage of merchandising, licensing and tie-ins was completely absent for John Carter. No plushie Woolas, no Tars Tarkas action figures, no light-up medallions, no Thark Arena playsets, no John Carter dress-up harness. In contrast, there are plenty of Thors, Captain Americas, Iron Men, Black Widows and Hulks lining the shelves. One theory is that Disney, faced with a choice of hedging their bets on an obscure literary adaptation or focusing on the currently popular comics adaptation, decided to go with the latter. And why wouldn't they? There's little to no chance of The Avengers failing and leaving hundreds of toys clogging the aisles, whereas John Carter was perceived as being a possible repeat of Prince of Persia. All those poor princes, locked in their plastic prisons...
So given Marvel's unacceptable treatment of Kirby and Disney's spectacular botch with John Carter, my sentiments towards The Avengers was significantly skewed. I almost wanted The Avengers to fail, since this, more than just about any film this year, was quite possibly the safest possible choice for a blockbuster. Then I started thinking: isn't that exactly the sort of thing I hated about people's reactions to John Carter, that misplaced sense of sour grapes? Thinking about it more, I realised that my assessment of the film should not be coloured by the actions of the parent companies any more than the actions of a publisher should affect my reading of a book. The director, actors, crew and artists who worked just as tirelessly as everyone who worked on John Carter had nothing to do with Marvel or Disney's reprehensible practises. Wouldn't it be fairer to judge the film as a film, rather than judge the circumstances around it? To do otherwise would be as bad as the many reviews for John Carter that reviewed the budget ("a film this expensive should be better" - quite an arbitrary and bizarre thing to take issue with, but I'm not a professional film cricket.)
In any case, my money and my review won't make a dent in The Avenger's profits one way or the other. I'm just another man with a beard and a blog. But it is really, really satisfying to come out of a blockbuster film that you feel earns your cash.
That isn't to say the film is perfect, of course, but I'll get to that in due course.
What I think is remarkable is how this film manages to do the bare minimum, but do it well. See, contrary to popular belief, I think it's incredibly easy to please a fanbase, or at least provide pleasing elements. Let's take the recent Conan the Barbarian. This is a film which is almost entirely maligned by the Robert E. Howard fandom outside a few vocal champions, but even this film managed to include some things that many Howard fans loved - opening with the first line of the Nemedian Chronicles, the reference to "The Tower of the Elephant," and the quotation from "Queen of the Black Coast." Sure, a few fans would've vastly preferred to see those elements in an actual adaptation, some even actively hated their inclusion, but in my estimation, they're generally outnumbered by those who were just thrilled to hear genuine REH on the big screen again.
The Avengers is a film that recognizes the power of these little moments which can enrapture a devoted audience, and is accordingly full of them. Be it references to individual comic issues, nods to previous films, or hints at the wider Marvel universe, it's a pretty solid example of how to do comic adaptations right. At its core, it simply takes the most important elements of a character, their "greatest hits" if you will, and puts it there on the screen. Captain America, for instance, has all the elements you'd think would be necessary to touch upon from the comics: a man out of his time who struggles with the cultural displacement, a selfless hero who puts others before himself, a patriot who loves the ideals of his country without being blind to its faults, a soldier who only fights to defend the defenceless, a leader who heads the charge and keeps his cool in the heat of the moment. And, of course, a dude who flings his shield like a frisbee.
All the others get their part. Black Widow: a Russian super-spy trained from a young age to be a killer, haunted by the dark deeds of her past, master interrogator and martial artist, and tends to wear leather catsuits on a mission. Thor: a godlike alien of heroic proportions from a race which renders Clarke's Third Law to Norse mythology, who uses a hammer which can only be held by those worthy to wield it, whose relationship to the villain is complicated by familial ties. Iron Man: a brilliant billionaire playboy philanthropist whose greatest foe is his own self-sabotaging personality, innovator of a mighty suit of armour powered by a device which keeps him from dying, frequently at loggerheads with authority figures and logical minds. Hulk: the monstrous personification of Bruce Banner's id, big green giant that likes to smash things. And so forth.
As such, you see the superheroes doing things you expect those superheroes to do. Captain America takes charge and ensures the safety of the people first and foremost while attempting to adjust to the 21st Century; Black Widow interrogates and investigates in between engaging in spectacular martial-arts acrobatics; Hawkeye performs all sorts of trick arrow shots with a cool, detached professionalism that belies his dark past; Thor calls down thunder and smashes things with his hammer with gusto and debates with Loki in pseudo-Shakespearean; Iron Man brings technical expertise and sarcastic wit with a twinge of sadness and guilt; Bruce Banner deals with angst while Hulk smashes. While there's only so much time to devote to each character in even a 2 1/2 hour film, enough is there that even someone who hasn't seen the previous Marvel films or knows nothing of the characters can become invested in their stories, motivations and fate.
What was so hard about that? Yet somehow, this basic fidelity to the tenets of source material are far harder to come by than is reasonable. Just look at the adaptations of Judge Dredd, The Spirit, Spawn, Catwoman, half the Batman and Superman films: they make wide, sweeping divergences that often outright contradict the comics. Even the better ones make fundamental alterations: Tim Burton's Batman completely alters the dynamic between the Dark Knight and the Joker by tweaking their origins, the original Superman turns Lex Luthor into a mere con-artist, Raimi's Spider-Man removes the mechanical web-shooters and thus dilutes Peter Parker's intellectual side, and so on. The Avengers, like the other Marvel productions, manage to stick astoundingly close to the comics (in this case the Ultimates universe) while managing to function independently as films. Would fans still complain? Of course - but that's always going to be the case. Would fans appreciate it? I bet they would.
I'll narrow down my favourite bits. Tom Hiddleston's Loki was brilliant, and I think really held the film together. I don't always agree with the old maxim that a hero is only as good as his villain, but in this case I truly bought Loki as a threat to human civilization: he brought mythic theatricality and, most importantly, he was earnest in it. It would've been so easy to fall into the campy trap, but like Max Von Sydow or Vincent Price, Hiddleston took the role completely at face value and gave it gravitas and strength. Cobie Smulders' Maria Hill was fantastic as Maria Hill, a largely minor part, but being the only other notable female character was appreciated, especially since she was at least as tough and no-nonsense as Black Widow. Speaking of Black Widow, there are two scenes featuring her which I found outstanding, in that she does exactly what I expect a super-spy to do (without giving too much away). I wish she at least attempted a Russian accent, though.**
There are two issues I have with The Avengers, one in terms of the story, and one in terms of the big picture. First of all: aside from Loki, the villains were absolutely useless. It is impossible for me to overstate how weak, ineffectual and downright unthreatening the Chitauri army was, which is actually kind of astonishing given their nature. It's quite a feat to take seven-foot laser-toting muscular cyborg aliens, and make them completely non-threatening. It's even more impressive to take two hundred foot long demon-cyborg-fish aliens and make them completely non-threatening, but after the first one's killed, all the mystique is gone. Even a fleet of dozens of the things wouldn't make any difference after that.
This is a pretty big problem, since there is no point when I felt the earth was in any danger, or even any of the individual Avengers were in trouble, even on a meta-textual "I could believe that if this wasn't a comic-book movie where the heroes are obligated to triumph, there is a possibility for the villains to win" level. Even Hawkeye and Black Widow, who in this film are unaltered peak humans, take out dozens upon dozens of the things. Sure, they get buffeted about a bit, but any drama felt forced and false. As such, the grand finale felt less like a final, desperate last battle to save the earth, and more like an exercise to see if the heroes can play with each other well.
See, the whole point of The Avengers is that they were being brought together because they could do what earth couldn't. Yet Loki aside, there was nothing about the Chitauri that I thought the present day U.S. couldn't handle on their own, let alone the forces of S.H.I.E.L.D. and the combined nations of the earth. One man with a bow and one woman with two pistols were a match for scores of these supposed alien super-soldiers, you're telling me the earth would be helpless without a thunder-god and Beast of the Id? I realise they felt they had to justify the presence of Hawkeye and Black Widow for the final fight, but this wasn't the way to do it, I feel.
The other problem is that, well, it's an incredibly safe film. Everything I saw was something I would've expected to see in a superhero film, but I didn't see a lot of things that were particularly brave, paradigm-shifting or unusual. While this may be a result of wanting to appeal to the broadest audience possible and laying the foundation for the sequel to be more daring, it still bothered me that the most unusual thing this film did was faithfully adapt the central tenets of the characters. I may have philosophical and stylistic issues with The Dark Knight, but it was doing things that hadn't been done in a Batman film before, and which are touched on in only the best Batman comics: in contrast, The Avengers just seemed like any number of comic issues dealing with alien invasions and getting a team to work together for a greater benefit.
Perhaps it's unfair for me to alternately praise and criticize The Avengers for "just" doing a comic book film: sometimes that's all you need or want. I just feel that this could've functioned as an opportunity to show that there's more to comics than action scenes and tortured souls in spandex. Also, I really wanted Wasp and Ant-Man. Black Widow and Hawkeye were well-handled and already established in Iron Man 2 and Thor respectively, but it would've been nice to have the original Avengers too.
My nominally independence-oriented sensibilities make me feel like I should condemn The Avengers for toeing the Marvel line, possibly being indirectly responsible for John Carter's commercial failure, and half a dozen other ills. My film cricket sensibilities persuade me to be somewhat harsh on a film being adequate as opposed to ambitious. Ultimately, though, as long as you don't spend too much time thinking about the plot elements or character dynamics beyond the surface level, The Avengers is exemplary as superhero comic adaptations go.
Already the knives are out, with several reviews criticizing the film as being catnip for nerds with little else for Connoisseurs of Real Art, but that's to be expected. I had hoped to finish this review before the film came out in the states, but preparing for Cross Plains took precedence. It'll be interesting to see what the rest of the world thinks.
*No, I haven't seen it, what do you take me for, some sort of lunatic?
**I've heard people attempt to justify this by saying "if she can speak English fluently, why shouldn't she use the same accent as her co-workers too?" I'm not sure why I don't buy this, but I don't, so nyeh.