3 / 5
The all-star, super-spectacular disaster movies of the 1970s often felt more like exercises in ego management than dramas: Star 1 had to have the same amount of screen time and dialogue and close-ups as Star 2, and co-star A couldn't upstage co-star B. The Avengers is a little like that, but with super-heroes: All of them are the star, and it's a little exhausting and overwhelming, though you can't say it isn't entertaining and doesn't do the job.
The plot is exceedingly simple and yet takes a good hour or so to fully kick in. The greatest super-heroes the world has ever known, plus one decidedly angry anti-hero, are brought together to vanquish a threat from the cosmos, one that could destroy the entire planet. There you go. Easy as that. The movie takes nearly 2 1/2 hours to tell the story.
Most of that screen time is, not unexpectedly, taken up by a massive melee in midtown Manhattan, and it's quite possible I'm far too sensitive to certain events that actually took place in September 2001, but watching buildings crash to the ground and thousands of New Yorkers flee for their lives in the name of escapist entertainment kind of rubs me the wrong way.
It's impossible to divorce what happens on screen from reality, even when flying men in tights grace the screen. We clearly didn't have superheroes when we most needed them, and since superheroes have their comic-book roots in the real world -- as an escapist answer to the harsh realities of the Depression and the atrocities of a World War -- it's rather a glaring omission that The Avengers never mentions the tumult of our actual reality in anything but a glancing, jokey way.
Truly, I was bothered, perhaps more than necessary, by those scenes of mass destruction, of Manhattan being gleefully destroyed by flying enemies, even when The Avengers finally makes a point of showing people posting memorials to the tens of thousands of people who apparently die on screen while the heroes do their thing.
Am I taking it all too seriously? Perhaps, but that's not to say there isn't some fun to be had in The Avengers, who don't "avenge" much but do wield some pretty potent powers. The fun mostly comes in the form of fully committed performances, especially by Chris Evans as Captain America and Chris Hemsworth as Thor, characters -- and actors -- so serious that even they realize how ridiculous they must sound.
The first hour of The Avengers is unexpectedly and probably unnecessarily complicated, spending a lot of screen time explaining the exact properties of the Tesseract, the object the bad guy wields and the good guys want. The best parts of The Avengers don't involve the Tesseract, the fighting or the story of ultra-secret agency S.H.I.E.L.D. and its plans for the glowing square cube.
They're the moments when the superheroes -- who are quite aware of their reputation as invincible doers of good and come equipped with nice-sized egos -- try to understand each other. There's a lot that would make for terrific satire here, as each Avenger wants to prove why he (or she) is better than the others. There's also a nice moment when Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) shakes his head in disappointment and says he had hoped that these remarkable people would want to work together for a bigger purpose.
They have to be told that; each is more interested in saving the world in his or her own way. It's a nice reflection on our societal mores and insatiable need for attention and self-aggrandizement. But that kind of observation is just a bit beyond the vision of The Avengers, a movie unashamedly designed to appeal to people who know these characters already, who have seen the half-dozen movies that came before. If you haven't, or you've forgotten them, your enjoyment of The Avengers may vary.
Make no doubt, The Avengers is, on many levels, a more-than-satisfactory film, with moments of great humor and heart -- and a terrific post-credit scene that hints at the kind of movie we could have had if the characters of these heroes had been more important than the bad-guy-wants-to-take-over-the-world story. Of course all of these heroes will live, of course there will be a sequel -- or many of them -- and that knowledge dilutes much of the suspense.
What we're left with is eye-popping visual effects, lots and lots of well-staged action, and welcome moments of levity throughout. For me, The Avengers had too many oddly unpleasant undertones, reminders of what our real world is like, what happens when you don't have super-heroes to call upon when the day needs saving. For most, I suspect, The Avengers will be much more than satisfactory. It's by far the best of the recent spate of superhero films. It's just, some of them haven't been too good to begin with.
Viewed May 4, 2012 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks
Viewed May 4, 2012 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks