Nixon and Brezhnev, Kobe and LeBron, the Three Tenors – all-star summits almost invariably promise more than they deliver and, much as my inner 12-year-old might beg to differ, The Avengers is no exception. Pulled off their separate franchises in the Marvel League, the big guns – Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, The Hulk – are now brought together to suit up for the same squad. There, while dealing with the trifling matter of saving the wide world from imminent destruction – a slam dunk for any one of them – our superheroes and their superegos gather like kindergarteners in a sandbox to face an infinitely more daunting challenge: Can the boys, being boys, learn to work and play well with each other? Oh, the suspense mounts.
Of course, so does the budget and, like every self-respecting blockbuster, this model comes with the expected 3-D bells and CGI whistles – all the costly stuff that is guaranteed to put the lavish into the spectacle even as it seems, inexorably, to drain the sense from the plot and the interest from the characters. Expected too is the result: a kind of sterile opulence or, if you prefer, a magnificent emptiness.
Like many before him, director Joss Whedon has mastered the twin arts of raising and razing – building palaces of visual wonders where massive spacecraft hover and gods thunder and mortals fly, then subjecting these same wonders to prolonged bouts of destruction and mayhem. The eyes are often delighted, the senses are consistently engaged/assaulted and the funny bone is occasionally tickled, but, obviously, our emotions emerge wholly unscathed. To watch another comic book transformed into another blockbuster is to "marvel" at much and to feel nothing – that's a safer bet than the converse, perhaps, which may explain the genre's popularity.
But enough of the outer crank and back to my inner kid, who, as the cinematic panels flipped through the standard allotment of action + banter + more action + more banter, did manage to summon some feelings, although they were decidedly mixed.
He delighted again in Robert Downey Jr.'s witty insistence on recharacterizing his guy as Irony Man (an insistence that obviously plays better outside than inside that metallic suit). He thoroughly enjoyed the new casting of Mark Ruffalo in the divided role of Bruce Banner, thinking him vastly superior to his predecessors at conveying the sheer torment of trying to keep a lid on one's interior Hulk. And he liked the early bickering and battering among the convened stars, especially the way Irony Man kept sticking it to that earnest relic Captain America.
On the inner kid's other hand, he was disappointed once more in Thor's famous hammer, which still looks less like a weapon befitting a deity than like something readily available to any schnook in Aisle 4 at Rona. As for the lesser luminaries recruited to round out the all-star team, he had high hopes for Black Widow. But his youthful hormones, poised to rage at the mere sight of Scarlett Johansson in martial arts gear, remained disappointingly unstirred. In the token sexy female department, Scarlett was a pale pink at best. He might have felt similarly about Gwyneth Paltrow, but blinked and missed her fleeting cameo.
The very bad Loki, performed by the very British Tom Hiddleston, did not disappoint him, although he did find it a tad unfair to have all those superheroes ganging up on one lone villain, even if that villain could summon an entire alien air force to descend through a portal in the heavens and subject New York to an interminable blitzing by alien air force thingies. Happily, my inner kid, unlike my outer crank, is sophisticated enough to appreciate that a movie climax should be insufferably loud and interminably long – that's how we know it's a blockbuster.
That's not to say my two selves weren't ever in agreement. On the matter of Samuel L. Jackson, a.k.a. Nick Fury, we shared this strong opinion: No one, not man or god, could sport a leather eye patch with more panache. Alas, we parted ways again over the Avenger's inevitable last words: "They'll come back." One of us thrilled to the promise, the other bristled at the threat, yet the winner of that little contretemps is hardly in doubt: At the movies and beyond, in this or any summer, better a kid than a crank.
- Directed and written by Joss Whedon
- Starring Robert Downey Jr., Mark Ruffalo, Scarlett Johansson
- Classification: PG
- Rating: Inner Kid: THREE STARS
- Outer Crank: ONE STAR