142 minutes
Director: Joss Whedon
Writers: Zak Penn, Joss Whedon
Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans and Scarlett Johansson

Review by Matt Neufeld

May 4, 2012

“The Avengers,” which opens today, May 4, to much misspent anticipation, is a complete bust, on every level, a disappointing cookie-cutter, form-following, predictable comic book/superhero movie that demonstrates, yet again, that no matter how many special effects, superheros, comic book characters, big-name actors, big-name directors, explosions, guns, fistfights, macho bantering, more explosions and more special effects, and cutesy self-deprecating inside-joke witty asides you throw up at the screen, all of those loudly-ringing bells and shrill whistles do not guarantee an original, inventive, insightful, intelligent or very interesting filmgoing experience.

It doesn’t matter if Joss Whedon is directing the film. It doesn’t matter if the studio suits and Whedon go trick-or-treating in Marvel Land and collect Robert Downey as the usual sarcastic and weary Iron Man, Scarlett Johansson as some type of bland and lifeless soldier and intelligence officer named Black Widow, Chris Evans as a horribly ‘40s old-fashioned and boring Captain America, Jeremy Renner as some type of soldier who’s good with a bow and arrow of all things and is named Hawkeye, Mark Ruffalo as a overly mild-mannered man who turns into the wildly mean and green Incredible Hulk and a characterization in dire need of Edward Norton, and Chris Hemsworth as one of the more outrageous comic book characterizations, the Norse god Thor, who in 2012 continues to speak as if he’s auditioning for a 1930s Biblical swords-and-sandal epic, or some type of twisted, amateur Norwegian mythological take on Shakespeare. And it also doesn’t matter if you throw in Samuel L. Jackson as the eye-patched (again—it’s 2012, so who on earth wears an eye patch?) Nick Fury, the supposed ringleader of all of these over-charged, bad-mouthing, attitude-challenged, goofily-costumed, preening over-achievers. And it surely does not matter one iota that, yet again, someone in a conference room in Los Angeles made the 550th stupid decision to attach the increasingly-irritating, increasingly non-essential gimmick of 3D to this film, making a loud, meandering experience even more sensory-numbing.

None of these elements add up to a film that delivers anything new to the genre, and none of these elements can elevate “The Avengers” above the standard that most of these types of films fall in—they are, in the end, big average films, or average big films, however you wish to state the description. They are big because it’s obvious that tens of millions of dollars and months and months of fancy, high-tech footwork went into the special effects that the filmgoer does see up on the screen, but they’re average because someone, as is usually the case, forgot to inspect the script for cleverness, forgot to edit with anything approaching subtlety and emotion and room to take a breath, forgot to include real human emotions that last longer than a second, forgot to add some depth in directing, writing and acting, and forgot to add something original and new in all of the above areas. In film after film in this genre—with, yes, some notable exceptions here and there—they all end up being the same thing, feeling the same, looking the same, sounding the same and even connecting in the same cheap ways, as rah-rah, beat-‘em-up, rock-‘em-sock-‘em feel-good action and science fiction crowdpleasers on a very empty, simple level.

Yes, you cheer when the bad guys get thumped and defeated, yes, you laugh at the macho witty banter and fake-clever inside pop culture self-snark comments, and yes, you marvel at Marvel’s comic-book storytelling and characterizations that try to say “fun.” But an hour later, you’re hungry again, because your mind has been fed a feast of empty filmic calories.

Now, the diehards and denizens of Fandomland will rise up and proclaim, “You hate comic book and super hero movies!” That is not the case. And that is not the case with all of the other critics, observers, writers, historians, analysts and filmmakers who bash the numbness and sameness of these loud, clanging, irritating movies. I liked the first “Iron Man,” the first “X-Men,” the first “Hellboy,” “Darkman,” Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” and “Batman Begins,” the first two “Superman” films from Richard Donner and Richard Lester, and even “Superman Returns,” from 2006. So there. There are indeed good, strong, solid films in the genre, but, alas, these stellar films reside in a larger Stepford neighborhood of unoriginal, cookie-cutter, run-of-the-mill efforts that dilute the genre.

In Whedon’s “Avengers,” the save-the-world gang is gathered by Fury to battle Thor’s bad-Jeannie, dark side, evil-doing brother, Loki, who has dropped in to visit Earth to steal some strange type of device—its origins are clouded by overly-technical science-fiction gobbledygook tech-speak that makes no sense to the filmgoer, and may not have made much sense on paper in the script—called the Tesseract, which goofily sounds like a new hybrid car. Loki, who also speaks in 1930s Biblespeak, but with a dash more Standard Evil Villain Inflection, wants to use the Tesseract, which resembles an over-sized blue-dye-colored ice cube, to, well, dare we say it, rule the world, or worlds, in the case of the Asgard Brothers. The Tesseract has incredible power—it’s not clear why or how, precisely—and Loki hopes to use it to be invincible. Of course, he struts and preens pretty well himself, but he ends up having to go up against the Avengers in a series of battles that destroy most of New York—an entirely thoughtless, unnecessary and offensive sight that evokes no emotion when you consider that the real New York City was attacked in a terrorist attack just 11 years ago. To see alien things slither and fly and crawl and attack and tear apart the city is, after repeated battles, neither fun nor satisfying. Buildings crumble here and there, people run screaming, the superheros fight invading aliens—if anyone was trying for terrorism analogies, they failed miserably.

And that’s it for plot—getting the Avengers together, fighting Loki and his marauding aliens, getting the ice cube back, and saving the world. And there is a last-ditch, desperate move that hinges on the most basic, uninventive tools to end the battle, and it’s terribly anti-climatic. And after all of that, the resolution is equally unsatisfying—it’s certainly not the gratifying conclusion to the battle that you’d really like to see. In fact, the resolution of the battle, and the final scenes, after things have calmed down, at the end, seems more geared toward green-lighting “The Avengers 2” than wrapping things up in a manner that you’d like to applaud.

As for the Avengers, the characters themselves and the actors playing them are overwhelmingly bland. Whedon and his scriptwriters tried to rely on tried-and-true-but-now-tired clichés of making all of the superheros overbearingly self-centered, snobby, arrogant, irritable, uncomfortable with themselves, childish even, and unwilling to work with their costumed friends. The result was intended to be modernistic, progressive self-knowing and self-mocking, but, really, this form of a script device for these types of films got tired quickly about, oh, 1992, when the 1990s round of Batmen films started to get self-knowingly weary. When writers don’t have fresh stories, plots, sub-plots, ideas or characterizations, they drop in these macho fights, witty asides and clubhouse and locker room taunting, as if to say, “I know this is silly, so it’s not really silly!” That gets old fast. In the case of “The Avengers,’ it would have been really interesting for these troubled souls to have sat down for more than a minute, had a discussion that didn’t involved “BLOW IT UP!” or “FIGHT!” or “SAVE THE [person or thing}!,” and actually talk like adults about what it is they actually do, why they do it, what they get out of it, and what it is, exactly, that they can do to fight evil and their enemies. Why does a woman call herself Black Widow? Why does a middle-aged man shoot bow-and-arrows at aliens in a laser and light-saber and machine-gun world? Why does Captain America continue to dress up and carry a star-spangled shield in 2012? Why does Thor speak like Charlton Heston in “The Ten Commandments?” And why does Tony Stark, if he’s so fed up with everything, if he’s so snarky, tomb himself up in armor and fly through the air to fight evildoers? Yes, they have to save the world, but what propels these peculiar people to continue to save the world?

Rest assured, somewhat, there are tidbits thrown here and there that do attempt to address these concerns—but they are only tidbits. Fury uses psychological classroom and training academy tricks to teach the Avengers the importance of teamwork and working as a group instead of individually, and the Avengers do come together and fight Loki despite their differences. But, once again, it’s all surface, and the coffee-fueled, hyperactive, frenzied pace—which is a negative here—leaves no real time, no real space, no real quiet moments, for real introspection, discussion or soul-searching. These movies move along at a child’s playtime pace, as if everything has to be rushed, rushed, rushed, as if no one has the time or inclination to just simply slow down, talk and reflect. In the better comic book and superhero films in the genre—the ones mentioned previously—these elements indeed were present, and the filmgoer actually felt as if something intelligent was lurking beneath the neverending barrage of special effects, guns, fistfights and explosions.

Maybe the genre will be saved with the third Batman film from Christopher Nolan, “The Dark Knight Rises,” which is scheduled to be released this summer. Or maybe not. With this genre, it’s been best to keep expectations at a low level.

If anything, perhaps “The Avengers” will mark the funeral for the 3D gimmick, which this time around has completely run its course. There are long spans in “The Avengers” when there is nothing 3D, and when there is something 3D, it’s nothing special. This film is horrible in terms of 3D, and it should never have been released in 3D. This lame gimmick sorely needs to be given a rest.

There is one aspect that needs noting in “The Avengers,” and that is the special effects. They don’t save the film, but they are impressive and state-of-the-art. At least eight companies, and literally hundreds and hundreds of people, worked on these effects, most likely far from the set, far from location filming, and even far from the producers, directors and actors. These modern-day film craftsman hone their craft in rooms filled with computers and devices and technology most of us couldn’t even begin to explain or understand or talk about. They deserve credit, for their work is indeed something to marvel up on the screen. But, once again, special effects alone do not make a film.

Now if only Marvel, Disney, Paramount, the other studios, and producers, directors and writers could craft original, intelligent films with the overall filmic expertise to match these special effects, then filmgovers would really have something to applaud in the theaters.

THE AVENGERS (at area theaters, Rated PG-13).

Matt Neufeld is a longtime journalist, actor and film critic in the Washington and Baltimore areas. He has participated in many local film events and projects in the region, and he has appeared as an actor, supporting actor and extra in more than 45 films projects, at all levels, during the past 20 years. He was previously a daily local news reporter and features writer for The Washington Times and The Frederick News-Post, and he was the media relations publicist for The Washington Performing Arts Society. Matt is currently the News Editor for Carroll Publishing in Bethesda.