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‘The Avengers’ has coolness of its heros

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Jason Wallis

Posted: Friday, May 11, 2012 8:50 am

The summer movie season is now underway, ushered in by the record-smashing debut of the long-awaited “Avengers” movie — surely the first of many, considering the truly remarkable box office receipts this juggernaut has generated in a very short time.

But is it deserving of such massive success and unanimous fanboy gushing, or has the unsuspecting public been duped into heaping hype and praise upon a merely “good” film? The answer is wrought with complications, and I’ll do my best to explain my conflicted (but generally quite positive) reaction to the film below. So please go easy on the hate mail.

Looking ahead to next week, we’ve got the polarizing “Dark Shadows” in the pipeline. I’m not looking forward to it, but I suppose Tim Burton has earned the benefit the doubt, despite the fact that the film’s cringe-inducing trailer makes me want to drink until I die. Since I’m not sure I’ll want to write many hundreds of words about the film, I suspect I may spice up the column with a brief discussion of Sight & Sound magazine’s once-a-decade critics poll of the 10 greatest films ever made, and offer a commentary-free list of my own picks. Not that my opinion on such scholarly matters holds a great deal of weight, but it could be fun, no?

I’m gonna drop a bombshell of truth on you here, and I hope everybody can accept this premise without too much argument: Thus far, the Marvel superhero universe hasn’t had a great deal of artistic success. They’ve made a mint, but in terms of overall quality and dollar-for-dollar, blow-for-blow entertainment value, their movies have been dwarfed by superior efforts from competing studios.

The first two (and particularly the second) “Spider-Man” and “X-Men” films were just peachy. The first “Iron Man” got absolutely no complaints from me, and earned a four-star review. However, the rest of the stable has been … lacking, to put it very kindly. Between “Iron Man 2,” “Thor” and both of the Hulk movies, the entries leading up to “The Avengers” shook my faith that the studio could possibly clean up their act and — equipped with massive budgets and high-caliber talent — deliver something that is actually entertaining, and worthy of the pomp and circumstance that goes along with such spectacles. (While we’re on the topic, “Captain America” — which I never did review — was relatively solid, but for a $200 million budget and my 10 bucks, I don’t want relativity entering into it.)

Perhaps this may help explain why the reaction to “The Avengers” has been so incredibly positive. It seems like you can’t read an entertainment website or even walk down the street without somebody proclaiming it the greatest superhero movie ever made, and I must admit that the shower of accolades irks me just a bit. Have these people never seen Christopher Nolan’s Batman films? Or Tim Burton’s, for that matter? Or the aforementioned “Spider-Man 2” and “Iron Man”? Or “Kick-Ass” or “Unbreakable” or several other genre pieces I could name off the top of my head? Yet I suppose after enduring the hardships brought on by the pre-“Avengers” onslaught of mediocrity, any marked improvement would be met with a frenzy of OMG OMGs.

And it must be said, the prospect of a bunch of superheroes assembling for a mass orgy of awesomeness does have an innate appeal. So alluring is this concept, in fact, that “The Avengers” comes to rely on this central conceit at the expense of other considerations. It becomes a sort of crutch, and it’s rather disheartening to see a film of such infinite potential just sort of go through the motions from beginning to end in order to deliver on audience expectations. (This is also kind of ironic, given that the film was directed by Joss Whedon, producer and co-writer of the recently released “Cabin in the Woods,” which passionately rails against such an approach. Go figure.)

So the film lives and dies according to two factors: The coolness of its action sequences, and the interplay between its stars. Thank the movie gods that “The Avengers” delivers in spades on both fronts. Whedon is not a visual artist, and the scant criticisms I’ve heard that the film has the look and feel of a very high-quality television movie are not without merit. However, the man knows how to choreograph an action sequence, and his film boasts several absolute corkers. The first hour runs a tad lean on the razzle-dazzle, but when it hits the fan it does so in a big way, leaving the viewer sufficiently charged and impressed. Naturally, the best is saved for last as our mismatched band of heroes faces a rapidly growing army of alien beasts on the streets of New York. This extended sequence includes a tracking shot showing all the supes engaged in their own separate but equally epic battles. Beautiful.

At nearly two and a half hours, the movie does overstay its welcome by about 20 minutes. But instead of padding the skeletal plot (involving the Avengers’ reacquisition of an alien object that holds the potential to create a limitless energy supply), that time is largely spent in the service of character development — wise, considering the extent to which the film depends of the stars playing off one another with chuckle-worthy one-liners. Every character gets their moment to shine, including relatively minor characters such as super-assassin Black Widow. The exception would be the primary villain, Lokie, who happens to be involved in several of the film’s best scenes but never really pulls his weight. A more complex, less childish central baddie would have served the film well.

But “The Avengers” has an ace up its sleeve that renders everything else irrelevant, at least for the time the card is in play. I’m referring, of course, to The Hulk (portrayed here by the affable Mark Ruffalo, following unsuccessful attempts by fellow noted actors Eric Bana and Edward Norton). The big guy doesn’t show up until the end of the second act, but from the moment he enters the fray, it is clear that Marvel has finally figured out how to properly handle this notoriously challenging character. He is key to the execution of most of the movie’s best and most memorable scenes (his showdown with Lokie provides the biggest and hardest-earned laugh I’ve had all year), and his richly deserved popularity with audiences has already resulted in Marvel green-lighting a third go-around for a stand-alone Hulk movie. Let’s hope “The Avengers” is a sign that they’re getting their act together, and the third time will be the charm.

Jason Wallis is a News-Sentinel copy editor. He can be reached at jasonwallis@comcast.net.

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