Saturday, 19 May 2012

Review: Marvel's Avengers Assemble

The first truly huge blockbuster of spring/summer 2012, Avengers Assemble, has been making dweebs, dorks, techies, poindexters, nerdlingers and Joss Whedonites (and plain old comic book and action movie fans) geekgasm all over themselves. It's big, shiny, makes a lot of noise, cracks a few well-placed jokes and features a gigantic angry green dude with impeccable comic timing - all of which points to a lot of people in Hollywood whose pupils are about to permanently morph into dollar signs. What a shame then that somewhere along the way, Avengers forgot to be a good movie.

Ok, so here is what was apparently happening as far as I can make out: S.H.I.E.L.D. (Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division) have somehow got hold of a glowing blue cube called the Tesseract, which has the power to open up a gateway to the other end of the universe. When the gateway opens up, an unhinged demi-God named Loki (Tom Hiddleston) pops through and proceeds to smash up the joint. Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), a guy with a leather jacket and an eyepatch who works for S.H.I.E.L.D., gathers together a team of superheroes/demi-Gods/weapons specialists/spies/big green monsters etc. to try to put an end to the madness before Loki takes over the world with his army of aliens/robots called the Chitauri.

This specialist team includes Loki's adopted brother, fellow demi-God Thor (complete with hammer), the recently unfrozen Steve Rogers (AKA Captain America), Dr Bruce Banner (AKA The Hulk), Tony Stark (AKA Iron Man), Natasha Romanoff (AKA The Black Widow) and Clint Barton (AKA Hawkeye). So, a group of anti-social misfits must learn to work as a team to defeat an evil madman and his invading hordes.

All of which is ripe material for a brilliantly awful cheesy action film full of hilarious superhero banter, believable and moving adversity that needs to be overcome, a bit of heartwarming bonding with those a little different from ourselves, a gigantic laser battle of some description, and then it's everyone back to the clubhouse for lemonade. Not a work of cinematic genius perhaps, but a nice thick entertaining slice of movie-pie that everyone can enjoy. It'd be pretty hard to mess up that winning formula, right?

Well, Avengers managed to find a way. The film's set up takes far too long. The important bits are rushed over so quickly that the viewer barely has time to think 'S.H.I.E.L.D.? Tesseract? Hiddleston?' before the blue cube is gone, and some unexplained diabolical invasion plan is in the works. Meanwhile, the rest of the introductory 'Avenger gathering' scenes are given way more screen time than is necessary, meaning that everyone starts looking at their watches after about 45 minutes because nothing new is happening.

But this is all academic anyway, because once something finally does start happening, we don't really care. We haven't been given a reason to. Loki has the Tesseract, and heads over to Germany to steal something else (I don't know, some sort of thing - looks like a shiny rock) which is apparently also crucial to his world domination plan. Once he steals it, he starts working on a machine of some type which will mean that his army of Chitauri will be able to take a short cut from the other end of the universe and help him out with the subjugation of Earth. The Avengers get involved, and action-packed drama ensues.This is all very exciting - or at least, it would be, if the filmmakers bothered to make us care about it.

Allow me to explain. Who is Loki? Why is he so pissed off? What's his beef with us? What the hell are the Chitauri? Why are they working for Loki? What's their beef with us? We are not given the answers to these questions. There's a bit near the end where Loki rambles on about something (daddy loved him too much, or not enough - I forget) but it's not nearly serious enough to warrant a planet invasion. The viewer is not made to fear Loki or the Chitauri, nor are we made to hate them. We're also not given much of a good reason to support the Avengers in their world saving efforts. It's not enough to say 'Loki bad, Avengers good' and leave it at that. To make a truly brilliant action movie, you have to get your audience to really want to see the bad guys get flattened by the good guys.

I call it the 'Yippy Ki-Yay' factor. In the Die Hard films, there is nothing sweeter than that one perfect moment just before the total annihilation of the enemy (whom we have been made to hate through being witness to the intense build-up of their evil nastiness). In Avengers, that moment never comes, mostly because the filmmakers have not done us the courtesy of assuming that we are clever enough to be able to absorb any true emotional depth or conflict in the characters. If I don't understand or care about the motivations/actions of the bad guys (or, for that matter, the good guys) why should I even be watching the film?

There is a vague attempt to get us to root for the protagonists - this much is true. About two thirds of the way through the film, Loki kills a minor S.H.I.E.L.D. agent named Phil Coulson, who has appeared in several other Marvel franchises. Bleeding to death, Phil tells Fury that he dies happy in the knowledge that the Avengers will now have somebody to Avenge. Fury uses Phil's death (and his collection of vintage Captain America cards) to guilt the Avengers into working as a team to defeat Loki.

There's just one problem: who the hell is Phil? Maybe he has more of a central role in other Marvel films, but in this one he just wanders around in a suit occasionally trying to suck up to Captain America. Why should we give a damn if Phil croaks? If they wanted to make us feel something, they could have put a little effort into it - kill Iron Man's girlfriend, Pepper Potts; kill Nick Fury himself, or even kill one of the Avengers - that might have done it. Sorry, Phil - but in the world of high octane action blockbusters, your death really wasn't enough to justify our love.

It's not all bad news for Avengers - some of the superhero banter is genuinely clever and amusing (particularly when it involves Iron Man) and some of the visual gags are also brilliant (a well placed punch from the Hulk kept everyone in the cinema laughing for so long that we missed half of the next scene). There's also a brilliant thirty second cameo from Harry Dean Stanton, and the final battle sequence involving all six Avengers fighting the Chitauri while laying waste to the island of Manhattan is visually wonderful, making use of handheld cameras, cameras placed inside exploding taxi cabs, and a great seemingly uncut shot which criss-crosses the paths of all the Avengers in turn.

But, these are just little pockets of goodness which are occasionally thrown at the viewer out of the beige no-man's-land of the bland blockbuster. Avengers commits what is probably the worst sin any film can: it's boring. So many cliches, so little depth. There is absolutely no reason why a schlocky, cheesy, mawkish, explosion-heavy action film cannot also be dramatic, poignant, exciting and disturbing. I give you Con Air, Broken Arrow, Spider Man, The Dark Knight, Rambo, The Fugitive, Indiana Jones, Die Hard, Speed, The Rock, Lethal Weapon, Predator, Point Break, Top Gun...

I guess Marvel didn't get the memo in time.

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