An Honest Critique of an Awful Film and What We Can Learn From It
[Note: this is a critique, not a review of the Avengers movie. If you have not seen it and are not already familiar with the characters therein then much of this will not make sense.]
The immediate difficulty that crops up when attempting to critique a movie like The Avengers is that there is extraordinarily little which can be said of it that does not also apply to innumerable other films. This in a sense is the problem in a nutshell; because of its phenomenal and inexplicable financial success and popularity The Avengers has typified a collection of failings that have become increasingly pervasive in cinema.
The simplest place to begin is with the characters and plot, or more specifically the complete lack there of. One of the most frequent bits of praise I heard from people regarding the characters in the film is that since they all had had previous movies devoted to their origin and exposition this once could be devoted entirely to the interplay between them. In principle this is a wonderful idea, and considering the enormous cast of characters Marvel has to work with – and indeed needs for the Avengers title/franchise – it is a practical, albeit mind-bogglingly expensive approach. What made it to the screen however is a far cry from this. The banter between the characters that I was told repeatedly was hilarious and clever amounted to little more than making moderately snarky and childish jabs at one another. The character’s individuality is only costume deep. Virtually any of the lines of dialogue could be switched randomly around and said by any other character and they would make an equal amount of sense, which admittedly is little at the best of times. For a movie with a larger principle cast than most TV shows there is not depth or sense of personality to any of the characters. This is most disheartening in the case of Captain America.
While I grew up reading Marvel comics Captain America was never a character that held any interest for me. The 2011 film however was to my immense surprise and delight incredible. The protagonist and all the supporting characters were thoroughly developed with true arcs of growth, the plot was well written, paced, structured, and never broke its own internal logic, and was in all other ways a well made and thoroughly entertaining 50’s era pulp-style action adventure movie. Not without its flaws by any means – the largest of which being the jarringly abrupt ending – but I would easily place it alongside X-Men (2000), Daredevil (2003), The Punisher (2004), and Batman Begins (2005) as one of the best made superhero comic adaptations.
In Avengers on the other hand the only character to go through even a modicum of change would be Tony Stark/Ironman. That being that he imperils his own life in order to save others in the climax, which was painfully predictable the moment Captain America said that it was something he would never do roughly halfway through the movie. In essence relearning the same paper-thin lesson from his own equally abysmal 2008 film.
All the failings in character development combined don’t come close to equaling those of the plot. The story, much like the dialogue, alternates between being predictable and completely nonsensical. Listing all of the absurdities that occur throughout the movie would amount to a small novel in its own right but here are a few of my favorites:
- The Tesseract (Cosmic Cube in the comics) is an ultimate weapon capable of anything and a source of infinite power but needs a separate item (lump of mineral) to actually be used and a separate power source to be activated.
- The ‘secret’ Bruce Banner has for preventing his transformation into the Hulk which he alludes to numerous times throughout the movie is that he is ‘angry all the time.’ After saying which he transforms at will and joins the long tedious final action sequence. During that battle he is seemingly completely aware of his surroundings, recognizes everyone, and is in total control of himself and his abilities. Ridiculous as this reasoning may be – along the same lines of saying you avoid all infections by rubbing dirt and mold into the wound anytime you get a cut – it would be almost moderately acceptable if it was at least consistent throughout the movie. However it was already contradicted by the only other time he changed into the Hulk earlier in the movie; in which falling to the ground apparently made him uncontrollably angry, transformed into the Hulk, and behaved as the savage beast totally oblivious to his surroundings and the identities of everyone therein.
- The emergency fail-safe plan to kill the virtually indestructible Hulk if need be (and later the God Loki) is to drop him out of a plane.
- Loki’s first action toward taking over the world is to blow up a car and yell at everyone standing around him to kneel. No actual explanation for his trying to take over the world – nor for the Skrull/Chitauri wanting to wage war on every world – is ever given.
- S.H.I.E.L.D.’s first plan to find the Tesseract is to tap phone and CCTV transmissions; which in all fairness would have worked had Loki called his friends to brag about having stolen it or turned it into a gaudy Flavor Flav style necklace and worn it while walking past an ATM.
- S.H.I.E.L.D.’s second plan to find the Tesseract comes from Banner, an expert on gamma radiation whom they brought on because the Tesseract emits gamma radiation and whose brilliant advice is to check for gamma radiation.
- Loki wants to kill the Avengers (a group which no one knows of because it did not exist before his coming to Earth) in a public spectacle because seeing this humanity would then allow him to take over the world. His first attempt at doing so is by attacking them on the top secret camouflaged airship while it floats in the middle of nowhere.
- By far the most morally and intellectually insulting part of the entire movie is that the act which convinces all the petulant bickering heroes to finally work together as a team is the death of Phil, a single S.H.I.E.L.D. agent who was virtually anonymous save for his obsequiousness. Bearing in mind that several scenes earlier they made the point of saying Loki had already slaughtered 80 innocent people, and dozens of others were presumably killed in the subsequent large action sequences including the one in which Phil died.
Picking the plot to pieces could go on endlessly – what is listed above are roughly a tenth of the notes I took while watching – but they are all only symptoms of the larger problem. The main issue from which all the other flaws stem, the problem that has been rampant among “big budget” films and has only grown worse over the years is the overwhelming superficiality of it all. Time and again when I would bring up these or any of the other problems with the movie to those praised it – more than one going so far as to call it the greatest superhero film ever made – I would be met with replies all along the lines of ‘it doesn’t matter,’ ‘the plot/characters/writing/etc aren’t important,’ and ‘I don’t care.’ What it ultimately boiled down to is fan service. In the broader sense beyond just the Avengers/superheroes this is cinema as spectacle. Other recent offenders on this scale being the Transformers trilogy and James Cameron’s Avatar. – In fact after two viewings and a good deal of time devoted to pondering the matter the only difference I could think of between Avengers and any of the three Transformers movies is that the individual characters in Avengers are visually easier to pick out in the action sequences, and that is only due to the more or less keeping with the traditional character designs from the comics (all except of course the Skrulls/Chitauri who were reduced to moderately shiny dirt colored nonsense). – If you take this argument though, that appearance without any substance is all that matters, and apply it to other media the ridiculousness of it rapidly becomes apparent. ‘What does it matter that the novel is just 300 pages of random words? This typeface is beautiful!’ ‘I don’t care that she’s singing Mien Kampf, her voice is gorgeous! Who listens to lyrics anyway?’ The only instance in which this line of though seems to hold any validity is, oddly enough, pornography. In which there is only one specific intent that comes literally to the exclusion of all else.
I have been frequently told that I take movies too seriously and that I am expecting too much from “just an action movie,” but film is an art. Simply because a movie is of a particular genre doesn’t mean it can and should be lacking all substance. Action films can be intellectual (Body of Lies, Syriana, Children of Men), poignant (Blood Diamond), philosophical (The Matrix, Ghost in the Shell, Innocence), even spiritual (Kingdom of Heaven). They can have richly developed characters and stories (Collateral, Tombstone, Fearless, Hero, The Warlords), and even those that are just silly and fun can be beautifully well written (Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl, Kung-Fu Hustle, Brotherhood of the Wolf). If you are content with the superficial works than there is an enormous volume out there to satisfy you, but do not think that that is what defines the genre nor that it is the measure by which films are to be judged.
Please direct all hate mail to firstname.lastname@example.org