I’ve developed something of a reputation amongst my friends for not liking movies that everyone else likes. I don’t know how this happens to me, but being the Debbie Downer at the fan convention always sneaks up on me when I least expect it, and every time I see a movie with other people, I’m always afraid of what will happen if I end up “that guy.” Sometimes, even when I like the movie, I’m that guy, like when I pointed out some of the geographical inconsistencies and editing flaws of The Dark Knight and some guy I didn’t even know flipped out at me. Over time, I’ve learned to hold my tongue and say good things about the film, and after I saw The Avengers, I reminded my fellow moviegoers how much I loved Joss Whedon and enjoy looking at Scarlett Johansson’s backside. You see, I’m not inhuman, or really even much of a contrarian; I always want to like what other people like, because I want to be the opposite of Armond White in life.
But as a critic, I feel like the insistence that we all like the same things diminishes the role of real critical analysis in appreciating film. Sometimes, the things that are “bad” about a film make them more interesting, and are worthy of note when unpacking why you like something (see: last week’s take on Vanilla Sky). Other times, you genuinely didn’t like the film, at all. When I talk about The Avengers with people I won’t fear will scream at me for not liking it, I lead with the fact that I always have problems with the inaugural film in what is clearly meant to be a series. Like Spider-Man before it, The Avengers fails to nail that crucial balance between character development and action. Whedon, knowing that viewers will already have seen the films that preceded the release of The Avengers, quickly dashes off character development as soon as possible. The last half of the film ends up as action scene stacked on action scene, signifying nothing.
To fix this, Whedon pastes the exact same portal-to-another-dimension-destroying-the-world plot device that he already used in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which felt more potent then because it had real stakes, for we had taken the time to emotionally invest in the characters. We wanted them to live. In The Avengers, great amounts of screen time are given to characters who never really evolve or, in the case of Black Widow, do much of anything at all, unless pursing your lips is a thing. All of the really great dialogue is given to Robert Downey Jr. and Tom Hiddleston, whose Loki is the best thing in the film. However, aside from a charmingly laid-back performance from Mark Ruffalo (who has the market cornered in that), the actors seem as interested in being present as Whedon’s script is in making them so.
In particular, poor Jeremy Renner is actually banished from the film for great sections of the running time, and I occasionally forgot he was in it. The same thing happened to him in Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol, a film that mistook his Brandoesque quiet intensity with not needing him to speak or move much. Here, Renner is required to brood and sometimes shoot arrows at things, and non-comic book fans will likely be confused as to what he and Black Widow have to do with these people. Roger Ebert explained it best: The two of them aren’t superheroes, they just happen to run in that crowd. This might have been improved if we had been given separate films for Hawkeye and Black Widow, but we didn’t, and Whedon’s film must be accountable for bring them to life. It never does.
I might have been fine with this if the film around them had been more than casually engaging, but it’s hard to care about something that feels like the spare parts of four films, ones that all seemed better the first time around. (Full disclosure: I liked all of the Avengers’ previous work better than this, except for Ang Lee’s adaptation of The Hulk, a singularly miserable experiment in destroying what is initially an excellent film.) And with the record-breaking success of this superhero mash-up, I’m very concerned about the future of Hollywood blockbusters, as Tinseltown rewards every success by making ten more films exactly like it. Will we see Pirates of the Narnia? Twilight and the City? Bridesmaids: Revenge of the Fallen?
But if I can say anything nice about The Avengers, it’s that I truly think that Joss Whedon made the best film Hollywood was going to make out of those four movies. He’s a genius, and I truly look forward to seeing what he does with a sequel. Even Whedon himself has admitted that The Avengers has problems, but by accepting those without criticism, without reflection, we will be doomed to more of the same. We will get the mindless, lowest-common-denominator product we deserve, and we won’t have any fan-appointed geniuses to try to make it better.