written by Zak Penn and Joss Whedon
directed by Joss Whedon
starring Robert Downey Jr., Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth and Tom Middeleston
By now everybody knows The Avengers is loads of fun. A movie doesn't get to 93% on Rotten Tomatoes by sucking or being forgettable. If you're reading this you've seen it and likely you agree. So much fun. Hulk thrashes ass. Tony Stark is good juice every time he appears. Hawkeye has moments. Black Widow has moments. Captain America gets moments! Thor… well, Thor got the least of the goods but if you think back even he got plenty to do. Audiences agree: Avengers is awesome.
There's no need for me to reiterate all the other reviews. Instead, let's consider the review of noted movie troll and established hater, Armond White, and what he has to say in his "Pavlov's Franchise" review at City Arts. To paraphrase, he excoriates The Avengers as utter trash without a hint of artistry, enjoyable only to the pablum-eating idiot masses who probably voted for Obama. Empty entertianment through and back.
And though I thoroughly enjoyed The Avengers, I must say Armond has a point.. The film is empty entertainment. It is fully directed at satisfying the audience. It never confounds or threatens them. There's little sense of danger. Does Avengers do the true work of art, challenging and troubling and expanding and deepening its audience's human experiences? Ultimately, fun as it is, it doesn't.
Essentially, the Avengers is a big bursting bowl of popcorn entertainment. Fun to eat but meaningless after. Utterly empty.
Or… is it? Many many films have been offered to the public as big bowls of popcorn but this particular one has found itself to the audiences' taste where so many previous such offerings have been consumed and hated (Transformers 3 being an excellent example, a movie I fell asleep during). Most summer superspectaculars promise a bowl of popcorn but deliver instead an ashtray of burnt corn and unpopped kernels. Yet Avengers is different. Why?
I would say it is because it is an exceedingly well-popped bowl of popcorn. There is artistry in the popping of the corn. How? The Avengers is about connections over time. Let me give you some examples:
Example 1: There's that scene early on, Steve Rogers/Captain America's first scene in the gym. We've already been smoothly transitioned into this (coming from "No, it's fought by soliders" from Nick Fury's previous SHIELD cabal scene). Cap's doing his thing, punching bags. He and Fury do some banter and then there's the bit where Cap says, "I doubt there's anything that would surprise me," to which Fury responds, "Bet you ten bucks."
Most summer blockbustersplosions would have left it at that. Quip accomplished; let's move on. Avengers delivers the joke, and then, as we who watched it know, it drops the actual punchline several scenes later, when Steve Rogers wordlessly digs a ten out of his jacket and hands it to Fury on the bridge of the airborne Helicarrier.
The Avengers is filled with these kinds of slightly delayed gratifications. Here's another:
Example 2: In the first Tony/Banner scene in the Helicarrier lab, there's the moment we all remember when Tony's chatting Banner up and then suddenly stabs him with a pin. Banner looks up with amused surprise just as Cap walks in and calls Tony out for provoking Banner and endangering everybody. The scene plays out from there as Tony and Steve bitch at each other and Cap leaves the scene unsettled. Other scenes ensue, and then we return to another scene with Tony and Banner where Tony says to Bruce something like, "You're on tiptoes, my friend. You need to strut." It's a joke that isn't just a joke on its own, but a moment that connects. Tony wants to see Banner strut and so do we, so when Bruce Banner finally lets loose it feels amazing.
It would seem like these kind of simple this-and-then-that storytelling techniques should bore audiences. And they would… except that modern super summer action blockbuster movies just don't seem able to accomplish even these basic building blocks of how to get an audience onside.
In a modern empty blockbuster, action scenes don't erupt because the stakes have been raised to the level of immediate action on the part of the participants. Instead, action scenes now occur to escape from supposedly dramatic scenes that are going nowhere or --even worse-- to get out of scenes that might be in danger of resolving the plot right then and there. Velocity is invoked for its own sake or as a reward for sitting through all the scenes of actors talking.
That's not to say Avengers doesn't indulge in a lot of this. But at least Avengers does it knowingly while maintaining the primary importance of connections. Scenes conect to scenes, characters connect to characters and ideas connect to moments. So, when the big extended 45-minute action sequence begins, we're ready for big moments that have been set up and perhaps not paid off… which is why those moments, when they arrive, are so damn satisfying.
Setups and payoffs. Connections between people and ideas. And since that's what this whole movie, ultimately, is really about --a bunch of people who make no sense together coming together and yet they do… that is, The Avengers-- the whole thing not only feels good but IS good. It means something after all!