By far the most notable thing about Joss Whedon’s The Avengers, beyond all the self-righteous tent pole-blockbuster-theme park-cultural-seismic-indicator nonsense, is that Whedon shows a sense of mercy in consistently buoying the film with levity and humor to distract from all the pretense. The chiefest fun to be had is rather definitively not related to one-and-done special effects or action or the superpowers of the main characters themselves. It is, instead, Whedon’s way with words, his wit. Most of it is filtered through franchise MVP Robert Downey Jr., here his usual sardonic, witty self as Tony Stark/ Iron Man, with much of the humor coming from his playful attitude toward Nick Fury’s (Samuel Jackson) dogged attempt to “bring the team together”. Bruce Banner/ The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), used intelligently in more ways than one, has two dynamite laughs toward the end of the film, one with a literal punch-line.
But the strongest moments of humor exhibit a wink-and-a-nod approach to the silliness often found in these sorts of big-budget monstrosities, befitting Whedon’s fussy, irony-tinged attitude toward … everything, at least kept somewhat in check here. After an early fight between Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Iron Man, and Steve Rodgers/ Captain America (Chris Evans), in which the entire forest around them literally bends over for them as they remain standing, there’s a clear self-reflexive realization, played for laughs, that their fighting is just for show and that it’s all gone on a bit longer than it should (pity the film didn’t take this advice to heart). Later, we get a great conversation between Bruce Banner and Stark filled with all kinds of made-up techno-babble, at which point Stark remarks about Banner “finally someone who speaks English”. There’s even a little commentary on modern-day pop-culture’s infatuation with, well, pop-culture, mixed in: when greeted with a reference to the Wizard of Oz, Captain America responds “I understood that reference” in glee, reminding perhaps that he just wants to be like everyone else these days. Plus, there’s a great line about Point Break. That’s always a plus.
Forgive the kernels of impulsive, fanboy-ish emotion, but the film doesn’t make a convincing argument that any more is deserved. Avengers is relentlessly traditional, with a narrative that functionally boils down to a bunch of heroes saving the day from a power-hungry madman (Loki, played by Tom Hiddleston) with an alien army. That happens just about every week nowadays, so nothing it’s the snark and lightness of touch that keeps it from collapsing under it’s own weight.
To this extent, Whedon, for all his big-budget aspirations, (mostly) never forgets his scrappy, lived-in characters and their anxious energy. The team, for all its grandiosity, is rag-tag in spirit. They fight, bicker, and quarrel, if only to wax their own egos. We not only see them fight together but we learn more about them through their interactions with each other than we could individually – the cornerstone of every good “team” movie. And this is also smart because it compensates for Whedon’s bigger weaknesses as a director, namely his TV origins and how this tends to favor cramped, contained direction when things out to be boisterous and dynamic. He’s gotten out of this mold more than say, a JJ Abrams, but the vestiges cling like moths to a flame – he’s a writer more than a director, and if one brings the other as a side effect, that’s a fair trade-off.
Perhaps the the biggest surprise is it’s only meaningful dramatic turn: the character of Bruce Banner, and his not-so-easy-to-Hyde counterpart; no cinematic portrayal of this character has captured as well the double identity, the interpersonal dialectic, and the self-hating laconic despair at the core of the character. For his part, Mark Ruffalo is terrific in the role, and the best performance the film has to offer. Indeed, he is perhaps the best-constructed comic book character of the past several years; he’s far more interesting than both Captain America and Thor, still largely one-note characters, and the too-ubiquitous Iron Man. This is a big movie, but its best scenes are dialogues, many of which involve Banner’s conflicted character – a playful one between Stark and Banner in a lab that brings a nervous camaraderie to that amorphous filmic excuse called science and a more suspenseful, charged one that shoots between members of the whole team like pinballs as they come to blows and everything threatens to spill over. This is worth all the explosions Whedon can conjure and sees him calling back to the great long history of madcap screwball comedies where character-based tension was wrung-dry out of the sheer effervescent energy of people talking as loudly as they could over one another. Such a scene is far tenser than anything a computer can bring to the table.
Oh yeah, and Whedon’s not too shabby at those battles too. The last one, going for a good forty minutes, is a wallop, but it is also far too much for far too long, the dangers of a budget that just won’t end. This is a fun movie, pure and simple – there’s thankfully little in the way of Big Statements or the grandstanding dour gloominess that has beset blockbusters over the past few years – itself a true pleasure. But the pleasures rise from merely pleasing to close-to-perfect only when Whedon realizes he knows his way around dialogue more than he does a camera and lets things hang around for a little bit (the best scene is a wonderfully smug, caustic mid-credits clip that reveals, more than anything, how little these characters truly like each other despite everything they’ve been through). When he remembers the core of this film is a comedy conversation piece, he’s on damn fine grand. It’s too bad the film had to go and be a Superhero movie. It could have been so great if it wasn’t.