There is one moment in The Avengers where Steve Rogers says (not not unkindly) to Tony Stark: “You’re all about style, aren’t you?”
I could say just as much of this movie. It is slick; it is polished; it is a high-octane joyride, a driving lesson in thrills from the get-go- and yes, to answer Captain America, The Avengers is all about style. But as we discovered about Tony Stark (and as Cap eventually discovers about Tony Stark), behind all that style lies substance too.
I would be lying if I said the action scenes weren’t my favourite scenes. They were. How could they not be? It’s superheroes vs aliens on a scale Michael Bay dreamed of, but infinitely less annoying. Screenrant numbers “about four big set-pieces”, so I’ll work my break-down of the action scenes around these big four. No, scrap that, I’ll work my whole review around those four set-pieces.
Firstly, the action scene right from the start- and to that end I just wanna say upfront that the trailer does a heck of a job in the editing, splicing together clips from essentially the entire 2 hours of the movie, and in a very non-chronological sequence, which makes for a very nicely surprising first viewing. Anyway, the first action scene takes place at a SHIELD base, where Loki descends to wreak havoc. Of all the Avengers it’s Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye who gets introduced first- and in a way that completely took me off guard (hint: Loki wreaking his mischief here). It’s nicely shot, with realistic visuals, and shows some serious bad-assery on Nick Fury’s side. More importantly, it sets a very nice opening sequence before the title flashes onscreen, though I’m a little divided on that aspect. I did find it a tad, just a tad, campy the first time Agent Coulson asks Nick Fury “What do we do?” and the camera flashes to Nick Fury looking all bad-ass (he looks that way most of the time) before ‘THE AVENGERS” come out on screen amid triumphant music. It was better the second time round, maybe because I had seen the entire movie and felt cause for the triumphant music to be justified.
I’m assuming the second set-piece is the one where Loki reveals himself in Germany and is arrested by SHIELD, in which case our second set-piece occurs in the middle of and within the third set-piece (I’m taking this to mean the Helicarrier, which I’ll come to later) – basic movie set-piece-ception 101. This particular set-piece triumphs, I think, not so much for its action but rather the ingenious (and rather subtle) way it first gathers the Avengers together. There is no Nick Fury gathering all six members at a round table to discuss the fate of the human race. No, extraordinary people call for an extraordinary first meeting. From the get-go, Captain America’s good old-fashioned deference to authority clashes, well, starkly, with Tony Stark’s very modern, very snarky disdain for the exact same thing. This is also the scene where Thor first shows up, and I’m glad that they chose to portray this entire Avengers initiative as not a pre-planned, set-up, manipulated scenario, but rather a situation where the most unlikely combination – the most unholy alliance of superheroes – are thrust into a common grounds, fighting for a common cause, just because they happened to be at the right place at the right time, brought together by coincidence rather than pre-destiny. And we finally get the much-discussed three-point standoff between Ironman, Cap and Thor in the forest, where the contrast between Thor and Ironman is brought out very sharply, and very, very hilariously (“Doth mother know you weareth her drapes?”). And here I should probably take a step back and congratulate the director on how well each of these characters are introduced to one another. Consider the first time Steve Rogers meets Black Widow and greets her with a “M’am” to which she replies a brusque “hi”.
But that’s taking things too fast. Another thing that really appeals to me about this set-piece is the music. Do you notice how perfect the music meshes with the whole scene, from the time Loki appears on the balustrade to when Cap dons his (spangly) uniform? Forgive me but I have to say Loki positively radiates bad-assery in this scene.
On to what is probably my favourite set-piece: the Helicarrier. If the previous scene was a nice set-up for initial impressions and first meetings, then the Helicarrier is the perfect back-drop to the development of their relationships, not just amongst the Avengers, but also with such supporting characters as Nick Fury, Loki, Agent Coulson, and even Agent Hill. Before I move on to the positives (and there are a lot) let me just get the minor nitpicks out of the way: the visual effects on the Helicarrier are, for the most part, great, especially with regards to the Panels of Invisibility (where else have I seen that before??), but the water looks too obviously a special effect as the Helicarrier ascends. Then again, water has always been a tricky thing to render so consider that a minor gripe. What bugs me more is that when Hawkeye and co. attack, he simply takes aim from the opened aircraft- well, the air pressure should’ve sucked them out. Still, minor gripe.
Ready for the positives? The character development positively crackles here. Tony Stark’s arrival on the Helicarrier also means the arrival of a hell load of snarky humour. Robert Downey Jr is Tony Stark. He steals every scene he is in, and then some. He and Captain American rub each other the wrong way initially, and their differences is just so contrasting that it’s a genuine joy to see them work together later on. But what was truly surprising was how they got so much emotion out of the interaction between Tony and Bruce Banner. It really brings very interesting perspective when you consider the ‘validity’ of superheroes like Ironman and the Hulk. Incidentally, there’s a very neat piece on the f-yeah avengers tumblr that elaborates on this in a way I can’t hope to achieve, so I’ll post it here for your (and my) benefit: http://fuckyeah-avengers.tumblr.com/post/22504221602/theumbrellaseller-hemsworthss-science. The bargaining talk between Black Widow and Loki probably constitutes the most intense scene in the whole movie, dialogue-wise, especially as Loki’s short monologue later on sets the backdrop for a montage of the Avengers discovering SHIELD’s dirty secrets. It also really brings into perspective Black Widow as a person– and you’ll know how effective that scene was when Clint Barton asks her later on what made her so eager to go to war and comments that she’s different, you’ll know those things Loki said to her did faze her even though she turned the tables on him in the end.
This is also my favourite scene because it duly answers a question nagging me. As a friend put so eloquently, “this looks like they took Winx plus PowerPuff Girls”. It’s a little (read: way) off the mark, but I get her point: was Marvel biting off more than it could chew when it decided to make a movie featuring so many superheroes? Or a more astute question: how to delegate enough screen time to everyone and ensure that the transitions between characters were smooth and not jarring, in episodic blocks? The Helicarrier set-piece answers it beautifully. Here, essentially, there are three sub-set-pieces (recall set-piece-ception 101). The first is Ironman and Captain America racing off to restart the engine that Hawkeye took out, after some tense banter. The second is essentially Hulk menacing Black Widow until Thor saves her and engages the Hulk himself; the third is Black Widow fighting Barton to get him out of Loki’s spell. There is actually a fourth sub-set-piece of Nick Fury and Agent Hill firing away in the control room, but as that does not directly involve the Avengers, let’s not go there. Ironman and Captain America’s scene is captivating more as a testament to the beginning of a transformed relationship between the two men, where Ironman starts to see Captain America as a figure of authority (and earlier on when Ironman influences Cap to break some rules for once, oh gosh, that play-by-the-book guy). As an action scene it tends to be a little mundane. Thor and Hulk’s fight is engaging in a funny way: it’s not everyday you see two indestructible creatures duke it out, smashing the things around them to smithereens yet never actually getting much injured. It’s also good that Joss Whedon seems to acknowledge the preposterous-ity of this, and plays it to maximum hilarity. Their fight also includes a very effective usage of slow-motion, where Thor’s hammer flies into his hand just in time for him to swing it in slow-mo into a very angry Hulk charging at him. The scene where Hulk chases Black Widow is done very well, and to Ms Johansson’s credit she conveys Black Widow’s fear – the fear of a prey – with subtlety – she’s a spy after all – but it’s there roiling beneath the surface. Her fight with Clint Barton is arguably the most well-choreographed here (I do have a soft spot for hand-to-hand combat), and really showcases Black Widow’s agility. Contrast this to the hallway scene in Ironman 2, where yes, she kicked-ass, but in a way that seemed overly reliant on technology; here, this scene, together with the earlier interrogation scene, truly shows how adept she is at close-range. And there’s an emotional weight to this battle because these two obviously share some history, as hinted here and there in the scenes leading up (Black Widow’s bargain with Loki, Black Widow checking out Hawkeye’s location on the Helicarrier’s database, to name a few).
All these set the stage for the final showdown in Manhattan, which is, in short, epic. A better way to put it, though, would be to say that this is something Michael Bay probably envisions every time he directs an action scene, but thankfully, blessedly loaded with fewer explosions (not everything explodes spontaneously y’know!) and with more character drama because we actually care for these characters. And you know what Mr Bay? It really ain’t that hard to make characters you can care about- or at the very least, just characters who aren’t irritating. Hint: smart-talking characters (like the abomination Sam Whitwicky descended into in the later Transformers films) just come across pretentious and whiny. Or at least yours do. Tony Stark is an example of how to do it right. And the beauty is that because the character drama has already been established in the earlier set-pieces, The Avengers can be forgiven for indulging in a last half-hour of pure, all-out popcorn entertainment. Because what good entertainment this is. The scene that arguably stands out most is that clever montage of each Avenger engaged in battle, before the camera smoothly transits to another Avenger. And you know you can forgive the mindless action when it’s so slick and polished and when, at the end, as Ironman nearly signs his suicide, you find yourself actually caring.
Of course, The Avengers does have its negatives. There are lines that stray dangerously close to corny (and sometimes they do make a mis-step), the aliens hell-bent on invading Earth really need to get a hobby, and some character-driven moments fall a little flat, but at the end of the day, there’s no denying that this was a hell of a ride, and a smart one at that.
That fact is perhaps best asserted in the final scene. I wondered, the first time round, why the movie closed off (post-credits scene aside) with Tony Stark, among all the Avengers. I got my answer on the second viewing. As the camera pans out, away from the half-destroyed Stark tower, you see that the STARK on the tower has nearly been obliterated, so that an ‘A’ is what’s left of it.
I’ll leave you to think about what it so obviously stands for.
Rating on Rotten Tomatoes: 93%
Rating on IMDb: 8.8
Viewing history: Seen 2x. Both times in theaters!
If you haven’t seen these yet, these Mondo posters are STUNNING.