The famed literary critic Harold Bloom once wrote an entire volume about the phenomenon in poetry he called “The Anxiety of Influence.” The phenomenon indicated that poets (and other writers) were constantly under pressure from their forebears to simultaneously pay homage to them, but also to break free and to transcend from the well-known norms of the form. This Anxiety of Influence is one of the sticking points for Joss Whedon's The Avengers, finally released in theaters this Friday after years of marketing setup and calculated superhero tie-in features. Whedon is a long-time comic book fan, and seems to be a geek saint of sorts, who not only produces films and TV shows passionately loved by his massive cult, but also moves amongst his crowd, sharing their passions for vampires and superheroes. As such he is, at once, the perfect choice and the wrong choice for a film like The Avengers. He certainly captures the established superhero characters in his film (which were all designed and established in a series of superhero blockbusters stretching back to 2008), and he clearly wants to capture the visual panache of the source comic books (he has obviously taken many of his shots directly from specific comic book panels; several comic book authors are given thanks in the film's credits), but his sacred treatment of the material seems to stymie him as well. It's hard to make a fresh and fun film about these characters, as they have nowhere to grow but along their designated path.
As such, The Avengers is a film that is more about itself and its endlessly interlocking mythologies than it is about any real theme. I suppose the film is about teamwork, but that's kind of a gimme. Whedon, then, has made a technically impressive and perfectly entertaining film that feels, for long stretches, kind of bland, and, during its worst moments, kind of like an assault (I’m certainly not the first one to notice that the film’s climax bears many similarities to the climax of Transformers: Dark of the Moon, as both films feature an urban-set battle with snake-like robot monsters, and a sky portal to another planet; although to be fair, The Avengers does it a little bit better). By the time the 40-or-so-minute climax rolls around, wherein an army of faceless robot aliens are invading New York and our assembled Avengers are fighting them off, I began to sink deep into my seat, crushed and bored and assaulted by the usual swirling CGI mess I've seen in countless action blockbusters before.
The characters are well known to most of the world at this point. Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), a.k.a. Iron Man, has just built a tower in the middle of New York City. Natasha Romanov (Scarlett Johansson), a.k.a. The Black Widow has been working abroad on spy missions. Dr. Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), a.k.a. The Hulk, a.k.a. the comic relief, has been hiding out in India trying to avoid hulking out. Thor (Chris Hemsworth), The God of Thunder, was last seen in his godly other-realm of Asgard. And Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), a.k.a. Captain America has been getting used to his place in the present after being frozen for nearly 70 years. When Thor's fey, blue-eyed brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston, who really does look a bit like Zooey Deschanel) teams up with a faceless mob of space aliens to conquer Earth using a glowing blue widget called the Tesseract, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), the leader of a super-secret CIA-like organization called SHIELD, enlists the various superbeings to team up as a defense. The story is essentially a bickersome back-and-forth between the various superheroes, punctuated by a video game-like X vs. Y extravaganza. The fights are plenty exciting, but they feel ill-defined. Thor, at one point, mashes his magical hammer into Captain America’s trademark shield, and the shield blocks it. Either that shield is stronger than we thought, or Thor is more of a ninny than we thought. Later in the film, The Hulk takes all kinds of bodily damage, which would imply his skin is even tougher than Iron Man’s near-indestructible metal suit. And why does Loki need alien robots with lasers when he’s already a god with magical powers? I wish more detail had gone into the comparative powers of each Avenger. As it stands, their abilities only seem vaguely sketched out.
There are, perhaps, too many characters for The Avengers' own good. I know that we don't really need to establish these people any longer; we've had years to get to know them, and we have heard all of their origin stories. But Whedon is hell bent on giving every single character their own miniature character arc. The balance between these characters is impeccable, and each is given equal screen time, and, indeed, The Avengers feels like a proper ensemble piece through extended sequences. Sadly, that can also be a weakness, as it dilutes a lot of the film's narrative thrust, making for a very basic story. I think if Whedon had chosen a central figure for the film (might I suggest Captain America and his acclimatization to a modern world), then the rest of the story could have grown from there.
What’s more, as a villain, Loki is a little lame. He supposed to be a godlike superbeing, but seems to be easily damaged (spoiler: there is a rather funny scene near the film’s end when the Hulk does a number on him). His motives are a little unclear, and he only makes a few vague speeches about how humans want to be dominated. A little more play on the villain’s philosophy would have been appreciated. He also needs to team up with a race of evil space aliens whom we learn nothing about. When they appear, they are faceless, grey robot critters with laser guns. I suppose they fulfill their dramatic function well (an army of evil robots hell bent on destruction is a comic book staple, after all), but I would have appreciated a more sophisticated monster.
Whedon’s strengths (as displayed here and in his The Cabin in the Woods, which he co-wrote) seem to be flip and funny dialogue in the face of bizarre or extreme fantasy situations. At this, he is rather good. Some of the one-liners and throw-off gags will make you laugh, and the tone, as a result, is decidedly light. I just wish that the film felt more jaunty. By the way-way-too-long climax, I was feeling every last crushing second of the film’s 142 minutes. And, feeling so tired, when the promise of a sequel (or perhaps something even more chilling) came up in the inevitable post-credit cookie, I only felt dismay.
But I don’t want to sound like a contrarian or a naysayer (perhaps I should apologize for the Harold Bloom reference above). This review is pretty much just a litany of nitpicks on what amounts to be a pretty good sci-fi action extravaganza. The Avengers is poised to make millions, and will likely please the superhero fans. But maybe that’s why I’m bothering to pick so many nits. After years of buildup and prequels, The Avengers is merely average.