Monday, May 14, 2012


Seriously? 1 billion dollars?

That's what The Avengers has racked up at the box office after only 11 days in US theaters (19 days worldwide). There are mitigating factors, of course: as time marches on, ticket prices keep going up and our population continues to explode, so a lot more people are paying a lot more to get into the theater than even 16 years ago when Titanic ruled the waves.

(To bear this out, in the Top Ten All-Time Worldwide box office champs—of which The Avengers is now # 10—only Titanic (currently #2) was released before 2003.)

But, number-crunching aside, is The Avengers $1 billion worth of movie?

On one hand, what movie ever could be? On the other, well, it has its moments (good and bad).

Here's what's cool about it: casting, casting, casting.  Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark/Iron Man? 50% of the movie's success, right there: funny and irreverent, with comic timing to burn. (Way more effective here than in those chaotic Sherlock Holmes movies.)  The other 50% is writer/director (and cult fave) Josh Whedon, bringing his ironic sensibility to the superhero genre and generally making it stick.  Whedon manipulates Stark's arrogance like another character in the plot, then devises a nifty storyline that allows Stark to evolve out of it.

Chris Evans makes Steve Rogers/Captain America a nicely retro throwback navigating post-modern irony; he's sometimes corny, but mostly, we buy it. Mark Ruffalo is terrific as a rumpled, bespectacled, self-effacing Dr. Bruce Banner, who's become an expert on gamma-rays while trying to cope with his huge, green alter-ego, the Incredible Hulk.

It falls to Scarlett Johansson to play the fanboy fantasy figure, superspy Natasha Romanov, aka Black Widow. This is the kind of role feminists euphemistically describe as the FFT (the G-rated translation is Fighting Sex Toy), meaning her value depends on how well she fills out her rubber suit and how much cold (male) ruthlessness she brings to her fight scenes. Personally, I'd have liked to see a little more of another Natasha (from the Rocky & Bulwinkle series) in the character—she never had to fight; she was too smart and sneaky—but at least Johansson plays the part as tough and resilient.

I wasn't sure if I'd go for Chris Hemsworth as Norse god Thor, checking in from the mythical Paradise of Asgard; in still photos, his face is a little unformed, and there's that dubious widow's peak, but like the Sundance Kid, he's better when he moves. Onscreen, he's a serious presence with gravitas (well, as far as is possible in a Marvel Superhero movie).

As his half-brother, designated villain Loki, Tom Hiddleston, too, has a lot of pazzazz; he's the petulant kid brother who wants his share of the marbles, and (in this version) doesn't mind allying himself with a bunch of weird, metallic-looking outer space aliens to get them. (It's interesting how Hiddleston's career has jounced along in the last year. Remember when he played Scott Fitzgerald in Midnight In Paris and Rachel Weisz's feckless lover in The Deep Blue Sea?)

But here's the other thing. These superheroes spend way too much time fighting each other.

Okay, bickering, I get. There's a great scene in their flying lab where the prickly team members start taking pot-shots at each others' flaws, while the sceptre of Loki glows ominously nearby. (Completely appropriate, since Loki is the discord-sowing god of mischief in Norse mythology—although not necessarily the god of teaming up with a bunch of robotic alien monsters to conquer a petty planet of mortals. What does Loki, or any Norse god, want with Earth? They have Asgard.)

But I digress. I suppose you could even make a case for the scene where Natasha dukes it out with former SHIELD op Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), who's been mesmerized to do Loki's bidding. She's trying to break the spell, a duel made more poignant by their shared history; he once disobeyed orders to save her life.

But when Dr. Banner finally hulks out and starts chasing Natasha throughout the station like the gigantic rock rolling inexorably after Indy in Raiders of the Lost Ark (and for no particular reason; just because she happens to be nearby when he loses it), well, it's not fun, and a waste of our time (in an already overlong movie) just because it's time for another action scene.

But by far the stupidest slugfest occurs when Thor first appears out of nowhere to haul Loki off to some astral plane and give him a good talking-to, and Iron Man speeds after them to get him back.  Captain America joins in, and during the extended sequence where the so-called heroes are busy clobbering each other, Loki—their mutual enemy—is completely forgotten; he could be ordering take-out or subjugating the Earth, for all the notice the other guys take of him. It goes on and on, and it's just ridiculous.

And after Hulk goes postal in the lab, trying to destroy anything that breathes, how can they suddenly deploy him like a smart bomb in the finale? Hulk is pure blind rage; that's what makes him dangerous. He doesn't take direction, and re-writing the rules for the big finish is cheating.

Meanwhile, back in NYC as platoons of the alien menace fall out of a wormhole in the sky, how can  all the Avengers vault around skyscrapers and fly into outer space at will? Stark's gadget-happy techno-suit, okay, but aren't Captain America, Hulk, and Natasha, you know, mortal?

And speaking of which, Loki is still an immortal god with mystical supernatural powers. Shouldn't that trump a bunch of humans in souped-up suits? I'm just saying...

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