Silver Screen: The Avengers ****
The modern blockbuster has become awfully unfulfilling. Sounds like a dumb complaint about movies created to be mindless escapism-- but I like mindless escapism, much the same way I like a pint of Ben and Jerry’s. And while Ben and Jerry’s is not necessarily nutritious-- with the exception of the unpopular flavors Kale to the Chief and Cauliflower Power-- it is satisfying.
But the modern blockbuster rarely satisfies anymore even as an empty-calorie treat, mostly because nobody makes blockbusters anymore-- they make franchises. It used to be when a cool summer movie made a mint, you’d know there was probably a sequel in the works. Now you know there’s going to be a sequel before you’ve even bought your ticket to the movie. In fact, you know it’s all part of a planned trilogy. And with the rise of internet-spoiler culture, you generally know how the plot of the movie will give way to the future installments. Meanwhile, because it’s part of the franchise, the movie must leave plenty of open space to segue into the next chapter. The end result is a slew of expensive films that have few surprises and no closure, so viewers never have the satisfaction of a complete experience.
In other words, it’s like buying a pint of Ben and Jerry’s knowing that there’s big hunks of Heath Bar and fudge brownie only to keep digging through mounds of plain vanilla and finding a message at the bottom of the carton telling you the brownie-and-candy-bar hunks are in the next batch. Since when do guilty pleasures demand so much delayed gratification?
The zenith of this franchise trend-- so far, at least-- is The Avengers, the culmination of five separate blockbusters, some of which were individually thrilling (Iron Man) and some which played more like two-hour-long advertisements (Thor). Thus The Avengers had better be big and exciting enough not just to carry its own two-and-a-half-hour running time, but to retroactively justify ten hours of setup.
Mostly, it is.
The film’s plot is a hodgepodge of intergalactic strife, magical maguffins, and technobabble, assembled from disparate parts of the previous Marvel movies. The bad guy from Thor wants to steal the gizmo from Captain America which, when fused with the inventions from Iron Man will open a portal to another world, allowing an invasion of truly generic aliens to overtake the Earth. The story doesn’t really make much more sense if you’ve seen all the individual setup movies, since it mostly hinges on magical-totem plot devices and faux-scientific jargon, and the conflict is straightforward. (Stop aliens!) The details are insignificant.
To save the planet from computer-generated-imagery doom, superspy Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), director of the SHIELD organization, revives plans for what he calls The Avengers Initiative, a government-contracted group of superhumans called up to battle threats no mere man can face. The core of the group is genius billionaire playboy Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), also known as Iron Man, along with unfrozen superpatriot Captain America (Chris Evans), marksman Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), and sexy spy Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson). The team also enlists the help of brilliant scientist Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), who has a bad habit of turning into the Hulk, and they’re joined by the demigod Thor, drawn into the conflict by the involvement of his evil brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston).
The real fun of the film comes not from big fights but the clash of big egos. These are outsized characters who carry their own films, thrust awkwardly together into an ensemble. The fact that they’re played by Hollywood’s leading men and women adds a nice bit of verisimilitude, so that on multiple levels just watching them interact is fun. The notion that The Avengers is less a cohesive team than a collection of self-obsessed individuals provides the grist for both the comedy and interpersonal drama, played perfectly by cowriter and director Joss Whedon, who is just the man for the job.
There is, of course, big action-- although not immediately. Whedon and cowriter Zak Penn take their time putting all the characters into place; outside of a brief scuffle at a SHIELD base in the early going, the first half of the movie is all setup. But the back half of the film encompasses the long-promised mindless mayhem, and to his credit, Whedon concocts a massive half-hour-long climax that actually feels like a worthwhile payoff to the endless hype. It’s superhero craziness on the largest scale ever produced, intense but never dour, fast but not frantic. Most importantly, it’s fun.
Maybe the best feature of The Avengers: By the end everyone seems too tired to even think much about a sequel. Thank goodness; we could all use a breather.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.