The Hulk is the green one. Captain America is the one with the shield. Iron Man is the one in the tin suit. Thor is the one who is also a god.
Writer-director Joss Whedon? He’s Miracle Man – the one tasked with making a watchable movie out of The Avengers. This turns out to be a lot more difficult than it seemed. Originally hired only to work on the script, Whedon was asked to also direct the movie on the strength of his vision (The Dirty Dozen, with superheroes) and the skill of his previous film Serenity, another pop sci-fi adventure with a large cast of complicated characters. Serenity, which was a spin off of a failed TV series but was perfectly accessible to newcomers, was rousing and funny and fresh, and it bore all of Whedon’s hallmarks, too: Witty dialogue, playful humor, deft ensemble work, surprising turns of plot and exciting, unexpected bursts of action.
But Serenity was a small movie by Hollywood standards. The Avengers is an enormous, costly enterprise (it looks so big and expensive!) and Whedon, who seems to have gotten in over his head, struggles to keep this unwieldy movie spinning. He is so preoccupied with the sheer physicality of the thing that he doesn't have time to step back and consider the larger picture. He drowns in the details.
The Avengers is peppered with memorable bits (pretty much anytime Robert Downey Jr. says anything) and a few raise-the-roof moments (Hulk steals the show). But the bright spots are fleeting and inconsequential, and they don’t add up to anything. This is a long, talky, clunky movie that culminates with a huge action sequence. From Whedon, you expected more than spectacle.
Even though the histories of its characters had been established in earlier movies, The Avengers still feels like an origin tale – something you have to push through before you get to the good stuff. The preceding films bore distinct personalities: Iron Man was slick and modern, Thor channeled Shakespearean bombast, Captain America embraced old-fashioned patriotism. Whedon opts for earnestness, resulting in a Cuisinart tone. The movie constantly switches gears, depending on who happens to be onscreen. It waffles.
Most of the actors have grown comfortably into their parts and inhabit them convincingly. In Tony Stark, Downey has found his signature role (this is the one we’ll remember him by). Chris Evans and Chris Hemsworth invest Captain America and Thor with subtle humor, and Marvel newcomer Mark Ruffalo brings a welcome sense of rumpled menace to the anger-prone Bruce Banner. Only Scarlett Johansson (as Black Widow) and Jeremy Renner (as Hawkeye) come off as actors playing dress-up.
But despite the assured performances, The Avengers is unconvincing: The illusion doesn't stick. The story ties itself into knots to rationalize why these disparate superheroes would ever band together, under the supervision of Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), to thwart the villainous Loki (Tom Hiddleston). Right from the opening scene, a belabored set piece boasting one of the most listless car chases ever filmed, the movie feels off. Everyone talks too much. The pace lumbers. Extraneous characters eat up screen time. You hunker down in your seat and shrug it off, patiently waiting for the film to kick into gear. By the end, you’re still waiting.
Whedon obviously loves these characters, and he’s well steeped in Marvel Comics lore. In The Avengers, the good guys often fight against each other, the way they did in the books, settling their differences while learning to work as a team. The movie makes room for several fun brawls (a highlight: Hulk vs. Thor) and those scenes ring with the thrill and tickle of wish-fulfillment fantasy: They’re all that fans could have possibly wanted. But for everything the film gets right, Whedon counters with a questionable decision. In one sequence, he repeatedly cuts away from the main action to show Iron Man and Captain America fixing an engine (!). Late in the film, Nick Fury runs outside to fire a rocket launcher, and the throwaway moment stands out as a sop to the character – the only instance in the film where Jackson isn't standing around spouting exposition.
This is the kind of gear-grinding that constantly sticks out in The Avengers: You notice all the little details that should have been invisible, such as how inordinately long it takes for Hawkeye to run out of arrows, or how sparsely populated the streets of New York City are during an attack by an intergalactic army. The best comic book movies (Spider-Man 2, The Dark Knight, Superman 2) pay off with a climax that grips you emotionally as well as viscerally. The Avengers has a knockout final 30 minutes, all gee-whiz crash and bang and eye candy that makes grand use of 3D and IMAX and all the other toys. But the Transformers movies did that, too. And there’s nothing else here - no surprises or turns other than a shockingly lazy use of a nuclear deus ex machina.
Why has The Avengers elicited such rabid, near-unanimous pre-release love from critics and audiences? I’m not sure, but consider this: At a recent preview screening, a short scene during the end credits elicited a roar of surprised hoots and hollers (including mine) from the audience. But later, talking to people in the lobby, I couldn't find anyone who knew what we had just seen in that teaser. Why did everyone get so excited and cheer then? Maybe it’s because we love these characters so much, we’re willing to embrace anything Whedon serves us, because he has obvious respect and affection for the material. We want the movie to be great. Good intentions, though, aren’t enough. A serviceable but uninspired franchise launcher, The Avengers sends you home full but unfulfilled, to which everyone at Marvel Films would probably say “Maybe you need to see it again.” The 3D will cost you extra, though.
Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, Stellan Skarsgard.
Writer-director: Joss Whedon.
Producer: Kevin Feige.
A Marvel Studios release. Running time: 142 minutes. Mild vulgar language, comic book violence, adult themes. Opens Friday May 4 at area theaters.