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Our critics take another look at ‘The Avengers’ in the #UltimateSummerMovie Showdown

Scarlett Johansson, Chris Hemsworth, Chris Evans, Jeremy Renner, Robert Downey Jr. and Mark Ruffalo in the movie 'The Avengers'
Scarlett Johansson, left, Chris Hemsworth, Chris Evans, Jeremy Renner, Robert Downey Jr. and Mark Ruffalo in the movie “The Avengers.”
(Walt Disney Pictures)

The #UltimateSummerMovie Showdown is underway, and voters have chosen “The Avengers” (2012) as their winner for Week 1, dedicated to movies first released in theaters from May 1-7 (between 1975 and 2019). Times film critic Justin Chang sat down with entertainment columnist Glenn Whipp to discuss the dominant performance of the 2012 Disney/Marvel blockbuster and where it fits amid the overall glut of superhero movies.

Remember to tune in to their conversation 6 p.m. Thursday livestreamed on the L.A. Times Classic Hollywood Facebook Page and YouTube as well as Twitter. Be sure to watch (or rewatch) “The Avengers” in advance. It is available to stream on Prime Video, Disney+ and most VOD platforms.

And please vote in this week’s poll on Twitter (@justincchang) to select next week’s movie.

JUSTIN CHANG: There’s a scene in “The Avengers” in which Loki, the power-mad Asgardian villain played by Tom Hiddleston, sneers at a crowd of kneeling people and declares, “You were made to be ruled. In the end, you will always kneel.” I’m hardly the first one to watch that scene and think about how Loki’s words might apply to the intensity and seeming ubiquity of Disney/Marvel fandom. More than most Hollywood blockbusters, “The Avengers” and its 22 siblings in the Marvel Cinematic Universe were made in a spirit of all-out conquest. They were built for worldwide domination, and they’ve succeeded to a degree that can be awe-inspiring, and more than a little depressing, to think about.

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I thought about Loki’s words again as I watched “The Avengers” close in on victory in the first week of our #UltimateSummerMovie Showdown. Glenn, I know you can relate: How cool would it have been if another picture from our designated May 1-7 release window — like the sharp political comedy “Dave” or the glorious “Much Ado About Nothing,” both of which opened in theaters May 7, 1993 — had come out on top instead? Or, if we had to have a comic-book superhero movie, couldn’t it have been Sam Raimi’s ebullient “Spider-Man” (2002), which went head-to-masked-head with “The Avengers” in the final round and briefly looked as though it might prevail?

It wasn’t to be. “The Avengers” is our winner, and it is the winner I expected when I finalized the 16 movies set to compete last week. This was always going to be Marvel’s week; the MCU loves releasing movies in early May, and our Twitter polls showed a lot of voter support for franchise favorites “Iron Man” (2008) and “Captain America: Civil War” (2016). It was only fitting that they’d be swallowed up in the end by “The Avengers,” the movie that brought those beloved superhero characters and others together for the first time.

And it is not, I should add, an unworthy winner — although The Times readers who voted it the most overrated film of 2012 in an online survey might beg to differ. I certainly enjoyed “The Avengers” the first time I saw it. After the bland likes of “Thor” and “Captain America: The First Avenger,” it really did feel like an inspired synthesis, a clean-burning entertainment engine that I described in my Variety review as “buoyant, witty and robustly entertaining” and “a superior, state-of-the-art model built from reconstituted parts.” I pretty much stand by those assertions, though not unreservedly. Watching Joss Whedon’s movie again, eight years and 17 MCU movies later, it’s hard not to see it through the prism of superhero fatigue or to wish that its smooth, machine-tooled professionalism had a more human touch. I can tip my hat to the achievement, to be sure, but kneeling is out of the question.

Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst in the 2002 movie "Spider-Man," which came in second to "The Avengers" in the first week of the #UltimateSummerMovie Showdown.
(Zade Rosenthal / Columbia Pictures)
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GLENN WHIPP: You mention “superhero fatigue,” Justin, and at the risk of inspiring HULK SMASH collective rage from MCU zealots here, I should admit by the time “Avengers: Infinity War” rolled out, I was watching these films on the back of airplane seats. I do not wear this as a badge of honor, just an honest admission that toward the end of watching the 23 Marvel movies that comprise what’s known as “The Infinity Saga,” along with Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” trilogy, plus those (mostly horrible) DC Comics movies (“Wonder Woman” excepted), the “X-Men” series and so on and so forth, the thrill was gone, baby.

If the Marvel movies are, as Martin Scorsese observed, more akin to theme parks than cinema, then I was starting to feel like I was coming to the end of an all-day visit to Disneyland in the middle of July and, in my exhausted mind, the Happiest Place on Earth is the tram returning me to the parking structure.

But it’s been a year since I’ve seen a Marvel movie. And … I … kind … of … miss … them? Not Hawkeye. Not adolescent Groot. But I was looking forward to seeing Chloé Zhao’s vision for “The Eternals” and the long-awaited “Black Widow” standalone movie, directed by Cate Shortland. The best way to combat our collective exhaustion with superhero movies is to hire interesting directors. Props to Marvel for doing just that.

Rewatching “The Avengers” over the weekend, I tried to use one of those Neuralyzers from “Men in Black” — I’m probably tearing a hole in the fabric of the cosmos by crossing cinematic universes here — and erase my memories of those subsequent 17 Marvel movies and just focus on “The Avengers” and the prior entries. And don’t come at me and say if I used a Neuralyzer I wouldn’t remember anything. That’s like saying the Hulk cannot be both a raging, uncontrollable monster and a rational, focused team player when, as we see (quite improbably) in “The Avengers,” he can be both when it suits the storytelling.

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What I appreciate most about “The Avengers” is that smooth way it checks off all the boxes, seamlessly integrating multiple characters, giving most of them something interesting to do and delivering a fun spectacle you can take seriously — or not — depending on your reverence for the material. It’s easy now to take that competence for granted. However, you need only look at the graveyard of failed blockbusters (“Battleship” was supposed to be that summer’s other big hit) to understand how this movie could have easily crashed and burned. I’m never bending the knee. But I’m OK being subjugated for a couple of hours if I’m in good hands.

Jeremy Renner, left, and Mark Ruffalo in the movie "The Avengers."
(Marvel Studios)

CHANG: I think you’ve nailed the point quite elegantly, Glenn, and also the problem. I suspect we feel more or less the same way about “The Avengers” and could probably argue either position depending on the day. I could easily take the more generous view of the movie’s undeniable virtues — the superb casting, the dexterity of the plotting, the adroit balance of humor, action and exposition — while you stubbornly pointed out some of the deficits, namely the fact that even the most expertly tooled and polished machine is still, at the end of the day, a machine. It’s true that it’s easy to take competence for granted. As the largely unquestioning Marvel-loving masses have made more than clear, it’s also very easy to settle for it.

I’m not saying I prefer “Battleship” (confession: I never saw “Battleship”). But I do think beneath the super-slick banter and the bloodless, oddly unmemorable action scenes, there is something soulless and even antiseptic about the Marvel enterprise. The silky smoothness of these movies is what you get after you’ve ironed out every last kink, every possible threat of darkness and eccentricity, anything that might reek of too much style or interfere with MCU brand imperatives. There have been welcome exceptions, of course: the trippy visuals of “Doctor Strange,” the goofy alien constituents of “Guardians of the Galaxy” and above all the genuine grandeur and political depth of “Black Panther.” But they are very much exceptions to an otherwise depressingly inflexible rule.

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But enough grousing from me. It may be damning these movies with faint praise to say that most of them have been pretty good, but “The Avengers” is pretty good — and sometimes a bit better than that. The actors could hardly be better: Robert Downey Jr. may deserve a richer signature role than Tony Stark, but his sandpaper-dry wisecracks are never not enjoyable. The Chrises (Evans and Hemsworth) are first-rate too. If I can borrow your Neuralyzer, Glenn, it is fun to try and forget all the subsequent Sturm und Drang and just watch these guys meet up, hang out and kick each other around for the first time. Also, Hiddleston is just so deliciously smackable as Loki and the incredible moment when he gets his ass handed to him by the Hulk remains, for me, the movie’s endlessly replayable high point.

Speaking of Hulk: The gravity of Mark Ruffalo’s performance as Dr. Bruce Banner really lingered this time around. He’s always been one of this series’ underexposed bright spots; his sly, bookish diffidence is the perfect counterweight to his alter ego’s uncontrollable rage. It’s telling, I think, that the Hulk has been such a logistically problematic, hard-to-sustain figure in the Marvel cosmos, as evidenced by his two previous solo outings (in which he was played by Eric Bana and Edward Norton). Starting with Ruffalo in “The Avengers,” they not only got the right man but also figured out how to use him — with short, well-timed bursts of destructive mayhem and comic relief. I wish they’d use him more, frankly; a loss of control might have done this rigorously managed franchise some good.

Scarlett Johansson and Mark Ruffalo in the 2015 movie "Avengers: Age of Ultron."
(Jay Maidment / Marvel )

WHIPP: It’s not entirely bloodless, Justin. Or have you forgotten those blood-stained Captain America trading cards that Nick Fury removed (not really) from the corpse of the dearly departed Agent Coulson? Or perhaps you did, as his death wasn’t quite the gut punch it should have been. Coulson was the moral compass of the whole operation. Plus, he had Loki pegged better than anybody. “You lack conviction,” Coulson tells him, shortly before getting off one last blast. Of course, death being a loose construct in the MCU, it’s not the last we’ll see of Coulson. I just hope the Avengers mourned him in the moment. He deserves a shawarma sandwich named in his honor.

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At this point, 23 movies in, it would take something stronger than a Neuralyzer to erase what you astutely called “Marvel brand imperatives,” Justin. Proficient plotting can also be seen (and, more importantly, felt) as bland programming, leading to a series of films that often boast sparkling continuity at the expense of thrilling imagination.

But we didn’t know what was to come when “The Avengers” arrived eight years ago, so I still can appreciate its small touches of weirdness — Hiddleston’s “full-tilt diva” turn as Loki, the way Coulson gets all starstruck when he’s around Captain America, Pepper Potts padding around in her bare feet because A) smart women don’t need heels or B) Gwyneth Paltrow has a couple of inches on Downey and Iron Man cannot be seen being dwarfed by a member of the opposite sex.

Really though, any movie featuring the late Harry Dean Stanton is OK by me, even if he has a just a cameo and even if his casting, according to Whedon, was purely accidental as cinematographer Seamus McGarvey happened to be shooting a documentary about the actor. That happy accident does prove your point, though, Justin. Moments of invention can sometimes provide the most lasting joys.

The L. A. Times Ultimate Summer Movie Showdown
When: 6 p.m. May 7

Where: Free virtual event will be livestreamed on the L.A. Times Classic Hollywood Facebook Page and YouTube, as well as Twitter.
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