One of the failings of Marvel—as of other franchises, like the “Superman” series—is the vulgarity that comes of thinking big. As a rule, be wary of any guy who dwells upon the fate of mankind, unless he can prove that he was born in Bethlehem. Superheroes who claim to be on the side of the entire planet are no more to be trusted than the baddies who seek to trash it, nor is the aesthetic timbre of the movies in which they both appear. I remember the joy of reading David Thomson’s entry on Howard Hawks, in “A Biographical Dictionary of Film”; the principle underlying Hawks’s work, Thomson argued, was that “Men are more expressive rolling a cigarette than saving the world,” and his adage rings true far beyond “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” or “The Big Sleep.” All movies thrive on the rustle of private detail—on pleasures and pains that last as long as a smoke—and there has been nothing more peculiar, in recent years, than watching one Marvel epic after the next, then sifting through the rubble of gigantism in search of dramatic life.
Anthony Lane, “Double Lives,” The New Yorker (May 14, 2012)
My problem with The Avengers is probably as much my problem with superhero stories in general; I can’t bring myself to care about the mythology. (Well, that and my problems with Joss Whedon, who I like just enough to find myself frustrated at his inadequacies: his inability to create resonant characters, the interchangeability of his dialogue, the way his famed capital-F Feminist approach results in women who have power but no depth.)
Giving no quarter to the uninformed is something that works well if you care deeply about a franchise. When I read reviews of the Harry Potter films complaining that they were confusing to those who hadn’t read the books, my response was well, why haven’t they read the books? I would have preferred if the films had wasted less time on exposition.
But I haven’t read the Avengers, and so the movie didn’t convince me that seeing them smash shit up was a big deal. I enjoyed Tony Starks’s arrogance and Bruce Banner’s nervy timidity, but I didn’t know why there was a guy shooting magic arrows at everything and why we were supposed to care that he was important considering there was a literal god on screen. And as for that god: Why did he bother? Were we meant to understand him as someone actually immortal or was filleting Norse mythology just a novel means of creating a sketch whose superpower was “has powerful weapon no one else can use”?
(And speaking of: How dreadfully uninspired to turn one of humanity’s archetypical tricksters into a liberty-despising villain of the hoariest American nightmares. Of course Loki showed up in Germany and leaned on facist rhetoric; he would have been there at Pearl Harbor, at Dallas, in Memphis, at Fort Sumter, and on all the plantations. He Hates Yr Freedom, USA.)
(Not to mention that the final, interminable action scene centered once again on aliens fucking up New York City. Forget about the millions of residents in Beijing and Mumbai and Sydney who turned quite leisurely away from the disaster; weren’t there people in Indianapolis and Albuquerque who went to work and ate lunch unharmed by deistic and extraterrestrial attack? At least Independence Day had the courtesy of showing that its American calamity was actually global.)
Apparently if you care about how awesome the superheroes who weren’t Robert Downey Jr and Mark Ruffalo are, this was a great movie. But I don’t care how awesome they are, and nothing about this film tried to convince me they were awesome.
This, I suppose is the difference between The Avengers and the most recent Batman movies. I enjoy the latter because I see Christopher Nolan’s films as interrogating the idea of the superhero at the story’s centre: can he be plausibly read as a good guy? The Avengers takes for granted my belief in the moral — and heck, the narrative — worth of its central characters, and that’s something I never handed over.