Avengers Spoiler Alert: All Sound and No Fury — or, How Marvel Botched a Nuclear Apocalypse

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Zade Rosenthal / MVLFFLLC / Marvel

Scarlett Johansson in a scene from The Avengers

(Major spoilers throughout) I strolled into The Avengers hungry — ravenous — for a summer blockbuster. I wanted car chases, fireballs and toppling skyscrapers. I also expected a few meaningful characters and lines of dialogue. Because when it comes to the greatest of popcorn flicks, the former really only works if you have the latter. Sure, the shark in Jaws was cool, but you kind of needed Roy staring back in disbelief, right? I loved the Batmobile in The Dark Knight, but what really lodged that particular caped crusade in my memory bank was the Joker waxing maniacal. Generally speaking, I love blockbusters not just because of the explosions but also because of who is doing the shooting.

So like millions of Americans this past weekend, I lined up for The Avengers with high hopes. Robert Downey Jr., who made Iron Man rock with his egomaniacal charm, was returning in the role that launched a new Marvel franchise. Mark Ruffalo, the epically talented thespian, was going to bring a fresh twist to Bruce Banner. The marketing blitz had already tantalized us with the prospect of a Hulk-vs.-alien duel atop the skyscrapers of New York City. I was primed to love this darn thing, to get swept up in the mythology and the mayhem. And yet, ever since that viewing, I haven’t been able to shake the feeling that they blew it. I stuck with the Avengers right through to the final scene, but it was less a visceral thrill ride than some sort of Marvel Appreciation Day. I was watching without caring, kind of faking the oohs and aahs in a bid to prove that I had a good time.

(MORE: See TIME’s Review of The Avengers)

If I’m being honest here, the highlight of the film was the Iron Man joyride right at the outset. Our introduction to Tony Stark is a smiling face inside a metal mask, as Iron Man zips through the steel canyons of Manhattan (this might be the film’s most absorbing use of 3-D). For a brief and shining moment, being a superhero was dizzying, euphoric, fun. I thought we were on the right track.

Then we got bogged down by the politics (and the outfits!) of Asgard, the inner-office politics of S.H.I.E.L.D. and the robotic lizards that fly above New York City with seemingly unlimited numbers of henchman huddled in their bellies. Now, I admit, I’m not a devout comic-book fan. But when I think back to so many of the best superhero spectacles — Superman, Spiderman II, The Dark Knight, Watchmen, Iron Man, Hellboy, Blade II — you didn’t need to be a comic-book guru to get hooked. The appeal of those great films was the character flaws, the superskills and the missions. But in The Avengers, I couldn’t help but feel that priority No. 1 was continuing each of the respective franchises and story lines. And once Joss Whedon was done with the procedural requirements, there was little room left for the asides, in-jokes and character quirks that distinguish the best of the genre. I felt as if I were floating from one laugh line to another, each separated by 20 minutes of obligatory, sobering Marvel-speak.

Still, through it all there was the promise of an epic showdown in the Big Apple. So I held out hope. But by the time the wormhole to Asgard was being opened (or should I say, the wormhole to the quadrant of space near Asgard) and the Avengers were rallying on Park Avenue, my boredom had started to slide into despair. Here was The Avengers, and it looked less like recent Marvel successes and more like Transformers. Against a meticulously detailed backdrop of skyscrapers and Grand Central Station were a computer-animated red robot and green monster waging an air war against flying metal animals. It sounds amazing, and the tenets of chaos cinema were being followed to the letter. But none of it meant anything. The choreography of the action, the spatial dimensions of this Last Stand, the emotions on the line — it was all a big fat zero.

(MORE: Clark Gregg of The Avengers on Wrangling Superheroes in Spandex)

Further proof of my point: the almost second-hand, absentminded inclusion of a nuclear bomb. Rarely has a blockbuster so squandered a development as big as this — the officially sanctioned use of a nuke against a population of 8 million New Yorkers. This should be the dramatic pinnacle of the film, and yet Whedon realizes we are so far into the weeds, we have been so pummeled by relentless and mindless action, that he needs Iron Man to swoop in and divert the path. No real tension or release, just a mercifully rushed conclusion to the redundant spectacle.

It’s telling that one of the biggest laugh lines in the film — and one of the highlights I keep hearing people mention — is when the Hulk gets his arms on Loki and whips him back and forth into the concrete like a rag doll. It’s funny and unexpected, a character-related surprise that is complimented by a surreal visual. More than that, it’s something physical and tangible — a tactile refuge from the endless sea of CGI bad guys that flood the screen. It was moments like this that let a little bit of soul back into the computer software.

Maybe it’s just me, but The Avengers was a letdown because those moments of soul and wit were more often drowned out by the software churning away in the background. A whole lot of supereffects, but not many three-dimensional heroes to back it up. Plenty of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

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