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Movie Review: “The Avengers” Is So Geekily Good It May Convert Some Viewers Into Geeks
After a very rough first half or so, during which The Avengers comes across as a particularly loud, clunky, self-important, and cliché-infested blockbuster, things settle down and get progressively better. And that “better” is an understatement, by the way. A big one.
So if you can get past the overly familiar car chase, the weird lack of urgency that security agency S.H.I.E.L.D. exhibits when it recruits “the big four” superheroes in the face of an Earth-threatening menace, and a few other bumps in the roadway, you’ll settle in for a great ride. Maybe an unforgettable one.
In some ways the plot is rather standard—there’s a quasi-mystical power source and a portal in space-time through which an invading army of uglies enters, and of course the heroes simply must overcome their differences and work together. But it’s the adeptness that writer-director Joss Whedon brings to dealing with a sprawling cast that makes things so special. Fueled equally by humorous exchanges and disarming personal moments that make you like the individual heroes far more than when the movie started, The Avengers derives its fun from the very things that could have doomed it: its busy-ness, its cross-cutting in action scenes, its need to check in with all the characters and bring resolution to all of their stories.
Along the way, superhero geeks are treated to classic confrontations that could have been pulled from the pages of ‘60s-era comics: Thor vs. The Hulk, Thor’s Hammer vs. Captain America’s shield, and so on. Yet these are not played either for empty nostalgia or winking hipsterism, but fully integrated into the drama at hand or the film’s broader themes, usually both. In this way, the standard plot I mentioned earlier is actually an advantage—freed up from explaining a complex or changing central conflict, The Avengers allows itself to focus on smaller conflicts in dialogue-driven scenes. Villain Tom Hiddleston, he of the beautiful smile and the Erich Fromm-lite speechifying, has several of these, notably with Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow and RDJ’s Iron Man.
In short, that’s the no-so-secret secret for why The Avengers works so well. The quiet scenes gain an increasing sharpness while the set pieces become more and more satisfying, and their alteration allows the film to pick up steam and leave audiences giddy in the manner of only the best blockbusters.
But, hey, want to get really crazy and inject some actual learning into your post-viewing conversations with young moviegoers? Here are some starting points:
- Characterization: Summarize how all of the heroes are given their own character arcs. Moreover, how does the interaction between each of these arcs, their areas of overlap, further and deepen their emotional impact?
- Exposition: To what degree does one need to have seen the five previous Marvel movies to enjoy the flick? Is background information effectively sketched in on the fly, or does it slow things down?
- Audience and Purpose: In what ways does the film satisfy both geeks and those who simply want to thrill to a big-budget action/fantasy flick? Or does it short-change one or both audiences in some respect?
- Plot: How are complications and obstacles introduced that make the story more compelling? For example, how does the eleventh-hour threat with which Iron Man has to deal represent a natural escalation of tension set up by several talky scenes earlier in the film?
- Conflict: Identify three levels of conflict that help drive the overall conflict of the drama. Sample answer: The main characters are at war with themselves (most strikingly re The Hulk, but also Hawkeye and others), with each other (internally), and with the Loki and other (external) threats.
- Gender Representation: Although she’s initially presented as eye candy (in that rough opening half hour), how does Black Widow more than hold her own in terms of richness of character, resourcefulness, and being critical to the team’s success? Should there be a spin-off movie featuring her, and if so, how might the character be different than, or similar to, other female action heroes who “carry” a film?
- Transliteracy: Identify the “classic” moments, images, and confrontations from Marvel comic books. How does the composition of some of the shots recall a “splash page” from a comic?
- Theme: How does each of the characters, good and bad, personify a different take on issues such as loyalty, the nature of heroism, and the role of violence in both the personal and public spheres?
Okay, that it’s for now. Eager to hear your thoughts… and to see the movie again, which I’ll be doing with my kids this weekend.
About Peter Gutierrez
A former middle school teacher, Peter Gutierrez has spent the past 20 years developing curriculum as well as working in, and writing about, various branches of pop culture. You can sample way too many of his thoughts about media and media literacy via Twitter: @Peter_Gutierrez
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