After a series of movies about individual superheroes, movies that gave us their origin stories, we have finally been treated to the culmination of the last few years and so many millions of man-hours: The Avengers. The films leading up to it were generally fair to middling, I thought, with the first Iron Man rising maybe half a skosh above that level. The latest comes heralded by uniformly positive reviews. It is, we are told, much better than one would expect. According to most reviews, there is a greater focus on character than one usually gets in an action movie, but there is no skimping on set pieces. The reality, for me, was more of the same: half a skosh above decent.
Loki, Thor’s brother and fellow god, wants to rule the Earth. He makes a deal with some aliens who agree to conquer the Earth for him in exchange for the Tessaract, an artifact of immense power, which will also play a role in transporting the invading army to New York to begin the takeover. Loki steals the Tessaract from Nick Fury, who then assembles the Avengers to find him, find it, find out what the plan is, and do anything else that needs a little superpower elbow grease. A lot of bickering between incompatible personalities and a whole lot of violence and destruction ensue.
The plot is unremarkable but perfectly adequate, and that is a good description for the movie as a whole. There are no scenes whose impact lingers in your memory after the credits have rolled, no wonderful development of character, no stunning visuals, no lines of great insight, no “aha!” moments. What it does have, to go with its serviceable story, is competent direction, a few genuinely amusing visual jokes, a bevy of one-liners that play well to an opening-weekend audience, and the action set pieces that many movie goers — mostly male — crave sometimes to the exclusion of all else.
There have always been movies like this, movies that never rise above ordinary. What concerns me is that there used to be summer blockbusters that left mediocrity far behind and below. They were full of adrenaline rushes, but they were also works of art. They never won many Academy Awards, but they were every bit as good, or better, than the ones that did. Has CGI banished the last of our restrictions and taken with it our restraint, or are we just making movies for audiences who want nothing more than a rollercoaster ride?
A movie is capable of so much more than a ride at an amusement park, but The Avengers, just like nearly every other action movie that comes out nowadays, avails itself of few of these possibilities. One of its two main problems is that everything is a huge explosion or a death defying stunt, always in fantastic locations on a grand scale. There is no foil to set any of this off. You step into smash bash crash, exaggerated with CGI, and that is about all you ever get. Once upon a time, without CGI, Lois Lane’s helicopter crashed and she hung from it, suspended over the streets of New York, to be saved by Superman. Those few minutes of her ordeal are more gripping than the entirety of The Avengers and all of its setup movies put together, and there is no hyperbole in that statement.
The second main problem, related to the first, is that no one in the movie feels like a human being. Precious little effort is spent showing us anything like a personal life. There are no small, quiet moments. Michael Keaton’s Batman, far and away the best of the caped crusaders for my money, was a fully fleshed out human being, and not just because he had a tragic backstory. He felt human, despite his wealth, because we saw him in his daily life, interacting with the people he knew. The script was good enough that the plot never stalled while we saw these things, and the result was that we actually gave a damn about him as Batman because we knew him as Wayne. The Avengers has no time for this, because it has too many skyscrapers to pulverize.
There are other little quibbles, such as a few curious moments when one is inclined to ask questions that start like, “Wouldn’t it make more sense to…” or “How could he have known…” or “Shouldn’t he really have…” But these are small lapses of logic. We also get too little mystery because we are shown too many things from too many perspectives, but this too is no great sin. The main issue is that there is no restraint and no human being in the movie, just costumes and destruction.
When a fine movie like Ang Lee’s The Hulk is panned by critics and audiences, I must recognize that I am far from the mainstream. I am not what moviemakers have in mind when they think of their audience. But I cannot help thinking that these visceral delights that CGI brings us will quickly fade, and future film buffs will look back at our period and wonder why so few good action movies were made, why CGI was not used to enhance good movies, rather than be made to form the core of mediocre ones.