Marvel’s The Avengers (2012)

Director:  Joss Wheadon

Writers:  Joss Wheadon, Zak Penn, Stan Lee, Jack Kirby

Robert Downey Jr.: Tony Stark/Iron man

Chris Evans: Steve Rogers/Captain America

Chris Hemsworth: Thor

Jeremy Renner: Agent Clint Barton/Hawkeye

Scarlett Johansson: Agent Natasha Romanov/Black Widow

Mark Ruffalo: Dr. Bruce Banner/The Hulk

Samuel L. Jackson: Col. Nick Fury

Tom Hiddleston: Loki

Gwyneth Paltrow: Pepper Potts/Bare, beautiful legs

Among the many writing assignments I lavish on my students, critiques occupy a special place in my heart.  Movies, short stories, books, even theater serve as our tender victims.  In fact, I begin each school year with the 1959 Ed Wood classic: Plan 9 From Outer Space.  I don’t show it because it’s a good movie, but because it’s absolutely awful.  It’s so awful it’s hilarious.  Every mistake one can make in a movie is present, and in glorious, unashamed, goofy profusion.

Among teachers of English, I’ve discovered, I’m something of an oddball.  I actually believe that one not only can, but should use rational, practical criteria to evaluate the worth of art.  I also take delight in poking a bit of harmless fun at pseudo-intellectuals who think everything is relative.  Tell it to Mozart.  For each genre of artistic expression, I’ve developed from 8-10 criteria.  For cinema, my students speak to casting, performances, special effects, continuity errors, production values, plot, and conclusion, and not only give their opinion on each, but provide direct examples to support their views.

The point is not only to improve their reasoning and writing skills, but to help them to understand that there is a difference between mere entertainment and good art.  Good art not only entertains, it teaches and delights, and it is the job of the critic to celebrate and affirm that which is valuable and uplifting, that which is an example of the best human beings can accomplish in a given genre, and to encourage that which falls short to do better.

That’s why we critique Plan 9 first.  It’s so bad it’s easier for my students to identify and write about each criteria, and it’s plainly fun.  Because I demand solid support, they quickly learn to go beyond “thumbs up,” or “it had a good beat and you could dance to it.”  It’s a delight to watch them laughing as they write their critiques, pencil-whipping poor Ed Wood, who earnestly tried to make a good movie.

In the last year, I’ve seen several films that while not truly good art—they’re not going to be remembered as examples of the best movies ever made a century from now—go several steps beyond mere entertainment.  Movies like Marvel’s Captain America, and Battle: Los Angeles are well made, entertaining movies in the grand tradition of American movie making.  They take that step beyond entertainment because they celebrate what has made America great: self-sacrifice, courage, teamwork, decency and do not, for a moment take morally superior, smug leftist swipes at the gun and God clingers forking over substantial money in their local cineplexes.  They are—gasp—patriotic, and tell interesting, exciting stories without sex or language that turns the atmosphere blue.

These movies unashamedly celebrate good old-fashioned heroism, and there are no horribly flawed, bad-boy anti-heroes who roguishly leer their way through the script.  The good guys in these films are of the Navy SEAL variety rather than politicians who take credit for the deeds of others.  I was brought up on Marvel comics, comics with real plots, interesting characters and college-level vocabulary.  Marvel fans will not be disappointed.

There is violence, to be sure—often on a grand scale–but it is not the slow-motion blood-flinging violence of Peckinpah or Tarentino, yet it is not cartoonish.  Violence is employed against the bad guys, who are very, very bad indeed, by good guys who are very, very good indeed, and the innocent are unashamedly protected, yet no one plays the victim.

Many readers will recognize Joss Wheadon as the creative force behind Firefly and its fine big screen foray, Serenity.  Wheadon maintains the same bright, witty dialogue while engaging in actual character development with each character.  There are wry moments such as when Thor half-heartedly defends his brother—the villain Loki—only to weakly reply to a snappy Avenger retort “he’s adopted.”

The two stars of the film are doubtless Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man and Chris Evans as Captain America, but none of the others are neglected.  Scarlett Johansson as the Black Widow is the kind of strong woman any man worthy of the name should love, and Chris Hemsworth plays a God of Thunder more mature and seasoned than the Thor of the very entertaining film of the same name.  Jeremy Renner, who recently starred in Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol as a part of Tom Cruise’s IMF team, and who is slated to become the next Jason Bourne, firmly establishes himself as an engaging and capable action star.  Mark Ruffalo is a solid choice as The Hulk, playing Bruce Banner without excessive hand wringing.  He embraces his inner Hulk, so to speak, to good and satisfyingly destructive effect.

Tom Hiddleston as Loki plays unabashed evil with delightful abandon.  Feeling cheated of his rightful power in Asgard, Loki strikes a bargain with a never-clearly identified, obviously evil, sort of reptilian extra-terrestrial race to provide him an army to conquer Earth.  In return, he will give their leader who clearly out-evils Loki, the Tesseract, the glowing blue cube used by the Red Skull in Captain America and lost in arctic ice at the end of that movie.  The Tesseract is a source of unimaginable, ultimate power, which of course everyone wants.  Col. Nick Fury of SHIELD has the task of forming the quarreling, individualistic super heroes into a unit to stop the invasion.  The climactic battle takes place–where else–in New York City, where massive devastation is wreaked on the landscape.

Of all the cast, Jackson seems least comfortable in his role.  He hasn’t quite mastered the quiet authority of Marvel’s iconic leader and top spy–Captain America has that command presence in abundance–and is dogged throughout the film by a sort of civilian board of overseers who seem curiously weak-willed and are ready to nuke New York—and the Avengers—because they fear the Avengers will fail.  Gwyneth Paltrow has relatively little screen time and most of it is used to demonstrate her obvious affection for Tony Stark, and to display her bare, short-shorts clad legs, usually from low camera angles to accent their slender, graceful goodness.

This is about as close as the movie gets to sex, unless one wants to count the tight, comic book—excuse me, “graphic novel”—secret agent costumes of all of the female SHIELD operatives–all young and gorgeous–and of course, Scarlet Johansson, who in Lara Croft style, carries two handguns—they appear to be Glock 26s—in low slung tactical thigh holsters.  As a neutral, independent, oh-so-politically-correct critic, I was not in the least influenced or distracted by such tawdry displays of gorgeous, leggy young women in the prime of their gorgeous young leggy womenhood, who…where was I again?  Oh yes, women…and there are no gratuitous displays of cleavage for the sake of gratuitous displays of cleavage.

There are many delightful moments that provoke delighted cheers, such as when Loki tries to intimidate the Hulk by telling him of his godhood, and the Hulk replies by picking him up and repeatedly whacking him against the floor like a wet towel, leaving him a whimpering, semi-conscious wreck.  That may sound brutal, but because Loki is a demi-god and can’t really be killed, and because he is so irredeemably evil, it really is delightful.  Captain America’s timely command to the Hulk: “Hulk, smash,” is also a moment of perfectly timed and delivered enjoyment.

Production values are excellent, and all of the special effects and CGI work are easily as good as anything yet produced.  Many scenes are just thrilling.  I couldn’t, on one viewing, detect any continuity errors, which for a film running more than two hours, is very good indeed.  SHIELD’s iconic heli-carrier is splendidly rendered in contemporary style.

Marvel chief Stan Lee makes a brief and funny cameo appearance, and the film remains uplifting to the end as New Yorkers are depicted cleaning up the debris of an alien invasion as though they do it every day, even as other no-longer-jaded New Yorkers express heartfelt thanks to the Avengers that really did save the world. There is, of course, plenty of room—and foreshadowing—left for a sequel.

Did I really have to mention that the good guys won?  One can leave the theater actually feeling proud to be an American, and so Mrs. Manor and I did.

We seldom go to the movies; they’re just too expensive.  We usually prefer to wait until films are out on DVD, which usually cost less than half of movie admission and food (I can’t go to the movies without movie popcorn; can you?).  The Avengers is worth the price of admission—and popcorn, and we will surely add it to our DVD collection.