When I think of "Summer Blockbuster" movies, I tend to think of the 1999 remake of The Mummy. It's a big, loud, dumb, action packed movie with plenty of special effects and wafer thin characters. When I say "big," I mean the scale of just about everything: the fight scenes, the chases, even the jokes are elevated to a massive level. Rachel Weisz is introduced as he character knocks down every shelf in a library. It has a little something for everybody, including something for the horror fans: it's hard to argue that the scarabs who tunnel under your skin and eat your heart or the pre-Arnold Vosloo Imhotep are there for the kiddos or the romantics who came to see Fraser and Weisz trade barbs before falling in love. It's an entertaining, if inconsequential, film that does exactly what it sets out to do, throws in some (for then) state-of-the-art special effects, and sends audiences home happy.
The Mummy is what I assume people mean when they say "it's not supposed to be Hamlet - it's just a movie!" Of course, I haven't seen the Transformers film*, which is where this argument comes up with every successive sequel. It's what I gather I'll be hearing from people who go to see Battleship, this year's Transformers surrogate. That's fine, I guess. Gone are the days when "summer" movies meant movies like Batman Returns or Jaws or Raiders of the Lost Ark were the norm, when John and Jane Q. Public would go to movies that didn't need to be as close to "lowest common denominator" studio concocted and market tested product as humanly possible. Where movies like The Dark Knight or Inception aren't a rarity. Okay, so Mission: Impossible: III and Star Trek and even Iron Man also qualify. Let's not be so myopic here, but my point is that playing it safe pays off and doing something a little risky (and Batman Returns or Alien 3's relative failure may have fed into this) was something you wouldn't need to wait a few years between.
So I don't want anybody thinking that I didn't enjoy The Avengers. I did. I enjoyed it a LOT more than The Mummy, which is an unfair comparison but helps frame how I feel about how The Avengers functions as entertainment and the reaction to the film. I've seen it twice now, and I liked it more the second time than the first. It's a film that plays like gangbusters with an audience, so I totally understand why people are throwing around words like "amazing" while other reviewers are reacting in comparably hyperbolic ways to bring them back to Earth.
The first time I saw The Avengers, I was caught off guard by just how "Whedon-esque" The Avengers is. I don't want to repeat too much of what I said last week, which covers what most of audiences know of Joss Whedon versus what his die hard fans have come to expect, but even I wasn't expecting The Avengers to be as "quippy" as Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Serenity. Almost every character has a moment where they make a clever, scathing comment that undercuts tension or action or a speech made by someone else. Most of them have several, and I'm not just talking about Downey's perpetually snarky Tony Stark, who has a nickname for every member of the team. Even the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) gets a line in that is, apparently, often drowned out by the laughter from what happens right before he says it (the line, for anyone who didn't hear it, is "Puny god.")
At first, I didn't know how I felt about it. Being a semi-dedicated Whedon-head**, once it happened a few times, I understood that this was going to be a film where stakes were maybe not as important as they could be. Then again, that's fine: if you've seen any of my other reviews for these films, Jon Favreau, Kenneth Branagh, and Joe Johnston also muted any serious sense of threat to their respective outings. The Avengers are "hopelessly outgunned" but not in such a way that Tony Stark doesn't continue to threaten Loki right before a Chitauri*** invasion of Manhattan. The film was enjoyable, but I had reservations about how I felt about the lack of "stakes," even when a supporting character died and another character turned "evil" early in the film. Rather than meaning much, it just made sense. That's a good way to address two characters we kind of know but who have to this point played minor roles in other films.
See, the more I write about The Avengers, the more it seems like I didn't enjoy it. Nothing is further from the truth: I'll probably see it again, maybe even this weekend. I highly recommend it to people tired of insipid "summer entertainment" and I think it's great that parents are bringing their kids (or, more likely, vice versa) and that the whole family seems to be loving it. This is a movie that can comfortably show trailers for Prometheus, The Dark Knight Rises, and Pixar's Brave beforehand and not one of them seems out of place. It's a movie for geeks, for families, for casual moviegoers, and people just looking to have fun at the movies. Clearly its box office receipts (which, as you know, is the only way you know a movie is any good****) support the idea of its universal appeal. It is a LOT of fun, and I really want to emphasize that.
The more I think about it, the more appropriate it is to compare The Avengers to The Mummy AND to J.J. Abrams' Star Trek. The Mummy I use as a sort of superficial concept of what "summer entertainment" means, in that it is successful in trying to reach all of the target demographics while also being vaguely enjoyable but also mostly forgettable once you're finished with it. It's why the film works so well on Saturday afternoons, when it seems to play on television. It doesn't require you to pay too much attention, but you'll have a good time and be able to get back to what you're doing without much trouble.
Star Trek, similarly, is a more successful version of this. It's accessible both to Trekkies***** and people who know of Star Trek but haven't necessarily been following the series or films. The direction is assured, the film moves at a brisk pace, the cast is fun, and it delivers laughs and thrills in equal measure. I continue to argue that despite the fact that the Star Trek reboot is a very entertaining film, it doesn't have much - if any - of a plot. It does such a fine job of making you not notice this fact that nobody really seems to mind, and I'm cool with that.
The Avengers is sort of like that, in that it gets by on such good will with what it does right (the levity, the excitement, the humor, the character interaction), that you don't really mind the first half dragging after Loki steals the Cosmic Cube (er, Tesseract******) until Thor shows up. We spend time catching up with Tony Stark and Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), we see Black Widow in a scene that should make fans of Buffy or Dollhouse very happy, we meet the new guy playing Bruce Banner and enjoy the fact that Marvel finally nailed the Hulk's alter ego, and as usual, Steve Rogers doesn't have much to contribute.
I know. I was mean to Captain America in that review, but aside from one great line ("There's only one God, ma'am, and I don't think he dresses like that") he doesn't get to do much but shout orders. Well, there's the other nice moment when he finally gets a pop culture reference (at the expense of Thor) that's a good laugh during an exposition scene. Captain America doesn't play much of a role in his fight scene with Loki - Iron Man swoops in and saves the day, and I don't really understand why the whole "Thor's hammer vs. Cap's shield" manages to end a fight in the woods after the God of Thunder steals Loki from S.H.I.E.L.D.'s jet.
But look, I'm thinking about this too much. And I'm not saying that maybe I shouldn't, but like Star Trek, most people just don't care. And I'm okay with that, because if you're going to get behind "summer entertainment" in the way people are getting behind The Avengers, it's vastly preferable that it be something this well made. This much fun. Joss Whedon knows exactly how to put the right pieces together to make a movie that plays to as many people as possible without pandering or dumbing everything down, and now he has a massive platform with which to demonstrate it. I totally understand why people LOVE this movie, and I understand why some critics are so frustrated that people are willing to overlook so much of what isn't "perfect" that they see. Both sides have a point, even if they're reaching a little too hard to prove what the other is "missing."
Where am I? Well, like I said, I'll be seeing it again. I enjoyed it that much and think a third time is worthwhile. I'm comfortable with the film's strengths and faults in equal measure and to be honest, the former outweigh the latter in all the ways that count. Since I can't fathom why I'd see Battleship, The Avengers is going to be my "summer entertainment," as Thor and Fast Five were last year. Things will get dark and moody with Prometheus, The Dark Knight Rises, and (hopefully) Looper in the coming months, but I'll be happy to have some fun with Earth's Mightiest Heroes in the meantime. You should too.
* After The Island, Michael Bay and I got to a point where it made more sense for us to spend some time apart. Not being able to follow the incomprehensibly edited and shot robot action scenes in the trailers made the decision to sit out the last seven years of his output easier.
** That's what you call yourselves, right? I mean, you aren't all just Browncoats, right?
*** Interesting tidbit I missed during the credits - the Chitauri named "The Other" is played by Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel alumn Alexis Denisof.
*** On the off chance you have never read one of my reviews before or anything else from this blog, I would like to point out that this statement is intended sarcastically.
**** Sorry, Trekkers.
****** I must admit that I'm a little confused why The Cosmic Cube isn't called "The Cosmic Cube" in The Avengers, and is instead repeatedly referred to as "The Tesseract." At first I thought it was to avoid explaining what a "Cosmic Cube" would do, but when you introduce Thanos as the stinger for the sequel and don't say his name (the lady sitting next to me asked her boyfriend "who's he?" and he didn't know) then I think you could get away with just calling it The Cosmic Cube.