Prior to its national release, the scuttlebutt on The Avengers seemed to be that the Hulk totally stole the show. Having now seen director Joss Whedon's long-awaited, cinematic commingling of Marvel superheroes, I'm inclined to agree, because the angry green giant has been granted two fantastically unexpected, legitimately great moments in the film, and that's at least one more than anyone else has been given.
Odin knows there are random pleasures to be found in this hugely scaled comic-book adventure: Tom Hiddleston's grinning malevolence as the Avengers' chief adversary; the enormous wormhole that unleashes destructive, metallic, neighborhood-sized worms; Iron Man alter ego Tony Stark casually insulting the Norse god Thor by calling him "Point Break." Yet in general, and aside from the climax's two lightning-fast "Hulk smash!" encounters that elicited deserved cackles and applause at my screening, I found Whedon's action extravaganza so depressingly by-the-numbers that it caused me to briefly nod off halfway through ... which is actually easy to do when a movie gives you almost nothing but exactly what you expect from it.
To be fair, even with that master of cleverness Whedon also serving as screenwriter, I wasn't anticipating much novelty from his narrative, which concerns our costumed heroes' efforts to prevent Hiddleston's demigod Loki from possessing a gleaming cube of self-sustaining energy and using it to destroy the world. (It's a comic-book movie, so banality and vagueness pretty much come with the territory.) But I had hoped that Whedon, who shares a "story by" credit with Zak Penn, would at least tinker with his genre's traditional beats and rhythms in playful, unusual ways - that the assembling of Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, the Hulk, and the rest for one magnum opus wouldn't feel like an overstuffed version of every superhero spectacle you've ever seen. Unfortunately, though, the movie's arc plays out with dispiriting familiarity - there's nothing about The Avengers' storyline that wasn't effectively skewered by Trey Parker and Matt Stone in 2004's Team America: World Police - and for all the minor amusement generated by the Avengers' internal squabbles, the characters prove less entertaining as a unit than they've been in solo vehicles. (As for the characters who haven't yet had solo vehicles, I'm kind of hoping that neither Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow nor Jeremy Renner's Hawkeye have film franchises on the horizon, as the actors - both uncharacteristically dull - really don't do anything in The Avengers that they don't do on the film's poster.)
By now, of course, the Iron Man and Tony Stark roles fit Robert Downey Jr. as snugly as spandex, but his endless quips and put-downs here have a rote, been-there/blithely-disregarded-that quality, and robbed of his fish-out-of-water humor and much of his raging narcissism, Chris Hemsworth's Thor isn't allowed to be the bold, brash, winning comedian he was a year ago. Acting as his motley crew's resident straight man, Chris Evans' Captain America - who, in last summer's solo hit, was already pretty one-note - is little more than a blandly patriotic cipher, slightly less interesting than his titanium-plated shield. (The accessory proves even more powerful than Thor's hammer, a discovery that, for me, was one of the film's only true surprises.) And while I loved the casting of Mark Ruffalo as the Hulk's mild-mannered-by-necessity alter ego Bruce Banner - Ruffalo's feather-light deliveries suggest, ironically, a man without a mean bone in his body - there's only so much a performer can bring to a film when all of his character's best scenes are played by pixels.
The action is generically loud and chaotic; the effects are overwhelming yet fundamentally meaningless. But the biggest bummer about The Avengers is that is displays so little personality - even the returning figures played by Samuel L. Jackson, Stellan Skarsgård, Gwyneth Paltrow, and the wonderfully crisp Clark Gregg get lost in the blockbuster-minded melee of it all - and so little willingness to deviate from formula. No wonder the Hulk's pair of hysterically quick smack-downs get such a rise out of us; they're practically the only moments in Whedon's film in which, like the hapless recipients of those blows, you actually can't predict what's about to hit you.
I couldn't be more grateful to area bookers for finally securing the release of Bully, director Lee Hirsch's deeply troubling, deeply touching anti-bullying documentary that was infamously given an R rating by the Motion Picture Association of America for a few utterances of the "F" word. (Thanks to continued appeals, public outcry, and a slight trimming of material, the film's rating was overturned to a PG-13.) But while I urge audiences of all ages to catch this empathetic, occasionally harrowing look at the perils of its subject matter, I do question the logic of opening Bully on the same weekend as The Avengers. In our current culture, aren't the kids who attend Hirsch's movie instead of that box-office phenomenon - the movie that, you know, only a loser wouldn't see - destined to be unfairly singled out for ridicule? I have a word for this situation, but I'm thinking the MPAA wouldn't like it much.
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