Avengers explodes, but characters fall flat

After my last column, lamenting the downward slide of film and the movie theatre experience, I took in what may be the first attempt at a response to the new rise of television. In May, Marvel Comics saw the culmination of a five film wind up with the release of The Avengers. The comic book blockbuster has blown away the competition, earning unprecedented sums in its opening weekend. But what is perhaps more interesting than its box office numbers or the fanboy hype is the development of the story. For this edition of Rave Reviews, I look at the lead up to The Avengers, the film itself, and posit what this might mean for the future of serial film.

As The Avengers opens, we watch villain Loki steal the tesseract from a government research facility. Superheroes Iron Man, Captain America, the Incredible Hulk and Thor are called in to get it back. But who are all these characters? In a bit of a gamble, Marvel Studios begins The Avengers where five previous movies left off. Iron Man, Iron Man 2, Thor, Captain America and The Incredible Hulk were all released over the past few years. Each is a stand-alone film, but elements from each movie build the foundation for The Avengers. Cross references are common in each of the movies, as are cameo appearances (for example, Robert Downey Jr’s character, Tony Stark a.k.a. Iron Man, makes an appearance at the end of The Incredible Hulk). The result is that The Avengers can dive straight into the action, with fully formed back stories for each of the characters.

Having reviewed the prequels in the weeks before I watched The Avengers, I was interested to see how the story would fit together. I found having that background added a lot of depth to the story, making me buy into the characters more than I likely would have. However, the film itself is totally formulaic, with big explosions and a few easy laughs sprinkled liberally throughout the lengthy two hour and 22 minute production. My interest in the characters went unsatisfied, and the little nuggets of their stories were often left unexplained. This is the only attempt in recent memory of creating a serial film story, yet if The Avengers becomes the model there will be much left to be desired.

Unlike long-standing franchises such as James Bond, or lengthy series based on novels, such as Harry Potter or the Twilight Saga, this attempt at tying stand-alone films together into a larger blockbuster falls short of the mark. This is definitely not the end of The Avengers—sequels for both Iron Man and Thor are in the works. If Marvel Studios wants to appeal to a wider audience, though, it will need to do a better job of tying together each character’s back story and the arc of the film on the screen. Otherwise, the studio runs the risk of a flop of heroic proportions.

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