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A Troubling Dearth of Jossomeness - An Avengers Critique

Why the latest movie craze is ultimately written to disappoint

I'm not going to say Joss Whedon has sold out. That would be a cliched oversimplification and an overall unhelpful statement in the discussion about what The Avengers has actually done to Hollywood. Besides, Whedon never committed to pure artistry in the first place. He's always been more than comfortable selling entertainment products to the highest bidder. So I won't say that Joss Whedon has sold out. But I will say this: it feels weird to see Joss Whedon take Disney money to make a glossy and overblown (if spirited) toy catalog. 

As anyone who knows anything about anything already knows, The Avengers broke box office records by drawing a butt-ton of profits on its opening weekend. If there were ever a sign that the movie industry as we know it is alive, healthy, and gluttonous as ever, this was it. Piracy be damned; people will still gladly shell out $30 a head for a 3D midnight opening ticket plus accoutrements. Especially if the film in question is the first shiny summer action flick of the season with an all-star cast of already-loved characters.

Maybe we shouldn't be surprised that The Avengers's script drips out as lazily as it does. Whedon didn't have to do any work to make it hook. Just between RDJ's effervescent likability and Scarlett Johannson's, ahem, screen presence, you could make a summer smash hit without writing a single original line of dialogue. Throw in the rest of the crew and it becomes obvious why Whedon's trademark witticisms were tranquilized into easy, family-friendly stock humor. As a director, he gets all the beats to milk the laughs, but as a writer he seems to have left his spine back on Serenity.

It's partially because these aren't his characters. To pick up the mantle of Marvel canon, you've of course got to leave parts of your own heritage at the door. But Whedon seems much less comfortable puppeteering old icons than he does inventing new ones. The Avengers's vernacular slides all over the place. One minute, Loki's billowing capital-V Villain tirades; the next, he's gnashing out scrappy schoolyard quips. Each and every character at some point breaks from their established mannerisms to dole out a watered-down Whedon one-liner. It's like he can't decide whether to Joss up or Joss out, so he wallows in a forced, lazy middle.

Those who cried tears of caffeine, adrenaline and joy at The Avengers's midnight premiere would be quick to assert that despite the script's weaknesses, the action visuals were more than enough to launch it to its instant 8.8 IMDB rating. To which I'd counter: really? When was the last time you played a video game that used more than two dimensions in its storytelling? Is your glowing praise of this comic book circle jerk really going to culminate with "there were no shaky camera shots"? Whedon did a fully competent job directing the most intense action sequences of The Avengers, but not messing up doesn't mean you've raised the bar of what movies can achieve. Anyone who's remotely versed in recent sci-fi media has seen aliens and explosions and apocalyptic destruction before. Long before. Almost ten years ago. Go play Half Life 2 and Gears of War and then get back to me about how The Avengers single-handedly changed everything about cinematic storytelling. Those giant airship beasts and swarming alien grunts? They've been done. Re-rendering them with lots of money and technical skill doesn't make them a breakthrough.

I won't say I didn't enjoy The Avengers like the rest of you frothing fanboys. It was a well directed and superbly acted shiny toy. It was perfectly designed to secure the dollars of a wide target audience (notice how they left out all the characters in the original comic who hadn't already appeared on the big screen). But a carefully engineered profit machine does not the future of cinema make. Whedon did a fine job assembling a great product, but he also delivered a script so tired, so easy that it ambles along past its predictably-timed plot points towards a victory that's no more joyous than watching the Power Rangers beat down Goldar for yet another episode. Nothing's complicated, nothing's lost. We watch, we laugh, we root, we cheer, we go home. We're not made to feel anything beyond the basest dopamine chills. And sure, maybe that's the point of a late spring comic book movie. But from Joss, I expected something a little more.