Dealing as it does with the aftermath of a child’s tragic death, this could easily have been a depressing film. Instead, it takes an eccentric and sometimes humorous approach in its portrayal of the ensuing months in the lives of the dead child’s twin brother and his two close friends. Grief and rage are present, but they are mixed with more common disruptive forces of adolescence — “I hate you, mom!” — to emerge in different ways for each of the three protagonists, who variously become obsessed with vengeance, romance, and physical fitness. There’s an almost cartoonish quality to some of the uncomfortable situations that develop, but others have an authenticity that made me squirm. I had a crush on an older guy when I just about the girl’s age, and watching her mooning over someone more than twice her age and engaging in some seriously inappropriate behavior was almost physically painful. The fact that the guy she was crushing on was played by Jeremy Renner made it even worse. I have to respect a movie that kept me gripped but made me leave the room in discomfort, not once but several times. Even if the ending is a bit over the top.
As for Renner’s performance, he’s very sympathetic and plays the most normal-seeming guy of his career while still breaking ground in some interesting ways. There is a remarkable scene in which his character suddenly begins sobbing while in the shower that seems utterly authentic and unselfconscious — quite a feat given that he’s not only on camera but stark naked as well.
Starting with Iron Man, Marvel studios began a four-year build-up to this movie that involved the introduction of almost all the main characters either in films of their own (Thor and Captain America, in addition to Iron Man) or as secondary or cameo roles (Nick Fury, Coulson, Black Widow, Hawkeye). They had a lot riding on the success of The Avengers — it could make or break an entire franchise. Joss Whedon seemed like a risky choice as director, even to people like me who loved his previous work on Buffy, Firefly, etc. His only other big screen directorial effort, Serenity, bombed at the box office. What was Marvel thinking?
As it turned out, they may have made their best decision since casting Robert Downey, Jr. as Tony Stark. Whedon’s deep knowledge and love of the comic book characters as well as his knack for writing funny and emotional ensemble material was a perfect match for this film, which needed to pull together very different personalities and preexisting mythologies into one cohesive story. Following most directly from 2010’s Thor, the film focuses on a vengeful Loki, who returns to Earth to pave the way for a mysterious otherworldly force to invade New York City (can’t that town catch a break?!), and from thence, the world. To combat this menace, Nick Fury decides to put the long-anticipated “Avengers Initiative” into action — that is, if he can get its temperamental members to play nicely with one another. This proves quite difficult and entertaining. Turns out it’s pretty exciting when Thor’s hammer meets Captain America’s shield…
The plot does have a few holes. Loki’s plans make little sense, and the resolution of the big battle is just lazy writing. But the character work is wonderful, and the acting is across-the-board great, with particular props to RDJ as Tony Stark/Iron Man, Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner/The Hulk, and Tom Hiddleston as Loki. And quite refreshingly, Scarlett Johansson gets some substantial things to do as Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow, rather than being sidelined and treated as mere eye candy as women so often are in superhero movies.
As a Renner fan, though, I have to say The Avengers is a bit disappointing. He spends half the running time as a mind-controlled antagonist to the rest of the team, and by the time he is restored to himself, the final battle is about to start. He does have one touching scene with Black Widow in which he describes the experience of having his selfhood taken away, and she sympathizes. But otherwise, as Renner has said, he plays mostly as a sort of vacancy. Reportedly, this wasn’t how the role was originally conceived; Whedon threw out most of the original script and rewrote it once he signed on to the project. He says in the director’s commentary that he solved a story problem by separating Hawkeye from the rest of the team, but I have a niggling suspicion that part of the difficulty was him not knowing quite what to do with Renner as an actor. Whedon is a big Shakespeare fan, a master of word-craft and genre fiction, and Renner is a Method actor whose best work is visceral and physically expressive more than it is dialogue-driven. The two are not an easy fit, so I’ll be very curious to see how the relationship develops in the Whedon-helmed Avengers 2, coming in 2015.
This film is the fourth in a series, and acts as a “reboot” of sorts. Jason Bourne is nowhere to be found, but the chaos he unleashed in Ultimatum sets events in motion by getting the black ops community scrambling to destroy evidence of their illegal activities before investigators come knocking. “Evidence” in this case includes the agents of a “Treadstone upgrade” program called Outcome as well as the scientists who have chemically enhanced them. The cleanup operation doesn’t turn out to be as thorough as planned, and a couple clever individuals escape the purge. Cue desperate shooting, fighting, and bonding while on the run.
Writer/director Tony Gilroy clearly wants to maintain continuity with the earlier films while also allowing newcomers to understand what is happening, and takes the unusual approach of inserting footage from Ultimatum into the fresh material to provide context and a timeline of events. He also takes pains to differentiate his new lead character from Jason Bourne. Cross has none of the memory loss or guilty angst of Bourne; he remembers signing up for the Outcome program, and though he clearly wants out now, it is not because he is torn up inside or looking for revenge. He just wants to think for himself and not be a cog in a big death machine. He’s also not a fan of being murdered as part of a cover-up operation. And he wants his chems so he doesn’t regress back into a dimwit. Who can blame him?
Renner brings a very different energy to this film than Damon did to the others. Where Bourne was silently tormented and withdrawn, Cross instead radiates a prickly yet warm intelligence that borders on playful in a couple of very effective scenes (with Outcome #3 and Marta in the lab) and gives you an idea of why his particular group of “program participants” might be difficult to boss around. And though the film has less frenetic action than its predecessors, there are plenty of moments for Renner to show off his athletic abilities. And man, is he good! His earlier performances as soldiers and special ops guys gave some hints of his talents in this area, but this film is a quantum leap in intensity and challenge. He is thoroughly convincing throughout, and I really enjoyed watching him punch and shoot, somersault and jump, and leap up and down the sides of buildings. (A sequence at an isolated house in the woods is particularly rewarding.) I also appreciated his interactions with Rachel Weisz’s doctor character, who in the past has treated him as more of a science experiment than a human being and now has to come to grips with her guilt and try to make up for it.
There are some problems. The pacing is off at times, the Manila chase scene is a bit of an Ultimatum retread, and some bothersome questions are not answered. For example: Why does Cross hide his chems at the beginning of the movie and tell the other asset he lost them? Why were the wolves chasing him? And why is he fixated on watches? I want to know! And it is just criminal that they dangle the possibility of the “Flowers for Algernon“ scenario in front of us but don’t ever go there. It’s like Chekhov’s gun never going off! One thing that did not bother me was the info-dumps as various characters explained the details of the Outcome program. I’m a fan of science fiction, and I was quite interested by the script’s scientific ideas, which, though not exactly realistic, were presented in a consistent way and were integral to the story rather than being mere technobabble. Overall, I quite liked the film, and I look forward to the already announced sequel.