Friday, May 11, 2012

'The Avengers:' The good is the enemy of the great

Some fans of "The Avengers" asked me why I gave it three stars on a scale of four, after I'd said that it did everything it set out to do within the confines of its genre. How could a cheeseburger movie not get 4 stars, if it's the best cheeseburger movie of its kind around -- or maybe ever made?

Fair question. After all, the populist voters on Internet Movie Data Base have rated it the 29th best film in the 120-year history of world cinema, last time I looked. They're thrilled because it met every one of their expectations for that genre. I was hugely entertained but not thrilled, because it didn't exceed any of mine.

To be great, a work of art has to take you somewhere you haven't been before. Maybe a chef introduces you to new combinations of flavors. Maybe a painter makes you see a common household object in a new way, as Cezanne does with his miraculous pears and apples. Maybe a composer, bound as they all are by the dozen notes of the musical scale, arranges those 12 in a way that creates new beauty or drama.

Sometimes a filmmaker pulls familiar pieces into a new pattern, as "Avengers" writer-director Joss Whedon did with Drew Goddard in their script for "The Cabin in the Woods." But if you start out with a template and do all you can to stick to it, element by element, greatness remains beyond you. Nobody ever became a master by coloring carefully within the lines.

Schoolteachers have ratings of "meets expectations" and "exceeds expectations." Sometimes a student wonders, after doing work better than anyone else in the class, why he didn't get the higher rating. A likely answer: He didn't live up to his potential, which was also higher than anyone else's in the class. He settled for the best that others could do, not the best HE could do. And "The Avengers" isn't the best Joss Whedon can do. 


Anonymous said...

The Avengers itself was very good. Iron Man 1 and 2, Thor, Hulk and Captain American combined with The Avengers was excellent.

Without the 5 prelude movies, the Avengers wouldn't be as good.

Anonymous said...

After many years of reading the Observer (and finally letting my subscription run out), I find Toppman's reviews seldom match general opinion, so I've come to the conclusion that the Observer settled and Toppman IS the best they can do.

Anonymous said...

Well put Lawrence. I once had an English teacher in high-school said that students should be happy with getting a 'B'...'B' work was GOOD work, 'C' was average, 'D' below, and on down...'A' work was reserved for 'EXCEPTIONAL' work, and thus wasn't awarded a 17 year, I whined with the rest of my classmates about this philosphy on grading, but 20+ years later, I completely agree with her...the approach advocated by those who'd want to see 'popcorn' movies like 'The Avengers' (which I loved by the way :) get Oscars doesn't leave much room to recognize the 'EXCEPTIONAL' the same genre, the original 'Matrix' movie comes to mind, a movie that 30 years from now will still be talked about for its originality, special effects, and terrific story, while movies like 'The Avengers' will largely be forgotten.

WashuOtaku said...

I understand where your coming from, but at the same time your asking for something that can either be a crowning moment or something that destroys the movie entirely. With comic movies, the problem you get is that the more you stray away from the original, the more people come to hate it. I was thrilled to watch the Avengers, it lived-up to everything I wanted from it and it didn't add other elements to downgrade it (like adding romance to an action flick). If they tried to do more or change it in some way, it wouldn't be what it is today.

And though it will likely not win any Acadamy Award (except maybe special effects), it will be mark as an achievement for a genra that can be hit or miss.

Summary, because it was true to the comic, it is four stars in my book.

Jason said...

The problem with grading "on a curve" is that it makes your grade kind of useless to those of us wondering whether to see a movie or not. If a movie "exceeds expectations" that weren't all that good to begin with, will you give it a higher score than a high-expectations movie like the Avengers that met them? That seems to defeat the purpose of having movie reviews in the first place.

Anonymous said...

Just a bunch of double-talk and drivel. I have not seen the movie, but I am sure Toppman hasn't a clue when it comes to reviewing this particular movie. I am now suspicious of any and all of his opinions. Had I known such blithering idiocy was contained in his offering, I would have skipped it.