Box office tracking numbers are indicating that The Avengers will have a box office bonanza, but there’s another number–almost equally important to many fans and cinema-philes, that’s still in question: The film’s Rotten Tomatoes score. As the initial hangover of early screenings and Robert Downey’s smashing suits wears off, how will critics (and uninitiated fans, for that matter) view the movie?
So far, the film is tracking at a “certified fresh” 96%, but the exuberance of the early screenings is beginning to fade and more traditional critics (who may or may not be fans of the source material) are getting a chance to see the film for the first time. Nobody’s calling it bad by any stretch, but there are those who aren’t nearly as enamored of it as the rest of us.
Box Office Magazine criticized the film’s lack of ambition and originality, saying that there really isn’t anything in the movie we haven’t seen before, except for the basic premise of a bunch of superheroes banding together. And while fans have pretty roundly dismissed her assessment on message boards, The Guardian‘s review, run in today’s paper, was better but not exactly glowing.
Giving The Avengers three stars (out of five), the UK’s stalwart paper actually assesses The Avengers the same good-but-not-great grade that Box Office gave the picture but manages to make a much more positive-sounding review out of it. Whedon is a “master plate-spinner” and manages to deftly interweave the big stars and big franchises in this film in the same way that Fury is forced to deal with incompatible powers and egos. It’s high praise that’s somewhat undercut when, even in good humor, the paper refers to Whedon’s directorial approach as “a piece of expensively assembled fan fiction.” It gives Whedon credit for quippy dialog and acerbic characters–two of his trademarks–where Box Office criticizes them for undermining the seriousness of the plot.
The area where the two agree, however, is in the fact that the film is somewhat impenetrable to that imaginary “new” viewer who hasn’t seen any of the previous Marvel movies. “Those unfamiliar with the Avengers universe should ride out the opening act with a glossary to hand,” says The Guardian, while Box Office is predictably harsher, telling readers that “if you haven’t seenThor, Captain America and Iron Man 2—that’s six hours and three minutes of homework—The Avengers won’t make sense.”
It’s a criticism that’s familiar to comics fans, of course–we’re forever fighting the uphill battle of trying to bring new readers into complex, interwoven and often hard-to-comprehend universes. Breaking through that fog and reaching out to the uninitiated was the nominal reason for rebooting both Spider-Man and the DC Universe in the comics.
Both reviews also criticize the way Hawkeye is portrayed, with The Guardian calling his backstory “shallow” and Box Office saying, “After two movies with Black Widow and Hawkeye, I know less about them then I do the fighting Panda in Tekken.” They also both play down the nature of the threat, suggesting that the movie feels a bit like it’s going through the motions and that Loki’s disposable army doesn’t seem like it could really stand up to the heroes.
The fans at this site are likely to adore The Avengers, which many reviewers are calling one of the best (if not THE best) superhero films ever made. Whether it can reach beyond its core demographic, though, and appeal to people unfamiliar with the properties or who have never read a comic book before is a question that we’ll see answered in the coming weeks. Will it matter at the box office? Of course not–everybody wants to see how this juggernaut plays out. But Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen was an unqualified box office success, and almost nobody talks about that as a standard-setter for much of anything.
(To be clear, I’m not suggesting–and there is absolutely nothing to indicate–that The Avengers is as bad a film as Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.)
Maybe this is splitting hairs–whether it’s a three-star movie with the biggest opening weekend in history or a five-star movie that has the biggest summer in the history of cinema, it’ll still have a sequel, still end up on most of our DVD shelves and still thrill tens (or hundreds) of millions of fans around the world. But lost in that initial blast of unbridled enthusiasm was the question of how well-received a blockbuster movie full of explosions and clever one-liners can actually be by the film community. Everyone was disappointed when The Dark Knight wasn’t nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, despite of a massive outpouring both inside and outside of Hollywood for it to be considered. Will we face the same emotions all over again with The Avengers?
Find out in two weeks, True Believers.