Too many cooks…

The cast of 'The Avengers'

Assembly line.

If you played Marvel Studios’ scavenger hunt that began with Jon Favreu’s excellent Iron Man in 2008 through the penultimate Captain America: The First Avenger last year, I hope you took ample notes. If you skipped them all (the remainder being The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2 and Thor for the record), you may as well skip this one, as well, for you will be utterly lost. There are too many writers and directors juggling too many different styles and storylines with too many characters. The culmination of that ambitious five-film project was unveiled this weekend with The Avengers, a jumbled mishmash of comic-book mayhem that is at turns dull, boisterous, tedious, laughable, incoherent and often genuinely funny.

Fanboy favorite Joss Whedon proves once again that he lacks the deft hand or even the brash boldness required for cinema, his first directorial effort being the enjoyable but conspicuously small-screen science fiction epilogue Serenity. He’s like a little boy who knows how to use all the crayons in the box but hasn’t the eye to create anything more than a stick figure picture hung by refrigerator magnets. Too often he tries to awe the audience with outdated spectacle when he should be playing it low key.

Whedon is known as something of a screenwriting wunderkind, and he has crafted some clever scripts and scenarios in his day (Toy Story, Firefly, Dollhouse, the aforementioned Serenity and the current horror success, The Cabin in the Woods). The Avengers, in contrast, is bafflingly banal and often just plain baffling, no doubt hampered by studio decree that if it’s on the comic book page, it must be transcribed to the screen panel-for-frame, heedless of the necessity for adaptation. It is too often misunderstood (or outright rejected) that what works well in one medium can become an utter disaster in another. While The Avengers isn’t quite the latter, nor can I honestly say that it accomplishes the former.

It begins with some nonsense on some anonymous alien world with some anonymous aliens who threaten another anonymous alien for some anonymous reason. Before you know it, the anonymous alien is on earth chasing anonymous secret agents (no point in introductions. If you haven’t done the required preliminary viewing, tough luck) in the first of many uninspired action sequences. Whedon comes from the new-millennium school of action filmmaking: it is easier to destroy than to create. Lacking any real vision, he’s at a loss as to how to craft a truly interesting set piece. He would have done well to study the master craftsmen of 80s action and wonder like Steven Spielberg, Richard Donner, and John McTiernan who, if nothing else, understood the importance of carefully staging and constructing a big special effects scene rather than just throwing everything into the frame and calling, “Action!” As the film’s great green hero might say, Joss smash.

That’s not to say there aren’t bright spots. The midpoint of the film offers some hope with a nicely conceived assault on a flying aircraft carrier (alas, that hope is shattered in the third act with an extended haphazard demolition). It also crackles here and there with some cute and occasionally hilarious moments. As expected, Robert Downey, Jr., rightly the film’s de facto star who was in no small way responsible for Iron Man‘s success, lifts the film considerably whenever he’s onscreen. Mark Ruffalo fills Edward Norton’s large green shoes admirably as the frumpy-frocked Bruce Banner-cum-Hulk. Chris Hemsworth’s Thor gets an amusing quip in here and there (and manages to whip out an arcane vulgarity).

Sadly, the rest of the cast is wooden at best and wasted at worst. Chris Evans tries his best to be the anachronistic fish-out-of-water, Captain America, but he just comes across as stodgy and humorless. Sam Jackson sleepwalks through the film as Nick Fury, leader of the super-duper-top-secret SHIELD organization that assembles these disparate heroes, apparently bored of having to play this role yet again. Scarlett Johansson flip-flops from cringe-inducing pathos to gymnastic pugilism. One wonders, however, why Jeremy Renner was included, his expert archer Hawkeye seemingly present as little more than filler.

Four years in the making, I credit Marvel Studios for their moxie in even attempting to pull all of these films together. However, with Whedon at the helm, I’m afraid their reach has far exceeded their grasp.

See instead: X2: X-Men United (2003). A self-contained sequel that builds on its predecessor without requiring any knowledge of it. The characters’ motivations are nicely teased out, including the villains, and the action sequences are well planned and executed. This is how a comic ensemble is done.

Disagree? That’s fine by me. Share your thoughts below.