Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Movie Review: "The Avengers" by David Pretty

Excelsior, True Believers!

Y'know, as great as some comic book films have been, most of them have been completely devoid of one key ingredient: pure unadulterated fun.  The Avengers is Joss Whedon's learned response to this deficit, making his movie something of modern miracle.

Hell, there's more fun packed into the film's theatrical trailer then there is in the entire run time of most summer blockbusters...

When I first heard about an Avengers movie I really didn't think that it would work.  My biggest fear was that it would end up like a superhero version of House of Frankenstein; I.E too much of a good thing.  Besides, how could they possibly hope to convince all of these A-list actors to willingly share the marquee?   How could the screenwriters possibly come up with a suitably epic crisis?  How could all of these characters co-exist in the same space together without rending apart the very fabric of our universe?

But when I heard that Joss Whedon was tapped to write and direct ssuddenly all fears were allayed.

"Okay, Scarlett in this scene you bludgeon an A.I.M. agent to death with a DVD copy of Home Alone 3."

Back in the Dark Ages, the only qualification that a prospective comic book movie director had to posses was the ability to be "visual".  After they were hired, these film-makers would go out of their way to tell everyone within earshot that they were "fans" of the funny book in question when they were kids.  Then they'd unerringly deliver a final product that completely changed or virtually eliminated everything in the comic that they supposedly loved.

In the next epoch of comic book movie evolution, accomplished film-makers such as Chris Nolan, Bryan Singer and Matthew Vaughn were handed the ball.  What these guys lacked in encyclopedic comic book knowledge they more then made up for it in their rare and valuable ability to capture and quantify the spirit of the original source material.


But in Joss Whedon, fans have finally gotten The Perfect Storm.  Not only is he a bona-fide, died-in-the-wool, card-carrying comic book geek, he's actually written a few that are considered modern classics of the medium.  If anything, the pendulum has completely flipped the other way.  Going into The Avengers I was concerned that Whedon might not be able to deliver a visually striking film.

I am sorry that I ever doubted you, My Liege.  Even if it was but for a mere moment of personal failing...  

Oh, whoops.  Did I just type that?  I was only supposed to think it.

With plenty of geeky plot points lovingly seeded in previous Marvel films, story masters Whedon and Zak Penn seem to be relishing the harvest.  Anyone who's followed Joss's serialized works in the past (like Buffy, Angel and Firefly) knows that he's a huge sucker for continuity and The Avengers is no exception.  Whedon's solo-penned screenplay is the clarion voice of one talented writer who actually knows how to make a complicated celluloid juggling act pay off.

"Honestly, Sam, with Kinect bowling it's all about the follow-through." 

The first hint of Marvel Universe cross-pollination occurred in 2008 as a post-credit sequence in Jon Favreau's excellent adaptation of Iron Man.  In this brief segment we're introduced to Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) the no-nonsense director of a shadowy espionage team known as S.H.I.E.L.D.  Fury infiltrates the office of Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), deflates his ego by telling him that he "isn't the only superhero in the world" and then broaches the tantalizing subject of the "Avenger's Initiative".   Hmmmmmmm...

This was nudged along in a follow-up segment which came at the end of The Incredible Hulk in 2008. After watching Bruce Banner (Ed Norton) achieve some semblance of control over his dark side, we're then privy to a meeting between Tony Stark and disgraced Hulk-hunter General Ross (William Hurt).  Stark tells him that "we're putting a team together", presumably to keep tabs on a certain emerald-hued rage monster.  


Then Iron Man 2 gave us another interesting story element that Whedon effortlessly managed to weave into The Avengers.  Inspired by his father's legacy, Tony Stark discovers a new element and then finds himself on the verge of developing a clean and fully-sustainable form of energy.  We were also introduced to the beautiful but deadly Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) whom Fury had tasked to gage Stark's ability to work and play well with others.

In last year's Captain America, the diabolical Red Skull was using a mysterious artifact known as the Tesseract (née the Cosmic Cube) to create an arsenal of advanced weapons.  When Cap (Chris Evans) was plopped into the arctic ocean at the climax of his eponymous film, the cube was lost with him.  Tony Stark's pop Howard manages to recover the Tesseract, which proves to be the optimal Duracell battery for his sustainable energy project.

"Hey, what did you mean by 'spangly'?" 

Finally, at the climax of Thor, the Thunder God's half-brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) was laid low and cast down into the Abyss.  A post-credits sequence in that film showed Fury tasking Dr. Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård) with tapping into the "unlimited power" of the Tesseract.  In a sly cinematic moment there's a quick glimpse of Loki's reflexion in the background, clearly indicating that the Asgardian's corrupting influence will soon be felt.

Let's face it folks, there's nothing more comic booky then a series of epic cross-overs.  I don't know who first proposed this brilliant idea but he or she deserves to get a free island in the Caymans this year as a Christmas bonus.  Whedon, a recreational fan of Marvel Lore, not only manages to tie all of this together, he makes it pay off in spades.

In doing so, he single-handedly neuters every argument that the Star Wars prequels weren't supremely shitty after all, just a victim of over-hype.  The Avengers proves, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that in the hands of a smart and well-invested creative team, a film can not only meet expectations but completely trump them.

With the unearthly success of The Avengers, will geeks lose their best kept secret to Hollywood forever?  

True to the post-credit tidbits, Loki has indeed been restored to full form by the leader of an aggressive alien race known as the Chitauri.  In exchange for his liberation, the mysterious Other demands that the God of Mischief recover the Tesseract.  The Other has pledged an entire army towards Loki's goal of subjugating the Earth should he succeed in this.

The Tesseract proves to be too volatile for S.H.I.E.L.D.'s scientists to handle and Loki soon emerges from a portal created by the cube.  After placing Selvig and the uncanny archer Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) under his thrall, Loki absconds with the Tesseract just as the S.H.I.E.L.D. base turns into a Sunnydale-style sinkhole.


Knowing that it's only a matter of time before Loki taps into the power of the Tesseract, there's a call to assemble the Avengers.  Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is immediately drawn to the dark machinations of his step-brother, the Black Widow is dispatched to India pull Dr. Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) out of hiding, utility Agent Coulson (Robert Clark Gregg) gives Tony Stark a homework assignment and Nick Fury tries to coax the recently-defrosted Captain America (Chris Evans) back into action.

Needless to say things don't go according to plan.  If I didn't know any better I'd swear that Whedon actually used the film's potential pitfalls as story fodder.  Captain America is instantly rankled by Iron Man's cocky selfishness, Iron Man shows open contempt for Cap's antiquated and mindless "do or die" attitude, Bruce Banner is immediately wary of Fury's motivations, the Black Widow catches heat for being a S.H.I.E.L.D. attack dog and Thor resents human intervention in what he sees as a domestic dispute.  Oh, and he's also completely preoccupied with baiting the Hulk.   

"Methinks I can take him."

Since I believe that people who deal in spoilers should be Dragon Punched right in the Danger Zone, you'll get no more plot points out of me.  I'll just allude to some of the awesome things which will have any self-respecting comic book geek giggling like a pleased infant...
  • As soon as I laid eyes on the Other, I was impressed that Whedon had tapped such an obscure but powerful villain.  Bravo, sir.    
  • Apparently Tony Stark and I share similar taste in music.
  • Shell-head vs. Goldilocks.  'Nuff said.
  • Coulson's card collection.
  • Whedon finally answers the question: "So, what would happen if Thor smoked Captain America right in the...shield?"          
  • Galaga
  • Jane Foster's cameo via headshot.  
  • "'Monkeys'.  I understood that reference!"  
  • Even when facing off against Asgardians, Cap's faith is unshakable.  
  • The Hulk's impersonation of Bamm-Bamm.  And his subsequent line
  • Shawarma.
  • Tony Stark compares Thor to Bodhi.
  • Cap's bet with Nick Fury.
  • The Black Widow being "interrogated". 
  • The sucker punch to end all sucker punches.
  • Cap's old-fashioned nosiness beats modern technology.
  • Three partial words: Heli-fucking-carrier.
  • "You people are so petty...and tiny."
  • Thor's comeback to the Black Widow RE: bad apple Loki.
  • Cap's key to giving orders to the Hulk: Keep It Simple Stupid.  
  • Tony's theory on how Banner's been staying so "mellow". 
  • "Ladies and gentlemen, the dotty genius of Harry Dean Stanton." 
  • Iron Man's line to Hawkeye just prior to blast-off.
  • Stan Lee's obligatory cameo.
  • Loki catches major heat from Hawkeye.
  • The Hulk's tremendous catch.
  • Tony's paranoia about being molested while unconscious.
"Mr. Force, I'd like for you to meet someone..."

And honestly, people, I've just scratched the surface.

I loved Whedon's theatrical Firefly capper Serenity, but for a sci-fi film it really didn't have a particularly gregarious visual style.  This isn't the case with The Avengers.  The action scenes pulse with dynamic life.  Except for a briefly zoomed-in but kinetic melee between Thor and Loki, things are shot at a distance, allowing the audience to easily follow the scale and logistics of the battles.  The film also features some crackerjack editing by Jeffrey Ford and Lisa Lassek.

"You take the fourteen thousand on the left..."

Whedon also comes up with some genius set-ups.  I loved the flippy exploding car-cam, the image of the heroes reflected in a discarded rear view mirror and the amazing continuous shot of Cap charging up the alien-ravaged streets of New York City like he's storming the beaches of Normandy.

But it's the cast that makes The Avengers truly transcendent.  Once again Robert Downey Jr.'s Tony Stark is exactly what you'd expect of a self-professed "genius, billionaire, playboy, and philanthropist".  He's a gleefully manic wiseass motor-mouth who always seems three steps ahead of everyone else.  But of all the characters, it's Iron Man who experiences the most dramatic arc after exposure to the group dynamic.  Faced with the realization that he no longer holds a monopoly on being "super", Tony experiences a genuine epiphany here.

"Truth be told, my favorite Sabbath song is actually 'The Wizard'."  

At the conclusion of Captain America, Steve Rogers was trying to come to grips with his Rip Van Winkle syndrome.  In The Avengers, Chris Evans really gets a chance to run with this and for an ensemble ("Assemble?") piece his character development is considerable.  Cap starts the film as morose and dispossessed, only scoring small victories when he succeeds at understanding a modern reference.

But as the story advances, his place amongst the technological marvels, demi-gods and invulnerable Goliaths starts to come into focus.  As powerful as the Avengers are individually, none of them really possess any tactical skill.  There's a tremendous moment late in the film when everyone just realizes that Cap is the best possible leader for the group.  When this happens, you can almost see Evans shed his invisible chains and come alive.

"C'mon, guys, how 'bout a sing along?  I assume everyone knows the words to 'Camptown Races'?"

Since I'm also a huge continuity junky, I would love to have seen Ed Norton reprise his role as Bruce Banner.  Unfortunately, contract talks broke down between the actor and the studio, precluding his involvement in The Avengers.  The good news is, the producers managed to procure the incredible talents of Mark Ruffalo.

In order to assimilate the character, Ruffalo has come up with something really special here.  His line readings are coiled and eccentric, his appearance is appropriately threadbare, and his body language screams "powder keg".  When Loki's divisive influence begins to gnaw at him, Ruffallo single-handedly generates an aura of impending catastrophe.  This is pretty remarkable, considering that that the room is also garrisoned by a deity.

"Actually, you probably wouldn't even like me when I'm vaguely inconvenienced."

Speak of the devil, let's just come out and say this right now: Chris Hemsworth is Thor.  Say what you want about him cruising on his physical suitability or appropriately Asgardian delivery, the dude is also a good nuts- n'-bolts actor who can effortlessly portray the otherworldly bearing of a Thunder God.  In The Avengers, Hemsworth's Thor assumes the mantle of guilt that Loki is incapable of.  His inability to make his half-brother do the right thing comes out in palpable waves of frustration.

Hiddleston himself is also fantastic: duplicitous, silver-tongued and supremely full of himself.  Any villain that gets cheered after being slammed around so much is obviously doing something right.  Honestly, Hiddleson is so much fun to watch that he largely dismantles my main gripe about the film, which is the been there, done that quality of the invading threat.

"Verily, am I not beautiful?"

I'm very pleased to see an expanded role for Scarlett Johansson.  In addition to exploring the more intriguing facets of Black Widow's troubled headspace and rocky past, Scarlett (and her vastly unsung stunt double) go to great lengths to serve up some stellar action beats.  If it's been your cinematic wish to watch a hot girl beat up a goon while strapped to a chair then run, don't walk, to see The Avengers.

The highly-adept Jeremy Renner rounds out the Avenger's roster as archer-supreme Hawkeye.  Due to the nature of the story, his character is the only one who gets a bit shortchanged.  Whedon rewards Renner's early function as an automaton by giving him a slew of bad-ass lines and some meaningful moments with Scarlett Johansson in the second half of the film.  The scene in which the two ponder their checkered past and current roles as human projectiles is particularly noteworthy.

"Mockingbird!?!?  Really?!?!"

The supporting cast also contributes to the film's equation of awesome.  Samuel L. Jackson plays Nick Fury to crankily exasperated perfection.  He's toned down his trademark bombast in lieu of a more sober bearing, like a man who truly has the weight of the world on his shoulders.  He comes across as refreshingly disarmed in the sequence where he's confronted by Cap.

Also we've come a long way with Agent Phil Coulson, having seen him in almost every Marvel film since 2008.  Clark Gregg has always had tremendous fun with this part, portraying the fed as a disarmingly witty, yet subtly intimidating man-child.  His scenes with Robert Downey Jr., Gweneth Paltrow and Chris Evans are banter-iffic.  In many ways, Coulson is the audience, trying his damnedest to remain cool and authoritative while a riot of imaginative insanity runs wild all around him.

"Alas, friend Coulson, even the Odinson hath failed to best thine score in yon archaic shooter."

And say what you want about Gweneth Paltrow's sometimes-bizarre Martha Stewart-style peccadilloes, I still love her for doing a cameo here as Pepper Potts.  Honestly, I think that she's just adorable.  So good is her chemistry with Robert Downey Jr. that I hereby insist that she divorce Chris Martin and marry Robert Downey Jr. post haste.  It just makes more sense to me.

And as if How I Met Your Mother didn't give me enough incentive, B.C.-born Cobie Smulders is totally going on my list.  She's authoritative, gung-ho and inordinately sexy while running around, shouting orders, firing guns and rockin' a skin-tight blue bodysuit like nobody's bidness.  What can I say, I'm a fan of any gal who's name is weirder then my own.

She's thinkin' about me in this photo.  I can tell.  

Like any good comic book, the script for The Avengers actually tackles a few real-world issues.  Stark's interest in sustainable energy feels ripped right from the headlines.  The decidedly hawkish theory of insuring personal, national and global security through overt weaponization is particularly timely.  Themes of teamwork, loyalty and self-sacrifice abound.  All of this gives your brain something to munch on, even as we thrill to the visceral sight of the Hulk punching out a giant, flying bio-mechanical eel.  In many ways, The Avengers is kinda like a post-Transformers palate-cleanser.

Yes, there's definitely a point when an endless salvo of sound and fury gets fired at us.  But because Whedon and company have invested in the characters, theme and story so much, we don't become numb to the spectacle.  The experience never feels hollow.  

Above all, The Avengers proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that a comic book movie doesn't have to be "dark" in order to be good.  More then any of his predecessors, Whedon truly displays a fundamental grasp on what makes the four-color medium work.

Turns out all you have to do is make your characters real, pack some relevant issues underneath the hood and come up with a genuine reason to fight even before someone throws a single punch.  

Tilt: up.

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