Wednesday, May 9, 2012

A Frank Review of Marvel's The Avengers (Assemble, 2012)

The Short Version? A redhead in black leather and a dapper fellow save the world amidst lighting and thunder. Plus a Hulk.
What Is It? Super-Hero Action/Comedy
Who Is In It? Derek Lutz, Harvard Hottie, Braddock the Nannie Diarist, Detective Giovanni A. Malloy, George Kirk, Sergeant Doyle, Richard Campbell, Robin Scherbatsky, Martin Vanger & Mister Señor Love Daddy
Should I See It? Yes.

Marvel's The Avengers (as opposed to the U.K.'s spy-fi TV series starring John Steed & various female partners) debuted last weekend, after already making a bazillion dollars overseas, thus doubling it to a kajillion. Pity the latest Batman and Spider-Man entries, sure to come in a half decade late and a GDP short by comparison (barring perhaps the autoerotic suicide of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and even then it would probably have to be half a pact with Gary Oldman.) Quality cannot be accurately measured by financial success, but co-screenwriter/director has delivered a lot of former for little latter, so this is his karmic due. Perhaps as a consequence, despite some serious innovations, there's also some unfortunate Whedoncentricities that diminish my appreciation somewhat. The Avengers is the best super-team film ever made, but there's yet to be a great one, so this will have to settle for good.

The flick begins with a bunch of peripheral characters from other Marvel movies hanging out at that lab Simon Tam broke River out of, until that villain already defeated in Thor shows up to kill S.H.I.E.L.D. redshirts. A girl with no discernible personality then has an extended action sequence before she fades into the background for the rest of the running time. Feminism! Then, Scarlett Johansson has an obligatory action sequence, because Joss Whedon created Buffy the Vampire Slayer. If he could convince people Sarah Michelle Gellar was formidable at 5'4" & 115 pounds, he can also force Scar-Jo to starve herself into a reasonable facsimile Milla Jovovich after inheriting the miscasting. The Black Widow then leads us to Mark Ruffalo, the third actor stuck playing Bruce Banner in nine years, but the first to wisely say "fuck it" and just channel Bill Bixby like everyone wanted from the beginning. Steve Rogers gets in there at some point, but it's just a lengthened version of the post-credit sequence from his movie. What's interesting is these these are all sketches like those add-ons, connected by a plot thread but disjointed and inorganic. The movie doesn't actually start until Tony Stark shows up, followed by Pepper Potts and Agent Coulson. These are familiar characters (aside from the unsettling sight of Gwyneth Paltrow in denim shorts) you already like who have chemistry together, so it feels like Jon Favreau popped in to guest direct.

The super-team movie like for real this time finally starts coming together with the help of Captain America and Iron Man sharing space on a screen (alongside Loki, who throws things off a bit by being Loki in a knife fight with Captain America.) This leads to Thor showing up, which let me tell you, is Thor's role in a nutshell. We all knew Cap, Black Widow, Hawkeye and Nick Fury would be around, and we're cool with them wading into the movie at their own pace. Iron Man is the only star attraction as a franchise player though, which is why his arrival marks an uptick. Thor literally drops in unannounced, and his entry is only an element of the plot and a counterpoint to other characters. Aside from moments here and there, that's all Thor does. He's Loki's brother. He's Hulk's sparring partner. Basically, he's the female member of the team. It's a sort of progress, I suppose, but Thor fans feast on scraps here.

In movies like Fantastic Four, everybody in the team gets introduced in quick succession and gains powers at the same time. In Watchmen and Sky High, everybody was already part of a community that kind of knew each other. Often, other heroes pop up in answer to the debut of the lead protagonist, as seen in Kick-Ass. One of this film's innovations is that it recognizes that there is a preexisting universe of heroes, but they have not met one another, and would not necessarily immediately embrace one another. It's a dynamic the Marvel Universe was built upon, and while somewhat pointless and juvenile, Whedon carries the tradition into film for the first time in a way that works. From there on, the heroes personalities and powers bounce off one another in ways that affirm each individual's appeal while creating an invigorating dynamic as a group. This is especially true for the Hulk, who desperately needed something more interesting to play off than army men and mute monsters. It even helps Thor a little bit.

However you felt about the characters coming into this movie is how you'll leave it. While a bit more brooding and pig-headed, Chris Evans' Captain America is still the same guy as featured in his solo movie. His costume looks a bit goofier, but he gets to do more comic book style CGI-enabled acrobatics. Chris Hemsworth's Thor remembers the lessons he learned, and comes across as a more mature being, even though that also seems to mean he has the least room to grow here. Depending on whom you root for, Robert Downey Jr. is either a bit douchier here than in the Iron Man movies, or he's being perceived as such through the stoicism of Cap. I only have vague memories of Eric Bana's Hulk, and never saw all of Ed Norton's, but Mark Ruffalo is certainly the more personable of the lot. It never hurts to have a lengthy, slightly surreal aside with Harry Dean Stanton, either. Scarlett Johansson looks and acts the part of Black Widow far better here than in Iron Man 2, so I'll try not to whine about her as much. Jeremy Renner's Hawkeye gets some interesting usage in the first half of the movie, but the character seems defined by his lack of perceptible human emotions or charm. If he wasn't constantly decompressing his bow like a fratboy working a Borat quote, he could be mistaken for the Vision. Cobie Smulders does her best to compete in the realm of "why are you in this thing" as Maria Hill, and Stellan Skarsgård's reprisal of Dr. Erik Selvig is pretty thankless. Tom Hiddleston is a fun Loki, who hasn't grown an inch, and Nick Fury continues to be the name under which Samuel L. Jackson guest stars as Samuel L. Jackson. Clark Gregg steals his every scene as Agent Phil Coulson, and I hope he continues to have a strong presence in the Marvel movies.

Joss Whedon (along with Zak Penn on the writing end) does an incredible, previously presumed impossible job of pulling together four franchises under one roof, ironing out or contrasting their differences with the help of foundational bridging (the agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) plus his own new additions (expanding Natasha Romanov's character to be remotely comparable to her male teammates developmentally while feeding on the corpse of Hawkeye's non-role,) while also offering a satisfying self-contained story. It's rare in an action movie, but especially a super-hero one, for the narrative to be so propulsive. Everything happens for a reason, incidents building on incidents, culminating in a tour de force finale. Cap doesn't spar with Red Skull, they become separated, and then Cap goes back to battling Hydra until he gets to battle Red Skull again. The movie just keeps moving forward, upping the stakes and the scale. One shot in particular comes to mind, in which the camera pans through various city views as our heroes battle the forces of evil with their diverse abilities from different locations. In comics, that would be a dense double page spread, and its like has never been captured on film. Not only does the action work, but the dialogue is smart throughout, witty and funny and mindful of the established voice of each character. That said, the dialogue is sometimes too calculatedly funny for its own good, undercutting serious intentions. There's the trademark Whedon surprise character death, right up to the method and target recalling his only other feature film Serenity, coming across as cheap and arbitrary. The villains are an empty throng, and a intra-credit cameo walks a precarious fan service tightrope. An understated anticlimax in the post-credit coda makes up for any misgivings, though.

I thoroughly enjoyed all the swell moments in The Avengers. As a Cap fan, it was awesome seeing my guy lay down strategy and live up to his legend. I often laughed at Tony's quips, could feel the itching under Banner's skin, and so on. While a few characters get short shrift, the film remains an ensemble, and it does so in the midst of cosmic stakes that alone would suffocate a lesser piece. I was impressed with how Whedon brought and kept it all together, and with his original contributions to the visual language of these films. It is so wonderful to see a director convey ferocious speed and a multitude of combat elements while maintaining a clear eye so that the audience can comprehend and marvel at all the happenings. At the same time, there was an awful lot of retreading ground covered elsewhere by other directors and Whedon himself. It reminded me of Sam Raimi aping scenes from Evil Dead on a bigger budget in Spider-Man. I went in with high expectations, and they were mostly met, but I think I'll prefer the movie more on successive viewings with my mental bar set just a mite lower.


mathematicscore said...

Great review! I don't agree that the death was arbitrary, as that character had been shown in previous movies to stand up to more powerful foes quite often, and the death showed that effin' with gods isn't good for your health. What's more, isn't there a certain Avenger with an imprinted personality? JUST SAYIN.

Diabolu Frank said...

I'm seriously hoping you're right. So far, the Marvel Studios movies haven't needed character deaths to juice them up. Bucky might be an exception, but we know how that turned out in the comics, so probably not. Seeing as folks have been enjoying these flicks without anybody getting kill-happy, and the forming of the Avengers being momentous enough, I was irritated by the very Whedonesque excess. My specific point of reference here was Serenity, where the major character death is essential to depicting the very real stakes, and ultimately served as a capstone to the series when the flick underperformed. There was never any doubt about more Marvel movies forthcoming, and I feel my enjoyment of them will be diminished by this turn of events. The saving grace would be to flesh out the Avengers team with a new member derived from a much more desirable source than the comics. I always preferred the second tier members to the "Prime" anyway, although not as presently cast. It's a shame they didn't save Scarlett for the Witch, since that character was always wooden and her appeal largely superficial...


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