Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The Avengers Proves Worthy of the Buildup

The Avengers possess some amazing talents, but none more so that their abilities
to strike heroic poses in the midst of a world-threatening battle.

The Avengers is not so much a film as it is a spectacle. It doesn’t offer much of a story for the superheroes it pulls together, as much as it provides a generic doomsday scenario that allows them to come in and play off one another.
I don’t mean that in a bad way. There’s a lot of value in what this movie offers. It’s a fun and witty crowd-pleaser, an entertainment of the highest order. And, because of the way Marvel studios has approached their whole business plan, the movie has the leeway to get by on the charm of its writing, performances and special effects.
Seeing all the box office records The Avengers is obliterating, it’s difficult to remember how much of a chance Marvel was taking when they first journeyed down this road of interweaving franchises. Outside of the Hulk, none of these characters had previously proven to have major crossover appeal, and his recent foray into theaters (Ang Lee’s Hulk) had been met with great indifference.
However, in hindsight, the approach was ingenious. In Iron Man, Thor and Captain America, the studio offered up three great films, each one of which was highlighted by a nuanced and character-driven story brought to life by a well-chosen director and a nicely distinguished lead performance. The Incredible Hulk was satisfactory at best, and Iron Man 2 buckled under the weight of shoehorning S.H.I.E.L.D. into the narrative as a set up for The Avengers, but having now seen the culmination of the plan, it’s hard not to be impressed with what was accomplished here.
Most of the heavy lifting was done last summer by Captain American and Thor. With those films offering up MacGuffin (the Tesseract from Captain America) and the main villain (Loki from Thor), Joss Whedon was able to hit the ground running with The Avengers.

Nick Fury doesn't really get in on the action in The Avengers,
but does get to blow up a plane with a rocket launcher.
And he certainly does just that. With most of the plot already nailed into place, Whedon devotes the bulk of the runtime to character interaction and action sequences, the two things fans really want from this thing anyway. I had a slight problem with how much of the film felt like kowtowing to Marvel mandates (the fights between our superheroes aren’t entirely organic to the script and feel included solely because it would be cool), but if not for that, most of the movie would’ve just been discussions on an airship, and, in the end, the fights are cool, so what the hell?
Whedon delivers exactly what he aims to with this film. The action sequences are uniformly fantastic, especially the finale, which uses some impressive camera trickery to create the illusion of a long take that interweaves throughout the mayhem occurring throughout Manhattan.
Even more importantly, no character feels marginalized. Yes, by and large, the star is Iron Man, but everyone gets a chance to shine. With so many characters, there are a lot of various story threads in play in the movie. I thought it best to take them one at a time.
·    Captain America vs. Iron Man: A lot of time is dedicated to the stylistic clash between the humble, patriotic Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) and the flashy, egotistical Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), both of whom are at the forefront of the action for much of the movie. Rogers feels largely out of place in this modern and cynical world that Stark very much personifies, and I think this was a great dynamic to play up in the film especially given Cap’s familiarity with Stark’s father. The whole thing works really well, but the one bit of this thread that bugs me is the conclusion of Rogers’ whole thesis about Stark being a selfish man who can’t make the truly heroic sacrifice. The script literally takes the ending of Iron Man, substitutes a nuclear device in place of Warmonger, and calls it a day, which seems a bit uninspired.

Robin Scherbatsky has some pretty big shoes to fill.
·    Agent Coulson Gets a Spotlight: One of the pleasant surprises of The Avengers is the enhanced role of S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg). The character has featured in more of these Marvel movies than any other character, and because of that (and Gregg’s winning performance) he has endeared himself to fans while also helping to tie the films together. Here, Whedon shows Coulson to be a fanboy of a Captain America, which at first works on a cute level, but later becomes far more meaningful. When Coulson dies attempting to thwart Loki, his death becomes the catalyst for the group – particularly Stark and Rogers – to put aside their differences and come together. Although, I wasn’t a fan of the line “they needed something to Avenge,” particularly because dozens of other agents were being killed, it certainly works for the movie audience. Coulson is a beloved figure in the Marvel movie universe and a fanboy to boot, and so his death actually hurt. It’s sad that Gregg won’t be dropping in and out of these movies anymore (especially if the plan is for Agent Maria Hill to fill that slot, since as good as she is on How I Met Your Mother, Cobie Smulders was totally blah here), but it was an expertly crafted mini-arc.

·    S.H.I.E.L.D’s Motives: As I indicated above, I wasn’t the biggest fan of S.H.I.E.L.D’s involvement in Iron Man 2, but Marvel did successfully use what was established there to set up an interesting arc in The Avengers. The familiarity Tony Stark has with Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and his mistrust of the agency’s intentions gives the piece a sort of lived in feel, while also justifying all the mistrust and turmoil that keeps the team from stopping Loki’s (Tom Hiddleston) meddling earlier in the film.

Hulk Equation: Mark Ruffalo > Edward Norton + Eric Bana.

·    A Rejuvenated Hulk: Whedon and star Mark Ruffalo’s handling of the Hulk has received a lot of press since the movie’s debut, focusing on the idea “finally, they got the Hulk right!” There’s a lot of truth to that – the decision to play down the tortured element and have Bruce Banner be more put-upon and world-weary was a wise call. The movie embraces the fact that he is the most badass, dangerous and indestructible member of the team, playing it for some quick pathos (we learn Banner tried to commit suicide but found it an impossible task) and big laughs (“Puny God” is the best one liner in a movie choke full of good ones). All that being said, I do have a problem with the consistency of the character. The big secret Banner carries throughout the film and reveals at the end is that he is always angry and thus has learned to control the Hulk within (to the point that he can cooperate with a team and even save Iron Man on his fall back to Earth). However, earlier in the film, he loses control and attempts to kill Black Widow, a defenseless woman who has done nothing to him. I’m sure there’s a way to explain this away (i.e. if he chooses to turn, he can control it, but if not, look out…), but it seems like a cheat of some kind that allows the film to have its cake and eat it too (not only do we get a throw down between an unstable Hulk and Thor, but we also get an awesome, in control Hulk who can fight alongside his pals).

·    Brotherly Interactions: Even though his brother is the main villain of the piece, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) takes a back seat for most of the movie. He doesn’t show up until the midway point, and when he does, he gets very little time devoted to him outside of fight sequences. What he does get is a few choice scenes with Loki that prove to be the most emotionally resonant things in the piece. Even though Loki’s tried to kill Thor and his father, is now attempting to destroy a world Thor holds dear, and isn’t even his real brother, Thor wants to move past all that because he truly cares for Loki. It’s a good angle for the film to take, because unlike the humans, Thor doesn’t have as much at stake personally – it’s not really his world, and he’s indestructible. As such, even though his is far from the flashiest part, Hemsworth is my pick for best in show because of how much complexity he brought to his limited screen time (and now with the success of Snow White in the Hunstman, I hope the guy blows up in a big way and gets offered some good parts– he has loads of movie star charm).

They just get each other.
·    Mere Humans: Both these heroes were sort of doomed to seem second rate. Not only have they not gotten their own showcases before, but both seem like mere mortals in this compared to the big boys on the team. Making matters worse, their introductions in other movies were a botched (Black Widow in Iron Man 2) and a pointless easter egg (Hawkeye in Thor). Here, Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) is brainwashed by Loki and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) feels an obligation to get him back due to a complicated history together. This thread is only okay, but I do think it was a wise decision to lay these seeds if Marvel wants to do a combo spinoff down the line. Also, while Renner is underused, it was nice to see Johansson deliver here, both as eye candy (a confrontation between her and Loki lingers on a shot of her ass for a knowingly and humorously long amount of time) and as a real presence. Her standing as one of the great actresses of her generation has taken a hit in recent years, but she’s definitely a major talent, so it was nice to see her putting forth an A-effort here.

That’s a lot of words on The Avengers, so I’m going to wrap up now. In the end, the film isn’t the best Marvel film, but it’s a ridiculously fun ride that successfully rehabilitates it’s previously problematic characters (Hulk and Black Widow), while bolstering the Q rating of its moderately successful ones (the sequels for Thor and Captain America will probably make twice as much as the first entries after getting spotlight roles here). At the end of the film, every character is left in a pretty interesting place, and I’m excited to see where Marvel goes from here in expanding their ambitious movie universe.