Monday, May 14, 2012

Review: The Avengers (Joss Whedon and Marvel Studios)

Introduction
First things first: I apologize for the lateness of this review. I saw this flick opening night, but life has been crazy the past week. That being said…

Every once in awhile a film comes along that ignites a true craze, becomes a true phenomenon, and takes the idea of “phenomenon” to the next level. In my life there have been several. The first one I remember, of course, was Star Wars. The science fantasy epics by George Lucas and Co. ignited mainstream fandom in a way I don’t think anything else ever had. The original trilogy was the first true motion picture phenomenon that I can think of, though I’m sure arguments could be made for some other, earlier films.

The next one that I remember was Tim Burton’s Batman. The Indiana Jones films were wildly popular, but Batman swept the nation with such a craze that it was dubbed “Bat-mania.” This was the first big-budget and dark superhero film, and the first one beyond Superman that took comic books as a serious property, showed us what could be done with comics movies beyond white knights in spandex fighting for Truth, Justice, and the American Way.  Batman was really the first effort at making a superhero flick for grown-ups.

Of course, as the 90’s wore on, studios become obsessed with creating the next big phenomenon, and we got properties of varying quality that drew the attention of the mainstream in increasingly grandiose ways, from Titanic to The Matrix to the Star Wars prequel trilogy to Lord of the Rings to The Matrix to Harry Potter to Twilight and The Hunger Games. I’m sure there were others in the mix there, but you get the point.

Now, Joss Whedon of Buffy the Vampire Slayer fame has come along and given us the Next Big Thing ™: The Avengers.

So first things first: what differentiates the Avengers from the X-Men or the (perhaps) better-known Justice League? In many ways—and this is why I have always loved the Avengers—they are a more believable group of disparate crime fighters than many others. The X-Men are bound together by their common battle for equality; while there are interpersonal conflicts, they are constantly presented as a family.  The Justice League—DC’s version of the Avengers—are also consistently portrayed as best buddies, which when you consider the egos involved (Superman, Batman, Green Lantern, Aquaman, and Wonder Woman) is pretty well wholly unbelievable. The Avengers, on the other hand, hate each other a lot of the time. Pure and simple. These are a group of egotistical superheroes, each of which who does just fine on his or her own, and each of which only grudgingly admits that teamwork is better in certain situations. They’re not best friends. They don’t live together in a big hall of justice or special school. They “Assemble” when the call goes out. They come together, defeat a threat (often fighting amongst themselves the entire time) and go their separate ways.  With good writing, this kind of interaction makes for very compelling storytelling. With bad writing, well, admittedly it can be a disaster of boredom and annoyance for the reader.

I’ll admit, I had my doubts when it was announced that Whedon was on board to write and direct. I was a huge Buffy and Angel fan, and I followed his run on Astonishing X-Men all the way through.  I came to a couple of conclusions about him as a storyteller, which I was certain would bleed through into The Avengers.

1.       Despite his flag-waving for feminism, Joss is something of a misogynist. He likes to have strong female heroes…but he also really likes to screw them over, often and especially as soon as they have sex. He made a habit of this in Buffy for seven seasons—Buffy didn’t just have challenges to overcome, she would get repeatedly beaten down by the world at large.  When she had sex the first time, her boyfriend became evil and spent an entire season emotionally raping her. In the same series, Willow fell in love with a girl named Tara, and their relationship was fraught with crap from the beginning until Tara was punked right in front of Willow by a stray bullet.  In his run on Astonishing X-Men, Joss had Kitty Pryde “die” after having sex with Colossus by randomly not being able to un-phase and getting trapped inside a giant hunk of metal…for no apparent reason.  So yeah, Joss doesn’t like his strong female heroes to, you know, remain strong female heroes.

2.       This is a guy who has proven time and again that he can’t write an ending to save his life.  He lucked out with Buffy, which ended on a decent note, if a Deus-ex-machina one, but Angel ended on a bloody cliffhanger (which astonishingly Joss’s fans defended as being somehow in keeping with the show), and Astonishing X-Men ended with the aforementioned punking of Kitty Pryde.

So I had little faith in the choice—I thought we were going to get a wildly entertaining movie which would be full of random female deaths and featured a piss-poor ending.

I couldn’t have been more wrong, I’m delighted to say, and Avengers has restored my faith in Joss Whedon.

This film has been released to near-universal critical acclaim, and fans seem so rabid about it that one reviewer even got threats for posting a negative review (which—by the way—way to go, geek culture; nothing like validating everyone else thinking we’re weirdoes and crazies.)  It currently sits at 93% among critics on Rotten Tomatoes, and 96% among fans.  I, dear readers, am little different—I loved this film from start to finish, and I fear that this posting may be a bit more of a rave than a review. I found very little wrong with this movie; it was near perfect.  So, without further ado, here’s the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Marvel and Joss Whedon’s The Avengers.

The Good
There is a ton of good about this movie. Tony Stark and Steve Rogers are both portrayed brilliantly, and completely in keeping with their prior appearances. And as much as I dug The Incredible Hulk, and felt Edward Norton did a stellar job, Mark Ruffalo is hands down the best of the three Bruce Banners—and the decision to finally do the Hulk as 100% motion captured was a major “about time” moment. Some people felt this movie would just be The Tony Stark Show—I disagree; if anything, Hulk stole the show. I will endeavor to avoid spoilers, but Hulk’s one spoken line (voice acted, as in The Incredible Hulk, by Lou Ferrigno) is gold, and the interplay between Ruffalo and Downey Jr. as Banner and Stark is picture perfect. In fact, all of the interactions are great, be it Thor, Captain America, Iron Man, Hulk, or whoever. One of my concerns at first was that they would have a hard time making Hawkeye and Black Widow work in with a group of players who have legitimate super powers, but there are no worries, there, either—the two master assassins easily hold their own alongside their fellow Avengers, and there is a scene between Black Widow and Loki that nearly had me leap out of my seat and cheer.

Sam Jackson as Nick Fury is great, and it’s nice to see him finally get a chance to stretch his legs in the role. This Nick Fury is just as he should be—a spy. He’s cold and hard, he keeps secrets and lies, and plays his reasons close to the vest, but in the end, when his own superiors step out of line, Fury is portrayed as absolutely one of the Good Guys.  Agent Phil Coulson is back again for another appearance (he has appeared in some capacity in all of the setup films thus far except—for obvious reasons—for Captain America) and he is a delight in this, having a far more central role to play.

The plot is a standard fare alien invasion storyline wherein a group of scary high-tech aliens led by Loki, now exiled from Asgard after the events of Thor, seeks to conquer the Earth. Loki, for his part, wants to rule the world and see a lot of stuff blow up while he’s at it.  This turn of events, of course, is what brings Thor back to Earth, and sees him join the Avengers. For the few reviewers who have complained about a thin plot, I have to wonder what they wanted out of this movie. It’s not Shakespeare’s Henry V; it’s quite simply the best superhero movie I’ve ever seen. The plot is secondary to this movie, which is driven from start to finish by the characters. And drive it forward they do.

I think what I  dug most about this is that no one member of the Avengers is spotlighted over any others—each and every one of them gets their moments in the spotlight, and the actors consistently hit it out of the park. This includes the main villain, Loki, who has more than his share of scene-stealing moments as well. As my wife pointed out, Thor and Loki are outstanding in this film, and are way better presented than they were in the Thor setup movie—Joss Whedon not only knows Marvel comics, he did his research on Norse mythology and hits it out of the park with the presentation of these two characters.  That the acting is stellar across the board doesn’t hurt, either.  Where Tony Stark butts heads with Captain America the tension is so thick you can cut it with a knife, but the two characters (with a liberal amount of well-placed foreshadowing) come to greatly respect one another by the end of the movie. The quiet concern and deep friendship between Widow and Hawkeye is for the most part quietly understated but so omnipresent as to be masterful. Steve Rogers is definitely a guy from 1944, but not one who is cheesy about it (he never, thank God, says “gosh” or “golly,” which is the WORST common and untrue cliché one can pull for an out-of-time character.)

Again, avoiding spoilers, I will say that if you haven’t heard it yet, and really, you should know this by now if you’ve seen any Marvel flicks—stay all the way through the credits. The Avengers 2 setup scene halfway through the credits is not the end.  There is a scene at the very end of the credits which is probably the greatest payoff scene ever put into a movie.

The Bad
As much as there is good about the movie, there’s that little bad. In fact, probably the only complaint I have about the entire film is that if you have not seen the setup movies—especially Thor and Captain America—you may well be lost at the beginning of this movie, as it literally jumps right into the action which centers squarely upon the Tesseract, an artifact seen and established in the aforementioned setup films. The movie does an okay job of establishing what the Tesseract is, but if you’ve missed those two setup films you’re going to feel like you’re coming into a story that’s already half told…and you are. A friend of mine compared it to seeing Return of the King without bothering to see Fellowship of the Ring or The Two Towers first. Unfortunately, where that particular analogy falls apart is that although it holds true, Avengers is billed as a stand-alone film, not as the fifth or sixth film in a long series. Still, it’s a minor gripe in that the movie does do a very good job of explaining the artifact for those who haven’t yet seen it, and it does tell you everything you need to know, as long as you’re willing to roll with things a little.

The Ugly
Everything about the look, direction, effects, and cinematography in this movie is gorgeous. I mentioned earlier the decision to do the Hulk in full motion capture—why it took them three movies with the Big Green Guy to come to this conclusion is beyond me, but it shows. The action scenes are fast-paced and chaotic, but never hard to follow, and there are so many little fan nods tucked in that you could see the movie a dozen times and still not catch everything.  Watch, for example, for a split-second shot that features Tony using Cap’s shield to ricochet an energy blast.

I saw the film in 3D iMAX, which is always my preferred means of movie-going these days, and the visuals did not remotely disappoint. The 3D is excellent, tasteful, and not gimmicky, and most of the shots that you want to be 3D are. The clarity is great, the sound shook the theater, and the CGI nearly indistinguishable from live action and practical effects. It’s top-of-the-line production all around.  Indeed, Whedon and Co. do so much with the $220m budget that it makes me ashamed for other films that don’t do half as much with the same amount of money.  Of course, I look at other films like The Hunger Games that do almost as much with less than half the money, and it makes me wonder where a lot of the budget goes (in this case, likely into star power), but still, I’m impressed that the high budget was money well spent.

Recap and Conclusion
The Avengers is a near-perfect movie. It deserves the title “blockbuster” in spades, and is deservedly setting records at the box office. It’s a shining example of how to do a big-budget action movie right; it is wonderfully character-driven, expertly directed, smartly written, and gorgeous to look at. Plus, it introduced the word “Shawarma” into the general public consciousness, something that’s going to see Middle Eastern restaurants get a huge profit bump. It restored my faith in Joss Whedon as writer and director, and cemented Marvel’s dominance of the Super Hero box office (and maybe even the overall box office). Outstanding flick from start to finish.

Rating: five out of five popcorn kernels.