Sunday, May 6, 2012

Countdown to The Avengers, Part 6: The Avengers

Part 6 in our Countdown to the release of The Avengers, in which we- hey, wait a minute, The Avengers is here! Across four years and five movies of build-up, how does the film stack up to the rest? Read on to find out…

If you have yet to see the movie, tread carefully: there be SPOILERS

THE FILM ITSELF: There’s a primal need in all of us to see the best of the best assembled. From the Greek’s pantheon of gods to the 1992 Olympic Dream Team, we want to see all the people we want to see gathered together, doing what they do best.

    When the superheroes started popping up left and right a few years before WWII, it was Marvel Comics (then called Timely) who had the bright idea that these characters could all exist together in the same universe. The art-form was perfected by creators like Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, having the heroes bicker and squabble amongst each other - just as likely to fight themselves as much as the villains. And when Marvel Comics became successful enough to form their own movie production unit many years later, it was decided to incorporate this concept of the shared universe into the movies - a series of films setting up various characters and culminating in the film that would bring them all together: The Avengers. The studio had already assembled the perfect cast in their previous films, now all they needed was the right filmmaker to bring it all together. And in hiring writer/director Joss Whedon, Marvel found the perfect voice to bring the film to life, managing not only to pull off such a massive project, but delivering probably the finest superhero spectacle yet seen - and that probably ever will.

    Whedon makes it look easy, but there are so many ways this could have gone very, very wrong. A universe of overlapping characters is easy to pull off in paper and ink, but in the monumentally slow beast that is Hollywood - with it’s contracts, prep time and inflated egos - it’s virtually impossible. Or it was virtually impossible… Whedon takes his ensemble of actors and gives them each the proper attention and screen-time; a lot of personalities to juggle for one movie, but he handles it all with a deft touch. Not too much of a surprise considering his background with ensemble-driven TV shows, but still not a done deal when you realize the director had yet to tackle anything of this magnitude. His achievement here as a filmmaker is unparalleled, taking the clichés of summer blockbusters and bending them to his will - turning in a movie equal parts funny and exciting - and never once sacrificing intelligence for the sake of cheap thrills. Michael Bay, take note - this is how it‘s done. 

      The opening moments are a little rocky, but once we start getting to the character introductions, the film picks up and doesn’t stop until the end. Which is not to say there‘s no breathing room - much of the joy of Whedon’s script is the time it takes with its characters, each getting their own quiet moment of introspection. They all have their own arc - some more than others - but overall, Whedon takes time-worn techniques and spins them around in a fresh, new light. Also, it doesn’t hurt that the movie is seriously funny, having some of the best comedic bits of any film released this year.

    Of course, the excellent script would be for naught without the right players, but fortunately that job has already been taken care of. Robert Downey, Jr., Chris Evans and Chris Hemsworth return to the roles that made them famous (or resuscitated their careers, in Downey's case), and watching the three of them bounce off each other (literally and figuratively) provides sublime entertainment. Downey comes back to the role of Tony Stark in a much more subdued fashion than we saw in Iron Man 2, bring back his more natural, effortless portrayal that made us fall in love with him in the first film. His scene at the beginning with Gwyneth Paltrow's Pepper Potts pretty much washes the bad taste in our mouths of their endless hamming from 2. Evans also fits right back into the stars and stripes rather well, and his man-out-of-time schtick is handled pretty well. Hemsworth finally gets a movie worthy of his endless charisma as Thor. He doesn't get to interact with the rest of the team much, but Hemsworth is every bit as fun to watch here as he was in his own movie (if not more so).

    Scarlett Johanssen also returns as the Black Widow, this time getting an actual character to play. Whedon’s known for his strong, competent female characters (i.e.Buffy the Vampire Slayer), and here takes the shell of the character who appeared in Iron Man 2 and shapes her into a flawed, sympathetic figure. Johanssen does well as the lone girl in the otherwise all-boy’s club, and it’s refreshing to finally have a main female character in one of these movies whose sole purpose isn’t to be the hero’s girlfriend. You can tell she has a deep bond with fellow Avenger Hawkeye, but there’s nothing romantic about it - rather the bond that comes about when two people have worked together for a long time.

    Speaking of Hawkeye, if there’s one member of the team who gets short-shrifted, it’s this master marksman played by Jeremy Renner. He spends most of the run-time under the control of Tom Hiddleston’s Loki, essentially a zombie in the trickster god’s makeshift army. He gets his senses back before the final battle however, and even gets some new-found motivation (revenge against Loki), to boot. His character probably won‘t wind up as anyone‘s favorite, but Renner exudes a natural likability and gets enough memorable action beats at the end to not be completely washed over. Plus, his quiver that automatically changes out arrow-tips is hella cool.

    One character who is likely to be everyone’s favorite is the Hulk, played by Mark Ruffalo while in his Bruce Banner persona. Whedon and Ruffalo nail the Banner/Hulk dynamic in a way that many have tried but none have truly succeeded. Having previously been little more than a mindless, raging monster, here we get a Hulk that - while still prone to smashing - takes on a more heroic role, standing side-by-side with his team-mates in the closing battle with the alien army. Ruffalo also finds the right tone for the Hulk’s human side, giving us a Banner who finally learns to make peace with the monster within, able to accept who he is by finding a place amongst fellow freaks and outcasts.

    The villains here aren’t quite as developed. Tom Hiddleston returns as Loki, and turns his performance up to eleven. Loki’s had a rough go of it since we last saw him in Thor - he’s pale, disheveled and generally sick looking throughout the whole film. Hiddleston has many great scenes throughout, getting a scene or two with pretty much the entire team (best of which is his encounter with the Hulk. You‘ll just have to see it; any attempt at explaining won‘t do it justice). There’s this overall pathetic quality to the character, kind of like the really smart kid in class who was just too Asbergian to fit in. His whole plan of invading Earth is really just an exaggerated temper-tantrum, but Hiddleston’s portrayal always finds the empathy in the character, to the point we can kind of feel bad for the guy… Until he kills Agent Coulson, and then pretty much all of that goes out the window. The only trouble with Loki is he kind of falls away during the last battle, where his alien army (the Chitauri) take over as the main baddies. The Chitauri provide a considerable threat to the Avengers, but they’re basically cannon fodder. A little more time devoted to what they’re all about (besides blasting people with laser cannons) would have been nice.

    And yes, like I said above, this will be Clark Gregg’s last time playing SHIELD Agent Phillip Coulson. Gregg was always a bright spot whenever he popped up in the other movies (even if his role in them was usually unnecessary), so it’s sad that we won’t see him show up in future movies to harass Tony Stark or whatever new heroes Marvel adapts. But if he had to go, it might as well be like he does here. Coulson’s death scene is the perfect example of how Whedon brilliantly walks a fine tonal line - equal parts hilarious, touching and a real, honest-to-god moment of humanity. His death serves as the catalyst for the Avengers to truly become a team, and Gregg’s portrayal really gets across why these guys cared enough about him to avenge his death (clever, yeah?).

    Also returning is the bad mofo SHIELD director himself, Nick Fury. Sam Jackson once again basically plays himself, but here gets a lot more to do and interact with. We finally learn why this guy is basically the top cop in the world. Seeing Fury at the center of the Helicarrier control room is one of those completely awesome things I thought I’d never get to see, and Jackson orders his subordinates around with relish. Less successful is Cobie Smulders as Agent Maria Hill - the actress does fine, but her character basically exists so Nick Fury can have someone to talk to. Rounding out the already impressive cast are a number of eye-raising cameos, from the likes of Powers Boothe, Jenny Agutter and one especially hilarious scene where Harry Dean Stanton meets a naked, post-Hulk attack Bruce Banner.

    The characters are all spot on, but then again, that’s been largely what Marvel has had success with. Less successful has been the whole “spectacle” side of things, where - due to the studio’s stingy budgets - the action and special effects often leave a lot to be desired. If they were saving up for the last ride we get here, well, it was all completely worth it. The action in this movie is phenomenal, and when the Avengers get together and finally start working as a team in the final half-hour long battle, it’s hard to resist the urge to stand up and cheer them along. With such a lengthy fight, you’d think the audience would be pounded into submission by the sheer weight of it, but Whedon guides it all with a steady hand, breaking up the battle into individual action beats, each with their own payoff that keeps getting better than the next. Furthermore, they're successful due to the time devoted to them earlier - in previous films and here - getting us deeply invested with the characters, so that when the payoffs come, they work like gangbusters. The final thirty minutes are so exhilarating, I kind of feel bad for all future superhero movies - there’s just no way they can even come close.

    In all, The Avengers gives us everything we could have ever wanted out of a movie with that title, one that elevates the fun, blockbuster mindset into a near-spiritual experience.             

OTHER THOUGHTS: We discussed the politics of Iron Man previously, and the general success of the superhero movie being largely a side-effect of post-9/11 anxiety. And with The Avengers, that idea comes around full circle. Now, there’s nothing here overtly referencing the World Trade Center attacks, but with an assault on New York City as the main centerpiece of the film, it’s kind of hard not to make any connections.

    The 9/11 attacks were a massive blow to the psyche of Western society. In many ways it was a type of event previously scene only in movies and comic books, but the reality was far, far worse than anything any superhero writer could have imagined. In times of turmoil, audiences seek out entertainment that comments on current events without ever actually being about them. They say nightmares are our way of facing our greatest fears in a safe, harmless setting; so too are the superhero movies, simplifying our problems to the core, base layer and allowing us to confront them head on in ways disguised as entertainment. Which explains why movies about the Iraq War made over the last decade failed miserably, but post-9/11 films like The Dark Knight become monster hits. Our fears of terrorism, chaos and the unknown are boiled down into the simple iconography of characters like the Joker, and we can engage with these concepts that make us uncomfortable without having our faces rubbed in the harsh reality of it. But where The Dark Knight is a bleak and oppressive stance on current events, The Avengers offers a more hopeful option.

    In a world where we become increasingly separated by class, politics and ever-widening cultural barriers, The Avengers reminds of that one simple rule we’re taught in school, but seem to forget in adulthood more than we’d care to admit: that of working well with others. The members of the Avengers themselves couldn’t be any more different from one another, and - although there are personal obstacles they must overcome - they wind up joining forces with each other and saving the world.  The Avengers presents us with several such examples; none better than the conflict that arises between Captain America and Iron Man. Both are quite literally from different eras - Cap is seventy years out of his own time, an actual relic of the past, while Stark constantly has his eyes set on the future, searching out new and better ways to get things done. The two of them clash at first, but slowly come to realize that their differing ideologies complement one another. For instance, Cap is willing to give his life to get the job done - Stark thinks differently. Because for him, giving up your life is well, giving up. And Iron Man does not give up, thinking there’s always another way. But the end finds Stark realizing that sometimes there is no other way, and hard choices must be made if you want to save the day…

    Some might disregard the concept of the superhero, tossing it off as a male power fantasy and a realization of fascist ideals. Some may find it damaging for a culture to indulge in fantasies where caped beings swoop down out of the sky and take care of all of your problems for you. But while those elements are present within the framework, I choose to think that the superhero truly works by representing the best in humanity, inspiring us all to do better. Because at the end of the day, no kid wants to be saved by a superhero; they want to be the superhero.  

THE MARVEL CONNECTION: The entire movie is one big connection - this is the one all the other movies have been building up to!

    There is some set-up for the future however, in the mid-credits tag: we go back out into the far reaches of space, where the alien leader of the Chitauri communes with an imposing, purple-faced figure. That would be Thanos, power-mad demigod, uber-baddie of the comics who is in love with Death itself (the actual embodiment of Death, who presents itself to Thanos as a beautiful woman), leading us to believe that - should we get a sequel - the Avengers won’t be fighting just to save the planet Earth, but the entire universe…

STAN THE MAN?: Stan gets what I feel is his best cameo yet, appearing as one of the talking heads in a newscast later on, commenting on the absurdity of costumed people running around New York City.

I don’t how many times I can say The Avengers is great, so I’ll leave you with this: now that I have seen Thor whack the Hulk across the jaw with his hammer, I believe that, when my time comes, I can finally go in peace.

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