Saturday, May 05, 2012

The Avengers

Not going to spoil the plot for anyone.

But The Avengers is a great movie. If I were grading this movie with school paperwork, I would give it an "exceeds expectations." It's a better movie than I even wanted it to be. And this is coming from someone who thinks Joss Whedon is full of shit.

I've been surprised the past week to see people I expected to really dig this movie call it out for not being very good. One person whose opinion I used to respect got very condescending about it--disagree with me all you want, it's just a movie; but don't be the guy lecturing people about how they're wrong to enjoy something because you're the one who can see through the bullshit. I try not to be that guy, because everyone kind of wants to punch that guy. I'll tell you I hated a movie--Avatar, for example--and I'll tell you I hated it in declarative statements (almost like a real writer), but I'm never going to tell you that you're stupid for liking something that gave you enjoyment. At least, I try not to. I'll get annoyed by things that people do, but when it comes to liking a movie, I'm never going to do anyone's thinking for them; I can only tell you what my reactions were.

I loved The Avengers. LOVED it. Loved every single moment of it. Love that this movie even actually exists, something that at one time seemed absolutely impossible. I grew up scouring the movies-in-development sections of Starlog and Comics Scene, waiting for the day that Spider-Man movie they kept talking about was ever going to happen (and 15 years later, it finally did). For a kid whose only chance at superhero movies was once Tim Burton's Batman or waiting for those late-80s/early-90s Incredible Hulk TV movies to come on (remember that woeful portrayal of Daredevil in The Trial of the Incredible Hulk, with John Rhys-Davies as a very laid-back Wilson Fisk?), we're living through a wonderful age for superhero flicks.

I was surprised to see people saying this movie wasn't about anything, but was more a series of character moments with a big action climax. That's only partially true, I think. There's an incredible balancing act going on here. What Joss Whedon has to do--and more importantly, actually does--is continue the character development and through-lines of four separate movie series, up Samuel L. Jackson's Nick Fury to something more than a plot device, make sure everyone actually stays in character, and thoroughly beef up the development of two other characters (Black Widow and Hawkeye) who have had basically no character up until now.

Whedon, to my surprise, manages to bring this all together and make it into an enjoyable product. And yes, it's a product, there's no insight in saying so. All of these movies are products. What Whedon remembers, and someone like Michael Bay never knew, is that it is actually possible to take a special effects blockbuster action product and make it a good story about interesting characters.

So yes, Whedon does get the balance right. He does an exceptionally good job as director and writer of exploring not just the heroism of these characters, but their humanity as well. He follows the decades-old formula of many comic books--gather a bunch of heroes, have them hate each other at first, then forge their alliance in fire--and makes it seem fresh and exciting, merely because no other movie has gotten it so right before.

Of course, it helps that we've had some great movies previously that have introduced us to these characters already. We already know Iron Man, Thor (and Loki), and Captain America from their solo films. Because of the ingenious steps taken in plotting this out in advance, we know a lot of the components, and Whedon isn't burdened with introducing us to the characters all over again. The screenplay just dives right into the characters, which is refreshingly bold.

What's also nice is that, after two movies that were neither complete hits nor complete misses, Whedon reintroduces us to the Hulk in a way that finally finds the character. We spend a not insignificant amount of time with Bruce Banner before we even see him turn into the Hulk, which is exactly the right move. And because we've had two movies of intense angst, we're not seeing a troubled Bruce Banner--though he does have moments when he worries the monster's getting too close to the surface--but a Banner who is making peace with his anger and accepting the balance he's forced to live with. It's a much more exciting character than we got to see in Hulk and The Incredible Hulk. (And it doesn't hurt that Banner has something to do in the flick other than just run from the military while almost kind of being a scientist for a little while.) I also really dig the animation on the Hulk, which is much less like a wrestler and more like some kind of missing link between man and ape; much more primal and powerful, even though he seems shorter than in previous movies, which isn't really a fundamental change; I much prefer that they've humanized him somewhat.

Whedon also excels here with the new characters of Black Widow and Hawkeye. I call Widow a new character because I was never happy with the way she was uncomfortably shoehorned into Iron Man 2 and given basically nothing to do; Whedon has to reinvent her here. Scarlett Johansson gets to play a character--and quite well, actually, reminding me of why I used to think Scarlett Johansson was a capable actress. She's actually got layers; she's neither a superwoman nor the token non-powered character. (Good fight scenes, too; even though she's of course packed into a tight outfit, she doesn't have any of the silly pole-dancing martial arts of her previous appearance.) Jeremy Renner is a likable Hawkeye, and Whedon pulls a good trick by putting Hawkeye in a situation for the first half of the movie that not only pays homage to Hawkeye's origins as a villain in the Marvel Universe, but also gives us an introduction to a character we don't really know yet. He makes you forget just how implausible an archer would be in this world of monsters, magic, aliens, and high tech espionage--and to the extent you remember, you don't really care because the movie thinks it's fun. (And boy have these movies found a great way to get over what seemed a few years ago the insurmountable problem of mixing magic and fantasy with science fiction.) The easy, natural chemistry Renner and Johansson have is one of the movie's many treats.

The actors are all good. Samuel L. Jackson doesn't get much to do beyond glowering, but no one glowers quite like Samuel L. Cobie Smulders fits right in in a way that makes me look forward to seeing more of her in upcoming Marvel Universe movies. Mark Ruffalo is a breath of fresh air, playing Banner as part-hippie, part-science geek. Chris Hemsworth, Chris Evans, and Robert Downey Jr. continue to find shades to their characters, giving them moments of recognizable humanity; Downey is especially a force, getting to be the usual cynical smartass, basically acting like he's still starring in his own movie--in a good way. And it needs to be said that, in his way, Clark Gregg as Agent Coulson is the one who sort of unifies the whole thing, playing a character we've come to know from his appearances in various movies and who stands in for the audience on several occasions.

But Tom Hiddleston. Man, is Tom Hiddleston good. He plays Loki the same way he played the character in Thor, not as a cartoon villain but as an at times sympathetic man torn between the way he regards his brother with both familial love and burning jealousy. There are scenes between Thor and Loki where you can almost see Loki willing to put an end to all of this, but too far in to stop now. Loki is not absolutely a villain, and none of the heroes are absolutely heroes. They all have doubts and moments of cynicism. It's what elevates the movie beyond merely a collection of character moments and an action-packed third act: the continuing thread about what the nature of heroism really is, where it comes from, and how it can be used to affect the world. It was there in Captain America: The First Avenger when Steve Rogers told Dr. Erskine "I don't want to kill anybody. I don't like bullies. I don't care where they're from." It was there when Thor learned how to wield his power for others and Tony Stark conquered his daddy issues.

What Whedon introduces here, through Loki, is the idea of humanity as inherently paranoid about their own freedom. That is one thread I'd have liked to see taken further, as it's not the kind of idea that gets any play in summer action flicks. But with the promise of more of these movies in the future, I hope to see it expanded on. (Other, very small thing I didn't like: I miss Captain America's costume from his own movie; I dug it more than the Halloween costume on display here. Also, not really a fan of Alan Silvestri's indistinct score, but that's true of pretty much any Silvestri score that doesn't have the words Back to the Future in the title.)

I had a lot of worries going into this film, even as I was excited about it. I was worried that it would fall into the same trap as the X-Men movies, which have far too many main characters to be satisfying as stories (even the one that's supposed to just be about Wolverine). I was worried it would fall into the same trap as most summer action events and just be too hollow--too concerned with being cool to worry about being human. But Whedon--Joss Whedon, of all people, to my total surprise--gets it exactly right. The Avengers isn't a movie about superheroes who do cool things, it's about people who are also superheroes. It's mythmaking at its finest, and it manages to do it without being precious or apologizing for what it is. And it's amazing. It's clever, it's funny, it's exciting, and it earns its emotions. It reminds me of every reason I ever loved comics in the first place. And it's the first movie I've seen in years that made me want to run right back out and see it again.

(Note: if you go, stay through the end credits. There's a tag after the credits sequence, but there's a second tag at the very end of the credits. 90% of the audience I saw the movie with missed it, and it's a delightful cherry on top of this sundae of a movie. Just stick around, it's worth it.)


Caffeinated Joe said...

Sounds great! Two of my kids saw it last night and loved it, as well. Not sure when I will get to see it, but sounds like a treat!

Megan said...

Yes to all of this. My main fear, going in (and it wasn't even really a fear, more of an "Eh, if it's that, oh well, it'll probably still be enjoyable") was that it was going to be more "Iron Man & His Amazing Friends" than anything else. And it so wasn't. Very well done and holy crap YES Hiddleston.

Damn good.

Paradox Al said...

I agree with you on the new Hulk. Ruffalo's actually pretty good in the movie, and is now my favourite Hulk out of the three movie versions. I really, really hope they stick with Ruffalo if they do more Hulk movies.

Overall, I enjoyed every single one of these guys. Hulk's my favourite, but everyone had their own great moments.

phoniexflames said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Splotchy said...

The scenes with Banner were one of my favorite parts of the movie. And I *loved* the final scene after the credits. It was a playful twist on all the other tags we had in the previous movies.

phoniexflames said...

I have to disagree. Aside from the Hulk, I felt like Whedon cranked out a really generic work that is as forgettable as... well, the Norton Hulk movie (That being said, this was the best interpretation of the Hulk/Banner I've seen on screen).

I think it boiled down to two things for me: 1) the direction of the action sequences, and 2) Whedon's characterization of the major players in the film.

Now, when I say "the action sequences," I mean that Whedon has a hard time putting something up on the big screen that works, in my opinion. I constantly got the feeling that he started the camera, then the choreography started. So it just gave it this sort of pre-planned feel to it, so there was no real thrill for me. This is opposed to basically... any other fight scene from a decent action flick, where it seems like the choreography begins, the director waits a few seconds, and THEN starts the camera, so you feel dropped right in the middle of the scenario and it's improvised and more "real."

When I talk about Whedon's characterizations... well... thing is, I feel like he totally abandoned the individual development of these characters into living, breathing people in their own films in favor of just doing what he seems to always do when working with comic book characters: making them say whatever he wants them to say, rather than really writing the character with the mind of what the character would say. I feel that all the nobility and humility, the leadership and gritty idealism that we got to see in Captain America was dropped. We didn't even get to really feel the whole "man out of time" element of the character, which would have been a great framing device for the film (after all, most of these people ARE out of their element with the threat they're experiencing). I felt that Whedon just mistook Tony Stark's glib witticism for nonstop snark, and just made him a bunch of walking one-liners. Whedon completely rewrote the Black Widow from a no-nonsense soldier into another snark machine, dropping one-liners just as much as Stark. It was just... odd.

Then there's the problem that each character had with monologuing, which...well, I'm glad Hulk whipped Loki around like a ragdoll when he attempted to do so, but other than that, Whedon's voice felt like it was coming out of the character's mouths, rather than the characters speaking and acting organically.

And this is a smaller nitpick, but I felt that there were major problems with the costumes. I absolutely loved Cap's costume in his own movie, because it looked like something functional that you could go into battle with; the change in the mask and the bulk of the outfit for this movie made Cap look really small and kind of...well, like he got his suit at Party City. I don't know why costuming would go through the effort of making Cap's outfit brighter and more comic-like if they were going to get rid of the protruding wings on the sides of his helmet/mask because MAYBE they looked a little ridiculous. And as far as Tony Stark went, there were multiple times in which you could see the light of his arc reactor in his chest, and then not when he's wearing the same shirt, in the same scene, during the same line of dialog. It just felt sloppy in that respect.

I don't know. I enjoyed seeing my favorite people on screen for such an event, I just wish they were given more a chance to shine, rather than Joss Whedon being his typical self. The movie was too big for him, I think, and for me, it really showed and pulled me out of the movie quite a bit.

In all, I liked the film, but I think it's fairly generic and forgettable.

Kelly Sedinger said...

Hmmmm. Interesting comments and well-formulated, but I have to disagree.

First, on the action sequences: I have to admit that I'm just not sure how one can watch this film and conclude that Whedon doesn't do action well. Were they choreographed? Yes...but to me, that's a feature, not a bug. I'm sick unto death of action films whose action sequences use rapid-fire editing and shaky-cams and low lighting to cover up a lack of choreography. I find such sequences very hard to follow, and they end up having the exact opposite effect on me from what an action sequence is supposed to do: they bore me, and too often these days, I find myself tuning out the action sequences and just waiting to get to the bit where the dust settles. That's not a problem here. Whedon made sure, at all points, that I knew who was where doing what. And yes, part of that involves choreography...but every one of the greatest action sequences in film history, without exception, was choreographed for effect. To me, a great action sequence should be like a great dance sequence. That's the way it was with The Avengers, and I was glad for it. I was thrilled not to have to contend with hard-to-follow action sequences like those in The Dark Knight.

On the film not dealing much with Captain America's timejump: well, yes and no. I think the movie was, on that particular topic, at something of a structural and conceptual disadvantage, because to really delve into that would have made Captain America's role in the film too large in proportion to the rest. The answer to that, then, would have been to add more stuff for each character in terms of inner life, but then you run the danger of having a movie about a bunch of individuals, and not a team. The proper time to deal with Captain America being a "man out of time" is not in The Avengers. It's in Captain America II. Joss Whedon wasn't making Captain America II; nor was he making Iron Man III, Thor II, or Hulk II.

Finally, on Whedon's dialog: I didn't hear any of it as snark. I heard it as wit, as clever and intelligent. On this, there's only opinion, and I can't make an argument for my view here. But I certainly got the impression that the characters were well-differentiated and spoke like individuals. And it wasn't all clever repartee, anyway; Agent Coulson's talk to Loki about why he is going to lose was a standout moment.

I'm also interested that, in arguing that the film is 'forgettable', you compare it to the second Hulk movie. I have a friend who felt that The Avengers was too light-hearted, and he compared it less favorably, in that regard, to...the second Hulk movie. For one person, putting in a plane with the second Hulk movie is faint praise; for another, putting the second Hulk movie ahead of this one is also a statement. No real point there, but it always intrigues me how people see these things.

SamuraiFrog said...

Phoniexflames and Kelly, you both make interesting points.

I agree with Kelly about the action sequences: well-choreographed and very clear. In comic book terms, it's kind of like the difference between looking at Jack Kirby (clear, dynamic, exciting, easy to follow) and Rob Liefeld (too big, overdrawn, and ugly). I think Whedon's action sequences in this flick were like a Kirby: lots of stuff packed in to one issue, but never confusing or jarring to the eye.

(Interestingly, I see people torn on this aspect of the film more than any other. I see a lot of people who call it ultimately too fake-looking, but I think of it as giving the film a really definitive, heightened sort of look.)

I do think Whedon continued the individual characterizations but also gave some of them a necessary pause, as though they were people whose personal journeys were interrupted by a crisis. I actually think Tony Stark is a great example of how Whedon didn't just go for glib witticisms; there's not only a definite arc where he wrestled with his own approach to heroism (self-aggrandizing hotshot) and Captain America's example of heroic self-sacrifice. And his interest in Bruce Banner as a fellow scientist is almost the heart of the entire film for me. I mean, yes, Tony gets to be the smartass and say lines like "Earth's Mightiest Heroes" with a little wink at the inherent silliness of it all, but I think the moment where the team is coming together and Tony asks if Bruce has shown up yet is a triumph. You can tell everyone has written him off, but Tony's faith that Bruce will show up and save the day is touching.

Phoniex, I DO agree with you about the costumes, though. It's a little nitpick, but I did like Captain America's costume much better in his solo film than I do in The Avengers. I was thinking of Party City, too.

I do think Whedon was clever to subvert some of the monologuing (Hulk whipping Loki around, Coulson firing the Destroyer gun, Black Widow revealing she was really appearing vulnerable to get information out of Loki).

I just don't find it Whedon being his typical self, because I just DON'T LIKE Joss Whedon. About the only Joss Whedon creation I can watch is the first three seasons of Angel (and in the third season, only until Angel's kid comes back as a teenager). Basically, I enjoy it while other people are in charge of a spin-off until Whedon comes in and takes the reins and turns the show into everything I found unwatchable on Buffy (and later, Firefly).

But I consider The Dark Knight generic and forgettable despite one good performance, so I also look for different things in a superhero movie than maybe some other people.

phoniexflames said...

@Kelly - I'm not an absolute fan of the shaky cam approach to fights choreography filming, but I get what Nolan was trying to push (what it feels like to be in a fight with Batman; violent and jarring) and I thought the Bourne movies did a good job utilizing the technique. However, most filmmakers tend to not realize that the Bourne movies were a bit more successful with the technique because they interposed both the shaky violence with the big picture. If you ever get a chance to do so, rewatch some of those fight scenes and notice that you get a shot that's shaky, then a full shot to reestablish where you are, then a shaky shot, then a reestablished steady shot... it give you a sense of continuity of where you are. I'm not saying it's the best way to shoot a scene, I'm just trying to point out when it's used correctly.

That being said, I do like a well-choreographed and shot fight scene where you can see everything, too. For example, I thought Edgar Wright did a FANTASTIC job in Scott PIlgrim vs. The World, because you literally felt like you were in a cartoonish comic book. Jackie Chan another joy to watch, but then, he's an accomplished martial artist whom you MUST see completely. Zack Snyder does a great job of sensationalizing particular moments of a fight... the list goes on. But for Whedon? Like I said, I just felt like he doesn't shoot well around stunt doubles, and that, because the scenes seem to begin with a pose, there's no sense of danger, and thus no sense of amazement in watching them.

Anyway, I can see what you said about the "man out of time" element of Cap being more suited toward a sequel to Cap's movies, rather than an Avenger's movie, but because I didn't feel his VERY REAL displacement (which... that's a very big elephant to just overstep), I didn't feel like the character was done correctly.

As far as the dialog goes, different strokes for different folks, I guess. The only time I really felt that there was heartfelt stuff going on was between Tony and Banner... but that was because it centered on the best interpretation of Banner I've seen. Colson's last interaction with Loki just felt... like it was forced, to me. As soon as he started talking about how Loki lacked conviction, it was like someone slapped me in the back of the head, pulling my attention away from the screen. It just didn't FEEL like something he would say, and I noticed that A LOT in the film.

Regardless, I just wanted to thank you all for giving me your opinions on the film, and being open to hear mine, even if we disagree.