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Saturday, May 5, 2012

DAMN Good Movies -- THE AVENGERS


Yes, time once again for another of my movie takes, this time on the film The Avengers, based on the classic Marvel Comics superteam.  As always, if you haven't seen the movie yet and you don't want it spoiled for you, then please step back from your computer or whatever electronic device you're reading this on and stop reading now.  If, however, you're wise enough to know that movie reviews with spoilers are always more interesting than the ones without them...well...let the assembling begin...

At long last, Marvel Studios' four-year masterplan of creating a full-fledged movie universe is officially complete.  Starting with the release of Iron Man back in 2008, plans were made to connect films based on leading Marvel Comics characters and build up to the big kahuna that united all these superheroes together, The Avengers.  Nick Fury showed up after the Iron Man credits to discuss "The Avengers Initiative," Tony Stark met with General Ross in The Incredible Hulk, Black Widow was introduced in Iron Man 2, Hawkeye made a brief appearance in Thor, The Tesseract/Cosmic Cube turned up in Captain America: The First Avenger and along the way, we got to know a friendly SHIELD agent by the name of Phil Coulson. 

So here we are at the finish line, with the flagship Marvel Comics superhero team that fans spent decades dreaming about seeing one day on the big screen.  What once seemed like nothing more than wishful thinking is now reality through the coordination and planning led by Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige.  And once again to their credit, they brought on arguably the perfect person to direct this kind of film, none other than Joss Whedon.  Whedon earned his geek street cred long ago with the television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel and the short-lived Firefly, then went on to prove his mad comic book skills with the stellar 25-issue run of Astonishing X-Men with artist John Cassaday.  These projects showed that Whedon is a master of handling group dynamics, while his 2005 film Serenity sold us on his ability to tell a solid sci-fi action movie.

The thing is, with five previous movies' worth of material to smoosh together, The Avengers could've been an incoherent mess.  In other hands, you might have needed to watch the previous films to understand what was going on in this one, but Whedon -- mercifully -- knows the value of characters and telling a decent story.  Rewriting Zak Penn's original screenplay, Whedon introduces his heroes as if you're meeting each of them for the first time and gives just enough background info to move his story forward.  He wisely plays up each character's distinctive personality traits, keeping things light with his traditional snappy banter, then essentially throws them together to see how they clash.

And oh, do they.  With all these superpowered alphas and their egos around, it's easy to see where there would be personality conflicts.  Whedon indulges in pure fan fiction, creating expected tension that results in classic superhero vs. superhero action sequences.  Captain America and Iron Man butt heads, until Thor turns up and engages both of them in a superbrawl that levels a forest.  Even more insane, Black Widow finds herself having to fend off the Hulk in a complete mismatch, before she takes out a mind-controlled Hawkeye in a brutal fight later on.  There's also a fun visual gag where the Hulk sidearms Thor in a moment of pure revenge for an earlier skirmish.  As the Hulk's alter-ego Bruce Banner notes, "This isn't a team...It's a time bomb."

However, when it's time for things to get deadly serious, Whedon skillfully reins in his characters and focuses them on the threat of Thor's adopted brother Loki and his planned invasion of Earth using an alien race known as the Chitauri.  The film's third act is nothing but pure unbridled mayhem that provides everything you would want to see in this kind of superhero extravaganza.  Armed with a reported production budget of $220 million, Whedon throws everything he can up on the screen, leveling downtown Cleveland (acting as stunt double for the island of Manhattan) in a non-stop barrage of wrecked buildings, explosions and broken glass.  This is the Avengers at war, feeling every bit like the final act of a Michael Bay Transformers film...only with storytelling that doesn't suck and drop your IQ fifty points in the process.

The movie isn't perfect, though.  Despite his obvious talent as a storyteller, Whedon still hasn't evolved to a more cinematic, artistic style from his television directing days.  While there are some impressive effects shots, there aren't stunning visuals comparable to Christopher Nolan's Batman films or even Kenneth Branaugh's Thor.  Also, while Alan Silvestri's score wasn't terrible by any means, it lacked the punch of his previous Captain America work.  There weren't any memorable themes you'll be humming as you leave the theater, and there certainly weren't any echoes of previous music from the earlier Marvel films, which was a little surprising.

So what about the performances from the cast and the characters they portrayed?  Well, as you might expect, I have a few thoughts...

IRON MAN/TONY STARK -- Now running on automatic after two Iron Man films, Robert Downey, Jr. knows exactly how Tony thinks and reacts even when faced with other heroes on his level.  With Whedon's help, Tony makes a subtle but noticeable shift from wanting to run the show to relenting to Captain America's expertise in battle situtations.  Tony's hotshot arrogance is still there, but there's also a surprising respect for his fellow big-brain, Bruce Banner.

CAPTAIN AMERICA/STEVE ROGERS -- I was initially concerned that Whedon would downplay Cap's role in favor of Iron Man, but thankfully he has Steve Rogers setting aside his gloomy feelings of lost time and becoming a true leader for the team.  Just when you want him to, Chris Evans gives Cap his voice and throws himself into what he knows best, waging a war.  And unlike the solo Cap film, there's a great emphasis of the character's agility as he leaps and tumbles his way through the Cleveland--errr, Manhattan battlefield.  I wish his uniform had been better, though, but once it gets battered up a little, it works well enough.

THOR ODINSON -- Now looking a bit more Point Break (Tony's words, not mine) Chris Hemsworth is still fun to watch as Thor.  He gives the character the right amount of swagger while carrying off his rather Shakespearean relationship with Loki.  Apart from those scenes, Thor doesn't have much of a role in this movie but at least he gets a status update on his girlfriend Jane Foster.

THE HULK/BRUCE BANNER -- Mark Ruffalo is -- yes, incredibly -- the third Bruce Banner in three films featuring the Hulk.  Although not as good in the role as Edward Norton, Ruffalo gives Banner a nice emotionally-damaged edge and twitchiness.  However, it's the Hulk who really shines here as the mean green scene-stealer.  Everything's coming up Hulk whenever the character is unleashed to smash to his oversized heart's content.  The Avengers does what two earlier Hulk films couldn't...make you want to watch a third Hulk film.

BLACK WIDOW/NATASHA ROMANOFF -- Another character that makes you want to see a solo movie is Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow.  Unlike Iron Man 2, Black Widow is finally developed as a character, allowed to be Russian and given a mysterious past to make her interesting.  Sure, she still does her acrobatic flips and flying leg scissors moves, but there was no way that Joss Whedon was going to pass up the opportunity to bring the team's only woman into the spotlight.  My only complaint?  Black Widow still has her "Widow's Sting" bracelets and has yet to actually use the damn things.

HAWKEYE/CLINT BARTON -- Jeremy Renner basically reprises his character from Mission: Impossible -- Ghost Protocol here, but it works nicely for Hawkeye.  Unfortunately, Hawkeye is little more than a mind-controlled minion of Loki from the start, and doesn't really get his due until the final act.  When he does though, he's great, especially with a grin-inducing shot on a passing Chitauri sky cycle while looking in completely the opposite direction.  Oh, yeah.

LOKI -- As good as Tom Hiddleston was in Thor, he's even better here.  Whedon allows him to chew the scenery as the Avengers' first villain, a nod to the first Avengers comic from 1963.  Loki wickedly grins and manipulates his way throughout the movie, messing with Thor, Black Widow and Iron Man as only he can.  However, one of the film's best scenes happens when he tries his smack on the Hulk...and the Hulk just beats his Asgard into the floor in response.  I absolutely dare you to watch that scene and not smile.

NICK FURY -- Samuel L. Jackson still does his best Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury.  He's John Shaft from the 2000 Shaft remake with an eyepatch, but that's all that's asked from him here.  In Nick Fury's role as The Guy Who Brings The Avengers Together, Nick gets to strut around the SHIELD Helicarrier bridge and provide the right amount of manipulation to get the Avengers focused.  Oh, and he shoots down a rogue Helicarrier jet.

MARIA HILL -- Essentially serving as Nick Fury's personal assistant, Cobie Smulders is surprisingly underwritten considering she's the only other female in the movie besides Black Widow.  She's just there to give Nick Fury someone to talk to and unfortunately, she lacks the snarky edge of her comics counterpart.

PHIL COULSON -- Meanwhile, Clark Gregg gets a number of well-deserved moments for Agent Coulson.  The fannish worship of Captain America is a nice touch as is a nice exchange with Thor, but Coulson's confrontation with Loki is the true highlight.  For such a simple throwaway character designed to link the various Marvel movies, Coulson became something more along the way until he ended up as yet another example of Joss Whedon's favorite storytelling devices.

PEPPER POTTS -- Gwyneth Paltow's return as Pepper was a welcome addition.  Once again, the Bogie-and-Bacall chemistry she has with Robert Downey, Jr. makes scenes like the activation of Stark Tower far more interesting than they deserve to be.  Although, her inclusion makes me wonder why Tony didn't just pick up the phone and call his buddy War Machine for extra help.

ERIK SELVIG -- After being all creepy as a serial killer in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Stellan Skarsgård reprises his character from Thor as another mind-controlled Loki minion.  He doesn't get to do much apart from help to create a problem and then turn around and help to resolve it, but you have to love his role as extra movie universe continuity.

OBLIGATORY STAN LEE CAMEO -- Smilin' Stan turns up right at the end of the film, during a video montage on the Avengers' heroism and questions the sense of superheroes in New York.  Fun stuff as always.

All in all, The Avengers is the superhero version of Star Wars. It leaves you with that special "I can't believe what I just watched" feeling you want it to and wanting more even after two hours and twenty minutes. The film has great characters, all kinds of action and just the right amount of humor to keep you smiling. This is one of those all-too-rare blockbusters that actually lives up to all the hype. If you're a fan of superhero movies, you're going to love it...and if you're not a fan, watching this movie will certainly make you one.

And for those who might be wondering, here's the updated and revised list of my Top 20 Comic Book Films:

1. Superman (1978)
2. The Dark Knight (2008)
3. The Avengers (2012)
4. Watchmen (2009)
5. Spider-Man 2 (2004)
6. Spider-Man (2002)
7. Batman Begins (2005)
8. Iron Man (2008)
9. X-Men: First Class (2011)
10. X2: X-Men United (2003)
11. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
12. X-Men (2000)
13. Thor (2011)
14. Batman (1989)
15. Superman II (1981)

16. Green Lantern (2011)
17. Iron Man 2 (2010)
18. The Incredible Hulk (2008)
19. Hellboy (2004)
20. Superman Returns (2006)

Your friendly neighborhood movie reviewer,

Charles

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