Sunday, May 06, 2012

The Avengers: Attack of the Giant Blockbuster Movie

The Avengers
Written and Directed By: Joss Whedon, from a story by Zak Penn and Whedon
Starring: Samuel L Jackson, Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddelston, Jeremy Renner, Scarlett Johansson, Clark Gregg, Cobie Smulders, Stellan Skarsgaard, and Gwyneth Paltrow
Director of Photography: Seamus McGarvey, Editor: Jeffery Ford and Lisa Lassek, Production Designer: James Chinlund, Original Music: Alan Silvestri

            For those who stuck around through the credits of Iron Man in the summer of 2008, they were treated to a post-credit sequence as a one-eyed Samuel L Jackson approached Robert Downey Jr., telling him about a special initiative. Who could expect that four years later, that gambit by Marvel would pay off in The Avengers? After a Hulk, a Thor, and a Captain America (and another Iron Man), Marvel has finally created the juggernaut of them all: A superhero movie that combines the biggest names with even bigger special effects. For those of us who have watched with continuing dread as Marvel launched an unstoppable wave of fan service films, tickling them with Easter eggs (instead of plot and characte), The Avengers has seemed like a time bomb in which film could finally be declared dead. The blockbusters have won.

            But fear not! Because while the Marvel machine might seem unstoppable, here comes writer-director Joss Whedon to reign in this whale of a movie. Whedon may not have worked in big budget scales before, but his importance to fandom is unparalleled, creating many memorable shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly, as well as the brainchild of last month’s Cabin in the Woods. If anyone could stop The Avengers from train wreck potential, surely Whedon is the man for the job.

            And at times, you can see him breaking his own style into The Avengers. The action starts quickly as Loki (Tom Hiddelston), Thor’s brother (who died at the end of Thor? Many loopholes go unexplained), has returned from the deepest parts of space and steals a glowing cube from the secret agency known as Shield. The cube is called the Teseract, and Loki plans on using it to bring the Chutari (your basic evil alien superpower) to Earth to wage war. So Nick Fury (Jackson) finally puts his plan into action, gathering the best heroes Earth has to offer: billionaire Tony Stark (Downey Jr.) and his suit of metal, Gamma Ray physicist Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) and his dangerous green superego, All-American Steve Rodgers (Chris Evans) and his super strength Captain, and Greek demigod Thor (Chris Hemsworth). Along for the ride are two more down-to-Earth heroes—secret agent Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johnasson), an ass kicker known as Black Widow, and precision perfect archer Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner). And how can we forget Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg), who turns into a gushing fan boy when he meets Captain America.

            After a very wobbly first act, Whedon finally gets things into play once he gets these superegos in a room together (on top of a flying battleship of course). Instead of showing off their intense fighting powers, Whedon gets the eccentricities of these characters and how they can and can’t get along. Banner and Stark talk quantum physics. Thor laughs at the pettiness of human banter. Rodgers, who spent the last fifty years frozen, doesn’t understand why they should question their orders. And some secrets are revealed about Shield’s ultimate plan.

           Whedon keeps things light and skips right along, brining a certain amount of wit to these elements. The comparisons to Rio Bravo are more than apt, and this is certainly most clear in Dr. Banner. Ruffalo, taking over for Edward Norton, manages to capture both the darkness of his inner monster, as well as his sadistic humor. Whedon even gets one of his unexpected death sequences, certainly the film’s emotional highlight.

            But things must kick in to high gear, as this is Marvel, and things can only end with the ultimate moments of awesome. The third act puts the team in the center of New York City, fighting off massive hordes of generic aliens, as the special effects team does its best. Whedon does manage to throw some surprising moments of wit, particularly a showdown between Loki and the Hulk, but most of it is a fan service parade of moments of awesome all ready to top one another. My audience cheered after each moment of pure badass, and at least one person pointing their camera at the screen, as if this would be the only time he would be able to see such a moment. But the whole thing is simply pulverizing, a repeat of last summer’s Transformers. Bow to the gods of CGI.

            I don’t know what I “expected” out of The Avengers. I certainly didn’t hate it like I did the banal Thor and the sloppy Iron Man 2; and certainly The Avengers is the most competent of these films since the original Iron Man. But Iron Man also came at a time when superhero malaise was reaching its climax, and since then, each of these films has felt bigger and bigger but rarely better. I enjoyed Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy, and Guillermo Del Toro’s Hellboy flick, and have been highly anticipating the conclusion to Christopher Nolan’s take on the caped crusader. But the auteur behind The Avengers isn’t Joss Whedon, it’s Marvel producer Kevin Feige, who has carefully crafted the Universe between each of these films. I guess Feige’s success in bringing four wholly different superheroes into the same universe is commendable, and nothing in The Avengers feels lazy, just never particularly inventive. For those who have loved Marvel’s ambitious plan, it’s everything you ever wanted in a film about this team. Which is to say, nothing feels organic.

            There’s a moment late in The Avengers, as Stark prepares to launch missles into a gigantic metallic beast. His computer tells him that he’ll run out of power before he can penetrate that armor. And perhaps that’s Whedon’s own commentary on this mega franchise. You can see the dents he put in it, but you can’t stop the Marvel juggernaut. 

1 comment:

Andrew Welch said...

I had similar thoughts, Peter. I genuinely enjoyed the humor, but the action could feel bland. I wish more hero-based movies would follow Raimi, Nolan, and Bird's example and create set pieces that are big but vastly more intimate. For example, even though I've seen it over and over, I'm still riveted by the Joker-Batman-Gotham Police chase sequence from The Dark Knight. Maybe the editing isn't spot-on (as the famous Jim Emerson video essay points out), but the pacing, the sound, and (I think) the visuals all work together to create genuine suspense. With the big set pieces from Transformers and The Avengers, though, the action is often too spread out, making it harder for me to become really invested. Still, fun is fun I guess, and I'm sure I'll pay to see whatever comes next.