07 May 2012

I Go to the Summer Movies: The Avengers

Cross-posted to Black Gate.

So begins my long trip through the genre movies of the Summer of ’12. I’m glad that things got off to a tremendous start.

As in a recording-shattering $207 million dollar take at the U.S. box-office, for a total of $640 million globally—so far. Oh, what a menacing term: “so far”!

The Avengers is not the end product of five movies and five years of preparation from Marvel Studios. It’s a beginning. While the two Iron Man films (2008 and 2010) were smash hits, the other three superhero films in the Avengers roster (The Incredible Hulk, Thor, and Captain America: The First Avenger) were more standard successes, and they meant more to the comic book fan-base than to general audiences. Now, the general audience is pumped to get more from these characters. All the Avengers are now major public stars, and with this insane success, Marvel is poised to truly unleash their stable of heroes on a public than will be drooling and clawing to get more.

I have watched The Avengers twice in theaters on its opening weekend, something I haven’t done since The Lord of the Rings films. That’s a review in itself, but a since I am 1) a Marvel zombie and Avenger fan since childhood; and 2) inaugurating this series of movie reviews for the summer, I have an obligation to go in-depth on this stupendous piece of entertainment cinema. I will avoid big spoilers as much as I can, since this is technically still a “review,” but some tidbits about the massive set-pieces will leak out. But you’ve seen the film already at least once, right? Three times, anyone? (I know plenty who are “three times and counting.”)

Okay, let’s assemble and do this.

Check-off another childhood dream come true. Somebody made a movie of Marvel’s superhero team The Avengers. They made it in live-action. They spent enormous amounts of money on it. They got it into theaters. And … they made it awesome.

No, I will not break the streak of the use of the word “awesome” to describe the awesomeness of the awesome Avengers. This is the most comic-bookish comic book movie ever made. It captures the four-color sugar high of a kid reading comic books with a flashlight under the bedsheets and puts it up on screen, becoming possibly the biggest, geekiest movie to thrill far beyond the geeks. Is it the best comic book movie ever made? That feels less certain, but I don’t care about arguing rank now. I only want to enjoy the ride: The Avengers is here, it’s glorious, and it’s fun valued far more than the price of a ticket (even inflated for 3D), and it makes the world appear very shiny after you leave the theater.
Writer/director Joss Whedon pulled it off. The industry doubted, fans doubted: could Whedon execute something on this scale? The “Whedon agnostics” forgot about his skill with ensembles, his intimate knowledge of the comic book characters, and the way he can bounce personalities off each other in ways that deepen the characters involved while driving the plot. The Avengers unspools (yeah, I know, digital projection) not so much as a series of action pieces—although most of those are stunning—but as character confrontations filled with tension and humor. Using the mix of the six heroes, plus Nick Fury, villain Loki, and SHIELD agent Phil Coulson, Joss Whedon crafts killer scene after killer scene: Bruce Banner and Tony Stark flinging science around. Captain America pushing Iron Man to act the hero. Black Widow and Hawkeye flashing back to the dark days of espionage work. Thor confronting his brother Loki on a craggy hilltop. Black Widow and Loki in an intense cross-interrogation. Cap, Stark, and Banner grimly rebounding strategy off each other as sparks fly. Agent Coulson having a nostalgia panic attack around Captain America. And Iron Man giving Loki the lowdown on how bad things are going to get if the villainous god presses his attack on Earth.

The superb character work has all the room its needs to breathe because the movie’s plot is absurdly simple, and has logic gaps that websites will start picking apart in a few weeks once everyone’s energy has leveled. But a simple plot, hole-filled or not, is all The Avengers needs. Loki, power-hungry and resentful at Thor, steals the Tesseract (seen in Captain America: The First Avenger, and known to comic readers as the Cosmic Cube) from a SHIELD facility, which he also demolishes. Loki offers the artifact to an alien race called the Chitauri in exchange for them serving as his army to pummel Earth. Nick Fury of SHIELD gathers together the team members of the deactivated “Avengers Initiative,” and after some rough patches, the heroes band to together to stop the Chitauri and their mega flying eels from re-zoning Manhattan. There’s also some technological angles with the Cube and Loki plays games with the heroes while in captivity, but the thrust of the film is A-B-C basic.
The Avengers gets off to a wobbly start. Joss Whedon excels when he can get all the characters together, but the first thirty minutes of set-up may tempt some viewers into thinking that—despite all reviewers’ claims to the contrary—the film actually isn’t that good. These first scenes don’t flow together well, and the opening with Loki pilfering the Cosmic Cube (that’s what I’m going to call it, get used to it) from SHIELD and then getting in a bland car chase and shoot-out is the poorest action beat in the film. Re-introducing each character comes across as artificial, although watching Steve Rogers run through punching bags like a chain smoker going through packs of Camels is amusing. Black Widow has a humorous inro, but then bogs down in a dull encounter with Bruce Banner that feels piddly compared what happens later.

However, once the SHIELD Helicarrier lifts off with Cap, Tony Stark, Black Widow, and Bruce Banner aboard, the film lifts off as well—and there wasn’t a single moment from that point forward that I didn’t enjoy. After Captain America and Iron Man make their move on Loki when he appears in Stuttgart, The Avengers has everyone enrapt in its comic book fantasy.

Since relationships and characters are the core of the film, I’ll break the rest of the movie down hero-by-hero, similar to what I did in my Destroy All Monsters review:
Captain America (Chris Evans): Captain America is the heart of the Avengers, whether in comics or movies. Joss Whedon understands that and makes Cap into the team leader. Cap is the most “heroic” of the heroes, the character whose existence is based on doing good for humanity, and the Avengers would not work without someone like him to pull the team together.

I knew that Whedon had Steve Rogers nailed down during Cap’s first conversation with Bruce Banner. It’s a small moment, just one line of dialogue, but it’s one of my favorite in the movie because it highlights once again why I love the character of Captain America, and why he is able to become the team leader without anyone arguing about it. Whedon gives Cap many other great moments; excluding a certain event involving the Hulk meeting Loki, the best scene in the film has Cap showing the cops of New York City what it is that makes him Captain America. It’s both hilarious and beautiful.

Chris Evans continues to impress in the part. He holds his own against some heavy-hitting actors like Robert Downey Jr. and Samuel L. Jackson because he has a grip on Cap’s unflinching conviction and integrity. In the middle of Banner and Stark locked in a hard science debate, Cap comes across as someone smart enough to work with them. (On seeing the movie a second time, I realized that every single one of Cap’s suggestions is correct.) Evans portrays Cap’s brilliance with strategy and leadership, so when he steps up in the final battle to lay out the plans for his teammates, viewers know that Loki and his army are doomed.

Have I mentioned how much I love Captain America?

Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.): The momentum for The Avengers began with Iron Man in 2008, and we can thank Robert Downey Jr’s antic performance for getting audiences jazzed up about that movie. But the success of the Iron Man character presented a possible threat to a team-up movie: would Tony Stark get the biggest chunk of time and end up muscling out the other Avengers?

Thankfully, Stark and Iron Man receive the right amount of exposure. Tony Stark is a dick, which is just what we want from him, but he gets a better arc here than in his two solo films, moving from the egotist who always wants to be the center of attention to a team player ready to sacrifice everything. Of course, Stark spends most of his time tweaking the nerves of everyone around him (even Bruce Banner, a man you wouldn’t like when he’s angry) while slinging out zippy one-liners. Robert Downey Jr. shines again with his wit and occasional touches of humanity, and his big meeting with Loki in Stark Tower before the finale is gold.

Memo to the Marvel Music department: I think it is time to drop Black Sabbath and AC/DC in association with Iron Man. The edge is gone from that.
Thor (Chris Hemsworth): The Avengers might also be called Thor 1.5. If new viewers have time to see only one of the solo films before seeing The Avengers, they should make it Thor. It’s not the best of the five, but it sets up the main events of The Avengers—specifically its villain. The conclusion of Thor had the hero trapping himself on Asgard by breaking the Bifrost Bridge, but this idea gets ditched in The Avengers through one line about “dark power.” (Thor’s ending was one of my issues with it, and The Avengers seems to acknowledge it was a poor creative choice.)

Thor’s role in the film, aside from providing the #2 Master of Destruction after the Hulk, is to deepen Loki and give meaning to his quest for power. The relationship between the two is an emotional highlight. The other characters get poignant moments (Hawkeye with Black Widow, Tony Stark with Pepper, and Captain America with the world), but Thor gets the heavy ones that matter the most to the events threatening the planet. Hemsworth and Hiddleston worked well across from each other in Thor, but they amp it up here, and the Loki vs. Thor scene in the climax delivers the best dramatic writing and performances in the film.

Thor gets involved in two great hero-vs-hero fights, which were always a staple of 1960s Marvel. He goes up against Iron Man and later the Hulk. The Iron Man/Thor fight is particularly juicy, because of all the folks on the team, these two are the boys with the most skull-bursting egos. Good times watching them smash each other around.
The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo): I bet you’ve read and heard a lot about how the Hulk steals the show, and how this is the first movie to get the Green Goliath right. I don’t agree with this assessment, especially the second part. I think 2008’s The Incredible Hulk was spot-on. But the Hulk does work better in an ensemble setting, where viewers don’t have to feel restless while waiting for Banner to stop fretting about turning into the Hulk and just get angry and green and smash the bejeesus out of things.

And the Hulk doesn’t steal the movie because nobody can steal this movie. The pieces all work together, and Hulk’s job is to ratchet up the mayhem in the finale, giving audiences the spectacular shots of disaster and the cathartic thrill of rage unleashed in the cause of good. The Hulk gets at least three of the big cheer moments in the New York battle, one of which has already gone down as an action-movie classic. Both times I saw it, it got such roars of applause from audiences that many people couldn’t hear Hulk’s follow-up line. (A shame, since I think it encapsulates the Hulk.)

Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner is more a surprise to me than the Hulk’s heroics. Ruffalo is the third actor in a row to play Banner in a feature film, after Eric Bana in Ang Lee’s Hulk (which is unrelated to the Marvel Cinematic Universe), and Edward Norton in The Incredible Hulk. Although Norton is a superb actor, his Banner is too active and engaged to convey a true sense of the character’s tragedy. Ruffalo instead seems to channel Bill Bixby: a man desperate for “normal,” unable to reach it, and resigned to be as good and yet unobtrusive a man as he can. As Captain America subtly recognizes in Banner, there is truly a great hero inside this man that can come out in the “monster.”
Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson): Scarlett Johansson is a beautiful woman, but has always seemed a bit, uhm, flat as a performer to me. But put her in the right part, surround her with the right gadgetry and cast, and she works fine—or this case, fantastically. This is easily the best performance I’ve seen from Johansson, and the improvement over her Black Widow in Iron Man 2 is gargantuan.

Black Widow, along with Hawkeye, is the team’s “normal.” She has no powers, only what she calls a “particular set of skills” that revolve around the dark underbelly of the espionage world. Natasha Romanoff has a bloody past, and Johansson conveys this without it crushing the character into dreariness. Her scene with Loki tells us so much about her and her relationships (specifically to Hawkeye), but also ends up showing us how damn good she is at what she does. Johansson’s Black Widow makes me hope for a SHIELD film with her and Hawkeye at the center.
Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner): Somebody had to get lost in the shuffle, and Hawkeye—the character with the least screen-time in the five previous movies—got buried a bit deep in the deck. He isn’t completely buried; he gets some fine action moments and camera zooms along his flying arrows, and he stars in a solid scene with Black Widow that emphasizes their background in espionage far removed from the supers on the team. But Hawkeye spends the majority of his time under Loki’s mind-control, and the combative character from the comics never steps up to the plate. It’s unfortunate that the Big Shouting Match scene on the deck of the SHIELD carrier is missing him. Oh well, somebody needed to fill this part in The Avengers, and Hawkeye does it without harming the rest of the film. There’s enough for me to want to see Renner do more with the character, hopefully in that hypothetical SHIELD movie that somebody is trying to pitch right now.

Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson): Jackson got cast in this part for the cameo in Iron Man because the Ultimate Marvel universe version of Nick Fury was purposely drawn to resemble the actor. Hell, in one of the issues of The Ultimates, Nick Fury even cracks that Samuel L. Jackson should play him. Since I grew up with the mainstream Marvel Universe cigar-chomping premature gray Nick Fury, who fought in World War II with Captain America, I never jelled with Jackson in this part. But I can’t deny that nobody plays Samuel L. Jackson better than Samuel L. Jackson, and he’s fun to watch do his shtick here. He never tries to overwhelm the co-stars, and like the rest of the actors, he “works well with others” for whatever the scene needs.

Agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg): Not an Avenger, nor the head of SHIELD, Coulson still deserves some love because he’s been an integral part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe since his supporting role in Iron Man. Now he gets to shine, and Gregg is fantastic, especially the way he relates to Captain America. Coulson has a surprising and crucial part to play in the events of The Avengers, one I’m glad nobody spoiled for me.
Loki (Tom Hiddleston): I’ve already said plenty about Loki, since he weaves through the arcs of all the other characters. Hiddleston was good in Thor, but he’s Shakespearean here. Loki is both despicable as a tyrant, but also someone with an undercurrent of childishness and doubt. Loki is really, really petty when it comes down to brass tacks, and Hiddleston’s fits of theatrics are dead-on. Oh, and that moment with the Hulk….

Those Other Bad Guys: The identity of the alien invaders were part of intense speculation during the promotion of the film, but Marvel wasn’t trying to hide them because they offered a big surprise. The Chitauri actually aren’t much of anything except armored goons with big guns for the heroes to pound. The name “Chitauri” comes from the Ultimate Marvel Universe, where they were pseudo-Skrulls, the famous shape-changing aliens who figure large in the mythos of the Fantastic Four, and consequently belong to 20th Century Fox. But the Chitauri do not function here as Skrull stand-ins; they’re just monsters serving as Loki’s army to provide a big threat for the Avengers to face. The Chitauri spokesman, termed “The Other” in the credits, has a scene with Loki early in the film (one of the least interesting dialogue sequences), and after that the Chitauri clock out of the story until dropping from the sky for the final battle. We don’t spend more time on these alien attackers than we need, because the movie is all about the heroes and their relationships. This isn’t a flaw—it’s the correct allocation of resources.

(There is, however, a tease during the credits regarding the Chitauri. Unless you are a hard-core Marvel reader, you won’t have any idea what this is about. It does seem that Marvel Studios has the villain picked out for The Avengers 2, although my modest guess is that this seed may start to sprout in Thor 2 or the proposed Guardians of the Galaxy. This cameo will push the Marvel Cinematic Universe in very cosmic directions.)
The problematic first half-hour prevents me from giving The Avengers an “A+” on my running Summer Movie Scorecard, but this is the only complaint to make, and it seems so minor when I consider how much pleasure the film has given me and certainly will continue to give to me, fans, and casual viewers for years to come.

Okay, Batman—your move.

My Summer Movie Scorecard
The Avengers . . . . . . . . . A

Next week: I dread the Dark Shadows of Tim Burton’s career.