Thursday, May 17, 2012

The Avengers

A couple of Mondays ago I saw The Avengers; then, a few days later, I saw it again. So, it probably shouldn't come as much of a surprise that I've written about it – though it's taken me a bit longer to finish than I anticipated; such is my life at the moment.

Oh, and medium-level spoilers ahoy. I don't like doing that, but I really can't talk about the bits that I liked without giving too much away. If you want a very brief review it's as follows: it's a stunningly well-written and well-made action blockbuster film with great characters and some of the cleverest and funniest dialogue I've heard – albeit with a couple of fairly minor flaws.

Thorough review below the fold.

Great expectations

Each year there are a few films I really, really look forward to; this year there are a few contenders: The Dark Knight Rises, Dark Shadows, Prometheus, Men in Black 3 and Pixar's Brave being at the top of my list.

But above all of these was The Avengers, for two reasons: 1) it's the most recent the series of films based on Marvel comic characters – the preceding films including the two Iron Man films, Thor, The Incredible Hulk and Captain America, all of which I've liked1; and 2) it was written2 and directed by one of my favourite creative people of all time, Joss Whedon3.

So yeah, pretty excited. And now I've seen it – twice.

1Well, except for The Incredible Hulk, which I haven't actually seen.
2Story co-written by Zak Penn  
3Creator – if you don't already know – of tv shows Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its spinoff Angel, Firefly and its big screen sequel Serenity, Dollhouse, and the hilarious musical web series Doctor Horrible's Sing-Along Blog. He has a horror film, The Cabin in the Woods, coming out in Australia soon. He's also done script work on films like Toy Story, X-Men and Speed.

The Story

Loki, an alien introduced in Thor, steals the Tesseract (a cube-shaped energy source last seen in Captain America) from the government organisation, S.H.I.E.L.D; its leader, Nick Fury has to bring together Steve Rogers/Captain America, Bruce Banner/The Hulk and Tony Stark/Iron Man in order to track him/it down and thwart his plans; not long after, Thor shows up and (somewhat reluctantly) joins the team, which includes non-superpowered characters Natasha Romanoff/The Black Widow and Clint Barton/Hawkeye.

To say the superheroes do not get on well is an understatement. But they manage to move past this and start to work together to defeat Loki and his allies, who have opened a portal to let through an alien army bent on taking over Earth.

The Verdict

It's the best comic book adaptation I've seen. Easily, in fact.

General consensus is that The Dark Knight, the second of the Christopher Nolan Batman films hold that title – at least according to this article – but I'm not that big a fan of that one, or the Nolan Batman films in general; I'm not entirely sure why, but I think it's mostly because of Christian Bale, who I don't like all that much. In fact, the main reason I saw The Dark Knight was because of Heath Ledger; similarly, the main reason I'm as keen to see the third film as I am is for who they've cast as the antagonists: Anne Hathaway (my fondness for whom I wrote about here) as Catwoman and Tom Hardy as Bane.

I'm also not fond of the Spiderman films – I haven't even seen the third one – and again, I can't put my finger on exactly why; I am, however, somewhat intrigued by the upcoming reboot, and may well see that at the cinema if there's nothing else on. The highly-regarded Sin City I thought was good and very well done in terms of capturing the feel of the comic, but overall not that satisfying – it was too long for starters.

"I don't think we should be focusing on Loki. That guy's brain is a bag full of cats. You can smell crazy on him." – Bruce Banner

Don't even bother asking me about Superman. None of the various film versions of that hold pretty much nothing for me – and I can't even consider watching a film with someone wearing that suit. I was a fan of Smallville, though – but only the first few seasons; it got way too silly after that.

For me, the best comic/graphic novel adaptations – at least those you'd file in the 'action' genre – include Men in Black, The Crow, Hellboy, Watchmen (I know that puts me in a minority, but so be it; for me it worked), X-Men and X-Men 2 (but not 3), Blade 2 (so much better than the first one), Iron Man, Kick-Ass and Road to Perdition.

But The Avengers is better. Head and shoulders better. I went to see it a second time – an encomium reserved only for films I have a special interest in; the list is very short: Baz Luhrmann's Romeo & Juliet (which I saw three times) and Joss Whedon's previous big-screen escapade, Serenity – and I'm already anticipating the Blu-Ray release, which is significant in and of itself because I don't currently own a Blu-Ray player, and had no intention of purchasing one in the near future until now.

Pretty much the only action film of recent years that even comes close is Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, which I was very impressed with.

Obviously, from the plot outline, the storyline is not its strength, and I'm not going to pretend otherwise – it's patently obvious the entire reason for this film to exist is to bring these characters together to at first butt heads, be united by a common goal and eventually work together in saving the world.

Formulaic, yes. But it doesn't matter; the other elements of the film are so mindblowing that I didn't care.

Those elements are pretty straightforward – superb special effects, both in the sense of high quality and in judicious use thereof4; excellent characters, with depth and 'issues'; good acting – particularly from Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark/Iron Man, Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner/The Hulk, Tom Hiddleston as Loki and Scarlett Johansson as Natasha Romanov/Black Widow; and (for me, most importantly) – excellent use of humour.

Loads and loads of snarky humour, the kind that Joss Whedon does so damn well. Nerdy pop culture references by the dozen, witty rejoinders, insults, visual gags, well-timed vitriol (mostly from Samuel L. Jackson) – every kind of non-scatalogical joke5 in the book, and done so very, very well; it's been a while since I've been in a cinema where people laughed as much as they did in this film – and keep in mind I'm in a cinema once a week for most of the year6.

And it wasn't just that there were a lot of funny lines/scenes, it's that it was part of a balanced whole; there were fast-paced action scenes, tension-building segments, slower expository scenes, establishing (or, since most of the audience is likely to be already familiar with them, reinforcing) character moments and character development scenes as well.

"Yeah, takes us a while to get any traction, I'll give you that one. But let's do a head count here: your brother the demigod; a super soldier, a living legend who kind of lives up to the legend; a man with breath-taking anger management issues; a couple of master assassins, and YOU, big fella, you've managed to piss off every single one of them." – Tony Stark

For me, that's where The Avengers wins out over the other action blockbusters of recent years – it's got all the elements in the right proportions. The kind of films all try for a mix of plot, character, spectacle and comedy, but too often they mess these up; the best example of this, of course is the execrable Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen – though, given it took over half a billion dollars7 at the worldwide box office, there are plenty of people out there who aren't that discriminating.

There are, of course, a couple of flaws. A couple of important plot developments seem to come out of nowhere and come under what I've described before as 'huh?' moments – this, though, may be the result of editing; Joss Whedon has said they cut about half an hour out of the film, and that the missing scenes will be included on the dvd/Blu-Ray release. But it's still kind of annoying.

As per most films of this kind, even the non-superhero humans are far more capable than they should be; similarly, the laws of physics are bent pretty seriously out of shape. The invading army are, in the words of Douglas Adams, mostly harmless, at least in terms of doing any serious conquering or posing any threat to the Avengers – though they do manage a substantial amount of property damage.

"Dr. Banner, your work is unparalleled. And I'm a huge fan of the way you lose control and turn into an enormous green rage monster." – Tony Stark

But, like I said, these are only minor flaws – they're overwhelmed by the positive aspects.

4Special effects, for me at least, need to be used properly to be worthwhile. I guess the exception would be Avatar, where it was the effects themselves that were the drawcard and everything else the afterthought. Which is why, despite having such a crap storyline, it's the most successful film of all time.  
5Which is fine by me in this sort of film; there's a time and a place and this wasn't it.  
6Admittedly, I don't see a lot of movies you'd describe as 'laugh-out-loud' comedies; however, most of the time when there are laughworthy moments I'm the one laughing the most and the loudest, 'cause I a) appear to have a similar sense of humour to a lot of screenwriters/filmmakers and b) have a loud laugh. 
7Needless to say I'm hoping The Avengers eclipses that woeful piece of crap.

What it means

Several years ago, after seeing Serenity (twice), I remarked that the day someone gives Joss the money to make a blockbuster, the results are going to be spectacular.

And I was right.

But I wasn't just glad the film was good for the sake of seeing a good film; the fact that it's good – and doing very well in box-offices around the world; it now holds a bunch of records – means (at least I hope it means) that Joss Whedon will get more gigs as a feature writer/director. After all, it worked for Christopher Nolan, who was able to do his dream project (Inception) made after proving himself with the Batman films.

What it is he might do if given free reign to do his own thing I've no idea; he's always working on a couple of projects8. But I'm sure he'll come up with something.

That it almost certainly means another Avengers film is, to me, a good thing as well; there's still plenty of potential there, and since the producers seem intent on maintaining a high standard, chances are they'll avoid the (sadly) common problem of crappy sequels (which I wrote about here). Admittedly, the only one in this 'universe' that's had a sequel so far is Iron Man, but while it was a bit of a drop-off from the first, it wasn't a huge one.

Really, I can't think of a time when I've been as happy about a film being this good as I am about this one...

8His film version of Much Ado About Nothing will be out later this year – probably streamed or direct-to-dvd – and he's talked about doing a sequel to Doctor Horrible's Sing-Along Blog – which I'm really looking forward to.

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