Sunday, May 6, 2012

Film Review: The Avengers

A man out of time, a born leader.  A cocksure genius with a penchant for suits of armour.  An Asgardian god, the son of Odin.  A femme fatale who's bite packs quite the wallop.  An assassin who can make a bow and arrow sing with death and destruction.  Oh yeah, and they have a Hulk.  Captain America.  Iron Man.  Thor.  Black Widow.  Hawkeye.  The Hulk.  These are the band of wouldbe misfits that super-spy Nick Fury has assembled to save the Earth from certain doom.  These are the heroes, the superheroes if you will, who come together, albeit it more than a bit uneasily at first, as is par the course for such a clash of titans, to form the Earth's, and Marvel comicdom's, mightiest heroes, The Avengers.  Natch.

Following up on the momentum of a string of precursors that included Iron Man 1 and 2, Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger (there were a couple of rather lackluster Hulks as well, but no one seems to ever mention those anymore), this Joss Whedon directed culmination of all the aforementioned preliminary superhero giddiness (another culmination will surely come with The Avengers 2 in a few years, after another string - phase two some are calling it - of entries into this multifaceted franchise) is rife with possibilities, while at the same time acting as one huge ass risk.  Sure, it will make money (opening weekend may very well be a record-setting time) but will it stay true to those already in love with these iconic characters, those who have grown up with them.  In other words, will the fanboy, casual and hard core alike, be satisfied with this culmination?  Of course with a fanboy of sorts (and actual comic book writer) at the proverbial helm, the answer could and should, and is a resounding yes.

Reprising their roles as the stars of the aforementioned multifaceted franchise builders, the film stars Robert Downey Jr. as the invincible Tony Stark, aka Iron Man, Chris Evans as that man out of time, Captain Steve Rogers, the formidable Captain America, and Chris Hemsworth as the Asgardian of myth, The Mighty Thor, as the core - the big three if you will - of The Avengers team.  We also get Scarlett Johansson as Natasha Romanov, The Black Widow (she too reprises her role from Iron Man 2), Jeremy Renner as Clint Barton, the archer better known as Hawkeye (after his brief cameo in last year's Thor) and first timer Mark Ruffalo as Dr. Bruce Banner, the alter-ego of that "other guy" with the rather severe anger management problem (Ruffalo is the third Hulk in as many movies, but who's counting).  Toss in Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury, Colbie Smulders as Agent Maria Hill and Clark Gregg reprising his role as Agent Phil Coulson - not to mention Gwyneth Paltrow in a glorified cameo as Pepper Potts, assistant and love interest to Downey's Stark - and you got yourself a fun, action-packed superhero extravaganza.   But what is it really all about?

Now I am not here to give a lesson in comic book culture or Marvel Comics mythology, for one must assume that those seeing the film, or at least those wishing to read more about it, are already well-versed in who The Avengers are and what kind of history these characters have with each other.  Granted, the universe inside Joss Whedon's movie is a bit different than that of the regular Marvel Universe - this team of Avengers is actually based on The Ultimates, a variant version of the main Marvel Universe, but again, those who are interested in such things are already in the so-called know - but still, there is no need for anything more than mild hashing out of the story and its characters, so I will give that to you rather quickly and mostly painlessly now.  I suppose my goal here is to bring together those forces of fanboydom and those of the more cinephiliac bent - both a sort of hipster-esque outcast - and get them to shake hands somewhere in the middle.  In attempting so, here is what is up for those not in the superhero know.

In the so-called beginning, a man named Stan Lee created a group of superheroes called The Fantastic Four, and ushered in what would come to be known as the Silver Age of comics.  Lee, along with his compatriot Jack Kirby, would write and draw (respectively) some of the most groundbreaking works of comicdom in the era - The Amazing Spider-Man, The Uncanny X-Men, The Incredible Hulk and Daredevil, Man Without Fear were just a few among them.  The most pertinent to our little story here was a comic called The Avengers (or The Mighty Avengers if you will), a band of misfit superheroes who were stagnating on their own until Lee and Kirby brought them together to battle the Asgardian god of mischief, Loki.  Now the story went a bit differently back then - there were two characters, The Wasp and Ant-Man, who are not now among our founding heroes, and Captain America would not show up until issue four (as I said, Whedon's film is based more on an updated, more retconned version of the story) - but the basic gist is the same.

Brought together by the aforementioned Nick Fury, head of S.H.I.E.L.D., a super spy organization that polices the planet (think a world-wide über CIA kind of thing, but with flying aircraft carriers), or should we say manipulated into coming together by Fury (any regular Marvel reader knows such a thing is pure Fury), our intrepid warriors - Earth's Mightiest Heroes as Downey's Iron Man tells us in his usual snide and snarky way, one of many winks and nods to the comics - are forced into battle to stop Loki, and the forces that are secretly controlling him from the far reaches of space, from destroying the world.  Not an easy task one might say, but for The Mighty Avengers, all in a days (very hard) work.  The soldier, the genius, the warrior, the spy, the assassin and the monster come together and become the superhero super group that we have all come to know and love from a lifetime of comic book reading.  Well at least the nerds among us - this critic very much included.

Director Whedon, that fanboy fave who has not only created some of the most endearingly cultish characters (Buffy the Vampire Slayer and her supernatural posse, the cast and crew of Firefly, the lost souls of Dollhouse) but was also the driving creative force behind the first two year or so run on the critically acclaimed Astonishing X-Men series for the fine folks over at Marvel, makes it all come out smelling like the comic geek's wet dream come true - even if its level of smooth goodness may not transfer over to those non-comic moviegoers among the bunch (the ones that need more of an explanation that what I gave above).  In other words, the film, though perhaps not in the Wellesian/Fordian realm that something like Chris Nolan's The Dark Knight finds itself basking in, nor in that strange and obscure realm that Zack Snyder's Watchmen so perfectly niches into, will surely delight those in the proverbial know, bound to give fans of the comics several orgasms throughout - and judging from the cheers at the midnight showing that I attended, that is just what happened.

Now even though the battle scenes were above par, across the so-called board, blending green screen CGI technology with real hands-on buttkicking at least as well as, if not better than most films of the genre, it is Whedon's script, and the rendering of such by the actors, that makes this film shine brighter than any of its Marveldom, hero-building precursors, save for perhaps the first Iron Man.  Though many criticize the film for having too long periods of inaction between the big action set pieces, this is simply not true.  These places of so-called inaction (and really only those who go in for Michael Bay movies would complain about such a ridiculous thing) are where we get the hero-building that is so needed in the comic book world of the Marvel Universe, and Whedon integrates his film with a real sense of that very same hero-building and in a sense keeps intact everything that makes the Marvel Universe a living breathing organism - a thing that would have seemed nearly impossible just a decade ago.  The highlights of the film are not the big bang brouhahas where hero battles villain with the fate of the world on the line (though these are of course delicious to watch) but the smaller, almost aside-esque moments instead.  

Downey and Ruffalo especially marvel us with the chemistry they have and give off on screen, sizing each other up, and playing off of each others strengths and weaknesses of character.  Evans, as the stoic and noble First Avenger also gets in on the game, and Clark Gregg has some fine moments of his own, not to mention Tom Hiddleston giving his snarky all as bad guy Loki, but still it is Downey and Ruffalo who steal the show, both as men and as warrior and beast respectively.  All-in-all, The Avengers is a damn fine bang bang motion picture with all the requisite superhero banter one would, and should, expect, as well as some of the best action sequences in the genre's history.  But still, it is the little things that make the film work as well as it does, for what it is.  Downey's Stark wearing a Black Sabbath t-shirt (think about it), Evans and Downey's two heroes sniping at each other as civilians but working as a perfect one-two punch in the field, the coolness of Ruffalo's Banner becoming the "other guy", the hero worship in Clark Gregg's eyes as his agent Coulson mews over Captain America, Hemsworth's Thor sheepishly mentioning his brother being adopted, the general banter between friends and enemies alike.

All the above, wrapped together so smoothly and seamlessly in Whedon's top notch (one could even say Tarantino-esque, albeit on the lighter side) script.  There are things that I could have liked better, most notably an expanded characterization of Hawkeye (he was always one of my favourite comic book Avengers, though I have always preferred the more arrogant old school version than the more stoic and determined modern day, Ultimate comics version that we get here), but overall we the fans, both casual and hard core alike, get a pretty damn fun piece of cinematic superhero entertainment.  Perhaps nothing that will top the critical annals of film history, but enough to make it, save for the aforementioned Watchmen and The Dark Knight (both above and beyond their ilk), one of the best pieces of its genre.  A pure and unadulterated blockbustery good time is to be had by all.  Simply put, in comic book movie terms, excelsior!  Those in the know understand.  'nuff said.


Dan O. said...

Very fun flick and one of the best superhero movies that I've seen in recent time. Hopefully the sequel doesn't take so long to come back around but if it does, I can only bet that it will be freakin' awesome. Good review Kevyn.

Kevyn Knox said...

Thanx Dan.

Yeah it was fun. I especially loved all the little asides and in-jokes and other comic geek related. Whedon does do great dialogue.

Candice Frederick said...

agreed. i thought the battle scenes were incredibly smooth, as was the cgi. but i though loki, once again, stole the show.

Chip Lary said...

Very good review. Your enjoyment of it definitely came through. I also enjoyed the interaction of the Stark and Banner characters. It was actually one of the things I was looking for going into the movie, so I was happy when they had it.

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