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Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Movie Review: The Avengers

Hey there folks! I'm back, as promised, with a review of The Avengers. Let me say right off the bat that, without a doubt, this is indeed the best of the Marvel Comics movies- by a mile. The movie has a ton going for it- action, special effects, and, most importantly, character interactions that are spot on. That said, I do have a few issues with the movie- not that I believe any movie has to be "perfect" (a subjective term if there ever was one); however, there are a few issues here that should be discussed. Mindless gushing isn't the same as a solid look at this movie- which clearly deserves a strong look. So- away we go:

The Good:

First off, the movie is something of a miracle. Who would have believed that there would have ever been a comic book movie with a team of superheroes- with the premise that they had movies before and would have movies afterward? Not even Watchmen (a one-off) could claim this. Indeed, it is fantastic that they managed this feat- these movies have been like reading the books- a crossover, in fact. Each independent movie ties into The Avengers- in both large and small ways. We see the Cosmic Cube's power in Captain America. We see the villain, Loki, get his start in Thor. We see why Hulk is an exile in The Incredible Hulk. We see the formation of the Avengers Initiative in Iron Man (which also served to establish "the rules" of this Marvel Universe). Then, taking these threads- they  weave together into the tapestry of The Avengers- the climax of this particular crossover. As a result, The Avengers has accomplished something that no other comic movie ever has- taking several individuals' stories and bringing them into a single, larger (and coherent) movie. This is more historic than the box office haul that The Avengers has had, truth be told. I still am in awe that they managed to do it, and do it so well.

Secondly, you must hand it to both Joss Whedon and the people who cast these actors in their respective roles- for they have done so much to make this movie (and Marvel movies in general) a success. It is plain to see that each actor has come to the table ready to give it their all- each has brought so much already (in their individual movies) that it is amazing that no one shirks or falters here. You know it is bad when I can't say there was a weak link in the "Big 6"... all were great. Robert Downey Jr, after "phoning in" his performance in Iron Man 2, is perfection here- a blend of brilliance, cockiness, arrogance, and heart. Chris Hemmsworth is great as Thor- a bit more humble, but still a god nevertheless. Chris Evans is simply amazing as Captain America- he plainly shows that he is a man out of "his time", but he shows Cap's strengths- he adapts quickly, trying to come up to speed. He also plays Cap as strong, wise, and an urbane leader- there's no "golly gee" moment that makes him look like a fool for being patriotic or from being in the 1940s. Mark Ruffalo does a great job as Banner- he's a bit more accepting of what he has become, and I think there's a difference when his Hulk just "comes on" as opposed to when he "wills it" to- great ideas there- and Ruffalo makes sure that Banner is a human being above all else (don't get me wrong, I thought Edward Norton did just fine too, but Ruffalo beats him because the overall movie is better). Rounding out is Scarlett Johanson as Black Widow, giving her more depth this time out, and Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye- this guy is pissed, but he never lets that control his actions- he is so focused in the final battle despite what he suffers in the movie that you root for him, but you are also intimidated by him. Of course, there's also the supporting crew- Samuel L. Jackson finally gets to be Nick Fury (even his secrets have secrets, a neat twist), and Clark Gregg gets his moments as Colson.

As I said, the casting would be nothing without the script and direction from Joss Whedon. It is apparent that he "gets" these guys- and he has little interest in just blowing stuff up for the heck of it. He wants to show these superheroes bouncing off each other- fighting, arguing, distrusting, then finally saving each others' bacon, and then working as a team to protect the world. Each character acts "as they should"- at no point did I say "No! Cap would never do that"... Each character is pitch perfect, and that may be this movie's greatest strength- the chemistry between these guys is fantastic, and each gets their chance to shine, and then they help the rest of the cast shine too. Their attitudes, mannerisms, their line delivery- it made the thought that these 6 superheroes are together seem totally believable. And Whendon should get the credit for a huge chunk of that- another director would have emphasized the spectacle over the characters, and that didn't happen here, which raises the movie from great to fantastic.

Third, there's the action. In the age of fast cuts, slow motion, CGI, and all the other issues, many action movies seem to suffer from ADD- look at Transformers for proof of that. So many movies move so damn quick camera-wise, that you get no sense of the logistics regarding the fights or carnage. There's no clear picture of what is happening or what is at stake. In The Avengers, Whedon isn't afraid to calmly show the action without it being overwhelming. You clearly follow what's happening, and boy, the fighting in this movie is stupendous. The secret is, again, the action plays second fiddle to the characters. Throughout the several fight scenes, the movie is squarely on the heroes, you care about them and you see it through them. The movie never seeks to drown them (or the audience) out, which only makes the whole stronger.

Finally, I'd be remiss to mention the other secret weapon of The Avengers- Tom Hiddleston's Loki. He has it the hardest here. Now, most comic book movies, the villain doesn't come back. Yes, there's Magneto, but he's not strictly "the villain". Yes, there's Lex Luthor, but he plays second fiddle in Superman 2 (and the less said about 4 and Returns, the better). See, the good villains usually die, never to return, so in the sequel, there's a new villain. Here, Loki is the main baddie, as he was in Thor. And truthfully, his "villainy" is less developed by Whedon than the heroes are (more on that below). But Hiddleston makes the most of it, imbuing his Loki with a sense of "Paradise Lost"- he has fallen from grace- so far, in fact, that he sells himself in order to make Earth (and by extension, Thor) suffer. If Loki can't serve in Asgard, he will reign on Earth. But even then, he can't do it alone, and he seems to have made a Faustian deal to bring an evil alien army to help him conquer Earth. Loki is, for all his power, pathetic and sad- no longer the second son of Odin, but instead, a dim and perverted reflection of his former majesty. Hiddleston gets that, and makes Loki lash out in rage because of it- fantastic acting, and I hope that we can see more of him.

The Bad:

The film is terrific, don't get me wrong. It is, simply put, the strongest Marvel movie to date, and is one of the best comic movies, period. That said, there are some problems here- and they are not minor quibbles, like "I wish the soundtrack was better" (which I thought was fine, by the way) or "Gee- I wish Cap's costume was a bit more like his movie" or some crap- no. These are legitimate concerns and critiques, not nitpicking. So, let's look:

First, the movie is, at times, like a run-away freight train. It moves incredibly fast. Now, that in itself isn't bad- however, certain scenes become choppy. The movie ends up feeling a bit disjointed at times, which makes one wish they would just breathe for a second. It jumps from character to character, scene to scene so damn fast, that it feels like it is about to break under the strain, though it doesn't. But it comes close to collapsing under its weight, which makes viewing it problematic at times.

Second, as I said earlier, the villains of the piece, Loki and the alien Chitari, are not that well developed. The only reason Loki fares so well is that Hiddleston gives it his all, with looks and quirks which show the turmoil he is feeling- but it is not explicitly stated. We know based on his performance what Loki wants, but the surface reason is "he wants to conquer". The "Faustian deal" angle and the "revenge on Thor" factor are more implied than a vibrant part of the movie, which hurts overall. Equally, the Chitari are never more than just alien marauders- they are not developed, lack motivation, and are, ultimately, easily disposable. They exist to be punching bags, and that is it. They are not explained beyond that. Do they have a grudge against Earth? Do they seek war for its own sake? Is it about honor? How did they fall in with Loki? Or the mysterious evil at the end credits? It's too bad, as the look of them is pretty cool en masse, but they are never anything more than low level baddies that the heroes get to punch.

Third, the humor itself is sometimes over the top. Yes, the movie needs a sense of humor, and most of it is tonally perfect. However, there are elements that, while humorous now, will be looked at with disdain later. I guarantee it. When Hulk beats Loki like a rag doll, people laughed and exploded with cheers. I KNOW that, one day, people will say it was too far over the top, almost cartoonish. There are several bits like that- and I feel it dragged the movie down a bit.

Finally, there is no larger theme here. For this, I blame Nolan. He has spoiled us, with his Batman movies being about more than just a comic book movie or an action movie. The Nolan films have reflected our fears about terrorism, how far we go to fight it, and if, by gazing into the abyss, the abyss gazes also, just to name a few. Now, most movies don't do that (let alone comic movies), but the modern Batman films have done that so well, that I think comic movies CAN act as Sci-Fi, in terms of making you ask questions about real life through these fantastic characters. Now, of the Marvel Universe movies, only Captain America approached that, by asking "in war, just what makes a man a hero". With Avengers, there seems to be no larger theme or idea. The only thing this movie wants to do is get these guys together and have a good time with it. Perhaps the second Avengers will play with a larger theme than that- and IF Thanos is the baddie, I could see just that happening.

Bottom Line:

I loved this movie. It is, beyond all doubt, the best Marvel Universe movie. Great characterization, amazing action sequences, big and little moments, you name it. It is also one of the best comic movies too (though I think Nolan's Batmans have been untouchable- not because they are perfect, but because they go beyond the simple "man in a mask" approach and accomplish something much bigger). For sheer entertainment, you can't beat The Avengers. But the movie also has a heart- it is not cynical, or just mindless action. For those reasons, it earns a 4 out of 4 Marks of Chaos.

Until next we meet....

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