Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Marvel's The Avengers

2012, Joss Whedon -- in theatre (twice)

I can't believe it's taken this long for either David or myself to get to writing about The Avengers... but really, for the biggest movie of the year, what is there to say about it (oh, I'm sure lots as I get going)?

I have to admit to going into The Avengers with some trepidation, afterall of the Marvel films from the past half decade, only the first Iron Man really wowed me.  The Captain America and Thor movies both fell flat, as did Iron Man 2, and the Incredible Hulk was pretty much negated as a prequel after Ed Norton pulled out of the ensemble.  All these films were high profile, but none of them quite delivered the comic book experience on screen.  They were either trying too hard, not hard enough, or not at all (in the case of the Incredible Hulk they were attempting to emulate the TV show more than the comics).  But, if there was anyone in Hollywood who could pull the disparate elements of four different cinema franchises together into one film that will both franchise itself and equally require inspiration from the source to succeed, it would be Joss Whedon.

Even still, Joss hasn't fully proven himself as a big feature director (although, for my money, Serenity is hands down the best space opera since the original Star Wars trilogy) and the amount of studio interference as well as being hamstrung with dangling plot threads from a handful of not-quite-prequels made this thing a long-shot to actually satisfying the fanboy that I am.  (Let's not even mention that, in spite of three decades of comic reading, I'm not an Avengers fan at all).

But Whedon got it, and brought it all together beautifully.  While he hasn't made the greatest movie ever, he's come the closest anyone has to approximating the feel of reading a superhero comic book while watching a movie.  Whedon, fanboy that he is, knows these characters, knows them from their roots.  Forget what was done with them in their own movies, he brings Cap, Tony Stark, Black Widow, the Hulk, Hawkeye, Thor, Loki and Nick Fury all back to those roots, still without betraying what was built out of them already.

Perhaps Whedon's greatest skill is his ability to craft an ensemble.  He did it on TV with Buffy, Angel and Firefly, and in comics on Astonishing X-Men, and he does it again here, and surprisingly it's this cast building that not only dominates the picture, but makes it satisfying, far more than any assembly of fight sequences ever could.  The conversations between Tony Stark and Bruce Banner are as exciting as the throw down Iron Man and Thor, if not moreso, because there's an actors craft behind it, more than just CGI cartoons.  Everyone gets a moment or two to shine, and this really turned out to be an actors comic book movie.

But lets not sell the fighting and action short, because it is pretty spectacular.  I amused myself following the film, comparing the massive third-act action sequence to the one in Transformers: Dark of the Moon.  They are, bluntly, the exact same concept.  The heroes need to close down a portal -- opened by some kind of machine atop a very tall building -- having to wade through a morass of bad guys spewing out of the crack in space in order to do so.  The difference between the two pictures is in the characters.  Whereas all the Transformers are, well, virtually indistinguishable from one another, have no clearly defined fighting style or powers, the Avengers really showcases what makes each hero unique in a combat situation.  Whedon takes the time to highlight what each of them can do, and do well, and how their personality affects how they fight.  Transformers 3 may have been an even bigger spectacle, but the Avengers is far more satisfying to watch.

With it's incredible box office success, and it's resoundingly positive feedback, there's invariably going to be a backlash against the Avengers for being "not that good".  But the thing about really successful entertainment is not how good it is, but how capable it is of appealing and entertaining to the largest audience possible.  That Whedon managed to do it why staying so true to its comic book roots, not having to pander to the geeks, nor having to dumb it down or "class it up" for the non-geek audience, is the greatest achievement of the film.  Every other comic book movie needs to take note of how it was done.  These comic book properties have amused and entertained millions over the past 80+ years.  Diverging from the source material to make it more "palatable" for the "everyman" is what ultimately makes it less enjoyable.    The Avengers should be the recipe, and hopefully the system understands the ingredients and that substitutions rarely make it taste better.