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Monday, May 7, 2012

Marvel's THE AVENGERS (2012)

Our stalwart heroes, deep in a moment of pondering the eternal questions of man's purpose for being, the quantifiable meaning of our existential ennui and the search for one's own Zarathustrian sense of self. (Wow! Am I ready for a job with The Village Voice, or what?)

By now I'm sure you've heard about the near-universal rave reviews garnered by MARVEL'S THE AVENGERS — yes, that's the actual full title — and how it's come out of the gate as a massive box office juggernaut with the biggest opening weekend of all time (which I'm assuming factors in its grosses from opening overseas a week or two ago). By now the movie will have been discussed to death and every possible facet of it pored over by professional critics, comics nerds and bloggers, but I saw the film twice in less than twenty-four hours — once at the first midnight showing and then again on Friday evening — so here's my two cents on it anyway, and I'll just break it down to what you need to know. Are you sitting comfortably? Here we go:

The plot, in a nutshell, finds Loki (Tom Hiddleston) fresh from getting his ass kicked in last year's THOR and now bent on conquering and enslaving the Earth with the help of a massive extra-terrestrial army and the backing of a mysterious figure of apparent great power. That scheme is facilitated by the theft and deployment of the Tesseract — better known to us longtime comics goons as the Cosmic Cube and last seen in last year's CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER — so, knowing that the world is fucked unless this threat is swiftly and decisively dealt with, S.H.I.E.L.D director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) rounds up a disparate group of supers from the previous Marvel-based movies that audiences cared about (which automatically excludes DAREDEVIL, the two PUNISHER films and the two horrible FANTASTIC FOUR flicks) and pits them against the oncoming shitstorm. Comprised of Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Dr. Bruce Banner/the Incredible Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), super-spy the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and master bowman/assassin Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), the Avengers somehow manage to get their shit together, set aside their considerable dysfunction and work together as a team to just barely save the world.

Steve and Tony's whip-out contest came to a screeching halt when the Hulk and Thor walked out of the shower.

It's a basic superhero team story given the big-screen treatment and helmed with loving care by screenwriter and director Joss Whedon, who long ago proved himself on projects such as BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER and the TOY STORY movies, and it's an epic blast of kickass superhero fun. That's basically it, but then again we are not talking about Dostoevsky over here. And the points of note are:
  • After years of buildup that began with the mostly-excellent IRON MAN (2008), THE AVENGERS — I won't bother with add the "Marvel's" declaration of ownership, thank you very much — is the satisfying payoff to the groundwork that's been laid down. It's the first true epic in the live-action superhero genre in so much as it's the first flick with this much superheroic shit going on in it that had the benefit of the budget and special effects technology that enabled it to bring the wonders commonly found on the four-color page to at times breathtaking life. In terms of sheer spectacle, this can be considered the BEN-HUR of superhero movies, and I genuinely pity the other studios who seek to make superhero adaptations in its wake. Marvel Studios has proven several times that they know how to bring the goods to the screen, so movies produced by them are not a worry. It's everyone else who seeks to step up to bat who should be filling their boxers with hefty turds at the moment...
  • Though fun on its own terms, THE AVENGERS is definitely a movie that requires its audience to have seen what preceded it, specifically IRON MAN, IRON MAN 2, THOR, CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER and, to a lesser degree, THE HULK and THE INCREDIBLE HULK. With that in mind, I wonder what the audience member who comes into this without the prerequisite viewing will make of it.
  • We are once again reminded of Tony Stark being a metalhead — see what they did there? — this time proclaimed by his constant representing in a Black Sabbath tee and his commandeering a S.H.I.E.L.D. aircraft's public address system so it plays AC/DC's "Shoot to Thrill" when he arrives to assist Cap with the Loki smackdown in Stuttgart.

Tony Stark, representing in a Black Sabbath t-shirt for most of the film's running time.

Personally, I think the use of AC/DC is tired and I would like to see them give Tony some really metal tunes for accent. How awesome would it be to see him take on a squadron of enemy aircraft/spaceships/what have you while flying around and blowing shit up as Motorhead's "Bomber" explodes from the theater's speakers?
  • And while we're on the subject of Tony Stark, I know many moviegoers wanted to see Tony and Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) get together — my mom sure as hell did and was quite vocal about it when the first IRON MAN movie ended — and in this film they look to have settled in quite nicely as a couple. But — and this is a rather large "but," in my opinion — making Tony Stark monogamous does the character no favors and removes one of the most fun aspects of his addict's nature. Tony Stark is first and foremost a genius inventor, with the function of world-class pussy-hound coming in at a close second, and part of the fun was seeing him merrily seduce a swath through half of humankind as Pepper rolls her eyes at his relentless tomcatting. In the comics Tony has even gone so far as to bed a number of the Marvel Universe's female supers, including (most impressively for surviving it) She-Hulk, and that whole sub-plot of his signature soap opera would be great if allowed to carry over into the movies. And since not terribly much is made of the current state of the Tony/Pepper connection, maybe it will prove to be as transitory as the vast legion of Stark's boudoir adventures...
  • The entire primary cast — with one exception whom I'll get to shortly — is given the opportunity to rock more life into roles they've previously essayed. All of the returning characters are fun and the team's non-powered members, the Black Widow and Hawkeye, are given plenty of opportunity to prove they can hold their own, and then some, alongside the likes of Thor or Iron Man. My only gripe in this department is that Captain America, the perfect and natural leader for this ragtag assortment, is given surprisingly little to do when considering what's going on, but his part in all of it still works. Steve Rogers' issues with being a "man out of time" will presumably be explored on CAPTAIN AMERICA 2, and they really would not have been appropriate to focus on when the world is literally about to be taken over by heavily armed forces under the leadership of a bitter Asgardian deity.
  • Speaking of whom, Tom Hiddleston's Loki is a triumph of villainy that strikes the perfect delicate balance between petulance over his daddy issues and resentment over living for eons in the shadow of his adoptive brother. I love him in the role and hope he essays the character once more in a THOR sequel.
Tom Hiddleston as Loki: One of the very best comics-to-screen translations of Marvel-style dysfunctional villainy.
  • After unexpectedly evolving into a supporting character of considerable popular renown over the course of appearances in previous Marvel movies, Agent Phil Coulson of S.H.I.E.L.D. returns, once more played by Clark Gregg. This time around we get to know Coulson a bit better and we end up loving him all the more for it. (Turns out he's a huge Captain America fanboy and much mileage is gotten from that character bit.)

    Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg), hanging with Thor (Chris Hemsworth).
    • While much can be said for Jeremy Renner's Clint Barton/Hawkeye, for me the breakout star of the film is Mark Ruffalo as Dr. Bruce Banner — he who was famously "belted by gamma rays" and consequently rendered "un-glamor-ays" — and the latest motion-captured CGI iteration of the Incredible Hulk. Ruffalo's take on Banner is quite different than what we've to expect from the character as seen over the past five decades and I totally welcome it. (Yes, you read that right; this month marks the Hulk's fiftieth anniversary.) To say more would give away some interesting character bits best left for you to witness for yourself, so I'll leave off talking about that and move on to how the big green guy looks this time around.
    Mark Ruffalo, turning in an unexpected and refreshingly interesting take on Dr. Bruce Banner.

    By simple virtue of his physical stature and density, both of which alter in accordance with his level of stress and anger, Hulk's a character that's simply impossible to convincingly portray using a live actor, even one fitted with prosthetic makeup appliances.

    The Hulk as seen in the comics: anatomy that defied Hollywood...until now. (art by Bryan Hitch)

    He's just too damned large, so thank the tech gods that CGI and motion-capture exist and that there are special effects wizards who have finally sussed out how to make the Hulk look like, well, the Hulk. We finally see him all of his raged-out jade awesomeness a little over halfway through the film and the wait is absolutely worth it. He's exactly what he's supposed to be, an implacable force of nature in the form of a semi-coherent and fucking utterly out-of-control monster, and when Hulk gets loose it's a comics fan's dream come true. In short, Hulk steals the movie and I hope they use this film as the launching pad for better Hulk movies than we've previously seen. In the wake of THE AVENGERS, there is literally no longer an excuse for not bringing the green Goliath to cinematic life in proper fashion.

    Best. Hulk. EVER.
    • The film hints at a very interesting, danger (and possibly romance)-laden past for Hawkeye and the Black Widow — and they do have a history together in the comics, back in the days when they were both bad guys and lovers — and I would love to see them featured in their own stand-alone spy thriller. Jeremy Renner already proved himself quite adept at such stuff in MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: GHOST PROTOCOL (2011) and Johanssen owns the room when she puts boot to ass, so I say make it happen.
    • As has become standard for the films produced by Marvel Studios, THE AVENGERS continues the practice of featuring "Easter eggs" that set the stage for subsequent sequels during the film's end credits, but this time there are two treats for those with the patience to wait. The first occurs just after the main cast has been credited and it features a reveal that will make anyone who's been reading Marvel comics since circa 1973 shit a Humvee — non-comics readers will no doubt be confused by the faithful's reaction when it happens, so brace yourself and have a go-to geek at the ready to answer your inevitable questions — while the second Easter egg happens at the very last, ass-end moment of the credits and it's a signature Joss Whedon-style character gag that is every bit worth hanging around for. And seriously, it really is all the way at the very end, so bear that in mind.
    • I cannot overstate the importance of seeing this one on the big screen. It's truly is an epic and it will lose a lot of its visual grandeur if you wait for Netflix. Trust me, if you have any interest in seeing this movie, you'll regret it if you give it a theatrical miss.
    So there you have it, but bear in mind that the individual viewer's mileage may vary with this one. It's just shy of two and a half hours long (excluding trailers) and it may be too violent for the tastes of some parents in regard to what they would let their kids sit through. (There's no showering arterial spray or scenes of the Hulk ripping anyone's spinal column out through their asshole, but the blows are pretty damned devastating and one almost feels like they were on the receiving end of some the more memorable ones.) And while there has been much gushing and raving over this being the purported "perfect superhero movie," no superhero movie is perfect. That's an impossible task to set before filmmakers because no matter how good a resulting film may be, there will inevitably still be those in the audience who are dissatisfied for any number of possibly valid reasons. The majority of adapted characters and their situations have had decades in which to be developed and come to resonate with readers to the point where we've come to absorb it all as part of a shared, ongoing, ever-evolving pop culture tapestry/lore, and that kind of neo-mythic richness simply cannot be captured in a two-hour film. I loved THE AVENGERS but I took it on its own terms as exactly what it is, specifically a cinematic iteration of the characters as removed from their four-color templates and re-jiggered for the screen and the average non-comics-reading civilian, who is, let's face it, where the money really is. With that in mind I had a great time, though I could have done with more of Pepper Potts running around barefoot in her shorty-shorts, but that's just me.

    Yer Bunche, representing at the Friday night show...

    ...and at the pub afterward.

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