April 25, 2012

Movie review: THE AVENGERS

Black Widow, by Olly Moss for Mondo
Before I get to my actual review of The Avengers I'm just going to talk a little bit about comic-book/superhero movies in general and my reaction to some of them and the increasing trend of them. And, let's face it, The Avengers is something of a turning point for this recently popular sub-genre.

I'm old enough that I remember the early days of this recent trend: I remember hearing about the Wesley Snipes starring Blade (I was too young then to get in to see the R-rated slashenings) and the storied rumours of an upcoming X-Men film (my favourite comic-book characters). I remember watching the TV movie of Generation X with my mates, so starved of comic-booky movies were we. A Spider-Man movie looked to be an impossibility, with the character's rights tied up in weird legal legally things. Superman hadn't been around for awhile (not since he Quested for Peace and fought on the moon). Batman had recently shat the bed. And Judge Dredd had taken a steaming shit on the multiplex.

But after X-Men hit in 2000 things started to improve for the frustrated comic-book/movie geek. Then Spider-Man swung in in 2002 and got the mainstream geeking out about people in tights. Thwip! KA-BOOM! The floodgates opened: Hellboy, more X-Men, the return of Superman, more Spider-Man, Batman got real, Fantastic Four, Hulk got art-housed, Daredevil, Constantine, more Blade, people even watched the Watchmen and the X-Men went back to class. Indie, non-superhero comics like Ghost World and American Splendour even got a look in. And the superhero genre itself has been skewered with the likes of Kick-Ass and (the not based on a comic-book) Super.

And so, late last decade, Marvel Comics decided to stop shilling its characters out to other studios and instead began developing their own movies based on their large library of characters. Thus, in 2008, Iron Man was released and the first step on the road to The Avengers was taken. Since then Hulk became Incredible, Iron Man got a sequel and two characters who I felt sure would never grace the silver screen got fairly great movies: Thor and Captain America.

So within that context, you can see how The Avengers is a culmination of not just these characters and four years of Marvel Studios films but something that has been building for a decade now. The Avengers is the first spin-in film; the first film to have characters from their own starring films appear in the same film together and facing a threat no single one of them could defeat on their own. The Avengers is, to paraphrase Ron Burgundy, kind of a big deal.

There is so much that could have gone wrong with this film; I'd be lying if I wasn't just a little worried going in. Not only did the threat have to be big enough to pull all of these characters together - a super soldier, a high-tech man-as-weapon, a god, a monster and two highly-trained black-ops spies - but there was a balance that needed to be struck between all of these disparate characters. Not only did they all have to have their own storylines and moments to shine but the chemistry between them had to be right, had to work seamlessly.

The good news is: it works. It all, amazingly, works. The Avengers is big, bold, confident, emotional and a very real, very large achievement and turning point. Frankly, given the history of similarly packed superhero films The Avengers has absolutely no right working as well as it does. Those worries that the chemistry and characters could be the biggest weaknesses are instead film's greatest strengths. And no small thanks should be given to writer/director Joss Whedon for this. A favourite among the geek community, his only other feature film directorial credit was for Serenity, the continuation of his much admired but cancelled TV show Firefly. In hindsight, Serenity was a near perfect training-ground for The Avengers: peopled with characters who already have an established history but not one that is known by everyone in the movie-going public they all have to be introduced, have their own arcs and times to shine. 

The various members of the team, far from being one-note and voiceless, are instead given moments upon moments that distil their essence. Chris Evans' Captain America remains my favourite Avenger - he's such an unpretentious, aw-shucks kind of good guy you cannot help but like him. But characters like Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow are really given time to shine here: in between the explosions and martial artistry she's given a real characters storyline and we're given more of an insight into who she is and what drives her. Mark Ruffalo subbing in for Edward Norton as Dr. Bruce Banner/the Hulk brings a completely different energy to the role, and I have trouble seeing how Norton's intelligent intensity would have worked with the dynamic. And when Ruffalo becomes the Hulk, it's a Hulk we haven't really seen before and he is absolutely one of the (many) highlights. Robert Downey Jr's Iron Man was the character I was most worried about: I feared him dominating proceedings due to the outstanding success of the previous Iron Man films and the upswing Downey Jr's career is currently on. But Whedon's smarter than that. Sure, Downey Jr likely gets the lion's share of the cracking one-liners but he doesn't come to overly dominate proceedings.

Tom Hiddleston's Loki (along with Hugo Weaving's brilliantly demented Red Skull) has been one of the great comic-book movie villains and here he is even wilder, crazier and vengeance-driven than in Thor. Hiddleston continues to impress as the emotionally volatile god of mischief and the relationship and interplay between him and his brother, Chris Hemsworth's Thor, is one of the stronger in a film of strong relationships. Hemsworth's Thor is still a delight to watch. Thor is such an out-there character, a god bestriding the world of mortals, but Hemsworth continues to play the human in the divine. And the more human characters, Samuel L. Jackson's Nick Fury and Clark Gregg's Agent Coulson, are also given their time in the spotlight. Jackson's Fury really gets a bump up here and Coulson, a surprising common thread through most of the separate films, really comes into his own in The Avengers. The only major character to really get short-shrifted is Jeremy Renner's Hawkeye; but even then he has his own very definite arc within the film.

Surprising me, in the most delightful way, is how downright hilarious the film is. It never veers into mocking or camp territory; Whedon and co-plotter Zak Penn are too respectful for that. Instead, it is dialogue and moments of humour that are used to illustrate character and punctuate tension. There are laughs, with nary a one not landing, throughout: from these larger-than-life characters arguing on the Helicarrier to the big-time balls out finale.

And that final battle that rages across New York City is a wonderful piece of action/comic-book filmmaking. Not only is it a visual spectacle, but the outcome actually matters because the character's care and matter. Coming into the film, this was one of my biggest worries. Whedon, as a director of big-time cinema action, is relatively untested. But, boy howdy, he and his crew really get into it with confidence and an amazingly sure hand.

The Avengers
 is, in many ways, the ultimate distillation of a comic-book movie. While Nolan has been stripping Batman down to a more "realistic" level, Whedon fully embraces the world of the comic-book. He is a man who knows his genre and has no qualms opening himself up to the craziness of it all: just like in the best team-up comic-books, the heroes come to blows with one another; there is crazy sci-fi tech (the SHIELD helicarrier) and aliens, gods and super-heroes fit side-by-side effortlessly. Whedon has an incredible amount of fun with that world and these characters and I had a big-ass grin on my face almost the entire way through. 

If I was to review
The Avengers completely dispassionately it was probably not the best idea to see it at a midnight showing, with 700-odd other amped-up geeks. But as a fan, this is exactly how I wanted to see The Avengers and it was the most wonderful, pure and entertaining piece of superhero cinema yet. We were all whooping, laughing and cheering as one; every single person in that cinema had the time of their lives. I, unashamedly, unreservedly and geekily, loved the hell out of The Avengers.

I almost still can't quite believe it, but The Avengers have assembled. And they're phenomenal. 

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