Friday, May 04, 2012

The Avengers: Making Everyone Love Superheroes

Note: Please welcome my husband, Aaron, as he shares his review of The Avengers. We were given preview passes earlier this week, and he's been counting down the minutes until he could tell the world about this film! I agree with nearly everything he says here - this is a must-see.

The road to The Avengers begins back in 2008, when Marvel Entertainment announced the creation of their film division. No longer would we see Marvel's comic-book heroes brought to life on screen by third parties – instead the publisher would produce their own films in-house. First up was Iron Man, and frankly, it was a gamble. Let's take a mostly unknown superhero, gather high-profile actors to play the supporting cast, and stick Robert Downey Jr. in the lead.

It was incredibly risky. There were any number of reasons it could have failed. But it didn't. Instead, it launched Marvel Studios as a powerful entity in its own right, and soon after, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor and finally, Captain America: The First Avenger followed.

And all of it leads up to this. As the four title heroes, joined by the Black Widow and Hawkeye, and assembled by Nick Fury, Chief of S.H.I.E.L.D., band together to stop Loki and a horde of invaders in Marvel's The Avengers.

The Film
The film picks up where we left off at the end of the previous films, with Thor returned to Asgard, Loki banished, Captain America newly re-awakened in the modern world, Doctor Banner in hiding, and Tony Stark doing whatever he darn well pleases. S.H.I.E.L.D. has been studying the Tesseract, last seen in the hands of the Red Skull in Captain America: The First Avenger, and then being studied by Dr. Selvig at the end of Thor. Loki returns, steals the Tesseract, and begins a reign of terror. At which point Fury realizes that he needs the team of heroes, and one by one, brings them into the fold.

There are subplots a-plenty, as each hero has at least one bit of baggage to unload. The Tesseract itself changes hands several times, the heroes suffer several major setbacks along the way, but when all is said and done, the Avengers assemble to fight off Loki and his army. And what we get along the way is one of the greatest superhero team stories ever told on film.

There was reason to doubt. Joss Whedon, despite being a geek god, has only one feature film director's credit to his name. Could a film balance four superheroes who had each carried their own film, in addition to adding in two more? Would the threat feel like it was big enough, especially when it used a villain who had been defeated by a single hero in a previous film? Would characters be shoved off to the side? Fortunately, Whedon and company rose to the challenge in answering each of these questions, and the film comes together beautifully.

In the end, we're left with a film that feels far shorter than its' 2 hour and 24 minute run time – not because anything feels rushed, but because it grabs you by the collar and never lets go as it races towards the climax.

The Good
There are so many excellent moments in the film, it is hard to narrow this down. “The Good” could easily cover most of the entire film. Let's start with the cast.

Five of the six heroes who make up the Avengers have played these characters before, although Scarlett Johannson's Black Widow and Jeremy Renner's Hawkeye only appeared as supporting cast members of earlier films. Wisely, the film gives us a lot of time getting inside their heads, and in many ways, this film could have been the basis for a Black Widow feature. Robert Downey Jr. gives us the same effortless charm that has made us love his Tony Stark since the beginning, Chris Evans' Captain America gives us both the somewhat na├»ve “Man out of Time” vibe, while still providing inspiration and leadership to the team, and Chris Hemsworth looks like a Greek (or Norse) god come to life. Samuel L. Jackson returns as S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury, supported by fan-favorite Agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) and newcomer Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders).

The real gamble in casting was Mark Ruffalo. As the third Bruce Banner to hit the big screen in the past decade, he could easily have been the weakest link. Instead, as both Banner and as the Hulk (who bears a greater resemblance to Ruffalo than any earlier Hulk did to its' respective actor), Ruffalo steals the screen whenever he appears. Not a small man, Ruffalo manages to make himself small and cowed by the world around him – and his fear of the beast inside. When the Hulk is unleashed, he commands attention, and ends up with two of the funniest moments in the movie.

Whedon's trademark elements as both a director and a screenwriter are on display in this film, in terms of the overall plot, and most importantly, his characteristic witty dialogue – not to mention the ample amount of screen time devoted to the Black Widow. What is a pleasant surprise is that, while his trademarks are there, they're not pushed front and center. This feels like “The Avengers, directed by Joss Whedon” instead of “Joss Whedon's The Avengers.”

Loki's plot is also suitably epic. His alliance to the alien invaders makes this feel big, and there is every reason to believe that if the team cannot stop the invaders within New York, the world will soon fall.

Visually, the film feels big. This is not a small, personal drama. This is about six superheroes saving the Earth. And that scope is conveyed both through dialogue, action, sight and sound.

The Bad
The Avengers is not perfect. While I was extremely pleased with the film, it never had a moment where it blew me away. There's nothing completely new here. We've seen these heroes before. We've seen a team of heroes before. We've seen comic characters brought to life in a way that doesn't apologize for being based on a comic.

The Avengers kicks it up a notch, and does so masterfully, but it doesn't bring anything entirely new to the table. This is not a mark of shame. There is nothing wrong with setting out to make a great action film that honors the source material, gives us a tight plot, good characters, and keeps us entertained for two and a half hours, and succeeding admirably. If it fails to do something “new”, that speaks to the strength of the superhero film over the past decade rather than a weakness in the film.

And yet... I somehow wanted more. More of what I don't know, but I wanted something more.

There is also a lack of female characters in the franchise – which is surprising considering the prominence of Black Widow, the addition of Maria Hill, and the return of Pepper Potts. All three of these women (and the amazing actresses who portray them) are excellent – but I'm fairly sure that they never exchange a line of dialogue with each other.

My other gripe is the use of the alien race chosen for the film. They are remarkably generic, and despite the stinger during the credits (because there is always a stinger in the Marvel films), they never feel unique or important. This is a shame, considering that the Marvel universe is ripe with interesting alien races, any of which could have served as Loki's army.

Finally, and this is entirely a personal preference, but for me, the 3D was an unpleasant addition to the film. 3D often makes a film get blurry during the action sequences, and that was on display in full force during the final battle between the Avengers and the alien forces.

Final Thoughts
The Avengers is an incredible film. It is tightly scripted, deftly plotted, smartly written, brilliantly directed, amazingly well cast, and just a lot of fun. This is everything we want a summer blockbuster “popcorn” film to be. It shows off the strengths of its cast, and of Joss Whedon as director, script-writer, and ensemble builder.

As alluded to above, stick around through the credits. There is not one, but two “stingers” during the credits. The first hits midway through the credits, and gives us our hint to the villain of the next The Avengers film (and there will be one, be assured of that – with Thor 2 and Iron Man 3 both on their way, we can expect Marvel to announce plans for the next Avengers before 2020). I won't ruin the reveal, but it won't come as a complete surprise to anyone who has read Marvel Comics, or has paid close enough attention to the previous films. The second stinger occurs at the very end, and may be the funniest moment yet in any of the Marvel features.

Is it my favorite superhero film of all time? I'm not sure. Not yet. But I am certain I loved it, and will be seeing it in the theaters again.

No comments: