The Avengers Impressions

Tomorrow (Sept 25th), The Avengers arrives on Blu-ray to the delight of  millions of people. In light of this...and in light of the fact that we never did one...I thought now would be a great time to offer my informal review/impressions of the wildly successful superhero ensemble movie directed by TV's Joss Whedon.

Warning: Past this point there be spoilers.

Of all the films I saw this summer, all of them were enjoyable, quality entertainment. And given that they were so different from each other in terms of story, tone, and style, it's not really possible to compare them. But, I can say that out of all of them, I enjoyed The Avengers the most. Here's why.

The Fun
I've always been a fan of movies and TV shows that have a sense of fun about them. Perhaps it's because I cut my media watching teeth (that's a weird image, if you think about it) on properties like Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and Back to the Future. While each of those had their heavy moments, they also had a general air of fun about them. Old Jedi masters hitting droids with sticks, archeologists cracking wise while cracking whip, and time-traveling teenage guys kissing their teenage moms without vomiting. I've noticed that this sense of fun often comes at the expense of some realism. Just think about it. Were these characters really in these situations, their more realistic responses would probably be less fun to watch (indeed, if someone really traveled through time and kissed his mom, would he not at least get sick to his stomach if not full on ralph right there).

This summer we had two major superhero movies (sorry Spiderman, you're too soon of a reboot in my eyes). Both I found to be excellent and enjoyable, but only one I found to have that sense of fun. The other, while a fine film, is not a motion picture I would describe as "fun." ("It was such a fun moment when Bane was beating the mess out of Batman in the sewer. And the part when the military wouldn't let Blake save those kids...awesome!" Yeah, that doesn't sound right.) And note that in describing it people often talk about its sense of realism.

There is a time for everything. I'm glad TDKR is the film that it is. The 'realistic' take on Batman has made for a great trilogy of films. But I'm also very glad that Marvel continues to imbue its films with a sense of fun.

Much of the credit for the fun in The Avengers in particular is due to writer/director Joss Whedon. While he has been known to avoid fun like the plague at times (the 6th season of Buffy, the last two seasons of Angel, etc.), by in large he's a guy who knows how, and is inclined, to include levity into what he produces. Fortunately, he was true to form with this film. From dialogue (his responsibility as a writer), to pacing and delivery (his responsibility as a director), The Avengers is a movie that will make you smile.

Of course, a lot of credit must also go to the actors (and the CG artists for The Hulk). The script gives each one of our leads a chance to shine in the fun department, but it is up to the actors and actresses to realize that potential. And they deliver in spades. From deadpan moments ("He's adopted"), to subtle ones (Steve slipping Fury a ten), to more direct ones ("Doth mother know you weareth her drapes?"), to slapstick (The Hulk), it all works wonderfully.

After the film premiered and from its opening weekend made insane amounts of money, The Avengers related images started popping on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, etc. One of my favorites was of the four principle actors (Downey Jr., Evans, Hemsworth, and Ruffalo) pointing intimidatingly at the camera. The fan-added caption was, "Your move, Batman." You know, why am I describing it to you? This is the stinking Internet. Here's the picture.

It made me smile that a fun movie was doing so well, and that there were others out there who felt the same. (I'm assuming people liked that photo for that reason. But I guess it could be that they were fueled by Batman or DC hate.)

The Story
Sometime ago there was a 'meme' going around where you take film and succinctly and without passion describe its plot. I think it was popular because even great films sound incredibly boring and/or stupid when described that way. ("A farm boy joins forces with an old man, a smuggler, and his large dog in order to destroy a large weapon." Or take the sequel: "A farm boy turned war hero unwittingly kisses his sister, who later kisses a smuggler. The boy then has a fight with his dad." Or take the third installment: "Gold bikini." Ok, that last one still sounds fun to a lot of folks).

Let's do that with The Avengers:
A group of people (a strong man, a rich guy with a robot suit, a long-haired alien, an angry man, a bow hunter, and a spy) working for the government must stop arguing and come together to stop the long-haired alien's adopted brother from using a stolen block to destroy a city and maybe conquer Earth with a borrowed army of ugly monster aliens.

Sounds kind of silly, doesn't it? Boy, that was fun.

But I think the 'meme' also points out something very interesting about the films/shows/novels that we enjoy. While the general story certainly matters, the magic is usually found in the details—characters, dialogue, nuances in plot, pacing, visual and audio design (except in novels of course). The Avengers typifies this very well. It's the interactions between characters, the memorable bits of dialogue, the iconic design of our heroes, the stirring music of Alan Silvestri, the individual journeys of the characters, etc. that make all the difference.

A little bit on that last point. Most of the main characters have their own mini-growth arcs. Steve Rogers is assimilating into the 21st century. Tony Stark has to conquer his ego and learn how to work well with others. Bruce Banner has to demonstrate to himself that he really can control the Hulk. Black Widow has to let go of the guilt of her past. Hawkeye has to stop being controlled by Loki (ok, that one is more of a major plot point). Nick Fury has to finally and fully put his faith where his heart knows he should (i.e., The Avengers) regardless of personal consequences. And that man over there has to beat his Galaga addiction. It's those things that take what is otherwise a fairly straightforward story into something more engaging.

The Style
I think in many of my reviews, I'll have a section like this where I give my take on some of the nuts and bolts features of any film.

-  Story: Already talked about it.
-  Dialogue: On the whole, very good I felt. All the characters were given their proper 'voice,' and the words flow naturally most of the time.
-  Acting: Everyone nailed it.
-  Editing and Pacing: Everything was good here, I thought. It wasn't rushed, nor did it drag anywhere for me. The action scenes were kinetic, but not spastic. The 'tender' moments were given the screen time they needed.
-  Music: I'm a huge Alan Silvestri fan. I think he's one of the best composers working today. Though this wasn't my favorite score of his (the BTTF scores still hold that spot), I thought it was good. There weren't any cues that jumped out at me during the initial viewing (the way, say, The Asteroid Field did in ESB), but the main theme is very nice. It's simple, especially in comparison to the great movies themes of the past, but it is effective. You just can't beat a good french horn lead.
-  3D: This was a post-production 3D conversion, rather than being shot in 3D (like TRON: Legacy). Conversions are a mixed bag. One might even call them a box of chocolates. You know....cause you never...know.....what you're gonna get. Ahem, anyway, converting a 2D movie to a 3D movie is a little bit of science and a whole lot of art. It takes talented people to do such work. I've been fortunate, in that I've seen four 2D to 3D converted films (The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast, The Phantom Menace, and The Avengers), and they've all been done well. I saw The Avengers in IMAX 3D, so I had a very good look at it. There were a few places where I could tell it was a conversion (at the time I only suspected it, as I did not then know whether it was shot in 3D or converted). But on the whole, it was very well done. My wife is afraid of heights, and the fight on the carrier with Iron Man, Cap, and some goons made her very uncomfortable. So...mission accomplished I guess.

What I Didn't Like
This is The Inner Dorkdom, where we like things. But that doesn't mean we think everything we like is perfect. There were a few things about the film I either didn't like, or thought could have been done in a way that would have been more least for me.

I start with the villains. Loki already had a film wherein he was introduced and explored. As a result, although there are a few gaps, we as an audience already understand his motivations pretty well. (Although I was a bit surprised by the menacing off-kilter demeanor he shows here, as it was a change from the more cool and calculating vibe he gave in Thor.) So I'm not talking so much about him as I am the other villains. The vulturri, or the hibachi, or the cardigans, or whatever they were called. We know little about them, other than they want the Tesseract, and are willing to make a deal with Loki to get it. (Incidentally, here's a bit of 'fridge logic' I had: Ok, so Loki comes through a wormhole to Earth to get the Tesseract. The impression I got was that the wormhole was created by the Tesseract. So, why couldn't the krelshie come through and get it themselves? Why did they need Loki to do it? Maybe I just missed it.) We figure these aliens are bad news, as they support Loki's desire to conquer Earth. But beyond that, they are a total stinkin' mystery. The teaser at the end of the film suggests they'll get their exposition in the next Avengers film. But I wonder if a bit more of that in this film would have made it that much more satisfying.

Second, the "let's bicker in the woods" scene. Don't get me wrong, I found the scene enjoyable, and it setup the idea that these heroes won't just come together and be like all BFFs and stuff. But the logic of it seemed a bit strained to me. Why would Stark go after Thor? According to him he, unlike everyone else, did his homework. You'd think that would include at least some info on Thor. So why would he fight him, especially if that meant leaving Loki unguarded? On my second viewing I noticed Stark's justification: it doesn't matter if Thor is good, if he takes Loki there's no clue where the Tesseract is. No offense to anyone, but this seems a bit weak to me. Why would Stark think Thor would just take Loki and leave the people of Earth in the lurch? In his earlier time on Earth, the Norse god demonstrated a strong concern for Earthlings, so for him to take Loki and leave wouldn't make sense. But on a positive note, I can't help but wonder if this scene was also setting up certain ways these three can work together, ways that aren't paid off in this film but might in future installments (Thor can charge up Tony's suit, Thor's hammer + Cap's shield = impressive shockblast).

Third, the "let's all bicker on the boat" scene. Don't get me wrong, I understand the need for the scene. And by in large I thought it was pretty good. Steve would be annoyed by Tony's showboating attitude. Tony would be annoyed by Steve's boy scout attitude. Bruce would be on edge about the whole 'you made a cage for me' thing. Nick would be flustered at these guys attributing to him bad motives and/or the worse judgment in the history of mankind, apparently. But there were a couple of moments where it felt a little forced to me. The standout one for me was when Thor, who'd been pretty level headed up until this point, chimed in with something to the effect of, "You humans are so puny." Whaa? Where'd that come from?

Fourth, the politics of the whole "we were making weapons with the Tesseract" subplot. I thought the buildup, i.e., the hinting that S.H.I.E.L.D. was up to something fishy, could have been executed better. In particular, it felt a bit forced and stumbling. For example, why would Banner have thought Loki's "a warm light" comment was meant for Stark? I'll grant that Banner could have surmised that Loki had learned some things about S.H.I.E.L.D. activity, like them trying to use the Tesseract to make clean energy, from Hawkeye and Selvig. Banner might even have speculated that they told him that Stark, who wasn't working with them, was involved in clean energy research. But why would Banner think that Loki was trying to tell Stark something? That is, unless it was to get him to turn on S.H.I.E.L.D., in which case he'd clearly be baiting him (which appears to be exactly what he was doing) and they'd be wise not to bite. Then, aside from the buildup, there's the unanimity of their opposition to S.H.I.E.L.D.'s research, and the way they express it. Steve lived before the atom bomb, so I don't see it as a foregone conclusion that he'd be on the anti-nuke train that's popular in some circles in 2012. Tony having a problem with it is totally believable and expected, but the way he objected didn't add up. He said sarcastically that the whole 'have weapons of mass destruction as a form of deterrent' thing has worked out so well in the past. Granted it hasn't been absolutely flawless...but, yeah Mr. Stark, it actually has worked well in the past. The Cold War ended without a single nuclear strike. I would think that a guy whose business used to be weapons would know that. Again, I'm not saying he'd be in favor of what S.H.I.E.L.D. had done. It just seems to me he'd have a better objection. And finally, after the ambush on the carrier, when Steve is trying to 'rally the troops,' he comments that Nick Fury has the same blood on his hands that Loki does. Now, I'm no expert on Captain Steve Rogers. But it seems to me that a man from the 1940's wouldn't look at things that way. Nick Fury had not killed those 80 people in two days, Loki had. Certainly Fury's actions were a link in the chain of events they found themselves in, but he didn't kill those people. Back in Steve's day personal individual responsibility was something people emphasized. And they weren't post-modern in their thinking either. So although I can definitely see Steve acknowledging that Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D.'s actions contributed to the choices Loki had made, I can't see him blaming Loki's atrocities on anyone else but Loki.

And lastly, there's the matter of Bruce's inconsistent, in my view, ability to control The Hulk. From the first time we see him, the focus is on not making him angry (we wouldn't like him if he were angry). Folks seem to be preoccupied with walking that fine line with him. And he doesn't shy away from reminding us how dangerous and unpredictable "the other guy" can be. Then the attack on the carrier goes down, and sure enough, Dr. Banner loses it and the Hulk nearly kills Black Widow. Then, as the battle in New York starts up, suddenly all that is different. Bruce tells them that his secret is that he's always angry, and then, at will, transforms into the Hulk and takes orders from Cap just like the rest of them. In the words of the great philosopher Goofy, "som'th'n wrong here." It looks to me like there's a missing step in there. Perhaps the answer would have been found in a scene that ended up on the cutting room floor.

But these things weren't enough to in any way ruin the movie for me. As I say, it was my favorite film of the summer, and I look forward to more movies set in the Marvel universe.

Feel free to comment!

 - Nic


Posted on September 24, 2012 .