07 May 2012

"Marvel's 'The Avengers'"

Marvel's The Avengers
Starring Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Tim Hiddleston, Clark Gregg, Cobie Smulders with Stellan Skarsgard and Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury
Story by Zak Penn and Joss Whedon
Screenplay by Joss Whedon
Directed by Joss Whedon
Date of Release: 4 May 2012
Date of Screening: 6 May 2012

Believe it or not, but until 19 April, I hadn't seen any of the Avengers solo movies except 2003's Hulk, which I count as the single most dissatisfying movie-going experience I've had yet. Anyway, 2008's The Incredible Hulk more or less functions as much as a reboot as it does as a sequel so that earlier movie isn't even particularly important. Still, by hitting Redbox, the Oldham County Public Library and using a $3.00 promotional credit for Amazon Instant Video, I was able to get caught up in time for "Marvel's The Avengers." It turns out that I would have still been perfectly capable of following the story without any homework, thanks partly to some context clues and largely to selective exposition. I cringe at the notion of anyone being lost throughout this movie.

It was fun, and the sense of humor on display was particularly solid. Our theater laughed from start to finish, with a spattering of applause throughout (nearly all of which was for The Hulk). The main cast had nice chemistry with one another, and it was a reminder just how perfect was the casting of Robert Downey, Jr. as the abrasive Tony Stark. I would be stunned if the Blu-ray bonus content isn't full of the rest of the cast praising his leadership on and off the set, because I really had the sense that they took their cues as much from him as from Joss Whedon's screenplay.

I came into the movie most excited to see ScarJo cut loose as Black Widow, and I was particularly hopeful about her role in this because of Whedon's reputation for writing strong women protagonists. I was very happy with both the character and actress. She was the linchpin of the whole operation in a lot of ways, though more understated than the fellas. My only qualm with her was in Act III, when she quips to Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) that, "This is just like Budapest." A former Russian would very likely have pronounced it, "Boo-ta-pesht," but after seeing Loki (Tom Hittleston) address a crowd of Germans in English, that kind of detail was obviously important only to me. Also, that just felt like a very cliche spy movie line to me. Maybe because Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol both take place (at least briefly) there, or maybe because I've heard that line and some variations on it often in Burn Notice. Maybe it was some kind of in-joke, since Renner was in Ghost Protocol?

Still, I confess that for all the fun I had, I wasn't really able to just get into the movie. It started with the release poster (shown above), which I likened to the movie poster equivalent of playing with Colorforms. Each Avenger appears in some peculiar pose and they were all just kind of thrown against a generic background. There's no consistency to the lighting and the spatial orientation only seems to invite disbelieving scrutiny. I saw a massive banner version of it at C2E2 and it played better there because of the scale, but I still have one chief problem with it: Both Iron Man and Captain America are unmasked. Story-wise, that makes absolutely no sense for either to be unmasked (especially Iron Man) in the middle of what is clearly a battle scene. But it makes perfect Hollywood sense, because the agents representing Downey and Chris Evans both want to make sure their clients are visible to audiences. That poster is a perfect microcosm of my complaints with The Avengers.

Much of the first act is merely perfunctory, which is fine but there's one sequence that just didn't set right with me. The Avengers have just captured Loki, when Thor (Chris Hemsworth) appears out of nowhere to take custody of his brother. Bickering and fighting ensues, with Iron Man and Thor duking it out in a forest before Cap intervenes. It's a typical alpha male clash meant for just one purpose: To show us Thor striking Cap's shield. It's an iconic image and moment in the comic book lore and it was something I'm sure a lot of fans have wanted to see in a movie for decades, but it just felt shoehorned into the story for me. It didn't help that throughout that entire sequence, nobody is actually watching Loki, who appears to loiter around just waiting for his captors to work out who's taking him in. Later, it's revealed why he was so cooperative but during that scene it just felt carelessly self-indulgent.

In Act III, true to the poster, Cap is clawed at by some of the invading bad guys and they unmask him. Now, it's just a hoodie. He could easily have pulled it back on. But that's not the point. Evans is supposed to be visible to the audience, whether Cap would be or not. It was a reminder what's wrong with so many superhero movies: Actors become movie stars by being prominently visible to the audience, and superheroes design costumes for anonymity. That translates into a lot of story time written to put the movie star's mug in front of us, which often detracts from the alter ego for whom we've really shown up to see.

There were six trailers before the screening, and the first three represent my other complaint with the movie. Before I even got a chance to see the Paramount mountain, I had spent 7:49 minutes watching trailers for Battleship (2:29), G.I. Joe: Retaliation (2:42) and The Expendables 2 (2:38). I'm not even sure they're actually different movies. As near as I can tell, they're just three different cuts of one movie. Nothing in The Avengers felt different from those three trailers, and I felt it was heavily recycled from other recent blockbusters.

Mark Ruffalo was a fine Bruce Banner, but I kept thinking of how he was in the role Karl Urban had as Dr. McCoy in 2009's Star Trek, caught between Iron Man and Captain America the way McCoy was caught between Kirk and Spock. Then there's the invasion of New York City, which was nothing more than a redressing of the Decepticon invasion of Chicago in Transformers: Dark of the Moon. I kept waiting for Optimus Prime to show up with reinforcements. I didn't need to bother with Iron ManIron Man 2Captain America: The First AvengerThor or The Incredible Hulk. I had already seen The Avengers.

Ultimately, "Marvel's The Avengers" delivers exactly what it advertised. For casual fans who just want to gawk at these mythical figures interacting and doing their thing, there's plenty to like. For viewers who are a little more astute about such things as Hollywood formulas, though, unfortunately, the movie's ad campaign has already told you what to expect, too.

The last I saw, it was already at #11 on the global list at Flickchart. It entered mine at #342. Clearly, I'm the stick in the mud who over-thought things. Whatever. I'm just happy to know that there's apparently talk now of a Black Widow solo movie. I'll go see that.

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