Saturday, June 9, 2012

Finally, The Avengers!

Warning. This film has been out long enough for me to not worry about revealing spoilers, which I do freely in my review. If you are one of the few people who haven't seen it yet, just keep in mind, I hold nothing back.

I'm probably one of the last people on the planet to see The Avengers (2012). Usually even a very popular film and especially one so "hyped" as this one has been contains a few flaws, but frankly, I couldn't find any. The Avengers just rocked.

I actually wasn't worried about the action sequences because the Marvel films know how to do action. I was worried about continuity, plot holes, and an imbalance in characterization. It's tough to get that many different lead characters into one film and not favor just one or two. The various Star Trek: The Next Generation films such as Star Trek: First Contact (1996) carry this flaw. Typically Picard and Data take the lead and all of the other characters play second fiddle.

I was worried that, in the case of the Avengers, Tony Stark/Iron Man (played by Robert Downey, Jr.) would dominate the screen since he seems to be the strongest personality. Fortunately, I was wrong. I was wrong, happily wrong, about a lot of things.

Of all of the Marvel films about each of these individual heroes, I'd have to say the Avengers was the strongest of them all.

I only saw the film a few hours ago, so I'm still trying to put the experience back together again in my head. The film is long (official running time 143 minutes) and there's almost no let up in the action. Even when a scene involves more dialog, there's usually a lot going on with various verbal gags and it's tough to keep up with all of the changes.

I was worried about teamwork between the actors and having their roles "compete" with one another, but at only happened within the context of their characters. It stands to reason that as strong individualists, it would be difficult to get Captain America, Iron Man, the Hulk, Thor, the Black Widow, and Hawkeye to merge as a unified fighting team and this is exactly how it was played. They fought more among each other during the first half of the film than they did against their primary antagonist Loki. Of course Hawkeye was off the hero list for the first half of the film, having been compromised by Loki, but Jeremy Renner still played him as a brilliant tactician in addition to his role as archer/assassin. He very nearly brings down SHIELD's flying headquarters (literally).

The film also showcased Natasha Romanoff's (played by the beautiful and talented Scarlett Johansson) vulnerable side, which never meant that any part of her was weak. However she got to be human in this film. The relationship between her and Barton/Hawkeye was explained with relative brevity but enough that it was satisfying. I'm glad that the Black Widow and Hawkeye were played as both strong, skilled, and highly intelligent. The original relationship between them in the early 1960s Tales of Suspense comic books (which first featured Iron Man before he got his own title) was highly unbalanced, with her as the femme fatale Soviet spy and him as the angry, misguided, not particularly bright, but still heroic archer. It really didn't work as a romance. The only thing here that I wasn't convinced about was that Johansson's Black Widow was actually Russian. She's like an American spy who happened to know Russian but who was best as kicking ass.

In spite of or maybe even because of his role as the classic "good guy" hero, Captain America emerged as the leader of the Avengers. No mean feat given the dominance Downey brings to the role of Stark/Iron Man. By the time the main battle with the "army from hell" begins in New York City, you can believe it when Cap starts giving orders and everyone lets him take the lead. I was afraid the film makers wouldn't "get it" and ignore this very vital part of Cap's involvement with the Avengers in the comic books, but amazingly, Hollywood got it right.

Thor's appearance caught me a little by surprise at first since, with Bifrost having been destroyed at the climax of the Thor (2011) film, he was effectively trapped in Asgard. However, a short bit of dialog between Thor and Loki and the problem was solved and without seeming too quick and cheap. From that point on, the God of Thunder was present and accounted for as part of the "Avengers initiative." However, if there was a single hero in the film who I didn't connect to quite as well as the others, I'd have to say it was Thor. I don't know exactly way. His whole "this planet is under my protection" role didn't quite "make it" with me for some reason.

Speaking of gods, I rather liked that the film makers allowed Captain America to retain a faith in God. It was only expressed in a single line of dialog, but it's completely consistent with who Steve Rogers would be given that he is an American raised in the 1920s and 30s. Being flash frozen for 70 years and reanimated in the 21st century wouldn't automatically turn him into a politically correct, culturally consistent icon of our morally relativistic world. The conversation between Cap and Phil Coulson confirmed that now, more than ever, we need a basic, foundational hero like Captain America. We may think we've gained a lot since the middle of the 20th century, but we've lost a lot, too.

The Hulk. Mark Ruffalo played both Bruce Banner and (wearing a motion capture suit) the Incredible Hulk. Of the three versions of the Hulk in film, Ang Lee's miserable failure (2003), the subsequent Incredible Hulk (2008), and his current incarnation in the Avengers' film, Ruffalo's Banner/Hulk is the best. That's saying a lot since Edward Norton is a brilliant actor who throws just about everything into not only his characters, but the films they appear in (to the point of continually rewriting/reinventing the films), but Ruffalo brought his vision of both Banner and the Hulk into the Avengers.

I remember reading that during the filming of the "Hulk" scenes in the Incredible Hulk TV series (1978-1982), Bixby refused to watch those sequences because he wanted to be able to react as Banner with true surprise and shock at the aftermath of the destruction caused by the Hulk. Obviously, Ruffalo chose a different path and it really works. Even the Hulk's face resembles Ruffalo's and you can see the personality that is shared between Banner and the Hulk. This is especially important when the Hulk is expected to act as part of the team since otherwise, he's just a mindless engine of destruction. However, Ruffalo plays the Hulk as both exceptionally dangerous to his allies while also somehow accepting them as his allies (although the Black Widow didn't fare so well in her first encounter with the Hulk and even Thor didn't escape the Hulk's "grudge" during the battle in New York).

It was just slightly overly sentimental when Agent Phil Coulson ended up playing the part of "the gipper." I understood that his death was to be the final inspiration that brings the Avengers together as a team (although only Tony, Steve, and Natasha would have been aware of it), but it did represent a small weakness in how the film was developed. It's only just a little schmaltzy though and was only a tiny blip of an issue in an otherwise overwhelmingly brilliant film.

I do have to give actor Clark Gregg (Coulson) his due. Often overlooked as a bit of comedy relief in the other Marvel films, he was truly "badass" when facing down Loki single-handedly, with only an experimental weapon he had no idea would even work. It was almost unfair that he had to die, but once he's gone, you suddenly realize how much you loved him.

Tom Hiddleston continues to be amazing in the role of Loki. He is wonderfully evil but with an apparent "monkey on his back" which is particularly noticeable in the beginning of the film. Who did give him his army anywhere and what sort of deal did he make in exchange for the technology of the tesseract and rule over Earth? We don't find out until the end of the film (past the credits) and if you weren't a Marvel comic book fan from the 1970s or later, you'd have no idea of what the scene really meant or why that big, ugly guy smiled at the mention of "death."

Loki lives on to fight another day, but it took the Hulk to bring him down in a scene that had the audience cheering.

So much happened in The Avengers so fast that I know I missed a great deal. This is one of those films that you have to see again and again, not only to keep the adrenaline rush going, but to try and catch all of the subtle details that you couldn't possibly have picked up on during a single viewing.

If by some miracle, you haven't seen this movie yet, I can't recommend it highly enough. Most films are never quite as good as the previews and trailers make them seem, but The Avengers was even better. It's a super hero classic.

Addendum: I know I didn't mention Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury, but this review is long enough. If you want to find out more, see the movie.

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