Saturday, May 19, 2012

Avengers Disassembled

Let me get the obvious out of the way first: Avengers is very good. If you like superhero movies, you’ve probably already seen it and if you haven’t yet, you should. Even if you haven’t seen the individual superhero flicks that essentially serve as advanced promotions for the film, the movie is surprisingly coherent and satisfying. Even Marvel-indifferent Whedon-devotees should give it a shot, because the script drips with his trademark wit and style.

Earth's mightiest heroes indeed. I don't envy the bastard who tries to pull off 
a live-action Justice League movie.

Like his run on Uncanny X-Men, Whedon successfully opens up a beloved superhero team to a broader audience. Instead of watering characters down or simplifying their mythos, he intensifies each personality and establishes the key tensions and relationships that define the team. People that haven’t read Avenger’s comics, or those who just don’t “get” the Avengers, will likely understand the team’s appeal after watching this film. I think that is the highest praise anybody can attain in the still-young superhero genre.

The strongest arguments I have heard against Whedon’s creative style is that he is A) too witty for his own good, and B) most of his characters all speak with the same voice. The former argument complains that “people don’t actually talk like that.” It is an appeal to realism that I find unappetizing, and which would also clash with his chosen milieu of action-heavy escapist fantasy. The second argument has more teeth to it. There are episodes of Buffy, Angel and Dollhouse that evoke the sensation of one writer having an elaborate conversation with himself for his own entertainment, as opposed to defining character’s personalities or moving the plot forward. In Firefly, Uncanny and Avengers though, there is a definite clash of disparate personalities. Archetypal personalities admittedly, but ones that stay true to their source material.

Whedon can’t take all the credit of course. Evans, Downey, Johansson, Hemsworth, and Jackson are well within their established comfort zones, but they make the most of it and deliver crowd pleasing performances. Mark Ruffalo stands out by bringing some nuance to the Hulk, and while I must confess that I haven’t seen either of the two attempted Hulk movies or the much-loved Hulk television series, I can’t imagine another actor doing better as the not-so-gentle giant. Tom Hiddleston works much better as a villain, and as Loki specifically, than he did last year’s lackluster not-quite-blockbuster, Thor.

The cast is a little too big for its own good, though. Cobie Smulders  (AKA Robin from How I Met Your Mother), does not receive much in the way of memorable lines as S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Maria Hill, and she is handsomely trounced in the bad-ass hot chick category by Johansson’s Black Widow. Jeremy Renner spends most of the film as a brain-washed baddy, and also loses out where one-liners are concerned. But two weak roles in such a huge movie is shooting way above par for the course.

The most spectacular thing about the Avenger’s movie is that it could have gone wrong in so many ways. Yeah, Marvel made all the right moves, from teasing the team-up in each of the Iron Man, Captain America and Thor films, to hiring Joss to write and direct, to sparing no expenses on production and promotion. But bigger movies than this have easily been derailed by big egos, rushed release schedules, last minute re-writes and every other goddamn thing that possibly go wrong. Avengers not only manages to pick up the disparate threads of four very different super heroes, it makes them greater than the sum of their parts. Thor is better written and more entertaining than he was in Thor. Tony Stark moves back towards hero on the asshole-to-hero spectrum. Captain America is a much more compelling leader now that he is in charge of other well-established heroes. For the same reason, more is at stake for Bruce Banner now that he is surrounded by other heroes instead of a bunch of potential victims.

So here’s the problem. Where do they go from here? How are they going to make Iron Man 3 seem compelling by comparison? Is anybody actually excited about Thor 2? Even if Marvel skips ahead to Avengers 2 (which they won’t), where can they go with it? The cast is already huge, so unless they start killing heroes off with a vengeance (which they won’t), they can’t realistically expand the team’s roster, or everybody will only get two minutes of screen time. They also can’t make the movie longer, because 2 hours and 23 minutes is already pushing the envelope for a visually exhausting action-heavy superhero epic. And who do you turn to for a villain? The after-credits teaser have already answered that question by proposing Thanos, but how can they make Thanos threaten the world in a more interesting way than the first film’s alien invasion? Incorporating the character in a way that he can be believably beaten, and still threaten the entire planet Earth at once is a perilous balancing act in and of itself.

I guess it’s a testament to the movie that I am already puzzling out how they will hash out the sequel. It's going to be a tough act to follow for superhero fans.

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