Friday, May 11, 2012

Film's Mightiest Heroes

As a film enthusiast, I'm somewhat torn. On the one had, The Avengers is pretty much THE thing happening in the world of movies and the world of geekdom at the moment, and there's a lot I feel compelled to write about in regards to it. On the other hand, the one thing I don't want to do on this blog is go over the same ground that other (arguably much more talented and definitely more public) critics/commentators already have.

Frankly, the Escapist's Bob Chipman and BADASS Digest's Devin Faraci between them cover pretty much any and all "is it a good movie?" ground that I feel needs covering. So rather than bothering to write up yet another standard review of this film (as if there weren't enough of those) I'm instead going to offer a few things that I've noticed during my (3 so far) viewings of The Avengers, and a few reasons I think that has resonated so well with audiences.

Needless to say, as this goes into a great deal of detail, there will be plenty of SPOILERS.

You have been warned. . .

1. Loki is a great "villain people love to hate"
Hiddleston owns every scene he's in, and his character is fascinating while being despicable, evil while remaining sympathetic to the audience. And he's fun as hell to watch. While Loki is dependent on an outside source for the power necessary to challenge the Avengers, he never comes off as lesser for it. In fact, the one time we see him interact w/the Other and Thanos, he acts as though he'll slap them with his dick if he turns too far to the left. He struts around like a total boss on their home turf, taunting them while wielding power that they gave to him, and it's way too awesome. He's more or less the Spike (William the Bloody from Buffy) of the Marvel Cinematic Universe - a snarky-ass villain who, with the right resources, can be a challenge for the team, who fails because they underestimate the team, and who is really just a warm-up act for the real heavy to come.

2. Joss Whedon: a surprisingly amazing action director
I've suspected this at least since Serenity, but The Avengers drives this singular point home. Whedon as a director reminds me very much of Steven Spielberg. For one, Whedon does a lot with reflections/mirrors in this movie (something Spielberg is also known for) and I just find that neat. But what I noticed is both directors have a "knack" for shooting great action without being pornagraphic or obnoxious about it, and part of their genius is a total comprehensibility of just about every single part of the scene. Not just throwing destruction and slo-mo "money shots" at the screen or shaking the camera all to hell to try to keep the audience "in the moment." For instance, here's a bit during the Helicarrier attack where Cap intervenes w/some Loki agents who are trying to get the jump on Stark. It's really fast and furious and up close and personal, but it never loses itself. Like when Cap takes out a dude and there's a quick insert to show where the dude's gun went. Then about 10 seconds later, Cap ends up right in that spot, picks up the gun, and starts shooting. You're never left going "What just happened?" or "Wait, where did he get the machine gun?" It just fits together so well, and it's part of what makes the orchestration of the finale so impressive.

Whedon does this (the casual dissemination of information on the fly) with narrative as well as action. If you stop to think about the movie's internal logic, stuff like "Wait, how does Banner know where to go for the final showdown?" and "Why does the Hulk seem more in control then?" may come up, but if you actually bother to listen, the movie tells you exactly how and why. Ex: Banner sees the gamma tracker locate the cube just before the explosion in the Helicarrier splits up the team, and the Hulk is "released" under entirely different circumstances then as compared to in New York. Basically Whedon spins the story as he goes and just expects you to keep up. It's great not to be spoon-fed everything for a change.

3. Joss Whedon: a comic book director who "gets it."
And I don't just mean he gets how awesome comic books are or understands the spirit of these particular characters (though he does on both counts). But there's something about the way Whedon uses his directing style that perfectly conveys a "comic book brought to life" sort of look. For example, there are a lot of dutch angles in this movie (for those not up on the parlance, this means a "tilted" camera angle). I didn't initially catch that, and I dunno if the 1:85:1 aspect ratio made this less apparent in Avengers than it was in Thor (which had a wider 2:40:1 anamorphic AR), but they're all over the place. Perhaps they're just an homage to Kenneth Branagh's movie, as they do seem to pop up when Thor and "his cast" is in play, but it's also an angle that in the film is often used the exact same way it's used in comics - to add to the dynamic nature of the scene and draw the eye to certain places in the shot.

4. The film elevates Marvel's other movies
Having just watched Iron Man 2 the other night, it actually holds up better after having seen The Avengers. Mostly because a lot of some things that get set up in that movie that seemed to drag it down (notably in the second act) seriously pay off in Whedon's film - like the S.H.I.E.L.D. presence, the introduction of Black Widow, the bits about Tony's father and how that can be traced back to Howard's attitude toward Steve Rogers, etc. A great argument for the "shared universe" film continuity - like the best comics, the films end up reinforcing each other even while standing on their own.

5. Establishing and paying off character details
I don't know how many people caught this, but Black Widow is SCARED SHITLESS of the Hulk. Whedon was very deliberate about setting that up from her first scene in the film, and it plays out constantly through the movie. When she finds him in India, she blows her customary cool when she pulls a gun on him (in a wide-eyed near panic) and in the Helicarrier she's freaking right the hell out as Banner transforms for the first time. And she's so shaken by that encounter that she's near-catatonic for a lot of the fight against Loki's agents until Barton comes her way. Which makes HER being the one to say "We could use a little worse" to Banner in NYC all the more powerful.

6. Give the people what they want
 This is likely what makes this movie such a crowd-pleaser and such a compulsively re-watchable film for me personally. Joss Whedon has created one of the most cathartic blockbusters in recent memory. It's not ill-fitting to compare The Avengers to Independence Day, at least in one key area: Catharsis. Unlike Roland Emmerich's follow-ups like The Day After Tomorrow and 2012, ID4 delivered on large-scale destruction and mayhem caused by a force against which humanity could conceivably fight back (at least eventually) - and it's no accident that it remains by far the director's most successful film. Remember how ID4 spend nearly 2 hours destroying cities and landmarks and generally grinding the characters (and by proxy the audience) into the ground? Wasn't it satisfying to finally see the humans stand up to the aliens in a fight and get some payback?

That's because the film was basically engineered to get that exact reaction from audiences, the "fist pump hero moment" that you crave when things have gone south for so long. Whedon does this in The Avengers, and does like a pro (which, to be fair, he kinda is). The entire first two acts of the movie feature Loki walking all over the heroes, setting them against each other (when they weren't exactly getting along well to start with) and hitting them where they lived. By the time the pitched battle in Manhattan takes place, there's nothing they audience wants more than to see the heroes pull together as a team to wipe Loki's smirk off his face.

And then Joss Whedon delivers exactly that in the form of a half-hour action set piece of such quality in staging and stakes and character/narrative importance and payoff that it literally throws down the gauntlet (post-credits nerd joke!) to every other comic book movie before or since.

I honestly love this movie. I keep expecting diminishing returns because it's not "The first time I saw Whedon's Avengers" anymore, but this thing holds up. It's not just that it's great eye candy popcorn entertainment, it's that it's one of the most well-assembled (HA!) movies of its kind - in a wide number of ways - to hit theaters in a long time.

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