Monday, May 7, 2012

Movie Monday: The Avengers

This week's Movie Monday selection is a little film called The Avengers!

I originally had another film all scheduled for this week, but then over the weekend I saw this behemoth of a movie and felt like I just had to throw in my two cents. After all, that's what the internet is all about, isn't it?

I'm sure I don't need to go into the back story of this film, everyone knows it, Marvel has been laying the groundwork for half a decade. But even though I am a lifelong comics fan, and am old enough to remember the days when Stan Lee breathlessly promised big budget Marvel movies on the pages of Bullpen Bulletins, only to have those movies never materialize (Stan "The Man" Lee, engaging in a little bit of hyperbole? No way!), I wasn't quite an enthusiastic over The Avengers as many other people I knew.

Having seen Marvel and DC fight it out at the box office the last twenty years, I noticed that the general approach both companies took with their comic books has been transplanted to TV and movies. DC has never really had a "house style", while Marvel has been all about its house style. I'm not knocking either approach--they each have their own pluses and minuses--but I've always found the results that came from those differences pretty, well, stark.

By not having one house style, I've found that DC, as a general rule, has had higher highs and lower lows. For most of my life, I could never envision Marvel coming up with landmark work like Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns, or Sandman--they're just too Marvel Universe-driven to allow creators such freedom to come up with medium-busting work like that. But on the other hand, Marvel is much more consistent--you pretty much know what you're going to get when you buy a Marvel comic, and there's something very comforting about that. With DC, you never know--you might get something brilliant, or something so bad you toss the comic into the trash after you're done reading.

I feel like this dynamic has played itself out with the movies--I don't believe there will ever be a Marvel-based movie as unique and enduring as the first Superman or The Dark Knight; I just can't picture them ever handing their corporate properties over to someone like Christopher Nolan or Richard Donner (who had the guts to toss out virtually all the work that had been done on the first Superman movie before he was hired). The Marvel movies will always be movies, never films.

But of course, Marvel has never released a turkey like Catwoman, Green Lantern, or Batman and Robin, movies that managed to either kill a franchise or stop one before it ever got started. Even the worst one of the bunch from Marvel in the last few years, which most people agree is IronMan 2, is far, far better than either of those three cinematic titanics.

This is a long preamble to say that I went into The Avengers pretty much knowing what I was going to get: a big, loud, mostly fun superhero action film, one that wouldn't fly too high nor sink too low. After all, just seeing all these superheroes together--something never done before at this scale--would be entertaining to watch, no? Plus, Joss Whedon!
I sat down to watch The Avengers, and in the first 90 minutes--the length of an entire movie in some cases--I didn't laugh, smile, grimace, or get engaged at all. The whole movie felt like it was built by a computer, with all the pieces being fit into place with calm professionalism.

Even though I've seen and enjoyed both IronMan films, Captain America, and Thor, seeing them all here only generated a brief moment of "Gee whiz, that's cool" and then I was really kind of bored. There wasn't anything truly bad on screen, but it just seemed so lifeless, so generic. The fact that this came from the mind of Joss Whedon, whose creative stamp is all over his projects, was profoundly disappointing to me. I knew the film was 2 1/2 hours long, and I was dreading the realization that The Avengers was shaping up to be a real disappointment.
Then something odd happened--at the 95 min (or so) mark, The Avengers shifts to it's big action finale, with all the heroes in mid-town Manhattan fighting off the evil, otherworldly forces brought there by Loki (Tom Hiddleston). And it was here that, for me, The Avengers really came alive.
All of a sudden, The Avengers seemed looser, funnier, and more individualistic than it had in its previous ninety-plus minutes. Gags started paying off, and I found myself laughing out loud in delighted surprise. Each character got a couple of moments that truly displayed what makes them unique--the Hulk's savagery, Captain America's bravery, Hawkeye's cool professionalism, Thor's unwillingness to give up. I was watching, in live action, these comic book characters truly come alive.
Of all the heroes in The Avengers, I felt that Mark Ruffalo's The Hulk comes off best; the script lets Ol' Greenskin cut loose a couple of times, and one scene involving him and Loki was something I think everyone has wanted to see, for years, judging by the uproarious reaction to it by the crowd I saw the film with. Ruffalo, the third actor to play Bruce Banner in as many films, gives the role a slightly goofier, more sarcastic flavor, and I would now totally be up for seeing him in his own Hulk movie.

As flawed as 2006's Superman Returns is as a film, I've always defended it because I think it gets a lot of things right. Primarily, the scene in the middle of the movie, where Superman rescues Lois Lane aboard a wayward space shuttle. I thought that was the single best comic book action sequence ever put to film, and now I think the final thirty minutes of The Avengers matches it; made all the more impressive by the fact that it goes on so much longer. As bored as I was during the first 2/3rds of The Avengers, I was equally thrilled by the final third.

I'm not sure what to account for this, you would think the Big Action Finale would be the time when a film like this goes the most on auto-pilot, since so much of the action is done by a small army of computer digital artists, not leaving a lot of room for quirk. Yet somehow Whedon managed to make these final scenes more uniquely his, and for that I'm grateful. (Speaking of unique, if you haven't already seen The Avengers, I beseech you to stay past the end credits; all of them. There's one final, final scene that feels entirely like Whedon's work, something I hope there's more of in the inevitable Avengers 2.)

Overall, I'd say I enjoyed The Avengers. I loved the ending so much that I think it could get me past the boring lead up if I were to see it again. When it comes to cable, I think I will watch The Avengers like how I watch Titanic--skip the first chunk, come back in for the end, which is gangbusters. If Whedon can somehow recapture the adventuresome spirit of this film's finale for the next movie, then we'll really have something.

Shawarma Assemble!


Caffeinated Joe said...

Haven't seen it, but my two youngest did and they both LOVED it. My daughter now has a crush on Loki. Sigh...

Brian B said...

I saw it twice this weekend and loved it both times. The funny parts were spot on with what I wanted to see. It was also nice to Captain America lead.

I had never heard of swharama before.
Is it a New York thing?
Didn't look like Captain cared for it! LOL!

Russell said...

Spot on review, Rob. I totally agree with you! However, I don't think I'll sit through AVENGERS ASSEMBLE or whatever the hell it will be called. ;-(
Unfortunately, I didn't read your review until after I saw it, so I totally missed the "ending" bit. I thought Thanos was it. Oh, well. I'll maybe catch it on cable or borrow it at the library.

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