Friday, May 4, 2012

Mashup in Manhattan

I try not to make snap judgments when I call a film my favorite so far of the year. I generally attempt to step back from the initial rush I felt in the immediate aftermath of the movie in question and ask myself as to what made that particular title so great. That was certainly easy when the films in question were the relatively unremarkable Haywire, The Secret World of Arrietty and Friends with Kids. Much as I enjoyed each of those titles, they were absolutely the best of what was a swath of mediocre releases beginning in January that has continued largely unchecked in 2012. Having a clear frame of mind became more difficult in March, when the first great film of the year was released in the Hollywood remake 21 Jump Street, and again in April with the horror spoof The Cabin in the Woods. As opposed to simply enjoying myself at the theater, I was actually having  rip-roaring times, firsts for the year. When I stood back and declared them #1's, I had to force myself to look past what I loved about them and see them for what they really were. Fortunately, that still made them excellent films, though I now find myself in an even more difficult position today that I did in those past two instances: a great movie that I thoroughly enjoyed to the tune of it easily catapulting to the top of my 2012 rankings. But does Marvel's The Avengers truly deserve to be known as the #1film of the year? Following is a list of the big and little things director Joss Whedon did right in adapting the popular comic book superhero team to the big screen.

Joss Whedon Success #1: A Classic Tale

I'm sorry, it's still difficult to believe that Chris Evans is that big...
When the Marvel Comics super-group The Avengers was first formed back in 1963 by creative minds Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, it was to unite several of the characters the two men created to battle villains no one hero could defeat, in this case Loki, the Asgardian god of mischief and brother and arch-nemesis of superhero Thor. Knowing this, Whedon gleefully pits Loki (Tom Hiddleston) against Earth's mightiest heroes, or at least those who have had successful film runs to this point. When Loki steals an alien power source with limitless potential, the Tesseract (Sorry, purists, but I'm glad they didn't call it the Cosmic Cube), from the hands of international law enforcement agency S.H.I.E.L.D., director Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson) calls together the strongest and smartest known heroes in an attempt to prevent Loki from subjugating the world's population. It may not be all that easy, as it will take the combined strengths of super-soldier Captain America (Chris Evans), genius in a metal suit Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr), thunder demigod Thor (Chris Hemsworth), gamma-irradiated scientist/monster Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), and master assassins Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) to prevent the bad guy from using the Tesseract to summon an alien army to pacify the Earth for his rule.

Funny, he doesn't LOOK particularly angry...
Whedon knew what he was doing when he wrote this script; each character has their own stake in what happens, and the balance between characters is such that never does anyone gets too much attention in comparison to the others. Placating the egos of big-name actors is never an easy task, though that was perhaps made easier by presenting them a tale that starts off with huge consequences and that keeps raising the stakes, never allowing itself to falter even in the face of necessary plot exposition or character development. Keeping a steady pace throughout means the audience never feels lost, even if they've never read a comic book in their life or seen any of the preceding Avengers films. Still, I have no doubt that the die-hard fans will have the best experience, as this is a story that hearkens back to the golden age of comic book heroes and villains.

Joss Whedon Success #2: Hero Cooperation... and Conflict

It's a good thing the god of thunder doesn't sucker-punch...
One of the great thing about the Avengers comics over the years was that you had a constantly-rotating group of heroes who fought gallantly to protect the world from evil. Of course, the unsaid portion of that statement is that this group rotated their members because the erstwhile allies didn't always get along. Whedon did good by not making this a seamless transition from a number of solo heroes into bad-ass super group; these guys have little in common, and early on they make it vocal what they despise about one another. What Lee and Kirby knew, and Whedon wisely picked up, is that when the strongest people on the planet have a beef with one another, rarely will words win a fight where fists do quite nicely. In often clashing with one another, the characters' eventual uniting under a shared threat is made far more amazing, especially when those fights prove to be far from over in the heat of battle. Great acting is simply a great topping, as Downey Jr, Evans, Hemsworth et al make the whole thing work, good or bad, in their characters' interactions with one another.

Joss Whedon Success #3: The Hulk Done Right

Okay, NOW we run!
As a film franchise, The Hulk has not really been much of a success by the standard set by Thor, Captain America and Iron Man for Marvel. Failing to gather much traction either in 2003 or 2008, the reason for Hulk apathy is as simple as the hero's premise: Bruce Banner gets mad, he turns into Hulk, repeat as necessary. But what makes Hulk bland as a solo act grows new life when he's thrown against other heroes, whether he's hunting Black Widow through the bowels of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s  Helecarrier or duking it out with Thor. And when he takes his "Hulk Smash" bit out on an invading army... well, let's just say that seeing is believing. Thanks equal parts smart storytelling from Whedon and the casting of Ruffalo (which has proven to be a masterstroke of genius), not to mention unprecedented CGI/motion capture work which finally allow the not-so-jolly green giant to live up to his namesake, The Hulk finally feels like a force to be reckoned with. Combine that with Whedon's liberal use of comedy to disarm your senses, and he appears to finally be coming into his own as a movie character.

Joss Whedon Success #4: Suitable for Your Children

The new Michael Ball fashion show begins with a twist.
Remember last summer, when Transformers 3 hit the big screen? Besides being a jumbled mess thanks to director Michael Bay, the destruction of Chicago (the film's only worthwhile bit) was tempered a bit when scenes were shown of the evil Decepticons gleefully firing on fleeing civilians and turning them into bones and ash. Or Green Lantern, in which Parallax's invasion of Earth began with the disintegration of several people? The fact that these films easily got themselves PG-13 ratings while recent documentary Bully was repeatedly saddled with an R is kind of bullshit, but what makes those films' actions so reprehensible was that the filmmakers KNEW a lot of young kids and teens were going to beg their moms and dads to see these titles, and the actions of the directors left a poor taste in responsible parents' mouths. That isn't a real risk in The Avengers; while there is certainly plenty of exciting action to go around, parents can be reassured that there will be no violent depictions of mass murder to clog their children's minds, only the kind of fights that will inspire them to mock-fight with friends in their yards afterward.

Manhattan has never looked better!
Marvel's The Avengers is frankly a film with few flaws. It's strongly written, loyal to its fanbase without being disingenuous to those who perhaps aren't on the bandwagon, and amps up the action at all the correct moments. The actors are great, the humor is hilarious, the heroes are larger than life and there really isn't any better film to open the summer movie season. The only thing I can honestly say I didn't like was a factor most Whedon fans are intimately familiar with, and even THAT was done for the right reasons, whether or not we agree. Whedon's classic superhero world might not have the brilliant bleakness of Christopher Nolan's Gotham City, and might not stand up in quality to Nolan's upcoming Dark Knight Rises. It's a different animal, but never will there be a moment when The Avengers doesn't get SOME kind of reaction from you, whether good or bad. For now at least, it's not only the best movie of 2012, but the Marvel Comics movie to rule them all. Marvel's reign of dominance shows no sign of letting up, and I can't wait for the next entry to this franchise, as The Avengers left me wanting even more once the credits had stopped running.


julesrules3114 said...

What the hell is Jeremy Renner doing in this?!

Ever since "The Town," he's been in every action movie, in existence.

Mr. Anderson said...

Sadly, he has a smaller role here than I would have liked. 'The Town' and 'The Hurt Locker' shot Renner into the stratosphere, and when he's so good in films like this, 'Mission Impossible', and hopefully the upcoming 'Bourne Legacy' and 'Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters', I can't complain. I hope he gets another role that nabs him another Academy Award nominations, but I'll take the action flicks for now.