Sunday, May 6, 2012

Marvel's Avengers

Having seen the Box Office Returns and watched the TV for the last few days, I doubt that many of you have waited to hear my point of view on this film before you went out and saw it. It was pretty obvious that this was going to be one of the big films of the summer, what was not as obvious was whether it would be any good. I won't hold you in suspense about my assessment, It's terrific entertainment and the kind of summer popcorn movie that should keep the theaters busy until the next big blockbuster shows up. This movie has a cool factor all over it, all the comic fans and casual fans and their families are going to have a good time at the movies.

Marvel has been building to this film for several years now. As new super heroes from the Marvel Universe have made their way on to the screen, there has been an attempt to connect them with the thread of SHIELD, as the agent that will bring them all together. This has been a grand idea much like the Harry Potter films managed to follow one another with a good deal of consistency, the Marvel Super Heroes have stayed mostly true to their origins and layered on a bit more for the coming climax. While the Potter films have had the advantage of being true chapters in an ongoing narrative, the Marvel characters have had to live in their own worlds and break into a story that could bring them into one universe together. The first film to plant that seed was the excellent "Iron Man". It was followed up by the reboot of the "Hulk" franchise which was launched without the desired success earlier and needed a more consistent tone. The reboot with Edward Norton worked, but it did not break any box office records, it was perhaps about the same in financial return as the Eric Banna version had been, but it did water the seed of this particular concept. The second "Iron Man" movie was a disappointment but it did introduce a new character or two who would make more memorable appearances in the current film. Then, last year, we got a double whammy with the very serviceable "Thor" and the truly excellent "Captain America". Each film set up a small connection to the Avenger's Initiative that makes the current movie the capstone of the series.

 The writer/director of "The Avengers", Joss Whedon, understands what the comic book crowd wants and delivers it in abundance. There are several smackdowns between our main characters as the story is being set up. Each gives the geeks the kind of moment they have wanted since the characters first showed up on the page. We get to see Ironman face off with Thor, and then Thor match fists with the Hulk, and Captain America take them all on in one form or another. Those are the sugar bombs placed around the story that draw in the comic book crowd. After all you can't expect this group of larger than life figures to mix perfectly right off the bat. Eventually they will come together but it will not be a smooth transition nor will it be one without loss. There is a threat to the planet that only our heroes will be able to respond to. They need some motivation, and while there are a lot of ways this could have gone, I think the idea that finally triggers it works because of some of those links set up in other films. Once you have seen the movie you will know what I mean, but I am not going to give anything away.

 All of the characters get a chance to have some moments of glory. The least developed is "Hawkeye" played by Jeremy Renner. This is an actor I like more every time I see him. He was really solid in the last Mission Impossible movie and will be the featured star of the "Bourne" reboot coming later this summer. He has the smallest amount of dialogue and the least developed of the characters in the movie but manages to hold our attention every time he is on screen. When he pulls out his bow and gets ready for business, we all anticipate some Robin Hood type moments and are not disappointed. Part of the reason that his character is underdeveloped here is that he is playing for the wrong side for the first half of the movie. It is a little complicated but it does set up some revenge factor in the second half that makes us root for him. Marvel is going to have tons of money to spend on new films featuring these characters, in using Hawkeye they have a film that could be told with a smaller budget and a much more dark story.

 Scarlett Johansen's Black Widow is a spy character that would need to be modified a little to make a whole film. There is an excellent set up of her skill set early in the movie, but she really is a comic book version of a spy and there would need to be an outlandish over the top story to justify her presence. The fighting skills would make it seem too much like the "Electra" spin-off of "Daredevil". It would all be about hyper fighting skills. The better story is the other set of skills she has, I just don't see how you could get a whole movie out of that trick. Her character is good for the background of these hero movies but would struggle to meet the needs of a stand alone movie. There is however a satisfactory payoff of her manipulative skills in this film, one that justifies here in a featured part. At the end of the movie it was hard to find something for her to do and that may be the one weak spot in the story telling.

There is a lot of humor in the interaction of the main hero characters. Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark is his usual smug but charming rebel. He provokes all the others at some point or another, and it is his conversion to the cause that makes the team finally come together. He of course has all the best jokes as well, stealing the function that Tommy Lee Jones had in "Captain America" last year. The vast majority of humorous dialogue is his or it is connected directly to his character. He is well used in the story as a point of conflict and for comic relief. While I am on the subject of comic relief, I want to mention the character of Agent Phil Coulson. The actor Gregg Olsen has played him for several films and he has always had the right dry delivery for his lines. His role has been to stand in for us mere mortals while still being able to carry off a stoic expression in the face of billionaire genius arms manufacturers, monster green scientists and demi-gods from another world dressed as background scenery from Wagner Operas. After Tony Stark, he gets the best jokes, but they are humorous only because of his delivery and timing. This was good casting from several years ago that is paying off in this film.

Thor and Nick Fury are along for the ride. They move the plot when it needs to be moved and there are places that the story depends on them for a dramatic intervention, but they are the two characters that stay the most on the surface of any of the main players. This is an ensemble piece and everyone has a contribution to make, they can't all be equal contributions. The work of both actors is fine and there are some good lines delivered by Samuel Jackson, and some nice visual images with Thor, but none of their character's roles were meaningful outside of the confines of the ensemble. Everyone gets a moment here and there and both of these characters shine in their moments, the moments are just not as memorable as those for other players.

My favorite Avenger is "Captain America". I liked the stand alone movie from last year the best of all of the others with the possible exception of the first Ironman. Chris Evans Cap is still a straight shooter, who when moved to modern times can see the hypocrisy of the new world more clearly than others can. He is disillusioned by what his country and the world have become. His lack of cynicism in contrast to Tony Stark sets up a very effective conflict for the middle section of the film. His heroic persona is mocked, but then shown to be exactly the kind of thing that can make a difference when the chips are down. He is an argument for patriotism even in the muddled times we currently live in. Steve Rogers also knows how to lead, you make decisions that you hope are right and then follow through the best you can. His character has the initial fight with the evil "Loki" early in the movie, but after that, he has to be everywhere as part of a team and his stand alone moments are fewer as a result. His orders to the defenders of the Earth are clearly needed and there are two swell payoffs that provoke smiles from the audience. The second one gets a cheer from all the comic book geeks because it is a favorite saying from the Marvel Universe.

 After two prior attempts to make the Hulk a success as a screen character, the writers, director and casting finally pay off. Mark Ruffalo is a great Bruce Banner, disheveled, world weary and with an anger problem that makes him the focus of much of the movie. When everyone is not walking on eggshells and the Hulk finally comes out, we get a much more successful version of the green monster that Dr. Banner discretely refers to as "the other guy". There is clearly a problem with having an uncontrollable monster on your side. The story acknowledges that this is a complex nut to crack and finally does. "Loki" as played by Tom Hiddleston, is not perturbed or threatened by any of the other heroes. Even his brother Thor is viewed as just another threat. The one character he does seem worried about is the Hulk, and in the biggest cheer in the whole movie, we get to see why. Tony Stark and Bruce Banner make a connection in the movie, and I would not be surprised to see them team up again, but if I were Robert Downey Jr., I'd watch out for Ruffalo and the Hulk stealing his thunder in another movie. The film is nearly two and a half hours long. It is packed with a number of story lines and characters and comic book conflict set up. Yet despite the possibility that it could end up a bloated piece of junk like "Batman Forever" and "Batman and Robin" or "Spiderman 3" were, it manages to tell a story quickly and efficiently with a lot of humor and plenty of fireworks. You get a lot of bang for your buck with "Marvel's The Avengers". It is an unashamed piece of pop entertainment that delivers for the audience the elements they want in a summer movie. Just try not to get sick from eating too much popcorn in the theaters this summer.

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