Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Assemble! The Avengers Review

The Avengers is quite frankly the most fun I have had in a theater in quite some time.  Not since Scott Pilgrim vs. The World can I recall myself grinning throughout an entire movie or legitimately bursting out in outright laughter.  Sure I've had some chuckles and some smirks, some "heh"s where one could tell laughter was more or less required, even the occasional "ohh that's awesome", but nothing approaching the genuine inner-child feelings invoked by The Avengers.

It is the epitome of the good summer blockbuster.  Unlike the heady Dark Knight franchise, The Avengers doesn't cover itself in layers of grit and darkness in an attempt to take place in the real world.  It starts in the realm of fantasy and stays there, allowing for a much more natural suspension of disbelief and lighter tone in general.  On the flip side, it doesn't suffer from the frenetic editing or rampant stupid contrivances that infects fluff like Star Trek (2009) and the Transformers movies, which don't pretend to be reality but also can't remember where they are long enough to follow the rules of their own fantasy world.

This is not to say it is a perfect movie, but it is a great one.  It is the kind of movie that absolutely understands its audience and its source material, and respects both.  In the same way that the original Superman movie took a comic book character to a new medium, The Avengers brings its characters to life and lets them play.

Now beyond here may lie spoilers since I'm going to get more specific so stop now if you don't want to know...

The main flaw of The Avengers, if one can really be assessed, is that, unlike director Joss Whedon's other film Serenity, it does not spike the ball on the themes it introduces.  Some might claim instead that it is the mere simplicity of the plot, but I'd argue that all "hero" stories have a simple plot out of necessity.  Some jerk wants to take over and somebody else has to stop said jerk.  To try and make it a convoluted escapade would both have created an incomprehensible film and forced Whedon to chop out all of the amazing character work that happens.

So what The Avengers is missing instead is that transcendent "I aim to misbehave" moment, where the thematic and character elements come together.

It's why I still think Spider-Man 2 is the best comic book adaptation of all time, because although The Avengers is bigger, better, and more complex, Spider-Man 2 has that moment.  In that movie, our main character Peter Parker spends his time trying to figure out why he puts up with all this, why he should continue being a hero, and Aunt May poignantly reminds Peter that his heroism inspires others to be heroic, if only to just hang on for a little while longer in the face of their own troubles.  It's at that point we really get the theme brought home.

With The Avengers each character gets a chance to take their shot (in some cases quite literally) at the overarching idea of freedom vs. subjugation and selfishness vs. duty that plays out, but you never really have a moment that gives it that closure that elevates it above everything else in the genre.  Nor do you truly get a sense that everybody has realized they do, in fact, need each other.  While the circle scene from the previews is awesome to watch, it still only seems like they said "well we all happen to be in the same place, let's coordinate some."

Despite that, The Avengers does something truly remarkable in managing to perfectly balance the various characters and their mini-subplots without shortchanging anyone or getting bogged down.  Most movies, particularly in this genre, just totally fail in this area.  The X-Men movies became the Wolverine show for one end of the spectrum, and Spider-Man 3 turned into a complete mess at the other.

In The Avengers, every character gets his or her due, both in terms of their character moments and in the action sequences.  The action sequences really shine as well because Joss Whedon apparently remembers the days before the hyper cutting shakey first person shooter cam that I've come to hate (and took to task in Act of Valor) became standard practice.  Instead, on the rare occasion we get that kind of camera work, it is used the way it should be used: putting the viewer down at the street level at the mercy of what is happening as though they were a civilian in the war zone.  Then just as quickly we come back to nice long steady shots of our characters doing stuff, cleverly and beautifully handing off the scenes between them.  There are several great sequences where we follow one hero to the next hero such as Hawkeye firing an arrow that explodes an alien craft which Iron Man flies by and we then follow him to Captain America in the street, etc.

This excellent camera work and editing really makes it feel like they are all in one place working together rather than actors never in front of the same green screen.  Moreover, each character is really kept unique, both in terms of how they fight and how they act.  They do not feel like carbon copies of each other nor do they feel like they could simply be replaced by any superhero.

And since The Avengers keeps itself firmly in the realm of fantasy from the very beginning, I didn't find myself crying "Bullshit!" whenever Hawkeye loosed an arrow at an alien fighter craft and blew it to pieces, even the time he did it without looking.  That's surprising because I never expected Hawkeye to work alongside this bunch.  A guy with arrows? Next to Iron Man?  But as I said earlier, the movie knows what it is and it doesn't play silly games with "realism", so that doesn't create the kind of cognitive dissonance that Two-Face speaking perfectly clearly despite missing half his face does in The Dark Knight, for example.

Instead, the heroes are cleverly set up to act as a range of strength, with Hawkeye and Black Widow on one end and the Hulk on the other, and the two ends are kept away from comparisons with each other.  They're also kept at relative strength to the enemy.  Captain America isn't seen trying to single-handedly take down one of the giant flying machines attacking, but he is on the ground beating the average alien infantry down.  Meanwhile Hulk and Thor handle the heavy lifting of destroying the big stuff.  So in that way, each character has their own little consistent fantasy rule set and is designed to work harmoniously with the rest.

Speaking of harmonies, Alan Silvestri's score is just as solid as the characters.  Silvestri knows when to be quiet and let the moment sink in, and when to swell up along with the grins in the audience.  He's constructed a great theme for the team that hearkens to some of the previous movies, particularly Iron Man and Captain America (the latter of which he also scored), even if it isn't something as completely memorable as say Superman's.

None of this could work without actors who nail their characters, of course, and in this case, pretty much everyone be they super hero or supporting cast member is pitch perfect, including Mark Ruffalo who delivers a Bruce Banner that works so much better than in either of the solo Hulk installments. 

I also have to give Tom Hiddleston a major thumbs up for making Loki so dynamic despite being such a simple villain in a simple plot.  His ability to shift almost instantly from jocular prankster to menacing psychopath is fantastic, and the facial expression he adopts after his encounter with the Hulk is priceless.  In his final scenes, he's able to project this aura that maybe the entire plot was just one giant prank by the God of Mischief, and not the temper tantrum the heroes suspect or an attempt at creating a benevolent dictatorship he espouses.

Ultimately, The Avengers is just a good time, and I wanted to turn around and get right back in line for another ride.  I'd recommend it to anyone who enjoys a good action flick, likes a good hero story, or just plain goes to the movies to escape from reality for a while.