Saturday, May 5, 2012

Superhero Supergroup: THE AVENGERS

The Avengers is not the greatest superhero film ever made, but it sure is a great time at the movies. It’s a high-impact spectacle full of loud, funny, and satisfying sequences that send characters slamming into each other into full-tilt superheroics in broad, bright, colorful collisions. We’ve met the characters in question before, which is just as well since that’s also where their characterizations reside. This isn’t a movie that’s about telling a story with much in the way of emotional character arcs or weighty personal journeys. It’s a movie that gathers up the main characters from recent Marvel Comics adaptations, the one’s they’ve had the exclusive rights to, that is, and teams them up to save the planet. Original, it’s not. (And not just in film. Comics have been orchestrating crossovers like this almost as long as comics have existed.) But the skill, energy, and good will of it all makes it fun all the same.

Marvel has been building to The Avengers for five years now, kicking off superhero franchises one by one with the express purpose of bringing them together for this one big blockbuster. And so, when Loki (Tom Hiddleston), the brotherly villain of Thor, comes shooting out of the vastness of space through a glowing portal into the middle of a top secret military installation and, promising war, makes off with a brainwashed archer (Jeremy Renner) and a volatile blue energy cube, the otherworldly MacGuffin from Captain America, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), the connective cameo from all of the earlier films, assembles his team of avengers. The film takes its time – a bit too much, perhaps – reintroducing the superheroes one by one, and it’s a credit to the consistency of quality in this many-pronged experiment in comic book adaptation that it’s nice to see them all again.

Fury himself calls in super-strong Captain Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) and dispatches right-hand man, Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg), to round up the rest of the recruits. He has master assassin Black Widow (Scarlet Johansson) pick up the cursed Dr. Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo, taking over for Ed Norton, who took over for Eric Bana – maybe stretching into the Hulk causes slow shifts in appearance). Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) flies in with his high-tech suit of armor; Thor (Chris Hemsworth) thunders down from the land of Asgard swinging his mighty hammer. The gang’s all here, though not without some complications on their way to assembling as a group. With such variety in powers and personality, interpersonal conflicts are bound to arise even as Loki’s threat of intergalactic war draws closer to reality.

This is a movie juggling multiple characters (even Stellan Skarsgard and Gwyneth Paltrow return, briefly) while fitting them into one coherent film narrative. Even the tones these heroes bring from their separate films could have easily competed instead of blending. The sarcasm of Iron Man, the pseudo-Shakespearean goof of Thor, the earnestness of Captain America, and the brooding pulp emotion of Hulk gave their films a personality of their own. Removed from their solo efforts the supergroup as a whole has less emotional resonance, as this film is unable to fully explore their outsized, but recognizably human, personalities through the metaphors supplied by their powers. In that sense, the movie is thin. It’s a lot of fun, but the characters arrive fully formed from other movies and end this one with little in the way of growth or development. But, still, this is a movie that throws together great characters and watches them interact asking, “isn’t that cool?” And, yeah, it’s cool.

With so many characters it could have been nothing more than a clash of tones while characters jockeyed for the spotlight. Luckily writer-director Joss Whedon has given these characters a movie in which there is no need to compete for attention. It plays out like the work of a fan who deeply loves these Avengers, each and every one of them, and has spent time thinking about the ways in which the powers and personalities could clash and connect. It’s an affectionate film. Whedon has always had a warm wit which shines clearly through genre material and that’s certainly the case here. This is a movie just crammed full of one-liners that actually land. He seems most comfortable writing for Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark, but the other characters certainly have funny moments of their own as well.

But it’s more than funny quips and clearly defined characters. It’s all about timing. There’s just enough room for the one-liners and amusing visual gags to breathe, but just enough concision to make them unexpected. That’s where Whedon’s pet theme – teamwork – comes into play. (His work, mostly and most notably in TV with Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly, consistently revolves around a group of people who must learn to work together.) This movie is filled with long sequences of the characters talking to one another, strategizing, arguing, joking, threatening, comparing internal struggles, and finding common ground. The actors are up to the task; dialogue pings around the room with precision. (It’s almost enough to make one think that if Howard Hawks had made a superhero movie, it might have looked a little like this.) Later, in the action scenes, the way characters spring into motion utilizes the best each has to offer in terrific synchronization. This is a film that plays to the strengths of everyone involved.

Like his fellow TV-to-film auteur J.J. Abrams, Whedon is a writer and director who has a way of injecting a serialized slam-bang cliffhanger style into a film. The Avengers starts with what is essentially a cold open, slams into a title card, and then moves from set-piece to set-piece finding some surprises along its fairly standard action movie path. It is an efficient spectacle delivery device. It’s a bright, loud, crashing crowd-pleaser, a blockbuster superhero movie with an impressive sense of narrative escalation. Each action sequence feels bigger and more complicated with higher stakes than the one before. By the time the film hurtles into a lengthy, chaotic, but coherent, climax (that has a few similarities to a similarly sprawling big-city brawl in Transformers: Dark of the Moon), it’s hard not to get swept up in it all. It is a movie designed to show off cool effects while likable, familiar characters clash and jest, explosions seasoned with genuinely funny one-liners, and some neat visuals, and, with a light touch and fondness for the material, Whedon more than gets the job done.

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