Thursday, May 10, 2012

Danny Says THE AVENGERS is a SMASHING Success!


- The fact that The Avengers turned out the way it did ... the fact that it even exists ... is sort of a minor miracle. The Avengers might be the most purely comic-book-y, most geek-friendly superhero movie of all time, and yet it's a mega-blockbuster, a box-office record-setter, and is coming off of a $200 million dollar plus opening weekend. If The Avengers was a comic book series about the first mission of The Avengers, it would be hailed as one of the greatest Avengers comics ever written. This is a movie jam-packed with over-the-top action and cosmic scope, and yet, overflowing with great character moments, humor, and sharp dialogue. I mean ... are you kidding me?! This isn't supposed to happen. But it did. Joss Whedon and co. pulled it off, and pulled it off big time. But let's face it: for anyone in the know, there was never any question that Joss could write and direct the hell out of an Avengers adventure if given the chance. What was and is surprising is that Marvel and Disney had the balls and the bravery and the intelligence to go ahead and let him do it. The result is a modern classic of superhero cinema. Finally, we've moved beyond the ritualistic retelling of secret origins. Finally, we've moved past the formulaic structure of and limited scope of so many superhero flicks of the last several years. With The Avengers, we finally and truly get a movie that captures the feeling of opening a Marvel comic and experiencing sensory overload from the sheer number of colorful characters and cool, far-out concepts. This is, finally, the Marvel Universe on the big-screen. And my god, it is good.

There are a lot of elements that help make The Avengers feel like it's playing on a different quality level than most other superhero movies. To preface that, I know everyone has their favorites, but personally I'd say that, prior to now, Spiderman 2 and Captain America were my favorite Marvel movies, though I've enjoyed all of the precursors to The Avengers to varying degrees. That said, what instantly makes The Avengers stand out to me is THE SCRIPT. In typical Whedon fashion, the dialogue zings by with a snappiness that is a joy. The movie's got dozens of instant-classic, memorable, quotable lines - and man, is that refreshing or what? To me, that is a MUST for a comic book movie, yet so many have had relatively flat scripts sans truly memorable dialogue moments. And I probably don't need to tell you this, but Robert Downey Jr. and Joss Whedon's dialogue are a match made in heaven. Hearing the fast-talking Tony Stark rattle off Whedon's snarky put-downs, funny pop-cultural references, and taunts-in-the-heat-of-battle ... well, it's a thing of beauty. But the thing is ... *everyone* has great lines in this movie - the Hulk ("puny god!"), Captain America ("I get that reference!"), and so on. And everyone has great characterization to boot.

And there is the other amazing thing about The Avengers. Every. Single. Character. has their moment in the sun. The balancing act that the film pulls off is astounding. I mean, going in, I thought it was a given that there'd be some great back-and-forth between Downey's Stark and Chris Evans' Steve Rogers. But I never expected that Scarlet Johansson's Black Widow would have so many kickass scenes. I didn't anticipated that The Incredible Hulk would be a complete scene-stealer and in one fell swoop become awesome again. Tom Hiddleston's Loki is a great villain - more engaging and compelling than in Thor. Jeremy Renner's Hawkeye is badass and singlehandedly just raised the bar for what a TV or bigscreen Green Arrow would have to measure up to. I mean, hell, freaking Agent Coulson kicks ass in this movie! In every other Marvel movie, he's just been "that guy who's in every Marvel movie." But here, he's the man!

Sure, Whedon had the benefit of being able to play off of the characterizations established in the previous Marvel films. But still - one could go into this one not having seen 'em and still totally get it. A lot of it comes back to the script. Whedon brilliantly structures the film so as to deftly re-introduce us to each major character. He also layers in plenty of dialogue that's textured with characterization and character-building moments. He remembers that we love these heroes because of the characterization and because of their interactions with each other. He gets that that mix of clashing personalities is what makes superhero team-ups (and the inevitable infighting that results) so fun in the first place. So yes, Avengers has got balls-to-the-wall action, but the action is that much better and more satisfying because the characters are treated with such care and respect, and because the action is all predicated on their conflicts, teamwork, and personal choices. Like I said, each character has their major "whoah, watch me kick ass!" moments - but those moments are made all the more satisfying by the slow builds that lay the foundation for the epic battles. This is, quite simply, a new template for how to do superheroes right.

And of course, so much of the credit goes to the actors who make this film really come alive. I think that's another thing that makes The Avengers so remarkable - they actually pulled off the impossible dream of getting all the major A-list actors from each Marvel franchise back for this one. Egos were put aside - from both the actors and from the directors who willfully tied their films into the larger creative vision - and now we get *this.* Okay, sure, Edward Norton was out and Mark Ruffalo was in as Bruce Banner. And I did think that, man, it would have been really, really interesting to see Norton in the mix here. But Ruffalo is quite good, and he does a smart thing in that he really makes Banner his own. He's less Norton's twitchy, on-edge, version of the character. Instead, he reminded me a lot of Raylan Givens on Justified ... smiling, friendly, wryly funny ... with the anger luring underneath the surface. And it's that duality that gives us one of the film's most memorable moments, the revelation about the true nature of Banner's anger - which Ruffalo plays perfectly. But seriously, everyone is great here. Robert Downey Jr. is fantastic - he just owns it as Iron Man, as good as ever if not better. How awesome is Chris Evans as Captain America? Evans blew me away with his Christopher Reeves-esque performance in the Cap movie, and he carries over that same earnestness here - and it's all the more fun now that he's in our time and part of this bigger team with a more cosmic scope than his WWII adventures. Seeing Evans' natural charisma and sense of duty slowly evolve his role into team leader is a highlight of the film.

Similarly, Chris Hemsworth as Thor continues to be awesome. The dude *is* Thor. And he 100% pulls off what is surely one of the goofiest Marvel heroes and makes him a badass. Whedon lets RDJ and others poke some fun at the guy (calling him "Legolas", among other things), but still, Hemsworth is just uber-believable. So when Thor's mighty hammer crashes into Cap's unbreakable shield, it's just a moment of pure ownage that will give fanboys chills. Jeremy Renner has only made cameos to date as Hawkeye, but look, when you get one of the best actors working today to fill the role of - let's face it - one of the more B-list members of the team, you know that the cast of your movie is stacked. Nonetheless, Renner's natural badassery is key, because Hawkeye has to work as both a believable adversary and eventual ally and equal to the other Avengers. And even though Hawkeye is ultimately just a dude with a bow-and-arrow, Renner makes him a standout and a powerhouse in his own right. Same goes for ScarJo's turn as Black Widow. Johansson always seemed a little wrong for this part to me, but by god, she's great here. She makes the Widow a strong character (thanks in no small part to Whedon, who as we all know can write the hell out of kickass female characters) - a badass combatant who also has some serious personal baggage. Did anyone going in expect that arguably the film's two best action sequences would be centered around Black Widow? No? Well, they do.

And as I alluded to, the movie is just so jam-packed with fun characters and performances, it's insane. Samuel L. Jackson is one bad motha' as always as Nick Fury, agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. And yes, I'd like that S.H.I.E.L.D. movie now please. Meanwhile, Tom Hiddleston is really, really good as primary villain Loki, carried over from Thor. While Loki is less the mastermind, and more the emissary for a giant-ass alien armada that plans to invade, Hiddleston gets all the meaty badguy lines and does a great job with 'em. I was worried that Loki wouldn't be a good enough villain, having already appeared in and been defeated in THOR. But as it turns out, the combination of a cackling, scheming Loki and an evil alien army with jet-bikes, giant snake-like ships, and legions of foot-soldiers is a formidable combo indeed. Loki sort of sets things in motion, but when business picks up and the aliens invade New York, the ensuing battle is epic and just nonstop mayhem - expertly choreographed and full of momentum. I think that speaks to the fact that, hey, Joss Whedon can do action. He stages some of the most purely fun and exhilarating action sequences we've seen in a big movie like this in quite some time. I'd say that Star Wars would be an apt comparison - the level of childlike glee that Whedon clearly takes in staging the big action and maximizing all of his characters within them - it took me back to the kind of sheer immersion and kinetic energy of the OT Star Wars trilogy.

By the way, back to that cast for one minute - when you've got minor roles filled out by the likes of POWERS BOOTHE, Harry Dean Stanton, Stellan Skarsgard (reprising his role from Thor), and Gwyneth Paltrow (back as Pepper Potts), again, you know you're playing with a stacked deck. If only Mr. Boothe could have been given a bit of a bigger role ... he is just such a badass (watch Deadwood to see what I mean).

Finally, Whedon and co. just have a sense of geek-love that makes the movie feel more fun and more joyous than so much of what we've seen before in the genre. Rather than run away from the movie's colorful comic book roots, Whedon embraces them. None of that X-Men everyone-wears-matching-leather stuff here. This movie is comic book colorful, and it's great. It oozes Marvel magic. And even though the film is accessible to all, it also revels in the stuff that comic geeks love - callbacks to past continuity, the sense of a larger shared universe, the mash-up of different genres (sci-fi, fantasy, espionage) into one messy whole, and yes - the cliffhanger ending. Stay through the credits and you'll see a bonus coda that promises that future Avengers adventures may get infinitely more cosmic and grand (and stay until the very end to see a hilarious glimpse at what happens in the hours *after* the Avengers have saved the day).

So is this the perfect Marvel superhero film? Almost. It's very close. The movie does so many things right that you almost don't want to pick apart what it does wrong. And the movie is, in so many ways, a template for how to make an awesome superhero flick. And yet, narratively, I think there are a couple things that are lacking.

- As great as The Hulk is in this movie (and make no mistake, he rules it), the movie glosses over some of the character's major evolutions throughout the course of the film. Yes, it's there between the lines. But the great line that Banner says towards the end of the movie is a great line, but also doesn't explain much. It feels like a scene was cut that gave some more insight into The Hulk's eventual ability to be more in control of his rage. With a little more explanation, I think The Hulk's major behavioral shift would have felt a little less out-of-nowhere and a little more satisfying.

- I know that there's a Captain America sequel on the horizon, but I felt the movie missed a big opportunity to show the impact of America's greatest WW2 hero suddenly reappearing - and still kicking ass - in the year 2012. I kept waiting for some senior citizen (Stan Lee?) to express amazement at seeing their childhood hero back - alive, kicking, and still youthful. The movie even sets up this moment near perfectly with a great little scene where two NYPD cops ask why they should take orders from Cap.

- More fleshing out of the aliens. I loved the look and design of the alien armada - but who are they exactly and what's their deal? I know some things may carry over into a sequel, but it did feel a bit odd to have this big alien invasion be so random and seemingly motiveless. A little more backstory would have potentially gone a long way.

- Nick Fury. Sam Jackson is indeed a bad m-f'er, but probably the one character that gets a bit slighted in all this is Mr. Fury. We still haven't gotten even a glimpse of his backstory. And - I wanted at least one memorable Fury-kicking-ass moment.

- The music. Man, one of the key things that keeps this from being a true classic might just be the music. Sure, the themes are okay, but there's nothing truly iconic or memorable here. Nothing that you'll go home humming, except for the pretty-catchy Soundgarden song that accompanies the closing credits. You can't overstate how crucial the scores of franchises like Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Superman, or Batman are to the success of those series - and Avengers deserved a score on par with those films.

At the end of the day though, THE AVENGERS is quite simply a game-changer in many ways. Even if it isn't in and of itself a stone-cold classic (and maybe, over time, it will indeed be regarded as such), it personally changed what I want out of superhero flicks. It moves up past the same ol' origin stories and takes us to the next level - capturing the fun and sense of anything-can-happen wonder of the big Marvel team-up and event comics of the past and present. It's got that Lee/Kirby sense of wonderment, but also a modern slickness laced with some of the best, snappiest, and funniest dialogue we've seen in a big action blockbuster. Honestly, The Avengers makes me look at other superhero movies and movie universes and desperately want them to follow this model. As cool as it is to see director-driven movies that make serious dramas out of superheroes, ultimately they *are* superheroes - and I don't see why there's any need to be ashamed of that. The Avengers has no shame, and I say that in the best way possible. It's ultimately, in that sense, a personal movie. Because even though it's 100% mass-market pop entertainment, it's also not toned down or made more palatable for the mainstream. On the contrary, it's Joss Whedon showing us these comic book icons and saying "see, see - *this* is why these guys are so cool!".

My Grade: A-