Wednesday, May 23, 2012

If This Be the Avengers...

I thought about not writing about The Avengers (2012, directed by Joss Whedon). I mean, what's the point, eh? It's a movie that seems to be "critic proof." What I say will matter not one whit when it comes to the public's embrace of this film, this big, stupid, monstrous superhero movie. For that matter, I thought hard about not seeing it at all. I'm entirely convinced of the obscenity in Marvel/Disney's refusal to pay Jack Kirby's estate a sum commensurate with his status as one of the prime creators of The Avengers, a refusal born out of a fit of pique when it comes to asserting the corporate ownership of somebody else's dreams. Let's just get that out of the way first: The act of watching the film impinges on my conscience. I can salve it a little with the knowledge that someone else paid for me to see it. But only a little.

Anyway, those are all my issues and they're largely independent of the film itself. There's a lot of stuff about this film that's independent of the product on the screen. That's the Hollywood hype machine for you, working on all cylinders in this case. Whether the movie itself is any good is entirely beside the point for them. All that matters is separating you, dear moviegoer, from your hard-earned money. The process by which that happens, whether it's putting butts in seats, buying Blu-ray discs, getting your kids a passle of action figures for Christmas (or Hulk fists, which I suspect are left-overs of hype campaigns of seasons past), has nothing to do with whether the movie is good. It's hard to find the movie, I think, amid all of this crap. I have an anecdote about all this that I need to get off my chest:

I was wandering around in the toy department at Target a couple of weeks ago, just after The Avengers opened in the US. By chance, there was a woman with her daughter there when I turned down the aisle housing all the Avengers tie-in merchandise. They were rifling through the action figures. The girl was distraught. There was no Black Widow action figure. Not a one. Why? Because they didn't make one for the mass-market tie-in. Girls who may like The Avengers are out of luck. I mention this because it's not like Disney to miss a marketing opportunity. They had to realize that hiring Joss Whedon, whose work has a significant female audience, would draw more women to all this ephemera surrounding the movie. Marvel comics, for their part, at least put out a new Black Widow comic as a tie-in, though I don't recommend it for girls who might be interested in the character (it was originally published in Maxim, so it's more than a little fan service-y for Marvel's traditional audience). Again, this has nothing to do with the movie, but I'll come back to the Black Widow presently.

So how was the movie?

Well, it was fun, though not without its flaws. This kind of big special-effects apocalypse isn't a lot different from most others. There's a rhythm to them: a climax at the end of each reel, sure, but more than that, there's an escalation of stakes from set-piece to set-piece, with an exhausting fireworks display at the end. I think of this as the Roland Emmerich formula, because it was Emmerich who crystallized the modern form of it in Independence Day. It's been used again and again in movies like Battle: Los Angeles, Prince of Persia, The Transformers movies, and Emmerich's subsequent movies. The Avengers is of a piece with those films. I won't take any note of the quality of the special effects or art design of this film because those kinds of production values are pretty much a given anymore. The state of the art is very high when it comes to designing props, effects gags, costumes, and environments. And yet, The Avengers is subtly different than other movies of its ilk. It bothers with characters and dialogue where other films don't have either the patience or desire (or talent) to bother with either. There's a subtle twist in the way this is mounted and in the way this is cast that moves it sideways in genre space, taking it out of the Emmerich film category into the realm of comedy. This isn't wholly unprecedented. One of this film's predecessors--Iron Man--did much the same thing. That film transformed a stock superhero origin story into a stylish screwball comedy while leaving all the genre signifiers of the superhero spectacle more or less intact. It's a tricky high-wire act: the second Iron Man movie tried to duplicate that feat and largely failed. The Avengers also mixes in the elements of its other predecessors, taking the pathos of the Hulk, the family drama of Thor, and the longing for simpler heroes of Captain America and mining ALL of them for their potential for humor while leaving these elements largely intact in the process. Frankly, I'm surprised they managed this and it's one of the film's signature pleasures.

This is, by necessity, an ensemble piece. Robert Downey, Jr.'s Tony Stark/Iron Man is the biggest star in the film, but either Downey is entirely selfless as an actor or he's so content with the paycheck he's getting for the movie that he doesn't need to have the spotlight because the movie's star attractions tend to elbow themselves past him. I mean, some elements of this really are Iron Man 2.5, but those elements have been de-emphasized in the name of universe building. Iron Man is already a marquee brand. The movie is a terrific trailer for the next Hulk movie, though, and it's a significant argument for a Black Widow movie.

The story picks up where last year's Thor and Captain America movies left off. S.H.I.E.L.D. has come into possession of the Tesseract, the cosmic cube that The Red Skull was using to develop his weapons for Hydra during World War II. The man they've enlisted to study and develop technologies around the cube is Eric Selvig, fresh from his adventure in the New Mexico desert. The cube is coveted by an unseen villain who allies with the fallen Norse god, Loki, to obtain the cube. Loki obliges. He follows the energy of the cube to the facility where S.H.I.E.L.D. is holding it, where he promptly takes the cube and abducts both Selvig and S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Clint "Hawkeye" Barton after invading and controlling their minds. Nick Fury has a crisis on his hands that his organization is insufficient to handle. He decides to resurrect the since-scrapped Avengers initiative and begins gathering his team. One member of the team, Bruce Banner, is reluctant. He knows that he's a ticking time bomb and he has no desire to be responsible for his own best behavior in a crowd. The Black Widow, pulled from another assignment, "convinces" him. Steve Rogers, meanwhile, is adjusting to his life as a man out of time. Fury offers him a mission. Tony Stark, for his part, has just put the finishing touches on Stark Tower, a sustainable skyscraper in the heart of Manhattan. Agent Phil Coulson is sent to pique Stark's interest. The team converges on S.H.I.E.L.D.'s headquarters, a massive military craft that's an aircraft carrier capable of flight. The helicarrier houses the labs and resources needed to find the cube. Meanwhile, Loki makes his move and the team is dispatched to take him on. After a brief battle, Captain America and Iron Man take him into custody. Unfortunately, Loki's brother, Thor, has other ideas, bringing him into conflict with Iron Man. Cap intervenes and calms the two of them down. Loki, for his part is a model prisoner. And why not? When he's taken into the heart of his enemy's stronghold, he's right where he wants to be, where he can sow discord. He does just that as his own minions assault the helicarrier in a bid to take S.H.I.E.L.D. out at the head. The newly allied heroes avert disaster, but only just. Meanwhile, Loki enacts his master plan, opening a conduit by which his army, the alien Chitauri, can invade our world. Ground zero is Stark's newly built tower. The battle for Manhattan and the world itself is on...

As a succession of plot points, the Avengers is seriously uneven. The opening sequences are strong, introducing new characters (particularly S.H.I.E.L.D. assistant director Maria Hill and Hawkeye) while providing just enough exposition about the nature of the threat to whet the audience's appetite. This section of the film concludes with a terrific vignette featuring The Black Widow, in which her bona fides as a superspy and superhero are demonstrated more forcefully than they were in Iron Man 2. The Widow is the standout character of the film, and this scene lays the groundwork for the scene where she drives this home after successfully playing Loki for a sap. She gets the first scene of the next section, too, in which she convinces Banner to join the team. Banner is a different character in this film than he has been in previous films. He's at peace with his dual nature. He knows how to live with it now. The change in actors (Mark Ruffalo takes over from Ed Norton) isn't so jarring given the fact that this is a different Banner. Banner, like the Widow, is given actual character development far beyond his last appearance. The other major players are pretty much intact from the previous solo films. Not much development of these characters is needed, nor is much provided. The assembly of the team is the most awkward part of the movie, and this segment's climactic battle between Thor and Iron Man is as forced as it is unnecessary (beyond, of course, providing a climax at the reel change, giving the groundlings a special effects sequence so their attention doesn't wander). The next portion of the film is expositional, but it, too, offers a spectacle at the end, as our heroes attempt to save the helicarrier. There's some weakness in this section, too, given that what happens here demonstrates the absolute tactical stupidity of the helicarrier as a concept. It's way too vulnerable and a failure of its engines would be catastrophic. The finale is the battle for Manhattan and while this is well-mounted, I was distracted by the notion that what I was watching was the invasion of Metropolis by Darkseid and Apokalips in Jack Kirby's Fourth World comics. This film's hidden villain is the closest thing Marvel has to Darkseid, after all.

As I say this is all composed of stock elements, and they're okay for what they are. There's no cleverness or formal innovation in the plot and structure of this movie because, as Ang Lee demonstrated with his version of The Hulk, innovation would alienate a broad demographic. Audiences like things that are familiar, and that's the secret weapon of this movie, given that Marvel has been so studiously priming the pump over the last four years. The audience for The Avengers has already seen all this. What makes the movie watchable and compelling is the dialogue and the characters. Most films of this type stick some cardboard cutouts into the frame to give the special effects some scale, but this one pays attention. Presumably, this is because superheroes themselves are a the high concept that the audience is paying to see, therefore, they must be provided. Even allowing for this pragmatic necessity, the writing is pretty good. We get a sense of each personality. None of the characters are interchangeable, which is nice. The accidental consequence of this necessity is that we're watching a movie about people who are recognizably human, super powers not withstanding. The character for whom this is most evident, curiously enough, is Loki. Chalk this up not only to the movie's conception of his character, but to Tom Hiddleston's performance. He's arrogant, wounded, hungry, jealous, and desperate all at the same time at points during the film, with different flavors of each facet from scene to scene. There's an inwardness to Loki that eludes most super villains. There are hints of this with Hawkeye (who is obviously haunted by guilt over what he's done under Loki's command) and the Black Widow, too. The Widow's scene with Loki is one of the film's high points. She lets her hyperconfident facade slip under Loki's disdain, only to snap it back into place once she gets what she wants from him. It's all smoke and mirrors with her. Loki may be the god of tricksters, but he ain't got nothing on Natasha Romanoff. Speaking of which, this is probably my favorite performance from Scarlet Johansson. She may be in the movie because she's gorgeous, but she makes a character out of it. It doesn't hurt that writer/director Joss Whedon is infatuated with his heroines and goes out of his way to make sure that they're the equal of the boys. It's not lost on me that it's The Black Widow who ultimately saves the world, Stark's final heroics not withstanding. I wish that the film had been able to find more time for Pepper Potts. In her brief scenes with Tony Stark, there's a rapport between the two that reminds me of the one between William Powell and Myrna Loy. I could watch these two characters having dinner and groove on the snark. There's at least another movie in that relationship and I hope the makers of Iron Man 3 recognize this. I would have liked to have seen more of Maria Hill, too. The filmmakers went out of their way to cast Cobie Smulders, a moderately well-known TV star, in the role and then found very little for her to do. As an aside, this movie fails the Bechdel test, but not for want of trying. It has good parts for women that aren't defined by their men. I hope future films in the series find space on the actual Avengers proper for some of Marvel's superheroines (The Wasp? Captain Marvel?). The takeaway from all of this is that the attention to characters and dialogue is what's driving the film's success and it's what may keep it fresh as the state of the art for these kinds of movies moves inexorably onward.

So, yeah, The Avengers is good enough. I should mention, however, that I'm probably influenced by the circumstances surrounding my viewing. Every summer, my brothers and I take in the season's big movies. This is a longstanding focus for family gatherings, and the pleasure of seeing movies with them makes some movies seem better than they are. Superhero movies are generally the beneficiaries of this because my brothers and I grew up reading comics and continued reading comics well into adulthood. Hell, I'm taking tentative steps into a career in cartooning (if it's even possible to do so anymore). My preferred comics may be Persepolis or Dykes to Watch Out For or Hark, A Vagrant! these days, but I still have a LOT of affection for the Marvel comics of my youth. In more ways than one, I'm the ideal audience for The Avengers. Your mileage may vary.

Although the current offerings for The Black Widow are meager pickings for girls coming to comics because of this movie, it's not a total loss. I recommend Marjorie Liu and Daniel Acuna's Black Widow: The Name of the Rose as an introduction to the character. Link below.

1 comment:

Mykal Banta said...

Vulvania: As you indicate, commenting, like writing about the Avengers; feels like shoveling sand in a sandstorm. What difference does it make? I'll see it, probably buy the Blu-ray, blah fucking blah. It simply is the perfect Hollywood product. It is overpowering in its attraction - in all its slick surfaces. I'm so sick of Downey I could shit on my shoes, but I'll still buy it. I can't stand it that Jackson is cast as Nick Fury (Fury as Shaft - just to please current audiences); but I'll eagerly shove it into my player. I hate that Kirby got screwed, but sign me up anyway.

I hate this fucking movie. My copy is on pre-order. After viewing, I'll forget it in a week.