Monday, November 30, 2015

Review: "The Avengers"

Usually, before I review, I make some kind of setup comment before using a picture to deliver a punchline. Not today.

Today feels more like a pun-day.
Plot/Themes
Joss Whedon took inspiration from the original 60’s comics, and it shows. The film is basically an expansion on the original origin story where Loki tries to trick Thor into fighting the Hulk, only for Iron Man, Ant-Man, and the Wasp to come help before they all ganged up on Loki. Beyond that, while it ties up the Tesseract thread and sets thing up for many films to come, this film is surprisingly light on plot. And, honestly, it’s pretty light on character exploration. Apart from the heroes bickering like they were still in school.

Which would have been weird to see.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of drama to be gotten out of the character interactions, but we’ve already seen what makes our heroes tick in their own films. The goal here was to take the characters away from their familiar environments and casts and stick them together and see what happens before the big fight scene at the end. In that way, it reminds me a lot of “Secret Origin,” the premiere of the Justice League cartoon. Just replace “Chitauri” with “White Martians.”

And for those people who claim that this movie isn’t that great because it doesn’t explore the characters more… well, feel free to dislike this movie, but you want it to be something it isn’t. It’s not supposed to be an exploration of these characters. If you want that, watch the five previous films.

It’s supposed to be catharsis. After four years of waiting, building up, and teasing, we finally get to see the Avengers team up and kick butt. That’s what this film tries to deliver. No more, no less. And in the end, that’s what it gives us.

It ties everything together, but you don’t necessarily need to see every movie beforehand to understand what’s going on. The most important films are Thor and Captain America, simply because they deal with the Tesseract and the main villain.

I wonder what this movie would have been like just with them.
Characters
Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson)

Standard Nick Fury/Samuel L. Jackson stuff. Minus the swearing.

Really, he’s only there to act as the face of S.H.I.E.L.D. for the Avengers to distrust before proving that in the end, he isn't S.H.I.E.L.D. He’s a man. A man who believes in the Avengers and is willing to do what it takes to see them reach their full potential.

But not to the extent of Coulson.
In the end, he’s a bit ineffectual. After all, what’s a guy with only a gun to do when aliens are attacking? That’s why he fired on one of his own planes in an attempt to keep that nuke at bay; so he would contribute in some way to the climax of the final Act.

But the Pentagon wasn’t thrilled with Nick Fury’s mysterious bosses. Since they didn’t like the vagueness of who S.H.I.E.L.D. answered to, the Pentagon did not lend support to the movie, though the army did.

Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders)
Unfortunately, Agent Hill doesn’t get to do much other than outlive Agent Coulson. But that’s okay. This movie’s called “The Avengers.” She’s not exactly a need-to-include character. So in that way, the fact that the character has been set up for later films is more than enough. This way, when she comes along to actually be part of a plot, the audience will already be familiar with her. In a way, it’s very similar to how and why Agent Coulson himself was introduced in Iron Man.

Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg)
Coulson’s death completes his arc. He was there for the first film in the MCU, and his death spurs the heroes to officially become the Avengers by giving them something to avenge.

I’ve talked about Coulson’s death before, but it bears repeating that this was Not Joss Whedon’s idea, but Kevin Feige’s. According to Whedon:

"In our first meeting Kevin Feige said, this is what we’re gonna do and I said, ‘Oh but you have to go out there and tell everybody that it was your idea because this is going to get me so much shit. Because they are all going to be like, 'Oh he did it again!'’ It was stipulated from the beginning, and I completely agree that it was the right thing to do, and so did Clark. Who said in the early days, when I was busy apologizing for it, 'In a movie like this, with what’s going on if there isn’t some toll, it’s just irresponsible story telling.'"

Coulson would end up returning, but that’s a story for another time.

Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner)
Poor, poor Jeremy Renner. Hawkeye got the shaft here, if you’ll pardon the pun. Renner was promised a character who was trained by bad guys in archery before defecting to the good guys. The backstory was cut out. And Hawkeye became Loki’s pawn for the vast majority of the movie. And a planned scene where Hawkeye fought Iron Man (in reference to his origin as an Iron Man villain) was cut. After going through all that archery training by Olympic archers, Jeremy Renner was pissed. But luckily, Hawkeye’s appearance in this movie made his popularity skyrocket, getting him his own ongoing comic series and some increased focus in the sequel. But… yeah, not much to say about him here, simply because he spends most of the movie as a tool of the villain.

Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson)
While Black Widow fared better than Hawkeye, she still got a bit of the shaft. Her big scenes where she goes into her backstory don’t really get followed up on here, making them seem like the odd scene out. Though I love the character and her inclusion, she and Hawkeye don’t mesh as well as they could, partially because they never got any specific focus before this movie. So we’re left knowing less about them than the other Avengers for pretty much the entire movie.

And on a more minor note, Black Widow is the oddest addition to the team. Captain America is an enhanced human with an unbreakable shield. Thor is a god. Iron Man is wearing the greatest weapon ever. Hulk is pure destruction. Even Hawkeye has a sharp eye and a buttload of skill with a bow and arrow, which at least makes him unique. Black Widow… has a couple guns and a taser glove.

Any excuse to use this gif.
While she feels more at home in the Captain America sequel and gets a power-up in the Avengers sequel, she feels more than a little underpowered and slightly generic here. But like Hawkeye, she got her own comic soon after this, so things weren’t all bad.

And at the very least, Hawkeye and Black Widow worked well together.

Though that's to be expected.
Bruce Banner/Hulk
This film marks a very important point in the history of the character. For the first time since the old TV series, the Hulk was popular. Something that two solo films couldn’t accomplish. And I think that you can put a lot of that on Mark Ruffalo’s performance.

Eric Bana played the character as a bit of a repressed whiner.

Ed Norton played the character as a screwed-up guy with a lot of issues.

Mark Ruffalo finally plays the character as a normal guy, albeit one with some serious anger issues. His driving force though out the film is taking things one day at a time. One thing at a time. He just wants to finish his work and get out of there. And it doesn’t help that he’s in a bad mood all the time.

And actually, though it’s taken a bit of criticism, being angry all the time makes a lot of sense for him. Basically, he’s getting his body used to being mad so that little things are less likely to set him off. And it also probably has the psychological effect of making him, oddly enough, calmer. Angry, but in control.

When you go back and rewatch the movie, it’s obvious that he’s angry all the time. The guy’s always on edge, looking like he’s barely tolerating the situation. He’s irritable and pessimistic. Any problems or complications that come his way get deflected by sarcasm. And the reason he brushes off Tony’s attempts at friendship at first is because he’s scared of not being angry. Because if he actually caresa about anything or anyone, then making him dangerously agitated becomes easier.

In fact, Loki’s plan was actually foiled because of Bruce being accustomed to non-specific anger. When Loki’s staff was making everybody angry, Bruce was the target. The staff was aiming at him in particular while also infecting everybody else in the hope that an argument big enough to lead to a Hulk out would ensue. But because Bruce is always angry, he didn’t Hulk out and wreck the others then and there, which would have aided in Loki’s escape and the destruction of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Another nice touch is that the Hulk’s anger isn’t absolute and unfocused. It’s directed. The Hulk’s anger has always been aimed at things that he thinks are threatening him somehow. But here, the simple Bad Guy/Love Interest dichotomy is expanded upon. In previous films, the Hulk was either attacking or defending. Here, for the first time, he has allies. So we get to see a new dimension to the character other than “No hurt Betty! Hulk SMASH!”

Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans)
Captain America is a bit more of a goof in this movie, and a lot of that can be attributed to culture shock. He still ends up providing more-than-competent leadership once he finds himself in the position to do so. Unfortunately, a lot of his character bits were cut out and saved for his sequel and beyond. A lot of this was because after a few drafts of the script, he wasn’t the viewpoint character anymore, even though this film is nearly a direct sequel to his.

In the end, Cap’s biggest conflict if with Tony Stark, the ever-sarcastic genius that has to be a kick in the face for Cap. After all, Howard Stark, though he had his moments, had a heart of gold that was fairly easy to see. Tony hides his a bit better.

And that costume… yeah, it looks more than a little silly. Whedon said that he wanted it to look more like its classic comic incarnation, and we can assume that when Coulson designed it, he took inspiration from Cap’s USO look. But I can’t say I’m not glad that it got replaced.

Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.)
Before I talk about Tony, I just wanted to mention that Hollywood Reporter estimated that the damage to New York would probably cost $160 billion to repair. Hopefully, Tony’s got that covered.

In this part of the Tony Stark character arc, he finds himself having cheated death and in a stable relationship with Pepper Potts. He feels on top of the world. He’s Tony-freaking-Stark. He can fix anything. And then suddenly, he finds himself waking up in a day unlike any other. One where he can’t fix problems by himself. He waltzed right in to save the day in Germany, but Loki was surrendering to get aboard the helicarrier. He waltzed in to help S.H.I.E.L.D. find the Tesseract, but it was a moot point when Loki was a step ahead of them. Cap tells him that he doesn’t have it in him to make the sacrifice play. But when push comes to shove, that’s exactly what Tony does.

While his dad worked on the Manhattan Project to create a nuclear bomb, Tony Stark ends up saving Manhattan from a nuclear bomb. While Cap might approve this part of Tony’s arc coming full-circle, it certainly isn’t the end. This will have repercussions.

Speaking of Cap, according to RDJ, Captain America is basically the big brother that Howard Stark loved to talk about, making Tony feel inadequate. It explains a lot, actually. Why Tony goes out of his way to talk about how great he is. Why he instantly tries to push Cap’s buttons. And why, in the end, he ends up looking up to Cap. It probably helps that both of them were motivated by the death of the scientist who helped make them more than the sum of their parts. Coulson’s death probably affected them both in the same way.

Another nice touch is how Tony scoffs at the idea of using Tesseract-powered guns as a deterrent. He knows from experience that somebody will find a way to catch up with you.

Thor (Chris Hemsworth)
And here we have a bit of an enigma. What happened in Asgard since Thor? Obviously, Heimdall was watching the situation and knew exactly where Loki was so that Odin could use some dark energy to drop off Thor.

But then, after all that character development, Thor decides it would be a good idea to get in a hotheaded battle with Iron Man and Captain America? Enough to use a blow that should have killed Cap if it hadn’t been for his shield? Clearly, Thor still has a few anger issues to deal with, though I think the fact that he’s willing to stop fighting is an indication that he’s matured since the last film.

More or less.
And as for that hammer blow, Heimdall probably told Thor that this guy went toe-to-toe with Loki. Thor’s not going to hold much back against a mortal that strong. But in the end, Thor doesn’t have much character growth, just some unresolved issues with his brother that only get proper due in the Thor sequel. But like I said, this movie’s meant for buttkicking. So while you never quite know what's going on with Thor, it doesn't hurt the movie.

One of my favorite touches is the bare arms on the costume in some scenes, taking inspiration for the original comics. And in the scenes without the cape, he looks a lot like his Ultimate Marvel counterpart.

Loki (Tom Hiddleston)
Loki clearly isn’t himself. In Thor, he was defined by his silver tongue. Here, he rants and raves and yells and gloats. Clearly, he saw such beautiful horrors in the cosmos that his mind couldn’t take without breaking a little. But as for being brainwashed…. I’m putting my foot down and saying no. Compare Erik Selvig’s eyes to Loki’s

Glowing blue.
Plain old blue.
Yes, his eyes are a different color from Thor, but that’s just because of the lack of colored contacts. Loki’s eyes are not glowing blue, even though some of the lighting can make it look that way in some scenes. Sorry, Loki fans.

Because of whatever happened to him in the cosmos, Loki has become unhinged. Just a little. He remembers Thor casting him off the Bifrost in flagrant disregard of the ending of Thor, and seems a bit less well-groomed than usual, with greasy, wild hair. But like Loki, not all of his men are brainwashed. Remember, he tells Dr. Selvig that S.H.I.E.L.D. has many enemies.

In the end, he’s just there to provide a threat. His personal story will be given more explanation in Thor: the Dark World. So what’s important is what makes him different from the heroes. Loki relies on outer strength. Allies. Weapons. Brute force. (Again, a hint that he’s been changed by his experiences.) The Avengers’ strength comes from within. Resolve. Bravery. Self-sacrifice. Originally, there was to be a second, more “physical” villain (theorized by some to be Skurge, the Executioner), but Whedon has not named names in the hope that the character can be used someday.

Thanos
Joss Whedon tossed out the idea that Loki needed a benefactor from beyond the stars. And also tossed out the idea that it should be Thanos. Marvel ran with the idea, though all this was at the time was simply a nod to the fans.

Chitauri
The Chitauri were originally an African legend about a race of snake-people from the skies. When Mark Millar wrote the Ultimate Universe version of the Avengers (the Ultimates), he adapted the shapeshifting Skrulls into the Chitauri, which were adapted into this film as a separate race from their comic counterparts. Not because of any Fantastic Four-related rights issues, as is the rumor, but because they didn’t want to use shapeshifters so early.

Music
Alan Silvestri makes up for his Captain America score with a theme that slowly assembles the various instruments together until you feel like you could run out and fight aliens. Top notch. I don’t see why some people dislike it.

Visuals
Industrial Light and Magic is thought of as the best for a reason, and this film is an amazing achievement. We’ve got aliens, explosions, Tesseracts, par for the course. It all looks wonderful and I probably don’t need to go into any more detail that that for most of it. But the Hulk is their crowning achievement here. The Hulk finally looks real.

Thanks to ILM’s advancements, Ruffalo was able to do his motion-capture while acting opposite the other characters (being the first actor to portray both characters to such a degree), allowing the Hulk to seem just a bit more like Bruce Banner. And as I said, the character finally looks real. His skin isn’t cartoonishly green, his body is believably bulky, and his face isn’t just a horizontally-stretched version of Bruce Banner. Also, he has chest hair for the first time. But alas, the Hulk’s voice… kind of sucks. Apparently, they mixed together the voices of Mark Ruffalo, Lou Ferrigno, and some guys in New Zealand. The final result for his one line of “Puny god” sounds… fine. But I’m an old-fashioned guy who prefers a pitched-down Lou Ferrigno to an overproduced growl any day.

Writing
If you don’t like Joss Whedon’s quip-filled, stichomythic style of writing… well, this isn’t for you. But the actual scripting, like Back to the Future, is amazingly tight, filled with parallel scenes, subtle setups for callbacks, and manages to fit characters from vastly different worlds (literally) in the same scene while making it feel completely natural. Each character has their own reaction to interacting with characters from other genres.

Pretty much what you'd expect.
Best Actor: Mark Ruffalo
He made the Hulk popular and gave a subtle, nuanced, dramatic, funny performance. No small feat.

Best Character: N/A
There are so many great characters in this that I couldn’t pick just one. But feel free to leave a comment about your favorite character and why!

Best Line: N/A
Again, there are so many funny, badass, awesome lines in this movie that picking one is pretty much impossible for me to do. But again, feel free to leave your own favorite line below!

Final Thoughts
The Avengers is not a perfect movie. It’s not a deep movie. Apart from being the first major crossover like this, it’s not a particularly groundbreaking movie. But it’s definitely a satisfying movie. The culmination of four years of buildup, four years of teasing, and four years of “Wait, an Avengers crossover? Can they do that?”

So while there are better superhero movies out there, this movie will always have a place in my heart.

From here, I’ll be reviewing Phase 1 of the MCU as a whole before moving on to the Tony Stark Christmas Extravaganza that kicks off Phase 2.

See you then!

8 comments:

  1. Best character: Tony Stark. Putting aside that he has ton of funny lines, he has connection with most of good stuff. He becomes friends with Banner, butts head with Cap, threatens Loki, learns Coulson's name, what this guy doesn't do. And you know what, I just like Tony. Seriously, every time I hear that Iron Man 2 sucks I just think how spoiled are kids these days, as if they haven't seen last Superman or F4 movies. Or previous ones. Or previous ones. Or previous ones. Oh, and Bruce is close second.

    Best Line: Ahh, thats a hard one, but I'll go with "There are always men like you." It's followed by Cap's next line and then this gem: ""How does Fury even see these? " He turns. " "Sounds exhausting! "

    - Faceless Enigma

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    1. Yeah, Tony is pretty much THE character of these movies, which is something I was going to address in my review of Phase 1.

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  2. Hey, can I ask you something? Ever seen Cybersix? If not you totally should, and post your thoughts here, of course

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    1. I've heard of it, I know a little about it, but I've never seen it. I've been meaning to for a while, though.

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    2. You definitively should, and I'm not saying this only because the original comic is from Argentina, where I'm from

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    3. It's on my list of "Things to cover on my blog after I finally get around to finishing a few of the things I cover already." Unfortunately, it's a pretty long list.

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