Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
May 2012

The Avengers

With our powers combined...

'The Avengers' finally assemble, and Joss Whedon guides them with grace, energy and humor

The Avengers
Walt Disney Pictures
Director: Joss Whedon
Screenplay: Joss Whedon
Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Tom Hiddleston, Scarlett Johansson, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Jeremy Renner and Samuel L. Jackson
Rated PG-13 / 2 hours, 22 minutes
Opens May 4, 2012
(out of four)

The Avengers is a success primarily because writer/director Joss Whedon understands - intimately - the traditions in which the film exists. From a comic-book perspective, from a superhero movie perspective, and from a sci-fi perspective. He understands the tone you have to strike when dealing with aliens from distant worlds diabolically plotting against Earth. He understands that the idea of people dressed up in costumes fighting each other is inherently silly. He understands the expectations of the genre(s), and knows exactly how to manage those expectations. He gets it. What he gives us may be just what we expect, but for once, at least, it knows exactly why it is what it is.

Aside from being latched on to four already-existing franchises that led up to The Avengers (with perhaps two or three more on the horizon), Whedon is saddled within certain requirements germane to the summer blockbuster - which is to say, certain innate weaknesses and limitations. (He never had the clean slate, nor the near-carte blanche, that Christopher Nolan has for the Batman series, for example.) Like the sheer inconsequentiality of everything that happens over its 142 minutes. Or the obligatory barrage of special-effects wizardry masquerading as actual drama (seemingly the No. 1 requirement these days). Or, let's face it, the crassness of its motives - how the whole thing is really just one big, self-replicating marketing vehicle.

But Whedon is too clever a filmmaker to be completely caught in the entrails of the blockbuster death trap, and he does an extremely effective job sidestepping the fault lines that would swallow up many other directors taking on such a large-scale, high-stakes Marvel project. (Here's looking at you, Kenneth Branagh and Louis Letterier.)

He distracts us from the elements of the film that are rather unimaginative (almost by necessity), and does so largely with his sense of humor, which is in fine form as usual. In fact, he undermines certain readymade criticisms (and the artistic limitations he's dealing with) by presenting The Avengers as something of an offbeat comedy, with otherworldly or scientifically engineered characters awkwardly thrown together, fully aware that they've been awkwardly thrown together.

That they must find a way to deal with one another in order to, ya know, save the world and all, is at once front and center in the film's storyline, and the very last thing on the characters' minds. First they have to negotiate the space for each of their respective egos to co-exist. Captain America (Chris Evans) is less than impressed with Iron Man's hubris and self-absorption. Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) is none too pleased with Thor (Chris Hemsworth) brazenly capturing the villain, Loki (Tom Hiddleston), that S.H.I.E.L.D. has rightfully stolen. Nor does the erstwhile Mr. Stark hesitate to take the piss out of the starred-and-striped captain, who once again is a bit too patriotic and naïve for his own good.

Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) has to navigate around all the superhero testosterone in the room while simultaneously keeping everything afloat. And of course it's up to Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) to wrangle them all together into something resembling a cohesive crimefighting force. (Meanwhile, one of the most amusing little running gags is the simpatico relationship between Stark and Bruce Banner - just a couple of your run-of-the-mill brilliant scientists, fully aware they're operating on a higher intellectual level than their fellow Avengers. They share snack food and high fives.)

We know the seeds that have been planted for this movie as we're watching it, but Whedon's appreciation for and indulgence of the film's roots - not only previous Marvel adaptations, but the early Superman films, the Batman and X-Men series, as well as Ghostbusters and Star Wars, among other influences - is I think what allows him to have such fun with the material. No, this isn't in the same ballpark as his wildly idiosyncratic and inspired work on Firefly and Serenity (or Buffy or The Cabin in the Woods), but it's easy to appreciate the energy and wit he brings to the film. Not to mention how well he integrates the characters and storylines from four separate film series and manages to pull the trick off, preventing it from feeling like too much of a gimmick.

Even the way he approaches the Hulk - the most problematic ingredient of the bunch - is impressive. Whedon uses Hulk in smarter fashion than we've seen in the character's two unsuccessful standalone efforts, focusing primarily on Banner (Mark Ruffalo), and using the CGI Hulk only sparingly - but to surprisingly strong dramatic effect. (And the CG itself, while still an eyesore at times, is still a modest improvement over the last two Hulks.) In fact, Hulk gets maybe the film's best moment - and certainly one of the best "Hell yeah!" moments we'll see all year.

So we forgive the fact that the aliens - who for a vaguely explained reason have teamed up with Loki in a bid to take over our planet - are a virtually irrelevant entity, existing only to give the Avengers something to fight in the climactic battle sequence. (It's worth noting that the best sequences in the extended action finale are smaller-scale moments between two or three characters, rather than the more massive setpieces. Still, it must be said, the entire finale - explosions and all - is a vast improvement over all the crappy, aggressively uncreative action in last year's Thor.) And we forgive the fact that the story moves too fast for all of the character dynamics to sink in the way they should. We forgive these things, for the most part, because Whedon somehow makes it work.

One persistent criticism I've had of the Marvel comic-book films (and this goes for other superhero movies as well) is the lack of a more adventurous stylistic spirit. This is the one area where Zack Snyder's hit-or-miss Watchmen got it exactly right - the film felt like the type of movie it was meant to be. It had a rich world of its own making. But too often in these films, there's no real visual aesthetic laying the proper groundwork for the comic-book story. (Branagh's Asgard is an exception, though his Earth sequences were hopelessly banal. Of all the Marvel films, Captain America pulled this area off the best, so kudos to Joe Johnston.)

I've always felt these movies would work better with a more imaginative stylistic approach - that, or with the more organic, non-fantastical Nolan method. The middle ground we get in The Avengers, The Incredible Hulk, half of Thor and even Iron Man (which made up for it in other areas) makes it difficult to fully sink our teeth into what we're seeing, or fully accept it - even on "comic-book movie" terms. However, it's in this area that Whedon's sense of humor works wonders. As I said, he's fully aware of the silliness of costumed heroes running around in an otherwise normal 21st Century world.

That sensibility is ultimately what turns The Avengers - which easily could have been a mess of complicated, competing storylines and tonal contrasts - into a mostly cohesive and genuinely funny film. Taking all pre-release excitement out of the equation, there was every reason this movie could have been a failure. Instead, Whedon spun these disparate elements into . . . well, maybe not gold, but at least silver.

*Side note: The post-credits sequence on The Avengers is by far the best we've seen in any Marvel film to date, as it addresses something that these movies never address (but which we've all probably mused about at one time or another), and does so in brilliantly deadpan fashion. Pitch-perfect.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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