Monday, May 7, 2012

Signal Watch Watches: The Avengers (2012)

You know what?  Spoilers Ahoy.  Don't read this discussion unless you've seen The Avengers.

here, let me help you:

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So, this is also my opinion, and just that.  The movie made approximately 380 billion dollars this weekend, so there's something to that.  Let's have a discussion, and maybe chat on this!

Ah, The Avengers.  This, the 6th movie of the series, a much anticipated start to the summer, but also a capper on excitement that's been building for years now when Nick Fury first started shaking down Iron Man in a post-credits sequence.

The film pulls together plot threads from the four properties to receive their own films (Iron Man, The Hulk, Thor and Captain America), gives life to background characters from some of those films, and features some of the most well worn comic book tricks this side of the Pecos for an audience that's never experienced them before.  

We get the obligatory mind-control plot device, the meet-n-fight between heroes, the goofy mixing of cosmic stuff, magic and mad-science and swarms of aliens for whom the concept of aiming a weapon is the most alien concept of all.

In the end, the movie was exactly what I was expecting from the trailers.  Lifting heavily from the early 2000's work on Ultimates from Mark Millar and Brian Hitch (I really hope Millar got some money for story credit), what it offers is something fairly visceral as an experience, with a terrific pace and action coming out its ears.  

It does bear the signature stamp of both Joss Whedon as warm-hearted director and as comic book geek asking the hilarious question of "and how would Hulk deal with Loki"?*  I'm not a Whedonite, but I am not against his style, and I think it works here well enough.  

But I also walked out of the theater feeling vaguely as if I'd maybe just eaten a box full of Twinkies.  Yeah, I was full, but I wasn't sure I'd gotten much out of what I'd just seen.  

Don't get me wrong, the action is terrific, and you can tell that the writers and Whedon went to great lengths to find balance to the characters as they interact, but to such a degree that no character receives much of an arc, and you could almost feel the calculus of "point Iron Man's column, now a point in Thor's column".

In some ways, part of my attraction to the Justice League (DC Comics' team book) since I was in college has been the difference in vibe which resonated more strongly with how I'm wired.  FF is a small, nuclear family.  X-Men and Teen Titans felt like high school cliques sorting out their issues.  Justice League had the feel of grown adults who (in the late 90's and 00's) called one another by their first names around the table and didn't really need to talk about the fact that you put aside differences when you've got a mess on your hands.  That level of respect and brass-tacks/ let's-get-down-to-business didn't mean the characters didn't have distinct personalities or some friction between members, but it was a far more serious issue if League members were arguing versus the 80's Marvel U in which I was introduced to The Avengers and where they were constantly (even in the middle of firefights) squabbling.  It just never sat quite right with me.

I could have dealt with some of the squabbling in the movie (and there is some), but the sequence in which Thor and Iron Man duke it out in the woods has the same manufactured feel that most superhero "misunderstandings" have in the comics, where it doesn't quite make sense that both of these guys are ready to pull the trigger the first time they lay eyes on each other, but the audience is morbidly curious to see what that fight would look like, so a pointless brawl (which is stopped before we can even answer the question, as is routine for comics) is served up on a platter.  

It was true of much of what I saw in the movie, but the superhero fight is such a familiar trope, especially at Marvel, that it felt... perfunctory.  So is it something I'm supposed to cheer for happening?  Or do I shrug with resignation the way I do when this happens in my movie, too?

Further, I didn't know how to feel about the one scene the Avengers shared where the "lance" was affecting them, and making them argue.  Somehow it came off like one of the scenes on the Brady Bunch where Mike Brady needs to step in and settle things down more than any sort of actual threat.

I don't know.  Its not that two scenes ruined a 2.5 hour movie for me.  They didn't.  I had a fun time.  But they also were things that just didn't quite work for me, indicative of a lot of rough patches along the way.

The movie did remind me of other Joss Whedon projects in that it had a pretty great set-up, some great ideas, spurts of interesting interplay, and remembered that the audience is there to have fun (something I'm curious if Dark Knight Rises will have time for).  But also in that the final act is something you do so the story can end, but not something that has particular resonance (I could not tell you what the hell Serenity was about other than that there were mindless space pirates capable of pirating space craft).  

That's not to say the last 40 minutes isn't a dazzling, well-choreographed morass of chaos.  There are some amazing shots of our heroes, some excellent fight sequences, some laughably absurd scenes of The Black Widow and her twin pea shooters standing up from behind cover and popping off at flying space marauders.

One bit I did find remarkable was the undercurrents of Loki's storyline, something I believed carried over well from the story of familial heartbreak and betrayal that started in Thor.

I kept wondering why on Earth Loki would have gone to New York, to the one place The Avengers would absolutely notice him and have time to stop him, and why, if he really wanted to succeed, he would have been so... loud about everything.  I mean, really, The Avengers is one of those movies where the plot seems to sort of fall apart if you stop to think about not just that things are happening, but consider motivations for any of the characters other than that "oh, he's a bad guy and a diva".  Maybe.

In the end, I think Loki was just trying to go home, and didn't know how to ask.  It's absolutely tragic.

My read is that Loki knew he would fail, and if he didn't, he'd have a wreck of a planet where he could lord over the broken masses, more pathetic than himself.  In a lot of ways, in my head, its now Loki's movie.

If that isn't the case, then in a lot of ways, Loki is the least effective planner of all space gods, and deserved to lose, because, seriously...  Why not just launch your plan in Tokyo or Dubai or somewhere that SHIELD and the Avengers are absolutely not?

There's no doubt in my mind that Mark Ruffalo and Whedon also managed to finally find the sweet spot for The Hulk after two prior tries on film.  I'm not sure that Edward Norton couldn't have matched Ruffalo's performance, but I like what Ruffalo did (and the CGI Hulk stand in was the best of the three).

Unfortunately, some of my concerns about Cap getting short shrift in the movie were confirmed.  He's on screen a great deal, but he's never really thrust into the role I wanted to see.  Even his one scene of earning his place as a master of strategy boils down to "go run around and do stuff!" and he never quite gets a moment that tells the audience "this is why this character has survived for 70 years".  And I'm not sure the film quite communicates the differences between what Cap is willing to do while being flesh and blood versus  Iron Man, Thor, the Hulk and the others.  I mean, its there...  but it would have been nice to have someone hold the audience's hand and acknowledge all that in the movie.

And for so much Loki, they really don't give Thor anything to do, do they?  We get something that looks like the contour of a story arc for ScarJo's Black Widow (only not really, because its a point that we're not supposed to know when she's telling the truth and so we sort of guess there's a woman with a past, only...  nothing really happens with it).  But Thor?  He gets to stand around like a dopey athlete who doesn't know his growth spurt over the summer made him a power player.

Did I like the movie?  Sure, well enough.  I don't think it sent me out of the theater whooping, and it was a fine summer matinee film.  Unfortunately, I felt the movie was also guilty of the popular theory in summer films that if you just keep moving, the audience won't notice the whole thing is held together with gum and baling wire.

I've had 30 years to get into The Avengers, and the idea never really grabbed me as a comics property.  I can acknowledge that stuff like Dark Knight or Captain America fit a bit more in my wheelhouse and  that there's something at stake, the ending isn't utterly predictable, and, oddly, the only character with anything at stake in the movie is the villain.

Its also just one of a number of comics-themed properties I can think of where the impetus for the group's formation comes along thanks to generic bad-guy aliens invading (poorly).  Be it the recent relaunch of Justice League in DC's new 52 (a plotless, brainless, characterless version of the same story), the launch of the Justice League cartoon more than a decade ago, Millar's Ultimates, and probably a dozen others I haven't bothered to think about much.

I do think DC is screwed.  Especially if you stuck around for the post-credits sequence (MAJOR SPOILER) in which Darkseid knock-off, Thanos, makes his appearance.  Darkseid was DC's best chance at providing a compelling reason for the Justice League to assemble, and there can be no doubt that Marvel will beat DC to the big screen with Starlin's Darkseid-lite (and, man, if the opening didn't look exactly like a Starlin-designed background, I don't know what does).  Its a major bummer, but that's been the story of DCE's half-assed efforts in film the past 10 years.  (End spoilers).

There are absolutely worse ways to spend your $10.  I just don't know if this film, of all the films in the series, is in the top 3 or will hold up well on a second viewing.

By the way, I failed to notice if Kirby received his credit or not.  I did see Starlin's name, but just for a second.

*not well

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