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Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Avengers

There's really no need for an introduction for this film but just a quick note to let everyone know that I haven't forgotten about last week's films, I just haven't gotten around to them yet. Look out for those soon. Not that anyone's so much as going to remember that those films even exist after this weekend.

Before moving on to the review itself, I realize that The Avengers only opens up in the US next week so for those who are worried about reading on any further, this is a strictly spoiler-free review. I tend not to give away plot details in my reviews anyway but that goes doubly so here. Anyway, on with the show... 

It's just unfair how talented Joss Whedon is. He has, in his very prolific career worked on and created TV shows, films, comics and even used the writers strike of a few years back as an opportunity to launch a sensational web-exclusive musical short. Along the way he has written songs, blended genres and created some of the most beloved characters in the history of television. And yet, he has never tackled anything anywhere near as big as Avengers before. He's always been ambitious but all of Whedon's past work, even his films (co-writing Toy Story and writing and directing Serenity) have played out on small, intimate canvases. Just how on earth was a guy whose claim to fame is characterization and dialogue going to deal with a CGI-laden, action packed Hollywood blockbuster?

The answer, as you may have guessed, is that he dealt with it brilliantly. Not only did Whedon pull off what is easily one of the year's most anticipated films but he made it look easy doing it. You will never notice it as the film itself plays out - it's far too gripping for that - but, upon reflection, it becomes abundantly clear that what Whedon has accomplished here is nothing short of extraordinary. The Avengers is the culmination of five separate blockbusting superhero films, each of which spent at least part of its time building up to this moment and each adding to a mounting level of unparalleled rabid fan-expectation. It's a film that, along with this already back-breaking baggage, has to balance more than half a dozen main characters, each of whom either already have their own starring vehicles or could easily support their own franchises in the future. Those are the kinds of expectations and challenges that could cripple even the most veteran of filmmakers and yet Whedon, who has had only one feature film directing credit to his name to date, managed it beautifully and again with a sense of ease that belies what must have been a very intense filmmaking process.

Of course, Whedon being Whedon, his fearlessness as a storyteller does bring with it a lack of polished perfection and The Avengers is no exception. The only serious flaw with the film involves a certain evolution of the Hulk that doesn't quite ring true (that's all the info you'll get from me here), playing almost like a whole scene of the film has been left out by mistake, but it does have a few more niggles and hiccups along the way, including a plot that feels somewhat perfunctory and a few lines of dialogue that don't quite work. It's also, inevitably,  understandably and perhaps intentionally less "deep" than Christopher Nolan's contemporary Batman films and Whedon's own past work - though that hardly means that it's any less smart.

Now, no, that wasn't a typo. The film's plot really is nothing to write home about, but what should so easily be a momentous, fatal flaw, instead registers as nothing more than a slight, almost unnoticeable imperfection. More than that, the slightness of the plot actually allows the film's essence, what it is, in the end, actually about, to shine all the more brightly. Anyone familiar with Whedon's past work can probably guess how and why this works. Whedon has very simply never been a guy who lets plot get in the way of story. The plot - which can be summarized as simply as a bunch of "Earth's Mightiest Heroes" band together to fight off a world(-or-at-least-Manhattan)-destroying threat that is too much for any of them to face alone - is little more than a McGuffin designed to facilitate what The Avengers is really about:  the characters and the way they work off one another.

This is a film of spectacular battle scenes, crazy plot progressions, futuristic technologies, alien baddies, camp supervillains and superheroes and more wise-cracks than you can throw a Shane Black at, but every last inch of it is there to serve these colourful, wonderfully drawn characters that Whedon (and, of course, Stan and Jack before him) has, um, assembled.

The Avengers divides its time between explosive set pieces and relatively quiet "move the plot forward" sections but no moment of the film isn't in some way poised towards advancing the characterization. Put everything else aside and The Avengers is at its heart a film about a group of very, very different characters overcoming their inter- and intra-personal conflicts and joining together to work towards a common good. It's a story about heroism - Whedon is smart enough to realise that the "ultimate" superhero film should be about what it means to be a hero - but it's also a story about people. Or as Whedon himself put it (and I'm paraphrasing) this is a story about people trying to overcome their differences, it's just that these people deal with these differences on a rather larger, more face-punchy (sorry, couldn't resist the Buffyism) scale.

With this established, everything that's great about the film comes sharply into focus. The "quiet" scenes are no less engrossing and entertaining than the spectacular action scenes, while the action scenes never bore, not only because they are perfectly crafted (set pieces where you can actually see what's going? Inconceivable!) but because they serve the story and characters. It has a stop-start kind of structure that can really mess with a film's pacing but by maintaining its focus, The Avengers ends up perfectly paced.

Joss Whedon may not have a particularly distinct visual style but his storytelling-first approach to direction - specifically directing action scenes - means that he stands heads and shoulders above most of his flashier genre-filmmaking contemporaries. He's a very capable (and I don't say that lightly) director whose direction is clearly there to bring to life his peerless abilities as a writer - a writer for whom a spot-on ear for witty (and, in this case, character-appropriate) dialogue, a willingness to subvert conventions and distinct, fully-realized characters are his stocks in trade.    

And, of course, its the latter that is most important in contributing to the success of the film. Not only does he delegate plenty of screen time to each of the film's main characters but he gives each of them entirely distinct, fully-formed voices that work perfectly off one another. We have: (deep breath everyone...) the determined, inspiring, take-charge heroism of Captain America (Chris Evans); the maverick cocky-but-heroic genius of Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr who is, you guessed it, responsible for most of the big laughs); the mythological bombast of Thor (Chris Hemsworth); the scarred but kick-ass Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson); the destructive "rage monster" The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo, the best Hulk to date) and the strong-headed Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner). And of course, there are also smaller but pivotal players like Sam Jackson's Nick Fury, Clark Gregg's Agent Coulson, Cobie Smulder's Maria Hill and Stellan Skarsgard's Dr Selvig who also get their turns to shine, though in the latter case at least, some more than others.

It's a remarkable balancing act of big-name actors (all of whom are every bit as good as you might hope) and, though none of the main players are given priority over any of the others (except Renner for plot reasons), the film definitely makes me want to see Whedon take a crack at a Black Widow film before returning for the inevitable - and in the film's during-credit sequence, deliciously set up - sequel. I know, I know, Whedon is great at writing kick-ass women, what are the odds? She's a great character with an interesting backstory that is only touched upon in this film and is perfectly played by Johansson (who, not so incidentally, has the kind of physique that clearly inspires the work of all those "cheesecake" comics artists) and deserves her own movie every bit as much as the boys on the team.

Honestly though, at this point I would be more than happy to see Joss Whedon helm every superhero film from now on. The Avengers, an unapologetic superhero adventure, doesn't cross the commercial-art divide in the way that, say, The Dark Knight does and it does have a weakness or two (The CGI, incidentally is absolutely perfect in every respect except for rendering The Hulk, who still looks off to me - though the character himself is far more fun here than in both his own films combined) but Whedon stops at nothing to make sure that this is as satisfying, as emotionally resonant and as fun a superhero film as any fan could possibly ask for.

Oh and PS, I should mention that, as expected, the post-converted 3D is, at best, completely pointless and, at worse dampens and darkens the film. Check it out in 2D if at all possible.

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