08 May 2012

Superhero Mega Appreciation: The Avengers

     The long-anticipated star-studded ensemble superhero extravaganza The Avengers entered theaters this weekend with a...vengeance. Teehee. See what I did there. It's already breaking records; it surpassed Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 for biggest opening weekend, almost recouping its production budget in the first three days it was out. That doesn't necessarily mean that much; it seems like almost every new movie that comes out nowadays breaks some new record, and Avengers is really only the second big movie out this year. However, that's still a ton of money. And is it worth it?
    Yes. Yes, it is. I am so happy to be able to say that yes, it is. It's enjoyable, action-packed, character-driven, and smart. In fact, it's prime Joss Whedon ( and I'm not just fangirling. Okay, I kind of am. When his name came up at the end of the movie, I screamed and was greeted with blank stares from the rest of the theater. Oh well, it was worth it. I cheered again when his writing credit came up). Caution: Spoiler-y-ness may follow. 
     The most important thing that Avengers gets right is the characters. In a giant cast like this, it would be easy for most of the scenes to go to one or two characters while thee rest merely supported those stars, but each member of the Avengers (and even the villain) get plenty of screen time and development. Also, Avengers manages to keep the individual tones of each previous movie when dealing with a character (an example of this would be the soundtrack; a classical ballad plays at a concert and continues through a Captain America scene, but when Iron Man comes on it changes abruptly to one of the rock songs characteristic of the first two Iron Man movies), while still establishing a new tone for the group dynamic that is totally different.
See, like this kind of group dynamic. This was the scene where Captian America chaperoned Hawkeye and Black Widow's date. 

    Avengers also had some more overtly religious symbolism than the other Marvel movies; Whedon is by no stretch a Christian, but he certainly has an interest in faith and the supernatural, which he displays even in the vaguely occultic Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Religous characters show up frequently in his work (spirits/demons/priests in Buffy, faithful Shepherd Book in Firefly who is rarely shown without his Bible), so it is no surprise that Whedon is willing to explore spiritual ramifications in Avengers. One interesting example of this occurs toward the middle of the movie when Loki (the main villain in Avengers and Thor's brother from Thor) commands a crowd of people to bow to him. He says something to the effect of, "You were made to be ruled. In the end, you will always kneel," and one old man stands up and says, "Not to men like you." The implication being that we were indeed made to kneel, but not just to anyone who thinks they can command us. One other scene that surprised me in its directness occured just after Thor's debut in the movie. Captain America, thinking he is a villain, is about to go after him, when someone tells him something like, "You'll never be able to catch up with him. He's a god." The Captain responds, "There's only one God, Ma'am. And I'm pretty sure he doesn't dress like that." That line, simple and direct, got a rousing cheer from the audience in my theater, and it was heartening and surprising to see something like that in such a popular film. Black Widow's back story also had some interesting spiritual parallels-- while it's often hard to tell whether or not she is telling the truth, it seems at least clear that she has some sort of "red on her ledger" that she's desperately trying to absolve herself of. (Here's where I will display the sad truth that I am totally a complete nerd, yet I am an unsatisfactory nerd at that. I don't read comic books. So I have no idea what the back story between Black Widow and Hawkeye is.) Black Widow seems to think that the only way she can clear this from her record is through saving Hawkeye-- but Loki tells her something like, "do you think you can really make up for the thousands of deaths you've caused by saving one man?"  The Black Widow's tortured state as she tries to "justify" herself is clear...unless of course, she's lying about all that, too. One can never know with her.
Or maybe, when she says "ledger", she means "hair." That would also make sense. 
     The character development is really what sets Avengers apart from other summer popcorn flicks. None of the other movies have flopped (well...except for The Incredible Hulk), in part because they all have very strong characters and great actors. However, in Avengers, Whedon takes these characters that we are already familiar with and mixes them together, sometimes pitting them against one another and sometimes showing strong bonds between them. Each character has an individual struggle that gives them plenty of screen time: Iron Man dealing with arrogance and not wanting to play as "part of the team," Captain America seeking to re-adjust after being out of commission for 60+ years, Bruce Banner struggles with not letting the Hulk control him, Thor and Loki struggle with Loki's daddy issues, Black Widow struggles with her dark past, and Hawkeye, um...gets turned into a zombie or whatever I guess? So here's the character breakdown:
Hawkeye: I love Hawkeye to death, but he doesn't have a huge presence in this film. I mean, he's in it a lot, and he's heroic, and he has some really good scenes with the Black Widow. And his arrows are super cool. But he was one of the less compelling characters, at least on this go-around.
Plus, I thought cracking jokes during surgery was totally unprofessional.
Black Widow: was a pleasant, pleasant surprise. I don't remember her being all that memorable in Iron Man 2...I just remember sort of thinking, "Oh hey. Scar Jo. She can kill people and that's cool and whatever. Also she looks pretty which is why she's here." In Avengers, she's much more of a real presence and a real character-- from defeating a bunch of dudes while tied to a chair to squeezing key information out of Loki, she rocked. And while Black Widow's outfit is a skin-tight leather suit, I guess I can't really complain since that's basically what all the guys in this movie wear. And she never loses part of her costume during battle, she never kisses anyone, and she never gets kidnapped by the villain. So, cheers all around.
Thor: I like Thor. I think he's fantastically adorably awkward. I thought his movie could have been better, so I wasn't expecting much from him in Avengers. But I actually liked him in this way more! He has to deal with the villain being his own brother, along with the knowledge that his arrival on earth was what caused S.H.I.E.L.D. to create superweapons with the tesseract. And all the while he's so fantastically adorably awkward.
Hulk: The Hulk was amazing. Mark Ruffalo did a phenomenal job, and the character rehaul definitely worked-- Banner is likeable and compelling. There's a bit of a werewolf aspect to Hulk (which is why I've never been a huge fan. I dislike the whole werewolf mythos, since it says basically, "You are an animal and there is nothing you can do to control yourself," which is certainly interesting for a story but has some very dangerous implications), but it's definitely a pleasure to watch Banner take control of the Hulk and bring him to fight for his own ends (which is confusing since they're actually the same person but...ya know).
Of course, Joss is used to writing totally adorable werewolf-types. 
     IRON MAN AND CAPTAIN AMERICA: AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH. Now, perhaps I'm being unfair here since the Captian is my favowite Avenger. But honestly, the dynamic between these two was so perfect. I had been wondering how it would work out when the snarky, arrogant Tony Stark encountered the earnest, serious Steve Rogers. And it's every bit as prickly as you would think it would be at first-- Stark mocks Rogers, and Rogers is disgusted by Stark. However, their interactions made for the most rewarding character development, as the Captain continually berates Iron Man for his bad attitude, and while IM (that's what I'm calling Iron Man from now on) retaliates with his trademark off-the-cuff wit, it becomes clear towards the end of the movie when {Spoiler Alert} he actually demonstrates the self-sacrifice of a hero, just as CA (that's Captain America, for those keeping track at home) encouraged him to do. Stark also realizes halfway through the movie that he is just like Loki when he says, "He wants an audience...he wants people watching...he wants monuments that reach into the sky and spell out his name..." realization dawns on Stark's face as the camera pans out to reveal the giant Stark Tower rising above New York City. This arc is completed at the close of the movie, when the camera once again pans back to show that rather than letters spelling out "STARK" on the tower, only the "A" (for Avengers!) remains. Sooooo sweeeeeet.
It's like this, but without the S, the T, the R, and the K.

    The plot really is driven by the characters, which means that it is not just another mindless action film-- although it does have some seriously fantastic action sequences! But the action sequences have a purpose, they're not just Michael Bay Random-Splosions. I was worried when I heard there were going to be aliens in it-- Indy 4, anyone--but the aliens really don't have a huge presence in the movie, and they come in at just the necessary time for a show-stopping fnale without bogging the film down.
   Joss Whedon did a great job making a film that not only meets but exceeds expectations-- and expectations on this one were huge. We can look forward to not only Captain America 2, Iron Man 3, The Avengers 2, and whatever other movies arise from this franchise, but hopefully to many more movies helmed by Whedon. And maybe. Just maybe. Another season of Firefly. (Hey, I can dream, right?)

P.S. Oh, and I guess Nick Fury was in it too. Every time he was offscreen I forgot he was a part of the movie. I guess he had to put the gazpacho on ice or whatever.

*Samuel L. Jackson Bonus Alert * *Samuel L. Jackson Bonus Alert *Samuel L. Jackson Bonus Alert*