Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The Avengers Review - "Not to 50!"

Last night, at roughly 11:30PM Eastern Standard Time, an incredible noise was heard in NYC. That was me, reaching climax while watching The Avengers. It sounded like that torture scene in The Princess Bride, but from sheer pleasure.

Yes, Joss Whedon took me "to 50."

I wrote last week that I was excited about the film. Sure, I mocked their marketing campaign and slagged off Netflix for showing the run-up Marvel films in Canada only. But I hoped the reviews would be positive, and they nearly all have been. Yet as my brother and I left the theater, I still couldn't believe how good it was.

The Avengers is smart in that it tells a fairly basic story: an American super-spy agency is doing research on a powerful object. Aliens make a deal with Loki, the Norse god of mischief, giving him an army to conquer Earth in exchange for that object. The spy agency gathers 4 complex super-heroes to fight the threat. Game on.

I won't spoil the story much - I often use Double Dip entries for that - but maybe the description wasn't so simple. And honestly, this isn't in any way a "thoughtful" movie. However, the action gets top billing along with its characters and humor, and it's supremely satisfying in all those aspects. This wasn't high art, just terribly fun and not stupid.

Fortunately, that's not a flaw. Movies can succeed on the strength of their story, their message, or their players. When one of those is great, you can produce a solid, enjoyable film. Avengers entertained as much with its roles as it did with exceptional action sequences. For any recent non-drama not made by Chris Nolan, it's astonishing how strong the character work was.

I'm partly drawn to old film noir - The Big Sleep, The Maltese Falcon - since those pictures are packed with characters who get great dialogue. Often, even simple henchmen get nice, meaty lines that develop their parts quickly, naturally. And The Avengers had that, in spades. It also used its super-hero premise as a great source of slapstick comedy; even if you expect it, it's still a pleasant surprise.

All the actors here - Chris Evans, Samuel L. Jackson, even the sometimes-stiff Scarlet Johansson - are given time and quality dialogue that makes you understand who they're playing and why they do what they do. A bonus is Loki (Tom Hiddleston) who is not played as a dumb, bland, cliched, or wildly-overacted villain. All these elements make you genuinely invested in what's going on.

In the last two Star Wars Prequels, Enemy at the Gates, and many others, I could hardly care about the people on screen, much less their problems. Joss Whedon found a way to make superficial fantasy-figures into "real" people with real conflicts; almost absurdly so. In Avengers, our heroes are often at each other's throats, and it never feels like forced tension, or as a way to eat up screen-time.

And this "talky," "character-driven" pic didn't disappoint with the action. It's filmed so you clearly see what happens, unlike Transformers' quick-cutting and nearly-identical robots... Regardless, fights in film are most engaging when you understand the non-physical part of the fight. Hamlet can fight Laertes, & cool Parkour moves mean nothing if you don't know they're fighting over the suicide of Laertes' sister, who is Hamlet's gf; even if it looks great, it might feel empty.

The main criticism you can make of The Avengers is that the story is almost too loose. A more fair complaint is that it's a boys' film with 2 females in it. This is largely since it centers on 4 main heroes, then gives a little development to 3 minor roles (Hawkeye, Black Widow, Nick Fury). Its focus makes sense.

Me? I was constantly smiling and giggling. I grabbed my arm-rest during some scenes. The actors zing the viewers with lines, expressions, and little gestures. The plots were neatly resolved. & I had a real sense for all the roles - despite not watching Captain America or Thor or the second Hulk film. After Ang Lee's The Hulk, I was especially surprised by Mark Ruffalo; he did what Eric Bana and Ed Norton couldn't, and deserves special praise.

After sitting through the credits for a sweet closing sequence, my older brother and I left the theater. Standing side-by-side at the urinals, I turned and said, "I'm actually looking for flaws here, and I can't really find anything to complain about!" He smiled and said, "the score could've been better!" We both laughed.

If you look at my reviews of Superman Returns and Constantine, you know I'm not a comic book fan-boy. If a film feels "off," I will say that there's something wrong with it, even tho I can't quite figure out why. And one of my biggest criticisms of the first X-Men film was the number of characters who were fleshed-out poorly.

The Avengers had every reason to be deeply flawed, to make me think, "I guess I have to wait until The Dark Knight Rises to see some entertaining action + character." Instead, I left with the feeling that I had no real complaints. And my brother and I had a wonderful time, laughing while being adrenalized by what was on-screen. Thanks, Joss, for making this, and thank you, bro, for going with me.

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