Assembled at last ~ That Movie Blogger Fella

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Assembled at last

Marvel's The Avengers
My rating:

Sigh... yes, it is indeed released as Marvel's The Avengers, as if we would not know by now that the superheroes in this movie are from Marvel. (And it's not a foreign-markets-only thing either, that's what it's called in the States.) It would appear that they are taking no chances with how familiar the general (read: non-comicbook-reading) audience are with their intellectual property; even after successful movies starring Iron Man, Hulk, Thor and Captain America, they still think the Avengers brand name needs a little extra push to achieve equal recognition. That's indicative of how carefully Marvel has been developing their shared universe - something that's never been tried before in cinema, after all. And given that every film they've made so far has been box-office successes - and more importantly, good movies - their efforts have certainly been paying off.

But this, this is the payoff. And it is every bit as good.

Loki (Tom Hiddleston), the Asgardian god of mischief, has returned - and his mischief has become far deadlier. He steals the Tesseract, a source of massive unlimited power and a portal to other worlds, from a SHIELD facility, and brainwashes Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård) and Clint Barton a.k.a. Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) into his loyal servants. A desperate Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) calls for help from Steve Rogers a.k.a. Captain America (Chris Evans), Tony Stark a.k.a. Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.) and Dr. Bruce Banner a.k.a. the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), summoned by Natasha Romanoff a.k.a. Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) from his hiding place in India. They are later joined by Thor (Chris Hemsworth), the Asgardian god of thunder, who has come to stop his brother Loki and bring him home. All the heroes are brought to SHIELD's massive helicarrier, where Fury and agents Coulson (Clark Gregg) and Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) are waiting to brief them on their mission. But this is the first time that such disparate personalities are forced to work together - and while they bicker and fight, Loki's army of alien Chitauri are on their way to invade the earth.

It's already being hailed as the greatest comicbook superhero movie ever, but it's not; not really. The need to juggle so many larger-than-life characters renders it unwieldy at times, particularly in the first half. It's a little slow - not in the sense of "too much talking, not enough fighting", a comment that never fails to annoy me - but in the sense that it spends too much time on our heroes not dealing with the world-shaking threat that has been introduced. It's become a comicbook cliché that when two or more superheroes meet in a crossover, they will invariably fight each other before teaming up against the real villain, a cliché that this movie adheres to. But the clashing personalities is a little contrived, especially since the only two who really can't stop bickering are Steve Rogers and Tony Stark; Cap and Iron Man seem to have gotten a maturity downgrade since their respective movies. And the plot involving Loki's invasion plan is rather simple - perhaps by necessity.

Aaand that's about it as far as flaws go, 'cos the rest is aaall good. Turns out Joss Whedon's flair for character-based drama and humour-laced action fits perfectly within the Marvel cinematic universe; every movie in it has aimed for the exact same blend of thrills and fun anchored by strong lead characters. And in maintaining continuity with the three previously-established superhero franchises (well, one franchise and two franchise-to-bes), it also serves as a semi-sequel to all three - possibly even a fourth, although the connection to the two previous Hulk movies is clearly weaker. Cap, Tony and Thor are recognisably where we left them at the end of their respective last movies; Cap alienated from a time no longer his own, Tony starting a new relationship with Pepper Potts, and Thor still pining for Jane Foster. (Although that only gets dealt with in a quick throwaway scene.)

And then it allows every member of its huge ensemble plenty of moments to shine. This is a remarkable trick to pull off in a movie, and Marvel's The Avengers does it with flair to spare. I was initially worried that Tony, who leads the most successful of the Marvel movies to date, would overshadow the others; the trailers certainly made it seem like everyone else is going to be the butt of his non-stop quips. But no, he didn't at all. Everyone else gets plenty of chances to endear themselves to the audience - from Thor conflicted over his enmity with his brother, to Cap emerging as the true leader of the team, to Tony momentarily losing his snark when a tragic event leaves him unexpectedly shaken. Even Black Widow, pruriently played by Scarlett Johansson in Iron Man 2 but making no greater impression than eye candy, gets some much-needed characterisation here - and Johansson finally proves herself worthy of playing an action heroine and comicbook character.

Because another great strength of the Marvel movies is pitch-perfect casting. It's not just the heroes who need it, it's also the villains, as Tom Hiddleston's Loki proves. He runs the gamut from tyrannically arrogant to gleefully devious to ragingly sadistic - he has a positively Hannibal Lecter-ian scene with Black Widow in which he delivers an awesome speech (I really wanna know who came up with "you mewling quim!") - yet still manages to show his hurt and angry side with Thor. Hiddleston is as much an essential part of the ensemble as any of the heroes - but the breakout member is definitely Mark Ruffalo, the third actor to play Bruce Banner/Hulk and the best. Ruffalo plays him as someone not only always trying to control his anger, but also saddened by that fact; as if he knows his greatest curse is not any gamma-ray mutation but his own character weakness. That combination of underlying uncontrollable rage and sadness is something neither Eric Bana nor Edward Norton figured out during their turns at the bat, and it's amazing that the character finally came alive in a movie that's not even his own. It helps that when the Hulk emerges, he provides some of the most awesome action moments.

Which brings us to the action scenes - which are the biggest and most spectacular by far amongst the current crop of superhero movies. I've said before that superpowered action scenes are exactly what people want from comicbook movies, and Whedon gives it to us in spades through an almost hour-long climactic battle against the invading Chitauri in the streets of Manhattan. If there's one quibble, it's that it sometimes seems to take pains to allow each of the Avengers a chance to contribute; Thor, Iron Man and Hulk have all the superpowers, but it just so happens that both Hawkeye's arrows and Black Widow's pea-shooter handguns can take Chitauri down handily. But it's a small nit to pick when you're getting an awesomely massive battle that perfectly translates comicbook action onto the big screen.

And if there's one thing that Marvel's The Avengers proves, it's that everything that's been done in comics translates pretty damn well onto screen. Everything from the over-the-top superheroic action to the goofy world with the colourful costumes and cheesy monikers and fantastical powers borne of hoary sci-fi/fantasy/supernatural clichés. It all works in a movie, as long as it's done with the same amount of care and respect for its source material as Marvel has been doing. Which is practically revolutionary, considering it wasn't too long ago that Hollywood studios still thought of iconic comicbook properties as needing "reinventing" - e.g. a Superman who doesn't fly, and a Batman who lives in a junkyard with a black version of Alfred named Big Al. In particular, what this film proves is that the comicbook concept of a shared universe, where stories and characters criss-cross between franchises, works just fine on film - more than fine, in fact. The fact that Iron Man resides in the same world as Thor or Hulk or Captain America, and that they can appear in each other's movies and maintain continuity with each other's ongoing stories, enriches them all and makes their world an even more appealing one. Why did it take Hollywood so long to figure this out?

And so, four stars - on par with Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger and what I would've given the first Iron Man had I reviewed it here. It fulfilled the promise of all those earlier movies, but did not exceed or transcend them. For as much as I've been raving about it - and as much as I've banged the drum on the need for superhero movies to be faithful - this article (about the Thor movie) makes a damn good point about how superhero movies also need to be innovative, as opposed to being too faithful. Zack Snyder's Watchmen comes to mind, and while Marvel's The Avengers is by no means as slavishly dull as that one, it doesn't do anything that 30-plus years of Marvel comics haven't already done either. Which is still great for anyone who's never opened the pages of a Marvel comic in their lives - which I can possibly count myself amongst their number. So, a very good movie, but by no means the greatest comicbook superhero movie ever. That honour still goes to The Dark Knight.

Expectations: another Songlap?


Dzof said...

I think it's called Marvel's The Avengers so that you don't confuse it with (or get sued as a result of confusing it with) The Avengers.

Jiman Najmi said...

Only the 2nd hulk film (the one with edward norton) is a part of this marvel cinematic universe. The one with eric bana was made under universal studio, and was only rebooted by marvel studios through the incredible hulk.

TMBF said...

@Dzof: Actually, in the UK and Ireland it's called Avengers Assemble for just that reason.

@Jiman Najmi: Yes, but the Norton Hulk movie was also a semi-sequel to the Bana one.

Joey Jarossi said...

NICE review! have a look at mine?

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