Avengers

I have been waiting for this movie since 2009. Actually, scratch that – since 2007 and it was worth it. I don’t have to tell you that Marvel’s grand experiment in bringing the comic book shared continuity concept to the silver screen was an astounding success. The box office figures speak for themselves: it was the biggest opening weekend since forever. Not only that, the movie continues earning barrels of cash nearly two weeks after release. I went to see it last Saturday and luckily got ticked long in advance, because by the time we got to the theater all Avengers time slots were already sold out. This movie was a tremendous risk – if it bombed it could prematurely end the great superhero boom we are currently experiencing. Fortunately, the exact opposite happened: Avengers is a living proof that shared continuity superhero team-ups can, and do work. Not only that – they are the golden meal ticket that studios have been waiting for: a long running franchises that can be milked indefinitely, and which can amortize weaker movies by incorporating them into a grander over-arcing plots. It’s a magical formula for printing money – and good news for comic book nerds all over.

When Joss Whedon was announced as the mastermind behind this project, many people wondered if he can handle something of this magnitude. Can a guy mostly known for creating beloved, but unfortunately short lived TV shows carry the biggest and most important summer blockbuster in recent years? The answer is yes. Weedon was the best choice. The only choice. Having watched the movie, I do not think anyone else could have directed this film. Not only because he understands the genre – because he really does. When I was watching Avengers, I felt as if Whedon took that itemized list I made in 2007 and nailed every single point on it. Hell, he did things I did not even think about back then. He clearly studied all the Marvel movie ventures to this date, and drew conclusions from their mistakes, electing not to repeat any of them. But that’s not the only reason why he was the best person to make this film.

Unlike most screen writers and directors that work on summer-time popcorn flicks, Joss understands characters. Avengers had to be about characters – the heroes had to have chemistry and work well together for this entire venture to work. You can’t just say they are a team – the audience has to see them become a team, and believe it. This is something Whedon does very well – all his creations to date had really great ensemble casts of characters, and most of them were telling character driven stories.

Most of the movies that led up to the Avengers were plot driven. Thor, Captain America and Hulk were all concerned with telling compelling stories. The heroes were there, mostly just tagging along for a ride – tugged along here or there as the plot demanded. Iron Man movies were a notable exception, mostly because they were Robert Downey Junior driven productions – half improvised, half adlibbed mess that was carried by the undeniable charm and personality of the leading man. The Avengers movie was different. Joss Whedon did not start with a plot – he started with characters.

The Avengers

The Avengers

All the members of the team are introduced, fleshed out, given motivation and the plot is more or less the function of the sum of their goals, motivations and personal agendas which collide and intersect with each other. Even though this is a movie about super-hero team-up, for most of the movie there is no team – just bunch of guys with bigger-than-life egos bickering about nonsense. But when they finally work out their differences and start working together, it does not feel forced or rushed.

Whedon understands the source material, and he seems to have a great feel for what the characters should be, and how they fit into the story. He carefully cherry picked what worked from each characters respective movie and dropped what did not. For example, Iron Man and Captain America are mostly intact – their characterization is consistent with what we had seen before. Thor and Hulk however have been revamped.

The former is no longer the brash, foolish, naive spoiled brat – he is more mature, wiser and more balanced and more responsible as you would expect from a god of thunder. This is a very welcome change – the child-like, infantile Thor was rather annoying, albeit necessary to tell the morality tale / coming of age story of his own movie. Now he is sent back to Earth as an adult, and a powerful agent and ambassador of his people. He is still proud and short tempered but no longer a fish out of water. Whedon gives him a new niche, as he chose to have the time-displaced Steve Rogers to play the “stranger in strange land” fiddle this time around.

Going into Avengers I was really expecting to see Thor and Tony Stark get in a pissing match, because the movie seemed to be only big enough for one dude with grossly overblown ego. But such a petty squabble turns out the be beneath Whedon’s much improved Thor. Instead Stark’s rampant individualism and egoism crashes with Steve Roger’s patriotic ideals and military discipline – a much more interesting conflict to watch.

The Hulk was rebuilt from ground up – it had to be, since Ed Norton did not come back to reprise his role as Bruce Banner. This actually turns out the be a good thing, as Mark Ruffalo’s interpretation is much more interesting. His Banner is much geekier and much more nuanced character. Norton’s character had a deer-in-headlights quality to him – he mostly reacted to plot cues, and came off a bit whiny. Ruffalo’s character is sharper and more confident. He is passive aggressive, manipulative, resentful – a polar opposite of Tony Stark, but at the same time his intellectual equal. What I liked the most about this character is that Ruffalo is able to play a laid back, goofy Banner while at the same time giving him this quiet undercurrent of soft boiling rage. He is a man balancing on the knife edge and fighting real hard to maintain his mellow demeanor against all odds.

When he turns into Hulk, he becomes an unstoppable force of nature. The big green guy has starred in several movies and TV shows up until now, but Whedon is the first director who has absolutely nailed the essence of this beast. The way he moves, the effortless way in which he smashes and dominates even the strongest opponents – this is the Hulk we have been waiting to see for years.

The difference between Joss Whedon and other directors who handled Marvel Properties is that he can take such non-characters as Scarlett Johanson’s Black Widow, and Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye and turn them into fully fleshed out members of the team. Despite considerable amount of screen time in Iron Man 2, Johanson’s character was nothing more than eye candy. Whedon needs exactly 5 minutes to establish and build her up as a devious, manipulating super-spy with strong work ethic and personal goals and motivations. Her subplot non-pairing with fellow agent hawk-eye is refreshing, but at the same time very Whedonesque – they owe each other their lives, and they obviously have some history and some pent-up sexual tension but they do not immediately fall into each others arms, but instead opt for professional camaraderie.

Finally, Whedon has a knack for writing and directing villains that are goofy and bad-ass at the same time. Loki was a complete wuss, and a push-over on Thor. I just did not believe he could make a compelling villain in Avengers, but Joss pulled it off. He builds upon his characterization from the previous movie, but not without giving him a moment to shine. When Loki first appears, he instantly wipes out an entire room full of armed Shield agents without breaking a sweat, just to establish him as a credible threat. Next we see him take few pages from the Joker’s notebook, establishing himself as a complete and utter bastard who likes to play mind games with his victims. By the time the heroes get to fight him, the audiences already managed to forget how much of a pussy he was in Thor.

Whedon did an absolutely amazing job on this movie, and his cast delivered great performances each. Does this mean Avengers is a perfect movie? No, it’s not. At the end of the day, it is a silly summer popcorn flick. It is not high brow entertainment, but it is damn entertaining. In my honest opinion this is the best installment in the entire series. Better than The Incredible Hulk, better than Thor, better than Captain America and better than both Iron Man movies. This is how summer blockbusters ought to be done.

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6 Responses to Avengers

  1. astine Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    I liked the conflict between Iron Man and Captain America. They’re both *very* American, but in very different and contradictory ways.

    *minor spoiler*
    I didn’t quite like how the Hulk was able to transform at will at the end. After establishing how little control he had over the transformation and and during the transformation, to have him transform at will and then act rationally while transformed seemed to me to undo a lot of the previous setup.

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  2. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Google Chrome Linux Terminalist says:

    @ astine:

    The Hulk thing didn’t bother me that much. The Ed Norton movie already established that Hulk is not just a raging beast – he is sentient, and he has some low level access to Bruce Banner’s memories. For instance, he recognized Liv Tyler. He also seems to be able to to distinguish between an “innocent bystander” and “enemy” – at least to some degree.

    He is just not very smart. Initially when he lost control in the Shield HQ he was scared, and was lashing out. Loud explosions, unfamiliar environment, a lot of people with guns, etc. Banner did not want to be there – he was helping shield more or less against his will, and Hulk might have picked up on that too and in his simple mind decided he was going to break out.

    I don’t have a problem with him changing at will. It’s actually not that hard to work yourself up – especially in combat situation. Also, I don’t think he can change back at will – the Hulk does not have that degree of self control, so once he goes green he stays that way until the big guy runs out of steam or gets bored.

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  3. Victoria Netscape Navigator Mac OS says:

    I hoped for this movie to be fun, and Whedon delivered it.

    Captain America/Tony Stark confrontation was just delicious to watch, and I can’t believe I’m typing this, but I really liked Hulk. Ruffalo almost stole the show. Hawkeye/Black Widow did not work for me at all though. And some plot gaps were a bit painful. BUT. Whedon does characters right, that’s his superpower, and I immensely enjoyed the movie and I’m glad it was so successful in box office.

    P.S. And of course, they had to show some abracadabra in Cyrillic on billboard with the Black Widow opening scene.

    Hulk/Loki scene was WOW. ‘Puny god’. Loved it.

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  4. Morghan UNITED STATES Safari Linux says:

    I still found Hawkeye to be little more than filler and Black Widow to be annoying eye candy. Nowhere near as useless as they were in their previous screen time, but still not a real addition to the movie.

    I never liked Black Widow, and like the actress even less, but I did like Hawkeye in the books. Too bad he seemed like an afterthought, at least to me, in the movie.

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  5. vukodlak SERBIA AND MONTENEGRO Google Chrome Mac OS says:

    @ Luke Maciak: In addition, it is hinted that Loki was somehow manipulating the whole team into petulant argument – with the scepter in the center of it. Not only does Banner grab it as he is about to lose control, but there’s a weird shot where the camera goes upside down and focuses on the scepter superimposed on squabbling heroes. I think it’s fair to assume that this contributes to to Banner’s uncontrolled transformation.

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  6. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Google Chrome Linux Terminalist says:

    @ Victoria and @ Morghan:

    Here is the thing about Hawkeye and Black Widow: they were non-characters in the previous movies. They had no established personalities, no character traits, no back-stories, no attachments, etc. The Avengers movie was not about them – it was always intended to be a Iron Man, Captain, Thor and Hulk spectacle. These two were merely supporting characters that no one bothered to flesh out until now.

    I think Whedon did a pretty good job giving them a semblance of personalities considering how little time he had to spend on them. Since these two previously existed in void, he anchors them to each other, establishing they have a history, and a professional relationship. This is not really done to establish them as a couple, but to somehow attach them to the world, and give them some degree of depth.

    Similarly, he gives them a little bits of personality. In Thor Hawkeye is just another mook with a bow. He has several minutes of screen-time and we find out nothing about him. Whedon gives us characterization in the first few seconds – the way he sits in his nest, the his conversation with fury – it is all time compressed character development. You get some feel for this character right off the bat.

    Same with Black Widow – Whedon sets her up as this Buffy-esque super-spy lady who uses the gender stereotypes to her standards. Most men assume that as a female she is weaker and more emotionally vulnerable, and she uses that to play them like a fiddle. She owns the Russian mob dudes in her first scene, and she even trolls the “trickster god” pretty hard. But then Whedon tears her down by throwing the Hulk at her, and shows her break down under something she can’t handle to show she is human and vulnerable after all.

    I really don’t know if you could flesh out these two more, without taking the spotlight off the actual Avengers. They were pretty boring characters to begin with, and Whedon made them at least a little bit interesting.

    @ vukodlak:

    This is an excellent point. I think the scepter was focusing their anger and putting everyone on edge. This is very likely what caused Hulk to wig out the way he did.

    I guess the key here is that Banner does not control Hulk. Hulk controls himself, but he ain’t to bright, and he does not respond well to pressure or stress. Hulk generally prefers to smash things that anger or annoy him, so with Loki running an annoyance-producing artifact in the background it is easy to see how he could blow up like he did.

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