Old-Fashioned Notions — Marvel’s The Avengers

Review:  May 4th, 2012 was, in keeping with geek tradition, ‘Star Wars’ Day.  On that most, uh, Force-full of days, we the guardians of sci-fi, fantasy and comic books take a moment to remember when we first got to see the saga of a ragtag team’s struggle against cosmic evil on the big screen.  Let’s never forget those days.  They were very nice, though some of us were eleven in those days, or as yet mere concepts in the hearts of teenage lovers, or not even proper inklings in anyone’s head, really.  But in counterpoint to ‘Star Wars’ Day nostalgia (which is only too appropriate, given “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…”) on that particular May the Fourth in the U.S. we were blessed with the frankly stunning apotheosis of the cinematic superhero genre: ‘The Avengers’.  And the future — at least of sci-fi action-adventure cinema — seems very bright indeed.

Capping off Marvel Studios’ ambitious (and actually quite sudden) plan to finally approximate the diverse world of comic books (with their multitude of clashing heroes, villains and subgenres) in the movies, ‘The Avengers’ is a major coup for everyone involved in its creation.  Especially writer/director Joss Whedon, who, having previously built up a well-deserved but continually frustrated cult fanbase, successfully helmed one of the biggest summer movies of all time, and if he were to die young, he would die having proven to the world that he really knew what the hell he was doing after all.  Outside the rewards reaped by its creators, however, the whole of genre filmmaking stands to benefit from the film’s success, since, like the original ‘Star Wars’ before it, it can serve as a roadmap to properly realizing fantastic concepts in an appealing human manner.

For as big and silly and wonderful as ‘The Avengers’ gets, it’s grounded by honest, fallible and likable characters that remind us, by their magnetic presence, why we ought to enjoy any of this ballyhoo.  Any hack filmmaker can pit a superhuman against an alien invasion force and call it drama; it takes a real storyteller like Whedon to assemble a team that feels, despite their colorful and disparate personalities, inevitable.  These people — indeed, they are people first, heroes second — compliment each other perfectly.  Flaws become strengths by virtue of the team’s unlikely unity.  Out here in the real world, such moments of cohesion do occur, and tend to generate shockwaves when they do.  Because the film’s structure builds to the point where the team finally coheres, the expected trope of the climatic battle suddenly becomes organic, and the team’s fight against evil, instead of being rote action, is raw humanity gloriously unleashed.  Audiences react to this instinctively in a way they never will to ‘Transformers 3’.  They may not know why the dynamic in ‘The Avengers’ thrills them so deeply, but it surely does, and some of the kids who see the movie in theaters today will turn their quest to replicate the experience into a career in filmmaking.

The team dynamic is not the only secret to the film’s success, but it’s arguably the most important one to discuss in terms of its immediate cultural impact.  It’s the team itself that excites the (to use a word I dislike) zeitgeist.  ‘The Avengers’ is incredible optimistic and fun only because the team coalesces, by doing so healing all wounds and overcoming all evils within the team and without, at least as long as the team is together.  So ‘The Avengers’ is not obviously important like ‘The Godfather’ or ‘Citizen Kane’, because it’s not a critique or a deconstruction of societal forces, but it absolutely is important and resonates so widely because it strongly affirms human community.  Basically all ‘The Avengers’ says is “We need each other.”  But does anything else really need to be said?

Let’s not presume that every work that captures the zeitgeist must include riffs on relevant real-world conflicts, i.e., the Joker-as-archetypal-terrorist plot of ‘The Dark Knight’ (which, I hasten to add, is extremely good) or the military’s presence on Pandora in ‘Avatar’ (which, like it or not, struck a chord with audiences to the tune of billions of dollars.)  Of course, even if we were to say that ‘The Avengers’ must include such imagery to resonate properly, we can easily find it in the film’s central conflict.  Eleven years after 9/11, here’s a massive hit movie that features a hostile force appearing suddenly in the sky and killing thousands in New York (sound familiar?) only to be thwarted by a team led by the embodiment of American heroism.  It’s an optimistic statement that draws (explicitly) on old-fashioned notions of teamwork, self-sacrifice and patriotism.  Indeed, while the film’s thesis is pretty much on-the-nose, so, for that matter, is ‘The Dark Knight’.  As much as I appreciate that film, it’s not exactly subtle; in fact, I’d say one reason Batfandom can be so irritating is that they do not understand how simple ‘The Dark Knight’ is, and flatter themselves for understanding a pretty damn obvious thematic message.  That, of course, is part and parcel with the common fantasy among Batfans (and I count myself among their number) of being the brilliant, dark, misunderstood vigilante — as much as I like it, the Batman concept appeals to (typically teenage male) arrogance.  It’s like walking out of ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ convinced you’re the only one who realized that Darth Vader is Luke’s father, and then thinking you’re the wise Jedi master who has to explain it to everyone.  But ‘The Avengers’ lacks the haughtiness of ‘The Dark Knight’; it isn’t trying to be important, it just is, because Whedon and company have their hearts in the right place.

Films like ‘Star Wars’ and ‘The Avengers’ impact audiences in deep, unconscious ways, making their particular brands of storytelling popular again.  Before ‘The Avengers’ hit the screen, there were many unqualified rumblings about superhero films dying off, but those diagnoses were really prescriptions, trying to cure cinema of a trend many believed was sapping the movies of their popularity and importance.  It’s much harder to make such statements now without coming off as hopelessly cynical or snobbish, because the superhero genre has just now come into its own, injecting Hollywood and audiences with new enthusiasm for superheroes and other related genres.  For the guardians of geekdom, who have taken over the multiplex yet again, May the Fourth can serve as a reminder of past glories and the possibility of future revelations.

The Phantom Menace (Episode I)

Stars:  *** out of 4

Summary:  Though suffering from lackluster characters and a plot that lacks common sense, ‘The Phantom Menace’ still manages to get back some of ol’ ‘Star Wars’ charm.

Such a great poster.  Hey, if they had released just the poster and not the movie, it would've pleased the fans more and would've spawned more wild mass guessing than is reasonable for any film.

Such a great poster. Hey, if they had released just the poster and not the movie, it would've pleased the fans more and would've spawned more wild mass guessing than is reasonable for any franchise.

Review:  I admit it.  I’m a sucker for ‘Star Wars’.  I’m a huge fan of the Original Trilogy, but I was also one of those people whose childhood was jazzed up considerably by the anticipation and experience of the new Prequels, and who then ungratefully proceeded to denounce them as inferior.  I think it’s totally fair to say that the Prequels are inferior, but in a stunning twist, I’ve finally made peace with my generation’s installments of the beloved space saga.  I don’t hate them anymore.  In fact, I like them.  A lot.  The trick is to recognize what exactly Lucas was going for.  It’s supposed to be his own kind of ‘Flash Gordon’ or ‘Buck Rogers’, not an airtight, gritty sci-fi movie along the lines of ‘Blade Runner’ or something.  These are family-oriented fantasy films, so ‘kiddy-ness’, in varying doses, is to be expected.  The bad writing is another issue, but we’ll tackle that film-by-film.

‘The Phantom Menace’, while a great, accessible sci-fi adventure in the same vein as the Original Trilogy, has one central weakness:  It lacks a strong dramatic train of thought.  The Originals all had their great focuses that fueled the action.  This first Prequel starts off with a pretty good pace and suspense, but this kind of erodes, only to return at the end of the film.  It gets bogged down.  The podrace sequence is pretty cool and dangerous, but should have been less of a detour.  It is necessary to the plot, but lacks the tightness and character impact that practically every moment has in ‘A New Hope’.  This signals the beginning of a problem that plagues all three Prequels, that of a sense of unpolished scripting that could’ve been fixed by a rewrite or two, or three.  Episode IV, by contrast, was practically overwritten, and was fully mature as a story.  It’s not that George Lucas is a bad storyteller, but I suspect that he was unwilling to replicate the painful process that created the Original Trilogy, which I can’t blame him for.

Anyway, nevertheless, the film is pretty strong.  Liam Neeson plays the best character in the piece, as Obi-Wan’s master, Qui-Gon.  Actually, that master-apprentice relationship is the best written part of the movie, with a pretty good conclusion in their duel with Darth Maul.  Which segues me to the villains, the weakest aspect of the film, and of the Prequels in general.  Darth Maul makes an excellent Sith villain, mysterious, dangerous, and used like a potent seasoning.  The shadowy Darth Sidious, later the Emperor in the Originals, is great.  The problem is, they’re mostly in the background in this film, and the up-front bad guys — the Trade Federation — are pretty darn lame.  They are not intimidating in the least, and suck the urgency right out of the movie.

The other supporting characters are also pretty weak, especially the dreaded Jar-Jar Binks, who isn’t that bad, except for being slathered all over the movie like barbeque sauce.  Young Anakin and his mother, Shmi, are actually an exception to this rule.  They do pretty well — despite slowing the pace down far too much.

Philosophically, here’s my take on it.  An interesting — and very controversial  — addition to the Force mythos is the idea of a biological connection to it through “midi-chlorians”, apparently symbiotic creatures that live inside of everyone’s cells in differing concentrations.  There is some complaint that this saps the mysticism out of the Force/person relationship, but it can be argued that this was a pretty clever way of showing synchronicity between science and spiritually in ‘Star Wars’.  Because the midi-chlorian count in Anakin’s blood is the determining factor of his special identity, this shows that this new take on the Force is a subtle but central theme in ‘The Phantom Menace’.  Lucas has said that part of his motivation for making ‘Star Wars’ was to reintroduce a mythological and religious logic to youth of his generation.  Since he’s continued to be interested in educating young people, it may be that ‘The Phantom Menace’ includes this theme in order to combat a burgeoning anti-spirituality, embodied in “The new atheism” of my generation.  It certainly seems consistent with Lucas’ understanding of fantasy that transforms real paradigms.

The next major theme I want to cover is the titular threat, ‘The Phantom Menace’.  There are several interpretations of what this refers to, the most common — and possibly canon — guess being that it is Darth Sidious, the evil Sith pulling the strings to topple the Republic.  Or, I would suggest, it refers to Anakin Skywalker.  Lucas has stated that the story of ‘Star Wars’ is all about Anakin, and since this is the chronological first in the series, it would make sense to refer to the protagonist.  Yoda states, when young Anakin is brought before the Jedi Council, that he senses a dark and evil future for the boy, or, one could say, a phantom menace.  This nagging fear of Anakin’s evil fate will eventually swallow up the story of the Prequels, as it rightly should, so even though Darth Sidious becomes the mechanism by which Anakin is brought into his destiny, it’s reasonable to conclude that the phantom menace is Anakin himself.

Anyhow, this is actually a pretty good and fun ‘Star Wars’ movie.  It’s arguably the most kid-friendly (the intense climatic lightsaber duel notwithstanding).  Certainly, there’s no good reason to be bitter about it or condemn George Lucas to fanboy hell for “ruining your childhood”.

Classic Review: Return of the Jedi (Episode VI)

Stars:  **** out of Four

Summary:  A thrilling, angsty finale for a classic trilogy, with the best effects and the best music, to boot.

This is a good poster, for a multitude of reasons...

This is a good poster, for a multitude of reasons...

Review:  Starting with the gleeful innocence and spectacle of ‘Star Wars’, going to the troubling middle chapter of ‘The Empire Strikes Back’, and now into the dark, unexpected finale of ‘Return of the Jedi’, the Original ‘Star Wars’ Trilogy cemented the legacy of George Lucas in modern film.  The blockbuster and the summer tentpole were now the economic foundations of the film industry.

Before ‘Return of the Jedi’ was released, there were high expectations as to how Lucas could possibly wrap up the Trilogy.  After it was released, though it was still highly regarded and was a box office smash, there was some disappointment in the content, with some believing that the spirit of the mature middle chapter had been compromised and that Lucas was pandering to kids.  The reason being the Ewoks, a race of teddy-bear-like aliens, who manage to overwhelm Imperial forces on their home moon.  I find it ironic that this is considered a betrayal, after all, ‘Star Wars’ was intended to be escapist adventure.  There isn’t anything inconsistent in having something that seems ridiculous, as long as it follows the film’s internal logic, which it does.

The film does, in fact, take the darker nature of ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ and continue it, while keeping the spirit balanced.  The film opens with all of the heroes in deep trouble, and keeps that tone all the way to the end.  The Empire, in essence, continues to strike back.

The good guys head to the planet Tatooine, hoping to free Han Solo from the gangster Jabba the Hutt.  All of them fail, including, most famously, Princess Leia, who finds herself forced to become what is essentially a sex slave for Jabba, clad in only a gold bikini.  As revolting and seemingly unnecessary as this is, it does make the ultimate triumph of the heroes over Jabba seem more glorious.  Ironically, Jabba is strangled to death by Leia, using the very chains he used to control her.  The sexual aspects of this whole sequence are not particularly explicit, and it never leaves PG territory.

The Force, it seemed at the time, was fully elaborated on in this film.  The nature of the Light versus the Dark is now shown before us in the ultimate struggle, as Luke is tempted by the Emperor.  Where the real struggle lies, however, is in Darth Vader.  He is the Anti-Hero.  In my interpretation of the final conflict, Luke allows the Emperor to attack him directly, goading him, which triggers the latent hero in Vader.  This seems to make sense, but don’t take it as the definitive explanation.

Also of note is Luke’s dark wardrobe.  The implication seems to be that, although he is now a Jedi Knight, due to the revelation of his father’s identity he has unleashed a dark part of himself.  Aesthetically, it makes Luke appear more mature than the previous films.  Not only is he a Jedi Knight, he is a full-fledged hero, no longer in Han Solo’s shadow.

Dualism is the primary philosophy behind the Force.  Here, though, the Dark Side seems questioned; it is not as strong as Light, it merely thinks it is.  The Emperor claims the whole final battle, allowing the Rebellion to know the way to knock out the new Darth Star, is part of his plan.  This seems to be a defensive reaction to his own failure.  So what is Lucas saying here?  Is the Dark merely under the impression that it is stronger, or is it undone only by human error?  We are never told.

The artistic merits of the film seem the strongest of the Trilogy.  The music is in top form, with fully developed cues, and a new theme for the Emperor to distinguish him from Darth Vader.  The visual effects take us places we’ve never been before.  The battle around and inside the Death Star is no longer depicted with mere trenches, but with super-massive inner workings.  The lightsabers are crisp, and the resonant sound effects make Luke’s lightsaber a reflection of his own maturity.  Ewoks run at the feet of convincingly composited machines, and the sail barges on Tatooine are natural.

Performance wise, Mark Hamill comes out of the gate with his strongest portrayal of Luke.  Now that young Skywalker is a complete hero, it gives the actor playing him a chance to shine.  Ian McDiarmid, who plays the Emperor, was only in his 30s at the time, but you wouldn’t know it.

A rollicking good time with an angsty soul, this is my personal favorite of the Trilogy and the one that is the most unfairly derided, in my view.