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.

Captain America: The First Avenger

Summary: Deliciously pulpy and rich in character, ‘Captain America‘ makes for a fine adventure, a welcome addition to Marvel’s increasingly impressive roster.

Review: As Marvel’s comic book universe unfolds on the silver screen, unique talents step up to take on the challenges presented by each story.  For an adaptation of Marvel’s most old-fashioned hero, they did well to recruit Joe Johnston, the director of period adventure ‘The Rocketeer’ (which I reviewed).  Under his reign, ‘Captain America’ translates into a shamelessly idealistic and muscular picture, improving in every way upon ‘The Rocketeer’ and boasting action that puts Marvel Studios‘ other entries to shame.

Nothing in this film would work if we could not identify with Cap himself, a.k.a. Steve Rogers, brought to life by Chris Evans refreshingly playing against type.  We thankfully don’t have to endure yet another rendition of the Campbellian Hero’s Journey, as Steve Rogers’ heroism isn’t founded on mythic notions of destiny, but pure selflessness.  In a twist on the usual themes, the villain, played with great spirit by Hugo Weaving, views himself as the mythic hero, the Chosen One of the gods who alone has access to their power.  “What makes you so special?” He sneers at Rogers during a confrontation.  “Nothin’,” Steve answers, “I’m just a kid from Brooklyn.”  So while we see the dark side of Rogers’ gifts in his villainous counterpart, what draws us to him isn’t a played out struggle to resist the heady draught of power, but his steadfast humility, that he retains his social awkwardness and innocent patriotism despite his new powers and authority.  It’s an enthusiastic affirmation of a simple, but oft-ignored, fact of life: There really are good people.  In the interest of drama, many filmmakers cloud this fact, assured that the more demons given to their characters, the better.  It isn’t — what matters is truth, regardless of content.

The action works out against a rich backdrop of pulp iconography — the European theater of World War II, secret factories constructing impossible weapons, Norwegian churches hiding ancient relics, supply trains and eight-story tanks and a humongous Flying Wing.  There are fist fights, gun fights, flamethrowers, lasers, alien energies, deformed villains, mad scientists, masked stormtroopers, motorcycles, and an invincible shield colored like a flag.  The film’s Americana is obvious, and of course the more deeply ingrained the viewer’s appreciation for that particular nation, the more likely they are to appreciate the film from that perspective.  Nevertheless, ‘Captain America’ is somehow less jingoistic than other modern action pictures such as ‘Transformers’, ‘Air Force One’ and ‘Independence Day’, all of which promote the myth of American superiority to an embarrassing extent.

The glorious thing about ‘Captain America’ is that it somehow tells a good standalone story, ties directly into Marvel’s grand plan for ‘The Avengers’, is stunningly retro and yet quite modern in its presentation.  Its weakness is that it moves so fast that it requires repeat viewings to catch all the character and background detail so easily missed on a first pass.  A more suspenseful build-up to the climax would have been beneficial, underscoring the impressive action sequences like a rest between the notes.  A longer stay with Cap and the Howling Commandos would have been most welcome.  Nevertheless, these are good problems to have, symptoms of a well crafted film.

‘Captain America: The First Avenger’ stands alongside ‘Iron Man’ as the best of Marvel Studios’ pictures to date.  Though DC Comics and Warner Bros. have the benefit of Christopher Nolan‘s ‘Batman’ films, Marvel has proven to me that they are unashamed of their material and are more than capable of delivering quality adaptations to the screen.  These are films which today’s kids and geeky adults like myself will hail as classics in twenty years’ time.  Thanks to Joe Johnston and company for yet another.

Thor

A Note from James: I will no longer be rating by stars, or any other quantitative system.  It’s an awfully rigid way to measure a fluid, dreamlike medium.

Summary: A solid, fun fantasy film with impressive performances, Marvel’s best cinematic villain to date, and the promise of a lot more to come.

Review:  Through its recently formed Studios branch, comic book giant Marvel is putting together the most ambitious sci-fi/fantasy effort since Peter Jackson’s ‘The Lord of the Rings’ trilogy.  Four superheroes — Iron Man, The Hulk, Captain America, and Thor — are getting solo cinematic treatments, then being tied together in next year’s ‘The Avengers’, which is shooting under Joss Whedon’s direction now.  While Captain America has yet to debut, Iron Man and The Hulk performed well, and now the burden falls to Thor.

With a rich fantasy backstory drawn from Norse mythology comes an inherit risk of camp.  Director Kenneth Branagh and Marvel’s team of writers crafted an effective, if not terribly fresh, story, but what sells the film is its leads.  Newcomer Chris Hemsworth — who previously provided a tear-jerkingly heroic performance as George Kirk in J.J. Abram’s ‘Star Trek’ — simply kicks ass as Thor.  He’s a miraculously good actor, someone who can sell subtle emotional changes and go toe-to-toe with great hams like Sir Anthony Hopkins.

Natalie Portman is his earthbound love interest,  physicist Jane Foster, and she refuses to play her as a typical determined scientist, instead letting her dissolve into a giggling schoolgirl around Thor, an amusing and sympathetic reaction.  Given her brief screentime, she deserves a good deal of praise.

Of course, no comic book film excels without a good villain, and the true distinctive of ‘Thor’ is Tom Hiddleston’s Loki.  He’s a truly Shakespearean baddie, a guy who thinks of himself as the hero of his story, a good guy gone bad by going mad.  While another villain might cackle and spit out threats with an uncompromised glee, Loki actually weeps when he confronts his heroic brother in the final battle, even as he laughs and snarls and throws down with the best of them.  He’s a manipulative liar, but he believes he’s doing the right thing, and we feel his pain.

Most of the film takes place on a cosmic stage, as war brews between noble Asgard and bitter Jotunheim, the home of the Frost Giants.  With fantastic CGI and refreshingly tangible sets, I found myself believing in it.  The action has a real weight to it, and while Branagh isn’t the best action director around, he and his team still know that matters is clarity and impact.  When it desperately needs to work, it does.  This isn’t the best superhero action, but it is on a larger canvas than most, and deserves recognition.

As excited as I am for ‘The Avengers’, even if that wasn’t on the horizon, I’d be game for a ‘Thor’ sequel, a chance to cut loose from the trappings of an origin story and really let the “God of Thunder” loose in an even bigger conflict.  I really hope they do.