Friday, April 24, 2015

Countdown to Avengers: Age of Ultron—The Avengers

The latest "Avengers" movie comes out on May first. For this month of Fridays before the premiere, we'll be re-running reviews of the movies that formed the stepping stones for this latest one. This time, we'll look at the first film went "all-in," collecting all the established Marvel heroes, whether starring in their own films or playing supporting roles, in what was hinted at in the post-credit teasers as "The Avenger Initiative." 

For this one, which was the lynch-pin of the franchise and HAD to become a success, the now-established Marvel Studios called upon a fan-favorite writer-director whose previous attempts to make a super-hero movie had been scuttled by another studio, but he was well-known attracting an audience and making a budget stretch to the point of bursting. The result was successful far beyond anyone's expectations, with the only down-sides being post-Avengers movies seemed to be a little run-of-the-mill and accusations of the "Whedonization" of the Marvel Universe.  

Whatever.  It worked like gang-busters.

"We've Got a Hulk..."
Playing Your "A" Game

This one is The Big Pay-Off.

Back in the day (around about Iron Man) when they started doing teasers at the end of Marvel movies for the idea of an "Avengers" event, one hoped that they could pull it off. Captain America needed to work (and it did). Iron Man II integrated other characters successfully.  They even managed to make Thor somewhat interesting. And even though two "Hulk" movies under-performed at the box-office, there was still potential there. Given the scenario of the "Ultimate Avengers" storyline (a revamp in the Marvel line that started everything over from Origin Story Square One with a decidedly more adult, realistic attitude...and a Nick Fury that looked like Samuel L. Jackson) a case could be made for a good old fashioned Marvel Jam story of the "When Titans Clash!" school.

The problem is all those heroes. It could turn into a mighty cluster, if there isn't a compelling story that slots heroes into appropriate scenarios, a problem with some of the "X-Men" films. And one also hopes that there's a compelling reason for these guys to be here, that there is some character function going on, even though they have plenty of screen-time in their own series to work on those.

Will The Avengers "assemble" into a well-functioning superhero romp, and make Joss Whedon (who excels at ensembles) an A-list director that fans have been hoping for?
"Yes" to the former and "Maybe" to the latter, although pulling off this one is not an easy feat—so many particular and persnickety stars, so many owned and exploitable characters that corporations (and opposing film studios) want to manage, and so many potential minefields that it would take a superhero (with levitating powers) to rise above and negotiate them.  But Marvel's The Avengers (what they're calling this one to avoid any confusion) manages to be fast-paced, quick-witted, and, although slightly derivative (mostly of Jack Kirby's "Fourth World" series, with hints of The Andromeda Strain in sub-text, and, let's face it, most mythology and comic book tropes), and is, as one character analogizes, "a bag full of cats," fulfills its basic tenet: to be consistently entertaining, with crises every few minutes, wonders to behold (some of the sets are simply amazing), interesting pair-ups in terms of fights (Marvel heroes are always fighting each otherthey're very turf-oriented, which is bad because they're all in New York) and dialogue. 
And it does two essential things: keep each individual hero definable in tone and action, and make those fights "followable"—this isn't a hodge-podge of pictures of punches, muzzle-flares and explosions, there is breathing room between sequences and shots, so an audience is allowed to register action and result, something missing from a lot of action movies, where there is either bad direction or a style-disconnect between various "units" filming. It feels "of a piece," despite the subject of the film being about extraordinary outcasts aligning uneasily.*
In a pithy line of dialogue between "Iron Man" Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr. riffing brilliantly) and villain Loki (Tom Hiddlestone, registering far more than he did in the Thor movie)—everybody gets their Loki scene, The Hulk's being the best—the entire movie is summed up in an adamantium-encased nut-shell: "Yeah, takes us a while to get any traction, I'll give you that one but, let's do a head count here. Your brother, the demi-god; a super soldier, a living legend who kind of lives up to the legend; a man with breath-taking anger management issues; a couple of master assassins, and you, big fella, you've managed to piss off every single one of them."  

Motivation enough to form a coalition of the willing.  And the disparate styles of the players is well-evidenced-six degrees of declaration: Chris Evans is all un-ironic directness (even though he is perfectly capable of matching Downey snark-for-snark); Chris Hemsworth is all stentorian brio done with Shakespearean force (he's so much more effective here than in his own movie); Jeremy Renner is as taut as his crossbow wire, Scarlett Johnasson's blank-stared Black Widow is well-suited for her position as a lethal scam-artist, Samuel L. Jackson manages to make even original lines sound like oft-quoted cliches; and Downey, quick and mercurial, dances around the dialogue, adding his own steps. Each actor has their own way of working with Whedon's words, and Downey's pace has everyone playing their "A" game.
But the best here is Mark Ruffalo, playing Dr. Bruce Banner and (the first time an actor is allowed to, via motion-capture) his altered super-ego, The Hulk. Two movies and two different actors (Eric Bana and Edward Norton, no slouches) tried to do something with the limited premise and came up short. However, here, with less screen-time, Ruffalo manages to make Banner as interesting as his comically destructive "Other Guy," his physicist not guarded or fearful or weak (as has been the norm), but ironically bitter, resignedly haunted, the most mysterious of Marvel's "Mystery-Men."  "You really have got a lid on it, haven't you?" says Stark at one point, referring to the Doctor's self-control and the monstrous result of any lack of it. "What's your secret? Mellow jazz? Bongo drums? Huge bag of weed?"  Maybe The Hulk is such a one-smash pony that he's at his best as a supporting character, rather than the star of a movie series. One could argue that about all the characters here with the exception of Downey's Iron Man, who is, due to the actor's efforts, a one-man circus.
But, here it's all in the group, nobody's around long enough to drag it down, and it's the interactions that count. The plot is MacGuffin-oriented in the Marvel-style of "I-don't-know-what-it-is-but-it-sure-is-big:" the doohickey from Captain America and the whatsit from Thor are involved so that a race of advanced aliens can take over l'il old us. Not sure of the motivation, but who cares? Marvel's The Avengers is big, bold, brassy and breezy, and has the feel and crazy zeal of those Japanese monster movies that combined a lot of characters and smashed them together.

I don't know what it is, but it sure is fun.**
All the potential Avengers, assembled by George (every little detail) Perez

* Whedon shows the eventual alliance solidifying in two nicely planned shots, one—used in all the commercials—orbiting the heroes as they "circle the wagons," and a meticulously planned CGI sequence in mid-battle that is the super-hero equivalent of "going around the horn."

** There are TWO codas this time: one after the initial credits (before they get into the detail stuff) and another one that was filmed right after the Hollywood premiere that's odd...but fun.

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