Friday, May 04, 2012

The Short And Long Of “Marvel’s The Avengers”

As part of the Ultimate Marvel Marathon – about which, more later – in fact, the ultimate part of the marathon, Scott and I caught the midnight premiere of Marvel’s The Avengers.
At a little after 2:30 AM, when the movie let out, and I was thinking about how I would just be getting home at a time when, on a normal Friday, I’d be getting up to start my day, I posted a quick, two word review of the movie to Facebook:

Holy. Shit.

Here I will expand on that with my mostly spoiler-free thoughts on the movie.
I will admit that, going into the movie, I had rather high expectations, based on the general quality and entertainment value of the Marvel movies that preceded and informed it, and the fact that the movie was helmed by Joss Whedon.
In recent years, few people have contributed more to geek culture than Whedon.  His body of work includes such notable efforts as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly, Dollhouse, and work in the actual comic book medium in which the Avengers were first assembled, and seemed to me to be reason enough to expect him to do well with the task of bring the Avengers to the big screen.
Having read much of his work in comics, and knowing that he is, himself a comic book geek didn’t hurt my expectations either.
Additionally, the notion of Robert Downey, Jr. as Tony Stark delivering the snappy and snarky dialogue that is a Whedon trademark seemed to be very much a Peanut Butter plus Chocolate situation.
Despite my already high expectations, however, Avengers managed to completely exceed what I was expecting by a very wide margin.
Which isn’t to say I had no complaints at all – I did, and will list them shortly – but the generally fantastic execution more than made up for them.
As an aside, the movie has sparked a lot of controversy within the comic fan community due to the mistreatment of the legendary Jack Kirby, co-creator of the Avengers comic and of most of the characters appearing in the movie, at the hands of Marvel – and, more largely, the mistreatment of creators by the comic book industry as a whole – and I certainly understand those fans and pros who find the movie troubling at best.  However, personally, and you can make your own decisions as to what this says about me as a fan and a human being, while I agree wholeheartedly that the behavior of Marvel (and DC) in this regard (and with far too many examples to count) has been nothing less than execrable, it just wasn’t enough to keep me away or to sully my enjoyment of the movie.
In any case, among the key elements that made the movie such a success, aside from the phenomenal effects, fight choreography, and strong performances, was the fact that it tied together elements from the five standalone movies that preceded it – with Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury, and Clark Gregg as Agent Phil Coulson as the unifying threads – so capably and that, relatedly, despite the many divergences from the multitude of source material in the comics themselves, it actually felt like an Avengers comic that was translated directly from comic to screen in a way that even X-Men and X2, despite their own strengths as comic book movies, just never managed.
Watching the movie unfold, I could imagine this story being told in individual four-color panels over the course of several issues of an Avengers comic.
This is where Whedon’s own history as a comic geek paid off.  He knows the medium.  He knows the storytelling flow.  He knows the tropes, and while he often subverted them and put his own twist on them – as any talented comic book writer would do – he demonstrated the utmost respect for them, and in many cases delivered them just exactly as they are, with neither spin nor commentary, and demonstrated why they have become tropes.
The most notable example of this was the standard, “When super heroes meet for the first time, they always end up fighting each other.”
Did that happen?  Of course.  Was it everything that any fanboy or fangirl could ever hope for?  Oh yes.  Holy shit, yes.
Beyond that, however, what really sold it as a comic book story – and, more specifically, a super hero team comic book story – were the scenes in which the individual members were pulled into the larger narrative.
As much as I’ve been known to rail against Chris Claremont on this space, mocking his stilted, unnaturally idiosyncratic dialogue and his continual trips back to the same dried-up well, I freely admit that the man is a master of comic book storytelling and would never deny that he’s earned his status as a legendary figure in comics (Hello?  The Dark Phoenix Saga, anyone?), and one of his greatest strengths over the years has been to seamlessly tie in events from other parts of whatever comic book universe he’s working in and present nice little scenes that could easily appear in another writer’s book as a means of pulling the required characters into the story at hand.
So it was in that context, as I watched the little scene of domestic bliss between Tony Stark and Pepper Potts – which could have easily been part of an Iron Man sequel – early in the movie, I thought, in the best way possible, “My god, this is positively Claremontian.”
It was that approach to telling the story that helped to keep the movie from becoming a confused mess the way that some movies featuring a large cast so often do.
The other obvious comic book influence, of course, was the King himself, as the story burst forth with all of the dynamism and cosmic scale of a Kirby story.  Interestingly enough, it had more than a little of the flavor of Kirby’s Fourth World work for Marvel’s Dynamic Competition.
I was also pleased to see that while Whedon clearly cribbed from Marvel’s Ultimate line – a line of comics featuring alternate reality versions of Marvel characters – as have all of the movies that are components of Avengers, he avoided some of the more over-the-top and extreme scenes favored by Mark Millar, because I have to say that I’m just as glad that we didn’t have to see the Hulk eating people* as I was that we weren’t treated to the original Avengers story that featured the Hulk hiding out in a circus disguised as an elephant-juggling robot clown.
I really want to avoid spoilers, so I’ll start wrapping things up here and say that one of the things that has made the post-X-Men comic movies that have been part of what I call the Comic Geek’s Cinematic Golden Age so satisfying to the fans has been the fact that despite frequently straying very far from the source material, the most successful and well-received movies have managed to keep a certain level of respect for the material – and for the fans – at the forefront.  With Avengers, Whedon takes it to another level, with respect not only for the stories and the characters, but also for the techniques used in telling those stories and developing those characters.

I have no particular feelings** about Hank Pym, who was one of the founding members of the Avengers in the comics, and I recognize that a character whose primary ability, in his Ant-Man persona, is to shrink to the size of an ant and communicate with ants would make him an easy target for ridicule, and someone who wouldn’t fit in well in the Marvel Movieverse, but as a founding member, I would have liked to have seen him included.  Honestly, if they had focused on one of his other costumed identities, Giant-Man, whose name speaks to his abilities, he would have fit in just fine. (Hank changed things up a lot.  Sometimes he’d go the Ant-Man route, sometimes the Giant-Man route.  And he was also Yellowjacket.  And Goliath.  And…well, just read this.)
Similarly, Janet Van Dyne, the winsome Wasp, a woman who can shrink down to the size of an insect, grow wings, and zap people with a bioelectric sting, would seem kind of silly in the movies, but she, too, was a founding member, and is a character who has, in my estimation, been treated rather shabbily in the comics.  (See footnote on Hank Pym as just one example, and the linked article above for more.)  It was a shame to see that shabby treatment continue; one of my favorite eras of the Avengers comics was when Wasp was in charge.
Just as comic books have their tropes and clichés, so too do comic book movies.  Most notably the fact that no comic book movie super hero can keep his or her mask on for more than five minutes.  Avengers was no exception.
Speaking of masks, and, more generally, costumes, I really did not like the redesign of Captain America’s costume in this movie.  At all.  I was less bothered by the changes to Thor’s costume, but I didn’t care for those changes, either.

Stray Thoughts:
I don’t know if I should pleased with Whedon or angry with him, but he actually made me kind of like Hawkeye.
It’s a shame that DC will never be able to get its movie strategy lined up well enough to give us a Justice League movie.  Even if they started developing a strategy right now, it would still be years before we saw the end result.
Biggest surprise for me?  I actually liked Mark Ruffalo as Brue Banner.
I think I can safely say that Scarlett Johannson is somewhat attractive.
There were a lot of Easter Eggs for the fans, which is always appreciated.
I tend to hate “comic relief,” but one of the strengths of the Marvel movies (setting aside Kat Dennings in Thor, who didn’t bother me as much as I thought she would) has been that they find a way to insert the right amount of humor without making it seem inorganic or restricting one two character to merely filling the role of comic relief, and not only does it not detract from the emotional resonance of the story, it adds to it.  Whedon, of course, is a master of this.

Profanity-Laden Stray Thoughts:
Fucking Quinjets!
The motherfucking Helicarrier! (Fortunately/unfortunately, Nick Fury didn’t say, “I have had it with these motherfucking super villains on this motherfucking helicarrier!”)
Holy shitballs, the motherfucking post-credits scene!

*I will admit that within the context of The Ultimates, the idea was kind of entertaining.  Betty Ross being turned on by it, however, was disturbing in any context.

**Except for the part about beating his wife.  That I do have strong feelings about, or more specifically, against.  Not that I’m opposed to it being a topic for exploration in a storyline, but if one considers it a defining characteristic of the character – and I do – it naturally leads to strong negative feelings about the character.  Even before the first presentation of physical abuse in the comics, Hank was a sexist, controlling, patriarchal jerkwad, which is, surprisingly, pretty much the only super hero name he never went by.  In any case, my point is that, conceptually, I don’t have a problem with the idea of Hank Pym as a character (that is, a character who has the power to change his size).

1 comment:

Merlin T Wizard said...

I can't agree more with your account. Of course, since seeing it twice in 24 hours, I can't really say enough positive about Avengers as it is.