Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The Avengers (2012) – Review

Review: The Avengers is a brilliant action adventure film, chock-full of huge action set pieces, witty dialog, funny moments, and great characters. The film is about Earth’s mightiest heroes (Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Hulk, Black Widow, and Hawkeye) teaming up together to stop an alien invasion brought about by Loki. The Marvel Studios films have prized entertainment over everything, as they built up to The Avengers. Often, however, they left the audience wanting, as character and drama resonate more than just a fun experience. Writer-director Joss Whedon had a daunting task ahead of himself taking on a film with essentially six main characters, each requiring their own character moments. Whedon does a fantastic job balancing the mandate from Marvel for The Avengers to be highly entertaining and enormous in scale and getting the necessary drama and character moments for the many characters while keeping the film ever moving forward. The great achievement of this film is not so much the great action set pieces but rather Whedon’s ability to give every character enough to build a connection with the viewer. The audience understands the ethos of each character, and Whedon does this very economically (once it gets going, it never feels slow). There are stakes for the characters in this film, which makes their struggle all the more meaningful for the audience (though, at the same time, the fact that Marvel already has sequels set up for these characters somewhat diminishes the stakes as we all know they are going to make it through just fine and off onto their own films – we know there are no real mortal consequences for the main characters going in). Along with giving each character their moments to shine (dramatically and otherwise), Whedon also understands the dynamics between the characters, and the best scenes in the film come when these characters are onscreen together (both as a team and as bickering self-important egos). The film hits its stride (starting a bit slow) when these characters are put together (beginning with Captain America going after Loki and Iron Man showing up). He also gets each character individually, and worked with each actor to create wonderful dramatic characters and performances. Once the Avengers are all together, the film is just a lot of fun – both in terms of very well done action set pieces and hilarious dialog and other jokes (Hulk and Iron Man probably get the best material). Whedon’s sense of humor lends itself perfectly to this film. There are as many sheer moments of laughter as there are ‘wow’ moments. Structurally, Whedon sets the film up to play almost as a third act to the five prequels (Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor, and Captain America: The First Avenger). The characters are briefly reintroduced (though, most of the early characters moments were taken out of Whedon’s first cut as it came in at 3 hours), but Whedon assumes that the audience already knows who these characters are and proceeds accordingly, jumping right in. Plus, the film is so much fun and so entertaining, the narrative is really secondary, and even unimportant (because, really, all the audience wants is to see these characters interact and team up – and both these things happen – what they battle against is not important, only that we get to see them do it). Also, the narrative constantly builds towards the final battle, as the stakes seem very immediate. Whedon does a great job with the pacing for the most part. Again, the beginning gets off to a slow start (and maybe this is just because we cannot wait to see the Avengers all together), as characters are reintroduced and rounded up (playing a bit like a Muppet movie or a getting the band back together narrative); but once they are together, the pacing is brisk and efficient (at 142 minutes, the film seems to fly by). While The Avengers is not quite on the same level as Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins and The Dark Knight or Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 (the tier one of superhero films), it is just a level below (with X-Men: First Class), and easily the best of the Marvel Studios films. Entertainment over everything is again the mantra for The Avengers, but Whedon has also included enough character moments and resonance to create what will likely not only be the most entertaining film of the summer, but also one of the best.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Auteur Joss Whedon has long been a cult hero (since the days of his Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV series), churning out beloved work but constantly struggling with reaching a larger audience (three of his four TV shows were cancelled, and his first feature Serenity grossed just $39.5 million worldwide). Now, with both the critical and box office success of The Avengers (opening to the biggest box office weekend ever to date), he can probably do whatever project he wants next (and that is a great thing for us all). His writing and directing on The Avengers is phenomenal work, capturing and managing all the characters perfectly. Composer Alan Silvestri’s (who also scored Captain America: The First Avenger) score accompanies and accentuates the scale of the film. It is already a huge film with grand action set pieces (Marvel apparently wanted this to be even bigger, scale wise, than Transformers: Dark of the Moon), but the score booms with heroic emphasis (here is an example). His work also captures the more emotional character moments as well – it is a very good film score. Seamus McGarvey’s cinematography is excellent. Again, the scale is enormous and McGarvey’s camera certainly is able to wonderfully present all the action. His work is very crisp and clean (keeping with the aesthetic set out in the first Iron Man film, and carried throughout the series). Amidst all the action, Whedon and McGarvey excel at still capturing the smaller moments too. Production designer James Chinlund does good work as well, upping the scale. Most of his sets are just big areas in which the Avengers get to play. Overall, aesthetically the film is great, but it is the performances and wonderful characters that make this a brilliant film. There are a lot of characters in The Avengers (6 Avengers, 3 S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, Loki, and assorted other characters old and new from the Marvel Studios universe). Gwyneth Paltrow and Stellan Skarsgard are good in their small roles, while Samuel L. Jackson, Cobie Smulders and especially (and maybe surprisingly) Clark Gregg are very good in support. Tom Hiddleston’s Loki is sort of an old school villain stylistically – always monologuing and strutting around. It is great fun. Jeremy Renner’s Clint Barton (Hawkeye) is probably the least exuberant of the Avengers, and that is because he plays the character so well – very reclusive and removed. Unlike most female characters in action adventure films, Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff (Black Widow) is never the damsel in distress, and is probably the most put together of any of the characters. She exudes confidence, not because she is a demigod or has super powers or super tech but because she knows exactly what she is capable of and how to approach any enemy or situation. It is a nice change of pace. Chris Hemsworth again owns Thor. He is just rippling with ego and entitlement, but also heart. Mark Ruffalo, working with Whedon, finally gets the Hulk right. He is not just a mindless animal, but the epitome of human rage. Chris Evans as Cap and Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man serve as sort of the leads in the film. Steve Rodgers take up the mantle of the leader of the Avengers while Tony Stark steals most of the scenes and is completely charismatic, but dramatically they need each other to grow. Downey Jr. is Stark utterly, and is fabulous; but it is Evans that gives the more subtle and maybe better performance.

Summary & score: The Avengers probably should have never worked (just too many lead characters crammed into one narrative), but under the caring craftsmanship of Joss Whedon it is not only extremely entertaining but also a superb film. 9/10

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