Sunday, May 20, 2012

The Avengers

Three weeks after its release, The Avengers is still number one at the box office (take that, Battleship!) and shattering records.  Toppling domestic records isn't really novel these days.  More theatres/screens, higher ticket prices and the premium-priced 3D fad makes it pretty easy for a hyped and well-received film to rake in the dough.

But the success of The Avengers is slightly more satisfying than your average summer blockbuster for two reasons...the sheer audacity of the Marvel movie universe plan and the film's director, Joss Whedon.

Films based on Marvel Comics characters have been successful for quite some time.  X-Men and Spider-Man started the comic book feature craze with three successful films each (one could argue that two should have been sufficient) and brought our favorite superheroes to life.  But for all that success there were plenty of duds...Ghost Rider, Hulk, two Fantastic Four movies (which suffered more from bad casting than anything). By the late 2000s, the death of the superhero film genre was being sounded, especially after 2008.

2008 saw the release of The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan's noirish Batman masterpiece that proved that a film about a guy in a bat-suit and his clownish foil could be as engrossing and intelligent as any Sundance film.  It represented a clear zenith in comic book film and busted many a block on its own.

But there were two other superhero films released in 2008 that were the beginning of something special, but no one knew it at the time.  Iron Man was surprisingly fun and exciting but mostly praised (and rightfully so) for its star, Robert Downey, Jr.  One has to think that the Marvel Movie Universe might not exist had anyone else been cast as industrialist/playboy Tony Stark...the anti-Bruce Wayne if you will.  Downey hit all the right notes in his portrayal of a lesser-known (at least to the masses) comic character.

The other movie released just a month later didn't get quite as much fanfare...The Incredible Hulk.  A vast improvement over the previous Hulk film, Marvel didn't hype any connection with Iron Man, but sharp viewers who stayed after the credits (now a prerequisite for all Marvel films) were treated to a cameo from Downey's Stark, implying that something much bigger was going on here.  These weren't individual properties picking from the remnant characters not already snatched up by other studios...this was a conscious effort to introduce several characters before bringing them all together...just as their four-color inspiration did years ago.  Three more huge films later and we were ready for The Avengers.  It's an accomplishment few studios can dream of, let alone pull off.  It was a gamble and it worked.

Then there's Joss Whedon.  Long a hero to the geek crowd and critical darling for his TV work (Buffy, Angel, Firefly, Dollhouse), Joss had yet to "break out" into the respected superstar he should be (a la J. J. Abrams).  When he was handed the reigns for this film, the collective fanboy community gasped...everyone else said, "who?"  They probably won't be saying that anymore.  As someone that has admired and been moved by his work for a long time, his new status feels justified.

After all this ramble, an actual review of The Avengers may seem overblown (and seriously, who hasn't seen it), so I won't dig too deep.  Suffice to say that five films introducing these characters and creating this cinematic universe meant this movie got to jump right into the good stuff.  Seeing Iron Man, Captain America, Thor and company sharing the same screen is impressive and oh-so-satisfying.

The plot concerning Thor's trickster "brother" Loki and a plot to subjugate Earth is the means to an end to bring a group of big personalities (with incredible powers) together.  They seem an unlikely "team" to say the least, but that's exactly where Joss' direction and screenwriting excels.  He's a master of ensemble work and lends the story just the right amounts of sensitivity and wit.

The unexpected "star" of the film isn't even a real actor...the Hulk.  While I still think Ed Norton's Hulk film is vastly unappreciated, this is by far the best version of the meek scientist and his big green id.  Mark Ruffalo does great work as Bruce Banner and when the Hulk is fully unleashed for the grand battle finale, he easily provides many of the most exciting moments and amazing effects work.

The Avengers deserves its success, as does Joss Whedon...its back story is remarkable but more importantly, the end result is at least as much (and honestly even more) than we could have hoped for.  We're in for a whole lot more in this universe and I cannot wait.

Rating:  A