Movie Review: The Avengers

The Avengers – Directed by Joss Whedon

Since the  build to this comic mediagasm has been so gradual (it started four years ago with Iron Man, a blockbuster that at the time seemed unlikely, but now seems to have seeped into every part of our summer movie experience), it’s worth taking a second to stop and consider just how unlikely it is that this movie even exists.

Pretty frickin’ unlikely in fact. Marvel went for the long con here, building up interest over four years for a franchise that quite frankly most non-comic fans hadn’t even heard of before a year ago. Even if you’re just judging  this on technical points, the sheer hutzpah that it took to get this culmination of a 5 movie endeavour done is absolutely staggering. I would send Kevin Feige and his team at Marvel a congratulatory note, but I think at this point they would just rather have a new wheelbarrow to cart their huge brass balls around.

Scarlett Johansson. Making my tummy feel funny since 2001.

Our story:  Someone called “Loki” has taken a minute from having snake venom poured into his eyes for all eternity (No, not that Loki? Oh, he is that Loki? Just a little different? And Stan Lee gets a producer credit because of it? Yeah, that’s fair. Screw you Jack Kirby!)  so that he can use a cube that’s somewhat cosmic in origins to bring an extra-dimensional army to earth to take over and force everyone to listen to his stories about how Thor stole his date to the Asgardian prom.

Get these motherfucking norse gods off my motherfucking helicarrier!

Incredible Hulk: Comedy Genius.

Samuel Jackson (he of the influential Jackson v. Snakes decision of 2006)  is offended by Loki’s attempts to weaponize cosmic technology as it somewhat gets in the way of HIS attempts at weaponizing cosmic technology. He puts together a team that features 2 assassins, a jaundiced, juiced up  Mel Gibson, a mechanized Richard Branson, the American version of Captain Canuck, and Jeff Spicoli. They (spoiler alert) fight the bad guys.

So what did I like?

  • The dialogue. For those of you still holding out hope that Firefly is going to get renewed, I can report that the Whedonisms fly fast and often here. If there was a record for quips per minute in an action movie, I daresay that the Avengers would win. There’s plenty of funny moments here; in fact, a case could be argued that the sheer volume of bon mots threaten to derail the gravitas of the situation.
  • Everybody gets a turn. This might sound like common sense, but it’s something that very few people currently writing for superhero  comics remember to do. If you’re going to have 6 people on your team, give each of them a reason to be there.
  • Characterization. Whedon absolutely nails most of his lead characters here. Hawkeye is probably the only exception to this, but it’s hard to say if it’s the script, or simply the cold, dead eyes of Jeremy Renner that are responsible.  Everyone else is given scenes that not only play to their strengths both as characters and actors, but also attempt to develop their onscreen relationships to each other.
  • A strong villain. Though Loki’s motivations are a little simple for my taste, Tom Hiddleston cements his reputation as the best comic book movie villain since Heath Ledger.
  • Marvel finally spent some money. One of my critiques of the Marvel movies is how cheap they look. Thor’s CGI was barely one step up from the photoshop guy on the Rachel Maddow Show, which is a problem if your movies are loaded with special effects. Marvel actually opened up the pockets for this one, and it shows. Great final battle.
  • It’s a FUCKING AVENGERS MOVIE! You have no idea. I have been imagining this movie in my head since I was 12 years old, and I still can’t quite believe I just saw it. Whedon recognizes my fanboy cravings, and goes out of his way to ensure that every single thing that someone who has been waiting for this movie for 25 years could possibly want, is on the screen. And so we get Thor Vs. Iron Man. Cap Vs. Iron Man. Cap Vs. Thor. Thor Vs. Hulk. I REPEAT: THOR VS. HULK. IN A MOVIE. SHUT YOUR EXCELSIOR CAKED PIE HOLE. No Jonah James Vs. Willie Lumpkin, but I’m sure they’re saving that for the sequel.
  • It’s a solid story. It’s not perfect, and we’ll get to that in a bit. But Whedon really tried to give every person in this movie a reason for being there, which is pretty integral to this type of thing.

What didn’t I like?

  • The story. As discussed, it’s serviceable. But Whedon leaves just enough loose ends in his plotting to leave a bitter taste in my eye. Exactly what did Loki need to accomplish on the helicarrier (Wait, did I mention that there’s a GODDAMN HELICARRIER IN A GODDAMN AVENGERS MOVIE! There is.) that he couldn’t have done from outside?  Why exactly would battle-hardened soldiers care so much about the (Spoiler Alert) death of someone they barely knew, and didn’t even seem to like? How exactly is the Hulk an uncontrollable beast in the first half of the film, and taking orders and fighting whomever Captain America points at in the second? These are quibbles, but quibbles worth discussing.
  • Emotional impact. Whedon did try, but the film was missing any sense of feeling of real danger (something that Dark Knight pulled off really  well). Despite the scope of the movie, there isn’t a second where we feel that our heroes are really in trouble, and the one serious moment was a little anti-climactic considering how important that scene should have been.
  • Marvel’s caving to the pro-Shawarma lobby.

Again, these are small things. But they’re big enough for me to downgrade this from being a capital G great film, to “just” an absolutely entertaining spectacle movie. The only real question we should be asking, is “Is this as good an Avengers movie as is possible to make”.  I would say that the answer to that is “Make Mine Marvel.”

Now write Jack Kirby’s family and Gary Friedrich a check, you cheapskates.

Rating: A-

P.S. BEST. CREDITS. SCENE. EVER.

Movie Review: Captain America And The Raiders Of The Lost Ark

Captain America: The First Avenger. Directed by Joe Johnston.

Here’s the story. During World War Two, Steve Rogers (played in a miracle of modern technology initially by Chris Evans’ face superimposed over Richard Simmons body circa 2045, and then by Chris Evans’ face superimposed over Jean-Claude Van Damme’s body circa 1987) is a malnourished orphan who has a fetish for being punched in the face. Rather than continuing to get killed slowly in Brooklyn, he attempts to join the army so that he can get killed quickly in Europe.  He is so passionate about upholding the values and laws of the United States that he breaks them constantly in an attempt to join said army. Stanley Tucci (playing Wise Old Mentor Number One), discovers Steve’s little scam, and rewards his illegal activity by injecting enough experimental performance enhancements into his body to make Lance Armstrong’s dick fall off.

Anne Coulter as The Red Skull

In the meantime, a hideous racist cult leader with a horrible, gaunt face and a demonic, jutting skull (played beautifully to type with no need for makeup or even acting by  Anne Coulter) is planning to either a) take over the Nazi Party from within, b) become a godlike deity through his discovery of an extra-dimensional energy containment unit, or c) blow the holy whatsit out of the entire planet for shits and giggles. Or some combination of the three.

Three seconds after Steve is transformed  into a 6’6 adonis with abs that look like you could crack a Pterodactyl egg over them (or as my wife said with a terrifying, slightly glazed glint in her eye, and a speck of drool on her chin, “NOW this movie is getting interesting…”), one of the Red Skull’s agents kills Stanley Tucci, leaving Steve Rogers in the horrible position of being a handsome middle class white male in great physical shape that has the full support of the U.S. government.

This nudity was absolutely necessary for the integrity of the script.

Steve’s reaction to all of this is what any sane rational human being that just lost the only person who had any confidence in him would be: He goes into show business. After hosting the Chase and Sanborn show for a while, he gets called a nancy boy by Tommy Lee Jones (Wise Old Mentor Number Two), and then decides to become a genuine war hero that single-handedly  wins the war for America, thereby insuring millenia of prosperity for a country that of course wouldn’t be stupid enough to consider defaulting on debts that their Congress ALREADY APPROVED 4 MONTHS EARLIER in an attempt to gain political brownie points among a base that has moved so far to the right that Ronald Reagan came back from the grave to ask everybody if they could just take a deep breath and calm down. Or something like that.

Things I liked:

  • The plot. Like Thor, Iron Man, and The Incredible Hulk before it, Captain America has a well-written plot, with clear, accessible beats that make it easy for comic-neophytes to follow. In Cap’s case, the script does a great job of taking 70 years of random, unconnected story lines, and putting them in one, easy to follow package.
  • The characters. Joe Johnston did a really nice job in ensuring that Captain America’s character was a fleshed out one, and his take on the character reminds me somewhat of Mark Gruenwald’s slightly conflicted late 80′s version. His motivation here isn’t one of faux-nationalism the way it is in Mark Millar’s Ultimates line, it’s one of fair play. The Red, White, and Blue, and the Flag stuff are all beside the point when it comes to the bottom line: Everyone is equal, and everyone should be allowed to live in peace. Simple, I know, but it’s part of the reason why the actual characterization of Cap has meant so much to young comic fans over the years, even Canadian ones.
  • The love for the fans. Marvel has perfected the art of the easter egg to a science. Like with other Marvel films, there are plenty of little bonuses that mean a lot to life long comic book fans, but aren’t even noticeable to those that have never heard of the character before today. And so things like the great shout out to the original Human Torch, or to Jim Steranko’s run on S.H.I.E.L.D., or the tie-ins to the Thor and Hulk movies, or to the hints to the future fates of Arnim Zola and Bucky Barnes, or the “blink and you’ll miss it” reference to Raiders Of The Lost Ark, or the clever way that Joe Johnston found to film the cover of 1941′s Captain America #1, won’t mean anything to someone like my wife, but mean a lot to people like me (and I guess also to my wife, who claimed that I kept hitting her every time one of these little hints showed up on-screen). Now none of this makes for a good film. But it helps buy off the fanboys that Marvel needs to keep happy.
  • The tone. Now, I don’t think Captain America succeeded at this to the extent that the Indy movies do, or something like Sky Captain or Johnston’s own The Rocketeer did. But Captain America still does a nice job in recreating that old B movie serial pulp feel that is so integral to the world of golden age comic books.
Thing I didn’t like:
  • The cheapness. In the short time that Marvel has been an independent film studio, it’s become legendary for its frugalness. And it’s starting to show. I’m all for making movies on the cheap, but Marvel needs to start ponying up some cash if they want to duplicate Spider-Man or Dark Knight success. While the poor quality of the CGI isn’t as noticeable in Captain America as it was in Thor, it’s still quite prevalent. It’s in set design that Marvel’s fondness for a buck really shines through in this film however, and it’s part of the reason why Cap often comes across a poor man’s Raiders Of The Lost Ark.
This had pretty much everything I was hoping for in a Captain America film: It was fun, had great character development, and had a pulpy adventure serial feel that I loved. Now it may not have been on the same par as other  great pulp serial pastiches (Cough…Raiders Of The Lost Ark….cough) But it’s a worthy addition to the great work that Marvel Studios has been doing, and it makes me look forward to The Avengers next summer.
Rating: B+

A story of a man and his hammer: My review of Thor

I’ve been looking forward to Marvel’s adaptation of their Thor character for a while now, ever since it was announced that Kenneth Branagh would be directing. I thought right off the bat that Marvel had made a wise choice, and I’m happy to see that choice was justified. I had a shaky moment or two when I actually saw the first images and trailers from the film, as to say that they looked like something a film student would do would be an insult to film students everywhere.

But now I’ve seen it. And it is wonderful.

Here’s the saga: Thor is the son of Odin. They are both part of an ancient race of extra-dimensional creatures that were once worshipped as gods (though Branagh goes out of his way to ensure that the “g” word is barely mentioned here, in deference to our hillbilly cousins to the south) on Earth. Thor is the greatest warrior of his race. He’s also a bit of a douche. And so his father strips him of his powers, and banishes him to Earth. Once there he is found, and flirted with, by Natalie Portman. Eyelashes are batted. Adventures ensue.

Things I loved: 

The script:  It’s also a tight script, and it’s one that makes Thor that rare superhero movie that has a better origin for its lead character than the actual comics ever did. The script is a combination of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s original Journey Into Mystery stories, J. Michael Strazynski’s recent run on Thor, and Mark Millar’s work on the character in Marvel’s Ultimates line, and to my mind should pretty much be the definitive origin for the character going forward. In addition, the dialogue really set the tone here, and walks a fine balance between simple fun, and straight camp. The script also understands that it’s not necessarily Thor and the Asgardians that people want to see, it’s Thor and the Asgardians interacting with people from Earth. It’s your classic Stranger In A Strange Land scenario. That’s what’s always worked best in the comics, and it’s a big part of why this works as well as it does.

The acting: Chris Hemsworth is a star. You might not know it yet, but he sure as hell sure does. His portrayal of Thor has all of the intensity you would expect from a great warrior, but also has a sincere humility and charm that basically makes the film. Like Robert Downey in Iron Man, it’s Hemsworth’s performance here that is going to be what allows non-superhero fans to truly enjoy this movie. Fantastic choice, and I for one can’t wait to see how he interacts with Downey and Chris Evans in The Avengers next year.

Not that this is a one person cast. While I still think the role of Jane Foster was wasted on someone as talented as Natalie Portman, she still did a fine job here. And Anthony Hopkin’s Odin really captured the idea of an old and tired god, who wants nothing more than to hand the reigns of power to his son. But it’s Tom Hiddleston’s portrayal of Thor’s kind of evil but not really evil but still pretty evil brother Loki that is the other real star of this show. He mixes the perfect blend of mischievousness and anarchy for the character, and I think Marvel is right to feature him as the lead villain in the Avengers next year.

The direction: Branagh was the perfect choice for this, as he’s a director that not only understands father-son drama VERY well, but also understands how important character is to whatever story you’re telling. This entire movie is crafted around character. It’s character that moves every plot point forward, and even minor characters are full realized under Branagh’s direction.

Almost everything else: This movie really captures the wonder of Asgard. This is a true land of the gods. This is also Marvel raising the bar. This is still only  done 3 movies now on their own, but it’s the first one that really moves out of the mostly light sci-fi world they’re been playing in, and pushes into full genre storytelling. And it’s effortless. Like the original 1960s Marvel Universe, you truly believe that the same world that has gamma monsters and futuristic battle suits would also have travellers from another dimension.

What I didn’t like:

I’m not sure if it was the fact that Branagh has never really done this type of movie before, or Marvel’s legendary frugality, but the CG isn’t exactly going to light anybody on fire. I’ve seen a lot worse, but rarely in a movie this good. Although this is a story and character-driven film, it’s also one with a LOT of CG, and so the poor effects are quite noticeable. The problem with movies like Avatar setting the special effects bar as high as they do, is that if you hope to hit that bar, you need to spend $300 million. Marvel did not, and so the effects aren’t great. That is a SMALL price to pay, and is a relatively tiny gripe.

In short, Thor is the perfect superhero movie. It captures a healthy mix of camp, adventure, and action. And it’s fun. So much fun in fact, that  I will pay it the highest compliment I can: I want a sequel.

Rating: A

The Great Comic Book Cull Of 2010/2011 Part 34: Still. More. Avengers. Sigh…

I’m about as sick of talking about the Avengers as Charlie Sheen is of being sane. But an unanticipated result of Brian Bendis’ commercial success on Avengers was the spin-off book. Or I should say spin-off books. Lots and lots of books. I should say that although this period had a lot of spin-offs, for the most part they felt like natural, organic parts to the larger story that Marvel was telling at the time. I happen to like this period (Civil War/Secret Invasion/Dark Reign) of Marvel’s history, as I felt that it flowed together quite well, and that everything served a larger purpose.

Breasts. Evil, evil breasts.

Mighty Avengers – The Ultron Initiative, Venom Bomb, Secret Invasion Book 1 and 2

This was also written by Bendis, and was a direct result of the events that took place in Marvel’s Civil War cross over. At this point in the storyline, this team was the “official” Avengers team, and basically filled the more “traditional” Avengers role: They only took care of planetary threats, were sanctioned by the government, etc. This book was a little bigger, a little more epic than the New Avengers book. It also attempted to break some new stars, specifically Ms. Marvel and Ares. I think it succeeded with the latter, but maybe not as much with the former. This book started with a bang. The Ultron arc is awesome, in the truest sense of the word. It’s a big-time, world is about to end, Avengers story, and with incredible art by Frank “I can create better breasts than God” Cho, and it stands up well as one of the better self-contained Avengers stories of the past few years. The Venom story is also good, but gets a little bogged down with some of the subplots of what’s happening with the other Avengers team. After that, the book becomes just another Brian Bendis Avengers book, and it loses a lot of the scope and wide-screen adventure that the first two arcs had. All in all it’s a good superhero book, and the first arc in particular is a barn burner.

KEEP

Eeeevil. So very evil.

Dark Avengers – Assemble, Molecule Man, Siege

If Mighty Avengers was a response to Civil War, then Dark Avengers was a response to the Secret Invasion storyline. Quickly then: The supervillain formerly known as the Green Goblin has somehow become in charge of America’s security. As such, he leads a new team that he calls “Avengers”. In actuality, the new team is composed of criminals, posing as popular heroes (Moonstone as Ms. Marvel, Bullseye as Hawkeye, Venom as Spider-Man), as well as Ares and the Sentry, and of course Norman himself. I would have thought that the fans would have been up in arms over this, but for the most part people embraced this, and so did I. I don’t think this would have worked so well without the years of set up that Bendis had prepared us with beforehand, but by the time this storyline came out it felt as a very organic part to the epic that Bendis was crafting. Even though the team is composed of nothing but villains, Bendis still makes you care about them, if by care you mean ” I REALLY can’t wait until someone comes along and kicks their ass”. By this point Mike Deodato had evolved into one of the better superhero artists on the market, and his work here is exemplary.

KEEP

Because training child soldiers is always a good idea.

Avengers: The Initiative – Basic Training, Killed In Action, Secret Invasion, Disassembled

Yep, another spinoff, this one coming out of Civil War. So now every hero has to “register” with the government, and The Initiative the government’s way of training all these new heroes. This was writer Dan Slott’s first big book, and he did a nice job with it. He put familiar faces like Tigra, Hank Pym, and Justice in as the trainers, and then threw a combination of new and old (but still not well-known) characters in as the students. When I started rereading this, I think I thought I would be getting rid of these. But I was pleasantly surprised to find myself enjoy this book, mostly for its engaging character development. Slott is pulling out all the stops in trying to get us to love these new characters, and for the most part it works. Unfortunately, the book is not without its problems. Like his previous work on She-Hulk, the book did start to get bogged down with sub-plots. Because so much was happening in the Marvel Universe at the time, it feels as if this book was being pulled in too many directions at times. That being said, it’s still an enjoyable read, if not entirely essential.

KEEP

Young Avengers – Sidekicks, Family Matters

This book started not long after the original New Avengers title started, and shares the bleak “Our heroes are gone, what will we do” vibe that Bendis’ book did for a time. The premise is that a group of young heroes with costumes and code names reminiscent to Avengers of the past is patrolling the city, and Jessica Jones (formerly of Alias fame) is trying to get to the bottom of it. And so are Captain America and Iron Man.

This is a very good teen superhero book. It’s more superhero than teen, but it’s still quite good, and easily the equal (if not better) than DC’s recent Teen Titans books. The question is this: Why would trained, experienced combat fighters like Iron Man and Captain America let untrained children dress up and fight crime. The answer: They wouldn’t. Which of course leads to conflict, which is something that teen superhero books often lack. What is forgotten is that no matter how powerful these people are, they’re still kids, and should act like them. I don’t mean have scenes with them making out with each other, or playing X-Box all the time. YA avoids these clichés (thankfully), but it does show them acting the way teens do: erratically, but trying to do the right thing. Allen Heinberg and Jim Cheung did a beautiful job with this series, and it’s nice to see that they’re currently in the middle of another one with the same characters.

KEEP

Next up: NOT AVENGERS! YAY!

Wednesday Woundup: Revolver by Matt Kindt, Dark Avengers by Brian Michael Bendis, and Scott Pilgrim Vol. 6!

So each week I’ll be reviewing new comic books and graphic novels I’ve read that week.

I am very lazy.

The goal is for this to come out on Wednesday or Thursday. So probably Saturday.

This post is actually an edited collection of reviews I’ve written recently for friends of mine that don’t actually deserve the benefit of my opinion. Starting next week I’ll start posting new stuff.

Revolver by Matt Kindt. Published by Vertigo.

Revolver by Matt Kindt. It's very good.

Matt Kindt is quickly becoming one of my very favourite comic creators. Any serious comic lover needs to read his 3 Story or Super Spy graphic novels immediately. DC seemed to have realized how good he is, as they gave him a pretty sweet gig with this Vertigo book, and I think it’s only a matter of time before he starts writing superhero books for them.

Unfortunately.

I say unfortunately because there’s no way DC is going to let him write smart, original stuff like this in their books. It’s the story of a guy who is pretty much at a dead end in most aspects of his life. He has a girlfriend, that he doesn’t really like. He has a job that he pretty much despises. He goes through this mediocrity until one day when the world starts to fall apart. He starts to hear about a massive avian flu epidemic, the economic system is close to collapse, and by the end of the day several US cities have been destroyed. He ends up sequestered with the boss he despises waiting for things to get better. They do.

And they don’t. The next day, his world goes back to the way it was, but the only person who knows about the other reality, is him. He then starts to alternate between the two realities, drifting back and forth between these two worlds: One where he’s bored but safe, and the other where he’s in constant danger but happy. Eventually, he has to choose which one he’d rather live in.

This is a sci-fi classic. It’s an incredible work by a young artist/writer at the top of his game. Kindt’s pencils are getting cleaner and tighter with every project, and while this might not be as intricately plotted as his masterpiece Super Spy was, his focus here is on emotional resonance, and I’d say that he succeeds nicely. He blends raw emotion with genre storytelling in a way that’s rarely seen these days. Going to be on my best of the year list for sure.

Rating: A

Dark Avengers Vol. 2: Molecule Man by Brian Bendis and Mike Deodato. Published by Marvel Comics.

Dark Avengers by Brian Michael Bendis. I once saw him ride his bicycle to get groceries in Portland. He doesn't mention that in here.

This might end up being the last Avengers trade I ever buy, partly because I’m trying to save space, but mostly because the mainstream superhero stuff is boring me to tears. That being said, I really liked this little series, and in fact I wish they had kept Norman Osbourne in charge of the Marvel U for a little bit longer. Also, when did Mike Deodato become the best penciller Marvel has? Holy crap did that guy ever get good.

Rating: B+

Scott Pigrim’s Finest Hour: Vol. 6 by Bryan O’Malley. Published by Oni Press.

After 7 long years, one of the best comic series of the past decade
comes to an end.

This is Scott Pilgrim. It's his finest hour.

The advantage O’Malley has had with Scott Pilgrim is that the early volume’s successes have made it possible for him to take the time to ensure that the later volume’s don’t drop in quality. In anything they improve with every volume. Not only that, but because they are released as big manga-style volumes and not individual issues, I find that the plot is much tighter than many similar sized stories. Basically, this is as close to a perfectly consistent comic story as you can get, in terms of pacing, and tone, and like Matt Kindt, O’Malley deftly blends real pathos with genre ass-kickery. The final volume wraps everything up about as nicely as you could hope, with Scott learning valuable lessons, and getting the girl.

Rating: A-