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.

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Movie Reviews: My entirely spoiler-free review of Cabin In The Woods

Cabin In The Woods directed by Drew Goddard

It’s not really fair to be mad at filmmakers for making a movie, but it’s the position I find myself in here. Not because Cabin in The Woods is a bad film, but because it’s a movie that’s almost impossible to review without spoiling pretty much every reason why you should go see it.

I’ll give it a shot. 5 generic college students go visit a cabin in the woods, and then…Nope…I can’t do it. Although it’s fairly obvious from the trailers that this isn’t the generic teen horror movie it appears to be at first glance, it’s also a film that deserves to have its secrets experienced, not spoiled.

Things I can tell you:

This is a good script. This is a very good script. In fact, this is a script that anyone who loves American horror movies needs to study. Because like all of the best tributes, this is a script truly in love with its source material. This film isn’t mocking the mindless tropes of horror films, it’s honouring them. Not only that, but Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon’s strip does such a nice job of slowly dolling out tiny pieces of information through the entire film, that when it comes time for the lengthy “Here’s what in the Harper is actually going on” scene, it’s almost needless. We’ve figured it out, but just need a little bit of clarifying, which is then done quickly, with little wasted time.

These are good characters. They verge on stereotype, with good reason. Horror is a genre that lends itself to stereotype incredibly well. We know that we need a goofball to keep the tone light. We know that we need a brainiac to help us figure out what’s going on. And we know that we need an innocent to rail against the forces of darkness. Not only does Cabin give us those clichés, it gives us a great reason as to WHY we need them….and it turns out we need them pretty badly.

This is a fantastic premise. Unfortunately it’s a premise that I can’t tell you anything about. But it’s really good. It’s so good that you’ll kick yourself for not thinking of it first. It’s so strong, and so well-thought out, that’s it’s going to be hard to enjoy another film in the “cabin-in-the-woods” genre ever again.

Anything I didn’t like? Sure. This was a genre juggle, and while I normally like that in my storytelling, I found the lack of pure horror to be somewhat anti-climactic. It’s a horror movie, but it’s rarely truly scary. And it’s also a comedy, though it’s rarely truly funny. It still combines both genres better than most films do, and as such is eminently watchable, despite the lack of real chills. Still, I found that I appreciated it more from a technical perspective than I did as a film that’s truly emotionally engaging. A quibble, but a quibble worth discussing.

Cabin In the Wood is that rare scary movie that is smart, but also extremely accessible. It’s a fun horror film on its surface, with a terrifying secret at its centre that only enhances your enjoyment of the whole thing.

Rating: A-

The Great Comic Book Cull Of 2010/2011 Part 52: Marvel Comics – Runaways!

Runaways – Pride & Joy, Teenage Wasteland, The Good Die Young, True Believers, Escape To New York, Parental Guidance, Live Fast, Dead End Kids

The Runaways is probably the best original concept Marvel has produced in the past 20 years. So why haven’t you heard of them?

Keep in mind I said concept, and not characters. As characters, the team is charismatic, but they’re hardly unique in that. There are lots of comic books full of precocious, annoying teenagers with superpowers. And most of them are terrible (I’m looking at you Teen Titans. And New Mutants. And Avengers Academy!) But as a concept, this series is gold: Once a year, a group of kids are forced to spend an evening together while their parents ostensibly get together to manage the various charities they run. One year, the kids get bored, and whilst spying on their parents, discover them ritually killing a young prostitute. Yep, it’s the old “Our parents actually sacrifice hookers to Satan” standby.

So now the kids know this terrible secret. And they run. And because it’s a Marvel comic, they happen to gain superpowers and magical weapons along the way to help them survive. Parents Bad is a well-worn cliché in young-adult fiction, but for a good reason. And writer Brian Vaughan knows it, and crafts a well-told story that takes advantage of the concept effectively. The first 18 issues are a how-to in how to write a great, kids-focused adventure comic. It’s got everything you could possibly want in a teen angst book: Drama, Romance, and Telepathic Dinosaurs. It’s got action, but not too much. It’s got superhero stuff, but not too much. And of course it’s got teen whineyness. But not too much.

And then the story ends. I don’t think I’m really spoiling anything when I tell you that the kids get away, and eventually vanquish their hated ‘rents. But by now the book is a minor critical hit, and Marvel knows that there’s still money in the concept. And so although series creator Vaughan has left the book, they bring in Joss Whedon to try to continue the magic. He fails. And then they bring in Terry Moore. And he fails. And so on.

The reason why Runaways hasn’t worked past its original mandate is because the magic here isn’t the actual characters, it’s the story the characters are in: It’s the story of kids running away from super villain parents. Once they get away, the story is done. And then you’re just left with another average teen hero book. Which is what Runaways eventually became. But until then, there is real magic to be found here.

There’s a pretty good chance that you’re going to see the first several arcs of Runaways in movie theatres within the next few years. Out of all of the concepts that Marvel is batting around the whole movie theatre wishing box these days, this is the one that has the most potential to go after a mainstream, non-comic book reading audience. Just don’t expect me to go to the sequel.

Pride & Joy, Teenage Wasteland, The Good Die Young, True Believers, Escape To New York, Parental Guidance, Live Fast: Keep;  Dead End Kids: Cull.