Friday, February 1, 2013

The Avengers

In 2012, writer/director Joss Whedon was showered with accolades and fan-boy enthusiasm for his take on Marvel Comics' The Avengers to the point that just seeing his name made me twitchy and embarrassed. It seemed that everyone was elevating the man who was previously best known for the beloved TV series Firefly and Buffy the Vampire Slayer to heights approaching deification. Lately, I've become very resistant when folks rave so loudly about an artist, athlete, etc. whose efforts may be admirable but far from comprehensive. Rather than becoming sufficiently intrigued to investigate myself, I recoil and stew with suspicion. At the risk of sounding like a snob, if that many people are singing the praises,  it's very likely that mediocrity can't be far behind.

I indeed resisted last year's THE AVENGERS with the heat of one million Keplar-20s. But not just because of Whedon's ubiquitous disciples, who discussed the would-be auteur nearly to the point of bringing each other to orgasm. Another celebrated director who solidified his imprint on film history was largely responsible: Christopher Nolan. His initial reboot of the Batman franchise, 2005's BATMAN BEGINS was a solid enough film but THE DARK KNIGHT three years later entirely redefined what a superhero film could (and to me, should) be. All of the inherent comic book silliness of grown-ups running around in tights was shattered in DK's stunning morality play. As much as I admired the first two recent X-MEN films, DK changed the game forever. Nolan achieved near GODFATHER-like dramatics.

The Marvel films admittedly don't take this approach. IRON MAN, THOR, CAPTAIN AMERICA, et al. are far more lighthearted and juvenile than Nolan's films. As hugely popular as the DARK NIGHT films have proven, the Marvel films collectively are that much more. With THE AVENGERS, which brings many of the comics' superheroes together to battle Thor's evil adopted brother and a cadre of fierce aliens, the box office receipts topped over one billion worldwide. Mayhem translates well.

Easy to see why. This movie is one of the most rambunctious and entertaining of its type I've seen in some time. Watching the interaction among Iron Man né Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Black Widow (Scarlett Johannson), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), and The Hulk aka David Banner (Mark Ruffalo), all led by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) is great fun. Before the loud, destructive finale, when our team faces off against said aliens in Manhattan, there will be loud, destructive battles between each superhero, each of whom is used to doing things his or her own way. What a group of petulant, whiny brats these people are! But when the fate of mankind is on the line, even the most egomaniacal among them (I'm talking to you, Mr. Stark!) will acquiesce and work together and save the world.

I was led to believe that THE AVENGERS explored this idea with some complexity, that the screenplay allowed a warts and all exploration of these individuals that went beyond the usual cartoonishness. Wrong. While most of the character sketches do expand on their Marvel mythology a bit, there is nothing here beyond junior high school level drama, complete with school yard sarcasm for good measure. While you might rightly criticize Nolan for having his characters speak a bit too often with pretension and portent, Whedon's group toss off lines that were tired decades ago. The relational dynamics and the story's morals are about as deep as an Afterschool Special.

But honestly, I have no issue.  THE AVENGERS is an unapologetic good time at the movies.  Nearly two and one-half hours of adrenaline and corn. A cinematic steamroller, a wildly fun movie, with generally good performances (from an exceptional cast), strong special effects, and an exciting finale. But it's all in the moment, light as air. Any attempt at serious subtext is lost in any of the piles of rubble found in the movie.  The blame does not fall on Joss Whedon, who may have created the best superhero film ever, of this type. Blame all of the pundits who are praising the film for something it is not.

But Nolan created something special, and it will be impossible not to judge any caped crusader epic without thinking on it. I'd like to see one worthy of such a comparison.

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