Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Avengers: Even With The Praise, Still Under-Rated

I know I'm late to this party, but I was re-watching The Avengers last night, and I'd just like the opportunity to point out that Joss Whedon may be one of the best writer/directors in Hollywood right now.  Every time I re-watch the movie (and that's fairly frequently), I'm once again blown away by everything from the visuals, to the effects, to the characters themselves.

This isn't going to be a review, since the movie is already out on Blu-Ray and DVD, but rather a look into why I think the movie was so good. 

First, I have to give great respect to the team at Marvel for coming up with the plan for the Avengers and sticking to it.  Would I have preferred the "real" Avengers team of Iron Man, Ant Man, Wasp, Hulk, Thor, and Captain America?  Yes.  For various reasons that particular line up was not in the cards however, and the inclusion of Hawkeye and Black Widow was both well done and satisfying.  The patience and planning required to build this movie is just staggering.  Five lead up movies from five different writing/directing teams were used to build the foundation for what may be the first successful Superhero Epic.

Second, I have to pay respect to the technical team.  The visuals were, if not "stunning," completely evocative of what they were going for.  You could believe in the SHEILD Helicarrier.  The sets were magnificent from the beginning all the way to the end.  The visual effects were mostly not noticeable- and that's high praise.  Oh, certainly, if you don't let yourself get pulled into the story you can say "Oh, Iron Man in flight is CGI," or "Oh, the Hulk is a CG creation."  But in the moment, you don't notice them.  They just feel right.  They're not done to say, "hey, look what we can do," but to tell the story.

That said, none of this works without Joss Whedon.  He is, hands down, the best ensemble director currently in Hollywood.  I first fell in love with Joss Whedon's work with Buffy, the Vampire Slayer.  No, not that one, this one.  But that wasn't exactly an ensemble.  The TV Show, however, was.  Indeed, it had to be.  If it had simply been Buffy the whole time, it would quickly have gotten stale and boring.  As he did it, however, we came to love all the characters.  Everyone in my circle of friends saw ourselves as Xander, if perhaps a little more with the learning.  We were all "the Zeppo."

Then came Firefly, which died too early a death.  Again, while Mal Reynolds may have been the headline character, the show was not just about him.  We all loved the whole crew.  I think my personal favorite, after Mal, was Reverend Book.  More so even than Buffy, which was "about" the monsters, Firefly was about the crew.  Yes, it was cowboys in space.  It was also, for lack of a better term, a man's soap opera.  At least, it was a soap opera that wouldn't cost you man-points for watching.  Yes, I am still bitter at Fox for mishandling the show.

So when I heard that Joss Whedon was going to direct The Avengers, I was over the moon.  When I heard that he was re-writing portions of the script, I was even happier.  His dialogue can say more in a quick quip than some writers can say in a full on soliloquy.  And there were plenty of those quips.

Indeed, I believe Joss Whedon is as responsible, if not more, for how well the characters played together. 

Let's look at the introduction (in this movie) of Black Widow.  She's sitting, tied to a chair, in some arms dealer's warehouse.  As she describes it, she is "in the middle of an interrogation, and this moron is giving [her] everything."  Then, when Agent Coleson mentions that Hawkeye "has been compromised," her eyes narrow and you know violence is about to ensue.  Now, in other movies, the hot chick tied to the chair might say something like "I'm going to use this chair to kick all your asses," or something that boils down to that.  Indeed, had this been a sceen in Buffy, we'd probably get some quip about getting this situation "tied up" as quickly as possible.  Not so with Widow.  She just proceeds to kick all their asses in athletic fashion.  All the while, Coulson is simply waiting on the other end, as though he knows exactly what's happening, and just wishes she would hurry up.

I could write a book about moments like this.  The fight between Thor and Iron Man was classic "Super Hero Duel" material.  Unlike many, I even really enjoyed Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner.

Perhaps the best part, however, is the complete characterization each of the heroes gets to show.  Nothing could have stopped Robert Downey, Jr. from portraying Tony Stark as the "genius billionaire philanthropist play-boy," but it could have been made to seem out of place, or overwhelming.  In this cast, with this direction, it was spot on.  More telling, however, are the other characters. 

Captain America was the guy every boy grew up hoping he'd be.  You could just spout the Boy Scout Oath, and that's Captain America.  But Whedon wasn't content to let that be.  He had to highlight those things in the Captain.  From lines like "There's only one God, ma'am, and I'm pretty sure he doesn't dress like that," to stopping in the middle of a fight with an alien army to help direct the emergency response, the Captain's Character and Responsibility shone through. 

Thor was also spot on.  You could see his balancing of responsibility to the people of Earth and his desire, even his need, to be reconciled with his brother.  He wasn't the cocky bully he'd been in the Thor movie, but you could still see that kid in there.  It was an organic kind of growth that made sense.  Even at the end of the movie, when Loki has opened the portal for the alien bad guys, Thor wants to be reconciled and "stop this... together."

It's easy to think that Mark Ruffalo's Bruce Banner was "just kind of there," but I disagree.  Much of his performance was done non-verbally, however.  He did have some good lines, don't get me wrong, but so much of his performance was one of physical manner.  From the purely deflated look he gets when he realizes that the girl he was going to help in Calcutta was just a lure, to the "don't think about the guns, don't think about the guns" body language when he first arrives on the helicarrier, his performance was actually spot on, to me.

In all of these cases, none of this works without the right actors.  Robert Downey, Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Chris Evans, and Mark Ruffalo brought their heroes to life.  Jeremy Renner, Scarlett Johansson, Samuel L. Jackson, and Clark Gregg slipped right back into their roles as if they'd never left.  But through it all, the thing that gave each of these heroes a chance to shine, and a chance to be heroes, was Joss Whedon.

If you've been living under some rock somewhere and haven't seen this movie, go see it.  If you have seen it, you already know what I'm talking about.

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