Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Avenge This, You Bastards... Snakes In The Grass and Wings On Heads. A Very Colourful Coalition of the Willing

Eons ago in the primordial goop from whence all life on this planet eventually sprang forth, among all the wonderful possibilities of human potential, the seeds of all human triumph and tragedy, the spark of what would ultimately become the totality of human culture and innovation there existed the raw genetic components that guided us unwaveringly down a predestined path, woven together, it seemed, by the Fates themselves, that would inevitably lead to the creation of a little movie called THE AVENGERS.  It wasn't by random chance.  It was genetically predetermined, written in the very essence of our being, from the time when our ancestors huddled around campfires trying to fight off boredom by not getting mauled to death by saber-toothed tigers and inventing time-honoured traditions like the keg stand and the blowjob.  Through all of this, it always remained our destiny to cultivate a society that would allow the making of THE AVENGERS.  It is truly a monument to the soaring heights of the human spirit that this blockbuster among blockbusters has helped nudge us slightly higher on our progression towards our rightful place in the heavens.

The executives over at Marvel and Disney must be shitting their collective pants in collective jubilation right now over the fat stacks of cash that THE AVENGERS has been printing for the past couple of months.  I believe with worldwide intake it now stands as the number three all time cash factory after AVATAR and TITANIC, though it's possible before this whole crazy ride is over THE AVENGERS might just barrel right past them in a blaze of special effects, witty banter, and Robert Downey Jr.'s superbly styled facial hair.  In a way, this type of financial savagery offers a certain kind of legitimacy that (somewhat ironically) money can't buy.  For fanboys and girls the world over, this is a grand political statement on par with that guy in Tiananmen Square standing in front of the tank, if the guy was wearing a mechanical suit of power armour with energy blasters and holding a giant bag of cash and surrounded by a gaggle of fawning Dutch prostitutes.
Honestly, it's hard not to get caught up in all the hype.  I mean, Marvel has been building anticipation for this film for the better part of four years with an unprecedented event in motion picture history. As far as I can remember, THE AVENGERS was the first super hero movie that dealt with a team of super heroes assembled (ahem) from previously "established" film franchises, though the last couple just barely made it in under the wire, and of them all only Iron Man can so far technically be considered a franchise seeing as he's the only one of the characters with more than one movie to his name right now (discounting Ang Lee's HULK, which, of course, all free-thinking people of the world tend to do).  Whatever people may say about THE AVENGERS one way or the other, no one can deny the real genius of the whole project was the insanely effective marketing campaign.  

I’ve previously made my opinions about Joss Whedon’s work publically known, so I won’t rehash them here (basically, most everything he’s done has sucked balls).  Needless to say, I was completely surprised after watching THE AVENGERS that Whedon had created something that wasn’t total shit. So far, it is the exception that proves the rule, but I won’t discount Whedon and I hope that this marks a new era where the attachment of Whedon’s name to a project won’t completely fill me with apathy. After THE AVENGERS, I think I can safely say that Whedon has been upgraded to full dick-sucking privileges.  Let the good times roll.

And the good times are, indeed, seeming to roll for Whedon and legions of comic book geeks along for the ride and hanging on for dear life. THE AVENGERS has bought a first class ticket aboard the gravy train, and it looks as though it intends on hurtling straight on to the end of the line. However, financial legitimacy is in no way the single indicator of artistic significance and quality.  As examples of this, I present as exhibits AVATAR, all of the PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN sequels, and Michael Bay’s righteous retribution on all of humanity which was the TRANSFORMERS movies, all of which made an ass-ton of money but really lacked any depth or originality.  Luckily for both my sanity and my cinematic libido, THE AVENGERS was a lot more enjoyable to watch than the PIRATES sequels, and nowhere near the sheer apocalyptic affront to all things good and pure that was TRANSFORMERS 2.

THE AVENGERS is a peculiar beast, but not a complex one.  Unlike most films, it is almost unfathomably simple to sum up THE AVENGERS in a single word, and that word is: Spectacle. THE AVENGERS is the cinematic, spiritual, modern-day equivalent of gladiatorial combat in Ancient Rome only without the fangs: it is conceptually larger than life, massively distractive for the masses, and viscerally entertaining.  It is nothing more and nothing less than sheer Spectacle, a new Titanic that set sail in equally perilous waters, but miraculously made it through unscathed. If any movie were ever to be said to be “full of sound and fury,” then THE AVENGERS is certainly one of them, though unlike the Thane’s indictment of life, it certainly does signify something.  Though what that something is is locked away behind a Pandora’s Box of ensemble casts, (almost blindingly) colourful costumes, set piece battles, and half-formed ideas. Unlike Luke Skywalker, however, THE AVENGERS never suffers from illusions of grandeur.  It most definitely is grandeur.  But, that’s all it is.  Thankfully, however, this one thing it had going for it works, and works well.

THE AVENGERS is epic in its execution, but not in its scope and certainly not thematically. After its considerable success, it was inevitable that people would begin to compare THE AVENGERS to previous box office heavyweight THE DARK KNIGHT, and rightfully so.  Christopher Nolan’s THE DARK KNIGHT set a new bar not only in crafting an excellent super hero film, but in crafting an excellent film in general. I believe the popular vocabulary used when THE DARK KNIGHT was first released was that it “elevated” the super hero genre to make it more “respectable.”  I won’t try to be original here, because it did indeed elevate the genre, and legitimized films about people running around in silly costumes fighting back the forces of darkness.  The question many have been asking (and answering) in record numbers is how does THE AVENGERS compare with THE DARK KNIGHT?

The short answer is, it doesn’t.  THE DARK KNIGHT is a layered, intricately-woven narrative that was presented in the form of a Hollywood blockbuster.  It intelligently dealt with substantive, thought-provoking themes such as the shifting boundaries of morality when faced with an enemy possessed of truly malevolent intent or when faced with questions of the greater good, privacy issues in an age of increasingly pervasive digital technology, and the potential merits and consequences of vigilantism.  It raised complex questions about how we reconcile the decisions we make with our personal sense of morality when we are faced with impossible decisions.  It portrays the balance of justice and self-sacrifice.  There are no easy answers to the questions posed by THE DARK KNIGHT.  What is the acceptable personal cost that we would be willing to pay to maintain peace and order and civilization in the face of those who seem to thrive on chaos and corruption?  I think when watching THE DARK KNIGHT, when I was really struck with the depth and beauty of it all was when Michael Cain’s Alfred says something along the lines of “Sometimes people deserve more than the truth,” and I was just fucking blown away.  Here was an intelligent treatise on the nature and value of “truth” tucked away in the midst of a movie about a guy dressed in a bat costume fighting another guy dressed as a clown.  That there might be a greater good served by not telling the truth, that was some pretty heavy, grown-up shit right there.  It was the type of complexity that you just don’t see in the vast majority of films these days, and most certainly not in the super-hero genre.

THE AVENGERS is so completely different from THE DARK KNIGHT in almost every conceivable way. THE AVENGERS will not spark a philosophical debate about the nature of truth, or morality, or terrorism.  THE AVENGERS will not be remembered for the complexity of its characters and its themes.  THE AVENGERS will not give you pause to step back and examine not only how you view movies but also your perception of the world in general.  THE AVENGERS is not disguised as a Hollywood blockbuster: it is a Hollywood blockbuster to its core.

But the masses are speaking, and they're speaking mostly with their wallets which they are opening up in record numbers catapulting THE AVENGERS towards the number one spot on the list of the highest grossing movies of all time.  And while it's kind of cool that the number one flick may be a super hero movie, it's also kind of depressing that that movie is THE AVENGERS.  Not because I didn't enjoy the movie, but because the fact that so many people are hailing it as a masterpiece is a testament to how short people's memories really are and how the masses seem to be so easily dazzled by the latest shiny thing to be dangled in front of their faces.  The point here is that while THE DARK KNIGHT is a finely aged scotch, then the AVENGERS is a strawberry daquiri made with home-brewed moonshine.  THE DARK KNIGHT is an experience to be both enjoyed and appreciated while THE AVENGERS is a ride that grabs you by the throat and screams right in your face.

And THE AVENGERS is a wild ride.  And it’s a really fucking fun ride.  It’s like the wild nymphomaniac girl next door with the perfect tits and the round ass who also happens to be intelligent and funny turns out to have the ability to grant you immortality, but only if you continually fuck from now until the end of eternity and you will never get hungry, or have to go to the bathroom, or need lube ever again and she will even do the kinky shit with your asshole that your last girlfriend slapped you across the face for even suggesting.  There is no more--and no less--to THE AVENGERS than what you see on the screen.  There is no real depth to the movie.  There is enough substance that the audience can engage with the film, but there is no doubt that the movie is a cinematic rollercoaster ride with enough explosions and fighting to make even Michael Bay jealous.  To say the movie is vibrant is an understatement.  THE AVENGERS is damn near flamboyant, with more colourful costumed characters than a Mardi Gras celebration or a Gay Pride parade.

The plot is basically a bunch of cybernetically and/or genetically and/or cosmically enhanced individuals get together to pound and/or shoot and/or smash the living shit out of each other. The demi-god Loki is unhappy about getting his ass kicked out of Asgard (as seen in THOR) and decides to start some shit down on earth looking for the Tesseract, a mysterious cube of power. So to stop him, Nick Fury (Sam "Motherfucker" Jackson) assembles a super team comprised of The Human Torch Captain America (Chris Evans), Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner).  Of course, there are a bunch of personality clashes and some fanboy jizz-fests by having some superhero showdowns between Iron Man and Thor and Captain America and the Hulk and Thor and the like simply for the sake of having them it seems.  Loki finally makes good on his dastardly plot to enslave humanity by opening up some kind of multidimensional portal to allow some crazy aliens known as the Chitauri (I believe they are also known as the Skrulls but due to licensing issues couldn't use that name for some reason) who blow the shit out of New York city and the Avengers have to sort out their shit and wreak some havoc on this nightmarish army of CG warriors.
And pause for dramatic effect...

Now, THE AVENGERS is not some intricately-woven story of Shakespearean proportions.  There's just enough plot for the movie to maintain structural integrity and keep the audience interested, but not too much to make people think too hard and distract them from the bright, shiny things and big explosions and Scarlett Johansson's skintight black suit.  Almost everything makes sense within the context of the established movie universe.  In fact, in spite of all my seemingly backwards compliments, THE AVENGERS was one of the most solid entries into the Marvel movie canon.  Whedon manages to juggle the ensemble cast and give every character his or her due, which is a tricky feat for any movie dealing with an entire slew of protagonists and potentially tantrum-prone celebrity egos.  In all fairness, Whedon was given quite a task here, not only having to craft a coherent narrative, but also having to shoehorn in the narrative threads from five other movies and remain (for the most part) coherent and consistent.  I think that Whedon did the best he could (and thankfully, it was his best effort I've seen so far) with what he had.  I still think that Bryan Singer did a better job of managing an ensemble cast of superheroes with X-MEN and X2. 

THE AVENGERS definitely blew away the competition with the action and special effects.  There was a good mix of drama and humour and there was enough differentiation between the characters that they all stood out and had their moments to shine.  But there were a few things that kind of threw me off.  Some of the inconsistencies were small, but they just kept adding up.  Robert Downey Jr. once again nailed Tony Stark and tended to steal any scene he was in, but all of the sudden in THE AVENGERS he suddenly starts spouting pop culture references by the barrelfull.  I don't mind pop culture-spouting characters, but never in the previous two Iron Man movies was this ever the case.  Thor just kind of shows up without explanation or introduction, and the whole deal from the ending of THOR where the titular hero can't get back to earth to bone Natalie Portman.  Captain America is sort of put in charge, even though he seems to have no real clue as to what is going on in the 21st century.  There was the death of a minor character that somehow spurred the super team into action despite the minorness of the character.  

The Hulk had a lot of promise, and there was some kick-ass shit where the Hulk raged out and just smashed a bunch of stuff, but then it felt like there was a disconnect in the Hulk's story, and it seemed like it was not for lack of trying but just not enough time.  Mark Ruffalo did a great job, and I loved how he would psych people out by pretending to get angry.  There was also some great philosophical musings on Bruce Banner's condition in a scene with Banner and Stark and then the whole thing about Banner's secret: "I'm always angry."  But there seemed to be this huge shift from the raging, uncontrollable monster Hulk who destroys everything in his path, to an inarticulate strong man who suddenly was able to take orders and work as part of a team.  It was pretty cool (and incredibly convenient) that in the final battle Banner is seemingly ready willing and able to transform into the Hulk whereas earlier he was extremely reluctant to unleash hell and lose control.  It felt like there were a couple of scenes missing that explained Banner's mastery over the Hulk.  

Despite all of the problems, I really enjoyed THE AVENGERS.  In the end it was a lot of fun and I kind of just reveled in the spectacle of it all.  Even though I'm a still not Whedon's number one fan, I gotsta give props where props are due.  I'm going to go ahead and give THE AVENGERS a solid 8/10 = Six Super Powered Heads Nonchalantly Eating Shawarma




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