Avenge this!

>> Friday, May 04, 2012

So the plan was that some friends and I would be going to see The Avengers tonight. Unfortunately, The ScatterKat has had some things come up at work and had to put in for some overtime tonight, and while she blessed my going, this is one of the few geek films in the year's Coming Attractions I know she has an interest in (she wasn't interested in Cabin In The Woods and won't be going to Prometheus for similar reasons--too scary--which means the next big geek film event for us after Avengers is most likely The Dark Knight Rises); beyond that, I happen to know myself well enough to know that me worrying about her stress is liable to be a distraction and I wouldn't enjoy myself as much as I would if I, say, saw a movie without her while she was having a good time (e.g. seeing Cabin In The Woods by myself while she was at a family reunion in Florida).

Anyway, here's the larger problem: she has an old friend coming back to town this weekend and there are already events planned around that, I have a conference next week and things going on next weekend and she's got another family thing going on; the likelihood is that it's going to be two or three weeks, probably more like three before we get to see this thing. At which point, anything I could say about it here at Giant Midgets will be even less relevant than usual. Assuming I had anything to say or just did a review out of desperation. But, anyway, point is: because of this, I've decided to go ahead and write my review in advance.

The Avengers, written and directed by geek legend Joss Whedon, is a rollicking action-adventure-comedy with a brilliant ensemble cast. The premise is fairly simple: John Steed (Samuel L. "Motherfucker" Jackson) and Mrs. Emma Peel (Scarlett Johansson) are British intelligence operatives who are tasked with recruiting a team of awesome character actors to battle the evil Dr. Greenhorns (Richard E. Grant), an English madman whose trademark is his jade-green costume and a helmet bearing a ginormous set of golden rhino horns that he uses to impale enemies and keep track of receipts. Accordingly, Steed and Mrs. Peel set out on Angelina Jolie's flying aircraft carrier from Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow (a nice tie-in that technically makes Avengers a "sidequel" to that film) and fly to New York or possibly Chicago in order to recruit the world's most powerful superhero team: Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.), The Incredible Hulk (Bruce Bixby), Captain America (Steve Rogers), Heavy Metal God (blonde guy from TV, I think), Spider-Man (Elijah Wood) and Robin Hood (that other guy who I'm pretty sure is still on TV). As Earth's mightiest heroes who aren't Batman or Superman, these are the stalwart defenders of the Earth who must avenge the misdeeds of Dr. Greenhorns.

Which they do, with lots of amazing explosions and witty verbal ripostes. Joss Whedon has a keen ear for dialogue and perfectly captures the nuances of how teenagers would talk to each other if they were ever really as cool as teenagers try to pretend they are when they're not locked in their rooms masturbating or angrily crying about how nobody will ever love or understand them. And he has a deft eye for action sequences, except for that one fight scene everybody will complain about but a few people will defend as capturing the essential high-speed uncertainty of battles between mortal gods. And comics fans will be delighted that Whedon understands them and pays homage to their favorite genres with several references to canon; better still, savvy comics fans will be delighted that several of these references also contain snarky metatextual references that subtly deconstruct and poke fun at clichés and overused tropes while simultaneously appearing respectful of those tropes (albeit in ways that cause even savvier fans to feel a little dirty and wonder if you can make fun of something by doing it, e.g. poking fun at sexism with a blatantly self-indulgent and arguably misogynistic scene, which Whedon does twice in The Avengers, most obviously around the midpoint of the film but also--debatable, I admit--in a more disturbing and subtle way during the film's final act).

The part of the movie I expect to enjoy the most is the musical number. Whedon's most die-hard fans are prone to exaggerate his songwriting prowess, but I'll absolutely agree he knows how to write a catchy tune and clever lyrics. (Sondheim he isn't, but who else the hell is, amirite or amirite?) To be fair, too, there is a boundary limit on what Whedon can do with a musical number in a project like The Avengers, where musical ability was not an immediate or primary casting consideration. (C.f. "Once More, With Feeling", in which one saw a spectrum of ability ranging from the really-can't-sing-but-game-anyway Sarah Michelle Gellar and Alyson Hannigan, through the pleasantly surprising tunefulness of Amber Benson and James Marsters, to the excellent lungs of Anthony Stewart Head--who was trained in and began his career in musical theatre (including revivals of Chess and the stage version of The Rocky Horror Picture Show)). I think everyone is aware Scarlett Johansson, for all her potential as an actress, hasn't much of a range and isn't much of a singer (ambition notwithstanding); Robert Downey, Jr., on the other hand, is a pleasant surprise, his lack of musical training evident but he'll be bringing to his verses the same mad courage with which he completely dives into his acting roles. The musical number, anyway, works, though one wishes by the halfway mark that Whedon listened to a little less classic rock (I'm afraid I also have to point out: Whedon isn't Jim Steinman, either, despite obvious influence and indebtedness; but then, who else the hell is, amirite or amirite?).

At the risk of spoilers, I'm going to go ahead and address Whedon's most singular and obvious misstep, because frankly I'm surprised Marvel even allowed it. Granted, Robert Downey, Jr. is a helluva an actor, and when Whedon was deciding which character he had to kill to satisfy his quota, Downey was an obvious choice because of his acting chops. (Related aside: my understanding is that Whedon kills characters not for dramatic effect, but because he has some kind of neurotic obsession involving a superstitious belief that when he was nineteen he bought his dialogue-writing ability from a wandering gypsy ghostwriter for a penny and the promise he would kill one beloved character in any project he was working on).

I get all that. And the fact that Iron Man is killed by a malfunction of his own power armor while the characters are having a celebratory party after defeating Dr. Greenhorns manages to strike the perfect note of pathos, macabre comedy, and dramatic irony. The Avengers have won the day, yes, but they've lost a member. But does Whedon not realize that having Mrs. Peel spill an appletini on the wiring sticking out of Iron Man's cracked arm joint diminishes both heroes, turning the agile spy into a hapless klutz and the mordant crusader into a passive victim, defeating both their mythologies with an improbable moment of chaos? And what, exactly, is going to happen to Marvel's Iron Man 3, currently being produced in my home state? Is production going to shut down? Is this going to be a prequel to The Avengers? Some kind of reboot? Or are they just going to ignore Whedon's latest attempt at being manipulative and clever? (This might be for the best, frankly.) Sure, it's comic books, and the hero can be brought back through magic or technology or technomagic or magitech or, actually, a simple handwave ("That wasn't the real Iron Man, that was his brother's cousin's secret father's clone sent from a future parallel universe into a past alternate history!" Or less: many dumb plot twists in comics canon have simply been ignored and everybody tacitly agrees never to mention them ever again unless they're freelancing for Cracked). Whedon did kill Buffy and she got better (of course, we all saw how that worked out, so maybe never mind).

I won't deny it was a brave choice. I just think it was a dumb one. That's all.

But aside from that: an excellent movie, and a lot of fun, and I think I can start liking Joss Whedon again. You really should go see this movie before I do, so don't wait. And if you're a Whedonverse fan, keep your eyes open for cameos from Nathan Fillion, Gina Torres, Amy Acker, Neil Patrick Harris, Danny Strong, Juliet Landau, Felicia Day, Tom Lenk, J. August Richards, Adam Baldwin, Julie Benz, James Marsters, Mercedes McNab, Alan Tudyk, Vincent Kartheiser, D.B. Woodside and Andy Hallett. Also, make sure you don't miss Stan Lee's three cameos (the third one's a toughie, but here's a hint: pay attention to the shrubbery right before the golf course explodes).

On a scale of one to ten, The Avengers is a seventeen. You won't regret it.



4 comments:

Anne C. Friday, May 4, 2012 at 11:52:00 AM EDT  

Thank you for that paragraph about Whedon's neurotic obsession. :)

timb111 Friday, May 4, 2012 at 12:08:00 PM EDT  

While I haven't seen the movie either I have to say that while I find your analysis brilliant, however, you did miss a major point. The juxtaposition of John Steed's (Samuel "Required by law to be in 500 movies a year" L. Jackson) bowler hat and Dr. Greenhorns' (Richard "I was born in Swaziland so I'm exotic and cool" E. Grant) rhino hat, throughout the movie and particularly in the final battle is certainly important to the movie. If you don't understand that this is really a battle between headgear styles the scene in the Halal butcher shop makes no sense whatsoever.

Dr. Phil (Physics) Friday, May 4, 2012 at 8:29:00 PM EDT  

I see your usual extensive research skills have served you well once again.

Dr. Phil

Eric Friday, May 4, 2012 at 9:01:00 PM EDT  

The funniest part about writing this was accidentally discovering how much I actually really do want to see a feature film version of The Avengers (the British spy-fi series) starring Samuel L. Jackson as John Steed and Scarlett Johansson as Emma Peel. That shit would be awesome.

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