Sunday, April 29, 2012

"Marvel's The Avengers" is a wildly fun celebration of Marvel Superheroes

It's been a few days since I've seen "The Avengers"/"Avengers Assemble" on the big screen. I wanted to give myself a bit of a cooldown period, to make sure my thoughts on the film were honest and fully developed, rather than just augmented exaggerations from a very super-charged viewing experience.

I can honestly say that I'm still on a high after this movie. I spoke last week about how the Marvel Studios movies predominantly emphasise FUN over heavy-handed parables or allegories and this movie exemplifies and perfects that idea in every way. It's absolutely the most fun superhero movie ever made. From start to finish, it's a rollercoaster ride with moments of sheer awesomeness smacking you in the face every two minutes at 100 kph.

Without getting too spoilery, the plot is as straightforward as it is in the trailer for the film. Loki's trying to take over Earth and he's using an alien army to help him. Simple as that. There are a few nooks and crannies that flesh his plot out a bit more, but at its heart, it's the kind of thing you'd see on a Saturday Morning while chomping down on your Cheerios in one hand, valiantly clutching your action figures in the other.

From an acting perspective, Samuel L. Jackson obviously gets quite a bit more to do in this film than in any of the other Marvel Studios movies so far, as does Clark Gregg's wonderful Agent Phil Coulson. Although you almost find yourself wishing he'd descend into his oft-mimicked "Say 'What' again!!" action-badass Jackson, he more or less stays true to the actual character of Nick Fury, as a haggard colonel trying to control all of the wild characters under his command. As for the other actors, they all get an admirably equal time to shine (the film could easily have been an 'Iron Man & Friends' film, but it gives equal opportunity to every character) with Chris Evans credibly leading the team as their star-spangled leader, Scarjo and Jeremy Renner proving that they can be a lot more than just action-figure wallpaper (Renner's performance in particular really surprised me and I genuinely cared about his character by the end of the film) and Robert Downey Jr. just pounding away into new layers of awesome, reminding us all of why he works so well as the one and only Tony Stark. If there's one character who just barely doesn't get enough to do in the acting department, it's Chris Hemsworth as Thor who is lacking a meaty scene or two that would have completed the circle. The scenes he has work just fine, it just feels like maybe he deserved a bit more to do, especially given how central his character is to the plot. Nevertheless, it's a minor disappointment.

The Avenger who steals the show and clobbers it to a bruised and bloody pulp is Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner/The Incredible Hulk. Ruffalo and his astonishingly realistic motion-captured alter-ego is far and away the best thing about the movie. His performance as Banner channels that of Bill Bixby, with a warmth and confidence that exceeds what Edward Norton experimented with. He's certainly channeling Bill Bixby in a lot of scenes (and the film brilliantly ties in to the classic show by showing Banner working as a local doctor in Guatemala), but better still he reminds us of the source material, echoing shades of the nerdy wreck that Banner is in the comics. He even looks like the Bryan Hitch version of Banner. Towards the end of the film, Ruffalo gets the greatest line of dialogue in the history of the Hulk. I'm trying desperately not to spoil it, but it beautifully wraps up the character's development in a way that makes me think that there almost shouldn't be a solo-Hulk movie starring Mark Ruffalo, as it would undermine the supreme character development epilogue in this film.

As I exited the cinema, in absolute awe at the triumph I'd seen onscreen, almost immediately comparisons to films like "The Dark Knight" popped their ugly head. Certainly, "The Avengers" is not the thorough magnum opus of comic-book films that TDK was. It had no Oscar-worthy acting and its plot was simplistic comic book fare, rather than the complex tangled-web of ethics and chaos that Nolan presented in his Batman epic. But there's nothing wrong with that. "The Avengers" was an exercise in simple, carefree escape and enjoyment. It's one of the core reasons for the existence of cinema in the first place; to entertain. It's disheartening that people immediately feel like they have to stack it up against films that are vaguely similar.

Put it this way: "Raging Bull" and "Rocky" are both films about boxing. One is a tense, deconstructionist thriller and the other is a feel-good rags-to-riches crowdpleaser. "Raging Bull" is certainly a better film than "Rocky". It doesn't mean "Rocky" isn't one of my favourite films, or that it's not one of the greatest movies ever made. Such is how fans should approach "The Avengers", "The Dark Knight" and superhero movies in general. As the genre develops, movie-fans should learn that as a genre, it is layered and dimensional, rather than the stupid tower they're trying to build by stacking 'The Best' at the top and 'The Worst' at the bottom, often based solely on their vague memories of seeing the movies once or twice in cinemas.

All of the Marvel Studios films have had moments of thrilling coolness, and "The Avengers" ramps that up to an absolutely unforeseen spectacle. Every couple of minutes, one of the characters does something cool, unlike anything I'd ever seen before. The acting is great and we care about every one of the characters onscreen at any given time, with Mark Ruffalo triumphantly delivering one of the most effective comic-book performances in years. While this is definitely a film for fans, I really don't think the non-initiated would have much trouble enjoying it, as it's one of the most instantly watchable action epics I've ever seen. "The Avengers" or "Avengers Assemble" has set the bar impossibly high for superhero epics. Here's to many more like it.

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