Sunday, May 13, 2012

Every Superhero Need His Theme Music

Marvel's The Avengers (Whedon, 2012)

Only once have I attempted writing an extended fiction piece. It was a silly story that I hardly remember, but it was kind of playing on the idea of all the small events in a town that built toward some larger story in a Winesburg, Ohio kind of way. I kept losing track of the connections and eventually gave up, so when thinking about how Joss Whedon's Marvel's The Avengers attempts to fit together so many individual parts I can't help but be impressed by how much of it feels seamless. Sure there have been minor film crossovers, most notably Tony Stark showing up for a brief appearance in The Incredible Hulk or Nick Fury basically having his hands in every franchise film at some point. But often when all the pieces are assembled the result can easily feel inauthentic. For the most part Whedon's blockbuster gives all the heroes enough of a reason to join forces aside from the obvious "we would like to make money" mantra of Hollywood popcorn movies. All of the character groundwork has been, theoretically, set up, and Marvel's The Avengers is able to act like a grand sequel, but the thing about sequels is that many of them feel redundant, so how exactly does Whedon navigate this problem?

The answer, it seems, is fairly simplistic: he keeps the film's focus floating around enough that it never feels like it's Iron Man 3 or Captain America: Back in Action. This allows a greater understanding of these characters, the area where Whedon most thrives even if his dialogue gets a little too snappy at certain points, where managing these different personalities becomes perhaps more interesting than any external threats. Captain America can have the fish-out-of-water story that was teased at the end of his film, and luckily Chris Evans is back in top form. Even with a new actor, the end of The Incredible Hulk is (I guess a bit lazily) explored and it doesn't feel out of place. Of course part of the reason is that Mark Ruffalo gives perhaps the film's best performance.

Actually, for such a notable ensemble of familiar faces I was surprised that the relative newcomers pretty much stole the film. Ruffalo's stilted delivery and controlled calm exterior could have easily gone off the rails, but he brings such a welcome physicality to the role of Bruce Banner that he proves captivating in each of his big scenes. He's just imposing enough to be believable as a hulk where Norton was not. 

And then there's Scarlett Johannson. Yeah she was in Iron Man 2, but her Black Widow benefits the most from Whedon's script. I'm not overly familiar with Buffy, having seen only the first season, but I have read that she seems to be channeling some of the aspects that made that character so beloved by many. It also helps that she has consistently grown as an actress, and between her roles in We Bought A Zoo and here she should start combating many of the criticisms previously levied against her. 

A lot of these superhero movies are also only as good as the bad guy, so getting the most out of Loki was crucial. Though the writing and integration of Loki as a villain was underwhelming (not helped by the scene where that old man stands up and starts spouting silly half-baked themes in my face), the performance from Tom Hiddleston was powerful enough to make the character seem like a threat.

Unfortunately with a cast this big people are going to get left behind. Perhaps the most notable victim, juxtaposed with Johansson, is Jeremey Renner's Hawkeye. He didn't have his own film, and I don't recall him from the other movies, so I didn't have much outside knowledge to bring in. With him playing bad guy for much of the film it's hard to invest too much in his character, or even get a handle on Hawkeye. Thor, once again played by Chris Hemsworth, takes about an hour to show up and once he arrives on the scene he's not given too much to do. Which is a shame because I thought Thor was easily the best of the first five films and Hemsworth was fantastic in the role. Robert Downey Jr. is back as the insufferable Tony Stark, and as was the case with the Iron Man movies I'm not sure whether I just don't like him as an actor or if I just can't stand his pompous character. Regardless, he annoyed me here again and got too much screen time. 

And then there is Nick Fury...

When you have an actor like Samuel L. Jackson, arguably the biggest badass in cinema, how can he feel so small? There's a part in the film where he takes a rocket launcher and takes down a helicopter and it doesn't feel like it fits his character! I'm not sure how intense Fury is in the comics, but if he's more serene I don't know why Jackson was cast. When you have Samuel L., you use Samuel L.

But it's a big cast, and Whedon works within the two and a half hour context to get what he can out of as many characters, the rest he has to do with the camera. I've only seen Dr. Horrible, but what I recall about that film, and was is quite apparent here, is that Whedon knows how to put together an evocative frame. There are plenty of great single shots within the movie that are viscerally thrilling. 

However, when he starts constructing action scenes a few of his weaknesses become apparent. The film has about three big action sequences, and each one kind of takes on a different visual style. Because of all the characters there is a lot of cutting between sections of the battle too, so to really execute the scenes a deft hand is required. One on an aircraft is more kinetic, recalling the final confrontation in Nolan's The Dark Knight without being quite as disorienting or incoherent, while the final action sequence (something that The Cabin in the Woods showed me Whedon is capable of nailing) is a slightly condensed version of the dull finale of Transformers 3: Dark of the Moon with a good deal more style. Entertaining enough on both fronts, but not the most insane of action. It doesn't help, I suppose, that the movie doesn't have a distinct aesthetic like Captain America or the Asgard parts of Thor, but instead has a generic Iron Man/The Incredible Hulk look without any distinctive feel to the world.

Though what Whedon makes is a relatively inoffensive, crowd-pleaser. Those types of films can be fun, and despite a lengthy running time it does clip along at a noticeably quick pace. Sure some of the themes he was reaching at could have been better integrated, there could have been more Thor, and the spectacle scenes could have been more eye popping, but at least it wasn't (for the most part) boring. And when Whedon nails the character interactions the film does set itself apart from many of the other films in the subgenre. In the concessions necessary to give the film a broad appeal I think many of the chances for a revolutionary work are lost. But I'm just surprised, considering how intricate the set up was, the final product came out with this much polish.

Rating: ***/*****


Notes of Interest:

I know it's kind of unfair considering it consists of Jennifer Lawrence, Nick Hoult, James McAvoy, and Michael Fassbender, but I'd take the cast of X-Men: First Class over that of Marvel's The Avengers any day of the week. And thinking back to what I wrote about the film, I'd probably take that as well.

Speaking of films, I reckon it makes sense to put this in the Avengers trajectory. I would go Thor > Captain America: The First Avenger > Marvel's The Avengers > Iron Man 2 > The Incredible Hulk > Iron Man

Thinking about the rest of the summer the big superheroes in films seem to be Spiderman and Batman. Considering Nolan's previous three films and the trailer, unless he completely redeveloped his approach to filmmaking I don't think I should get super excited for The Dark Knight Rises, especially if it turns out to be three and a half hours long. At least there are the Rocksteady games. Looking back on (500) Days of Summer I think most of the problems with that film were in the script over how Marc Webb brought that script to life, and my ever growing admiration for Andrew Garfield can only help that film. Not excited for another origin story, and I'm pretty much done with Emma Stone for a while, but hopefully The Amazing Spiderman turns out well. I liked the first and third Raimi films, but the cast here seems like a huge step up regardless.

Thinking about directors making superhero movies, del Toro should make another Hellboy. Or just make another film, it's been too long!

The post-post credits sequence was kind of a waste of time, or just a really cruel joke where I guess I was being laughed at by Joss Whedon.

It's a cop-out to say this would probably work better as a TV show, but this would probably work better as a TV show.

I should either fully commit to watching Buffy or Firefly at some point in the near future.

I hope the Joss Whedon connection inspires more people to seek out The Cabin in the Woods.

Comments are welcome and, for anyone with a literary mind, I encourage checking out my poetry blog filled with all original works for your reading pleasure.

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© 2011 Richard James Thorne


  1. Great writeup. As for Buffy and Firefly, I would start with Firefly which is only 14 episodes and a movie. Buffy is 144 episodes and to truly commit to Buffy you have to follow Angel as well which has a few vital crossovers and is an additional 110 episodes.

  2. Thanks!

    Firefly does make the most sense because that allows me to get a feeling for what Whedon does without the 200+ episode commitment of the Buffy universe. Plus I've only seen about the first season of Buffy a couple of years ago, so I'd probably have to rewatch at least a few episodes from that season to get reacquainted. The problem is that Serenity is streaming, I think, though Firefly is not, while Buffy and Angel are. Perhaps Dollhouse is a decent jumping off point as well since that whole series is streaming as well.

    So many shows to watch, Firefly sounds like the best because it would allow me to keep moving through my checklists. The Blu-Ray of the entire series costs twice as much as the DVD, so I may just wait for a sale or pick up the DVDs.