Sunday, May 13, 2012

The Incredible Avengers

Marvel's Avengers is what every summer blockbuster aspires to be — the perfect popcorn epic.


Xenocrates

This is, by all means, the new gold standard in summer blockbuster entertainment.

If you've read my blog, you know I don't stop to review movies unless they have some kind of cultural significance. The last time I did that was to expose why people instinctively gravitate towards an obnoxious waste of film such as Transformers 3 that does away with story telling for big, loud, expensive, set pieces. However, Avengers is not such a movie. It is a genre defining epic that does the impossible: tell an outlandish, implausible tale with spectacular cohesion and believability. This is the movie Transformers 3 should have been and here's why:


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Suspension of Belief


The best movies are always the ones that tell the most engaging stories. It doesn't matter how outlandish or down to earth the plot is. It doesn't matter if it's a story about driving an old woman or one about a group of humans with special abilities trying to save the world. The point is, once you can tell the story in a credible way while engaging the natural human sensitivity of the audience, then it doesn't matter how outlandish or mundane the story is.

Of course, the real reason why we go to the movies is to have our senses thoroughly submerged in such an engaging visual treat such as to achieve escape. We can only achieve escape when there's suspension of belief. Visual effects can go a long way to making that happen. In fact, visual effects are so great at making this happen that many films have been made that are glossy and spectacular to look at, but have nothing else to offer the audience. Sadly, in the rush to make a buck, Hollywood churns out such movies with startling regularity.

However, once every few years (usually once in a decade,), a movie comes along that completely redefines the genre, ups the ante and does the impossible. In 1968, that movie was "2001: A Space Odyssey". In 1977, it was "Star Wars". In 1985, it was "Back to the Future", in 1999, "The Matrix". In 2003,  it was "Lord of the Rings" then in 2010, "Inception".

In the same vein, "The Avengers" starts this decade off with an epic style the likes of which have not been seen since Peter Jackson's adaptation of the final epic in J.R.R. Tolkien's famous fantasy series"The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" opened in 2003. That film did for fantasy what Star Wars did for Science Fiction. The Avengers triumphs for both genres because like "The Lord of the Rings", it is an adaptation from prose, but unlike LOTR, it straddles both science fiction and fantasy with seamless mastery— certainly a first for any film.

...at least, on this scale. Here's why:

The premise of the plot for The Avengers is (at least, on the surface of it) the stuff of utter nonsense. It is easier to achieve suspension of belief in a film that is hard fantasy ("Harry Potter") or hard science fiction ("Star Trek") than it is to mix both genres and get away with it — and yet that's exactly what Avengers does. Exactly how writer/director Joss Whedon got away with this is also behind the success of the publisher  responsible for the source material:

Marvel Comics



Marvel comics has been around for over 70 years. Joss (who also writes comic books for Marvel) is no doubt familiar with Marvel's style of character development. Unlike the writing team over by DC (even though writers often bounce between the companies), Marvel has always cultivated a "flawed god" universe with the development of their characters, much in the same way the Greeks and Norse created their pantheon of gods with their human flaws.

In the early days of comics, both companies have had a long history of creating super heroes. However, it was not until a young writer named Stan Lee began with Marvel in the 1960's, that a revolution in comic book superheroes began. Stan Lee believed that fantastical characters tend to be more relatable when they are given human flaws, like the Greek Gods. It is for this reason why Marvel repeatedly samples the folklore of ancient European cultures.

That's why Spider-Man's selfishness was responsible for his uncle's death, why Iron Man was a narcissistic alcoholic, Bruce Banner has a really bad temper (manifested as the Hulk), the Black Widow was once a cold blooded assassin, and Thor (borrowed from the Norse legend) is a thunder god who fell out of favour with his father, Odin due to his impetuous impatience. All of these rather human character flaws go a long way to humanize these man made gods who otherwise would be completely unrelatable. Just compare the likes of Superman for example.

Superman is (as is in the vein of all super heroes) essentially a god among men. Part of the genius in the character of Superman is that unlike Batman, Spider-man and the like, who are actually humans with a super powered alter ego, Superman's alter ego is the human form of Clark Kent. But that's as far as Superman's humanity goes (aside from caring about the hapless life forms he grew up with). Superman's only known weaknesses are magic (which has no practical real world relatability) and Kryptonite (a substance that doesn't even exist).

In order to make a Superman story remotely interesting, writers have had to make Superman care about humans and give him a love interest (Lois Lane) such that megalomaniacs like Lex Luthor (a human with uncanny intelligence) would have some means by which to threaten him. But a hero is only as great as his villain. That's why the Superman comics (and by extension, all the related movies) will never outperform anything from Marvel at the box office.

In fact, if you examine the entire DC pantheon, you have a series of god-like men and women who have no real character flaws, or weaknesses, other than villains who are more powerful than they are. This is the fundamental flaw with most of DC's characters, with the exception being Batman. In fact, dare I say that Batman is perhaps the most relatable character in the entire DC pantheon because he's one of the few original characters that have human flaws.

That brings us back to Marvel's Avengers.

Stan Lee has created a large body of work that straddles the realm between science fiction and fantasy precisely because he understood that a changing world is believing less in magic and more in science. Science fiction simply pushes the boundaries of actual science. Stan Lee simply tied in elements of fantasy in a logical way so that the science in science fiction can adequately explain what would otherwise seem like pure magic in fantasy. Top that off with gods among men with human flaws and you have the recipe for a very intriguing blockbuster.

Too Many Cooks



So now that we have a recipe for a good story, how exactly do we plot it? Well this is where "Avengers" really shines. If you know the expression "The enemy of my enemy is my friend", then you have a pretty good idea of how Joss Whedon made this bombastic epic play out in such a way that despite the incredible premise of its plotting, it still retains all of its credibility.

If you take a super soldier from 60 years ago, a brilliant narcissistic engineer, an alien being with god like power, two blood thirsty assassins and a scientist with the worst case of Jekyll/Hyde syndrome known to man and put them together on a team and ask them to work together, how exactly do you expect that to play out? Anyone who knows anything about team building knows that you can't have too many egos on the same side. Too many cooks spoil the broth (and all that jazz) and that's exactly what happens in the first act of Avengers.

It plays out exactly as it would if there really were a super soldier from 60 years ago, a brilliant narcissistic engineer, an alien being with god like power, two blood thirsty assassins and a scientist with the worst case of Jekyll/Hyde syndrome known to man and put them together on a team and ask them to work together. It fails—miserably. That's like putting all of the greatest football players together on the same team. It just won't work. However given enough of an initiative, such a circus of heavy hitters could put aside their differences for once.

However, the film takes great pains to display just how much difference there is in such a team of disparate individuals. This is the source of some of the film's best moments (the show down in the forest, the hulk rampaging on the helicarrier, among others) while simultaneously providing a nerdgasmic moment for the comic book fan boys who have always wondered who would win if these bad boys went up against each other. The fact that Joss Whedon managed to pull this off without insulting the audience is quite an incredible stroke of narrative genius:

—for the Avengers only manage to work together when they realize that they all have a stake in the outcome of the epic showdown towards the end. This is the film's single greatest asset:

Loki's quest for empire building draws the attention of Thor, who has been given onus of surveying this world from his wormhole on the other side of the universe. Captain America hasn't seen any action since World War II and this team gives him a sense of purpose. Tony Stark, aka Iron Man, has a vested interest in ensuring that his planet (and thus business opportunity) isn't destroyed while Bruce Banner is more interested in surveying the power source at the center of this debacle, unaware that his Mr. Hyde is what they're interested in.

In fact, I think it's fair to say that the Hulk takes center stage for some of the film's most dramatic and hilarious moments, supplying a lion's share of the film's substantial fun factor and a contributing reason why I have named this post as such. The Hulk practically steals the show for the most part. If it weren't for the big name stars attached to this project, I would say that Mark Ruffalo who plays Bruce Banner in this epic does a far better job conveying the quiet, inconspicuous but simultaneously deadly danger lurking in the original Marvel character.

Epic Movie. Epic Record Breaker



To say that Joss Whedon has masterfully woven a fantastic epic of gods and men locked in a poetic battle for the dominion of mankind (wow, what a mouthful) is a gross understatement of Biblical proportions. Perhaps it would be better to simply say that Marvel's Avengers is what every summer blockbuster aspires to be — the perfect popcorn epic. That is a very rare thing.

Never mind the fact that the last 20 minutes of the film is practically identical (almost frame for frame in some places, with similar mechanical flying monsters) to the last 20 minutes of Transformers 3. The important thing is that despite that everything goes BOOM, cars are flipped over and down town Manhattan gets torn up real good, the journey to that point is not another series of meaningless plot devices that serve for nothing more than as a clothes line for more explosions. As I said before, this is the movie Transformers 3 should have been.

While one may argue that Transformers 3 was still a likeable epic, it was clearly not as likeable as Avengers.  The Avengers racked up nearly 500 million in box office gross overseas before its opening weekend in the United States. When it finally opened, The Avengers made 207.4 million dollars on its opening weekend—the highest opening ever. Then within 20 days of its official opening, The Avengers blazed past the $1 billion worldwide gross mark — outpacing even heavy hitters like Harry Potter 7.2. Bare in mind that Avengers hasn't been open for a month. What will it's top gross be when it finally closes in cinemas a few months from now?



What's even more impressive is that Avengers has made an astonishing 93% aggregate score on the critic aggregating site, Rotten Tomatoes. That is especially rare for a film of this nature since critics typically don't like comic book movies—especially A. O. Scott of the New York Times. But you can safely ignore snobs like Scott who can't stand to admit that the genre he dislikes produced a great film. Besides, someone who "dislikes" comic book movies shouldn't be reviewing them for all the same reasons men don't write women's advice columns. Yeah.

I said it.

Conclusively



The Avengers has to be the single most fun movie experience I have ever had. In fact, I guarantee that it is so much fun that you are likely to want to go and see it multiple times. If you have been reading any of the reviews, you are likely to see the same sentiments echoed again and again. The Avengers is surely a bona-fide pop culture phenomenon that perfectly reinforces the fact that Americans are still by and large the best story tellers known to man.

This is a fantastic film. Go and see it. You won't regret it.


E-mail: accordingtoxen[at]gmail[dot]com

3 comments:

  1. Hey Xeno...what's your explanation as to how Bruce is able to control the Hulk.
    The only thing that happens before his EPIC!!!!! transformation is that he says "my secret is that i'm always angry"

    I've heard one person say that if he deliberately gets angry - then he has control otherwise he doesn't have control.

    I do want to see it again - but it never held me like Inception. It was alot of fun but in my top 3 movies - nope.

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    1. Bruce hulked out in the Helicarrier beyond his control due to the influence of Loki. That's why Loki allowed himself to be captured. It was, as the Joker once said "all a part of the plan".

      Avengers is NO Inception. Inception is a thinker's movie. Avengers is just raw, unbridled entertainment. People who enjoy Inception enjoy brain gymnastics. By contrast, Avengers has a much wider appeal.

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  2. That's it. I'm going to watch this damn movie. So much hype. I can't take it anymore!

    ReplyDelete