sound and fury

loki and thorI don’t know what has happened to the movies.  Scratch that.  I know exactly what has happened to the movies.  Credible CGI happened.  Ginormous budgets happened.  Spectacle happened.  An audience that has every sort of stimulatory experience at its fingertips 24/7/365 happened.  Every movie has to be bigger, louder, more MOAR than whatever came before it.   Otherwise it’s a failure.  Otherwise people are disappointed.  There are no other criteria and sequels hang in the balance.  Something has to give and that something is usually common sense.

So, yeah, I finally got around to seeing The Avengers.

YESSS.  SPOILERS MY PRECIOUS.  WE HATES THEM BUT WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO DO?

“I am Loki, of Asgard. And I am burdened with glorious purpose.

I must admit, this has to be one of my most favorite villain introductory lines ever.   Loki declares it with exactly the right amount of malice in his voice and with the perfect mischievous twinkle in his eye.  It is about the last interesting thing that happens for the next two plus hours.

I don’t even know where to begin with this.  Perhaps I should note that I’m not really a comic book reader and I know very little about the Avengers’ origin story.  So I’m not coming at this as a purist offended by some minor deviation from canon. I don’t dislike action movies as a rule.  I actually want to like them.  Unlike most movies they are exciting and epic.  But I am almost always disappointed by them, primarily because I do not understand why pretty much every action movie director treats “exciting and action packed” as mutually exclusive with “smart and funny.”

So let’s start with the director/writer.  Joss Whedon, who can do smart and funny and tragedy before he finishes his first cup of coffee in the morning, apparently aimed a little lower this time.   I really don’t know what happened but for some reason a man who can make a horse into a credible supervillain has made a movie which treats the audience like simpletons.  To say it is formulaic is not exactly correct, and in any case there isn’t anything wrong with formulaic.  It is just dumb.  Case in point:  much of the dialog is written at the level of kids fighting in the back seat of the car (Thor:  Do not touch me again.  Ironman:  Then quit taking my stuff.)  I am sure this was intentional and meant to illustrate how far the characters mature in their interpersonal skills by the end of the movie but the childish bickering goes on for a long time and it gets old very fast.  Whedon also assumes we are not capable of figuring out on our own the impact of Agent Coulson’s loss on the team, by perhaps … I don’t know…showing them suddenly getting their shit together.  Instead he tells us once (Coulsen himself), twice (Fury to the team), three (Fury to his assistant), and then, yes, four (the superheroes) times.  Isn’t “show, don’t tell” the first thing you learn in writing school?

We are treated to quite a bit of stuff that serves mostly as bloat.  There is, for instance, a lengthy sequence of Ironman and Captain America trying to repair a failing turbine on a flying aircraft carrier (don’t ask) while being sniped at by bad guys and with the Hulk rampaging through the ship.  I can only assume that this male bonding exercise was supposed to heighten tension and show the first inklings of teamwork.  It feels contrived and it goes on way too long.  And speaking of male bonding…I had a housemate for awhile who was into comic books and I gathered that among aficionados the “who would win in a fight” discussion is popular.  Spiderman vs. Batman vs. Superman, that sort of thing.  There is plenty of that in this movie.  More than enough actually.  First Ironman and Thor have to fight a mostly gratuitous battle off in the woods, while Loki snickers in the background and mentally munches popcorn.  Then Captain America shows up, because he’s America and that’s what we do, and demonstrates that all three of them are exactly equal in prowess.    Whew, manhood crisis averted.  Then Thor has to fight Hulk through a giant flying boat because…well, because Hulk hasn’t done anything yet and he’d crunch Ironman and Captain America into paste so it has to be the demigod.

There are so many things in this movie that don’t make sense.  When the bad guys attack the flying boat Dr. Banner transforms into an  out of control rampaging Hulk.  At the end of the movie he not only controls his transformation, the Hulk speaks coherent sentences.   The invading army from outer space basically consists of crunchy bugs and giant ships shaped like worms (were they aiming for Jörmungandr?) that toss out a few handfuls of soldiers at a time.  At no point does it seem like they have any hope of winning, since you can basically beat them to death with your fists.    Hawkeye, who is a master archer, has an amazing quiver that never seems to run out of arrows except when it suddenly does just when a bad guy is about to pounce.   Why does only one engine fail when every single computer on the ship is put of commission?   Why shoot a  nuclear bomb at Manhattan when you could shoot it at the portal or through the portal?  What the hell are the two very mortal, if exceedingly well trained, Black Widow and Hawkeye doing there?  Then there is the weird one-sided bromance thing going on between Agent Coulson and Captain America (“I watched you while you were sleeping.”  WTF?)  And my god, couldn’t they have found something better to do with Jenny Agutter, easily one of the most beautiful women ever to grace the silver screen?

Despite all this, there a few nice touches.  My favorite one is when Loki gets all pompous with the Hulk and the Hulk tosses him around like a rag doll; it’s the only point in the movie where I laughed out loud.   It is also funny when Loki tries to enslave Tony Stark and discovers with obvious confusion that Ironman has no heart.   When the world first sees Loki he strides out among the frightened citizens in a German plaza, forces them to kneel before him, and reminds them of their status as cattle.  When an elderly man says he won’t kneel to men like Loki, Loki calmly replies “There are no men like me.”  Another good moment comes when the aliens are attacking Manhattan, tossing cars around like toys and knocking chunks out of buildings.  The police arrive but all is chaos.  People run screaming in the streets as glass and concrete rain down from above.   Then Captain America, who wears a goofy costume and who doubts the relevance of his values to modern times, thunders in and calmly directs the police to assist people in the buildings, get them out of the streets, and set up a perimeter.  When the police protest his authority he takes a few seconds to beat a handful of aliens to death and New York’s finest promptly set about assisting the people and establishing a perimeter.   This is the goddamned United States of America, he is Captain America, and nobody fucks with innocent civilians on his watch.   Finally, the last post-credit scene is a classic bit of understatement.  The six heroes sit around a table in a shawarma restaurant in a part of Manhattan apparently  unaffected by all the sturm und drang.    The table is covered in food wrappers and workers are cleaning up in back.  The Avengers are clearly exhausted and none of them speak.   For the first time they seem at ease with each other, comrades who have accomplished something together they could never have done alone, something pretty damn epic.  They seem deeply human.  Finally Thor picks up half a sandwich and stuffs it in his mouth.  Fade to black.

The characters themselves are fine and the chemistry among them mostly works.  Most of them have had prior movies to establish their back stories and the assumption is that anyone seeing this movie will have seen those.  Thus there is little in the way of character history and one gets the distinct feeling that Whedon tried quite deliberately to give all the super heroes equal screen time and the same number of bon mots.   The movie is more about team development than individual characters and as the film progresses they go from petulantly standing apart from each other to posing together in picture-perfect tableaux.  Robert Downey, Jr. pretty much inhabits Tony Stark/Ironman; watching him is like watching an old friend.   He gets most of the best lines in the movie.  I still believe this was one of the  most inspired casting decisions ever.  Mark Ruffalo plays Bruce Banner and he’s quite good, but then I like him in nearly everything he’s in.  He brings a welcome sort of self-effacing, hang dog charm to the role.  (The Hulk is played by some unconvincing CGI).  Chris Evans is Captain America and although he has some doubts about his place in the modern world, when push comes to shove he buckles down like the soldier he is and takes charge for America.  Thor, played by Chris Hemsworth, is still the right mix of bewildered godliness; he is utterly unplagued by doubts of any kind as to the rightness of whatever it is he is doing but he is very confused by the machinations of all these tiny Earthlings.  Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) is kind of pointless.  Samuel L. Jackson plays Samuel L. Jackson.   Agent Coulsen gets a first name, some nice character development, and a heroic sendoff, complete with BFG.  (A woman sitting two seats over from me actually started crying).  Gwyneth Paltrow reprises her role as  Pepper Potts and mostly just runs around in very short shorts which, admittedly, she is good at.   Loki (Tom Hiddleston), who was so compelling in Thor, is sadly undergunned in The Avengers.  He has a few good scenes but overall he just seems sort of hapless.  (Still nice to look at though).

The real standout is Scarlett Johansson as the Black Widow.  I always have a hard time deciding if she’s a good actress or just a distracting one, but here she’s pretty damn good.  Her character is not a superhero.   She doesn’t have magic chemicals in her blood stream making her nigh invincible.  She’s not the product of gamma radiation.   She doesn’t have an atomic heart or a flying suit.  She’s not a god.  She is just someone with  “a very specific skill set”, exceedingly well trained and focused, and opaque.  Her back story comes out in bits and pieces and since she is using it to manipulate others it is likely that none of it is true.  When we meet  her she is calmly beating  up a room full of organized crime thugs while tied to a chair.   She clearly has something going on with Hawkeye but whatever it is (love, friendship, superspy competition?) remains unstated.  They are both professionals and they act like it and the way they stick together just seems right.   She is the picture of calm self-possession and yet she is obviously completely terrified of Bruce Banner.  There is a scene in the movie, one of its best, where she is alone with  Banner when Hawkeye and the other terrorists attack the ship.  She is pinned beneath some fallen metal and watches in desperate horror as Banner starts to transform.  She can barely suppress the panic in her voice as she pleads with him to focus and keep calm and her terror as the green monster pursues her through the hold is palpable.   When it is over, this dispassionate, cold-blooded killer huddles alone against a wall, pale and trembling, clutching her knees to her chest.  Then Fury sends out a call for anyone who hears to respond and she flips open her phone, says “copy, on my way”, and then visibly snaps her game face back on and goes to do her job.  It’s a short scene for a character that most people don’t think is important in a movie that’s all about the boys but it is easily the most affecting one in the entire film.

Finally, here’s the basic plot:  The US government is using the tesseract thingie from Captain America experimentally to “develop a free source of limitless power”  (yeah, right) when it inexplicably powers up.  It turns out that the cube is a doorway that opens from both ends and a certain mischievous Asgardian steps through, armed with a fun scepter (gift from aliens!) and ready to rock our world.  He turns a couple of good guys into enslaved minions and absconds with the tesseract to a secret lair where his team works to create a portal for his alien ant army. Meanwhile a panicked Samuel L. Jackson summons the Avengers: Bruce Banner (Hulk), Tony Stark (Ironman), Steve Rogers (Captain America), and Natasha Fatal…er, I mean, Romanoff (Black Widow) to the giant flying boat where they try to find Loki and the tesseract.  After a magnificent entrance onto the world stage, Loki generously allows himself to be captured and brought aboard where he and Jackson engage in much witty banter.  Then his minions (including a brainwashed Hawkeye) attack the ship, cripple it, and while it spirals out of the sky, Thor fights the Hulk, Ironman fights a turbine, Captain America fights some guys, Black Widow fights Hawkeye, Agent Coulson jests with his last breath, and Loki escapes.   After some manipulation of their emotions by that sly spy Samuel L. Jackson, the superheroes put aside their childish ways and go after Loki.  Too late though, he’s opened his portal and handfuls of aliens are streaming through it into Manhattan.  Tony Stark and Loki banter wittily for a bit and then they all get down to fighting and exploding things.  Ironman flits around the skyscrapers and plays with a nuclear missile, Hawkeye shoots arrows at things, Thor calls downs lightning, and Captain America and Black Widow engage in fisticuffs in the street.  Hulk shows up and smashes stuff.

Two and a half hours later the whole mess ends.  The good guys win, evil is mostly vanquished, and you stay til the end of credits because they always stick something there to keep you in your seat while the names of the hundreds of special effects experts scroll by.  You are still tingly from the adrenaline.  Your ears ring from all the explosions.  Your knees are a bit stiff.   Your wallet is eleven bucks lighter.  And you walk out of the theater into a bright sunny afternoon and *poof*  it’s gone.  Just like that.  Tomorrow you will be hard pressed to tell anyone exactly what it was about.  You’ll already be thinking ahead to the next big blockbuster of the summer.  It will no doubt be amazing.

You were made to be ruled. In the end, you will always kneel.”  -Loki

Score:  Meh.

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~ by gun street girl on May 21, 2012.

One Response to “sound and fury”

  1. A masterful summation of The Avengers. I liked it but I agree with you — the special effects did rather take over the movie. They should be used to enhance the movie rather than control it. It takes a careful hand to use special effects properly.

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