The Avengers

The summer movie season has officially arrived, heralded proudly by the amazingly awesome film that is The Avengers.

Joss Whedon has a special place in my heart as one of the most under-appreciated directors in Hollywood. Although there’s some of his work that I could pass on, most of it is tolerable to a level equal of any other TV faire, or in several cases, some of the best work I’ve seen come out of Hollywood in years. His other work includes Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Dollhouse, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, and my all-time favorites Firefly and Serenity. So when I heard that they were tapping Whedon to helm Marvel’s 5-year endeavor of bringing all their heroes into one unifying film, I was thrilled.  Whedon is a master at character-driven pieces, and with a strong potential for a film like The Avengers to become the equivalent of an all-you-can-eat visual effects buffet (where you know the food isn’t all that amazing, but there’s just so much variety and so much to try that you keep going back, even though you know you’ll feel awful for it later) that’s just what this film needed to keep it grounded.

To sum my thoughts up: this is the best experience I’ve had at the movies since seeing Serenity in 2005. Although I’m sure the film had its fair share of flaws, I was completely unaware of them because I was simply having too good of a time. It was filled with humor, action, and heart and even managed to bring me close to tears at one point. Never once did I consciously think about the 2.5 hour run time, which is an excellent sign.

For those that aren’t familiar with The Avengers, here’s a brief recap. A top secret government organization called S.H.I.E.L.D., under the guidance of Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), is given the task of protecting the world from threats beyond the capabilities of normal men. In preparing for this task, they recruit the world’s greatest heroes (each of which joins the group from a pre-existing stand-alone film) – Iron Man, a.k.a Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), and the Hulk, a.k.a. Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo). They’re also joined by secondary characters Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and Black Widow (Scarlett Johannson). Together, this team must defeat Loki (Tom Hiddleston), brother of Thor, as he attempts to invade earth with an alien army and rule over mankind.  Sound action-packed? It is!

They even manage to represent all of the primary colors in their outfit choices!

Here’s where I think Whedon succeeded the most. Each of these characters is amazing in and of themselves. You have Captain America -a super solider, the perfect specimen of man, Iron Man – a genius, billionaire playboy with a high tech suit of armor, Thor – a demi-god from another realm, and the Hulk – a scientist who becomes an unstoppable wrecking ball when he gets angry — and none of them get along. Ultimately, despite all their super-human abilities, they all suffer from such basic human flaws, and THIS is the genius of Whedon (who not only directed, but rewrote the script). Whedon gives us a reason for all these people to not only come together, but work past their differences for the greater good.

The unstoppable cloud from Green Lantern, which killed the strongest Green Lantern, and fought off droves of the galaxies best defenders... but was then defeated by Ryan Reynolds because he wanted it bad enough.

The film also succeeds in finding a villain which is not too easily defeated, but also not overwhelmingly powerful and still somehow easily defeated to conveniently wrap up the storyline (see Green Lantern). This is no small feat seeing as how the combined power of the Avengers would decimate just about any opponent.

On an acting level, Downey Jr. delivers that classic wit and charm we’ve all come to love from the Iron Man films, Evans plays the out-of-his-element good soul that won us over in Captain America: The First Avenger, and Hemsworth does a great job at helping the audience take the somewhat out-of-place absurdity of a demi-god seriously.

Finally a Hulk we can cheer for, as he smashes his way into our hearts with pure, unbridled anger.

But perhaps the most noteworthy performance is that of Ruffalo, who replaced Edward Norton as Bruce Banner after the studio and Norton had a bit of a disagreement following The Incredible Hulk movie. Part of it is the writing, part of it is the effects team, but FINALLY we get to see the Hulk as we’ve always wanted to see him. Not part of some artsy “soul-behind-those-eyes” interpretation by Ang Lee, but as a man with some control over the beast, that ultimately enjoys smashing things. It’s refreshing, and at times, quite hilarious. (Two specific moments come to mind, but I won’t spoil them.)

Agent Coulson was apparently brought on board for his super human adorableness.

If I had to choose a specific favorite character of the film, I actually think I’d choose Agent Phil Coulson, played by Clark Gregg. Coulson has appeared in several of the other Marvel films, acting as a sort of character glue to bring all of the films and their characters together.  His role is much more pivotal in this film than in the others. He almost becomes a representative of the audience – an everyman amongst super-humans, with many of the same reactions we ourselves would have. I won’t spoil anything else, just expect good things from Gregg’s performance.

Again, this film was so wonderfully executed, and although it probably won’t be an Oscar contender outside of the technical categories, it is a great little piece of escapism at the movies, and an enjoyable thrill ride. Marvel did it right with their plan to establish a universe for their films to co-exist in, and with Iron Man 3 starting production this summer, Thor 2 in the fall, Captain America 2 next winter, and The Avengers 2 after that, we can expect great things in the coming years. Now if only they can work out a deal with Sony to get Spiderman in the next Avengers film. Time will tell!

My opinion, well worth the trip to the theatre to see this film as it was meant to be seen, on the big screen. Although IMAX and 3D are not necessary. (I saw it in 2D and loved it.) And be sure to stay until the end of the entire credits. Marvel sticks in their usual stinger about a minute in which sets up some element of the next film, but this time they also gave an added bonus at the very end.  In fact, the cast shot the scene immediately after the Hollywood premiere. (If you look closely you’ll notice that Evans had to wear a prosthetic piece on his face to hide the beard he’d grown out for another role.) This added bonus doesn’t really add anything pivotal, but it’s sure to leave you laughing at its pure, simple randomness.

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Rating: 4.6/5 (7 votes cast)
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Thor

The Marvel universe continues its expanse as Thor plunders into theaters.  The god of thunder comes from Shakespearean-auteur Kenneth Branagh who blends dynamics of action and character to create one of the better superhero thrill rides this side of The Dark Knight.

Riding the lightning as the title character is Chris Hemsworth in his first major leading role, and I must say, like Downey of Iron Man, the lead actor makes the movie. Hemsworth owns the character, he owns the film, and he will surely own this franchise.  Balancing out the silliness of the plot and otherworldly English of proper, Branagh’s newfound star plays Thor, the son of King Odin (Anthony Hopkins)—ruler of the Asgard realm.  About to be named heir to the throne during a planetary ceremony, the walls of Asgard are breached by enemies of another world.  Luckily the mighty fortress is protected, but Thor isn’t satisfied.  Egged on by his younger brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston), Thor becomes impassioned with delivering the intruders a message and sends out with a group of warrior pals to meet his foes at their doorstep which ignites a war of the worlds.  Thor and his comrades are vastly outnumbered as King Odin comes to the rescue.  Aggravated with his son’s arrogance and recklessness, Odin strips Thor of his metaphysical abilities and casts him out to Earth along with his powerless weapon of choice—the mighty hammer.

Now stranded on Earth, the mighty warrior enters the lives of a team of physicists led by Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), dodging SHIELD authorities in the process.  There’s a lot of hooey talk of portals and disturbances in the upper atmosphere as the studio is desperate to explain the existence of Thor from a scientific perspective—mainly to tie him in with the ‘Earth-bound’ avengers Iron Man, Hulk, Captain America and others.  Once Jane accepts her discovery of a chiseled slab of man as a warrior god, Thor’s jealous younger brother no sooner sends enemies to Earth to erase the existence of his stranded sibling once and for all.

As a studio tentpole and comic-book adaptation, Thor is far better than anything we would’ve seen ten years ago.  Writers have been approaching this material with earnestness and passion, determined to deliver first-rate products.  Because of this, audiences have been spoiled with such impressive offerings as the first Iron Man, the new Batman films, Spider-Man 2 and X-Men 2, that we sort of forget that these movies can’t all necessarily be A+ features.  Thor, however, is more in line with the latest trend of quality superhero films than other stink piles of recent memory (Fantastic Four, Ghost Rider, Elektra, X-Men Origins: Wolverine).

Special Effects and action can be hit-or-miss as far as first-rate techs go, but the sequences are consistently involving.  Thor’s world is particularly designed and detailed, giving us a sense of the character’s background and struggle.  The characters are particularly well-developed, especially those occupying Asgard.  The actors do their best to participate in a magnum opus of silliness, with straight faces and a sense of fun at the same time.  Thor only seems to come up short when much of the story centers on Asgard rather than forces that threaten our planet.  Once the god of thunder finds himself stranded on Earth, his human companions stir up comedy and human interest, but the movie begins to lull periodically.  That’s alright with me.  Branagh gives his film time to settle down and breathe without relentlessly retreating to attack mode.  Since the film is designed to lead straight into The Avengers a year from now, I’m certain Earth will finally see Thor protecting our vulnerable little world to great extent.

As Marvel continues to conjoin these franchises, I’m curious to see how Captain America, Thor, Iron Man, and the Hulk survive once the fellowship is broken after Avengers rakes in hundred of millions of dollars.  Iron Man 3 is already in the works, as is a sequel to Thor.  Luckily, Thor seems to have more story to tell as the character relationships have space to blossom, specifically between Jane and Thor.  The filmmakers took notes from the first Iron Man as Stark and Pepper slowly but surely evolved their relationship.  Romance and sparks only tease the audience throughout most of Thor‘s first outing, leaving us wanting more.  Hemsworth and Portman have plenty of chemistry, and that’s where Branagh succeeds in delivering a superhero film about likable and believable characters amidst an outrageous plot, dorky costumes, and oddball creatures.  Forget about the whirlwind of action and useless 3D conversion (yes, skip the 3D).  Marvel and Branagh have given us another sensational hero and a major star to fill his shoes.  Bring on another round.

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Rating: 3.8/5 (5 votes cast)
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