Friday, May 4, 2012

The Avengers: Well-assembled

The Avengers (2012) • View trailer
Four stars. Rating: PG-13, for intense sci-fi action and violence 
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.4.12

No doubt about it: This is Whedon season.

With hundreds of scaly, lizard-like outer-space aliens wreaking havoc in New York,
Thor (Chris Hemsworth, left) and Captain America (Chris Evans) find it difficult
to hold their ground. If the invasion is to be stopped, they'll need a miracle ... or
helpful intervention from their other super-powered companions.
A few weeks ago, Josh Whedon helped redefine the entire horror movie genre, with the nefariously clever Cabin in the Woods. Today, he has kick-started the summer movie season with the witty, giddily explosive thrills of The Avengers ... while deftly avoiding the many pitfalls that could have derailed this Summit Meeting of Superheroes.

The biggest challenge comes from stage-managing the antics of half a dozen dynamic Marvel Comics icons, four of whom — Iron Man, Thor, Captain America and the Hulk — already have their own popular film franchises, complete with established villains, supporting players and running plotlines. This puts considerable pressure on the need to properly showcase each character, while preserving the existing narrative threads and granting sufficient exposure to the comparative newcomers — Hawkeye and the Black Widow — and the “guy in charge” (Nick Fury).

Whedon and co-scripter Zak Penn have done a marvelous job, with a sharp, savvy screenplay that lives up to — and surpasses — expectation.

Penn worked on two X-Men films, along with 1999’s under-appreciated Inspector Gadget; more recently, he co-created television’s intriguing Alphas. Whedon, of course, has a long history with fan-favorite projects that include television’s Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, Angel and the criminally short-changed Firefly, which achieved rare closure when he was allowed to write and direct 2005’s big-screen Serenity.

Clearly, Whedon was the right man for this assignment. His take on The Avengers will delight longtime Marvel Comics geeks, while also remaining approachable and entertaining for “uninitiated” viewers who wander into the theater, wondering what all the fuss is about.

The core plot is easy to digest, with the usual arrogant villain who intends to enslave our planet with the assistance of an armada of nasty, deep-space aliens; while the peril is serious, the action allows for plenty of snarky dialogue and the occasional droll sight-gag (as with, in one quick scene, the Hulk’s rather abrupt dismissal of Thor).

At the same time, Whedon isn’t afraid to show some teeth; the eyebrow-raising, Manhattan-devastating carnage includes some grim tidings. Let us not forget that a few beloved Firefly characters perished in Serenity, much to the lamentations of that show’s fans.

Attentive superhero buffs have been prepped for this film since the post-credits tag scene that concluded 2008’s Iron Man, when the uber-mysterious Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) tantalized Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) with a project known as “The Avenger Initiative.” Subsequent hints were dropped in the final moments of The Hulk, Captain America and Iron Man 2, while the core plotline — involving the glowing blue cube known as the tesseract — received early exposure at the end of last year’s Thor, when Fury revealed this cosmic artifact to an intrigued Professor Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård), who appeared to be under the influence of the Asgardian god’s evil half-brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston).

Loki, granted control of the dimension-spanning tesseract? Bad news, indeed.

In between films, the tesseract has been examined and probed by Fury and his research scientists of SHIELD  — the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division — the ultimate U.S. good-guy black-ops organization. Fury and his ubiquitous sidekick, the drolly straight-faced Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg), have been hoping to exploit the tesseract’s power in order to beef up Earth’s defenses, given the ever-more-dire celestial menaces that have been popping up.

That’s always the downside of playing host to superheroes: the inevitable arrival of equally powerful super villains.

The Avengers begins as Loki, granted additional cosmic powers by the lizard-like Chittauri, a deep-space warrior race, blasts his way into SHIELD headquarters and steals the tesseract. He also absconds with Selvig and SHIELD’s high-tech, bow-and-arrow-wielding sentinel, Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), having subverted both their wills and turned them into acolytes.

Selvig, a formidable intellect, is charged with exploiting the tesseract in order to open a dimensional gateway that will allow the Chittauri to invade Earth. Hawkeye, an equally formidable warrior, knows all of SHIELD’s secrets and therefore remains one step ahead of Fury’s efforts at damage control.

With Thor (Chris Hemsworth) off-world and therefore unable to deal with Loki, Fury and Coulson activate the Avenger Initiative, which cues an opening act that plays like the superhero equivalent of good ol’ Jim Phelps assembling his team, as each weekly episode of television’s Mission: Impossible got underway.

SHIELD operative Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson, appropriately sultry), better known as the Black Widow, is sent to fetch Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo, taking over from Edward Norton), who has been keeping a low profile as a field doctor caring for the poor. Natasha insists that Fury wants Banner only for his research expertise — and not for the uncontrollable rage demon that lurks within, like a giant green Mr. Hyde — but the good doctor sadly suspects otherwise.

Ruffalo smoothly elicits our compassion for Banner, as the pluperfect tortured soul: a well-meaning scientist who spends every waking moment trying to remain calm, lest he unleash the beast within. Ruffalo is far more vulnerable and sympathetic than Norton’s take on the same character, who was much too arrogant in the latter actor’s hands.

Ruffalo also gets quite a few one-line zingers, as Banner ruefully reflects on his predicament: a situation ripe for mordant humor that has been exploited ever since Bill Bixby’s signature line — “You won’t like me when I’m angry” on TV’s late 1970s incarnation of The Incredible Hulk.

Agent Coulson goes after Stark and his wonderfully armored alter-ego, Iron Man; Stark rebuffs the offer, snapping that he’s “not much of a team player,” — in Downey’s hilariously haughty flippancy — but gal pal Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow, a bit sexier than she played this role in the two Iron Man films) successfully appeals to his nobler instincts.

Fury, finally, approaches the displaced Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), whose Captain America was a WWII hero before losing half a century in suspended animation and being revived in the 21st century. Rogers — still a man out of time, and constantly puzzled by the culture and technology we take for granted — jumps at the opportunity to once again serve his country.

The major problem, as Stark put into words, is that these guys don't play well with others; they’re prickly alpha individuals who like to call their own shots, and don’t respond well to authority figures. Indeed, Stark actively distrusts Fury and SHIELD, and of course Thor — when he finally joins the crew — has the imperial aloofness one would expect of a Norse god.

Fortunately, Loki’s machinations become so dire that collaborative good-guy action becomes imperative, however reluctantly it might be embraced. Then, too, Rogers’ inherent patriotism — so earnestly expressed by Evans — can’t help touching hearts and minds.

Whedon certainly knows his Marvel Comics lore, and he recognizes — and exploits — the longstanding tradition of impatient superheroes who, at times, wind up battling each other through needless misunderstandings. Thus, Iron Man foolishly gets in Thor’s face, while a hopelessly outmatched Natasha tries to survive a close encounter with the Hulk.

These warm-ups, mostly in good fun, are mere prelude to the devastating climax; it probably isn’t spoiling anything to reveal that the Chittauri do manage to invade New York, which suffers under the onslaught of some truly fearsome (and fearsomely icky) “spaceships.”

Along the way, longtime comic book fans are rewarded with marvelous moments large and small, from the Hulk’s effort to lift Thor’s hammer — which can be wielded solely by the Asgardian god — to the big-screen debut of SHIELD’s totally awesome helicarrier ... and let’s just acknowledge that this film’s special-effects team delivers the goods, and then some.

All these skirmishes are accompanied by droll dialogue, often slightly mocking, but never so arch that things descend into parody. In their previous films, Downey, Evans and Hemsworth have demonstrated a talent for playing these fantastical roles with conviction; Ruffalo, Jackson and Johansson are just as capable. Renner doesn’t have quite as much fun, since Hawkeye spends so much of the film in a brainwashed state, but he makes up for lost time in the final act.

While The Avengers lacks the emotional gravitas of  Spider-Man 2 or The Dark Knight, it’s only a near-miss; besides, Whedon’s goal is a bit more larkish than the brooding claustrophobia of Christopher Nolan’s take on Batman. Whedon wants us to care about his characters — and we do — but he also wants us to have a good time.

And we do.

Frankly, I can’t wait for these Avengers to assemble again; it’ll be interesting to see if the acting team — Evans and Hemsworth having become much more famous than they were, just two years ago — can be held together.

That might be Nick Fury’s greatest coup.

1 comment:

  1. good stuff, I'm gonna love this movie