Friday, April 27, 2012

The Avengers - A review, among other things

I have returned from the premiere of The Avengers (in 2D yay), and I would like to share my thoughts. While I know there already are several reviews out, this will perhaps be slightly different. Because this is a big deal. Marvel has stepped outside the comfort zone, and courted their loyal fans, yet done it with the elegance, action and humor that will please the casual movie goer.

I have tried to keep the review spoiler-free, but obviously you should be careful if you want to go into The Avengers without any prior knowledge.

Either way, read on for my thoughts on The Avengers!

Realize that this is a big deal.

It's a big deal because Marvel knows what they want, and where to take these movies. They dare to take risks, they dare to use character no casual audience has heard about before. They dare to make movies fun. It's a big deal because as Marvel steps outside the comfort zone, they end up making a great movie in the superhero genre. Screw that. This is a great movie period!

From comics to movies
You may know me as a toy collector, or an amateur baker, or an all around geek. But I'm first and foremost a comic book geek. If I ever was asked to define my self through interests, it wouldn't be through my education or my work. It would be as a comic book enthusiast. It's the superheroes. I can't help but love them. And while I'm definitely reading many titles from many different publishers, there's no question to what's my favorite. Ever since reading Secret Wars back in the 80s, it's been Marvel.
And I have been following the movies ever since we X-Men hit - which was when I personally realized Marvel's superhero comics could translate well into movies. It really started with Blade, but X-Men was the first recognizable superheroes that gave Marvel success. From there on, we got good movies like Spider-Man and X-Men 2, but we also saw Fox and Sony butchering great characters like Daredevil, Ghost Rider and Fantastic Four. I had hopes of actually watching the monumental team up The Avengers would be, but at the same time, I saw how bad it would probably turn out. Marvel sold the rights to different studios, who made it clear they had no clue what they were doing.
But you all know the history. Marvel just manned up and assembled their own studio, and as their first project, they made the brilliant Iron Man movie. From now on, we saw what would transpire, and that The Avengers was a possibility. Marvel Studios have yet to make a movie that disappoints me. The Incredible Hulk had CGI issues, and Iron Man 2 had direction issues, but I can't say I didn't like them.

And here we are. We're actually going to see The Avengers. For most comic book geeks, the only thing that would come close would be the Justice League, but DC/WB seems unable to make good movies that isn't Batman.
But the question remains... Was The Avengers a good movie?

As I get on with the review, the words in italic will represent actual review content. The rest is just me talking comic books.

Your typical "Avengers villain". 
The Ultimates, the elephant in the room

Compared to many of Marvel's other titles, The Avengers was never really a good comic. Unlike some of DC's team-ups, like Justice League or Justice Society, The Avengers lacked something important. Good story telling isn't that rare in comics, you'd be surprised. There has been written amazing stories with the most irrelevant and lame characters, but The Avengers have rarely had good stories. I'm basing this on the regular, first volume run that went from 1963 to 1999-ish, which was when I stopped reading Avengers on a regular basis. Some of the new stuff isn't bad, I'll admit. But even though I've collected them, they remain somewhat of a guilty pleasure, and I realize that I had to force myself into liking the comic. I came for the characters, and I absolutely didn't stay for the stories. Why is this really?

Don't worry. Doctor Druid ends up saving the day.
I'm not saying The Avengers have been awful, but there have always been better Marvel titles. During the 70s, The Avengers was ok, but you were better off reading Iron Man, Thor... and Conan. In the 80s, Uncanny X-Men was at it's best, and titles like Daredevil and G.I. Joe were great reads, and let us not forget the severely underrated New Mutants. The 90s saw titles good titles like X-Factor, The Incredible Hulk. During all these years, The Avengers continued getting produced, with the main volume totaling at something like 500 issues of mostly forgettable storylines.
There were high points, like the Wrecking Crew thrashing the Avengers Mansion, or the time they went into space and saved universe... But it just didn't feel like the writers cared for the Avengers as much as they did the single heroes' titles. The Avengers should be out saving the world or the universe, they shouldn't get beat by a schmuck like Baron Zemo, or even worse: "The Weatherman". In that regard, I always thought the JLA, or even better, The Authority got it right, where the mightiest heroes in the world are extremely powerful, and do extremely amazing stuff.

The Ultimates #1
Then came The Ultimates. The Ultimate universe was Marvel retelling the original stories from the 60s, using contemporary storytelling and art. It was genuinely refreshing, and almost all of the Ultimate titles were great. But Spider-Man and X-Men didn't really need re-imagination, as they had always been more or less good titles. The Ultimates, the re-imagination of Avengers, on the other hand. Oh, Marvel went to town with that one.

The Ultimates hit all the right buttons. It had updated costumes were it made sense, but kept the original ideas and characteristics of the superheroes. They modernized the stories, made them more relevant and infinitely more epic. Hulk going on a rampage in New York, actually killing people. The shape shifting aliens, Chitauri invading earth, and almost nuking the world. Loki scheming to destroy the United States alongside a mighty force of supervillains with a cause. The epic moments just kept coming: Hulk eating the alien overlord, Thor battling his own team, Hawkeye killing his captors with his fingernails, Quicksilver dismantling a gargantuan mecha, Thor arriving to the final battle through Scarlet Witch's probability spell, with his entire Asgardian army in tow. All this was wrapped in delicious art by Brian Hitch.

But was the new movie actually not Avengers, but The Ultimates?

We saw early the contour of where the movie universe was heading. The part with SHIELD running the Avengers was an idea that got cemented in The Ultimates, the more tactical costumes to Captain America, Hawkeye, Black Widow, and of course the obvious: Samuel L. Jackson as Col. Nick Fury. 
The Avengers has a lot of inspiration from The Ultimates, but it's not blatantly.  
When the movie starts, it's clear that there is no Avengers, or Avengers Initiative. But SHIELD is in full operation, and we're thrown into action pretty much right away, with the destruction of SHIELD headquarters.  
The main story line is that Loki is scheming to get a hold of the Cosmic Cube (which they called... something. I call it the Cosmic Cube). He wants to open a gate between dimensions, by using the cube, and it's made clear in the very start that he's working with/for someone. Loki's intentions are not made entirely clear. He says it's for revenge on Thor, he says it's to gain power. But knowing Loki, the god of Mischief, it's probably just to be a dick.
Loki is leasing an army of alien warriors called Chitauri. So basically, it's a bit of a mix between the various story lines in The Ultimates. 
It works well enough. The sub plots were far more interesting to me, like the council running SHIELD, and their motives. The tension between the main heroes, specifically how Hawkeye was used, and how Iron Man and Bruce Banner opposed Captain America and Nick Fury.
The movie is divided into three parts: The gathering of the heroes, the part on the Helicarrier (which was AWESOME) - where they try capture and eventually try figure out Loki, and the final battle. And in that case it's very simple, but there was a lot of stuff going on. And by stuff I mean continuous battles, small drops of plot and deliciously unexplained, advanced technology. 

Thor and Loki
Thor, Iron Man, Captain America. The big three. All these have had decent  individual comic titles, and Thor has been a personal favorite of mine. It dealt with the more cosmic aspect of the Marvel universe, which always appealed to me. In the early issues back in the 60s, Thor had regular battles or team-ups with the likes of Galactus, Adam Warlock, Hulk, in addition to the other Asgardians and villains like Surtur and Hel. The comic relaunch a few years back was really refreshing, and seems to have been a source of inspiration for the Thor movie. When it came to the point where we got a movie, I was naturally very excited. And I thought the movie was excellent. It perfectly emitted the epic superhero-action and the magical, otherworldly feel  from the comics, and we saw some excellent performances from the main characters, Chris Hemsworth as Thor and Tom Hiddleston as Loki in particular. The CGI was excellent and colorful, the music was amazing, and the general feel of the movie just worked for me. Thor was a great movie, but I was curious to how they would use the character in The Avengers.

The arrival of Thor in The Avengers was a bit abrupt, and it almost felt a bit forced. But his arrival to earth was explained, and various loose ends, like his feelings for Jane Foster was taken care of briefly. I would have liked to see more interaction with Selvig (Stellan SkarsgÄrd's character). In fact, I would have liked to see more of Selvig in general, I felt he was a bit underused in the movie.
The defining moment of Thor comes when he's using the Chrysler building as a conductor for his lightning attack, and instantly led my thoughts to The Ultimates, where he fries the entire alien armada. 
We were treated with an intense amount of great battles featuring Thor. He battles Loki, Hulk, aliens and Iron Man. The battle with Iron Man was particularly funny. 
Tom Hiddleston playing Loki was magnificent. An absolute pleasure to watch. He really fits the part of the scheming god, and you really got the sense that Loki was not doing it to be evil, necessary. He was just doing it because it was his nature. 

Captain America and Iron Man
For obvious reasons, I never got into Captain America. I have read the occasional issue, but I always found Captain America a bit too... Let's just put it like this, I don't like the idea of wearing a flag. There's a way too delicate line between patriotism and nationalism. But I digress, because Marvel has on numerous occasions shown they are able to write good stories about Cap. And I really enjoyed the movie. Sure, it wasn't as exciting as Iron Man, nor as visually pleasing as Thor. But it was fun, and it – as any Marvel nerd expected – placed Captain America in the same timeline as the rest of the heroes.

There's one thing that annoys me about movie Cap - which also goes for Thor, I guess. The helmet just looks silly. It doesn't work, and I cannot really explain why. Masks rarely work in movies, unless you also do the eyeliner thing that Batman does. In the beginning, Cap has the role of the old time soldier that wants to follow Fury's orders, and ends up the natural leader of the team. I think they could have used Chris Evans slightly more, but I realize there's a lot of heroes that should be given screen time. 

Iron Man is the comedic element of the movie. And that's natural. Robert Downey Jr. has the timing, the charisma. It's why the Iron Man movies are so good. He brings that to The Avengers as well. The movie is filled with funny moments and jokes. Some worth of a chuckle, some making me laugh really loud (which is unusual for me), and Iron Man delivered several of those jokes. Luckily, Iron Man also had an important role for the plot - and for the fights. The final battle takes place above, around and inside his newly erected Stark Tower, which contained the greatest mechanism to dismount his armor we have seen so far, as well as big, glowing letters on the outside of the building. And without spoiling too much, almost all of the letters in "STARK" are destroyed in the final battle. Guess which one is left.

Hawkeye and Black Widow
What to say about Hawkeye, other than the fact that he very well may be my favorite avenger. I love his attitude in the comics, and the character was a big reason I preferred - still prefer - West Coast Avengers over the regular team, and all the various other spin-off teams. Today, I can't even tell you how many different teams there are, but back when I read comics almost religiously, I absolutely preferred WCA, and Hawkeye, as the team leader, just worked. He's flawed. He's very human, yet very much a superhero.
I wrote last year about the action figure in the Marvel Legends line, and I hope it's clear with this how much I anticipated Hawkeye. Did it translate well into movie?

Well, first of all, his costume is as we could expect far from the regular Marvel universe costume. It looks a lot closer to the Ultimates costume. This makes sense, and I don't mind a single bit. Hawkeye being part of SHIELD, it just doesn't work having a purple suit with floppy boots. 
I like Jeremy Renner. He looks the part, but I'm not sure he played the part. He should have been even more cocky, and carefree. That role was taken by Iron Man. This is how Hawkeye was in the Ultimates. Silent, soldier, loyal, not really any fun. 

Hawkeye plays a major part in the movie, and is used to propel the plot in new directions. He's a late entry to the Avengers team, but makes up for it with some really cool archery in the final battle. I'm glad that Hawkeye had such a major part in the movie, but it wasn't exactly as I hoped. In a way, I'm glad to be surprised like this, but I kind of wanted to see Hawkeye a bit more... like the regular Marvel universe Hawkeye. 
I really liked how they made Hawkeye's bow. The various trick arrows actually made sense, and as the credits rolled, we got to see the quiver up close. 

I would also have liked to see more interaction with Black Widow. We're given lots of small bits of information that doesn't make any sense, except that we understand that they have been friends, colleagues (and more?) for a good while. We get a cool fight between Clint and Natasha though. Black Widow was played by Scarlett Johanson, and while she is delicious, she's without question the weakest link in this ensemble. It sounds weird, but I'm not believing her, like I do the others. 

This was the biggest surprise for me, of all the main characters. I was really impressed with how Mark Ruffalo portrayed Bruce Banner. He was nervous and awkward, yet naturally so.  He delivered some of the best moments in the movie. It was amazing to see Bruce Banner and Tony Stark talking tech and science. It gave me serious nerd chills. And the short battle between Loki and the Hulk was a definite high point.
The CGI on the hulk was ok, I can't say I reacted in any way, which is a good thing. He looked a bit smaller than I remember him from the two Hulk movies, which definitely was positive. Hulk is big, but not gigantic.  

What I didn't like
Music wasn't as good as it could have been. And the movie had maybe a bit too quick changes of pace, and one too many internal battle between the heroes. 

What I did like

Let me put it like this. There will be people who will dislike The Avengers.
Those who don't like balls out, non-stop superhero action, simple plot with various entertaining turns, extremely amusing sci-fi technology as well as alien technology, well balanced humor and cockyness,  hot girls in tight outfits, hot guys in tight outfits, opposing personalities banding together to fight a common enemy, heroes fighting against the odds, and an absolutely fantastic cliffhanger.
The people who don't like that stuff will not like The Avengers. 

The rest of you will love it. 

And people like me, the Marvel Fanboys, will realize that Marvel did it. They went above and beyond to please us. They knew what buttons to push, and they went exactly as far as we could hope. 

You see, The Avengers are earths mightiest heroes. They shouldn't waste their time tracking down mere criminals. They should defend the earth against annihilation, against the near infinite amount of evil in the universe. And since Marvel knows this very well, Marvel Studios/Joss Whedon shares this knowledge. They don't have to look far for epic plot twists, or ridiculously ambitious villains. It's all there in the comics. And with that, I may have shared a bit too much.
I would advice against it, but for those of you who want this spoiler spelled out, click this image link, and realize that this is a big deal. 


Matt Steiner said...

So is the final movie title "The Avengers" or "Avengers Assemble", i hope for their sake not the second one ..

Jon said...

It's the first one, but interesting to note, the full title we were presented was "Marvel's The Avengers" - unlike Iron Man, Thor, Captain America. Title screen was a bit boring too, I feel they could have done better, or just dropped it all together.