Thursday, May 2, 2013

Avengers Reviewed!

So Unnecessary...or is it?

Nerdview: A good review is hard to find. A good review--that is, a quality review, not a positive review--seems to be even more rare amongst professionals and dedicated reviewers. Fortunately, the nerdery is helmed by a literary nut. Each review, whether it is a game, movie, book, or television series, will have the four elements: bias, appreciation, personal enjoyment, and general enjoyment. Put in food terms, these are odor, beef, gravy, and cheese.

By now you should know my general opinion of last year's epic Avengers. I'd had a couple of posts in anticipation of it and I believe I've referred to it as sublime since then. It's true. I love it. But you should know from my stance on review rigor that I won't leave it at that and I hope you wouldn't accept such an unarticulated review from me, either.

But it came out so long ago. Why bother?

First of all, don't be a brat. Secondly, while the review of this movie in particular may be way past timely, there is another Marvel movie coming out this weekend which I also hope to be reviewing. So to help better explain my anticipation of Iron Man 3, and to give you a clearer definition of my Marvel fanboy mania, this review should go a long way to tide you over until you get the Iron Man 3 review.

Which is so definitely going to get posted this weekend. No promises here, just facts.

Oh, and as a tertiary reason for why this review might be helpful for you, at the end I'll tack on my opinion of the special edition Marvel Cinematic Universe Phase One set that came out this past month. You guys really are benefiting from my blogger's guilt today, aren't you?

(Minor spoilers shall flow, but you've already seen this movie ten times or more, right?)

Expectations 'Odor': So obviously, I had long been expecting great things from this movie. I mean, I remember talking about The Avengers while waiting for the first Iron Man movie's midnight showing to start. Before that, I read the first two volumes of Ultimates dying to see it realized in a big, live action movie. Heck, I nerded out over the two Ultimate Avengers animated movies, analyzing them to death as I tried to use them as a reference point for anticipating the live action adaptation. Plus, I'm a dyed-and-true browncoat and a big fan of the early seasons of Buffy, not to mention Dr. Horrible's Sing-along Blog. And Joss Whedon's work on the X-men comics showed how adroitly he grasped these characters and the fans who love them. So Whedon's credentials added to the fiery anticipation as I devoured every little development update.

But I did have concerns. Whedon loves warrior women. And while that can be a fun asset in certain genres and certain films, the only warrior woman in the Avengers lineup for the film would be Black Widow. And in a roster containing Hulk, Thor, Iron Man, and Captain America, he'd have to pull some pretty unbelievable feldercarb to make Black Widow as dominating a presence as, say, River or Buffy. And I'd be downright pissed if Black Widow got godpowers to stand shoulder to shoulder with Thor and stand over him like Echo, for instance.

"...I've referred to it as sublime since then. It's true. I love it."

The single biggest expectation I had, though, was for party conflict. The Avengers have always been about party conflict. They're a team of the most domineering personalities and power levels thrown together specifically for high-stress and high-risk threats. Of course they're going to butt heads with each other...and possibly level some real estate in the process. And as a director, Joss Whedon excels at depicting party conflict. The crew of the Serenity is at its most gripping and engaging when they're fighting over what step to take next. Buffy and her cheer squad were at their best when they were trying each other, reminding one another of their faults, and still working together to kill the unholies. The Avengers movie would have to be full of the very best action and inter-personal drama, and Whedon would deliver. The only question is how inordinately large a part Black Widow might play in the movie.

Appreciation 'Beef': And boy, did Whedon pull it off. Action more complex and gratifying than anything in the superhero genre. Conflicting angles from all sides. One-liners galore. Maria Hill introduced and given a fair amount of face time. Just the right amount of Black Widow. In a dress. And actually playing the Russian angle.

Yes yes.

"Of course they're going to butt heads with each other...and possibly level some real estate in the process."

And the writing. Oh, the writing. The Avengers has one of the best and most under-appreciated scripts in television. Characters are summed up well in quick, catchy comments that capture the terse eloquence of the very best comics. When Captain America tells Black Widow "There's only one God, ma'am. And I'm pretty sure he doesn't dress like that," he's speaking volumes about his character. Whedon is affirming that Steve Rogers is still a God-fearing American traditionalist: respectful of women, and most importantly never cowed by the apparent power of his enemies. Captain America's most defining trait shines through in this movie at least as well in The Avengers as it did in Captain America: The First Avenger: a fight worth fighting is not diminished by your own odds of prevailing. For Cap, the decision he makes on a regular basis is that if a fight is worth fighting, it's worth facing certain defeat. And that is what makes him my favorite hero.

It gives me sissy goosebumps just to type it.

But the best highlight of the superb writing of The Avengers is the way misunderstandings between characters are rendered in such a believable manner. When Tony Stark tells Steve Rogers "Everything special about you came out of a bottle" you get at once the supreme arrogance of Tony Stark--who's implying that he's the worthiest hero because he's "self-made"--and you also recognize that his disconnect with Steve Rogers is that he doesn't understand what makes Captain America a hero. Captain America isn't special because of what he can do or how he can do it, but because of his innate identity--what he chooses to do. The fact that the writers couched the disagreement in these terms, though, shows that they understand both characters and how a believable dramatization of their biases would lead to a misunderstanding of each other. And of course, Chris Evans and Robert Downey Jr. recognize this as actors and do a great job of stubbornly holding their ground in their scenes together.

But an even better misunderstanding between characters can be seen in the absolutely delicious interplay between a captive Loki and Black Widow. It's the only significant interaction between Scarlett Johansson's femme fatale and Tom Hiddleston's emo maximus, but it is superbly written and played. At the climax of their little verbal joust, Loki tries to dig up emotional and psychological leverage from Black Widow, who is ostensibly bargaining for Hawkeye's free will:

Loki: Your world in the balance and you bargain for one life?

Widow: Regimes fall every day. I tend not to weep over that--I'm Russian...or I was.

Loki: And what are you now?

Widow: It's really not that complicated. I've got red in my ledger, I'd like to wipe it out.

Loki: Can you? Can you wipe out that much red? Drakov's daughter, Sao Paulo, the hospital fire?... Barton told me everything. Your ledger is dripping, it's gushing red, and you think saving a man no more virtuous than yourself will change anything? This is the basest sentimentality. This is a child at prayer... pathetic! You lie and kill in the service of liars and killers. You pretend to be separate, to have your own code, something that makes up for the horrors. But they are a part of you, and they will never go away... I won't touch Barton. Not until I make him kill you! Slowly, intimately, in every way he knows you fear! And then he'll wake just long enough to see his good work, and when he screams, I'll split his skull! This is my bargain, you mewling quim!
First of all, I love the profane insult of mewling quim. It's archaic and disgusting, and if people in general had better vocabulary, it'd probably be an r-rated curse. Plus I never thought two years ago when I started this blog and committed to keeping my language PG that I'd have occasion to use the phrase mewling quim. Multiple times, even. Mewling. Quim.

But seriously, this exchange is great because the point in the scene where Loki gets excited, when he starts his evil rant, when he truly and passionately believes he's dressed down this mere woman, is all based on his own misunderstanding. Natasha makes a reference to a modern western convention, "red in my ledger", which refers to the practice of noting down debt in red, but with only a shallow understanding of modern western culture, Loki leaps upon red as the frail woman feeling guilty over shed blood. And so his diatribe begins, prematurely exultant of his social victory, building upon the allusion to blood with dripping, gushing, and violent threats. But what Loki doesn't understand is that his simple misunderstanding of the significance of red leads him to make the exact wrong conclusion. He thinks Natasha is a frail woman feeling guilty over her sins, but in reality the cold killer woman is doing the opposite--she turns killing into a sterile set of numbers in an imaginary book, some of which are red and need to be repaid, others of which must be black and no need to recompense. It's a beautiful scene in which Black Widow establishes that her true deadly arts have nothing to do with stopping beating hearts: it's about the game of outwitting one's opponent and getting them to do the work for you. And, since Loki is undone by a shallow appreciation of verbiage, it's ultimately a victory by English Major.

Boo yah. That's good writing.

Personal Enjoyment 'Gravy': I loved every moment of The Avengers. From the first viewing to the umpteen times I've watched it at work (on my lunch break, of course), it remains a spiritual experience for me on a nerd level. Now, the big taglines I needed in this movie were masterfully accomplished: Captain America being awesome even as he struggles to find relevance in the modern world; Iron Man trying to find the balance between his ego and his personal insecurities; Black Widow being more Russian, using her Widow's Bite gauntlets and still receding into the background when the action gets too big. Hawkeye gets a wonderful amount of coverage too, for being a mere cameo character in Thor previously. And Tom Hiddleston as Loki is a fun villain that chews up the scenery and plays well opposite every character in the film.

"It gives me sissy goosebumps just to type it."

The one grit in my love for this movie--the one thing I would have done differently--is the treatment of Hulk. And bear in mind that I'm being tremendously niggly on this issue just so I can pretend to wipe away my frothing fanboy lather to look sane for a moment or two. I felt that the justification for Hulk to be under control at the climax was necessary, and while I think they gave a valid excuse for Bruce being in touch with his violent, angry side, I just wish the rampage would've either been more horrific, or bled over into more collateral destruction during the climax. Now, given how real and devastating the battle of New York was, I could understand if the creators were afraid of making Hulk add to the wanton carnage and destruction. And, to be fair, Hulk does leave a lot of unnecessary damage in his wake--plowing through an office building to fishhook a flying Chitauri leviathan definitely isn't covered by standard insurance, you know. But the moment that makes me feel just the tiniest bit...snerky is that moment when Hulk backhands Black Widow on the helicarrier and she doesn't even get knocked unconscious, let alone pulped. In fact, she comes back after a little quivering to whup Hawkeye, who probably could've won under some circumstances but definitely should have when Natasha was hot off of getting Abyss-slapped by the jade giant. Chalk this up to Hulk's rage usually getting slightly nerfed and Whedon's love of warrior women, because I still love it.

And of course, Captain America is awesome throughout the movie, but especially in the climax of the film. Seeing him mount a car in the middle of the chaos and assert himself as the inspirational hero everyone needs gives me the willies every time. And as the fight drags on and things look grimmer for New York's defenders, it's Chris Evans' portrayal of Steve Rogers that sells the grim determination and utter fatigue the heroes are feeling. Captain America, like the people he represents, shows the ragged edges even while soldiering on to prevail. Oh my, how I love this movie.

General Enjoyment 'Cheese': This movie is perhaps the ultimate in the genre, and as such people who aren't interested in superhero action are going to find it hard to sit still. And while I'd tend to say screw 'em and move on, there are a few things to watch for those not wooed by colorful characters and bold blasts of action. The script is interesting and engaging throughout, and it's crafted better than most movies with such a large cast of heavy principal characters. There's a decent amount of wry humor that is Whedon's signature, too. But in the end, probably the most compelling thing about The Avengers to those too cynical for superheroes is that it embodies a combination of the greatest aspirations and deepest flaws of idealized America. These heroes have problems, and much of the time wasted bickering adds to the villain's power and increases the final body count. But in the end, they're still willing to put themselves between innocent civilians and death. It's made all the more cogent by the brilliant holocaust reference in the first half of the movie, and I think should make for a fun objective analysis.

For the rest of us who can't be objective, though, for those of us champing at the bit to see high-flying combat and expensive battle sequences, The Avengers pays off in a big way. Fans of comics and the genre will be coming back to this movie for more for many years, and Marvel has probably set the bar too high for DC to attempt a Justice League movie this decade. Yeah, that's right. I said it.

Now for a review of the Marvel Cinematic Universe Phase One set. This appropriately long title describes a huge blu-ray boxed set containing Iron Man, Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor, Captain America, and The Avengers all in one set. They also include the 3D versions of Thor, Captain America, and The Avengers, as the other movies were released before every big-budget movie had to have 3D features. There's also a tenth disc called the SHIELD Initiative that contains features relating to the other movies as a whole. Finally, there are a number of fun physical components to this set--a small intel folder on the principal characters from the movies. There's Black Widow's report on Tony's potential for Avenger membership, Captain America's World War Two era documents including three of his trading cards, and even a light-up cosmic cube. All of this is contained in a small plastic briefcase with the SHIELD logo on it, making for a fantastic presentation.

It's important to emphasize that since the constituent movies have all had multi-disc sets released in the past, the discs included in this set don't include every feature that has yet been released. So, unfortunately, this is not technically an exhaustive set. Rather, it's more the coup de grace for obsessive fans like myself or for those who held out to get all the movies for one combined price. The SHIELD Initiative disc, however, does offer some deleted scenes from several movies that you can't get anywhere else and features introductions to each movie by Agent Phil Coulson. The Coulson intros are a nice boon to those of us who couldn't put our entire day on hold to see the many all-day marathons of the movies theaters showed on Avengers' opening day. The physical components are a lot of fun and feel legit--Tony's folder contains a coffee-stained napkin with an informal memo to Pepper that they were going to stop selling weapons, for instance. One notable exception is the Cosmic Cube--it lights up, but it's a deeper blue than in the movie and it's a flat, featureless cube and features none of the ornate etching in the movie. That's disappointing to some, apparently, but made no difference to my son, who temper-tantrumed over it for hours. Another impressive bit of detail in this set is that each of the disc envelopes are emblazoned with bold, iconic art of their characters in almost cubist silhouettes.

Overall, I'd say that what makes this mega-sized boxed set worthwhile are the physical novelties and collector's factor. Don't take that as a lukewarm diagnosis, though. I love this set and I couldn't imagine my Marvel movie collection complete--or even adequate--without it.

Well, that's it for the next six or seven hours at least. I'm going to try to put up a slightly more succinct Iron Man 3 review immediately after the midnight showing. We'll see how that works out. Filmatleven...fifty-nine.

No comments:

Post a Comment