Thursday, May 3, 2012
Today at 11:00am Marvel has assembled a marathon of all the films leading up to the release of "The Avengers" (opening at 12:01am May 4 throughout San Diego) and with a special early screening of the eagerly awaited sequel. My self-confessed comic book fanboy guest blogger Miguel Rodriguez has this SPOILER free review.
Back in the days before I ever listened to the scratchy whirr of a dial-up modem, before allure of building my own Geocities site, before this thing called the Internet changed our lives forever, avid readers of superhero comic books relied on magazines for the most up to date information on their pastime. The most popular magazine was “Wizard: The Magazine of Comics, Entertainment, and Pop Culture.” A regular feature of that particular magazine was the “Casting Call,” in which Wizard would suggest hip actors to play various superheroes, should a superhero film ever be made. I remember their choices being usually pretty bad, but they invariably led to lengthy good-natured arguments among my friends about who our choices would be. The almost unspoken truth in all of those arguments was the shared knowledge that a huge ensemble superhero film involving teams like "The JLA" or "The Avengers" would never happen.
When films like “X-Men” and “Spider-Man” changed the game at the start of the millennium, I still believed that a film like "The Avengers" could never be made. It was too expansive. This belief was solidified by the fact that they had broken up the Marvel Universe. Those films were all made by different studios, and thus their heroes could never interact. We couldn’t see Spidey in "The X-Men." That is, until the 2008 release of “Iron Man.” Rather than being a co-production with another studio, Iron Man was the first of five independent productions from Marvel Studios—five films sharing the same universe. I enjoyed “Iron Man,” but the real surprise came at the end, in a clip where Samuel Jackson as Nick Fury showed up and hinted at forming a super group. Holy cats! The die had been cast! The future held an actual Avengers movie!
The following four Marvel films (“The Incredible Hulk,” “Iron Man 2,” “Thor,” and “Captain America”) included similar clips gearing the audience up for a movie that combined the lot of superheroes. It was a brilliant strategy because “The Avengers” wouldn’t have to bother with the clunkiness of expounding the origins of a cadre of major characters. Even non-comics nerds can go into “The Avengers” already knowing who Thor, Captain America, The Hulk, Iron Man, and others were. And the success of most of those earlier films suggests that their popularity had expanded beyond their traditional niche market.
Despite that success, the inconsistency of the five preceding films colored my anticipation of seeing a big screen presentation of The Avengers. I liked “Iron Man” and “Captain America” quite a lot, but thought “The Incredible Hulk” and “Thor,” as well as “Iron Man 2” left a bit to be desired. There was the nagging feeling that “The Avengers” was just too big, with too many characters—it would be so easy for it to be one big mess.
The choice of Joss Whedon to direct it and co-write the film was a bold and shrewd one. The man has a ravenous following of fans, but had yet to direct a film that resonated with a mainstream audience. What he does have, however, is an undeniable dedication to comics-related source material and a real talent for projects featuring a massive ensemble group of characters--both of which were critical to the success of "The Avengers." And succeed it did!
Despite trying to hold onto my reservations, I walked into the theater with considerable expectations for this film. Those expectations were met and exceeded. Against all the odds, “The Avengers” is a comic book movie that exemplifies the joy of the superhero comic book medium. If I had to put the reason why in words, it is simply this: there were several times during the movie that I felt the same escapist excitement that I once felt reading the comic books. It isn’t that “The Avengers” was necessarily faithful to the letter of the comics, but rather it is faithful to their spirit. Its world is believable without taking away what is perhaps the most important element—the sense of fun. The bigger than life heroes in the comics didn’t feel toned down for Hollywood. Without giving too much away, the Hulk fan in me was grinning ear to ear by end credits. And let’s face it, the thrill of seeing Captain America and Thor stand side by side in battle as their respective iconic weapons fly back into their hands is alone worth the price of admission.
Marvel’s claim to fame in the early 1960s Silver Age of comics was the introduction of the flawed superhero. At the time, their characters felt more human and dealt with problems on a mundane level--in addition to whatever cosmic threats came their way. Whedon nails that interaction. The plot’s central conflict is secondary to the characters’ growth and their reactions to extraordinary situations.
Robert Downey Jr. has been a fan favorite as Tony Stark/Iron Man since 2008. Chris Evans’s Captain America was a pleasant surprise in that film, and it’s no different here. Chris Hemsworth’s Thor won me over a bit more this time around, and although I thought Mark Ruffalo is a bit too cool and fast with the wisecracks to be Bruce Banner, there is no denying his charm. In true Joss Whedon fashion, Scarlett Johansson as The Black Widow gets a lot more to do as a hero in this film than her disappointing turn in Iron Man 2. Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye is definitely cool and the design of his high-tech quiver is top notch. Tom Hiddleston is really enjoyable as the villainous Loki, speaking volumes with a nod and a smirk, going from reserved to bombastic on a dime.
Whedon deftly keeps the heroes’ downtime interesting, rather than making it drag. The character interaction is as interesting out of costume as in. By the time the third act rolls around and things take off at breakneck pace, we have become invested in the characters and everything that happens to them. Their actions, and the actions imposed on them, are given meaning. It’s not nearly as dark and gritty as Nolan’s Batman films, but I like it all the more for that reason. The thin line between making the stakes high and keeping us firmly in the four color world we’ve all come to know and love has miraculously been mastered here.
For many readers of superhero comics, those stories were a means of making sense of a confusing world. Classically, that has been the primary function of mythology, and comics are increasingly being recognized as a contemporary mythology. We see characters overcome myriad flaws—hubris, arrogance, alcoholism, rage—in the name of doing what is right, and in ways that are larger than life. Wednesday afternoon meant a new delivery at the comic book store and a new visit with characters that have become family. “The Avengers” film (rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action throughout, and a mild drug reference), with the considerable help of the five preceding films that helped build it, has come the closest to mirroring that feeling for me.
If you are new to the Marvel Universe in general and the Avengers in particular, you can enjoy these collections:
This gorgeous 744 page hardcover collects the first 30 issues of the Avengers, starting with their inception in 1963. Start at the beginning! Enjoy the game-stopping Jack Kirby artwork with stories by Stan Lee.
The Avengers end up in the middle of a war between two intergalactic superpowers—the Kree and the Skrull. A classic storyline from Roy Thomas and Neal Adams.
A mysterious machine man from the future goes into hiding in the present day from the futuristic Guardians of the Galaxy. The Avengers and The Guardians have to stop Korvac’s destructive plans to destroy the universe.
For something a little more contemporary, check out Brian Michael Bendis’s take on the seminal super team! This time, The Avengers take on The God of Fear. High adventure and melodrama ensue.
--Miguel Rodriguez is the director of Horrible Imaginings Film Festival, a San Diego festival dedicated to the horror genre. He also hosts Monster Island Resort Podcast, and once ruined several articles of clothing in the effort to create his own super suit.