My Ruminations on The Avengers

Yes, The Avengers is an incredibly enjoyable movie that has crossed over from making the diehard Marvel zombies giddy to include the far more casual fan who may know the characters only from the previous films. The press today is filled with news that the official domestic weekend gross of $200.7 million is a record, one of many the feature has justifiably earned over the last few weeks. There’s no reason to think the movie will not continue to set records as it hurtles towards the $1 billion mark.

The major success not being discussed is that for the first time, four franchises have been strategically designed and executed to culminate in the launch of a fourth franchise. There have been numerous all-star films where actors arrive and perform thinly veiled versions of their famous screen personas (and we had a trailer for the latest such examples, The Expendables 2) but this move is unprecedented. While there have been previous winks and nods to a larger universe in other films and television series based on comic books, this team film was carefully planned, laid out, and executed.

Starting four years ago with Iron Man, the Marvel Movie Universe has been carefully structured, taking the very core elements from the 1960s comics, filtered through the 2000 Ultimate Universe and distilled in an easily adaptable essence. Each film was not without its flaws and they didn’t all work with Hulk going 0 for 2 but still considered a key piece of the puzzle. But, when we first saw Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) waiting for Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) after the first film’s credits and heard about “The Avengers Initiative” we knew what was coming.

The question was then: could Marvel Studios deliver on such high expectations? (Watching it on IMAX felt right given the scope of the production and the 3-D upgrade was not as nearly annoying as I feared.)

The answer is a resounding yes but let’s look at why. First, Kevin Feige gets it. He understands the comics and the characters, but also understands film and how changes need to be made. As studio head, he made certain the egos and budgets were kept in check, focusing squarely on bringing the four-color characters to cinematic glory. That he’s remained in place has helped tremendously. So has Feige using the resources at his disposal and involving former EIC Joe Quesada from the outset, and setting up the writers committee that allowed the current architects of the print universe to help make the movies hew closely to the status quo and assure the storylines were strong.

Zak Penn also gets it. He’s clearly grown as a writer, going from things like Last Action Hero and Elektra to X2 and The Incredible Hulk. As a result, he was able to help set up the threads in the other franchises to dovetail in The Avengers. Then it was handed off to Joss Whedon, who clearly is comfortable with scope, scale, comics, and movies. He entered the Marvel orbits with Astonishing X-Men beginning a relationship that led his doing uncredited script work on Captain America which had him in mind when the current film came up. There was comfort between Feige and Whedon which led to entrusting him with a $215 million production, Marvel’s most expensive, despite Whedon only previously directing the commercially disappointing Serenity.

Fans got what they wanted: all their favorite film heroes together in one rousing story with the fate of the world counting on them. They also wanted to see the heroes bicker and battle one another, a Marvel staple dating back to the first Human Torch/Sub-Mariner squabble. They wanted tidbits connecting the film to the greater universe and got that in the form of the Chitauri (the Ultimate Universe version of the Skrulls). The general moviegoer got spectacle, humor, action, carnage, and adventure.

Given what got accomplished, the 2:23 running time is fairly tidy, especially considering how many alpha characters had to be juggled and spotlit. But that’s where Whedon excels, working with an ensemble of quirky people, each putting their foibles on display until it was time to demonstrate why should care about them. As cool as it was to watch Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo, CGI, voiced by Lou Ferrigno) duke it out, the confrontation between Loki (Tom Hiddleston) and Black Widow (Scarlet Johansson) was equally satisfying.

Each character was true to themselves, which was perhaps the trickiest aspect of bringing these franchises together, since their motivations varied and it required Fury to wheedle, cajole, and manipulate them into coming together to save the Earth. The parallel of Fury’s efforts with Loki’s need to keep them distracted and in-fighting was well handed, putting the emotions on display. Similarly, just as Loki cut a deal with the Chitauri to gain control of the limitless power contained within the Tesseract and the Chitauri answered to Thanos (as seen in the first of two wonderful end credit sequences), Fury answered to the international council (Powers Boothe, Jenny Agutter, Arthur Darbinyan, Donald Li) and if the film had any false notes, it was the usual cluelessness displayed by his superiors.

Loki is fittingly the foe given his role in the team coming together in the 1963 comic book and his ability to elicit sympathy from the audience given his tortured past and wounded pride. His scenes one on one with Fury, Widow, and eventually Stark are terrific and most of the credit goes to Hiddleston.

It was also good to have moments directly connecting The Avengers to the other films such as the wonderful cameo of Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), a reference to the whereabouts of Jane Foster, and the display of Hydra weaponry.

The change from Edward Norton to Ruffalo for Bruce Banner brought a level of sympathy to the scientist that was missing from the previous two film attempts. He was clearly channeling the late, great Bill Bixby and the CGI Hulk was a near-Neanderthal brute that finally looked and acted spot on. When he was ordered to smash and smiled before cutting loose, it was a clue we were in for some unbridled destruction. His confrontation with Loki may stand out as one of the single best film moments this year.

The entire second act is introspective, explosive, and fun to watch the actors put through their paces, but once the Tesseract is engaged to open the door to the Chitauri, the film puts things into fourth gear and never looks back. The final act is breathless, heroic, and tremendously exciting to watch.

This was war and with it come sacrifices. Despite all of Stark’s hubris and arrogance, when the time came, he was ready to give his life to save Earth and that changed how everyone around him looked at him. But there had to be some loss, something to make the victory bittersweet and the death that came was not unexpected but it was heroic and sad all at the same time. Clark Gregg was part of the glue that held the films together and his confident, somewhat geeky Agent Phil Coulson will be missed. We were introduced to Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders), clearly set up to be his replacement going forward, but if any character lacked Whedon’s dialogue flair, it was her and it’s shame because she looked ready to rock.

This first arc of films (Iron Man, Iron Man 2, Hulk, Captain America, Thor, Avengers) held together remarkably well, making Warner Bros sick with envy, but it also now raises the stakes for Marvel Studios. With Iron Man 3 and Thor 2 in 2013 and Captain America 2 and TBA in 2014, the earliest we’re likely see the arrival of Thanos until 2015 (and there’s already talk of a Hulk 2 in here somewhere) and the question will be can Marvel Studios afford the stars by then and who will have gotten too old to make the armor or spandex work? This could be why they are beginning to look at a second tier of heroes and films to expand the universe and not be dependent on the all-stars. The trick for Feige will be juggling the rapidly expanding franchises while keeping the universe stable and consistent, despite the yearning for corporate parent Disney for more revenue, theme park attractions, and merchandise.

For now, we can be thankful we got this far and enjoy a summer blockbuster that deserves all the praise professional press, fan press, and ticket holders around the world agree was a hit.

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