Friday, May 18, 2012

Film review: The Avengers (Rewarding dedicated nerdiness)

Well, it's Friday -- time for a weekend offering on cultural life in these United States.

Films get reviewed around MH because, well, the occasional good film is worth having waded through shtick and schlock in hopes of encountering something special -- or at least entertaining. Someone once commented that the first sign of serious cultural decline at The New Republic was when that august liberal magazine decided to lead off each issue's review section with film, letting lesser things like opera, dance, and, oh... books?..., sit at the back of the bus. Obviously, the good editors at TNR disagree, perhaps taking the tack that the average reader is more likely to see the films they review than to read the books they cover.

While we wouldn't go so far as to agree with the late Hilton Kramer of The New Criterion that film is beneath serious criticism, he also has a certain point that even fans of film should be willing to acknowledge. As we pointed out in our review of David Yezzi's book of poetry, Azores, some art forms demand more of the audience (although not necessarily more of the artist,) and as such there is a case to be made for giving them at least a modicum of priority on the critical totem pole. National Review probably chooses an appropriate via media by reviewing films but putting them downstream, so to speak.

Some aficionados of film restrict what they watch to artsy and indy offerings, thus preserving a veneer of high-brow sensibilities for their passion. Such affectations, however, miss the fundamental point about film -- it is perhaps the most passive of art forms, regardless of how it is dressed up. That is also exactly what is beautiful about it -- almost no matter how tired or distracted one is, there's always room for a good film to engage the senses and bring pleasure. The fuel that makes the film engine go is still the mainstream popular stuff. These movies keep theaters in business, develop new technologies, drive innovative online formats, and train scads of craftsmen of every stripe in the technique of making films. When they make something good, it can be sublime in its own way.

Such is "The Avengers", still cruising at the box office several weeks into its run. With an all-star cast and a huge budget, it was bound to make a splash even if it was mediocre. Happily, director Joss Whedon (whose biggest film to date was the campy but wonderful "Buffy the Vampire Slayer) left mediocrity in his toolbox and set about doing "The Avengers" right.

The choice of Whedon might have seemed odd, since an action film of this magnitude would seemingly call for someone who had done a big action flick at least once before. In retrospect, it was a brilliant move. Reportage about the film has revealed that Whedon got the job when he was called in to consult on the script, only to reveal the extent of his Marvel Comics knowledge as well as the depth of his love for the genre. He was unexpectedly rewarded for his dedicated nerdiness by being given the director's job (he scrapped the original screenplay, and started over -- one shudders to think what was thereby avoided.)

As a result, "The Avengers" is not "Mission Impossible" with superheroes -- it is (I am told) a faithful adaptation of the genre to film. Even for those of us who were not comic book diehards, the fact that something genuine is happening seems clear. He certainly gets the little things right, making sure that each of the characters gets its share of screen time, yet doing so in a seamless way that it doesn't feel like "OK, time to roll out the Hulk for a bit," and "alright, it's Captain America's turn, now." In discussing the film with the youngest member of the MH household on the drive back from the movie, it was revealed to me that what Whedon captured was an essential element of comic books at their best. At the most superficial level, a superhero has a power, a weakness, and a nemesis (think Superman with his "it's a bird, it's a plane" flying on the one hand, his susceptibility to Kryptonite on the other, and Lex Luthor as archenemy -- if you need an intelligent film primer on the concept, go back and watch Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson in M. Night Shyamalan's "Unbreakable" again.)

At a deeper level, though, the best comic book characters also have strengths -- which are distinct from their powers. In "The Avengers," those strengths range from Captain America's leadership abilities to Tony Stark's acute self-knowledge that he is devoid of such abilities, even though he is a world-class genius who invented the "Ironman" suit.

The film is filled with surprisingly deft personal touches and character development (really.) This is possible in a multi-character comic book movie because of the long-sighted vision of the Marvel Studios/Paramount Pictures partnership. "The Avengers" is a movie with 5 separate preliminary movies that preceded it, starting in 2008 with "Ironman," and continuing on with "The Incredible Hulk," "Ironman II," "Thor," and most recently, "Captain America." Not only have each of these films fleshed out the backstories and characters of the individual superheroes, each film gradually clued knowledgeable fans in on what was coming, by laying the groundwork of the secret organization called S.H.I.E.L.D., with top field-op Nick Fury (wonderfully played by Samuel L. Jackson,) building what will become "The Avengers Initiative" -- a team of superheroes working together.

The whole thing is either hopelessly corny or amazingly good fun, depending on ones perspective. It is hard to imagine how the Marvel world could have been created on the big screen in any other way than the way it has been done, in a patient, multi-year, multi-film process.

By giving only minimal recall cues about previous events and character development, Whedon shows he understood that the way to bring it all together was to trust the audience to have seen the earlier films (and perhaps read the comic books as well,) giving increasing rewards for each level of their own dedicated nerdiness. Maybe I'll have to take back that comment about film being the most passive of all art-forms.

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