Arts and Culture

'The Avengers'

How to make the ol' superhero blockbuster fresh? Try letting a quirky cult-meister direct.

By Steve Burgess 4 May 2012 | TheTyee.ca

Steve Burgess writes about film and culture every other Friday on The Tyee. Find his previous articles here.

There's a real fascination to watching an ordinary man knowing that, at any moment, he could explode into a monster of pure rage. Unfortunately those of us who don't cover Toronto City Hall have to wait for someone to make another Hulk movie. Wait no longer -- the big green guy brings all his buddies along in The Avengers, Marvel's long-planned extravaganza. It's a super-hero all-star game, and the biggest star is the guy in the director's chair.

Never mind Iron Man, Captain America, Black Widow et al. For some fanboys the big news about The Avengers was knowing Joss Whedon was on board as both writer and director. The mastermind behind the Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV series (and the less-successful Firefly), Whedon has sometimes seemed like an under-utilized talent. Until this spring. April saw the arrival of his delayed horror rethink Cabin in the Woods. Now comes The Avengers. Inexplicably, someone in Hollywood seems to have made a wise and slightly risky decision. Handing a massive enterprise like this to a quirky cult-meister like Whedon is the kind of thing you wish studios would do more often. For the most part, it pays off big. It helps a lot that The Avengers' 3D technology feels state-of-the-art, unlike the hologram-postcard feel of movies like Thor.

Buffy fans always adored Whedon's pop culture quipping. While it's typical for action heroes to make wisecracks -- it's what has made Robert Downey Jr.'s Iron Man Hollywood's bull goose superhero -- Whedon's script steps it up. The Avengers actually made me laugh out loud more than once. And thanks to Whedon, Downey's Tony Stark is sharper than ever -- at one point he refers to blonde, shaggy-haired Thor (Chris Hemsworth) as "Point Break." RIP, Patrick Swayze.

Thrilling new match-ups

The trouble begins when a Toronto Star reporter creeps onto Mayor Ford's property and... no, different rage monster. This story starts when Thor's nasty Asgardean bro Loki teleports himself to Earth, steals a glowing blue energy source called the Tesseract, and hypnotizes a few folks including Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), a high-tech archer whom Tony Stark naturally nicknames Legolas. Loki is planning to unleash an extraterrestrial army on our planet. First though he hopes to get our native superheroes bickering, which it turns out they're pretty good at. And for the dedicated geek, superhero bickering is what it's all about.

It has long been common practice for superhero fans (and sometimes writers) to match up the stars of different fictional universes and ask: Who would win -- the Hulk or the Thing? Sub-Mariner or Thor? (The real rebels would then move on to hypothetical match-ups involving DC's Batman and Marvel's Spider-Man, knowing that no force in the universe is strong enough to breach the boundaries of copyright.) The Avengers offers the faithful a nice round-robin tourney featuring Iron Man, Thor, Loki (Tom Hiddleston), and Captain America (Chris Evans). What's interesting (well, for geeks) is seeing how box office success recalibrates the power equation. Back in Marvel Comics' pre-Hollywood era, no one would ever have suggested that Iron Man -- a regular guy in a metal suit -- would be able to take on a demi-god like Thor or Loki. But now Iron Man packs the power of cinematic superstardom. So he's become a match for anybody. Bring it, Superman -- your last grosses sucked Kryptonite.

Previous films have introduced Thor, Loki, Captain America, Hulk, Iron Man, and characters like Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). The Avengers adds Renner's Hawkeye, Scarlett Johansson as Natasha Romanoff (aka Black Widow), and Vancouver's Cobie Smulders as SHIELD agent Maria Hill. Scientist Bruce Banner, previously played by Eric Bana and Ed Norton, is here portrayed by Mark Ruffalo. He's the best Banner/Hulk yet, playing a genius resigned to the fact that his personal issues are beyond the reach of any rehab or counseling program.

Minor quibbles

For quibblers -- which is another way of saying people who care about superheroes -- Hulk presents one of the movie's biggest plot issues. If he is uncontrollably raging, as he appears to be at first, how does he somehow become a semi-manageable team player? This is an issue that Toronto city council has yet to resolve. As for Whedon, he tries to show us a Hulk who will fight Earth's enemies while still taking the occasional opportunistic pot shot at a nearby demi-god.

Otherwise the major drawback of The Avengers is that when the clever quips are done the film must lapse into the de rigueur CGI battle extravaganza. Fans would go all green-gamma-ray-monster on the theatre if it didn't happen. This donnybrook is OK I guess, although as usual the invading villains turn out to be about as threatening as a pollen outbreak. I wish major superhero franchises would have the courage of the admittedly flawed Watchmen film, which at least didn't pull its narrative punches in the final reel.

This summer will be a genuine superhero fest, with a relaunched Amazing Spider-Man franchise and what looks to be the conclusion of Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy. The latter film may be the most-awaited of the group. But thanks to Whedon's wit, a great cast, and some impressive 3D spectacle, The Avengers should hold its own in the super-battles -- at least until somebody finally green-lights that Ant-Man flick.

But Torontonians? You might just want to go to the beach instead. You've seen all this before.  [Tyee]

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