May 4, 2012

The Avengers (2012): B

Whether by nature or coincidence, event films, or tentpole pictures (like this one) frequently serve to remind us of the different ways we consume our culture, or our entertainment (another distinction reliant on how we frame our perception of the world). Those who cannot fathom the kind of person who wouldn't like this movie fail at the fundamental ability to step sufficiently far enough outside their own perspective; the same holds true for many groups defined by shared, perhaps overzealous opinions. Clearly, when someone like A.O. Scott moderately panned the film (only to be rebuked by Samuel L. Jackson's "opinion" that fans should help to get Scott fired - this before most of them had even seen the movie in question), it wasn't that he had seen a different movie, or necessarily even experienced it differently. His technical analysis is exactly in keeping with what this critic saw at an exhuberantly packed theater last night, and what many such fans fail to grasp is that there was nothing of deep enough meaning in the film for Mr. Scott to find it worth more than a respectful pass. Anyone who takes offense to this needs to seriously reexamine their values in life, period.

Which is all a sort of ridiculous throat-clearing before I explain my own high/low praise of the film. For over two hours, I was thoroughly entertained and happy to be burning the midnight oil before a morning shift. (Having just stumbled off my lethargic morning-after duties, that's high praise.) Of this, there is no doubt, and so, as per the Tomatometer, The Avengers gets a "fresh" (my love/hate relationship with Rotten Tomatoes is steadily leaning towards the latter, but since most of those reading this are doing so thanks to that site, I may as well be frank). Joss Whedon's handling of mostly predetermined, prepackaged material is to be commended for infusing personality into what otherwise could have easily been rendered as the summer movie equivalent of a stale breakfast cereal. The Avengers was clearly made not only for the kind of audience that would, uhm, assemble, hours beforehand, but by one of their own. It has a genuine spirit that money-hungry studio heads can only hope to acheive, and in this case, they played their business cards very well.

In a nearly 150-minute film, it is perhaps inevitable that there are a few moments I would have trimmed had I final cut authority -- some of the many expertly choreographed fights could have been shortened, and there are times that the comic relief goes on too long (Clark Gregg is funny but misused in a largely thankless role) -- but the fact remains that the audience-pleasing success ratio clocks in around 92% (if I had to guess at a figure) and, given the sheer saturation of such carefully orchestrated moments and punchlines (roughly four every ten minutes, give or take), such makes this a sterling example of its kind. The cast is committed (even Gwyneth Paltrow smoulders in what amounts to an extended cameo, but it's Mark Ruffalo as the brooding Bruce Banner who steals the show), the dialogue is almost organic, and the action satisfies that basic craving for juvenile spectacle. It ain't subtle, and I for one don't care. It's necessary sometimes.

Broad, pop culture storytelling brilliance abounds in this long-awaited franchise culmination (four prequels altogether, and only two of them worth a damn by my measure), but setting aside the exacting nature of the film's amusement park mechanics, there really wasn't much there to keep me wowed in ways beyond momentary bliss. The character conflicts and impending resolutions are both schematic and heartfelt (you know, from the moment Steve Rogers aka Captain America criticizes Tony Stark's narcissism, that Iron Man will make some sort of risky personal sacrifice before the day is out, etc.), and with a lesser hand, they might have felt disingenuous. They don't, but they don't speak anything in the way of a greater truth, either. For my own personal insight: if it were even three or five years ago in my life that this movie came out, I'm sure my rating would be one or two ticks higher than it currently is, but now past a quarter century, I have a hard time saying I love something when it strikes me as so generally weightless. As many chuckles as the dialogue was worth and gasps the scenery induced, it was only the brewing torment experienced by the Hulk who gave me something to really chew on, and the villainous Loki (Tom Hiddleston) makes out with some impressively fleshed-out motivation as well.

The Avengers is exciting, funny, nail-biting, relentless and even scintillating at times (thanks to Scarlett Johansson, I now have something of a fetish for getting beating up and bitten by the opposite sex), but it's never about anything more than itself in the moment. This motley crew of characters is sufficiently developed and more than expertly performed to lend a sense of genuine conviction, but I found nothing to take with me into my life outside once it was all said and done. Great escape, but no deeper truths. As fate would have it, a special screening of The Godfather, Part II preceded the midnight release of The Avengers by just a few hours, and in case you're out of touch with the general consensus on that sequel amongst serious cinephile types, I'll reiterate a comment I made during said film's intermission: "It's the kind of movie that reminds you what a complete waste of time most others are." Much as I'll fondly remember last night's debut, The Avengers is ultimately little more than one such well-made time waster. Whedon's creation is exactly what most people seeing it will want it to be, and more, and if it's a little unfair comparing it to what is arguably one of the greatest works of film ever made, well, that's life, and so be it. It doesn't have to be a great movie to provide a great experience.

May 2, 2012

Avengers Countdown

Forgive me for saying this, but in the grand scheme of things, I really could not give less of a damn about The Avengers.

Don't take that the wrong way. Those who know me personally, or who've followed my cinephile activity online long enough, know I'm an unrepentant summer movie junkie, often seeing the same spectacle repeatedly, if not out of cathartic satiation (hence my seeing Transformers: Dark of the Moon five times theatrically), then perhaps social convenience or easy entertainment (which is to say, the drive-in). And despite the relative decline in overall popcorn movie quality recent years, I'm still looking forward to the 3D midnight screening for which I possess tickets tomorrow night, mostly because it will in all probability be a worthwhile two-plus hours in good company and source of sufficient watercooler conversation for a week after. Plus, there's Jeremy Renner with a fucking bow and arrow. So, my relative apathy is not so much a disregard of the film or its genre as it is a general reprioritization of values in life. Things like that happen when you get older, watch a parent die, etc. But I digress.

There's a chance, as always, that I will not like the film, in which case, I will be compelled to incur the poorly articulated wrath of a thousand basement-bound fanboys over the coming week. A handful of sterling Buffy episodes aside, the only cultural contact I've had with Joss Whedon has been The Cabin in the Woods, a film that was better written than directed but all the same a smug slog that offended this died-in-the-wool horror fan (or, as the Rotten Tomatoes trolls would describe me, a pretentious douche who should fuck off) with its superficial references and one-sided genre deconstruction. So, before the zombies come crawling out of the woodwork to inform me that I only like slow, boring movies, and thus am not allowed to have an opinion on the matter, here are my favorite (and least favorite) films based on Marvel characters. DC and company would complicate things tenfold, so no Batman or Hellboy appearances will be found below, as much as they would otherwise hold their own.

Blind spots: Daredevil, Elektra, Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, Punisher: War Zone and Howard the Duck.

The Best
1. Spider-Man 2 (Sam Raimi, '04). A nearly perfect film, and I use that four letter word deliberately, as I consider even popcorn cinema to be its own kind of art form as ripe for greatness as any genre. Pity that only a handful of filmmakers have realized this to date. I was tempted to group all three of Raimi's films together, as I like them all (including the lumpy, overstuffed third entry) and consider them to be greater in whole than in part, but this first sequel is the true gem. I'm hopeful for The Amazing Spider-Man (my man Andrew Garfield, my love Emma Stone!), but I'll always nurse a grudge that we'll never get to see the events of Spider-Man 4. Like too many of my favorite series, the lack of final resolution ultimately adds to the beauty.
  2. Hulk (Ang Lee, '03). Easily the most controversial of my beloved. The superhero film is frequently defined by its absurdities, and Lee's film simultaneously eschews and embraces those trends by taking the genesis story of an "enormous green rage monster" into meatier psychological territory, utilizing all manner of stylistic devices (some stunning, others misguided), suggesting an artist clawing at the very fabric of his canvas. The inherent silliness is overshadowed, even justified, by the brooding earnestness. Marvel has made good films since, but it's doubtful we'll ever again see such creative audacity on this kind of scale.
3. Blade II (Guillermo Del Toro, '02). The modernized vampire held little appeal for me before this positively trippin' sequel, proof positive that a CGI-laden extravaganza could hold its own with its analogue predecessors (why, yes, I do consider this a better film than the 1931 Dracula). Pity the series took a nosedive with the moronic Trinity, but concerning Del Toro's work in the superhero department, it was a sign of even greater things to come.
4. Iron Man (Jon Favreau, '08). After Iron Man 2 and Cowboys & Aliens, I'm beginning to suspect that the success of this film was by and large and accident. If so, what an accident! Favreau's style - if it can be called such - is pretty nondescript, so it's all the better that he handed the proceedings over to his performers. Robert Downey, Jr.'s true comeback took place the year before, in Zodiac, but it remains wonderful that he found his time to shine here.
5. Captain American (Joe Johnson, '11). This irony-free, tastefully patriotic (which is to say, not nationalistic) origin story struck me as well-made, but ultimately musty, when I first saw it. Hindsight and a second viewing have corrected that. There's still plenty of room for improvement, such as plausibility issues during an infiltration scene and Hugo Weaving's makeup, but this is a model example for mainstream filmmakers who hope to entertain their audiences without insulting their brain cells.

Honorable Mentions: Spider-Man, X2: X-Men United, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, Spider-Man 3
The Worst

1. Wolverine (Gavin Hood, '09). Just fucking embarrassing.
2. Fantastic Four (Tim Story, '05). The same. Only less so.
3. Thor (Kenneth Branagh, '11). I get it, I really do. You directed Henry V, and Hamlet. So to direct this thing for a paycheck, sure, who would give a shit? But you could have pretended at the very least.
4. The Punisher (Jonathan Hensleigh, '04). As if John Travolta hadn't already wasted the stamina his career got from Pulp Fiction...
5. Iron Man 2 (Jon Favreau, '09). Amongst the many offenses herein, none was greater than the near-total waste of Mickey Rourke.