May 15, 2012

Film Review: 'The Avengers'

Go get 'em, tigers
Now that The Avengers has made like a billion dollars (not an exaggeration, my friends), we at Tableau Your Mind thought we should get off our collective asses and review the dern thing. Sure, it has been incredibly successful financially, but what is more impressive is how tight, funny, and effective this movie is.
The plot is pretty simple: Loki (the presumed-dead, adopted dethroned prince of Asgar) returns to earth, this time intent on snuffing out human freedom through world dominion. At his side, he has the frightening and militaristic Chitauri, but he doesn’t have the means to bring them to Earth. In comes the Tesseract, the mythical blue cube with never-ending energy that can split open space and bring Loki’s soldiers raining down on the unsuspecting people of the world. In order to stop him, Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury soon realizes that he’s going to need to put a team together: Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo, taking over for Edward Norton), and the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson). Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye comes into play later in the film, but we don’t want to spoil how. With the aide of S.H.I.E.L.D. agents Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) and Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders), can this team step up (2 the streets) and save the day, or will personality clashes and secrets tear them apart before they can even avenge anything?

Nick Fury: Scenes from a helicarrier (with Maria Hill)
One thing the film does incredibly well is balance that large amount of characters listed above without feeling overstuffed or in some way lacking. Despite most of the main characters getting an origin film of their own already (with the exception of Black Widow, who was under-served in Iron Man 2, and Hawkeye, who is incredibly boring so whatever), this first hour of the film is pretty much a re-introduction of all of these characters and their motivations. Sure, that is probably frustrating for people who have seen the films, but it's helpful for newbies (possibly those drawn in by the allure of the amazing Joss Whedon, who co-wrote and directed the film).  Still. that first hour is a bit plodding, with very little plot to carry the film. The first scene in particular is laborious to sit through, given that none of the lead superheroes are actually in it and there is no one to root for. It might have been nice to see a few shots of Iron Man or Thor before we were plunged into a scene completely anchored by Cobie Smulders. Other than the introduction of the helicarrier and the joining of forces, all we really learn in the first hour is that Nick Fury really likes weaponizing things. Much like in the comics and TV adaptations, love of weapons is pretty much his main characteristic.

In Point of Fact, You Won't Like Him When He's Angry
There is still lots to love in the first hour. Whedon takes time to set up all of the characters and place them in contrast to one another. These people have been so defined after decades of being in the public consciousness, and it's always exciting to see strong personalities clash. Marvel has delved into this before in films, most specifically with X-Men (and, to a lesser extent, The Fantastic 4). Putting our heroes in constant contact with one another, in this case by being trapped on a floating boat, creates natural tension. Their fights with each other, both verbal and physical, create a strong build-up to the final hour of the film, where they have to come together before everything goes to hell in a Loki basket.

The Hulk, Hanging Out with Loki
The two characters that are helped the most by this extra hangout time are Black Widow and Bruce Banner/The Hulk. Scarlett Johansson rarely blows us away with her performances, but this is the strongest acting she has done since Lost in Translation. It helps that she's working with such strong material, but material alone can't sell an emotional journey. She's actually riveting at times. Mark Ruffalo gives a perfectly controlled and quiet calm to Bruce Banner, a character who filmically has remained poorly defined despite two origin films under his belt. We actually like Edward Norton's Hulk, but Ruffalo's is miles above it - he just seems more natural in the Hulk's uneasiness. Also, the Hulk itself has never looked better. It still looks a little fake, but there's really know way around it. A giant green smash machine is never going to look 100% real. The destructive behemoth even gets to act out some of the funniest parts in a film that is incredibly funny. I don't want to spoil anything, but Whedon's trademark ability to surprise an audience is on full display with the Hulk.

Thor and Tony Stark/Iron Man feel each other out
We haven't talked much about Robert Downey, Jr. as Iron Man, because he is incredibly charming and dynamic in basically every film he's in, so it's no surprise that he kills it here. His early scene with Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow) is a delight, and his verbal tête à tête with Loki is just finely-crafted Whedonian magic. Chris Hemsworth as Thor is also very good. Thor basically repeats his character arc from the film Thor, but it's important that the film establishes the god's relationship to Loki, the main villain in the film and his adopted brother. He has more at stake emotionally than the other characters, and Hemsworth carries that well.
There is a time to nitpick some of the things we didn't like about the film (Captain America was boring and seemed to be wearing makeup, there are a few plot points that make very little sense or are dropped completely for no reason, Jeremy Renner is the personification of watching paint dry, it is occasionally pretty clumsily directed), but that time is not now. The film is a great melding of the films that proceeded it, combining the gravitas of Captain America with the fun of Thor and the witty banter and well-executed fight sequences of Iron Man. More than that, though, the film never forgets to focus on character, even amidst blaring sounds and enormous explosions. All of the characters interact with each other in meaningful ways over the course of the film, and during the final battle, everyone is on full display, not just their fighting styles but their mannerisms, core ethics, and differently tuned moral compasses. The film's message is about individual choice and freedom, and the film never loses sight of that. It is a great feat for such a large, imposing film.

Go see The Avengers, if you're one of the three people who hasn't yet.

Film Rating: 5 out of 6 Superheroes fighting for humanity (We're docking it 1 Jeremy Renner)
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