Sunday, October 21, 2012

LIE #55: Make Mine Marvel!

Marvel’s The Avengers (UK title: Avengers Assemble) (2012; written and directed by Joss Whedon; from a story by Zak Penn and Joss Whedon, based on characters created by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee) is a blast—a one-way ticket to Fanboy Heaven.
More importantly, the film celebrates the can-do teamwork spirit of the USA that brings together different fractious personalities to unite for the common good, as opposed to the cold and brutal self-created authority of the Batman and Superman mythologies.
’Nuff Said!

While it may not be my “best” superhero movie, an honor to be shared between James Gunn’s underseen but awesome Super (2010) and Brad Bird’s The Incredibles (2004)—both films which deal with its protagonists’ mental/spiritual condition as much as with their physical prowess—
I think The Avengers—because so much of its creation owes much to artist-genius-visionary Jack Kirby’s imagination and talent—is my favorite. (My Top Five Superpowered Costume Freak Movies are listed further below.)

The Avengers is so much damn fun, it deserves its gazillion dollar payday—and I sure hope Kirby’s family is getting at least something.

The film is the epitome of the Hollywood Dream Machine working at the top of its game, providing a smart and exciting action epic that combines the spy, science fiction and war genres while delivering genuine tears and cheers (unlike, say, Spielberg or Darabont’s films, I certainly didn’t notice my being manipulated, even though I know I was).
Yes, I would call this rousing entertainment.

It’s a thrilling blockbuster that is also incredibly funny—without ever winking at the audience. All the humor, whether broad slapstick (Hulk vs. Loki, for instance), or droll wit, or “fish out of water,” is earned, and thankfully without an ounce of snark.
You see, that’s what I think is the secret of The Avengers’ success: This film is earnest.

Perhaps a bundle of adolescent power fantasies, but it all depends on how well elements of the comic books mesh into a coherent film—how well the internal truth of the source material gets translated, how much respect is shown to the fanboy and the general audience.
Sure, the movie was made to make money, but somewhere along the line everybody started caring about making a superior piece of work—and it shows.

They weren’t making “just” a comic book movie, but rather an over-the-top but eventually stirring sci-fi epic where, under the tutelage of a mysterious superspy—almost a wizard—a cyborg and a quartet made of supersoldiers (one a success, but lost in time; the other a gigantic Jekyll/Hyde beast-freak) and two master assassins
join forces with an alien demigod in defeating his evil brother who has a cosmic energy super-weapon and an invading army of extraterrestrial mega-zombies and robotic super-slugs.

Said that way, it almost sounds like a crazed Japanese sci-fi movie, like The Mysterians, Message From Space or Godzilla: Final Wars, where elements of several genres are mashed together—and often during The Avengers’ final battle scenes it does feel that way, very much like a kaiju as the audience is given exquisitely detailed scenes of mass destruction by giant nasties in the heart of NYC. (You know you want to see Hulk fight BIG monsters!)
It’s the recreation of an established mythology into a new and wider format.

Not bloated (or rather, not as bloated as you’d think it should be—the flick’s almost 2 ½ hours long), there’s an economy of style to The Avengers—a character may disappear for a few moments, and upon reappearing will recount what they’d done in a line or two; back-story and origins are dealt with quick dialog (and usually while someone is busy doing something, keeping your eyes busy) or through near-subliminal flashbacks—the flick trusts that the audience will keep up. (Thankfully, there’s practically none of the dreaded info-dumps which often paralyze sci-fi epics like Dune (1984) or John Carter [of Mars].)

Wisely, The Avengers only has one villain (Thor’s brother Loki, a superb and multifaceted character), with much of the film’s “conflict” coming from the supercharged superegos of the superheroes as they bump against each other (often manipulated by Loki).
Hopefully, this will become a trend again—don’t producers know that good villains are hard to find, and they shouldn’t be wasted? (I’m especially looking at you, Batman movies!)

Whedon’s film is about teamwork, and it’s neat watching the dynamics develop: Banner and Stark bond as brainiacs; Black Widow and Hawkeye have a convoluted back story; no one trusts Nick Fury; Captain America is just too square for anyone to relax around; Hulk and Thor are competitive with each other; everybody likes Agent Coulson; and so on.

(And just as I haven’t explained who or what these names mean, neither does the film; it expects to you know—and if not, then to catch up. Although it really doesn’t matter if you don’t know what the characters are talking about, it’s the emotional camaraderie or contention that comes through and what should be paid attention to.)

The humor throughout Marvel’s The Avengers also adds to the characters, making them more human—and help cover up how manipulated the audience has been: “Gags” are often set up in dialog, then carried out with a payoff, which then has another payoff—which itself might be a callback—which then segues perfectly into the next gag—which is essentially the next scene, with the process starting all over again.

Although the flick is at least 70% animation, it has some of the most kinetic, but least shaky-cam fight and action scenes I have seen in a long time. I was actually grateful that the compositions and camera movement were for the most part traditional for contemporary films, because the frame is almost always packed with detail.
Breathlessly-paced, the action and combat never became confusing or lost in vague spacial relationships. Thankfully, director Whedon has enough confidence in his story to routinely keep the camera still.

The effects are excellent, and I swear that there was some genuine model work going on there—or else the CGI’s gotten that good.
The special effects camerawork is smart, as well—while the camera might be in an “impossible” place, its movement is much, much less than so many other modern sci-fi/CGI-heavy actioners (especially Peter Jackson’s films). Not to say the CGI “camera” of The Avengers is not very mobile, but usually only in places where a “real” camera could be placed.

NYC is totally, gloriously clobbered, and while the imagery is certainly reminiscent of 9/11, I don’t think it’s a commentary on that event per se—how the NYPD and NYFD would respond to alien invaders blowing up buildings would most certainly look very similar to their bravery on September 11.

But how the film ties in the city-wide destruction with Captain America’s post-battle emotions is absolutely a manipulation towards feeling patriotic (or at least moved by the useless loss of life)—but unlike the DC ethos of “Obey Authority” that straightjackets Supes and Batz into being humorless fascist ultra-cops, with The Avengers, it’s a tale of often antisocial oddities and loners banding to fight a common enemy. The Dirty Dozen, not Dirty Harry.

Characters are broad, but well-defined—and unlike with DC, these heroes are, even the authority figures, all misfits—or else, as with Thor and Captain America, they are completely out of their natural element (Asgaard and the 1940s, respectively)—but still honorable to those around them. (Honor is big with both of them.)

This film also has my favorite “cookie” (the after-the-credits moment so prevalent in Marvel’s films): the team is eating shawarma (a nice call back to something Iron Man says earlier) after an exhausting day at work.
Nothing needs to be said, nor is it, and it’s a beautiful moment that in my opinion adds a lot of shading to the film. It’s just a nice quiet moment.
[SEE PHOTO at top of post, for the Avengers enjoying some lamb on pita with sauces…]

Growing up in the 1970s, my primary loyalty to comics was decided by artistry first: I bought anything Jack Kirby was associated with (followed by, with varying degrees of discernment, Jim Steranko, Steve Ditko, Berni Wrightson, Mike Ploog, Neal Adams, Gil Kane, Herb Trimpe and others).
But after that, I trended towards Marvel: aside from being “cooler” (for a kid, much of their art was borderline psychedelia—even the illustrations of complicated machines), their comics also seemed more realistic, taking place in a real metropolis (NYC) as opposed to some made-up city, and the heroes themselves had problems.
Of course it helped that at the time of my major comics consumption, Marvel had most of the best artists in its stable, as well.

That said, I do like the alternative universe the Marvel Comics movies have created, with all its little twists and turns:
Superheroes would not be allowed to act alone; it makes sense they’d be recruited into a secret military unit (although how secret is SHIELD, really? They seem to be a heavy presence in the flick’s world, like a superscience combo of the CIA and NSA).
(Now when is that punk Peter Parker getting recruited by SHIELD? Whoops, sorry; no go—he belongs to Sony.)

So, was the much recommended reboot X-Men: First Class set in the Marvel Universe shared by The Avengers? I got the impression the men-in-black secret agents were all members of some early-1960s version of SHIELD. Anyway, I hope so.

Meanwhile, with the exception of the otherworldly demigod, all of the superheroes in Marvel’s The Avengers are either exceptionally skilled, or have powers that are a result of or spun-off from the WWII super-soldier serum research that created Captain America: Stark’s father worked on the project, and in a throwaway line, it’s revealed that the Hulk is a result of trying to enhance the formula with gamma rays—or something like that… (Was this something covered in Edward Norton’s Hulk reboot? Still haven’t seen that one, although I know Tony Stark has a cameo, so it should therefore tie into the world of The Avengers; unlike Ang Lee’s execrable telling of the Doc Banner tale.)

BTW, and sorry for the nerd interruption: research into the super-soldier serum is what created Marvel’s version of DC’s Swamp Thing (or vice versa), Man-Thing, one of my childhood faves.
Dr. Ted Sallis was working on the serum at an isolated lab in the Everglades (WTF?), when agents of AIM, an offshoot of Marvel’s SPECTRE-stand-in Hydra, threaten him.

He drives off, injecting himself with a prototype of the serum, But crashing into a polluted, possibly radioactive, definitely sulphurous, and probably magical swamp causes Sallis to mutate horribly, looking like a Lovecraftian bog-heap with unblinking red-tomato eyes and three elephantine trunks (penises?) hanging from its face.
Now more plant than human, and about nine-feet tall, the incredibly strong and basically indestructible monster also has a poison in its system that causes horrible, searing pain if whatever it’s touching is scared—(“Whatever knows fear, BURNS at the Man-Thing’s touch,” the narrative text would intone about once per issue)—
which is damn tough when confronted with this swampy mutant.

Unlike Swamp Thing, MT was empty: his mind was blank, and he had no intelligence or memory or personality, except that of an animal—one that was very sensitive to fear.
Mostly illustrated by the stylish Mike Ploog, the comic itself was horror-monster-supernatural centered, with Man-Thing occasionally dealing with Marvel heroes who crossed into those genres, like Hulk and Dr. Strange, with an occasional co-star spot with Spider-Man or Ben Grimm in Marvel Two-In-One.

My Top Five Superpowered Costume Freak Movies
For me, the top superhero films are now, in order (not that I’ve seen them all anyway):
The Avengers
James Gunn’s Super—reviewed HERE
Planet Hulk (animated)—ultraviolence, Hulk style. Sentenced to die in an alien arena, Hulk fights his way to the top, and who doesn’t love to see Hulk fight monsters? With a special guest appearance by Beta Ray Bill, and cameos by Thor, Iron Man and Reed Richards.
The Incredibles—a classic, nuff said.
X-Men: First Class
But if mutants did exist in the early-1960s US, would it have sped up or slowed down the Civil Rights movement? Would greater societal acceptance of African-Americans happened quicker if there had been a fear of mutants, like how blacks were more “accepted” in wartime? Hmmm
And in a world of “less” racism, with time less spent on stupid things (and more time spent on potential mutant “enemies”), could the superscience that we see in all the Marvel movies set in the contemporary world actually been achieved? Hmmmm….

Watchmen—the darrrrrrrk flipside to The Incredibles (not the sunniest film itself); enjoyed with plenty of caveats (that Baby Boomer soundtrack: Oy!); hardly perfect, but what style!
And frankly, a very faithful adaptation, that in my opinion improves on the original in regards to Rorschach’s motivation (no more Mad Max rip-off!), and Ozymandius’ plan (no more such an overt rip-off of “The Architects of Fear”!)
I do love how Jackie Earle Haley is channeling Clint Eastwood; everything with Dr. Manhattan or The Comedian; and Malin Akerman’s latex outfit: meow!
There’s a visual tribute to Watchmen up at LERNER INTERNATIONAL’s fraternal blog The United Provinces of Ivanlandia—check it out!

And as you can see, there are no DC heroes on my list (although, honestly, I’ve really enjoyed the couple of animated Superman movies that I’ve seen…).
If there’s a good superhero movie, I may not know about, please let me know in the comments section.

So that guy in the middle of the end credits of The Avengers is Thanos—which is pretty cool, I think: he’s one of my fave villains, perhaps not as frequent in the Avengers’ canon, but with an impressive storyline, stretching across galaxies and the Marvel Universe, especially with Captain Marvel and Warlock (where I first discovered the purple supervillain).

Directly below is a toy figurine of the villain, followed by his appearance in various issues—
Created by trippy-traditionalist Jim Starlin, Thanos is Marvel’s imitation of Jack Kirby’s Darkseid, and Thanos wants the Cosmic Cube—oops, I mean Tesseract—to turn himself into GOD and control the universe to appease and impress his wannabe-mistress, Death herself. (Just like Darkseid wanted the Anti-Life equation…Shhhh!)

The illustrations below [like most of the comic book images used in this post, they are from the incredible Diversions of the Groovy Kind, an essential site to bookmark] give you just a small taste of the intergalactic, almost-psychedelic superhero-mayhem fans of The Avengers should expect in the film’s sequel when the team has to wrassle with the powerful space-ghoul.

And I wonder if AIM or Hydra will show up this time? Or are they going to be in the upcoming sequel to Captain America or Iron Man 3?

All the way at the bottom, the last two covers down there give a good indication of where things might be going with the Marvel Universe’s comic-book-sci-fi epic flicks—
Will the Guardians of the Galaxy (I’m so glad James Gunn is working on that movie!) make a cookie-appearance in Thor: The Dark World?
After Thanos, will the Avengers then take on the X-Men? Hmmmm….

Globally, fanboys wait with baited breath….

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