The Avengers Raises the Bar for All Comic Book Films to Come

Ensign Lestat's Film Log, 25/05/2012
The film event of 2012 that we have all been waiting for!
There has been much talk and hype about Marvel's 'The Avengers' (distributed as 'Marvel's The Avengers' where I live because we're home to citizens from both sides of the pond). Ever since the first Easter egg for a potential Avengers film was mentioned in the end credits of 'The Incredible Hulk' (and the only reason my Dad gleefully joined us for the film), there has been lots of speculation and anticipation regarding this particular comic book film. The subsequent Marvel films regarding members of the Avengers have all included Easter eggs adding to the hype. Many people wondered how the filmmakers would make it work - a group of superheroes instead of the lone gunmen in their individual films.

Having said that, Marvel successfully launched the comic book movie phase with 'X-Men' in 2000, a story containing many superheroes, so there was at least a somewhat successful precursor to Avengers.

Personally, I'm not the biggest fan of the Avengers in the comic books. They appear to me to be a bickering, disjointed and egotistical group, who usually have an air of condescension surrounding them and, my biggest bone to pick with them, never support the X-Men. Shocking! I was quite against the idea of watching the Avengers' films - though not the first Iron Man so much since Tony Stark had turned up in my X-Men game and I liked to think that I was familiar with that character.

Marvel's best. I think.
Anyway, I begrudgingly acknowledged that I enjoyed the first Iron Man film, but I admit the second left me feeling unenthusiastic. I don't like Thor, but he saved Angel in an X-Factor comic, so he was partly redeemed. I wasn't planning to watch the Thor film, especially since it starred Star Trek 2009's Kirk's dad, but the fact that it was being directed by Kenneth Branagh of all people, also starred Natalie Portman in a thankfully updated role of a scientist and that the Loki in the posters looked like he'd walked right off the page of the Marvel comics drew me in. 'Thor' is now one of my favourite Marvel movies ever (it may even be my top favourite though I'm not sure since I have an affinity towards the aforementioned 'X-Men'. Mind you, if Thor had Cyclops in it, it would definitely be my number one favourite film).

After 'Thor', 'Captain America' was a huge disappointment. Now, if anyone believes my feelings towards other members of the Avengers is harsh, they haven't heard me rail against Cap. Cap is sanctimonious, to say the least, and how he is able to keep the band of lunatics together is a wonder. I was hellbent against watching the film... till they cast Chris Evans as Cap. Darn! I thought. Chris has been on my radar for a long time, I'm not even sure how or why. He's one of those all-American type actors who is just the right kind of eye candy to get you to sit through a lot of nonsense. Not saying he appears in a lot of nonsense, but it's not Citizen Kane kind of stuff either, I can tell you that. Well, even Chris couldn't save the 'Captain America' film - it is mostly forgettable. I've been meaning to re-watch it, especially before seeing Avengers, but can't bring myself to wade through it. Sad, really.

At the outset, I have to admit that I find it surprising that the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) didn't get a film of her own before the Avengers came together. Not that I would watch that, I mean, the casting directors would have to cast a serious beauty as a bad guy/ love interest/ sidekick/ whatever other male roles are left to get me to sit through it, but it surprises me nonetheless.

I would have invested next to nothing in 'The Avengers' film had the end of Captain America not included a trailer for the film, and had the trailer not included Loki. I have to confess that Tom Hiddleston's Loki blew me away in 'Thor'. Loki is a particularly mischievous and evil character in the Marvel Universe - his brief forays into any X-Men storylines have been bad news. I was all set to dislike this character with a passion, and I do, but Hiddleston makes him so accessible. Loki, played by Hiddleston, is all the right kinds of bad - does that even make sense?

Avengers Assemble!
'The Avengers' has now been playing for a good three weeks in the halls, but despite that the seats keep filling up. I thought I would miss the film, but was thankfully able to catch it. In 3D no less, but less said about that aspect, the better.

The film starts off with a big enough bang - a S.H.I.E.L.D. facility is undergoing evacuation procedures as the facility is in danger. How much? We, as well as Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) soon find out, when the big, bad Loki lands up. He threatens the coming of worse things for Earth and makes off with Dr. Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard), previously seen as a collaborator of Thor's love interest and saviour, Jane Foster (Natalie Portman, who is unfortunately not in this film) and more importantly, SHIELD's chief archer (if there is such a thing), Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner), who is referred to as the Hawk once, but never by his comic book code name, Hawkeye.

The film then lapses into an incredibly slow build-up to the final assembly of all the Avengers. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) takes an age to appear on-screen, which is debilitating, especially when Loki is not there filling the space. Right, I forget, this film is about the Avengers. Complaining over.

It takes a while to get all the members of the Avengers together, and once together, they constantly butt heads, argue, joke and smite each other. These feuds are interspersed with figuring out what Loki's plan is, through interrogating the man, oh, pardon me, I meant the god, himself as well as a great deal of conjecture. We have a heavy sprinkling of mistrust among the main players and SHIELD as well, adding another dimension to this dynamic relationship. Oh, did I mention all this is happening in mid-air on a floating air-ship (it's probably called something, but I didn't catch that)?

Eventually all hell breaks lose when the airship is attacked, Loki escapes and a member of SHIELD is killed. This is the magnet that brings all the Avengers together and the mission the glue that binds them. It's a sudden moment of sentimentality that, to me, unfortunately, felt, not quite out of place, as much as more forced. However, I am told that it is in keeping with director Joss Whedon's style, so, there you have it. It had to be done.

The team then head to New York to fight Loki and his army. The battles are brilliant, each member has their role to play. Much destruction of property ensues - I think each member crashes through glass at least once, and eventually the film comes to an end - with a scene in the credits as well. Oh, and the credits are fabulous to watch. Fantastic graphics work!

Anything I say about this film will be a spoiler. I thought, at first, that I perhaps should not have watched all the trailers for the film beforehand, but suffice to say the trailers don't ruin everything. And, most importantly for this film, the trailer does not include the funniest lines. Thank goodness for that, because this film really does have a lot of funny moments and dialogue. I don't know how or why Joss Whedon decided to make Loki funny, because Loki is downright hilarious at times, but it's a pretty interesting move. How successful is part-menace/ part-funny Loki as a bad guy, I really don't know. I felt, throughout, that somewhere inside Loki, a battle waged on which made him do the things he did, but in reality, that actually wasn't him. Something, some force, compelled his actions. Or I'm just crazy. Could be the latter.

Of course, Loki coming up with wise-cracking comebacks and other witticisms makes some sense - he is the God of mischief, so of course he'd make light of everything. Plus, he's pitted against perennial funnyman Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr., RDJ for short), so you can't not expect verbal fireworks to explode.

A surprise exclusion from the team would be the Falcon and the Black Panther. I'm okay with the other members of the team, but the complete exclusion of a member of colour is a tad disappointing, especially considering those members are part and parcel of people's memory of the team.

But, back to the film at hand. For once, Johansson keeps her kit on, which made the film imminently more watchable. But overall she was a huge disappointment. Black Widow appears to be a glorified secretary, which is annoying, because comic book films appear to never know what to do with their female characters. It's really strange - they're always introducing newbies to other members of the team or taking them to their quarters or whatever. Seems like they never sit and strategise or investigate or the like. She's not a complete lost cause, of course, the writer-director made sure of that, but Johansson herself doesn't do the character justice. She appears to look frightened a lot of the time, and does not hold a commanding position. Disappointing, considering she's the only female on the team.

I was surprised that Nick Fury didn't have any action sequences of his own - he's the guy in command, but just that in this film. He's not even part of the final battle, which was a huge disappointment. Him not having superpowers isn't really a deterrent, considering neither Hawkeye nor Black Widow have super abilities either. Pity.

Jeremy Renner as the Hawk. Smashing!
There is shockingly little of Hawkeye in the film, actually. He is otherwise occupied during the feuding but plays an equally important role in the final battle. Heck, it's probably a good thing he wasn't part of the feud, sounds to me like Hawkeye probably would have shot everybody in the head with his exploding arrows if he had been there. I enjoyed Jeremy Renner's performance as the Hawk. I was initially reluctant to accept his casting, but my interest was piqued by his cameo in 'Thor'. Renner is always less prettier than I remember him being, but he did my recollections justice this time by looking ably glamorous in his sleeveless costume. [SPOILER ALERT] And him being turned into a bad guy by Loki certainly had its merits for Loki and the viewers alike. [END SPOILER]

One person who really impressed me was Mark Ruffalo. I've seen more films of him than I remember apparently but he has never made much of an impression on me. His Oscar-nominated turn in 'The Kids are All Right' was horrible - he mumbled throughout the film. I was dreading the decision to cast him as Bruce Banner/ Hulk, especially since I quite liked Edward Norton in 'The Incredible Hulk'. But having said that, Ruffalo was able to draw me to his Banner easily. Granted, his Hindi is terrible, but he played the tortured soul to perfection. I had no trouble believing that this man was Banner, which is a hard task considering he is the only one who has not appeared as his character before (all the others have). I was very impressed. I also understand that he played the Hulk in motion capture, which pleases me, because it's good to know he was part of the final battle. Also, he's the only member who takes his kit off, so that's always a plus.

Chris Evans is another tortured soul as Captain America - he's a man out of time, but is an inspiration to others, as portrayed by Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) who is keen for Cap to sign his trading cards. Chris looks different in this film not only to the way he looked in the Captain America film, but also to the others. His make-up makes him look doll-like, which isn't all bad, but it did make him look a little strange from time to time. The new costume, or suit as Cap calls it, is more fitting for his statuesque frame. I'm guessing when you've been in ice over fifty years, you're likely to look a little more porcelain, pale and coiffed than the average guy on the street. America is a strategist, a military man, what's important to him is the mission and bringing the team together to accomplish the mission. He's dogged, and this attitude rubs the others the wrong way. It doesn't help that Tony comes armed with an arsenal of jibes whenever Cap is anywhere near his vicinity. Actually, Tony is ready with a verbal arsenal no matter who is near him.
Someone forgot to tell Chris he was playing Captain America, not Ken from Barbie
But, what I liked was that despite his youth, Chris' Cap exudes authority, and Nick Fury also backs him up, which is a precursor to how, eventually, the rest of the team turn to him for orders. It's rather a fantastic moment when, as the audience, you belatedly realise that Tony has just asked Cap for instructions, and is willingly following his lead.

Speaking of Tony, the great Stark is of course one of the biggest selling points of the film. He is at his perkiest and wittiest best. RDJ proudly sports grey roots in this film, but nothing can take away from the charisma of the man. He's a scene-stealer. I enjoyed watching him and his antics. Even though Tony looks like RDJ, RDJ never intruded. Not that RDJ ever would, but it stuck in my head this time around.

This brings me to my favourite Avenger - Thor. It is evident by now, I'm sure, that I dearly love Chris Hemsworth's Thor. The two Chrises (Evans and Hemsworth) successfully dragged me to watch comic book films I would never have thought of watching before, but Hemsworth is breathtaking. He enters with a bang, and a long time coming it is. I personally feel they should have introduced him earlier, as I did spend a great deal of time wondering whether we were likely to see Thor at all. However, once he arrives, the entire tone of the film, for a brief scene anyway, changes. When Thor and Loki speak to each other, they speak in an old-fashioned eloquent fashion, it's a change from the normal language of the film, but a pleasant one all the same. Where there's a great deal of smashing and exploding usually, comes a heartfelt plea from our golden-haired Norse God to his brother to change his ways. I especially love that scene as it harks back to the 'Thor' film itself, where Thor engages his brother, first in conversation, before physical battle. It continues with the arc that at one time Thor craved war, but during the course of his time on Earth, realised there was more to life than that. Agent Coulson, also kindly informs Thor and the audience of Jane's whereabouts, a clever move by Whedon, who probably knew that the audience would have been waiting for Jane to turn up, especially after seeing Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) in Stark Tower.
Thor and his golden hair, it just kills me!
Hemsworth is quietly memorable, as he speaks little, but does more in tandem with others in the team. He looks fabulous in this film, even more so than in 'Thor', I don't know how. I think it's the hair. It's long and golden, not coiffed like Cap's or Loki's but has enough grit in it to make it look natural and appealing. The way it's draped makes him look very beautiful, gentle and even a little sad... and I will stop going on about some guy's hair and move on.

Loki, the supervillain of our dreams.
Wait, did I just write that?
To the reason this film appealed to me in the first place - Loki. The menacing, evil, funny, beautiful, breathtaking, elegantly costumed, big bad Loki. He looks taller, more imposing, more lovely and more fantastic than he did in 'Thor' and just comes off as more memorable than all the Avengers and SHIELD put together. I don't know how much Tom Hiddleston likes this character, but he embodies Loki like a second skin. Loki has got to be the most attractive supervillain I've ever seen on screen. And this despite him wanting to subjugate mankind and be a King! To Rule! Oh, and he has this weird idea that Thor took away his rightful Kingship in Asgard. As my Mum, who was watching with me (and has recently re-watched Thor) said, how did he work that one out, exactly?

Loki is at his scheming best in this film. We know he's got plans, and his contentedness at being captured in Germany only proves that something's wrong. The audience knows it and the writer knows the audience knows it, so we sit and wait, pulses racing, waiting for something to happen. It is all brilliantly agonising, all the better for Loki's calculated stares and evil (but brilliant) smiles. Hiddleston has this character down pat. He doesn't play Loki for laughs, but successfully slips in those punchlines with a straight face and sometimes with menacing intent. He's a joy to watch - effortless.

Now that I have finished cooing over the NorseGodians, let's talk about the film. I've mentioned that there is a slow-build to the eventual battles - the build is just a little too long, it needed an injection of pace and perhaps one action piece in between to break the monotony. By the time Thor arrives, I was itching for some action, something to move the story forward. Thor and the ensuing fight should have come sooner, and then we could have returned to the talking.

There's also the problem of mistrust. We, the audience, already know all these characters, and we know the good guys from the bad. [SPOILER ALERT] The Hawk, a character we have not met, bar in a cameo, is turned into a villain in the first instance, making his loyalties clear, but we know where his true allegiance lies, and we know that eventually he will turn back. [END SPOILER]

The characters feuding due to clashing egos is one thing, that is understandable, and anyone who's read even half an Avengers comic will know that this is the Avengers' usual routine - wake up, eat breakfast, bicker with anyone in sight of the breakfast table, look for a mission, argue the best tactics, leave for mission in a bad mood, save the world, or at least New York, return to HQ and part ways through celebrating, begin bickering again. Okay, I made some of that up, but you get the general gist of the matter. I'm completely cool with the bickering, the jibes, the broadening chests and towering heights. My problem is with the initial mistrust of a character like Thor. I know Iron Man and Cap haven't met him before, but the pleasure (or some of it) of a fight between these three is lost on us who know they're all on the same side and shouldn't be in battle. Anyway, how can you not trust a beauty with muscles like that on his arms? And those long golden locks, just screaming innocence and...

Moving on! Those were two huge negatives for me in lieu of the story and direction of the film. In a way, the novelty of a potential who's-the-baddie is lost on the audience due to the number of solo films that have come before, and of course, all the literature that it is adapted from.
Let us battle! With each other? Really?
But, these negatives aside, I think the choice of Joss Whedon as director was rather genius. Picking Kenneth Branagh for 'Thor' was superlative, but Whedon has taken an ambitious project and made it work. I think his success comes from being a fan of the original Avengers comics as well as of the X-Men. Being a fan makes him familiar with the dynamics of a team of disparate individuals.

This film is like no other comic book film before, at least in my opinion. The trailers made me think of 'Transformers: Dark of the Moon'. Now, that's is a terribly base comparison, but this film does use some of the same effects as Transformers 3, thereby giving it a similar look, especially the alien army at the end.

But, leaving distasteful Transformers comparisons aside, the feel of this was more a sci-fi than comic book adaptation. Both are part of the fantasy genre, and per se I don't think one can distinguish between comic book fans and sci-fi fans (I could be wrong). But this film felt like a mixture of '2001: A Space Odyssey', 'Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrw', the aforementioned 'Transformers 3', definitely some 'Star Wars' thrown in, as well as some 'Alien'. None of this, by the way, is meant to detract from the film.

The film starts off in outer space, I actually found myself asking if we were in the right hall. Of course, then Loki showed up and all was explained. The major villains are aliens, and the cause of all the problems is a piece of cosmic technology called the Tesseract. A lot of the film takes place on an air ship. Loki's costume habitually transforms into an elegant suit of armour - and the metamorphosis looks like holographic technology. Loki's weapon, the spear/ scepter is cosmically charged and has the power to 'expand minds'.

[SPOILER ALERT] The moment that drove home the fact that this film felt unusual was when the Hawk, having banged his head against a railing, is restrained on a bed and is talking to the Widow. Loki had earlier mentioned that recovering from his ministrations would be difficult for the Hawk, and we see what he means; the Hawk displays the characteristics of a man recovering from an addiction. He talks about his mind being expanded, posing rhetorical questions about the same to Widow. It just felt like a scene from a sci-fi (don't know which one, though), and it finally clicked in my head why the film felt so different. [END SPOILER]

Joss Whedon's Sci-Fi Classic
I stress that this was more a sci-fi than comic book movie because I personally love Whedon's 'Serenity'. I wasn't sure how I felt about that film, till my sister started raving about it. 'The Avengers' has a lot less grit and dirt than 'Serenity', but they are capillaries of the same vein. In fact, the airship is reminiscent of some of the ships in 'Firefly'.

Had the 3D been better in the theater we watched the film at, I would have enjoyed the film even more. But all that is negligible compared to the overall enjoyment that I had. I loved this film a lot more than I had ever expected myself to. It was big, loud and fantastic. The sets were spectacular, the action brilliantly choreographed and pulsating. The quiet moments were intimate. The male Avengers for the most part were surprisingly easy on the eye, and all of them had striking chemistry with each other. The cast got along well during filming, and that chemistry seeps into all their scenes, even the ones where they're fighting. Chris Evans looked like a real live Ken doll and Chris Hemsworth is a true incarnation of a Norse God, he is so beautiful and his hair is so divine (I'll shut up about it now). But most of all, and let me gush, Tom Hiddleston as Loki is the reason I went to the cinema, and he was worth every penny I paid. He has the most striking looks of the new decade, and he imbues his characters with feeling and sentimentality. And I love the long black hair. Very becoming. And the new costume. Love it! Headgear and all!

New York will never be the same again, now that it's witnessed Earth's mightiest heroes at work. 'The Avengers' has changed the name of the game for comic book films. I hope things just get bigger and better after this.

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