Tuesday, June 19, 2012

No-spoilers review of The Avengers in 3D--for those who don't normally see comics-based blockbusters

Here I'll try to help those who aren't dedicated followers of the Marvel Comics franchise decide whether to see this movie while it's still in theaters, along with whether to buy it. These aren't questions for the fanboys. They're going to see and/or buy the DVD of this regardless, as its huge ticket sales attest already.

But what about the rest of us? You wouldn't even be reading this unless you felt some desire to occasionally see a big action movie with fabulous 3D special effects and charismatic stars.

But you don't see most of them, because they're just so painfully stoopid, with 2D characterizations and a plot that just exists to get you from one fabulous F/X sequence to the next, and the director is a great special effects supervisor who thinks he's also a screenwriter.

Likewise you probably like science fiction...except when it's all fiction no science, which is usually the case.

The last big budget scifi action movie I saw was Avatar. I enjoyed it enough to see it twice (partly to test two different 3D systems), but it hasn't left much of a residue in my mind/heart. Nothing wrong with film, but it lacked something. Perhaps it shows the difference between fine craftsmanship and true art. For me it lacked heart.

On the other hand, I loved Serenity, whose director/screenwriter/auteur Joss Whedon knows how to direct an ensemble cast and make you care about their characters, tell a story that's actually a story, make the special effects work for the story and the characters instead of vice versa, and who understands that even the most serious drama needs a sprinkling of wit and a certain anarchic impulse to keep it from being too full of itself.

So--was this true of Avengers, with the same director/screenwriter? Both movies have a lot of things in common, besides Joss Whedon. Each continues a franchise, with the challenge of lassoing in both franchise fans and new viewers. Each has a fairly large ensemble cast. Each pits flawed heroes against villains who aren't entirely cartoonish. Each has women who are actually interesting characters and not just eye candy (not that they aren't that too).

My bottom line is that both films are worth non-fanboys seeing them. For me Serenity is more successful, but that doesn't mean Avengers isn't good too.

Good enough so that my spouse, who generally prefers "art films" (as do I), now wants to see at least some of the preceding franchise movies--especially the Iron Mans. That's high praise. She'd liked Serenity, but agreed with me about Avatar, and found Hell Boy pretty much a waste of time.

Some of the things we most liked about Avengers will be exactly the things some fanboys don't like, mind you. Character development means less action while that development is going on. Frequent, sly injections of humor mean the heroic, humorless posturing of so many action flicks is being diluted--good from my point of view, but the reason, I think, for some of the less favorable reviews here.

For me the most memorable character was a secondary one: Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow. Unlike the four main characters and the main villain, her human strength isn't augmented, so though she's as martial artsy as the rest, her real "superpower" is a wily brilliance coupled with and coolly exploiting the kind of looks that hampers heterosexual men's ability to think coherently in her presence.

I would love to see a prequel about her that develops her backstory, because, more than any other character, she's the one who's had a change of heart about whether to serve good or, well, not evil, but amoral self-interest. I'm not revealing anything here because this change takes place before Avengers' story begins.

In this sense she's like Angel in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer franchise, or, earlier, Xena Warrior Princess. Like them, Johansson's character has to keep consciously choosing to do the right thing--it's not an automatic reflex like it is for Captain America, for example. And because of that, her goodness is...gooder...because it is a choice.

Plus she is a spy, an assassin, a professional deceiver, using the exact tools she'd used before. So her goodness is the goodness of a battle-hardened warrior, not a saintly flower-strewing do-gooder.

In one scene she has to do battle with someone she cares about, or at least cared about. That makes for a much more interesting battle than one between a White Hat and a Black Hat, where all you care about is the Good Guy winning.

And actually, fine action sequences notwithstanding, my personal favorite scene in the movie is a conversation she has with a Bad Guy, in which there's no fighting at all. They just talk. But now, several days later, I'm still thinking about what she did in that scene--both Johansson and her character.

The unique thing Johansson brings to an industry chock full o' beautiful women is her gravitas. She doesn't ask you to take her seriously. You have to. You can't not take her seriously, even though your hormones are yelling "Battle stations!"

I don't think this is an act. She had this in Manny & Lo, when she was 12. She had this in The Horse Whisperer, when she was 14. She had this in Lost in Translation, when she was 17 yet playing a woman in her mid-twenties--convincingly. (Side note: Ryan Reynolds has got to be the biggest estupido in show biz. I bet their real problem was them both eventually realizing that she was considerably smarter than him, and his ego couldn't take it.)

That said, the other major characters all have inner conflicts that get explored. This is the way in which the film is really three-dimensional. Though its use of 3D seems pretty good to me as well. 

Avengers isn't a profound art film like, say, Akira Kurosawa's Kagemusha--a truly great war movie we saw 30 years ago and that still sticks in our minds. But it's way better than most Hollywood blockbusters (such as Avatar) IF you want character and story and actual acting in your blockbusters and not just a White Hats Black Hats story that's mostly a parade of special effects sequences.

I do think it's worth seeing in the theater, and in 3D. We have a 46" 1080p 120hz flatscreen TV and a Blu-Ray home theater (not 3D), but I'm still glad I saw this in the theater. It has the visual bigness that justifies the investment (even if you do buy the disk later), and though I haven't researched it thoroughly, I get the impression that home 3D isn't ready for prime time yet. So both the visual scale of the film and its 3D exploitation make it a good candidate for a theater visit, even if you see most films on your home system, as we do.

The music score wasn't memorable either way--neither thrilling nor annoying. For me (and I'm a music buff) it was just there.

Footnote: Gwynneth Paltrow only appears in a few scenes, which I regret because she's a luminous actor. She plays Robert Downey Jr.'s partner/lover, and as I recall she's always barefoot. It's kind of cool that she is--this one detail showing her character's insouciance despite her high-pressure job. But my spouse wondered if it was also because Paltrow is taller than Downey. Just sayin'...

Lastly, for those whose love of science fiction is alloyed by some knowledge of science--you'll be best off if you regard this as a fantasy movie and not as a science fiction one, despite the abundant hardware. After all, two of the characters are deities from the ancient Norse religion. Another transforms periodically in a way that flagrantly violates the law of conservation of matter/energy.

But even the hardware is, scientifically, nonsense. IronMan would need a fuel tank the size of a shuttle booster to do all that scooting around in the air, and since his very heavy exoshell has no flight surfaces, he'd always have to fly in stall mode at around a 45 degree angle at slower speeds in order to keep from plummeting out of the sky. The flying carrier is aerodynamically impossible. The G forces on IronMan would turn him into a red good inside his suit in short order.

These aren't exactly criticisms of the film. Whedon once said, decades ago, that he strove to be emotionally true, but that he didn't sweat the technical details. And here he's filming a movie with at least half a dozen films and hundreds of comic books and graphic novels preceding it, locking him into much of the pseudotechnology you see here. So I'm just trying to manage your expectations. Serenity is a real science fiction movie, but it's not based on comic book superheroes and demigods. So don't leave the theater complaining about such stuff. You've been warned.

Bottom line:
1. If you're a Marvel franchise fanboy, see in theater, then buy disk. But do expect that it being directed by Joss Whedon makes it different from every other film in the franchise, especially in the injection of sly humor frequently. So be prepared for its Whedonization.

Also, since it assembles everyone for the first time, it has to be a different kind of film from all the single-main-character predecessors. The fact that it's starting a new series of films featuring all these characters together means there has to be more than the usual amount of exposition in order to assemble the team.

2. If you're an art house film lover (as in you instantly recognized my reference to Kurosawa and Kagemusha and perhaps wondered why I didn't reference Seven Samurai

HOLD THE PRESSES! That's it. This is Seven Samurai redux. Assembling a team of mismatched misfits to fight a passel of baddies in defense of people all of whom did not appreciate their sacrifices. Seven Samurai is one of the greatest films of all time, but conceptualizing Avengers as a blockbuster homage to it (and I'm sure Whedon has seen it) is a good mindset to bring to this party.  )

So to restart the point, if your an art house type, and you're with friends who want to see a spectacular big-budget action movie, this will suck way less for you than most of the alternatives. It's also a good family reunion PG-13 movie. I know much younger kids I'd take to it, and others the same age that I wouldn't. Depends more on the kid than the age. And if you're the "teachable moment" type of parent, this is a great film to take the kids to and then talk about the characters and actions afterwards. They might not even realize they're being, well, taught something.

3. If you're a spouse who normally wants to watch things like Downton Abbey (which I'm watching now and loving BTW), married to someone who wants to see things blow up and gorgeous actresses doing the blowing-upping--for you the long-suffering spouse, Avengers has enough character/story stuff to serve your interests while hubby is enjoying the film's more kinetic aspects.

It has lots of violence, but you're emotionally insulated from it, by the "live-action cartoon" quality of the film. This is nothing like Saving Private Ryan or Kill Bill I&II. It could be shown on primetime broadcast TV without editing, I believe. No sex, no revealing clothing even (Scarlett Johansson's catsuit is no more or less hoochie than what the Emma Peel character wore in the eponymous 1960s British TV series), almost no cussing, and no "hard cussing."

I don't want to mislead people into seeing films I like, or into not seeing films I don't like. I want to provide objective help for you, whatever your tastes are. So if you see Avengers and feel I misled you in any way, please add a comment to this review and I'll edit what I said in here to take account of your input.