A Review of “The Avengers”

This was it. This was the film that I had been waiting for since last summer, the film that nearly every comic book collector and everyone raised in a childhood of reading superhero adventures was waiting for. The Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, together in one film, in a super adventure extravaganza. It has been a while since I booked tickets in advance for an opening weekend show, even for a comic book adaptation. This however, was to be the film to end all superhero films. This was The Avengers.

It did not disappoint.

Marvel Studios put into practice in the Avengers what I trust they learned through the ill-fated X-Men films. First, the film began with a collection of characters that had already been at least introduced, and in most cases thoroughly developed, in their own films. Thus, no time was needed to be spent on backstory, with the exception of some history for the Black Widow and Hawkeye, which Joss Whedon and company accomplished nicely through expository dialogue. Secondly, each character was given enough screen time to shine, not only in action sequences, but also in character development. Only a very good director can accomplish this, and I don’t think any of us expected anything less from Whedon, but it was still wonderful to witness.

The plot is relatively simple. Loki, the so-called god of mischief and Thor’s half-brother, returns from the nether-realms into which he fell at the end of Thor, this time assisting an extra-dimensional race that we don’t see (until the end, that is…stay through the credits for the hidden ending) in order to enslave the human race. Nick Fury brings together our heroes into a team in order to stop the alien invasion that threatens to destroy most of mankind and enslave whoever’s left. That’s the story arc in a nutshell, and, with respect to other reviewers who found this to be disappointing, I would point out what any comic book fan knows: this is what the Avengers do. This, in its purest form, is the origin story of the team of super heroes: an evil too great for any one hero to defeat alone, results in the heroes joining forces to save the earth. Approaching it expecting something different is to approach it asking the wrong questions.

The beauty of a simple plot is what comic book writing accomplishes so masterfully: exploring deep themes within the context of the simple story. Whedon explores our ability to trust the government that is there to protect us, a government that has its own secrets that may or may not be better in the bigger picture. He explores the ethics of a society quelling its fear by building the bigger weapons. He explores the theme of individual talents having to overcome their own ways of doing things in order to work together with others for the greater good. He explores mankind’s freedom of choice, and the innate desire to fight for that freedom against one who claims that we “were made to be ruled.” Moreover, he explores the nature of a hero, and how those heroes who swoop in to protect us from those evils up to which we cannot stand ourselves work together to accomplish what no one of them could accomplish on their own. That, after all, is the better part of half of this film: how our favorite heroes’ personalities conflict with each other and what they have to work through in order to work together.

And, in true Whedon style, there’s even a faith metaphor or two (Iron Man likening himself to Jonah was particularly fun).

Whedon uses the exploration of powerful themes to develop the characters that we all came to the movie to see. And the characters do develop: Captain America begins the loyal soldier who reluctantly accepts the hesitation of his colleagues. Iron Man sacrifices his own stardom to become a team player. Bruce Banner moves past his own fear to work for the greater good. I’d go on, but I’m not into giving spoilers. All of the hidden nuggets of story that tie all of the previous movies together are unified nicely by Whedon here, by the way, and I’m sure there are going to be more visual goodies that you just can’t see on the first viewing but that will become obvious when I watch it again.

As expected, Whedon’s writing is snappy and complete with witty moments of comic relief that somehow avoid (with an exception or two) the cliche humor that can so easily trap a big action film. And, speaking of action, the special effects were breath-taking (Iron Man having his own armor catch him in mid-air sound interesting?), and the fight sequences that occur between our heroes as they work past themselves to become a team are quite literally the stuff of legend (want to know what happens when Mjolnir strikes Captain America’s shield? Or if Thor and the Hulk go toe-to-toe? Yeah, I thought so…). If you think that’s great, then wait until the aliens from the other realm invade Manhattan (where else would a huge-scale battle with the Avengers take place?) and the Avengers hold the city, cohesive as a team, complete with firefights, archery, aerial dogfights, the Hulk swatting spacecraft from the skies, and the heroes that you wouldn’t expect to receive the most screen time saving the day, leaving half the city laid waste in the process. This makes the Transformers look like lightweights, but is never overwhelming.

Speaking of the Hulk, incidentally, Mark Ruffalo turns in an outstanding performance as the only new actor in the group…arguably better than Edward Norton did in the Hulk’s own film. To accompany this, the new CG Hulk is even complete with Ruffalo’s facial features. Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johanssen, and Samuel L. Jackson each perform beyond expectations as they reprise their roles, and while I didn’t think that Jeremy Renner looked the role of Hawkeye, he rounded out this all-star cast with flourish.

All in all, whether you are a super-hero fan or not, if you’ve enjoyed any of the previous Marvel films at all, this movie will be worth your ticket price. The audience in the show we attended applauded on several occasions. This is not another huge action film. It is the exploration of super heroes at its finest. And, it is a promise that those heroes will return to save us again in the future, because, as Fury so eloquently and simply summarizes, “we’ll need them to.”

The Nature of a Hero in Captain America

The series of my retrospectives before seeing the Avengers this weekend, along with my marathon geek-fest of movie watching this week, concludes with Captain America: The First Avenger.

For a more detailed synopsis, here’s what I wrote after first seeing the movie last summer. We know the story: Steve Rogers wants to be a soldier to fight in the war against the evil of the Nazi regime, but he can’t because of his physical ailments. After multiple denials, he is given a chance because of his courage to participate in an experimental “super soldier” program. The treatment he receives at the hands of Dr. Erskine transforms Rogers into a physical powerhouse with the abilities to enact his courage, and he ultimately becomes an icon of freedom, Captain America.

Rogers demonstrates as aspect of the nature of a hero that we haven’t seen in any of the Avengers to date: he epitomizes the fact that everyone, at some level, wants to be a hero. And, while the Red Skull is partially correct during their first encounter in saying that they are much alike, he is also missing a critical point: the Red Skull wanted the power bestowed by the super-soldier serum for his own gain. Rogers wanted the power to stop evil from overtaking the world. While the desire to be a hero may be driven by selfish motives as it universally occurs in the human experience, Rogers experienced this desire with nothing but purest of motives.

This characteristic is summarized by Erskine early in the film. The person who is born with great power often doesn’t respect it, because he didn’t have to work for it (as we saw with Thor).  The person who has to work for it understand and respects great power, and is capable of exercising it with compassion. Rogers has waited a good part of his adult life for the chance to be a hero, but he doesn’t view what he does as being a hero. He is merely performing what he sees as his duty, because (in his own words) he doesn’t have the right to do anything less. What is perhaps most heroic about Captain America is that he is, in his own perception, “just another kid from Brooklyn.”

That’s all of the retrospectives, and I’ve now watched all of the films in order to build up for this weekend. We have tickets reserved for the Avengers tomorrow afternoon, and I can’t wait to tell you my reactions! Have you seen the movie yet? Tell me what you thought (but no spoilers, please)!

Photo Attribution: popculturegeek

The Nature of a Hero in Thor

What happens when a hero abuses his power?

Thor is much different from the rest of the Avengers canon. First, the film is more fantastical. Here, we have left the groundings of science and weapons that we’ve known with Iron Man and Black Widow, and even the accidental scientific occurrence that created the Hulk. Here, we enter realms of extra-dimensional beings whom primitive cultures worshipped as deities, and it is here that Thor earned the reputation of the god of thunder.

From childhood, Thor is certain to be king of Asgard. He is a warrior, and he is proud of it. His perception of leadership is that of a warrior, and his response to provocation is to meet it with force. When he chooses to attack the enemies of the Asgardians, and thus place the realms of the universe at the brink of war, Thor’s father, Odin, deems him unworthy of the immense power he wields, and banishes him to Midgard, or Earth.

By the end of the film, Thor recognizes where he has gone wrong. He sacrifices himself to save the lives of his friends, as well as the lives of other innocent people, telling his evil half-brother Loki that the people around him have done nothing wrong, and offering his life in their stead. This act of self-sacrifice regains his power, but he must again make a sacrifice: destroying the only bridge that will lead him back to the woman he loves in order to save the lives of an entire race, although that race are sworn enemies of his own people.

Along with self-sacrifice, Thor recognizes here that all life, even the lives of his sworn enemies, are worth preserving (he even attempts to save Loki before he falls to what appears to be his death). He is willing to give up his own life to preserve others. Interestingly, Thor must also sacrifice his pride. He fulfills everything he promises throughout the film, until he meets Jane Foster. In the end, he finds himself unable to fulfill the promise he made to return to her. Thor dies to himself, in a way, in order to save the lives of innocents.

Thor is unique in the characters that will appear in this weekend’s Avengers film because he is the hero that has had to earn the right to be a hero. All of the other characters (at least as much as we’ve seen…the Black Widow is developed, but we have little backstory, and Hawkeye is not developed at all at this point) have had heroism thrust upon them through events outside of their own control. Along with being (arguably) the most powerful of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, Thor is also the character that respects his power the most, because he has seen what happens when he mis-uses it. Thor shows the nature of a hero when he learns to respect his power, and to respect the value of all life around him.

The last in my series of retrospective posts is tomorrow night: Captain America. Then, the weekend is finally here!

Photo Attribution: popculturegeek

The Nature of a Hero in Iron Man 2

Next up in my retrospective of the Avengers’ cinematic adventures to date: Iron Man 2.

This is a complex movie. Tony Stark enjoys a much more significant character development that the other Avengers, by virtue of the fact that the writers have had two films in which to develop him. I’m interested to see how this will balance with the other characters in the Avengers film this weekend. As I mentioned in my post on the first Iron Man film, here we see that Stark, while choosing to make the most of his second chance at life by acting as a hero, has not overcome his narcissistic tendencies. We also discover why: a father who, by Stark’s description, was cold and calculating and never told Tony he loved him, and that the very power source that is keeping him alive and enabling him to function as Iron Man, is also killing him.

As Tony begins to feel his own mortality, he begins to push away those closest to him, notably Rhodey and Pepper. He begins to act self-destructively, giving fuel to the fire of government officials that want his technology shared. Here we see Stark’s fear: that more of his technology will fall into the wrong hands, and be used for evil. When Rhodey takes one of the Iron Man suits for government use, and it becomes weaponized into the War Machine armor, Stark begins to see his fears materialize. Yet, still he acts courageously to protect innocents who are in harm’s way.

Compounding all of these stressors is a new villain, Anton Vanko, whose father was exiled to Siberia because he tried to exploit Tony Stark’s father’s technologies for pure profit. Vanko blames Stark for this, saying that Stark comes from a family of “thieves and butchers.” Having began to put the arms-development past of his father’s company behind him, Stark is now once more forced to face the ghosts of his past that threaten to bring him, and everyone he cares for, to their knees.

Ultimately proving the victor, Stark recognizes his own self-destructiveness, and chooses to move beyond himself to act in others’ best interests once more. This includes professing his love for Pepper at the end of the film. What Stark learns, though, is that he cannot continue to carry the enormous role of a hero in which he has found himself alone. That role is too big for one man, now. In this film, Stark wins with the aid of the War Machine and Black Widow.

Stark accepts his own limitations, and faces his own demons, to overcome his own fear of mortality and again act to help those who cannot help themselves, even against overwhelming odds. While he flirts with becoming a sort of anti-hero in this film (and who among us wouldn’t?), Iron Man remains a hero by choosing what is best for others over what is best for himself.

I’ll be interested to see how the writers will develop the potential friction between Tony Stark and Steve Rogers in the Avengers film, as the two will  compete for leadership of the team.

Next up in my retrospective: Thor.

Photo Attribution: mikequozl 

The Nature of a Hero in the Incredible Hulk

Continuing my short posts on the previous Avengers films as I build up to this weekend’s opening, tonight’s topic is the Incredible Hulk.

I remember being very glad that a new big-screen attempt was being made for the Green Goliath when this was announced several years ago, as the previous Hulk film had been…well, let’s just say that we all prefer to forget it. This newest incarnation is a good film, though, if a bit underwhelming compared to the rest of the Avengers films.

Chronologically, the events in the Incredible Hulk occur simultaneously with the events in Iron Man 2 (how do we know this, you ask? Check out a cool rundown of hidden nuggets of visual niceties in all the movies here). Bruce Banner has been on the run for some time, though, as the film opens stylistically recalling (though Banner’s eyes) the accident that transformed Banner into the Hulk. We learn later that these experiments were veiled attempts to further weaponize the World War II “super-soldier” serum that created Captain America, and that Banner is ultimately an unintended consequence of these experiments.

Banner, and the so-called monster into which he transforms, are fascinating because they are reluctant heroes. Banner is on the run, desperate to cure himself of the transformations that afflict him, because he recognizes that the power of the Hulk is too dangerous to be weaponized (this smacks a bit of Tony Stark’s fear of his Iron Man technology falling into the wrong hands, as I’ll talk about in my next post). Banner just wants to return to his life before it went wrong, and to live it with his true love, Betty Ross. While in hiding, he reluctantly stands up for what he knows to be right when he defends a lady’s honor against the predatory men who corner her. Even when confronted by the wrong-doers later, and while pursued by those who would capture him and attempt to extract the Hulk from him to harness his power for destructive purposes, Banner still pleads for a solution that prevents him from becoming angry enough to trigger his transformation into the Hulk.

Initially, the Hulk acts on instinct, retaliating against those who hurt him. Of course, he continually astounds his military pursuers with his sheer power, because the angrier the Hulk becomes, the more powerful he becomes. However, we see the character that was originally created by Stan Lee as a hybrid between the Frankenstein monster and Mr. Hyde recognize the woman he loves, and act to defend her, even against the consequences of her revenge-driven and power-hungry father. In the end, the Hulk defends her father, as well.

When one of Banner’s rogue pursuers transforms himself into the Abomination and begins wreaking havoc among innocents, Banner has potentially been cured of the Hulk transformations. At the risk of dying himself, he leaps from the aircraft at the climax of the film in hopes of triggering the transformation. He hates and fears the Hulk, but recognizes that only the Hulk can defeat the threat that is currently taking the lives of innocents. He suspects that he cannot control the Hulk, but agrees to “aim it,” in hopes that, whatever happens to himself, the monster within him will accomplish the good that no one else can. In the end, after the Hulk’s victory, he flees his pursuers once again, and ends up alone…but gaining the ability to control the Hulk.

Bruce Banner shows the nature of a hero because, while he doesn’t choose the life of the hero, he agrees to accept it because of the unique power that he now holds. He agrees to use this power to save others, others who are helpless to save themselves, despite the risk that he may not survive the attempt himself, or may lose himself inside the monster. The fact that Banner is such a reluctant hero makes him one of the most fascinating.

Next post: Iron Man 2.

Photo Attribution: stan