20 Thoughts While Watching a Chinese Bootleg of The Avengers 37 Times Over the Weekend
1. The imperfections in Whedon's writing make his work even more wonderful in this soulless focus-grouped time. Some jokes are contrived, the Galaga reference is super-dated, and no one, even evil aliens, should use the actual phrase, "cowering wretches." But the glitches, to be sure, are human mistakes, not marketing miscalculations, and through them you can see the mind at work, a mind tasked with this inconceivable action/comedy/sci-fi/fantasy/origin/ensemble/mass appeal/fanboy problem of a story. And he clearly wants it to work.
2. Yeah, I'm watching a Chinese bootleg. So what, Marvel? I bought about 300 Avengers-related comics with cash money, back in the day when you were almost bankrupt, before you were a money-making juggernaut. I read those paper comics until they were falling apart at the binding, all so I could grow up to be a resource of Thanos information for my other friends who have real lives with girls and babies. I bought a single issue of A vs. X at ComicCon, just so I could feel one in my hand. So really, you can spot me the cost of one DVD.
3. Avengers could conceivably surpass Star Wars as the greatest nerd myth. And by myth I don't mean "something that Kari Byron busts." Star Wars reached a generation through a no-duh formula of heroic myth and archetypal characters within an exciting robust universe. Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter sort of have this, but are too stuck in sword and sorcery tropes to grab us with that freeing leap of imagination. The Avengers bring the Game of Throniness via Thor, but they also bring the sexy technology, modern-world intrigue, and most importantly, characters with rich, tactile histories, embedded in them by crafty writers over generations. (Harry Potter, expansive and voluminous though he is, was basically invented last Tuesday after a quick read through the Dungeons and Dragons Beginner's Manual. True fact.)
4. The relationship between Iron Man and Hulk is really cute. Savvy tweaking of the "Rich sexy guy coaches the loser egghead" bromance motif.
5. Scarlett Johansson does a very good job. She is with Maggie Q and Sigourney Weaver on a very short list of women actors who make you believe they're going into a fight with something at stake. (As opposed to say, Jennifer Garner, who aims a gun like she's deciding which latte to order.) Also nice is how Black Widow fights in a thigh-intensive style both Spider-y and Emma Peel-y. I can't say if she is speaking Russian well, but with that throaty voice she could sound good speaking Ewok. Leering aside, compare, for example, her part in that idiotic Island movie or even in Iron Man 2 with her tactically saucy work here; it's the difference between sexy and sexualized.
6. If the story is going to go on, they are gonna need a lot more out of Captain America. Cap is often kind of a dud on his own, and has always shined best as a guest star (since he is, at his most poignant, a kind of guest star in his own country). Hopefully before the next movie comes out, someone involved will read Daredevil #233, in which Cap shows up and is sullen and conflicted in an appealing Ryan Gosling-ish kind of way.
7. The Hulk is used to better effect here than in any Hulk iteration in Hulk history, a testament to Whedon's cleverness. Ruffalo's strained voice is a poem for every quiet man with a monster inside.
8. Thor...has always sucked, and within that limitation, Chris Hemsworth distinguishes himself just by maintaining the accent and gruffing out a few charming grunts and bellows. I mean, you do believe he is Thor, whatever Thor is.
9. I like how Hawkeye spends a lot of time recovering his arrows, as if to mollify the funless people who will rightly point out that he shoots three thousand arrows out of his slim little Sharper Image quiver.
10. Iron Man is played by Downey Jr. with marvelous, uh, consistency. He's the Han Solo that could make the Supassing-Star-Wars thesis work. "Hey...it's me."
11. Whedon's sole weakness in his nerd storytelling skills is a penchant for generic mushy-faced alien/demons/villains that are underdesigned and no one cares about too much. We saw it in Buffy and in Astonishing X-Men (come on, we really needed to go to that whole planet with the skill-saw-fist guys?) It's fine here, since, as per Thanos, a lot of Avengers villains actually look like that.
12. That one big shot of zooming around the city, lingering on all the different Avengers fighting, is the greatest shot of the CGI-Replaces-Everything era. It's about as good as the Millennium Falcon flying through that swarm of TIE fighters in Return of the Jedi, which was the craziest shot of that SFX era.
13. Everyone, with the possible exception of Captain America (who, to be sure, is a medium actor in an unexciting role) gives a generous performance. Generous to us nerds. (Well, okay, Cap does make nerd boner with that "Got a suit?" line, but apart from that he's usually on the verge of exposing the invisible wires.) Downey Jr., Renner, and Johansson are all pretty big Hollywood people and have every reason to just put on the costume and phone it in, yet they all seem convincingly invested in, uh, saving the city from aliens. (If you need a template for "phoned in," meaning "functional but lifeless," see the performance of every actor in every X-Men film except for Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, and Ellen Page) A few false notes come from Samuel L. Jackson, who is probably just tired from being in a thousand movies.
14. They should have used the ubiquitous blue metal mesh from Spiderman and Superman's new outfits on Captain America, who actually wears chainmail in the comics, yet his movie outfit looks like it's made of felt or something. Weird.
15. It's classy, the festishy lingering in extreme close-up over the gear of the Avengers in the end credits. Someone definitely put a lot of work into making those practical props, and to both them and us gadget-heads, it's all important, the stitching on Cap's shield straps, the gears inside Hawkeye's arrowhead-dispenser, the shape of the cylinders on Black Widow's bracelets.
16. Whedon's appreciation for every movie that nerds like (from Star Trek to LOTR) maintains the movie at the perfect temperature of a little silly, but not stupefyingly stupid. That's all we want, Michael Bay, Brett Ratner, Zack Snyder. A movie that does not make us stupider.
17. On the other hand, as evident from small moments like Black Widow's innate terror at the threat of the Hulk emerging, or Iron Man's basic inability to shut up, Whedon is still clearly a WRITER, that is, is a guy who watches how people act in the real world. As opposed to a hack sheltered Ivy Leaguer who paraphrases other things that have made money. (This one thing is so important to the health of the art form that I will surely weep.)
18. Fanservicey references that I like: Star Wars, in the sound design for the Speeder Bike chase scene. For gamers: Ultimate Alliance fusion attack combo move with Cap and Iron Man. Bruce Banner wandering solo around in the countryside like the guy in the Hulk TV show used to do.
19. "Watchmen" could have been as satisfying as the Avengers if that Zack Snyder guy (who is now directing the ultimate unrelate-able stiff, Superman) knew one thing about human interaction (to be fair, he does know exactly one thing about the human eye's interaction with boobs and muscles). Marvel has done really well employing directors like Favreau and Branagh, who are actorly and interested in the human component of the craft. DC has been fucking up by using film-school types who are mainly interested in atmosphere (Snyder) and pretentious ideas (Nolan). Yeah, the Batman movies were good but they were like the movies we need, not the movies we deserve when we live to die to become the hero to our own legend of our fall from darkness and yadda yadda bridge explodes.
20. Larry Hama, a great comics writer, said at this year's ComicCon (re: G.I. Joe), "the fantasy is that Snake Eyes will come and get you." He was talking about camaraderie, which is the essential comic-book fantasy. It's not really about having unnatural power, which is just an extrapolation of every introvert's unexpressed id problem (dig deep into a nerd and you find that he does, in fact, already believe he has mutant powers, usually that of superior intelligence). The truly seductive fantasy is that you, an ordinary person, matter enough that someone with unnatural power will arrive and intervene in your time of disaster. (They have also built a few religions on this premise, I gather.) This is why we read superhero comics; to imagine that timely teammate, our ideal self projected, a friend who can fly to whereever you are.