This is going to be a very long post, as I review the new “Avengers” movie and as I look at the larger recent Marvel Comics movie franchise and where it might be going…
Marvel’s The Avengers Movie Review
Superhero geeks, comic book nerds, action movie aficionados and Robert Downey Jr. groupies…
Oh, it’s very bad-ass; don’t get me wrong. But it’s not THE BEST of the genre by any means.
In fact, for emotional gravity, dramatic weight, geek appeal, dialogue, plotting and action chops all together as a well-mixed stew, I’d put it after Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, Iron Man and Spider-Man 2. Then again, those movies were able to focus on a single protagonist character, so that doesn’t make them better; just more focused and weighty. The Avengers, though, beats all of them for sheer spectacle and action (though it offers more than just that).
However, while I don’t think it’s the very best superhero movie ever made, it is the best live-action superhero team movie of all time. Yes, I know there’s not a lot of competition on that front (both Fantastic Four movies stunk, The Watchmen was excellent but not epic like The Avengers, and Mystery Men, while a fantastic movie, is a parody of the superhero team genre. X-Men as a trilogy was excellent…despite the fact that many people revile the final installment…but even all three movies together don’t pack as much intricacy and density as this first Avengers movie all on its own). Frankly, I’m not sure anything can beat The Avengers as a superhero team movie any time soon except perhaps one of the two expected sequels.
Now, I’m going to tell you as much as I can here without giving away any spoilers; I’ll warn you before I get to the things that might ruin surprises for those of you who haven’t seen the film yet but plan to.
If you’re not a comic book or superhero movie person, you may or may not know that there have been several previous Marvel Comics films that led up to this film and that have direct influence on the various things that come together to make the attempted takeover of Earth in the film come about. Those would be the two Iron Man movies so far (with at least one more on the horizon), Captain America: The First Avenger, Thor and The Incredible Hulk (which featured Edward Norton as Bruce Banner, a role played by Mark Ruffalo in The Avengers and apparently in an upcoming trilogy of Hulk movies). The main villain of The Avengers is Loki, who was also the villain in Thor. In roles as protagonists along with the superheroes who had their own movies are Col. Nick Fury (who appeared in some way in most of the previous films in bit roles), Black Widow (who appeared in Iron Man 2) and Hawkeye (who had never appeared before now in any of the films).
The movie has snappy plotting and dialogue, which owes much to the vaunted skills of director and writer Joss Whedon. There is frequent and intense action while also plenty of calmer moments of conversation, exposition, drama and comedy. We manage in a little under 2.5 hours to get not only superheroes beating up on their enemies, but also beating up on each other (for very plausible reasons) and having time for characterization as each faces personal crises, self-doubt, revelation and growth. There is bonding between them as well as tension. There are moments of heroism, villainy and also many gray areas in terms of morality.
There are some of the usual “convenient moments” as in most any film like this, where things serendipitously come together to resolve an otherwise unsolvable dilemma (such as defeating the entire enemy army at the end), there is an “easy” solution to breaking mind control, and various things are left out in the narrative (like how Bruce Banner makes it to a certain location in a timely fashion or even knows where to arrive). But overall, this movie is as believable as a movie can be that involves superheroes, and the reactions of civilians caught in the crossfire, as well as attitudes by various people in authority who aren’t superpowered, make sense in the context of things.
The movie manages to convey a sense of great destruction and death, while also not making it so grim and direct as to lose its PG-13 rating and more mass appeal for youth of many ages in addition to adults.
Robert Downey Jr., as usual, does a tremendous job with the charming, brilliant and arrogant Tony Stark/Iron Man. Scarlett Johansson brings much more to the role of Natasha Romanov/Black Widow here than she was able to do in Iron Man 2 and combines professional, sympathetic and dangerous in a fantastic way while also exuding a surprisingly mellow sexiness despite her attire, which might suggest something more overt. Mark Ruffalo surprises almost all of us fans who were pissed at Edward Norton being shoved aside by the producers and turns in a great Bruce Banner/Hulk. Chris Evans does much the same for Captain America here as he did in his solo turn with the character, but adds a grim/weary undertone to the Boy Scout image, which makes sense given the man has basically missed out on the previous 70 years after being frozen accidentally in the 1940s and is a man out of his natural time. Chris Hemsworth doesn’t do anything new with Thor compared to his previous time playing the part, which left me underwhelmed the first time, but at least he does it solidly and consistently. Jeremy Renner makes for an interesting Clint Barton/Hawkeye; I don’t really have much love for the character, but he does provide an interesting coldness in his personality though somehow not heartless. Samuel L. Jackson makes for a fine Nick Fury, combining tough, sneaky, just and ruthless in an interesting balance.
At no point does the movie flag or really stumble. Any complaints are minor nits. In a year full of promise for fantasy/sci-fi and related genres (Christopher Nolan’s third and apparently final Batman movie, The Dark Knight Rises; the Spider-Man reboot The Amazing Spider-Man; the first of two movies that combined will tell the tale in the novel The Hobbit, and also possibly the remake of Total Recall, the dark-themed Snow White and the Hunstman and American history/undead menace mash-up Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter), this is a tough movie to follow.
What Has Come Before
Just a quick note in this section: I think Marvel Comics’ has done a great job overall with its heroes in recent years (in productions it’s overseen directly and in ones where the characters were simply licensed out), including in movies that are unrelated to The Avengers. Sure, Ghost Rider was pretty bad and the sequel’s probably worse; the Fantastic Four movies, as noted earlier, were awful; the original Spider-Man trilogy (to be “erased” historically, I guess, with the reboot this summer) ended clunkily with very, very mixed third movie but was otherwise excellent; and X-Men had a shaky finish to its trilogy as did Spider-Man (though I didn’t find the third X-Men film all that bad, myself) but remains strong overall. The most recent treatment of The Punisher wasn’t too bad, though the previous attempt sucked. The first attempt at doing the Hulk with Ang Lee’s movie was an entertaining mess that left true fans unsatisfied but wasn’t a total loss. The Blade movies were ridiculous and overwrought on many levels, but undeniably fun action flicks. The X-Men follow-ups were mixed: X-Men: First Class was very strong but X-Men Origins: Wolverine was highly uneven (but, like the Ang Lee Hulk movie, had definite entertainment value from an action standpoint at least).
I haven’t seen The Incredible Hulk yet (though plan to later this weekend), so I can’t comment on that. Captain America had its cheesy aspects, and the character has never much appealed to me in general, but was pretty well done as a movie, actually. Thor was a mixed bag, but at least mostly entertaining despite not doing a very good job of giving Thor’s personal redemption dramatic weight or true logic. And the Iron Man movies…well, while the second one was noticeable less good than the first, both were very strong indeed.
Here there will be some spoilers, as I need to reference things from The Avengers movie (including the after-the-credits surprise teaser for the next movie) and the other films that led up to it (which you may or may not have seen).
What does the future hold? Well, for one thing, apparently Mark Ruffalo has been signed not only to potentially play Bruce Banner/the Hulk for two more Avengers movies but also for a trilogy of Hulk movies. This is interesting, because in a certain sense, it almost ignores The Incredible Hulk, in which Edward Norton did such a good job (I know, I haven’t seen the movie, but it’s fucking Edward Norton; of course he must have done great). I get the sense from a reference or two in the Avengers movies that they still include The Incredible Hulk and the events therein as part of the overall movie canon and we’re just going to ignore the fact that Bruce Banner looks so different. I’m not going to stress over it; Mark Ruffalo did do a very good job in the role in The Avengers; I look forward to his future work with regard to the Hulk.
There is also a third Iron Man-related movie and a second Thor movie, both due out in 2013. Plot details for both are still under wraps and I’ve seen no truly credible leaks so far. I have heard rumors that Iron Man 3 will feature the Mandarin as the villain (one of Tony Stark’s most formidable foes in the comic books) but have also heard rumors it will use the recent “Extremis” storyline from the comic books. Of course, it’s entirely possible it could feature both, as the Mandarin might end up being more of schemer/leader in the movie rather than a directly combative villain fighting it out with Iron Man. Supposedly, Captain America 2 will come out in 2014. Almost certainly, with a third Iron Man on the way and a three-picture signing for Mark Ruffalo to do Hulk stuff solo, I imagine both Captain America and Thor will get trilogies when all is said and done. I’m fairly certain the Spider-Man reboot will also end up being a trilogy, though it has no direct relation to any of the other Marvel movies that are tied to the Avengers, just as X-Men seems to occupy a separate reality. However, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Spider-Man in a future Avengers movie; there is a history of the character being in the team at times in the comic books and…well, let me get to wild speculation in a moment as to other reasons it feels right to have Spidey show up eventually.
Anyway, with these Avengers-related solo movies all having elements that tied directly to the movie The Avengers, from Loki to the Tesseract to the super-soldier serum (which plays a part in The Incredible Hulk in addition to being the compound that makes Steve Rogers into Captain America back in World War II…before he end up frozen and thawed out in modern day to be part of the Avengers)…plus things like the after-credit bonus scenes that show things related to “the Avengers initiative” and Nick Fury’s desire to form a superhero team…well, one can only imagine there will continue to be crossover stuff in at least some of the future solo films with relation to the future Avengers sequels.
So, what might happen?
First off, and here’s where I get into big spoiler territory…
…you did hear that, right?
I’m about to give away the bonus teaser scene after The Avengers’ credits. It shows who will likely be the next villain in that series.
You’re still here?
Just make sure you want to know before I say…
Now, those who aren’t comic book geeks may not know who Thanos is. But just as Thor and Loki are “gods,” so too is Thanos, sort of. (In Thor’s movie, the Norse gods of Asgard are actually occupants of a planet in either a distant part of the galaxy connected to our world through a portal or a planet in another dimension linked to our own. Rather than being true gods, they are more accurately very strong, very resilient, long-lived “immortals” whose magic is more an expression of harnessing a specific sort of energy in a science fiction way but with a culture and style that is more mythical and in some ways archaic-seeming. They are, essentially, a very different race that looks like us rather than actual supernatural divinities.)
Where the hell was I?
Oh, yeah, Thanos.
Anyway, as the after-credit sequence shows, apparently Thanos is behind the invading extraterrestrial army in The Avengers and he looks like he’s very happy at the prospect of laying the hurt down in the next movie. Almost certainly, he will be the main villain. He’s godlike in terms of his personal power, though its source is more science-like than mystical, and he’s obsessed with death. Mastering it, avoiding it himself, and dealing it out in massive doses to other species throughout the universe. He’s essentially Marvel’s version of the DC Comics character Darkseid.
It’s possible that Thanos won’t appear until the third Avengers-related movie, but I doubt they will wait that long since they’ve already shown us his face.
So, now for wild speculation time.
I have no idea what Thor 2 holds, though I hope it doesn’t include a return visit of Loki. He’s a fine villain and all, but much like the X-Men movies, it will probably hurt if you keep bringing in the same person (Magneto in that series) as the main baddie honcho. At least with the X-Men, you can get away with it more because of his pro-mutant and anti-human agenda, but Loki will get old fast if they keep using him. Let’s not beat the half-brother conflict between him and Thor to death. I suspect that the second Thor movie will somehow involve an effort to rebuild the Bifrost, which is the bridge that linked Asgard to Earth and to several other places in the universe or extradimensionally or whatever. Perhaps we’ll see some Thanos-related baddies and maybe a hint of Thanos in an effort to prevent that from happening so that Asgard won’t be able to aid Earth in the coming battle. In any case, I’m not really familiar with Thor’s list of enemies overall, and with Loki having been used twice now and the Destroyer being used in the first Thor movie, too…well, we might be getting a bit thin on easily recognizable foes for what I would argue is the weakest series in the overall franchise. Sorry, Thor, but you’re just not that engaging overall. Marvel should have stuck to just one movie there (my hopes for the Captain America franchise aren’t much better).
Not knowing how Iron Man 3 is shaping up plot-wise, I’m going to go with a roll of the dice that it will indeed combine some plotting of the Mandarin and the “Extremis” storyline. I’ve heard rumors that the idea has always been to make Mandarin more of a terrorist leader than a powered bad guy (in the comics, he had ten rings on his fingers that were part of the engine of an alien starship and they granted him a wide array of powers). In the recent “Extremis” storyline for Iron Man in the comics, a guy gets a big dose of some major nanotechnology that essentially makes him a nearly invulnerable guy who can incinerate people, exhibit super-strength and more. He basically hands Iron Man his ass and Tony Stark, both to recover from his injuries and to defeat Extremis, undergoes the very same nanotechnological treatment. He ends up a cybernetically enhanced human who can interact more directly with the Iron Man armor and even basically “store” the armor under his own skin and then basically will it into existence around him as needed.
Now, I don’t see that happening in the movie. As we already see with the treatment of the Asgardian “gods,” Marvel seems to be trying to stay away from actual magic and completely ludicrous feats of science to keep things grounded as much as possible in something resembling reality. However, I could see a situation where Tony Stark is working on something nano-related and the Mandarin steals it to make an Extremis minion as a sort of overpowered crazed terrorist to take down Stark, or the United States, or whatever. Stark gets ass kicked and takes the same Extremis treatment, and perhaps ends up more attuned to his own armor and able to interact with computer systems. In such a situation, I could see the Extremis villain getting defeated or killed, but the Mandarin getting away. Enter post-credit bonus scene where Thanos contacts the Mandarin, seeing an ally on Earth, and gives him something along the lines of the rings the character wore in the comics, elevating the Mandarin to true supervillain status.
If something like this were to happen, The Avengers 2 might end up being something that starts with the Mandarin as a villain and finishes with Thanos in the final acts, or perhaps Thanos doesn’t show up at all as a direct combatant until Avengers 3 after the Mandarin’s efforts have softened up the world a bit.
Another option could be to tie into what’s happened in the comics lately, and do a “Planet Hulk” and/or “World War Hulk” treatment. So, in that scenario, perhaps we tie up the Thanos storyline in Avengers 2, but in the Hulk series, we have a lead-up to Hulk being the main villain of the third Avengers movie, adding a tragic twist as an ally becomes someone the Avengers must fight. Were that to happen, I could see the first Hulk movie being something that involves a villain along the lines of the Absorbing Man or something to give Hulk fits, and then a second movie where Bruce Banner and the Hulk personalities find a way to live together to make a “smart Hulk” and then a third where Thanos or some Thanos ally decides to fuck with the Hulk and drags him through a portal to dump him on another planet (a la “Planet Hulk”) and let him think the Avengers did it to him. So he comes back to Earth pissed, and becomes the enemy for the third Avengers film for the “World War Hulk” treatment. In this scenario, I could see Spider-Man being brought in to fill the gap in the team left by the Hulk.
Alternately, I have to admit what I’d really like to see is for the second Avengers film to deal with Thanos and dispatch him, and then the third have Ultron. Ultron is a brilliant self-aware robot made of the nearly indestructible metal adamantium (which covers Wolverine’s bones and constitute his claws in the X-Men franchise) who wants to eliminate humanity. How he might be created would be a matter of question, since there seems to be no plans to have Dr. Hank Pym (aka Ant Man, Giant Man, Yellowjacket, etc.) in the movies as yet, and he was Ultron’s “father.” But I do keep hearing rumors of an Ant Man movie, so maybe he will come into the storyline and create the robot who turns evil and tries to kill everyone.
What could also be cool, and bring in the character of Black Panther, would be to have Ultron (regardless of how he is created) be constructed of another comic book metal called vibranium, which is found only in Black Panther’s African nation of Wakanda. This would allow for bringing in a pretty cool character (and add some color to the team racially) as well as giving the movie version of Ultron a different spin. Also, I don’t recall if this is addressed in the Captain America movie, but Cap’s shield in the comics is made of vibranium, so pitting him in part against Ultron if he were made of the same metal could be interesting.
Now, if any of my wish-list or fanciful speculation where to come to pass or even come close to what will happen, it still leave a couple big questions: What would Thor 3 involve and what will the next two (presumably) Captain America movies deal with? It’s possible, of course, they could just stand alone and have little or no direct connection to the next two Avengers movies.
In any case, we’re in totally unsubstantiated territory in this entire third part of my blog post anyway. Just rambling.
We shall see, though.
We shall see.