Studio Notes: The Avengers (Joss Whedon, 2012)

Jack Kirby’s cover for THE AVENGERS No. 1, 1963.

Last Tuesday night I saw The Avengers, which Hulk-smashed box office records IN THE FABULOUS MARVEL MANNER over the weekend. It wasn’t the summer tent pole movie I’m most anticipating this year; Ridley Scott‘s Prometheus and Christopher Nolan‘s The Dark Knight Rises both have it beat by some distance on that score. But I’ve enjoyed most of the prior Marvel Studios movies (except for the dreary Thor, and The Incredible Hulk, which I haven’t seen), and while I’m no scholar of the oeuvre of Joss Whedon, the television auteur who is now The Avengers‘s writer and director, I liked Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog and his run as writer of The Astonishing X-Men comic book.

I have no particular affection for the source comics, the way I do with the various Batman and X-Men films, but I found the movie to be a very affable, funny, well-made early summer blockbuster.

Emphasis early. To my mind, the natural sequence in which summer action films should be consumed is salad in May, the slightly more substantial next course in June and the red meat in July. It’s been this way at least since 1991, when Hudson Hawk and The Rocketeer (both underrated) came out in May, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves followed in June, and the never-to-be-surpassed greatest summer blockbuster of them all, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, came out July 3. Please do not make fun of the way I experience the world.

Sorry, what were we talking about? Oh, right: Here in no particular order are a few of the specific things about The Avengers that really worked for me, along with a few that didn’t.

    STUFF I LIKE:

1. Hulk smash!

Pro critics and geek critics seem to agree that the Hulk — not just Mark Ruffalo, the third good actor to play him in three movies, but the fully computer-animated green gorgon with what teammate Tony “Iron Man” Stark calls “breathtaking anger-management issues” — steals the film.

That’s because he steals the film. I really like the way the Whedon delays the Hulk’s appearance and presents him as a real threat, and not just to the film’s villains. The animators still haven’t quite solved the problem of his resemblance to Shrek, but this is the closest they’ve come in the 21st century to making the creature look like he’s occupying the same world the actors are. He also provides the film’s two biggest laughs. Apparently Hulk’s (very limited) dialogue was voiced by Lou Ferigno, the bodybuilder who played him in the 1970s TV series. That’s cool.

2. Black Widow and Hawkeye arent’t just bench-warmers.

When The Avengers‘s trailer hit, its portentous camera-swirl around the assembled heroes invited the same joke from everyone: Whoa, that guys’s got a bow and the lady has a gun, which would seem equally useless stacked up against Iron Man (basically an F-22 fighter that can walk into your bedroom), the Hulk, the God of Thunder, or the Super-Soldier. But as (I’m told) he does in his TV shows, Whedon finds something interesting for everybody to do. Black Widow’s knack for tricking egotistical baddies into revealing incriminating information provides two of the movie’s best scenes. Unlike in Iron Man 2, Black Widow isn’t just a very easy-on-the-eyes afterthought here. I like Scarlett Johansson more in this than in anything since maybe Match Point.

I still don’t really get what it is about Jeremy Renner that makes Hollywood want to entrust three big action franchises to his care. He was the Cruise-in-waiting in Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, and he’s taking over for Matt Damon in The Bourne Ghost Protocol, or Something in August. He’s a solid actor, and certainly athletic enough to avoid embarrassing himself in these types of parts. He still seems a little bit low-wattage to carry one of these juggernaut movies on his own. He’s a cog here, but he does his job.

3. S.H.I.E.L.D., and THE MOTHERF@#*ING HELICARRIER.

With apologies to Jim Steranko, the only version of S.H.I.E.L.D. I ever really went for was the one in Frank Miller and Bill Sienkiewicz‘s 1986-7 miniseries Elektra: Assassin. It was one of my favorite comics when I was 12, though (and probably because) it is pretty racy. Inspired by the significant screen time given The Avengers gives to the sci-fi spy agency and to its director, Nick Fury, I cracked open my paperback collection of Elektra for the first time in probably 15 years. It’s as great as I remember.

SHIELD director Nick Fury, as rendered by Bill Sienkiewicz. From Elektra: Assassin, 1986.

In Frank Miller’s jaundiced story, SHIELD exceeds other government agencies in corruption as much as it does in destructive power, though Fury himself remains beyond reproach. Youd’d probably be able to guess from Elektra‘s satirical targets that Frank Miller wrote it in 1986, before Marvel retconned SHIELD into a multinational force with a murky chain of command. Frank Miller has since done a Dennis Miller from a cranky libertarian into a full-blown wingnut, so I expect he would find this hilarious.

Anyway, in The Avengers, Whedon allows a little bit of that ethical dirt to stick to the blue lycra-and-leather SHIELD uniform, which I liked. Samuel L. Jackson continues to phone it in as Fury; I wish he showed the same brio in his performance as he does on Twitter, where he took a juvenile slap at the New York Times’ A.O. Scott for writing one of the film’s few not-wholly-complimentary notices. Col. Fury would have a thicker skin than that.

But! A big chunk of the movie is played aboard the SHIELD’s airborne fortress, the Helicarrier, which is the kind of thing we wouldn’t have seen much of if this movie had been made even 12 or 13 years ago, when tightwad budgeting gave Bryan Singer‘s 2000 X-Men a gritty, low-key charm. (This superedit of the late-90s Nick Fury TV movie starring David Hasselhoff features a few shots of the econo-helicarrier. It doesn’t look any worse than any of the visual effects shots in The Hunger Games.)

4. The commitment to Captain America’s Rip Van Winkle status, and Chris Evans‘s performance in the part.

I really liked Captain America, because of its uncynical two-fisted, can-do 1940s attitude, not in spite of it. Chris Evans‘s performance as Steve Rodgers, the sickly, sunken chested Brooklyn kid who gets picked as a lab rat for the Super Soldier Serum because he’s a humble guy with miles of determination and a kindly heart really carried the movie. Evans’s performance wasn’t as widely praised as Robert Downey, Jr.‘s portrayal of Tony Stark, but I think it was every bit as good. The Avengers remembers that Rodgers grew up during the Great Depression and enlisted in the Army repeatedly after each medical rejection because, as he said in Captain America, “I don’t like bullies.” He’s as baffled by Stark’s cynicism as he is by his references to Stephen Hawking, Black Sabbath and Point Break, and I love that.

    NOT SO MUCH:



1. The music is totally forgettable. Totally.

Alan Silvestri has composed at least one film score I quite like, for 1987′s Predator. It’s possible I only like it because I saw Predator at more or less the same impressionable, taste-making age at which I picked up Elektra. But neither The Avengers nor any other Marvel film has yet produced an iconic score that could touch John Williams‘s triumphant march for Richard Donner‘s 1978 Superman, or Danny Elfman‘s dark, Wagnerian number for Tim Burton‘s Batman from 1989.

This film needed an overture befitting the grandeur of its gathering of heroes, like the one Leonard Elmer Bernstein wrote for The Magnificent Seven a few years before the first issue of of The Avengers was published.

Better still, there should be a song describing each Avenger’s powers in a pithy verse. Instead, the end credits, which of course feature some Easter Eggs for civilized people who don’t bolt from their seats the second the scroll starts, are marred by a new jam from Soundgarden that in true 1990s movie-marketing fashion has nothing whatsoever to do with the film and is a shitty song to boot.

Look, I wasn’t waiting around for Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell to give us a James Bond theme, but when he did, for 2006′s excellent Casino Royale, at least the song was about James Bond — if not as hilariously literal as this fan-made video for the tune.

Whedon could probably write a suitably fun and educational song in his sleep. I envision something as edifyingly literal and hummably tuneful as this:

Oh, right: The Amazing Spider-Man comes out in a couple months, too. Threat… or MENACE?

2 responses to “Studio Notes: The Avengers (Joss Whedon, 2012)

  1. Uh, that would be “Elmer Bernstein” who wrote the theme to The Magnificent Seven, not Leonard Bernstein. Big difference.

    • Yes, of course you’re right, thanks for reading far enough into this to notice my boneheaded mistake, which I’ve corrected above.

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