Tuesday, 14 August 2012

The Avengers - What’s The What, How’s The How, and Why’s The Why, Part Two

Being the Second Parte of our examination of The Avengers motion picture (J. Whedon, esq.) The first is available for your perusal here.
[Insert thought bubble here]
II. The How
“And there came a day, a day unlike any other, when Earth's mightiest heroes and heroines found themselves united against a common threat. On that day, the Avengers were born—to fight the foes no single super hero could withstand!”
Folklore

...And there’s your movie, more or less. That silver-age elevator pitch, turned into two and a half hours of cinema. There’s never any more plot than that, really – but why would you need any?

That means it’s all about the execution. The whole thing hangs off a familiar skeleton of a story, and so – like everything in life, really – it’s all about the people you spend your time with.

We’ve already met Clint “Hawkeye” Barton (Jeremy Renner) in the opening. It’s one of those choices I mentioned finding fascinating. The order, pacing and details of each Avenger’s introduction is masterful. Such a mish-mash of down-to-earth army men, semi-plausible science heroes and alien gods requires no small amount of disbelief-suspension, and Hawkeye’s a great example of that.

And, lo, noone else did disagree with the director

On one hand, he’s the easiest sell of the movie – no powers, just an extraordinarily talented commando. (File alongside Bourne, Rambo, and the now-thrice-invoked Daniel Craig Bond.) On the other… A man with a bow and arrow in a world of gods and robots? One who the general public have never heard of, except for the briefest of glimpses in Thor? Whose wardrobe oscillates between garish purple and leather fetishwear? 
Frankly, his inclusion in the Earth’s Mightiest Heroes is a bit of a headscratcher.

So the Great God Whedon (or, technically speaking, the Evil God Loki) takes Hawkeye and turns him. A touch of mind-control magic, et voila, you’ve got yourself Evil Hawkeye.

It’s a brilliant way of setting up a character who is essentially Robin-Hood-in-a-wifebeater as a credible threat. Seeing how much he puts the fear up our super-powered heroes makes it clear he’s no joke, so that when he’s finally brought back and turned against the baddies, it feels like a powerful weapon is being drawn.

Throw in some incredibly cool gadget moments, and Hawkeye becomes someone you could actually imagine the kids fighting over getting to be the next morning in the playground.

The Scarlett pimp-ernel

The introduction of Natasha “Black Widow” Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) comes next for similar reasons – she had low-level powers, little brand awareness, no film of her own and, worst of all, is a girl. (Urghhhh!) 

And so Whedon, rather predictably, luxuriates in her introduction, which subverts a damsel-in-distress cliché into a scene-controlling badass with all the ease of a chair to the face. When we meet her, Natasha is tied to a chair, being interrogated by three Russian men. It’s not hard to spot the sexual power balance there. It’s played for just long enough to be convincing then – bam – it turns out she’s not helpless after all, but was in control all along. Plus, suddenly she can move like the deadliest ballerina not featuring in Black Swan

And we should have known, not just because it’s Whedon but because it’s so clearly coded as a performance – the spotlight falling so perfectly on her, the use of mirrors, the contrast between set (ruins of a Soviet car park) and costume (little black dress). It’s pure theatre, and peppered with enough jokes that it doesn’t seem like it has any agenda to preach.

And, once we’ve gotten past the intro of a new Bruce “Hulk” Banner (Mark Ruffalo) – possibly the biggest brand in the whole cast, but with his face, behaviour and body having undergone an appropriately mysterious transformation, from a fairly one-note performance by Ed Norton to Ruffalo’s hand-wringing suppressed brilliance – and Steve “Captain America” Rogers (Chris Evans) – straightforward super-punchy leader, bit jingoistic, but brushed away with a quick “maybe we need a bit of the old fashioned” – we’re back on easy street, with the People’s Favourite, Tony “Iron Man” Stark (Robert Downey Jr). 

But Whedon still takes care to set up each scene, borrowing just enough visual elements from the characters’ disparate movies to sell them as a cohesive unit – settings, camera work and, most noticeably, colour palettes.

Banner in India is all muted oranges and dusty browns, with green lifted subtly out of the mix. Tony lives in a world of his own construction, all translucent screens and glaring chrome, light by neon. Cap, until he steps out into the world, inhabits a worn, slightly sepia-toned piece of film.

Made with real asbestos for that authentic 30s feel

As the characters are brought together, those palettes are mixed. The four-colour world of the more superheroey superheroes is tempered by the midnight blues of the military elements. It means the film ends up with something that doesn’t have all that much visual style of its own, except the house style. Whedon relinquishes control as director to help sell the idea of these characters co-existing in a way that’s logical. From there, it’s time to start showing how they work together – starting in Stuttgart, which we’ll come back to – but there’s still a piece missing. The film has still got to sell the audience on a Norse God of Thunder in a bright red cape. Thor “Thor” Odinson (Chris Hemsworth).

For the duration, Thor is the one character that is kept lowest in the mix. He has his share of wonderful moments – Hemsworth is an incredibly charismatic and funny actor, who brings something to Thor that I’ve never really seen in the comics – but it’s often the case that they are his moments. Segments featuring Thor and Loki rewrite the script into, as Stark puts it, “Shakespeare in the park”. It couldn’t be truer – the complicated relationship, the family ties, the wordplay, the Iago-ness of Loki cast against the Othello-ness of Thor. And that’s great, but it doesn’t quite fit, and so Thor is pushed into a supporting role, as a sort of Jayne/Cordelia/Anya outsider figure. It’s one which turns out to suit rather him well, actually.

And so the remaining two hours of running time takes its time to combine and recombine these characters, in a way that not only gives each a few of their own little Moments – an iconic action pose, character beat, or funny line – but also gives a little taste of what each pairing is like together, both in terms of personality and power-sets. Captain America and Iron Man squabble, but fight side by side beautifully. Black Widow and Hawkeye have some weird romance going on, which carries into the noticeable fluidity of their combat. Hulk punches Thor in the face, with hilarious results.

The film is warming us up to the idea that these characters can not only coexist in the same reality, but make sense as a coherent unit. All the while, it’s rattling along at a one-action-scene-per-half-hour rate, leading into the final battle, which may be the single most engaging extended action scene I’ve even seen in a film. I giggled and pointed at the screen like a child with every explosion, gadget and Hulk-smash. My jaw spent so much of the running time hanging slack I might as well have been wearing a Ghostface mask. It was like watching Star Wars for the first time again.

And apart from the sheer visual spectacle of the scene, which is undeniable, I think a lot of that is down to how long it spends building to that moment, setting the pieces up so that they make sense when the film starts smashing them together. Squeeze, and release.

The Avengers never struggles to balance a large and disparate cast. It never outstays its welcome, and its action not just make sense but are genuinely exciting. It doesn’t rely on hitting familiar beats, or winking references. It’s even got laughs in it. 

It is undeniable that The Avengers is a particularly fine, perhaps even unprecedented, piece of action-movie craft. But is it also art?

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Videogames, film, music, comics: feed them into the Alex-Spencer machine and out come neat little articles. Like the ones you're looking at here.