The Avengers

avengers poster

I’ll cut to the chase – go watch this film.

Lately I have become more and more of a film snob. Without a doubt, the recent big-budget offerings from hollywood have gone some way to encourage this. I should not be so surprised – the trend of consumer culture leads the “market” to favour short term gains over long term ones. The quality of a commodity is tied more to immediate gratification than long term value. Of course, films are not immune to these forces and they’ve recently become quick-fix throwaway items – they are, after all, entertainment. Is it not enough to simply be entertained for the duration of the film, then walk out, never to think of it again?

Of course, part of being a film snob is believing that films should be much more than mere “entertainment”. When I scroll through the list of films that I would call my favourites, I inevitably come to the conclusion that truly great films go beyond entertainment, and into the realm of art. One of the things that really tickles me about the medium of film is that it combines so many different things, yet for all their complexity loving a beautiful film requires no understanding of the myriad of different sciences and arts that must come together to even make a film.

Being able to reproduce the results however (can you tell I have a science background?) is difficult. Understanding what distinguishes truly great films from good films is something that I have thought much about (probably too much), and sadly, even though a great film would undoubtedly do well at the box office, our quick-fix consumer culture also rewards terrible films; sometimes handsomely.

even though a great film would undoubtedly do well at the box office, our quick-fix consumer culture also rewards terrible films; sometimes handsomely

Take for example the second Transformers movie. It was a piece of shit. I had trouble paying attention at various times, and while I will grant that some of the action set-pieces were well-executed, the overall fabric of the movie was weak, and at the end, I felt cheated of my time. At the US box office, this film took in a staggering 400 million dollars. Also staggering is that the figure is a good 80 million dollars more than the first Transformers movie, which wasn’t great, but was of a vastly higher quality than its sequel. The first movie treaded that fine line between relying solely on loud noises and visual effects, and being just engaging enough in its storytelling to pass as a film. The second film seemed like a cynical exercise in stringing together a bunch of action and special effect sequences in an effort to wow audiences with the sheer ambition and cost of them. And for the most part, it worked.

Big hollywood films are dead. Gone are the days of the old Indiana Jones action movies, the comical characterizations of the Lethal Weapon movies, and the grab-you-by-the-scruff-of-the-neck fast-paced Jurassic Park.

I was wrong.

Joss Whedon, a man most well-known for Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and its spinoffs has stepped up to the plate to direct his first big-budget hollywood film. Perhaps a background in long-running TV shows  gives you the ability to write in that way that keeps the audience wanting more (he also wrote the screenplay). But whatever the reason, this film is an example of how big hollywood films should be made.

Putting a good film together is about good storytelling, and making people interested in the story is intricately tied to how emotionally-invested the audience is with the characters. In the avengers, the characterizations of the various super heroes are intricately woven together to create an intriguing and, importantly, conflicting mix. Although Samuel L. Jackson’s character of Nick Fury is technically “in charge”, the real head protagonist is Robert Downey Jr’s Iron Man. Pitted against the Avengers is the main antagonist – Loki, from Norse mythology who thrives on chaos.

The story is simple enough: The mysterious international agency S.H.I.E.L.D. is in possession of a powerful alien energy source that it doesn’t fully understand. Powerful aliens want to use this energy source for their own ends so they hatch a plan to steal it, and Loki leads them in this quest. The group of super heroes known as The Avengers is called in to stop him. They do.

Ordinarily, I’d feel bad for spoiling the story for you, but this is a superhero movie, and the outcome isn’t exactly a surprise. However, the journey from start to finish is the interesting part, and placing Loki as the main antagonist was a good move. For those unfamiliar with norse mythology, Loki is Thor’s brother. While Thor is off being all mighty and thundery, Loki is the less-favoured child – the runt of the litter, if you will, and learns to become powerful by creating conflict and chaos. His “gift” is to be able to turn people against each other.

Loki’s “gift” is to be able to turn people against each other

In exercising this power, Loki creates conflict among the Avengers adding that essential “human” element to their super hero personas, thus making them more easily-accessible to the human audience (I can just imagine a cinema full of real super heroes getting up and walking out halfway through the film because they think it unrealistic). Throughout this conflict their dialogue is peppered with sharp wit and the kinds of one-liners that only super heroes can get away with.

Joss Whedon’s style is written all over the movie, and to good effect. The story and dialogue are well-served by the impressive special effects, and not the other way around. The action sequences are brilliantly-executed and filmed, giving you the “right there” feeling without resorting to deliberately shoddy hand-held camera work. As the stakes escalate and the battles balloon in scale, Whedon does what very few writer/directors have been able to do – engage the audience and suspend our disbelief to the point where we see a group of super heroes, each with their own super-hero-universe, fighting alongside each other against an army of (necessarily) hideously ugly aliens streaming through a portal in the sky, and all we can think is “yeah, that’s how it would happen”, rather than simply gawk at the absurdity of the situation, and lambasting the film makers for taking us for fools.

Never again should “but it’s an action movie” be an excuse for poor film making… we can only hope.

Brilliant, but not overpowering special effects (the 3D is subtle, and un-gimmicky). Super sound editing. Very decent acting. Simple story. Well-developed characters woven through an engaging plot with threads made of snappy smart-arse comments and sight-gags. Entertaining? Yes, but so much more. Watching this film is different to the average big-budget action movie because you don’t just get the feeling that a lot of money has gone into making it (although that is certainly true), you get the feeling that a lot of heart has gone into it as well, and that is something that more films desperately need. Never again should “but it’s an action movie” be an excuse for poor film making… we can only hope.

five stars… out of six. highly recommended.

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