The Avengers (Joss Whedon, 2012)


Avengers
Or “Marvel Avengers Assemble”, as it’s rather clumsily called in the UK.

So this is it; after all the hype, all the tinkering with previous movies, adding little teasers (Incredible Hulk), extra characters who muddy up the plot to no discernable purpose (Black Widow in Iron Man 2) and completely fucking up the film totally (Captain America), we get to see if the payoff was worth it.

The basics:Loki (Tom Hiddleston), evil brother of Thor and a member of an alien race that previously appeared to humans as one of the Norse gods, who disappeared at the end of that film has teamed up with another alien race who intend using a device called the Tesseract, recovered at the end of Captain America, to open up a galactic gate to Earth in order to invade. So far, so hokum. This is a superhero film – it doesn’t really need to appeal to our sense of what is likely. To continue…

Loki arrives at the headquarters of SHIELD, a shadowy organisation that has been formed to protect the planet from any extraordinary threats just as its director Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson), who has appeared in the Incredible Hulk, Thor, Captain America and Iron Man 2, is discussing the Tessaract with SHIELD scientist Selvig (Stellan SkarsgĂ„rd, reprising this role from Thor). Causing absolute mayhem, invulnerable to anything Fury’s soldiers can throw at him, Loki absconds with the Tesseract along with Selvig and agent Clint Barton, aka Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) who he has hypnotised in some manner. Fury, in desperation activates the “Avengers Initiative”, a project to recruit all those “special” people featured in the previous films, as a kind of super-commando unit, and the superheroes are forced to learn to work together, to combine their powers and curb their egos, in order to defeat Loki and his alien army.

Ok, so that’s the set-up; why is everyone raving about it? Because it’s been done with wit and verve and rattles along at a good pace, entertaining throughout. It made me (and most of the rest of the audience) laugh out loud far more frequently than most comedies manage, and I had a silly grin on my face for much of the rest of the time. Each of the characters had both screen time and opportunity to shine and the interplay between them, in alternating combinations of characters, was superb. Many of the characters (Loki, Iron Man/Tony Stark and Bruce Banner, particularly) have a good mixture of witty banter and good characterisation. Scarlet Johannsen, so utterly pointless in Iron Man 2, brings some variation here and she, Captain America and Hawkeye, despite being utterly underpowered compared to Thor, Hulk and Iron Man, have an important role to play, both within the context of the story and in the film itself.

Hulk is the biggest surprise. I’m not sure that Mark Ruffalo played Banner any better than did Eric Bana or Ed Norton, but the character was better written, with a dry humour that sat him slightly apart from the others most of the time; Hulk himself was used intelligently, the most powerful of the superheroes but also, in some respects, the most limited and this was played to good comic effect – most of the big laughs involved Hulk, either in something he did or in the way others reacted to him.

One very slight reservation I have is that, having seen Whedon’s Cabin in the Woods a couple of weeks ago, in which he recycled many of the themes from his previous TV work, I noticed the same phenomenon at play here; the idea of teamwork is hardly novel but the way Whedon’s film addresses it is very reminiscent of the latter part of Season 4 of Buffy, with Loki acting the role of Spike. If Whedon is going to continue to make outstanding work, he is going to need to take some new directions.

A second reservation is less about this film and more about the lead-up to it; was it really necessary to put all those teasers at the end of the previous Marvel films? Does the damage done to those films justify the extra they added to this one? I don’t think so, in either case. While they added an extra little ‘in joke’, the film didn’t need them and was not markedly improved by them, while at least two of the films were seriously undermined, to the point of being infuriating.

So this is not a ‘world changing’ movie. It is, after all, still a ‘popcorn movie’, albeit a hugely entertaining one. But it has set down a marker that loud, flashy event movies don’t need to be stupid to get an audience – anything but – and for that it deserves much of the praise it’s had.

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Hulk & The Incredible Hulk (Ang Lee, 2003; Louis Leterrier, 2008)


Hulk

Incredible Hulk
Two films, both watched prior to going to see the Avengers so that I’ll have seen all the teasers in each of the Marvel films leading up to that extravaganza, and it’s an exercise in “compare and contrast”. Ang Lee’s Hulk is a fairly cerebral affair, taking the idea of Hulk as a resentful child and locating it with real “daddy issues”. Here, Eric Bana’s Bruce Banner has inherited his genetic oddness from father David (Nick Nolte), an amoral scientist who was experimenting on himself. In this version, a departure from the comic, Bruce has been adopted and doesn’t remember his early life but is now working with Betty (Jennifer Connelly), the daughter of his father’s boss, General Ross (Sam Elliott), until an accident in the lab with gamma radiation activates his mutated genes, bringing out the Hulk for the first time.

The drama is all in the various relationships and Bruce’s urgent need to cure, or at least control, the beast inside.

Leterrier’s Incredible Hulk is a much more conventional affair. Ditching the first film entirely and going instead for a reboot, the “origins” story is dealt with in the credits and we are pitched into the action as Bruce (this time Ed Norton) is in hiding in South America until Ross (William Hurt) sends in a team of commandos to try to recover him. The official line is that Banner is a murderer but it transpires that Ross has been using Banner to try to reinvent the Supersoldier programme from world war II (as seen in Captain America), whereas Banner thought he was working on medical research. In the accident that brought out the Hulk, Ross’s daughter Betty (Liv Tyler) was injured and is now estranged from him.

After Ross’s commandos led by Blonsky (Tim Roth), a UK commando on special assignment, fail to take Banner, Bruce makes his way back to the US to attempt to contact a mysterious helper “Mr Blue” in an attempt to find a cure. Ross, though, is aware of Bruce’s return and brings Blonsky, now being treated with the unreliable supersoldier programme himself, and an army to capture Hulk.

That the second film completely ignores the first seemed initially to be incomprehensible. Though they rejigged the “origins” to make it more obviously military (presumably with the Avengers tie in, and specifically the character of Captain America, in mind) and also to distance it from the critical and commercial failure of the first film, the recasting of all the lead roles would have been sufficient to achieve this. Regarding the casting, both Bana and Norton are fine as Bruce, Connelly is far superior to the nice-to-look-at-but-technically-limited Tyler, and neither Elliott nor Hurt do themselves justice as Ross. Roth is terrific as Blonsky, but is only sporadically given anything to do.

Both films have a little fun with adding nods to the TV series (which disappoints me a little, since that was so different to the comics), giving cameos to Lou Ferrigno and using the name “David” as Bruce’s father, and the “don’t make me angry” line. They are more successful incorporating more of the TV series’ genetic experimentation as part of the origin, rather than the comic’s simplistic “exposed to gamma rays”, which always was rather poor, even for Marvel.

As far as the look of Hulk himself, Lee’s version is very cartoonish but what can you expect from a giant green man who can leap miles at a time? Leterrier’s is better but you still have to make an effort to suspend disbelief. Lee’s main problem is his brave attempt to bring the aesthetic of the comic book to the screen by use of the multiply split-screen effects that have the unfortunate effect of looking fussy and distracting. Otherwise, it’s a perfectly acceptable if unremarkable superhero film, not as good as X-Men 1 & 2, Spiderman 1 & 2 or Iron Man, but probably on a par with Thor, and better than Captain America and Iron Man 2, and far superior to X-Men 3, Wolverine or Spiderman 3. Leterrier’s is reputed to be an improvement on Lee’s but I’m not sure it really is. To me, its lack of ambition counts against it.

So, neither film is great, neither (despite the reputation for Lee’s attempt) is terrible. Hulk is ambitious but deeply flawed, Incredible Hulk more mainstream but pedestrian. Now let’s see what Whedon’s version will look like…