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The Avengers (2012)

Marvel Studios has spent a lot of careful time and resources into building their cinematic universe.  For the record, these films include Iron Man, Iron Man 2, The Incredible Hulk, Thor, and Captain America: The First Avenger.  They have all been excellent films that I have highly enjoyed, and found a lot of depth and strength in.  After many studios licensing the rights to their characters, and coming up with very mixed results, Marvel finally took it upon themselves to do it right.  Its ultimate culmination is The Avengers, and while it is a highly enjoyable and entertaining film, there is an emotional depth that it lacks which its predecessors were quite rich with.  These are great characters realized exceptionally well by a stellar cast, and balanced well by a filmmaker who specializes in ensemble casts.  Still, there is plenty to discuss on both the positive and negative side here.

When the Asgardian enemy Loki (Tom Hiddelston) arrives on Earth to utilize a cosmic power to unleash the alien force the Chitauri to destroy humanity, the director of the covert agency S.H.I.E.L.D, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), proceeds to unite a mismatched team of superheroes as the Avengers.  There is the charismatic billionaire industrialist and scientific genius Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.), aka Iron Man.  Loki’s brother, the Asgardian god of thunder Thor (Chris Hemsworth).  The super soldier and World War II hero Captain America (Chris Evans), a man out of his time and era after being frozen in the arctic for decades.  There is also the brilliant scientist Dr. Bruce Banner who becomes the monstrous Hulk when provoked.  And the two master assassins Clint “HawkEye” Barden (Jeremy Renner), and the Black Widow, Natasha Romanov (Scarlet Johansson).  This immensely powerful collection of extraordinary people must learn to function as a team in order to save the world.

There are some mixed qualities here, and I can’t help but just get the negative off my chest.  First off, the invading aliens, the Chitauri, come off as a completely generic and disposable force.  They are given no build up or personality in the film.  They could be anything or anyone, it doesn’t make a difference.  No threat is built into who they are, just that they are a hostile force invading our planet.  These days, we get numerous alien invasion movies per year – such as Battle: Los Angeles, Battleship, Skyline, and Transformers: Dark of the Moon – and so, this is a well treaded concept that requires more effort behind it to make it fresh, unique, and better than the rest.  Not to mention, the design of the Chitauri ships and technology is very evocative of Transformers: Dark of the Moon.  So, it feels even more tired and generic.  Ultimately, they never seem to be more than the heroes can handle.  They are easily dispatched with to the point where it seems like the Chitauri are the ones hopelessly outmatched.  The filmmakers throw in a mild moment where the Chitauri gain an upper hand, but it’s not enough to sell the epic resonance of the battle.  While I am not fanatic for or against Michael Bay, I do have to say that, in this area of filmmaking, Joss Whedon is no Michael Bay.  Everything that was done in the climax of The Avengers was done on an exponentially more cinematically epic scale by Michael Bay in the last Transformers movie.  It simply had more scope, more dire consequences, and bigger stakes.

Also, for the life of me, I cannot understand why Whedon shot this in 1.78:1 aspect ratio.  All the other Marvel films have been filmed in the far more cinematic format of 2.40:1, my personal favorite.  These days, almost all major studio films are shot in 2.40:1, the widest film format in current use.  The use of the standard 16×9 format you see on most any current television show just takes something away from the visual potential of this film.  When it’s meant to be the epic culmination of this franchise to date, you’d think they’d go the extra mile to boost the visual format.  Of course, this is all a personal irritant of mine.  Most people won’t even pick up on it, let alone have it affect their experience of the film.  The cinematography of Seamus McGarvey is generally good with a couple of impressive shots, but I just feel like some of the composition would’ve been tighter and stronger with that wider format.

Now, let me shift into the positive for a while to better reflect my mixed feelings on the movie.  While we already know from the previous Marvel Studios films that the cast is fantastic, the question is how well are their characters handled and realized?  Quite well.  The good thing about bringing in Joss Whedon is that he does done nothing but work with ensemble casts for the last fifteen years.  All of his shows – Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly, & Dollhouse – have been as such, and he always did a remarkable job balancing out the various personalities of those characters.  In The Avengers, everyone has their fair time to establish themselves and make an impression.  However, it seems mostly focused on Robert Downey, Jr. and Mark Ruffalo as Tony Stark and Dr. Banner, respectively.  One might’ve expected a more prominent role for Captain America since he’s really the true leader of the team in the comics, or at least, co-leader with Stark.  However, his forefront time is really in the heat of battle, but still, there seems to be an emotional resonance that is missing with him.  I would’ve expected some substantive material with him coming to grips with being a man out of time as a symbol of an era long past.  I’d like to see Steve Rogers trying to care about and save a world he doesn’t fit into anymore.  I’m sure they are saving that for his proper solo sequel, but it feels heavily glossed over here.

Now, everyone that’s taken on the role of Dr. Bruce Banner has had their own style to it.  I recently caught some of Ang Lee’s Hulk on cable, and man, is that an atrocious film.  Beyond the stylistic gripes I have with it, Eric Bana didn’t strike me as much to be interested in, but in such a overbloated film, it’s tough to really care.  Edward Norton was far superior in the role, and I really liked The Incredible Hulk film from 2008.  His Banner was very Bill Bixby-esque, but still with its own identity and drive fueled by Norton’s creativity and talent.  Mark Ruffalo’s performance is distinctly different than Norton’s, but still quite good and interesting.  His Banner is a bit more awkward, and less socially comfortable.  So, he’s a bit of an eccentric genius, and while the development is never detailed, Banner has evolved from his struggles in The Incredible Hulk.  Yes, while the role was re-cast, that film is still part of continuity.  Ruffalo makes Banner quite interesting as both a sympathetic and admirable person whose initial purose in the film is scientific until circumstances require the green beast to be unleashed.  Generally, it comes down to taste in how you prefer Banner to be portrayed if you like Ruffalo in the role or not, but I found his interpretation quite satisfying.

Downey remains hard to compete with.  The charisma and charm of his Tony Stark can be scene stealing, but it remains in line with the character’s ego and personality.  He and Ruffalo share a lot of screentime, and they have good chemistry.  When it’s just them, the Stark charisma is toned down a little as he seems to enjoy having another brilliant mind to connect with.  Tony appears to admire Dr. Banner, but constantly prods him about unleashing the Hulk, as if it’s a joke.  It’s just like Tony Stark to dance with some danger.

I still love Chris Hemsworth as Thor.  He just brings a powerful presence and majesty with him.  I reviewed Thor here some months back, and I gave it glowing praise.  I think of all the upcoming Marvel Studios sequels it will be Thor 2 that I most anticipate.  The vast possibilities with the character just excite me.  Hemsworth continues to be an excellent choice for this character able to bring solid acting talent along with great physical ability and a strong presence worthy of a god.  He has a lot of formidable acting talents around him, and he stands tall amongst them.

What the filmmakers did with Jeremy Renner’s HawkEye changed my mind about the character.  Before, I couldn’t grasp what an arrow slinging marksman and a gun toting lady spy could contribute to combating an alien invasion when they are surrounded by such super powered and technology enhanced heroes.  I loved how Clint Barton helped with spotting strategy in the battle, giving tips to Iron Man on how to out-maneuver the Chitauri’s aircraft.  Plus, I loved his arrowhead selector.  Different arrowheads for different purposes, and with a touch of a button, he could have the arrow mechanically shift to another selection.  Explosive arrowheads really inflicted some damage.  Black Widow did well in the combat with the foot soldiers using some of their tech against them.  Both Renner and Johansson are given their time to show a connection between their characters and some depth.  It’s a very nice touch to make sure neither gets lost amongst the larger than life characters.

Tom Hiddelston as Loki remains a fun, menacing, and treacherous villain.  He’s an excellent actor who fills the role well, and conveys Loki’s ideals and intentions with exceptional vigor.  However, the problem is not the performance, it’s the threat level.  Loki himself gets beat up on by almost the entire team throughout the movie – Captain America, Thor, Iron Man, and the Hulk all give him a beat down.  In combat, he’s not formidable.  Only through his use of magically empowered manipulation does he become problematic.  He uses his skills of trickery and deceit to attempt to forge a wedge between the heroes, to get them at each other’s throats, but that is only a small cog in his plan, not his endgame.  This ties back into my initial negative mark against the film.  In the end, there is no sense of a perceived insurmountable threat here.  Loki can’t hold his own in battle, and his invading force is terribly generic with no sense of what true destructive power they possess.  This is only one of a few failings of the film.

Since the film has to spend so much time dealing with the character dynamics of a reluctantly formed team, there’s no time to really build up an emotional resonance in the main plot.  Because the enemy is so nonspecific no one has a real, direct personal and emotional conflict to resolve.  Emotion is ultimately what makes a story epic.  Explosions and flashy action sequences might have visual scope, but they alone don’t make the story epic.  You need emotional stakes.  The Avengers are fighting to save the planet, but there are no ideals they are fighting for, no thematic elements in the story for them to grapple with that will make them more than what they were at the start.  All the other Marvel Studios films have had these elements to varying degrees.  In their respective solo films, Thor had to evolve from a impulsive, thick-headed warrior to a noble, more wiser leader.  Tony Stark had to stop being a self-centered merchant of war to becoming a selfless hero intent on stopping war.  Captain America had to learn to take his weakness and turn into his strength, to push himself to becoming the hero he knew he could be, despite everyone else’s doubts.  Bruce Banner had to struggle with the monster inside him.  If he could not be rid of him, he had to find a way to control him.  In The Avengers, there is no substantive emotional or character development.  They just learn to work as a team, which is important, but that just leaves the film feeling flat.  Again, the threat level is never build up enough to draw out emotional strain.  While it’s certainly not as shallow as a Michael Bay film, to turn the earlier comparison around, it definitely doesn’t add up to its predecessors.  The only moment where the filmmakers try to milk some emotional poignancy feels clichéd and contrived.  It’s just there as a cheap heartstrings manipulation which evaporates within a matter of minutes.  It has no real lasting impact.

“A special effect is just a tool, a means of telling a story.  People have a tendency to confuse them as an ends unto themselves.  A special effect without a story is a pretty boring thing.”  That was said by George Lucas, circa 1983, and is the filmmaker quote that has held the most weight and relevance with me through the years.  Why I’m mentioning it here is that while this film has very good visual effects, none of them left a real impression on me because the story was so weak and thin.  It’s not a bad story or that there’s a lack of one, it’s just not very meaty.  Action scenes don’t hold much weight unless the story has enough substance.  While the visual effects are generally good, the one CGI fall off for me was with the Hulk.  Ang Lee’s CGI Hulk was just down right bad on so many levels, and was done by Industrial Light & Magic,  Digital effects house Rhythm & Hues got it perfect with Louis Leterrier’s The Incredible Hulk.  They made the Hulk visceral, textured, and raw.  He had realistic qualities in his muscular structure, and the weight in his movements.  In The Avengers, the digital effects have gone back to ILM, and the Hulk goes back to not looking very good.  He seems almost flabby with too much flesh jiggling around instead of the tight physique he had in the Edward Norton film.  He looks partly cartoonish, and that is not good at all.  I was also disappointed that there wasn’t one good dramatic transformation from Banner into the Hulk.  Having grown up with Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno, getting that good transformation has always been a necessary element to my satisfaction of the character.  The two transformations we get are not impressive.  The first is all in shadows, showing us next to nothing.  The latter is far too smooth, and done in slow motion.  It doesn’t reflect the rage-filled metamorphosis of the Hulk.

The action scenes are impressively well handled.  They are all exciting and unique with their own rallying moments.  Each hero is given the time to shine.  Everything really gets going when Captain America is sent to capture Loki in Germany.  Cap’ gets a ‘standing tall’ moment with a solid, yet succinct speech after saving a man’s life.  As the fight goes on, Iron Man joins in, and then, Thor makes his first appearance looking to retrieve his mischievous brother so to bring him back to Asgard.  Then, Iron Man and Thor throw down themselves, and it’s just great stuff.  Later on, as Loki manipulates the team to force his plan forward on board the S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier, Banner Hulks out under Loki’s subtle influence and fights with Thor.  That is one excellent fight sequence as you’ve got to know how they match up, strength wise, and seeing Hulk fighting to pick up Thor’s hammer, yet not being able to (since he is not worthy of the power), is also a stellar touch.  Many of the action scenes in the early half of the film help to evolve the team dynamic.  Showing Captain American and Iron Man working together to trying to get the hellicarrier’s engine operational again was good.  The Captain doesn’t know jack about modern technology, let alone any of Stark’s scientific talk, but they make it work.  Trust is slowly built up as they shake loose their individual trepidations about teaming up.

All in all, the character interactions are well balanced and greatly played by the cast, and they are the richness that makes the film enjoyable and entertaining while wrapped up in some exciting action sequences.  There are plenty of light-hearted beats and flourishes of humor that give it levity.  It opens up the characters further than before to be even more accessible and entertaining.  This is sort of the superhero equilivent of Ocean’s Eleven.  An ensemble cast rich with talent and chemistry that know how to share the spotlight and maintain the right tone throughout.

Leading up to this film I was not enticed by the marketing campaign.  It was just big explosions, action scenes, and a few comical quips from Downey.  It was not giving me what I wanted to see.  It was only a little word of mouth that gave me some hope for The Avengers.  So, while the film was not as bad as I feared it would be, it certainly wasn’t as good as many people have said it would be.  There is a lot of good action with good effects work and solid character realization and execution, but the plot just doesn’t have much substance.  I don’t get excited over spectacle alone.  I need a strong plot and story to make the action mean something.  The film could have been more than it was with more attention to thematic material and emotional depth.  Some fluff action or comical scenes could’ve been excised to make room for more character building segments.  Personally, I just ask for more than this from a superhero film with a lineage of strong, well-rounded outings like Superman, The Crow, Blade, Iron Man, Captain America, Watchmen, and The Dark Knight.  So, it’s sad for me to say that The Avengers is the least of the Marvel Studios films when it should have been the best.  Regardless, it is still a mass audience crowd pleaser, and for many, that is all they desire.  I just know that the filmmakers should’ve strived for more than that as others have before them.


Street Kings (2008)

This is one of those films I did not see in theatres.  It was a DVD rental discovery that I have been very pleased to have discovered.  The cast is really what drew me to Street Kings – Hugh Laurie, Forest Whitaker, and what might seem like a swerve in Keanu Reeves.  I am very much a Keanu fan from Bill & Ted to Point Break to Constantine and beyond.  Yeah, I get why people takes jabs at him, but I’ve always enjoyed his work.  Here, he turns in a very strong performance holding his own opposite some heavyweight acting talents.  This is a very well conceived and executed film from David Ayer that I feel is exceptionally worthy of your time and attention.

Keanu Reeves stars as Tom Ludlow, a veteran LAPD Vice Detective who has struggled to navigate through life after the death of his wife.  He’s a cop who chooses to cutout procedure on the street taking violent action against known criminals to close a case.  He is well protected by his Captain Jack Wander (Forest Whittaker) every step of the way.  However, when evidence implicates Tom in the execution of his former partner turned Internal Affairs informant (Terry Crews), he is forced to go up against the cop culture he’s been a part of his entire career, ultimately leading him to question the loyalties of everyone around him.  He is regularly confronted by Internal Affairs Captain Biggs (Hugh Laurie) who probes for the truth, but Ludlow views him as an enemy to be combated.  However, as he partners with the untainted Detective Paul Diskant (Chris Evans) to weed through this shady, twisted maze towards his own answers, Ludlow comes to realize just how crooked this world is, and who his real enemies are.

I am a definite crime genre lover spawned from numerous Michael Mann films, and I also enjoy a solid cop drama.  This brings it all to the table in a very grounded, emotional, but also entertaining package.  It’s very smartly written to keep an audience on its toes as the secrets slowly rise to the surface.  Bits of action are peppered throughout to keep the energy flowing in support of the plot.  Ludlow goes on a shady journey trying to find out exactly where he stands in this crooked world of corruption and deception.  This tangled tapestry unfolds to reveal a wealth of dangerous, twisted people with dark agendas.

Keanu really does kick it up to a higher level as Tom Ludlow.  The character can be crass in certain moments, but also, show compassion when it matters most to him.  There are some fine dynamics to the character that Keanu balances out with ease.  There’s the ass kicking cop that throws down shots of vodka after wasting some criminals.  There’s the contemptuous man trying to shake loose the truth that everyone seems very quick to sweep under the rug.  There is also the slightly humorous side of Ludlow with a couple quips here and there which add to the crass attitude.  He’s been protected through everything, and thus, has developed an attitude where he doesn’t take anything from anyone.  He has an ego and a self-serving nature, but is able to direct it to his advantage on these unforgiving, violent streets.  Everything he does, he believes is for the best, even if it’s crooked, but he grows and changes when confronted with just how crooked and screwed up everything has become.  He’s the kind of character who is hardened by his fractured life and his harsh job, but when it comes down to it, he has a strong sense of humanity that he reserves for those who deserve it.  Those who don’t get the ill end of his personality which is full of contempt and the will to act it out.  Keanu Reeves handles this satisfyingly textured character with a lot of passion and charisma.  He is an excellent lead for this film.

Of course, Forest Whitaker is amazing!  The man has such a wealth of charisma and passion that it bleeds through in every scene.  He inhabits Captain Jack Wander with a strong ego and bravado that none can contend with or deflate.  He has pride in his men, but also conviction and authority over them.  He’s very much a king high atop his throne where he has garnered respect and fear from those around him.  He never comes off as a straight arrow, but supposedly does what he does because Ludlow is his creation.  He covers up and cleans up whatever he needs to so that his star cop can keep burning down the street trash.  Whitaker makes Wander an increasingly despicable person, but not one you can take your eyes off of.  He has a larger than life presence that commands a scene, and that’s what the character needed.  A man of power and guile that has the audacity to take on anyone that challenges him or his men.  A man with his own dirty secrets that holds all the cards to play people however he wants.  It is a brilliant performance that motivates his co-stars to push themselves further and harder.

Meanwhile, on a more reduced role, Hugh Laurie delivers an intelligent, subtle performance as Captain James Biggs of Internal Affairs.  He carefully probes Ludlow throughout the film just giving him a little nudge here and there.  As Laurie has proven in his many years portraying Dr. Gregory House, he can hold a scene smartly opposite anyone.  It’s only one scene, but Forest Whitaker gives him a challenge to contend with.  Laurie, as Biggs, stands his ground well.  However, the rest of his scenes are opposite Keanu, and they both play them with an electric dynamic.  They both portray strong characters offering up conflict fueled by Ludlow’s misconceptions.  He doesn’t know what Biggs is really after, and Biggs doesn’t show his cards.  He just let’s things play out with a little encouragement to make sure Ludlow takes the right critical steps.

The film is shot with some sharp style and edge.  The cinematography continually maintains the energy of the narrative, and providing numerous inspired camera moves to punctuate certain dramatic beats.  Thankfully, the style and edge never compromise the story being told, it merely services and enhances it.  Everything in this film is conceived and executed properly.  Every role is cast with a lot of thought and detail.  Strong actors are implanted throughout the movie from the leads to the supporting roles.

Chris Evans adds an extra, different dynamic as the slightly green Detective Diskant.  A cop interested in doing the right thing, and willing to push past his experience and limits to do so.  He might not have as much streetwise mileage as Ludlow, but has the conviction to maintain his sense of justice.  Evans strikes the right balance with him offering up enough inexperienced uncertainty mixed with confidence through trust.  Evans & Reeves have a fine chemistry that is born out of the characters’ contrasts, as with most great pairings.  That helps to maintain a lighter mood between them, and gives the film its balance of humorous moments.  I feel Diskant is definitely a conduit for the audience to better connect with the story.  Ludlow is clearly the lead, but Diskant is a little more relatable and helps to give Ludlow someone to connect with on the journey.  Someone he can trust, and through Diskant, you can come to relate more with Ludlow.

What I really like about this film is how smart it is written.  No character is conceived without a motivation for their actions, and nothing is dumbed down for the convenience of the plot.  Everything fits together amazingly well.  Screenwriters James Ellroy, Kurt Wimmer, & Jamie Moss delivered something very satisfying on multiple levels, and director David Ayer realized that with great balance and competence.  The entire plot is well constructed, and gradually develops on-screen in a very coherent and intelligent manner.  All the characters are written and played with a lot of personality and realistic depth.  They all work well opposite one another to create a very diverse and interesting landscape for this crooked world.  I literally have nothing negative at all to say about this film.  To me, it should be considered a classic in the genre.  I love the energy and momentum throughout the story to keep you hooked into where it is leading Tom Ludlow.  That doesn’t mean there’s action all the time, just that the plot continues to develop adding new elements that drive the characters forward.  Everything that develops motivates people and events towards more dangerous consequences until Ludlow is faced with the truth, but it’s not without it’s costs.

With Street Kings, there’s plenty of violent action, emotionally charged drama, serious danger, and fine dashes of humor to make it a very powerful, entertaining ride that’s worth taking.  This is one of my favorite films of the last few years, and I give it my full, wholehearted recommendation!  There is no fat in this film, just lean, strong talent that punctuates the story and characters.