May 5, 2012

Movies: The Avengers

And there came a day, a day unlike any other, when Earth's mightiest heroes found themselves united against a common threat. On that day, the Avengers were born—to fight the foes no single super hero could withstand!

I admit without shame that I have never been a huge Avengers fan. Mutants are much more my thing when it comes to Marvel, but still, in modern comic books it is impossible to follow only one set of characters and not know anything about the rest. What my opening sentence meant to say was that my hype for this movie was based solely on the movies preceding it, as I have no strong feelings for any of the characters in it. Add to that the unflattering trailers and my strong conviction that a superhero ensemble movie is doomed to turn into a superpower showoff cameofest (coughX-men2cough), and the only hope I was seeing for The Avengers was in the form of its director and script writer Joss Whedon who is, as is well known, the best thing since Jesus.

I don't know how to follow up this paragraph with a smart and elegant transition to my reaction to the movie, so I'll just get on with it: The Avengers is by far the best Marvel Comics movie ever made, and easily among the best in the genre, with no real competition on the superhero front. All pitfalls of the ensemble movie have been avoided, everything good about ensemble stories has been utilized to its full potential by a master of the ensemble storytelling.

Coming on the shoulders of no less than five previous origin movies, The Avengers does not need to introduce its characters. What it does, is jump into the plot and use it to build them. The Tesseract - introduced in Captain America - has been stolen by Loki (Tom Hiddleston), and Nick Fury, the director of S.H.I.E.L.D. (Samuel Jackson) decides it's time to assemble a response team to avert an oncoming alien invasion. Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans), Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Thor of Asgard (Chris Hemsworth) and Bruce Banner/The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), as well as S.H.I.E.L.D. agents Natasha Romanov/Black Widow (Scarlet Johansson) and Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) all come together under different circumstances, but with one goal - to stop a threat none of them can contain alone.

The premise is simple, but as any superhero team origin story, it is a great risk to tell it. The burden of fan expectation, the dynamic of characters with vastly different backgrounds and power levels... it is so easy for this to go wrong, that nothing short of brilliance would be enough. And Joss Whedon delivers in full. Having suckled geekdom from his mother's breast, the guy knows exactly what the fans have wanted to see, and how to deliver it without compromising the integrity of the story. For those who don't believe me, I have two words - S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier.

The Avengers goes at a brisk pace, and it's almost surprising when it finally clocks at 142 minutes (according to IMDB), but that time is spent just the way it should - in multiple locations, creating fully realized situations in each, propelling the plot forward while subtly building and solidifying a team I did not believe would ever translate on the big screen. All the actors - including ones I had doubts about - deliver flawlessly, and if Mark Ruffalo is not Edward Norton... well, that's not his fault, and he still does a great job. Depending on viewers' knowledge of previous films has allowed Whedon to not only ignore the need for a backstory, but also to build on the characters from where we've last seen them. Those are not people finding themselves. Those are people who've found themselves and now are finding something bigger.

The special effects are fantastic, even though in the final act they tend to stray a bit on the Transformers side, with a bit too many machines and buildings being destroyed. That said, the heroes show off their powers in the coolest possible way without it even for a second seeming unnecessary or put there just for the fans' sake. The cinematography is nothing spectacular or fancy, but even amidst the greatest chaos you always know exactly what is happening and who it's happening to. If the movie has anything vaguely reminiscent of a flaw, it would be the typically unmemorable soundtrack, but Marvel movies have never had great music anyway, and it's by no means bad.

The Avengers is exactly the triumphant masterpiece crown jewel that Marvel and the fans were hoping for. It is the movie that could have been, but so rarely is. A brilliant achievement, utilizing the full scope and all the strengths of the genre. And, if we are lucky - Joss Whedon's ticket to a well funded TV show that won't get cancelled!


May 4, 2012

Cover art for Brandon Sanderson and Robert Jordan's A Memory of Light - For Real This Time

The actual Michael Whelan cover (plus full art) for Sanderson and Jordan's A Memory of Light. Is it sad that I find it completely uninspiring?