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Believe the Hype: Avengers Does Rock Saturday, May 12, 2012 08:05 AM

Let me just out myself first by admitting that I've been a comics fan and reader for a long, long time.  That said, after seeing Marvel's The Avengers this weekend my initial response - even compared to the success of Iron Man & Iron Man 2 - is really simple.


It's not just the effects, it's not just the snarky dialogue.  It's not just the amazing combat scenes.  It's everything.  And most importantly it's clearly the impact of Co-Writer and Director Joss Whedon.

Whedon and Marvel have done something truly amazing here on a variety of levels, and I can see how it's been a long time coming in both of their cases.

When Marvel Comics began in the 60's they managed to primarily distinguish themselves from the main competitor DC (which featured characters such as Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman and the Flash) by grounding their stories much more within a sense of reality and consistent continuity.

Whereas DC would do issues which included "Imaginary Stories" where Lois Lane would discover Superman's Identity, or would Marry Him only to have everything forgotten or erased by the end of the book - the same way that an entire year of the TV show Dallas was wiped away when Bobby Ewing suddenly walked out of the shower alive and well, turning the previous 20 episodes into nothing more than a bad dream by his wife - Marvel simply didn't do that.

In Marvel when something happened, it continued to matter in the next issue.  Not only that, it sometimes made a difference in other books as well. In Spider-man his first girlfriend Gwen Stacy was killed - and in many ways it was Spider-man's own fault when his attempt to save her from a deadly fall too quickly snapped her neck. (Something similar to this was shown in the first Spiderman movie, only it wasn't with Gwen and she lived)  That tragedy haunted him for years.  In Old DC Comics they might have done an issue with someone dying, but they be back alive either by the end of the issue - or the next. There'd be no consequence.  Nothing lost, nothing learned.

In Marvel Peter didn't just suddenly wake up one day and find Gwen alive again (although there we're more than a few Gwen Stacy Clones that showed up over the years), instead he eventually came to terms with it and married Mary Jane Watson.

Similarly the Avengers was Marvel's version of DC's Justice League, bringing together all of their "Mightiest Heroes".  Unlike DC though, when circumstances changed for one of those characters in their own storyline, it changed in the Avengers too.  On the one hand that makes logical sense, on the other hand accomplishes a marketing goal that at the time made Marvel unique, on the third hand if you don't keep things straight - you get a tangled incoherent hodgepodge.

The idea was that in order to fully understand the story, you had to now not just buy one book.  You had to buy two - or maybe three - or maybe TEN. In the short term this unique aspect of Marvel book built a rabidly loyal fanbase, but it's not like DC didn't notice how times were changing.

Over the years DC began to catch on to this tactic. Also during the 70's more and more ex-Marvel writers and artists also began to defect to DC.  Avengers writer Steve Englehart is the person who first brought us a version of the Joker who wasn't just a hilarious clown, but the mass-murdering sociopath we ultimately saw in "The Dark Knight."  During the 80's it was former Avenger artist George Perez, along with former Marvel writer Marv Wolfman (who had invented Blade while working on Marvel's Dracula comic) that together re-formed and re-invented the New Teen Titans for DC who became a direct competitor to Marvel's enormously popular X-Men franchise.

I still remember getting into a heated argument at the San Diego Comic Con with a die-hard Marvel fan who absolutely hated DC even in the 80s - even when we were essentially comparing New Teen Titans (by Perez & Wolfman) to X-men (by Chris Claremont and John Byrne).  It was like arguing with a brick wall.

Marvel fans are dedicated like that.  Almost cultish.

Not long after that John Byrne also defected to DC so that he could helm the re-write of Superman.  Eventually the DC and Marvel "styles" became a distinction without a real difference.

From the aspect of sales that's great, and it can be pretty cool for collectors to try and play connect all the dots but it can also get a bit out of hand.  Probably the most ridiculous case of cross-over abuse was the mini-series "Contest of Champions" which was reported to include at least a cameo by each and every Super-Hero character in the Marvel Universe - all in one book.  I was working at a Comic Store at the time, and the desire for that book was OFF THE CHARTS.  Unfortunately it was a complete piece of crap.  The story had been re-adapted from something that had been intended for the Olympics and didn't hold up, the art was terrible.  Between the time they had begun the book, some characters had died and been awkwardly replaced. It was a hot mess, but that didn't hurt sales one bit.

During the 90's, it got even worse. The industry began to cater to collectors to such a degree that not only was the unnecessary cross-over thing completely overdone, the industry was putting out multiple versions of the exact same book with different covers - just so that collectors would have to buy multiple copies.  Books that legitimately would have been selling 100,000 or 200,000 copies a month were selling over 1 Million.

It was about that time that I pretty much stopped collecting and stopped reading.  It was nuts.  The industry had become bloated by not just fans and collectors - but speculators.  And eventually just like the frenzied inflationary speculation of savings and loans during the 80's, of the industry 90's and the Housing Industry into 2000's, it all came crashing down. Hard. After all that excess, the comics industry bottomed out and nearly died.

I bring all of this out because this is essentially the core rationale behind Marvel's Avengers from a franchise standpoint.  It has all the benefits I've talked about, but also all of the dangers. In each of these previous movies, which really began with Iron Man 1, there has been a tag scene that appears after the credits have ended which have step by step led to this film.

Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury appears after the credits and initially introduces both himself and the "Avengers Initiative" to Tony Stark in Iron Man.  He then shows up far more prominently during Iron Man 2, after agent Natasha Romonoff (Black Widow) has infiltrated Stark enterprises, becoming Pepper Potts' (Gweneth Paltrow) assistant to keep close tabs on Tony.

After the Credits in Captain America: The First Avenger the exact same scene shown in the Avengers where Fury talks to Steve Rogers while he's working out (and destroying punching bags) is previewed.

S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Colson (Clark Gregg) has appeared in both Iron Man movies as well as Thor.  

So in order to fully comprehend the entire story, you actually need to watch all five of these movies, but it's not an absolute requirement.  If you haven't seen Thor - which I haven't - it doesn't ruin the film for you. Even if you don't know everyone and haven't seen everything - Avengers still hold up very well, and for that I have to give credit to Joss Whedon.

Joss is best known for his long running Buffy the Vampire TV Series and it's spin-off Angel.  Whedon was the perfect choice for Avengers not simply because both of those shows featured diverse ensemble casts, and frequent cross-overs between the two shows where the story jumped from one program to the other quite a few times, but also because in many ways Whedon through these shows has revolutionized how super-action TV and movies are done.

When Whedon first attempted the original Buffy Film, it was a mess.  He was trying to create a blend of Horror, Drama and Comedy that was most like the idiosyncrasies of real life. We're all used to single genre films, but pulling of a cross genre flick is far more difficult.  You can't rely on formula and staid patterns of story telling.  Trying to tell a silly one-liner joke in the middle of a high stress action sequence, or in the midst of some moment of absolute horror and not having it come out stiff, silly or dumb - is high art.  Even the first few episodes of Buffy the TV show really didn't gel until the second season.

But eventually over his years with Buffy, then Angel, Whedon eventually became a Master of the Multi-Genre Horror/Action/Dramedy - and all of that Mastery is in full display in Avengers.

There are so many lines, so many moments that are shocking visually with the latest in FX, but are also emotional, frightening and at the same time hilariously funny.  But they only work in context, and they only work within the understanding of who the characters are, and Whedon knows these characters well.  Robert Downey Jr.'s sardonic hyper-active, hyper-hip Iron Man is contrasted well both with the raw directness and earnestness of Chris Evans as Captain America.  It's 40's America vs the modern day America in bright relief.  It's trusting authority vs today's cynicism of authority.

Captain America: I don't like it.

Tony Stark/Iron Man: What? Rock of Ages giving up so easily?

Captain America: I don't remember it being that easy. This guy packs a wallop.

Tony Stark/Iron Man: Still, you were pretty spry, for an older fellow. What's your thing? Pilates?

Captain America: What?

Tony Stark/Iron Man: It's like calisthenics. You might have missed a couple things. Y'know, doin' time as a... Cap-sicle.

Captain America: Fury didn't tell me he was calling you in.

Tony Stark/Iron Man: Yeah, there's a lot of things Fury doesn't tell you.

There's Alpha-Male Competition there, but also jealousy by Stark that he feels that his father (who appears prominently in the Captain America movie) seems to have loved and cared for Cap far more than him.
Steve Rogers/Captain America: Always a way out. You know you may not be a threat but you better stop pretending to be a hero.

Tony Stark/Iron Man: A hero? Like you? You're a lab experiment Rogers. Everything special about you came out of a BOTTLE.

Steve Rogers/Captain America: Put on the suit, let's go a couple rounds.

And there are other links between the characters that are explored.  For example it's pointed out that the Super soldier program that produced Cap and ended after the murder of Dr. Erskine who founded the program, is the essentially the same project that - accidentally - produced the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo).
Agent Coulson: Ever since you went missing people have been trying to replicate the serum that created you. Dr. Banner was part of one of these projects.

Steve Rogers/Captain America: [watching footage of the Hulk] Didn't really work out for him did it?

And then there are moments, which again in context, are pretty funny and give you a quick flashcard insight into a particular characters perspective when Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) mentions something about "Flying Monkies".
Steve Rogers/Cap: (Holds up Hand) I got that reference
There is conflict between Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and his brother Loki on the emotional level, where Thor is trying to save his brother from himself, while Loki is clearly not interested in being saved.  
Thor: Come home!

 Loki: It isn't mine.

There's the tough, smart and super-capable Black Widow (Scarlett Johansen) who is a master at letting herself appear vulnerable in order to disarm and outwit her opponents.
Russian Thug: There's a call - it's for you.

Widow (who is tied to a chair and being threaten by the bad guys): I'm working, I'm in the middle of a interrogation and this idiot is telling me everything

Later she finds out the reason for the phone call by Agent Colson.
Agent Coulson: We're rounding up the Avengers. You get the big guy.

Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow: I don't think I'm one of Mr. Stark's favorite people right now.

Agent Coulson: No, I have Stark. You get the BIG guy.

Widow: Bojemoi!

This sequence is self explanatory, but if you've seen either Iron Man 2 or Incredible Hulk - it takes on another dimension.  They also show a new dimension to tough, no-nonsense Agent Coulson, who it appears is a giant Captain America fan who attempts unsuccessfully to get Steve to sign his collection of vintage trading cards.  Like a lot of really obsessed comics fans can sometimes be overbearing when they meet the writers and artists who've created their favorite characters, they can sometimes come off a bit creepy.
Agent Phil Coulson: I gotta say, it's an honor to meet you, officially. I sort of met you, I mean, I watched you while you were sleeping. I mean, I was, I was present while you were unconscious, from the ice. You know it's really just a, just a huge honor to have you on board.

Steve Rogers/Captain America: Well, I hope I'm the man for the job.

There are moments that play as displays of genuine heroism, especially for the characters beside Thor and Hulk who aren't invulnerable and could easily be killed like Hawkeye (who gets brainwashed), Cap (who gets shot) or Iron Man (who nearly gets nuked).  Probably the most humanizing "horror movie" moment is when the Hulk is first unleashed and decides to target the Widow, and all she can do is try to out run him.  Which is a bit like trying to outrun a giant green freight train.  

In other words, it doesn't work very well.

On the other hand probably the funniest moment is when the Hulk, after an attitude adjustment, finally gets his hands on Loki and quite literally Smashes Him like rabid rottweiler with a rag doll in it's teeth right while he's giving another one of his "You're not worthy of me" speeches.  

Bruce Banner/The Hulk: Puny god.
Shuts him up real good. I was laughing until tears came out of my eyes.

This movie has a lot going on, and nearly every single bit of it works.  In the hands of someone with lesser experience at doing exactly this, and with lesser familiarity with the comics medium than Whedon who has continued both his Buffy and Angel franchises after the end of their TV runs in comics form. (Buffy: Season Eight and Angel: After the Fall doing much of the writing himself) a film like this could have turned into an incoherent mess.

But it's very coherent.  Amazingly so.

I think Marvel's done something masterful here. They've taken the synergy of their comics cross-over/continuity strategy and projected it into motion pictures creating four inter-connected and overlapping movie franchises.  (Technically though it might become five with Ghost Rider and even six with the Rebooted Amazing Spider-man) This isn't like what we've previously seen with movie sequels or prequels. This isn't traveling along a linear story path.  It's Parallel.  

It's not like when Freddy Met Jason.  That was just a one-time attempt to pander and get two sets of horror fans to buy the same ticket.  This is something more.  The closest equivalent in other movie franchises might be the blending of Predator and Alien into a single universe, but that was somewhat less coherent, and certainly far less consistent.

It's not an accident that Avengers broke the opening box office weekend gross with $200.3 Million, eclipsing both Harry Potter and the Twilight Franchises best.  And it's not simply because Avengers really is a great movie, even though it is.

It was all part of the plan.

They keep this up and Marvel could change the film industry forever.

But let's just hope as this multi-tiered franchise moves forward, that that change is a positive one and they don't succumb to the kinds of excess that nearly derailed comics 20 years ago, and could put the movie industry at risk of collapsing in on itself again.

I'm hoping Whedon gets a lifetime contract on this deal.


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