comics and film

The Avengers – What’s The What, How’s The How, and Why’s The Why, Part Three

Here we are at last, the final piece of the puzzle.  If you’ve made it through parts one and two of this overly in-depth look at Marvel’s record-breaking, block-busting summer team-up behemoth The Avengers, then I am genuinely grateful. If you haven’t … well, don’t you think you’d better catch up?  III. The Why “I don’t like to create something that doesn’t say anything.” –Joss Whedon The Avengers is, more or less, an almost-seamless machine for producing childlike joy. Given how fully it succeeds in this respect, it seems churlish to ask of it what I’m about to ask. But I’m a man who owns a 500-page book of essays on Whedon’s work and… well, see the above quote. Is it meant to make you feel anything, being awesome? Is it about anything except the maths of Iron Man + Hulk = AWESOME? Does it have anything to say? Yes. Maybe. No. Kind of. Emotionally speaking, all you’ve got is the trad. Whedon death. But here, it’s explicitly worked to fuel the plot. As well-worked into the public’s affections as Coulson is, his passing isn’t really worked for emotion the way any number of Whedon characters are (e.g. [REDACTED], [REDACTED], and, of course, [REDACTED]. Boy, that one was really something, wasn’t it?) The story, intermittently, is about a lot of the usual modern-superhero-film things – America as a superpower; the military-industrial complex; image and perception; all adding up to the question of how superheroes function in a realistic, modern world. It’s about a lot of the usual Joss Whedon things, too – outsiders vs. authority; the cost of victory; and, perhaps most of all, building a family out of what was previously just a disparate handful of people. It’s not especially about those things, though. So maybe it’s a character study? After my first viewing, I was a bit disappointed there wasn’t more attention given over to each character. You know, just time chilling with the heroes, maybe a little peek at how Whedon reckons each of their minds work. It seems likely a lot of that may have ended up on the cutting room floor, but there is still plenty there – it’s just under the surface. It’s in Ruffalo’s fidgety faux-calm performance, and little throwaway lines, and how we meet each character. I was left craving their characters’ company (Which I reckon goes some way to explain the millions of people who apparently have come out of the theatre, bought a ticket and maybe some overpriced salty snacks, and just gone right back in. They’re not, I think, going back in to see the same dozen explosions.) Really – and this should come as no surprise – the characters are what The Avengers is all about. And what the character stuff wants to talk about, mostly, seems to be control. Look at Loki. Like all the best baddies, the threat he poses isn’t solely violent, though obviously with all the explosions and the alien invasion, there is that. It’s a philosophical threat. Loki doesn’t want to destroy the earth, he just wants to impose his worldview on it – that, as a god, he is superior, and as such they should relinquish their free will. Which is precisely what he does to Hawkeye and Dr Selvig at the start of the film. (Interestingly, though, they’re not quite empty-eyed drones. Rather than being fully stripped of their sense of self, they’re just reduced to their roles as scientist and soldier – and Selvig especially seems to be really enjoying himself.) But Loki, it turns out, is part of a larger chain of command – he’s bossed over by the slightly naff-looking alien, who himself turns out to be a lackey of Thanos. And that echoes the one on the Avengers’ side, of the World Security Council – who are trying to exert power over people because They Know What’s Best (rarely a good sign in Whedon’s work) – and Nick Fury – whose most heroic moment in the film is simply resisting the control of his shadowy superiors and letting the Avengers go free. It’s a chain of people trying to exercise control over one another – and mostly failing. Control over oneself, though? That’s quite different. It’s pretty much Black Widow’s superpower. Twice in the film she shows her ability to remove herself from her emotions, and weaponise them. That that self-control is only broken by her fear of the Hulk sets up a fascinating dynamic between the two and, in breaking her outer shell a little, provides a way in for any future filmmakers dealing with her. Tony Stark sits at a balanced midpoint, having had time in two solo feature films to run through most of his self-control issues. That’s great, because it stops Downey Jr from stealing the whole damn show like he threatened to in the trailers, and because it allows him to bond with the character around which the film naturally finds its fascinating centre. The Hulk. If ever there was a character about the questions of self-control, it’s the Hulk. It’s built into his verdant DNA. Whedon finds a fresh spin on it, something more nuanced and subtle than most interpretations of the Hulk, and Ruffalo sticks the landing effortlessly. He’s treated like a poorly-stored nuclear weapon by most of his teammates but, for the most part, Banner’s pretty damn chill about everything. It doesn’t fit with our basic perception of the Hulk, but then you start to notice Ruffalo’s ever-busy hands, and then he casually drops the littlest of big reveals: “I’m always angry”. The first time, it knit my brows. It’s such a throwaway line, but in its implications – embracing that life isn’t a clean break between calm and anger, that anger perhaps isn’t such a bad emotion – those three words manage to make the job of the next Hulk director a whole lot harder. All that control stuff is built into the structure, too. It’s a byproduct of the way The […]

The Avengers – What’s The What, How’s The How, and Why’s The Why, Part Two

Being the Second Parte of our examination of The Avengers motion picture (J. Whedon, esq.) The first is available for your perusal here. II. The How “And there came a day, a day unlike any other, when Earth’s mightiest heroes and heroines found themselves united against a common threat. On that day, the Avengers were born—to fight the foes no single super hero could withstand!” –Folklore …And there’s your movie, more or less. That silver-age elevator pitch, turned into two and a half hours of cinema. There’s never any more plot than that, really – but why would you need any? That means it’s all about the execution. The whole thing hangs off a familiar skeleton of a story, and so – like everything in life, really – it’s all about the people you spend your time with. We’ve already met Clint “Hawkeye” Barton (Jeremy Renner) in the opening. It’s one of those choices I mentioned finding fascinating. The order, pacing and details of each Avenger’s introduction is masterful. Such a mish-mash of down-to-earth army men, semi-plausible science heroes and alien gods requires no small amount of disbelief-suspension, and Hawkeye’s a great example of that. On one hand, he’s the easiest sell of the movie – no powers, just an extraordinarily talented commando. (File alongside Bourne, Rambo, and the now-thrice-invoked Daniel Craig Bond.) On the other… A man with a bow and arrow in a world of gods and robots? One who the general public have never heard of, except for the briefest of glimpses in Thor? Whose wardrobe oscillates between garish purple and leather fetishwear?  Frankly, his inclusion in the Earth’s Mightiest Heroes is a bit of a headscratcher. So the Great God Whedon (or, technically speaking, the Evil God Loki) takes Hawkeye and turns him. A touch of mind-control magic, et voila, you’ve got yourself Evil Hawkeye. It’s a brilliant way of setting up a character who is essentially Robin-Hood-in-a-wifebeater as a credible threat. Seeing how much he puts the fear up our super-powered heroes makes it clear he’s no joke, so that when he’s finally brought back and turned against the baddies, it feels like a powerful weapon is being drawn. Throw in some incredibly cool gadget moments, and Hawkeye becomes someone you could actually imagine the kids fighting over getting to be the next morning in the playground. The introduction of Natasha “Black Widow” Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) comes next for similar reasons – she had low-level powers, little brand awareness, no film of her own and, worst of all, is a girl. (Urghhhh!)  And so Whedon, rather predictably, luxuriates in her introduction, which subverts a damsel-in-distress cliché into a scene-controlling badass with all the ease of a chair to the face. When we meet her, Natasha is tied to a chair, being interrogated by three Russian men. It’s not hard to spot the sexual power balance there. It’s played for just long enough to be convincing then – bam – it turns out she’s not helpless after all, but was in control all along. Plus, suddenly she can move like the deadliest ballerina not featuring in Black Swan.  And we should have known, not just because it’s Whedon but because it’s so clearly coded as a performance – the spotlight falling so perfectly on her, the use of mirrors, the contrast between set (ruins of a Soviet car park) and costume (little black dress). It’s pure theatre, and peppered with enough jokes that it doesn’t seem like it has any agenda to preach. And, once we’ve gotten past the intro of a new Bruce “Hulk” Banner (Mark Ruffalo) – possibly the biggest brand in the whole cast, but with his face, behaviour and body having undergone an appropriately mysterious transformation, from a fairly one-note performance by Ed Norton to Ruffalo’s hand-wringing suppressed brilliance – and Steve “Captain America” Rogers (Chris Evans) – straightforward super-punchy leader, bit jingoistic, but brushed away with a quick “maybe we need a bit of the old fashioned” – we’re back on easy street, with the People’s Favourite, Tony “Iron Man” Stark (Robert Downey Jr).  But Whedon still takes care to set up each scene, borrowing just enough visual elements from the characters’ disparate movies to sell them as a cohesive unit – settings, camera work and, most noticeably, colour palettes. Banner in India is all muted oranges and dusty browns, with green lifted subtly out of the mix. Tony lives in a world of his own construction, all translucent screens and glaring chrome, light by neon. Cap, until he steps out into the world, inhabits a worn, slightly sepia-toned piece of film. As the characters are brought together, those palettes are mixed. The four-colour world of the more superheroey superheroes is tempered by the midnight blues of the military elements. It means the film ends up with something that doesn’t have all that much visual style of its own, except the house style. Whedon relinquishes control as director to help sell the idea of these characters co-existing in a way that’s logical. From there, it’s time to start showing how they work together – starting in Stuttgart, which we’ll come back to – but there’s still a piece missing. The film has still got to sell the audience on a Norse God of Thunder in a bright red cape. Thor “Thor” Odinson (Chris Hemsworth). For the duration, Thor is the one character that is kept lowest in the mix. He has his share of wonderful moments – Hemsworth is an incredibly charismatic and funny actor, who brings something to Thor that I’ve never really seen in the comics – but it’s often the case that they are his moments. Segments featuring Thor and Loki rewrite the script into, as Stark puts it, “Shakespeare in the park”. It couldn’t be truer – the complicated relationship, the family ties, the wordplay, the Iago-ness of Loki cast against the Othello-ness of Thor. And that’s great, but it doesn’t quite fit, and so Thor is […]

The Avengers – What’s The What, How’s The How, and Why’s The Why, Part One

The first of a three-part analysis of Marvel’s The Avengers or Avengers Assemble or Los Vengadores, or whatever name it was released under where you live. I. The What “These people shouldn’t be in the same room, let alone on the same team. And that is the definition of family.”  –Joss Whedon Most people came to The Avengers as fans of Iron Man, and the glut of not-quite-as-good Marvel films that have followed it. A lot came as fans of Avengers comics, whether Stan Lee’s or Brian Bendis’. Me? I came to it as a fan of Joseph ‘Joss’ Whedon. For me, at least, it’s fascinating to observe all the choices made by Mr Whedon (even though it’s impossible to know what part each of the army of people – and it truly is an army, as anyone who has sat all the way through the credits will attest – is responsible for all the choices and elements that make The Avengers work, who really had control. So for the sake of ease, let’s refer to all the invisible people – not the actors, but the producers, cameramen, special effects people, best boys – all the people who exist only behind the camera, as “Joss Whedon”. It’s a handy amalgam). It’s through that lens we’ll be examining the film – starting at its opening which, having dived straight into the sci-fi-fantasy elements, brings them immediately to earth. To a top-secret SHIELD base in the US desert base, being more specific. And so, that spark of supernatural – which, let’s be honest, with its slightly naff alien baddie and questionable physics, is a bit of a hard sell – grounds itself in the familiar reality of this militaristic set-up. All the bases, helicopters, jeeps, tight-fitting leather uniforms and dark muted colours place us in a comfortingly recognisable genre – the post-9/11, post-24 military blockbuster. For the first ten minutes or so, The Avengers is essentially a Craig-era Bond film. The message is clear. This is the world that is going to be hanging in the balance – our own. (Or, at least, the modern cinematic version of it). But then there’s that pesky supernatural spark I mentioned, which earths in plot terms, too, in the form of Loki (Tom Hiddleston), Thor’s Big Bad and Thor’s little brother. Being a magic-stick-of-deadly-blue-energy-wielding alien god, he’s the one element that’s out of place in this world, and genre. Accordingly, his arrival overturns it, literally and bombastically – as SHIELD’s highest-tech, most-prolifically-satellite-dished base collapses into sand in a matter of minutes. Again, there’s a clear message – not only is Loki a big threat, but his very existence disrupts the natural order of the world he’s in (reminder: our world). Even Daniel Craig couldn’t stop this one. We’re going to need something new. Read part two – The How(or skip to Part Three, if you’re that way inclined)

Scott Pilgrimfest, Vol 2: vs The Film

LIVES: ONE So. They got this ‘Scott Pilgrim’ in cinemas now, huh? First, the pull-quote: Edgar Wright crafts a lavishly faithful adaptation and tribute to O’Malley’s seminal comics series, with a beautifully original graphic style. Okay. Stick that on your poster and smoke it. The thing is, what I think Wright actually made was a tribute to his Scott Pilgrim. Which is not necessarily your Scott Pilgrim and, relevantly, isn’t my Scott Pilgrim. What’s so great about Scott Pilgrim, the six-piece comic, is that it’s a multi-faceted work, with different hooks and points of entry for pretty much everyone. It’s a comedy, it’s a heartwrenching romance, it’s a study of the modern hipster-slacker lifestyle, it’s a formal experiment. It’s all about Scott & Ramona. It’s all about Young Neil. It’s all about Kim Pine. (Oh, it’s definitely all about Kim Pine.) Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim is certainly not all about Kim Pine. In the necessary shuffling around and condensation, she gets pushed aside and barely features. None of which hurts the story, and it’s just the entitled fanboy in me expecting a carbon copy of everything I love. Except it changes the point. By pushing out Kim and Envy, the reflection of Scott’s exes with Ramona’s (and the question of who exactly is the evil ex in a relationship) is lost. The story as a meditation on dealing with your past and with your partner’s doesn’t exist. Instead, the film draws a thematic line between the the Knives/Scott/Ramona/Gideon relationships. It focuses instead on the idea of power structures in relationships, and hierarchies of who gets to treat who like crap. Maybe because it suits a single, under-two-hours version of the story better; maybe because that’s what the story is about about for Edgar Wright. Whatever. I’m honestly not sure if, ignore my own baggage of expectations and bias, if it stands alone better. It’s a valid version of the story, definitely, but I’d argue it renders the other six evil exes more or less pointless, except as flashy misdirection. And the film kind of seems to agree, speeding through everything between the two relationships. That’s at the cost of the lethargic, organic pace of the comics, where their serialised nature allows for the weird stuff to just wash over you and happen. Scenes chop into one another, mid-conversation And suddenly you’re in a desert but that doesn’t really make much sense except because it has to happen Because that’s what happens. There are chapter breaks which look lovely (as does pretty much the entire film – if nothing else, SPvTW is a stylistic triumph) but don’t really serve any purpose. Stuff gets thrown in as a tribute, or because it’s funny, but without explanation within the film itself. I have to admit that I couldn’t help but watch this film as an adaptation, though, and thus fall into a trap. A pit filled with deadly spikes. LIVES: ZERO … CONTINUE? …And like any good boss fight, the second time round, you know what’s coming. Seeing it again in almost identical conditions*, with all the expectations out of the way, it was easier to see the truth of the film. Around 80% of it is spot-on in every single detail; 10% is stuff with a weird relationship to the comic – dropping, altering or inexplicably including something – and 10% is, honestly, just a bit off. The complaints stand: it’s still not funny enough, really, to pull off the extremities of style and dialogue it attempts. The jokes that worked last time, though, are still funny, which I hadn’t expected; the jokes from the comics, mostly, still don’t. The pacing is a bit jumpy, and wasn’t just me thinking oh, this bit’s missing. The smooth fades of comic vocabulary don’t translate into cinema. There’s not really enough time to buy into the relationships: I couldn’t help but warm more to Scott/Knives than Scott/Ramona. The hits that it lands are truly triumphant, though. The thing that struck me most second time was the music. It’s brilliant, and brilliantly used, and Edgar Wright’s description of the film as a musical with punches rings really true. Scott Pilgrim vs. The World is a film that work bests – often, works perfectly – when it forgets it is a film about the Scott Pilgrim comics. With slightly reworked relationships, new ideas and a different message, it takes flight. There’s a whole new focus on what it means to be the ‘nice’ one in a relationship means, and whether wanting something ‘simple’ is actually healthy in the film which I’ve never seen anywhere else, which is a fascinating intepretation of both Scott Pilgrim and an original use of the rom-com form. It’s like – to borrow the Scott Pilgrim worldview – one of Punch-Out!!‘s opponent boxers: a strong fighter, with an unmistakably exaggerated character. Unfortunately, it also comes with a large, flashing weakpoint. Attack for massive damage… GAME OVER. *Same cinema, similar time of day, rushing out of the cinema to catch a train South to the girlfriend, for those of you keeping count at home.

A Kick To The Balls

So, if you haven’t heard yet, Kick Ass is a pretty good film. It’s probably not going to Dark Knight your socks off, but it’s a solid Iron Man. It takes the ideas and ambition of Millar’s good-but-flawed comic and it runs with it. Superbad + Spider-Man? The stories about studios turning Matthew Vaughan and Mark Millar away are astounding: how the dollar signs in their eyes weren’t spinning I don’t know. And here’s what Kick Ass does: it deconstructs the superhero genre better than Watchmen. To be clear, we’re taking the 2009 film, not the 1987 comic. And here’s the point: nothing is ever going to be able blow apart expectations like Alan Moore in the ’80s ever again. Thing about expectations is, once you’ve destroyed them once, that trick doesn’t work any more. And by the time our current Golden Age of Cinematic Supers rolled around, the geeks were in charge, and they’d all read Watchmen. Look at the first wave: Blade, Spider-Man and the single film responsible for the last decade of capes and sound effects on the big screen: Bryan Singer’s X-Men. No colourful costumes. Opening in Nazi Germany. That bit where Wolverine uses one of his claws to give Cyclops the finger. And Kick Ass is essentially that, writ large. It’s at its best when it melds mundane reality (which rings true more regularly than Millar’s original sweartastic dialogue) with low-key superheroics. We’ve seen all this before – Raimi did the early failures when Peter Parker hit that billboard learning to web swing; the ‘scuba suit as superhero suit’ practicality was a hallmark of Nolan’s realist approach to Batman Begins; hell, even the unexpected ‘getting hit with a bus’ was in Mean Girls – but it’s still loveable here, as long as it doesn’t expect us to gasp, they can’t do that! Kick-Ass telling us that if we think he’s sure to survive just ’cause he’s narrating this, stop being such a smart-ass works and, obviously, the breakaway hit of the film is the foul-mouthed, uncomfortably sexualised Hit Girl. Making it so the infamous C-word line isn’t her entrance seems a waste, but her character is largely pitch-perfect in delivering little subversive shocks throughout. The scene where she asks for a puppy for her birthday is a brilliant example. Unfortunately, though, Kick Ass has a tendency to get too close to the clichés it’s playing with, and develop Stockholm Syndrome for them. The general plot structure is very reminiscient of the first Spider-Man film, if cleverly obscured and (I should point out that minor spoilers will follow, but given that they’re examples of Kick Ass playing it safe to action movie conventions, they’re probably not going to ruin it for you) relies on the sort of ‘friend comes to the rescue at the last minute’ and ‘apparently dead character is in fact only mildly injured … and comes to the rescue at the last minute’ clichés with such regularity that, far from building tension, they undermine any sense of danger. Which brings us to the inevitable portion of our review entitled ‘But, it’s not like the comic!’ Letting Kick-Ass get the girl probably shouldn’t work, but it’s cute and satisfying enough (and the love interest is fleshed out in a way not only beyond the comic’s two-dimensional but beyond the likes of Spider-man et al themselves) that it’s easily forgiven. Taking away the big reveal that Big Daddy’s cool Punisher-style origin story is just a story, however, means that the movie loses the message that made the comic worthwhile: that, perhaps, obsessing over the revenge fantasy of superhero vigilantism isn’t really very healthy. Like the superhero films it is playing on, it can’t resist turning the last half hour into a big righteous action setpiece, as Hit Girl stays resolutely bad-ass and seeks her revenge. The comic kept the characters passive, their focus on escaping and surviving rather than vengeance and killing every last motherlover in the building. Ultimately, Kick Ass succeeds in raising the stakes better than most superhero stories, it wreaks minor havoc with the formula in a way that far outstrips Snyder’s bombastic efforts in Watchmen, but it doesn’t quite have the balls to go as far as it promises.