May 10, 2012

Let’s Talk About The Avengers Movie

I know this is, like, days after The Avengers movie opened, but I’ve been talking about it non-stop with everyone I see. And while I am usually the person who brings up the topic, no one has yet said, “No! Please! Anything but that!” So let’s talk about The Avengers, shall we?

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A number of people have asked me what I thought of The Avengers. They know that I am a proud Geek Gold Card member, and I’ve been yakking about this thing for months, if not years. I’ve been told that people enjoy listening to my yakking about superhero movies because I’m really, really into it. (Note: I am also passionate about other topics, and people have been known to enjoy my yakking about those as well.) I’m going to list some of my thoughts about the film here. This isn’t a review per se, but for those of you who haven’t seen it yet — and why haven’t you? — I may reveal plot elements, etc. That’s a spoiler warning for those who worry about such things. And now — Avanti! (That’s my version of ‘Excelsior!’ It’s not as good, but maybe it will catch on in time.) The Avengers is a big, big hit. Bigger than anyone expected it to be. As of this writing, the worldwide take is over $700 million, according to BoxOfficeMojo. There is talk that it will sell a billion dollars worth of tickets. One. Billion. Dollars. That’s a lot of money, which means lots more Marvel movies, and that makes me happy. Admittedly, I will see almost any movie featuring superheroes. Heck, I saw Ghost Rider 1 AND 2, neither of which is worth watching, by the way. The Avengers is much better than most superhero movie fare, arguably the best in the Marvel series since the first Iron Man in 2008. This is not faint praise. Iron Man was a huge hit and made over $600 million, without the added cash that comes from 3-D ticket prices. Why? Because it was good.

It was also accessible to non-comic book fans. The Avengers is equally accessible, but for long-time comics readers like myself, it’s movie nerdvana.

When I took the kids to see it this weekend, my son turned to me during the opening credits and said, “Dad, please don’t make little nerdy noises during the movie.” I promised not to. It was a promise I was destined to break. I admit that it’s dorky for a grown-up to get excited when he sees Hulk punching stuff on-screen. But I’d be lying if I said that isn’t what happened to me. There were times I couldn’t avoid making excited little nerdy noises, although I kept them pretty quiet, and I wasn’t the only one. How could I not? The stuff onscreen looks almost… real. All of the heroes’ moves were just like in the comics. Thor throws his hammer and it comes back to his hand. Then he spins the hammer in order to fly. He raises the hammer above his head and calls down lightning, because he’s the God of Thunder, ‘natch. Captain America fights like Captain America, and when Thor hits Cap’s shield with his hammer… well, big stuff happens, including the destruction of a great many trees. (Just see the movie, OK?) Hawkeye shoots arrows like Hawkeye, and while that may or may not be the way a real archer would do it, it’s definitely the way the character on the page does it. That’s what the filmmakers were going for, and they succeeded.

You may be wondering why I think it’s so important for real-life actors to emulate two-dimensional drawings. I’ll try to explain. I’ve been reading comic books for many years. I’ve seen multiple versions of these characters rendered by many different writers and artists, but certain elements remain constant. Thor doesn’t fly like Superman, he spins his hammer, holds it up to the sky and lets it kind of pull him along. You know it when you see it. Every character has a way of moving, especially in fight sequences, that is a part of their personality. This is also true of real people. For example, when I directed plays in college (I did a double major in theater and psychology, which clearly I’m putting to good use), my mother would point out that all of the actors walked like me, even though I hadn’t specifically directed them to do so. I mention this to point out that actual non-super humans have recognizable physical traits, and that good actors can emulate them. (Good directors like Joss Whedon can even direct them so that they look like people other than himself.) A better illustration of how much a human being’s “moves” are a part of them is to look at famous sports figures. Derek Jeter has a very specific batting stance, and a number of moves that he makes when he is at the plate.

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Now look at this kid imitating him.

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Like sports fans, comic book readers know their heroes. This is why Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man shoots his web with two fingers pressed to his palm even though there is absolutely no logical reason for him to do so. You see, in the comics (and in the upcoming reboot The Amazing Spider-Man), Spider-Man’s webbing comes from a man-made chemical. The two fingers are pressing a button and activating a mechanical device invented by Peter Parker because he decided that “a spider needs a web” and that wasn’t one of the gifts bestowed upon him by the radioactive arachnid. In the 2002 Spider-Man movie, his webs are organic. This seemingly huge change didn’t bother me or any other comic book fan that I know. But if Maguire hadn’t positioned his hands in the same way that Spider-Man has been doing it for 50 years in the comics, people might have felt differently.

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That brings up another point. Only the loopiest of Geek Gold Card members have a problem with changes to so-called “canonical” comic book storylines and characters. Hawkeye really needs to be an archer, but it’s OK if his costume isn’t purple and he doesn’t wear a mask. Still, The Avengers stays remarkably true to its comic book origins, and I think that’s a big reason why it works as well as it does. They’re not embarrassed by the costumes, they embrace them, letting their geek flag fly. This isn’t always a good idea, of course. Remember the first X-Men movie, when Wolverine complains about the black leather leather jumpsuits and Cyclops replies, “what would you prefer, yellow spandex?” That’s a reference to the comic book Wolverine’s original costume, which was indeed yellow and black, and in real life would likely be made of spandex. It would probably look ridiculous in a movie… unless you manage to create an onscreen world where seemingly garish costumes aren’t stupid looking. I’m not convinced that Wolverine’s costume would work without looking dumb, but Captain America, Thor, Loki? No problem. Hawkeye’s movie look is based on the Ultimate version of the character, which is why he doesn’t have his traditional purple mask. For the record, you don’t need to know any of this crap to enjoy The Avengers. But the fact that the movie embraced the traditional costumes and is so successful means that doing so didn’t turn non-comics fans off, which is a major achievement.

Which brings me to another important point – With Great Geeky Power Comes Great Geeky Responsibility. Since the movie opened I’ve been fielding questions from folks less steeped in comic book lore than myself, explaining various characters and plot elements from the film, especially the guy who shows up in the first after credits scene. (Note: there are two scenes, one after a few seconds of the credits roll, and another after everyone from the visual effects companies to the caterers receive their due. Wait for both, it’s worth it.) I’ve heard that some comics fans are balking at providing information to the uninitiated. To them I say — nay! Go forth and geekify! Seriously, if someone wants to know who Hawkeye is, tell them. They don’t know because they haven’t read the comics and the movie doesn’t provide a lot of information about his character. I’m not even sure if anyone ever calls him “Hawkeye”. I’ve talked to a lot of people who saw The Avengers and loved it despite not having seen any of the preceding Marvel movies. They’ll have even more questions, including “what the heck was that glowing cube thing?” or “Who was the guy Robert Downey Jr. refers to as ‘Reindeer Games’?” If you prefer not to answer these questions during the movie, that’s fine. But afterwards? Share the love. Maybe you’ll convert someone into a Marvel fan. That’s never a bad thing.

This post is now officially very long, so I’m going to save some of my other thoughts for a Part Two. Or a sequel, if you prefer. Avanti!

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