I just got back from watching The Avengers, and I have to say it was stellar.
I went into the theater trepidatiously exuberant. I mean, let's face it, I love pretty much everything Joss Whedon aims a neuron at. But I didn't want to get my hopes up too much. Everyone stumbles sometime, right? Maybe this would be where Joss finally falls flat on his face....
In the words of the eminent philosopher and culture critic, Wayne Campbell: "Sha! As if!" As we walked out, I told my brother that I couldn't think of a single place in the film that I thought should have been done differently. That almost never happens for me, even for films I like a great deal. All in all, it gave me all the emotional and intellectual components a great movie needs: I laughed, I thought, I gasped, I (almost) cried.
A few reflections, with almost no spoilers.
"Joss Whedon, you bastard!"
I'm saying this in a kind of ironic way. For anyone who doesn't know, Whedon is infamous for killing off beloved characters. (Joss, if you're reading this, I'm still pissed about both Anya and Wash.) And in this movie someone the audience comes to care about does indeed die.
(Oh, yeah, spoiler alert.)
However, I think Whedon wussed out on this one. Maybe he was given an ultimatum by Marvel about whom he could and could not touch. If that's the case then, well, so be it. But I don't have to like it.
I won't say who dies, although I will admit it wasn't who I thought it'd be. I suppose in that respect, you got me, old buddy. But lest I reveal anything more, I will move on to the next topic.
It's all about character...and action...and character...and action
Everybody loved Buffy because she could kick ass. But everyone really loved Buffy because she could kick ass while quipping wittily, applying make up, studying for a test and resolving relationship problems. (Okay, maybe she's not so good with the relationship stuff, at least not her own.)
With The Avengers, Whedon proves that he can hang out in the Special Effects Faculty Lounge with John Woo, Michael Bay and Ridley Scott. Unlike the others, though, he proves that he still has the panache to toss in some great explosions and throw some whalloping punches without sacrificing a little thing like having characters who are real people.
One of the reasons I like Whedon so much is the complexity of not only his characters, but the world in which they live. They don't all agree, yet in their disagreement none of them are ever wholly wrong — or wholly right. Things are messy, and there is the potential for surprises and mistakes, both fortunate and fatal, at every turn. Even Loki, the chaotic egoist, makes some uncomfortably valid points that give the audience a moment, if not more, to sympathize just a little with him.
The overall pacing is just perfect. Some of the best moments of character development are in the midst of the oh-so-many fight scenes, and even when things go from zero to five thousand in a heartbeat, or vice versa, it doesn't seem jerky or unreal. At least not in a bad way.
Marvel Studios hits It's stride
How awesome has Marvel Studios (the division of Marvel Entertainment that handles the movie stuff) been lately? Seriously, they've been doing a pretty darn good job with their recent movies, especially their independent productions.
Clearly, someone at Marvel Entertainment has put a lot of thought and effort about how to improve on what used to be fairly meager productions. When Marvel announced in 2005 that they were going to go solo on the movie-making process (previously they had worked only in conjunction with other studios; now, some of their films are produced completely independently), there were some who wondered if that was a wise idea. I think the company has clearly shown it has the chops to not only make movies well, but to make them even better than when they were working with another studio.
Furthermore, It's no coincidence, I think, that their best films in the last half-dozen years have taken place in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Someone over at Marvel Studios had the foresight to do something more than just push movie after movie. From the moment after the credits of Iron Man where Sam Jackson makes his first appearance as Nick Fury, you know — you just know — something bigger is going on. And with The Avengers, Marvel delivers big time.
And it's paid off for them at the box office. Just using available numbers from Wikipedia it's easy to see that people are responding to the Marvel Studios independent production/Marvel Cinematic Universe approach where it counts: In the checkbook. Since 2008 — at the height of the financial crises when people were all like, "Damn, movies be expensive, yo" — the average return of a co-produced Marvel movie was just over double the budget (219%); the average return for an Marvel Studios-only produced movie over the same period is nearly triple (293%). If we move the period back a full six years to include Spider-Man 3 — Marvel's best-grossing film ever until this weekend — and take ignore the flop that was Punisher: War Journal, the co-produced Marvel movies get up to...an average of 255% return.
Now don't get me wrong, a 2.5x multiplier is a good investment any day of the week. But given that the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies have been so much better quality and are making even more money, why not do more of that? Or, to put it another, even if making another Ghostrider doubles your money, do you want to have the fact that you made another Ghostrider on your conscience, when you could instead make more movies that tell more complex stories and delve deeper into their characters ... and triple your money?
With The Avengers, I think Marvel Studios has hit their stride. Let's hope they can keep it. Unfortunately, given the preview I saw of The Amazing Spider-Man, I'm not quite convinced they're going to stay wholly on the right track.