I didn’t see any of the past superhero movies based on Marvel Comics characters in theaters. It takes a lot to get me to go to movie theaters so I can listen to strangers eat like cows in order to view a screen larger than my TV. I mostly go to indie movies, and once in a while to an “event” where lots of stuff blows up. Those are fun to see with an audience. The noise drowns out the munching, and there’s all that fan vibe in the air. I launched this blog two years ago with an article about seeing Avatar at a huge Hollywood theater. Now that I’ve chosen to live in a small town, the arts venues are more intimate. We have three movie theaters. The Rose (and second screen Rosebud) Theater shows indie and foreign films. The Uptown plays mainstream films. We also have a real 50s-style drive-in theater, the Wheel-In Motor Movie, open from May to October. The Avengers is at the Uptown. The theater opened in 1947 and has a couple hundred seats.
They still show movies by projecting film in my little town. That’s more expensive than digital projection, so the theaters have been fundraising to cover the cost of upgrading them. The nearest theater with 3D is an hour’s drive, and the nearest IMAX is across the water by ferry. I have problems seeing all the current 3D configurations. Even on the best systems, image brightness is reduced by about half. It’s like watching through dark glasses. The Avengers wasn’t filmed in 3D. It was converted in post-production, as is being done with a number of films. While the reviews for the film are mostly positive, many critics have disliked the 3D conversion. I decided seeing it in 2D would be fine.
On impulse I swung by and picked up the perfect companion, my pal Larry Brody. He co-created the animated Silver Surfer cartoons in the 90s. We both grew up enjoying these comics, and we remember the pleasure of being amped-up pre-teen boys going to all-day Saturday matinees. It’s the best attitude to have going to this kind of movie. Your main demands are to be impressed by impossible stunts, rapid cutting, and kabooms. A few laughs wouldn’t hurt.
Whether as comic books (excuse me – graphic novels) or films, superhero tales tend to be very geeky. By that I mean they contain many levels of detail and back-story. Intricate plotting and eye-catching visuals are far more important than character development. In literary form this principle works because when you call someone by an evocative title like “the god of thunder” or “Iron Man”, readers automatically fill in missing details of that character’s past, complete with cosmic imagery. Sparse explanation is an advantage. That’s harder to get away with in movies, hence the name. You have to see the moves. When reading, the moves are in your head.
The Avengers is the payoff for a long game Marvel has been playing with five previous movies. All the stories co-exist in a unified field theory called the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a parallel to the Marvel Universe of the comic books. These “universes” exist for purposes of cross marketing. The previous movies shared supporting characters and plot elements that linked them together.
Joss Whedon, creator of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer (and related) TV series, was given the challenge of combining the main characters from the earlier films, each of which was different in tone and style. Steve Rogers (Captain America) is an engineered super soldier from WWII, frozen in ice for 70 years. Thor and main villain Loki are loosely based on Norse mythology. Tony Stark (Iron Man) is a neurotic, genius billionaire. Dr. Bruce Banner (Hulk) is a research scientist who turns into King Kong with shorts when he lets his anger out. Hawkeye, the Black Widow and super-spy Nick Fury are humans with high skill-sets. Whedon’s a fanboy writer-director, like Kevin Smith and Quentin Tarantino. His script is clever and irreverent. The performances are action movie style. Look good and say the lines like you mean them, no matter how ridiculous the words might be.
The marketing plan has been working well so far. All the inter-linked films made since Iron Man (2008) have made a profit, and have also been critical successes. Marvel has been smart about budget control, and not paying outrageous salaries to stars. They try to cast established actors who want to get bigger, and talented up-and-comers. Ed Norton, the most recent previous Hulk, demanded too much money, so another actor who cost less (Mark Ruffalo) got to be the big, green rage monster. Hulk gets the biggest laughs in the movie by ignoring all the high-concept nonsense of the plot and instead doing what he does – SMASH!
The disparate heroes don’t understand each other, so they fight like super siblings until a supporting character sacrifices his life. Surrogate father Nick Fury steps in to shame the heroes into working together as a team to defeat the common enemy, Thor’s jealous adopted brother Loki. An army of CG lizard men from space backs Loki. The MacGuffin (thing that everyone’s after) is a magic power cube called the Tesseract, which has appeared in all the movies. There’s a giant aircraft carrier that’s also an aircraft. There’s lots of fantasy technology. It’s cool to watch. Flashy gimmicks, stirring music and impressive explosions abound. The movie is an exuberant juvenile adventure, more broad than deep. It’s fun and it works. Larry and I left the theater feeling considerably younger than when we entered.