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Continued Assembly Expected

There is some lamentation over the dying art of film projection, as digital projection becomes the norm.  Recently I saw a perfectly projected old print of Thief (Michael Mann, 1981), which did highlight for me the pleasures of viewing something physical, complete with scratches and flickers.  I also recently saw Avengers Assemble (Joss Whedon, 2012) twice, and each time beheld a (seemingly) pristine digital copy that was fresh, bright and clear.  There are advantages both ways, but Avengers Assemble lends itself extremely well to digital projection.  Over the past thirty odd years, superhero movies have gone from bright (Superman) to dark (Batman) to bright (Batman & Robin) to dark (Daredevil) to bright and dark (Iron Man, The Dark Knight), depending on the franchise.  While Christopher Nolan and Warner Bros. take Batman to ever darker depths of derangement and depravity, Marvel has gone the other way and kept its heroic exploits light-hearted, while not skimping on the action and avoiding the dreaded pitfalls of campness that can so easily be fallen into when your arc reactor fails.

Digital projection aided the brightness of Avengers Assemble, rendering a clear, crisp image that would not benefit from a third dimension that dims the image (both of my viewings were in 2D).  Within all this brightness, there was ample visual room to admire the production design and smooth cinematography, including director Whedon’s fondness for long complex takes.  For earlier instances of this directorial signature, see the introduction of the characters in Serenity and various sequences in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel (especially “The Body”).  In Avengers Assemble, a superb long take during the climactic battle features all of our heroes laying their own signature smacks down upon the invading alien army.  From Captain America’s (Chris Evans) spinning shield to Hawkeye’s (Jeremy Renner) tech-arrows, Black Widow’s (Scarlett Johansson) fists and feet to Thor’s (Chris Hemsworth) lightning bolts, Iron Man’s (Robert Downey, Jnr.) repulsor rays and Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) being, well, smashing, all are contained within a single dizzying take that dives and swerves through New York in a perfect demonstration of the visceral thrill of cinema.  Orson Welles would be proud.

Aside from the energetic style, other Whedon trademarks abound, including the intertwining of humour with the action and the plot.  Indeed the single most memorable aspect of the film may be its humour, from Tony Stark’s quips to Nick Fury’s (Samuel L. Jackson) sardonic comments, Bruce Banner’s slightly bumbling jokes and Steve Rogers being at a loss in the modern world.  Best of all is Loki’s (Tom Hiddleston) determination to not only conquer the world, but to do it in style and have the last laugh (reminiscent of Whedon’s earlier villains such as Spike, Angelus, Mayor Wilkins and Glory).  Grand clashes between heroes and villains can seem perfunctory or even little more than generic fulfilment (such as the anti-climactic battle in Iron Man), but Loki’s plan to lead an alien army to take over Earth, motivated by his own bitterness at being cast out of Asgard and jealousy of his brother, not to mention a divine superiority complex, provide a suitably meaty character trajectory, not to mention a cruel wit that sparks superbly with Tony Stark’s wryness and the Hulk’s bluntness.

Whedon also utilises his strength as a writer and director of ensembles, demonstrating how wise a choice he was for this potentially most unwieldy of blockbusters.  As well as the five super-powered stars, we have super-skilled spies Black Widow and Hawkeye, Nick Fury, S.H.I.E.L.D. agents Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) and Phil Coulson (Gregg Clark), and there’s even time for Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard).  Despite varying screentime and limited space for character development, it never feels that anyone is just there as dressing or collateral damage – each character, sequence and plot point fits neatly into the film’s rich and engaging tapestry.  If the previous Avengers instalments were sometimes underpowered, spending too much time on the origin and/or too little on the plot, they served to build a strong foundation upon which this builds.  The scale of S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters is impressive yet functional – not only is it a grand display of diegetic and non-diegetic technology, it forms an impressive location for much of the drama.  One of the best scenes is an argument between the principal characters that steadily escalates, Whedon and his editors Jeffrey Ford and Lisa Lassek cutting precisely between the participants to escalate the tension, yet keeping a key event hidden until the reveal; meanwhile, events outside increase the stakes for the viewer as well.  Similarly, the final sequence strikes just the right balance between superheroics, pyrotechnics, humorous comments and character interaction, from the bemused to the deeply emotional.

Despite the potential problems of amassing these different elements, Avengers Assemble never fails to engage and entertain.  It is, in many ways, a magnificent achievement to have struck the right balance and maintained pace and tone throughout.  It may lack the troubling and thought-provoking elements of The Dark Knight, or the intensity of the inter-personal battles in Spider-Man 2, but it marshals its characters, plot, style and execution into a marvellously entertaining whole.

Perhaps more interesting than the film itself, though, is its place within Hollywood production.  Avengers Assemble is the climax of four years’ preparation and development, from Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk in 2008, through Iron Man 2 in 2010, to Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger in 2011.  The continued presence of the main players is in some ways quite remarkable.  Ever since Superman: The Movie (Richard Donner, 1978) featured the unknown Christopher Reeve, it has been evident that with a superhero as the star, the wattage of the actor playing them need not be blinding.  Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer, George Clooney, Tobey Maguire and Christian Bale were certainly not unknowns when they were cast as various men in spandex, but they were hardly at the level of Tom Cruise, Will Smith or Harrison Ford (it is worth noting that superhero movie Hancock was marketed very much as a Will Smith picture, as the character of Hancock has none of the fame or cultural capital of Marvel and DC’s characters).  Robert Downey, Jnr., Mark Ruffalo and Chris Evans were also well known, but rarely were they leading men in blockbusters, as demonstrated by Evans’ previous superhero role of Marvel’s Human Torch in Fantastic Four, again as part of an ensemble.  Tom Hiddleston and Chris Hemsworth were virtually unknown prior to Thor (interestingly, an earlier Hemsworth/Whedon collaboration, The Cabin in the Woods, though produced in 2009, was not released until this year, most likely capitalising on Hemsworth’s exposure in both Avengers Assemble and Snow White and the Huntsman).  Yet all these stars lend their combined radiance to Avengers Assemble, accompanied by others of equal if not greater fame.  Samuel L. Jackson has had brief appearances in all but one of the previous instalments, and potential A-lister Scarlett Johansson fits easily into the ensemble, as does twice Oscar-nominated Jeremy Renner (set to be a leading man later this year in The Bourne Legacy).  Most surprising perhaps is (Oscar winner) Gwyneth Paltrow, appearing in a paltry three scenes (only one of which is substantial) despite being able to headline a movie in her own right.  Even more striking is that this trend seems unlikely to stop, as Jackson has signed a nine-picture deal with Marvel (Variety).  Ruffalo has also signed a deal to appear in six further Marvel pictures (The Guardian), so we will hopefully see more of the Hulk in the future, while reports of Iron Man 3 appear on a seemingly weekly basis (Total Film) and Thor 2 and Captain America 2 have been greenlit (IMDb.com).

While stars have stayed, directors have come and gone.  Jon Favreau lasted two Iron Man films before being replaced with Shane Black for the third instalment, and Alan Taylor has succeeded Kenneth Branagh for helm(sworth)ing duties on Thor 2.  No reports yet on a director for Captain America 2.  Despite these different authorial presences, the Avengers films have been remarkably consistent, maintaining the bright tone mentioned earlier and the balance between the far-fetched superheroics and the relatable people who perform them (a poignant moment in Avengers Assemble features Stark and Banner discussing their respective “terrible gift[s]”).  S.H.I.E.L.D. has more advanced technology than actually exists (we assume), making the possible world of the Avengers one that is more heightened than “realistic” superhero films such as the current incarnation of Batman.  The consistency of the films despite the disparate writers and directors raises the question of authorship over the films, individually and collectively.  Avengers Assemble is regarded by some as a Joss Whedon film, which has angered comic book fans who insist it is a Marvel product (In Media Res).  While each film has had distinctive elements from its writer and director, such as Whedon’s trademarks as mentioned above, if there is a franchise auteur the most likely candidate is producer Kevin Feige.  Feige has a producer credit on Marvel movies since 2000’s X-Men (Bryan Singer), and Marvel’s “prexy of production” since 2006, so has overall supervisory responsibilities.  If it is unrealistic to assign singular responsibility for an individual film, perhaps it is easier to consider an overall steering influence on a franchise, viewing Feige as the series auteur, akin to a TV executive producer who oversees each episode to ensure consistency and continuity.

The combination of different influences and considerations (not to mention egos!) involved in the Avengers make it perhaps the ultimate franchise.  As has been written elsewhere (In Media Res), the Avengers movie franchise is not unlike comic book publication, where different titles run in parallel but with crossover.  The scale and success of the Avengers’ ambition can be traced to earlier multi-chaptered franchises such as The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter.  Instalments can be consumed separately or cumulatively, with the potential to expand, consolidate and maintain the market.  Viewers who missed Iron Man may see Thor, and then Avengers Assemble, and subsequently come back for Iron Man 3.  Fans of comic books, superheroes, science fiction, action films and blockbusters may watch each instalment at the cinema and then acquire every film upon its DVD/Blu-ray release (I do).  Already Avengers Assemble (or The Avengers as it is known everywhere that isn’t Britain) has collected over $1 billion at the global box office, so Marvel’s business model seems to be working.  In Hollywood, if an idea succeeds then it is worth copying, so perhaps we will see more integrated franchises in the future, parallel storylines as well as sequels that simply continue the same story.  Long-form narratives work well on television, as 24, The Wire and Mad Men (to name but a few) demonstrate.  Films have long been about contained, encapsulated narratives, but Marvel’s The Avengers has demonstrated that there is room for more experimentation.  The development of future franchises will be very interesting to observe.  Digitally projected, of course.

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Star Wars

This would always be contentious, as I’ve probably heard or read some account of every Star Wars episode praised to the stars and condemned to the garbage disposal of the Death Star. So….

The prequels receive far too much abuse, most of which seems to stem from “They aren’t as good as the first three.” Nothing would have been good enough – memories of Star Wars, even from those of us too young to have seen them at the cinema, are so rose-tinted that we expected the prequels to blow us away, and of course they did not. This is partly because there have been plenty of other huge blockbusters to make us drop our jaws to the floor, such as Jurassic ParkIndependence Day and, in the same year as the release of Star Wars: Episode One: The Phantom MenaceThe Matrix.  That stole much of the thunder from Menace, and no matter how spectacular the prequels were, they were unlikely to give us anything we had not seen before.

Episode I: The Phantom Menace has the difficult task of introducing the characters, the setting and the plot points – anyone who says there is “no plot” in this first episode didn’t actually watch it, or at least get it. There is a great deal of plot, in terms of the plotting of Senator/Chancellor Palpatine and the viewer must stay alert to understand how the different threads tie together. The action scenes are as dazzling as anything from the earlier films, but ultimately superfluous: the pod race and the three-way lightsaber battle not really necessary (apart from the death of Qui-Gon Jinn). Certainly the dialogue is wooden, but that is true of all six films, and that can explain the rather stilted performances. Jake Lloyd is rather too young to be unirritating, and Jar Jar Binks is very annoying. But these need not ruin the film – these aspects don’t deserve that much credit. Rather, The Phantom Menace works best as a light-hearted space adventure, as bright as the Tatooine suns, with only vague hints of what is to come.

Episode II: Attack of the Clones has the densest plot of all six films (think about it), beginning with dissention in the Galactic Senate and ending with the beginnings of civil war. The various plot lines (romance between Anakin and Padme, Obi-Wan investigating the growing clone army, Chancellor Palpatine’s further scheming) get crowded and can be confusing, so maybe beginning some of these in The Phantom Menace would have worked better. The love story is awkward and stilted, and many events are given insufficient motivation. As usual the action is breathtaking, most obviously Yoda’s lightsaber battle with Count Dooku, but complaining that this is some affront to your childhood is, frankly, narcissistic. Attack of the Clones has a great deal going on, but so compressed are the events that it can be unsatisfying. But of course, it is really only a set-up.

Episode III: Revenge of the Sith is the grimmest and most intense chapter of the entire saga (reflected in the UK by its more restrictive certificate). As a piece of epic story-telling, it neatly ties the various strands of the earlier films together as well as setting the stage for the story of the Rebellion in the later episodes. Here there is a balance struck between the resolution of the plot strands, the character arcs and the action sequences (although the final showdown between Obi-Wan and Anakin is rather overshadowed by the environment in which they fight). And much like Return of the Jedi, it really makes use of the real villain of Star Wars, as Chancellor/Emperor Palpatine AKA Darth Sidious demonstrates just how evil the Dark Side can be, proving more sadistic and vicious than Darth Vader ever did. Being prepared to get REALLY dark is Revenge‘s greatest strength, and it stands as a fitting conclusion to part one of the saga.

Episode IV: A New Hope is a landmark piece of cinema, possibly the most important and influential film since Citizen Kane. It is also the epitome of why we love cinema, with good VS evil, triumph over adversity, friendship, courage, loyalty and faith proving the strongest weapons against oppression and tyranny. BUT it has archetypal and under-developed characters, a simplistic plot and obvious themes, ropey direction and various contradictions. As a space adventure it delivers on every level and is rightly praised for that. Of the entire saga, it is the only film that stands on its own (hence it was the first one released). But remember, it is only a film.

Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back is always praised for being “darker” than its predecessor, which is fair comment, as the bulk of the story involves most of the heroes being chased, captured and tortured, and the other one taking a journey into his heart of darkness (Yoda as Kurtz, anyone?). A somewhat inordinate amount of time is spent in the asteroid field, and the progress through Cloud City seems too easy. That said, non-patronising explanations are provided, and it does feature one of the greatest twists of cinema. After soul-searching on Dagoba, was anyone prepared for THAT revelation? Hardly, and it adds significant depth to the saga as a whole.

Episode VI: Return of the Jedi spends too much time on Tatooine, a segment that really has nothing to do with the overall plot, and by this time more focus would be beneficial. The Ewoks may be irritating, but they need not detract from the epic build-up to the final assault on the Death Star, and the true power of the Emperor. The deeper themes begun inThe Empire Strikes Back receive more attention here, with Luke’s serious choices, and although the action on Endor may not be up to the standards of the Imperial Walkers on Hoth, the greater exploration of the saga’s ongoing story makes up for it.

Overall, Star Wars is a patchy saga, characterised by superb action sequences, moderate to bad characterisation with poor dialogue, a multitude of plot strands which are sometimes not given enough space, and a well-detailed if somewhat inconsistent fantasy world. As for my order of preference, I think they are ALL good, but if pushed I would arrange them:

The Empire Strikes Back: *****

A New Hope: ****

Revenge of the Sith: ****

Return of the Jedi: ****

Attack of the Clones: ***

The Phantom Menace: ***

But maybe the Force is not with me.