I believe there are many ingredients that make for a great – OK I’ll accept passable – super hero movie. Joss Whedon – much acclaimed – manages to neatly avoid them all. “The Avengers” – that just opened to a whopping $200M in US box office sales continues to show that loud and dumb applies not only to the Republicans, but to much of successful Hollywood fare.
It needn’t have been so.
We’ve had lots of great examples of the craft of making a super hero engage us wonderfully well. Here’s how I think they managed to do that.
(a) Start with characters that you actually are prepared to give a damn about. Robert Downey Jr as Tony Stark (Iron Man) and Mark Ruffalo (Bruce Banner/ the Hulk) give it an earnest go. But the fleeting time they’re on screen is neutralized by the faulty glowers of Jeremy Renner as Clint Barton (Hawkeye. Arrows seems to be the ‘it’ weapon of choice these days) and Chris Hemsworth as Thor. And then there’s Samuel L Jackson. Now here’s an actor destined to make every part he appears in as non credible as possible. In Avengers, he struts around in a long black coat, looking like an escapee from the wardrobe of “The Matrix”
(b) You need a really evil villain. Despite the immanence of global destruction that they all seem to have in their hands, such evil seems thin on the ground these days. They’re probably all hiding in the boardrooms of various corporate offices and big banks. Whatever happened to people who gave us such great lines as : “See that Mr.Bond comes to some harm.” Or “I don’t expect you to talk, Mr. Bond. I expect you to die.” Here we have an anemic looking Loki (who you all know is Thor’s brother). He’s charged with unleashing various supernatural alien types on a hapless New York (why always my city? Why not Philly or LA?). But really I think he’d be a lot more in place as a shoe salesman at Bergdorf’s
(c) You need to be transported. After all, they’re spending the GNP of Greece on some of these movies – is it too much to ask that at some point, the audience is made to gasp with the sheer movie magic of it all? Remember when we first saw Peter Parker leap into space and swing across the heavens on a skein of webbing? Or Bruce Wayne, deep in what would become his bat cave as millions of bats flew at and around him? In “Avengers” it’s all generic crashing and banging and upturned cars.
(d) Cleverness! The best of the superhero movies seemed to revel in their cleverness. As when Magneto pulls the iron from his dorky guard to break out of his glass prison. Or when Morgan Freeman scours the world for parts for Batman’s costume. “Avengers” has had a cleverness bypass operation, which it tries to mask with semi- witty banter.
(e) A story-line that has some vestige of plausibility. Hey, we’re all in this together. We’re not expecting Jonathan Franzen. But we do expect something that can offer some suspension of disbelief…something with enough of a link to reality that we can buy into the silliness. The plot revolves around the theft of the Tesseract – an energy source that can pretty much do anything (mainly destroy the world). The plot just feels like a plot device to give Whedon the excuse to execute some cool effects: all those crashing and banging upturning cars.
(f) And it all comes together with heroes fighting against all odds and that we root after. But here, these guys spend so much time bickering and fighting each other that they simply come across as a bunch of neurotic losers in tight suits (the same problem that plagued “Wolverine”)
But all is not entirely lost. Canadian Coble Smulders (who?), shown here, is Agent Coulson. And she’s more or less worth the price of the ticket. Come to think of it, probably not.