Saturday, May 19, 2012

The Avengers: An IMAX 3D Experience (2012)

I'm a bit late to the Avengers love fest but now that I'm here I've still got a couple of axes to grind before my analysis on the film itself so bare with me for a moment while we take a look at the "IMAX 3D Experience" part of my review. We'll address The Avengers after the break so you can skip ahead if you like.

True IMAX experience creates an enrapturing cinematic immersion in an era where home theaters are quickly becoming more and more capable of capturing the flavors of cinema. The large format 70mm projection system on 76 x 98 foot screens is a sight to behold and is always the preferable way to truly experience cinema. Christopher Nolan is of course one of the best proponent of 70mm today and shot parts of The Dark Knight and even more of The Dark Knight Rises using IMAX camera to best utilize 70mm. For me this is worth the extra money for the venue and I happily forked over $14.50 for a matinee seat for The Avengers. However there is an ugly commercial side to the IMAX franchise. There are newly christened IMAX theater screens which are only 28 x 58 feet in size.

There is a more extensive article titled Is IMAX the next "New Coke"? which gives a good rundown of the situation. The closest IMAX theater to me was opened by AMC and it is one of these IMAX in name only situations. Originally I was weary of the announced opening and was unable to find any specifics about the screen size at this location. I went there to see TRON: Legacy to confirm the size and sadly it was indeed not a full IMAX screen. The 3D experience was also substandard because the image was noticably darker with the 3D glasses on this IMAX screen then the 3D I've seen on other true IMAX screens. There was also a more pronounced moire effect with the passive glasses on this screen. I've continued to drive out of my way to see The Adventures of Tintin and The Avengers at the original IMAX theaters in their proper 76x98 foot glory. The difference in brightness of the 3D with glasses at the true IMAX screen for The Avengers was negligible when compared without glasses. The 3D experience itself was effective with only a few minor moments where the 3D alignment was not properly adjusted.

3D itself is hotly debated and I'm somewhat bemused by the constant question "is 3D dead yet?" The prevalence of 3D today can be looked at very much the way sound or color were viewed in its day. After all black and white films were still common up until the 1970's. Like sound and color the third dimension is an every day occurrence that should be incorporated into our cinematic experience. Although I sympathize with those who can't appreciate 3D I have the same feeling towards those who are death or color blind. One of my friends only has one eye and could not enjoy Avatar the same way as I did when we went to see it in 3D. He watched the movie with the glasses on showing just one plane but he was still impressed with the IMAX screen. Technology is ever progressing however and I don't doubt that when glasses free 3D will become the prevalent norm it will leave generations to wonder what the whole debate was about (if they're aware of the debate at all).

Cheap 3D conversions are another subject all together and I'm not too keen on updating older films to 3D any more than I'm interested in colorizing black and white films, full screen versions of widescreen films or other such tinkering. Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland was an exception, not the rule, and that was because they took the time and consideration to make it a true 3D experience. When the filmmakers are taking 3D conversion into consideration while on set and in post-production with the proper attention films shot truly in 3D take that consistently produces fine results. I don't hold any grudges with the current films making the conversion to 3D like The Avengers have.

Now, with all that out of the way, let's take a look at the film in question. There are plot point revelations so you are forewarned spoilers are ahead as Joss Whedon's The Avengers is after the jump...

Alright, it's time to also say that I don't follow Joss Whedon. I'm of course familiar with his body of work but in all honestly have only watched the 1992 Buffy the Vampire Slayer with Kristy Swanson. I'm also not a Marvel fan, I'm a DC fan. So I'm not overly familiar with any of the Marvel characters. I have seen Iron Man, Iron Man 2, Thor, Captain America and Ang Lee's The Hulk however so my assessments will come from this data pool as a starting point.

As a film The Avengers does a surprisingly good job balancing all of the characters. Few films seem to be able to balance even the minor characters with the lead characters none the less the half dozen or so intricate lead characters presented here. The screenplay really shines in that characters aren't just given their own unique individual scenes placed back to back in series but instead characters' moments are blended together to create a more cohesive whole. Not only is this efficient writing for the story telling it helps to establish the characters as a team; a team with collective experiences. A good example is Captain America and Iron Man. While Tony Stark's father knew Captain America the film smartly doesn't use that as a point of shared experience but actually back story to create initial tension. The pair argue over working for a common good over individual good. Captain America of course believes the needs of the many out weight the needs of the few. Iron Man feels that if everyone equally watches out for what's good for themselves then that supports what's good for everyone else in a fair balanced world.

This dynamic is first put to the test by having Iron Man fix the damaged floating fortress by risking his life and entrusting Captain America to be there when he needs him. Captain America is also shown that there are work around for any inspiring individual. Later at the end of the film Iron Man rockets a nuclear missile through the portal to destroy an alien threat. He risks his life and knows the chances of his return are slim but does it for the greater good. After the explosion Captain America leaves the portal open for as long as he can in the hopes of saving Iron Man. He risks the safety of the entire planet in a calculated risk to save on man. While he does shut off the portal before knowing Iron Man to be safe it is still an admission on his part to the importance of an individual to all mankind. Overall it's interesting that this more or less liberal view is embodied by Captain America a patriotic and militaristic figurehead. Iron Man's own mostly conservative view point fits well with his rich industrial background. That they would show these two worlds clashing is an interesting and unique look at American politics today.

Although this is a well put together film from screenplay to the big screen this is almost single-handedly made entertaining by Robert Downey Jr. and Iron Man. He is the instigator for the group and in many ways the voice of reason. All too often superhero movies are getting caught up in dramatic and realistic portrayals of muscle men in tights. Almost all the other characters suffer from over dramatizing their plight but Tony Stark manages to make light of it all and that brings the story down to earth more than any amount of real world drama could. That's why this film stands up as well as the first two Iron Man films while Captain America and Thor both managed a well produced but ultimately boring films with their own characters. Gwyneth Paltrow is a key ingredient to this success and although her screen time is short it really helps to show what makes Stark tick. Plus with Scarlett Johansson and Cobie Smulders poured into their rubber rubber suits Pepper Potts is surprisingly the one to show the most skin as she leisurely flaunts her legs around in boy shorts. Seems that Gweyneth brought her A game to the one major scene she had perhaps expecting much more from ScarJo. Also as a Black Sabbath fan I appreciated Downey Jr. spending most of the movie rocking a Never Say Die shirt. An often maligned album from our boy in Birmingham it's a bold statement for Stark to be wearing that and it fits his character well.

Thor's character is somewhat neglected, especially considering his brother is the bad guy, and grows the least of all the characters represented here. The key thing I think Thor learned is what being the protector of Earth really means. He's a late comer to the party long after his brother Loki has already established himself on Earth. At first he bursts in ready to do his lightening thing but quickly learns that there is a formidable defense on Earth and that Loki is already a few steps ahead of him. Perhaps though The Avengers have shown to Thor that there are more reasons to stand by Earth than he original thought. The post credit scene with the group including Thor is perhaps the best indication of this. We'll touch on that again later.

Our guide though this movie is handled in a very Joss Whedon way with Black Widow. Natasha Romanoff is given the best introduction of all the characters and is established very early on. A character who was blandly portrayed in Iron Man 2 just as another secret agent now has her unique abilities showcased in a fun and engaging way. She is shown to be a strong female character who through subtle feminine manipulation can draw out the truth from her adversary. Although politically correct and still prevalent today Whedon never has a battle of the sexes moment throughout the entire film. This is a smart move that organically allows the audience to understand she's strong simply by doing super human feats and not because a male character approves of a female performing these feats. Along with Hawkeye she is the least super of the group and with Hawkeye taken out of the hero's thread early in the film she becomes the default eyes and ears of the audience. This was a conscious choice by Joss Whedon and an excellent one. It plays to his strengths with a female role model and gives the audience a truly human set of eyes and ears to have on the ground. Natasha does a lot of the leg work connecting most of the dots for the audience between scenes and helps to bring out the truth behind the characters which is a natural skill for the Black Widow. An example is when Natasha tells Capatain America about Agent Coulson's card set. Whedon matches Natasha's character well with her purpose in the storytelling. Scarlett Johansson gives an excellent performance that makes this film as good as it is.

For example there is an interesting exchange in the scene where she first meets Bruce Banner. Bruce explodes in sudden spike of anger. He was only joking but the joke is lost on Natasha, and on the startled audience, who immediately pulls out a concealed gun and points it at Bruce's face. She shows a clear and pronounced amount of fear in this scene as she twitches and shakes unnerved. Now while this fear would be totally understandable you have to remember that acting vulnerable is her trademark. She's one of the most highly trained individuals in the highest espionage group in the world. Trained by the KGB at a young age she has seen her fair share of terrifying weirdness in the Marvel Universe. In her previous scene she shows fear, girlish vanity and naivete in a situation where she was very much in control. So was it a calculated performance to show her self as afraid and meek to the soft hearted Bruce Banner at that moment? Later when Natasha was hurt and Banner was on the verge of becoming The Hulk for the first time in the film she again shows trepidation. This is again understandable not only because he's hulking out but because she is trapped. She shows however a keen awareness of the situation and warns off approaching troops in a steady voice. This scene is an excellent mirror of the previous scene in India. She was showing fear and meekness to try and motivate Banner to regain control? The key to Black Window's character perhaps is never letting the audience know.

I'll tell you once more before I get off the floor
Don't bring me down, Bruce

You got me running going out of my mind
One of these days you're gonna break your glass
Most impressive of all is how they were able to handle the very difficult character of The Hulk so well. Mark Ruffalo's portrayal of the skittish Bruce Banner shows a man with pathos who is able to maintain a sense of humor to calm the best within. This helps to create a truly sympathetic character and this rubs off on The Hulk's character as well. The Hulk himself seems to have his own sense of humor and purpose. This is unlike the Eric Bana character who goes from being a boring douchebag into a boring green douchebag. The fact that he gets along so well with Tony Stark is a great way to re-introduce the character to an audience. If you take a cool likable character and have them confer approval of another character that adds real weight for an audience even if it's all scripted fiction. The Hulk is also the the real spear head of The Avengers in their battle with the alien invaders. It is perfectly believable that not only is he of true use to The Avengers here they probably wouldn't have had such success without him.

The plot itself is the usual save the world from alien invasions without much added interest. In fact the MacGuffin's plot line is rather counter intuitive since it makes little sense that even the aliens seemingly had little control over it. How come Bruce Banner figured out how to trace it and seemingly knew logistically where it was but then that didn't help? How come Tony Stark caught that Loki boasted about Stark Tower, made a plot point of it, and then forget until the end that that's probably where Loki's going? These were a couple of glaring plot holes that wouldn't be so bad if they weren't telegraphed by the film as plot points instead. The death of Agent Coulson is also well set up and executed by Joss Whedon with Pepper Potts and Tony Stark humanizing him but it seems short sighted for the Marvel Universe. Agent Coulson is the single thread connecting these properties and the ease in which you can throw Clark Gregg into future movies to help establish the characters is much more valuable then as a catalyst to bringing The Avengers spiritually together for this one instance. It's understandable what Whedon was trying to accomplish. He was establishing a true loss for which the stakes can be expressed but this was a senseless sacrifice in the view of an audience. It was a risk Whedon took and you have to give him kudos for doing just that. A shake up is needed now and again. It also showed Nicky Fury as rather heartless to bloody up Coulson's cards and it further tarnishes his memory in the mind of the audience as well. It was acceptable however to the audience when Samuel L. Jackson fired the rocket at the plane to stop a nuclear missile. He could have brazenly killed one of his own men but it was an understandable action to take. Besides these plot bumps though the story telling was top notch. For fight scenes and especially the end climax the ability to cut to so many different players helps keep the action fresh. It's a li'l long and a li'l heavy handed but that's forgivable considering everything they had to accomplish while giving screen time to so many different elements.

The 3D itself for The Avengers is mostly a conversion because the original footage was not shot in 3D. While most of the CGI and SFX could obviously be rendered properly in 3D we had to settle for an artist's interpretation of Scarlett Johansson's curves; which isn't necessarily a bad thing either. While it is always preferable to watch native 3D this was still a very well orchestrated 3D conversion. The additional depth is subtle and there are a few close ups where they used focal plains and focus plains to help create a more cinematic look. This is not like Avatar's deep focus where everything is well defined. Only a few shots had that 2D card board shoe box diorama look to them and that was at the beginning over the battle in NY. I can't help but feel that it was a rush shot handed to another company. The rest of the 3D footage is superb. Overall this maintained a more traditional look for film and that is always welcome.

Saving the best for last the post-credit scene was a truly inspired moment and my favorite thing about it is how well Robert Downey Jr. works within mise en scène. He looks to the different characters silently but expressively like, "I know, isn't this good food? I told you." Very in character while maintaining the integrity of the scene. Scarlett Johansson also gives a great statuesque performance that really seems to convey her need to be aloof while also also expressing how exhausted she must have been but in her own stoic way. The only real problem with the scene is that within continuity the character aren't nearly as distressed as the previous combat footage showed and Thor reaches for his sandwich reflexively after Black Window grabs up hers. There's an awkward moment were ScarJo skillfully shows her character changing her mind and portrays her as deciding she's no longer hungry while Chris Hemsworth doesn't know what to do so looks away stiltedly instead. It's a little human moment though where a living god plays monkey see monkey do and is caught but is too proud to admit it so it's still pretty funny.

Thankfully Whedon was able get a blockbuster here while maintaining some artistic credibility with what is overall a well woven story. After being batted around by Warner Brothers with Wonder Woman this is a well deserved knock out of the park for him. Hopefully we'll get a stand alone Black Widow film with Joss Whedon behind the lens and ScarJo's behind in front of the lens soon. 

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