Monday, 31 December 2012

Nerd Technologies' Film of the Year 2012

As we reach the end of 2012, and reveal my final Film of the Year review, I must first issue a couple of warnings:

Warning 1: This review assumes some knowledge of the material. Character and actor names are used throughout with no clarification, and the plot up to this point is not discussed.

Warning 2: There may be gushing. Sorry.

1: The Avengers (aka. Avengers Assemble) - Joss Whedon

I loved The Avengers. I loved it in a way I haven't loved a film since I first saw the Star Wars trilogy (in the 1997 cinematic re-release) or possibly since Jurassic Park. I saw it three times in the cinema and each time I left with an enormous grin on my face, in what I can only call a state of pure joy.

Was there ever any doubt they'd pull it off?
Now, after the runaway success and the billions of dollars, it really doesn't feel like it. But this was never a sure thing. Marvel Studios sought to try something no-one had ever done in having characters from several different movie franchises - Iron Man, Thor, Captain America and The Incredible Hulk - unite within one film to tackle a common foe. Even after those prior films proved to be not just successful but genuinely good, throwing them all together at the same time still seemed a crazy risky prospect. Yet here we are, mere months later, and it's almost impossible to recall that uncertainty.
What's frightening is that the doubt and fear actually continue through the first sequence of the film. It looks, for a moment at least, like Disney and Marvel and Whedon may have fumbled the ball. The opening scene, in which villain Loki (from Thor) uses the Tesseract (from Captain America) to infiltrate a facility run by SHIELD (from Iron Man), feels a little messy - and then it devolves into an underwhelming car-chase that feels very messy. All the preceding Marvel films had stronger openings than this, you think, and as the stupid British title appears on screen (Avengers Assemble? Really?) you feel the tiniest twinge of disappointment.

Don't worry. It passes, and it passes fast.

The Avengers is playing the long game, and playing it perfectly. This is the first film I can remember, ever, that consistently gets better throughout. There are five main setpieces (including that lacklustre car-chase) and each one is twice as good as the one before. The same thing applies to dialogue scenes and emotional beats - each one is better than the one before it. Within the setpieces themselves each money-shot is an improvement on the last. It's incredible. It seems so obvious, yet I've never seen it before. Surely all blockbusters should be made this way! If the opening is a low point, it's a necessary one to make this exponential climb achievable.

We're this far into the review and we've not even mentioned the characters. Which is ridiculous because the characters are why we're there, they're the best part of the film, and they're the reason any of this works. Joss Whedon gets characters. We knew this already, from Buffy, Firefly and more, and it becomes quickly apparent that Marvel knew this too - it's why they hired him. There are nine major characters in the film (the team themselves, their boss, their enemy, and fan-favourite Agent Coulson) and, with only a few exceptions, each one gets a significant moment with each of the others. Every relationship in this complex web is clear and fleshed out, and all of the best moments in the film emerge naturally from those relationships. Stark and Banner, Loki and Black Widow, Coulson and Captain America - these are moments you'll remember as much as some of the action beats. For some (read "Hulk") the best character interactions are the best action beats!
This juggling act is handled so well that, despite the many strong and conflicting personalities, despite some characters being more famous or popular than others, no-one ever seems in danger of overshadowing the others (cough, Tony Stark, cough). Robert Downey Jr. plays his usual showboating rockstar, but that's ok because the script doesn't try to make the others into rockstars. It lets them compete on their own terms: Banner sarcastically undercuts him, Cap stares him down, and Thor doesn't even care - he's a god! They all get their moments, but they grab that limelight in different ways. It's why they work when they're at odds with one another, and it's why they work even better when they finally come together as a unit.

Oh, there are flaws, sure. Maybe more flaws than any other film on this list:
Jeremy Renner's Hawkeye is seriously short-changed for over half of the movie, character-wise, but he has history with Black Widow (possibly the most fleshed-out of the team) and their easy friendship goes a long way towards fixing this.
Whedon's composition is sometimes a little flat - he's a TV director on only his second ever movie, and when there's five people talking in the SHIELD war-room it really does show - but like everything else in the film this gets better as it goes on, eventually opening out into something grand and cinematic.
The eventual enemies are an army of generic robo-thingies, just identical cannon-fodder with no character beyond "evil", but storywise they're only an extension of Tom Hiddleston's brilliant Loki and that guy has more than enough personality to go around!
Banner/Hulk's arc swerves very quickly at one point and can be hard to accept, but the film does explain it and it worked for me.
Certain things at the end fall into place a little too conveniently, but they don't stick out or feel forced and they certainly don't take anything away from the massive climax.
We got a silly different title in this country, for which there is no reasonable excuse.
There are others - probably lots of others - but in the moment itself they don't even register. You're having far too much fun to care!

The entire film is perfectly summed up in one moment of the final battle. A microcosm in a single shot. The camera flows from character to character as they fight through the streets, giving them each an individual moment that highlights their personality and skills, then having them join another character to combine their powers in unique and personal ways, before fluidly moving onto the next - it constantly ramps up the scale and excitement into a huge finale, then ends with a strong laugh.
Did I mention this film is funny? Because, on top of everything else, this film is really funny!

It's obvious at this point that my objectivity is completely gone. I unashamedly love The Avengers. It's without doubt the greatest experience I've had in a cinema for years. Maybe ever. When the credits appeared I actually applauded. I didn't clap for long because this is England and people looked at me funny, but I longed to be in an American cinema so I could be part of the cheering crowd this film deserved. I thought that feeling would fade, but I felt the same way the next two times I saw it, too.
When I look back on the films of 2012, as much as I love Middle-Earth and as great as Looper was, my overriding thought is of that scene with Loki and Hulk. I wouldn't dream of suggesting that The Avengers is the best film of the year; but, for me, it is undeniably the Film of the Year.

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