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Here's why The Avengers really worked: Filmmakers embraced comics storylines instead of "improving" them

the-avengers1.jpgThis isn't my normal pop culture turf, but as a serious comic book fanboy who has seen The Avengers movie twice, I wanted to take a moment to talk about something I've noticed in how some people are talking about this film.

Comic book culture -- like a lot of so-called "genre" areas such as science-fiction and fantasy -- are often a serious litmus test for consumers: either you get it and love it, or you don't. Which is why I truly understand how some critics feel about seeing comic book heroes take over the blockbuster summer movie season; if you don't like superheroes and the trappings of the genre, it can feel like the idiots have taken over the asylum.

But then comes a movie like The Avengers (and Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight before that) which flips the script by being a great movie about superheroes. And suddenly, folks who could shrug off crap like The Green Lantern have to figure a reason why this comic book movie stuff actually works (or they could just pretend it's a crappy movie, like this guy).

That's what came to mind when I read this Washington Post essay about why the film works. I have no idea if the author knows much about the comic book world, but the tone falls somewhere between bewilderment and condescension, with an odd objective: finding an acceptable reason to like this entertaining movie.

the-avengers-image-hulk.jpgHer conclusion: The actors elevate the material. His evidence is Mark Ruffalo, an actor with lots of cool cred for serious film fans, who does an amazing job playing Bruce Banner as a geeky, brilliant, cynical, tortured guy whose buttoned down exterior obviously hides something dark and scary.

"On paper, the Hulk doesn’t immediately look like the kind of material an actor of Ruffalo’s sensitivity and intelligence would be drawn to. In fact, many of Ruffalo’s fans — with visions of Nicolas Cage’s career dancing in their heads — first greeted the Hulk casting news with trepidation bordering on outrage (not Our Mark!)."

the-avengers-2012-movie-poster4.jpgWhy not Our Mark? Actors cool as Jack Nicholson, Heath Ledger, Robert Downey Jr., Samuel L. Jackson and Willem Dafoe have played amazing characters in comic book movies.  The fact is, these roles can be a blast if written well, and Ruffalo takes a part two other fine actors have played in recent years and wrings new substances and emotional notes from it.

I love the notion that Ruffalo's Banner is a smart, sophisticated angry guy who always seems on a low boil. That's one of the film's money lines: "I'm always angry."

But The Avengers' greatness isn't just about the actors nailing all their roles. It's about something bigger.

This movie works because the guy who made it, director/producer Joss Whedon, knows comic books intimately and embraced the way they tell stories. There was no attempt to "artify" the movie with grand ideas or dumb down the action by turning it into a succession of effects-filled fight scenes.

Most importantly, he didn't try to re-invent the wheel by coming up with new storylines; he pulled together a story from some of the most successful Avengers plotlines and characters already out there. 

Believe me, I know the love of comics is an acquired taste. I tried explaining the plot of The Avengers to a friend during lunch recently, and it sounded so geeky even I wanted to stick a sock in my mouth.

But the fact is, this is a storytelling form with literally 60 or 70 years worth of history. Captain America first appeared in comics in 1941. Thor debuted in 1962. Iron Man bowed the next year. Every one of these characters is older than I am, yet when some filmmakers take on these franchises, they ignore decades of storytelling in which concepts and plotlines have been road tested and explored.

greenlanterngreenarrow85.jpgThe great failure of Green Lantern, if you ask me, is that filmmakers ignored years of more modern stories featuring the character after its debut, copying a creaky origin story which was first published in 1959.

What gives me hope about the new Superman movie, is that director Zack Snyder is such a comics geek he faithfully translated a comic book even many fans doubted could ever reach the silver screen, Alan Moore's subversive Watchmen.

Watching The Avengers was so much fun precisely because it felt like the best superhero team-up books brought to life. These are sophisticated heroes -- at first they don't trust S.H.E.I.L.D., with good reason, or each other -- and every character gets several quality moments in the spotlight.

Imagine a filmmaker creating a western with no knowledge of classic Sergio Leone or Sam Peckinpah films. Or attempting a Hercule Poirot film with little knowledge of (or respect for) Agatha Christie. (that's language film nerds can understand)

For this fanboy geek, the real triumph of The Avengers is its lessons for other filmmakers.

Respect the comic book storytelling form. Because it works.

'Nuff said.

[Last modified: Wednesday, May 23, 2012 7:14am]


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