Honoring comic book form at heart of 'The Avengers' success

A story line that nods to the heroes’ histories lifts The Avengers, which features Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Captain America (Chris Evans), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) and Hulk (Mark Ruffalo).

Marvel

A story line that nods to the heroes’ histories lifts The Avengers, which features Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Captain America (Chris Evans), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) and Hulk (Mark Ruffalo).

This isn't my normal pop culture turf. • But as a serious comic book fanboy who has seen The Avengers movie twice (with plans to see it again), I wanted to explore something I've noticed in how some people are talking about this film. • Comic book culture — like a lot of so-called "genre" areas in pop culture such as science fiction and fantasy — is 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.

With the last Dark Knight film coming later this summer, along with the Amazing Spider-Man reboot, 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 along comes a movie like The Avengers (and Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight before that) that flips the script by being a great film about superheroes.

And suddenly, folks who could shrug off ill-considered nonsense like the last Green Lantern movie must suddenly figure out a reason why this stuff actually works. (Or they could just pretend it's a crappy film, like Andrew O'Hehir from Salon, who called The Avengers "competent but pointless popcorn entertainment.")

That's what came to mind when I read Ann Hornaday's Washington Post essay on the film. I have no idea what she knows about the comic book world, but the column's tone falls somewhere between bewilderment and condescension, with the odd objective of finding an acceptable reason to like this entertaining movie.

Her conclusion was echoed by other disbelieving critics: The material was elevated by the film's coolest actors.

As evidence, she cites Mark Ruffalo, an actor with lots of cool cred for serious film fans. Ruffalo does an amazing job playing Bruce Banner as a geekily brilliant, cynically tortured guy whose buttoned-down exterior hides something dark and scary inside, beyond his ability to morph into a giant green rage monster.

She writes: "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!' "

But this fanboy — and stone Ruffalo devotee — must object. Why not "our Mark"? Actors as 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. Ruffalo takes a juicy part two other fine actors have played in recent years and wrings new substance and emotional notes from it.

Indeed, he gets one of the film's money lines, spoken by Banner to Captain America just before the Hulk bursts free: "That's my secret, Cap. I'm always angry."

But The Avengers' greatness isn't just about the actors all nailing 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.

The great failure of Green Lantern, if you ask me, is that filmmakers disregarded years of more modern stories featuring the character, instead copying a creaky origin story that was first published in 1959.

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

(Though I always remember a writer who once said there's no drama in watching a superman tackle problems; true drama is seeing a regular guy tackle a superhuman problem.)

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.

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.

Eric Deggans can be reached at edeggans@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8521.

Honoring comic book form at heart of 'The Avengers' success 06/02/12 [Last modified: Saturday, June 2, 2012 5:30am]

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