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All the buzz in town lately has been around the remarkable gathering of talent in the hit movie The Avengers, and I am, of course, talking about the members of Soundgarden, whose first return to recording in a decade and a half closes the film. Propelled by the angel’s shriek of lead singer Chris Cornell and the muscular crunch of guitarist Kim Thayll, Live to Rise is exactly the kind of guitar hero anthem that the film’s audience needed to pull them out of the seats they’d been cowering in for the previous two hours and 22 minutes of Imax action. Getting together for the common good is the whole point of Joss Whedon’s Avengers film, which skillfully weaves together plot points from the original 1963 comic by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby and the modern cinema folklore of the characters Iron Man, Thor, the Hulk and Captain America.
Then Whedon spins it with a hip, witty script, polishes it with surprisingly restrained digital special effects and launches it at the unsuspecting viewer with all the force of Hulk’s engine-block-sized fist. This isn’t a surprising formula. Heroes have been assembling to do battle against evil in the cinema ever since Flash, Dale and Hans took issue with Ming. These heroic teams have also been failing to interest mass audiences with ever greater frequency, particularly in an age in which debris appearing to fly at audiences in 3D perspective and extremely convincing special effects are a baseline expectation, not a source of astonishment. So what makes Joss Whedon’s take on this film so special? Some of it has to do with his deft balance of a large ensemble cast who rarely work comfortably together and only gel in intense little pairings. Some of it has to do with those pants, which turn rear views of Cobie Smulders and Scarlett Johansen into some of the most formidable effects in the film.
Some of it has to do with Whedon’s surprisingly effective battle choreography, which make the many fight scenes something that’s quite rare in action movies, a watchable series of exciting, bone-crunchingly violent moves that make sense and build to a believable outcome. But most of it is the result of a reverence to the source material that irradiates the film with the gamma rays of honest fanboy love. It’s there in the plot, which echoes the original meeting of the characters who would become the Avengers team, putting the heroes together with the customary scraps between the good guys. It’s in the meaty madness and epic scale of the battles, which whomp and crack across the screen, collapsing skyscrapers in their wake as if they were made of sand. Whedon’s approach honours the stylised bombast of artist Jack Kirby, whose visual stamp is all over this work, in the best possible way by interpreting his imagery quietly and deftly for a modern audience.
Today’s comics fans, who are likely to find the comics that created these characters unreadable, won’t get the Kirbyesque machinery that the characters smash through, the impossibly ornate golden jet skis that the alien Chitauri invaders ride or the wonky, off-kilter design of the machine that powers the tesseract, the film’s unearthly Macfguffin. All are to be found, in spirit, if not in literal design, scattered throughout Kirby’s works. There’s a lot more going on in Whedon’s Avengers than there ever was in Lee and Kirby’s first adventure of the group, but ultimately, 49 years later, it took US$200 million to capture the visceral sense of wonder that Kirby imagined so impressively in a 12-cent comic book.
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