Why The Avengers Worked (no spoilers!)

Saw the new 3D Avengers along with my 17-year-old daughter, and though neither of us is a comic book fan we found ourselves – begrudgingly – really enjoying the movie.  Of course, we are not alone:  this mega-franchise tent-pole has already grossed over $700 million worldwide, with $200.7 million domestic from opening weekend alone (setting a new record, natch).  Disney has already announced the development of a sequel, as any sane studio would.

Now, commercial clout is not the gold standard when it comes to quality (think Titanic and its dreadful script; the even more dreadful Twilight Franchise (though I liked Catherine Hardwicke’s take on the first one).  The real surprise of Avengers is how good the film actually is.  Joss Whedon has pulled off the seeming impossible, taking a confabulation of characters, some of whom already had their own “prequels,” and meshing them together in a film that has a coherent plot, a good script, snappy dialogue, and something we’ve lost for about the past 20 years:  character.

The “spine”, as William Goldman would say, is not the flashy effects, though they rival anything in recent CG history, including the execrable Transformers.  Kudos to ILM, Weta , Scanline VFX, Hydraulx, Fuel,, Evil Eye Pictures, Luma, Cantina Creative, Trixter, Modus FX, Whiskytree, Digital Domain, The Third Floor (previs and postvis), and Method Design ( for the killer 3D titles).  Janek Sirrs, who supervised VFX on Ironman, did an amazing job wrangling every FX house in Hollywood and beyond.  The final battle in New York uses 3D as more than a gimmick, especially with those Chitauri cruising through a wormhole on their sky-Skidoos.

However, none of this would matter a damn (see:  the first three Star Wars) if the characters were weak and/or interchangeable.   All of the actors involved do a superb job evoking their particular superhero, especially Robert Downey Jr. as Ironman.  This guy is so lithe you almost want to see him dance Fosse.  He makes an obnoxious, self-absorbed billionaire someone you actually care about.  He’s so good I could even stand Gwyneth Paltrow for the first time this century.

Chris Pine is wonderful as Captain America, and may have the best line in the film (regarding Norse god Loki):  “There’s only one God, ma’am, and he doesn’t dress like that.”  He absolutely captures a 40’s sensibility without belaboring the fact that he’s been on ice for 70 years.  The fish out of water broadness was apparently reserved for Dark Shadows, whose trailer makes it look cringeworthy.

Chris Helmsley hits just the right tone as the imperious Thor, and has the biceps to convince us he can hurl that hammer across worlds.  Mark Ruffalo is delightfully understated as Dr. Bruce Banner/The Hulk, making his transformation into a raging green monster that much more striking.  Watching him and Downey verbally spar over Tesseracts is one of the highlights of the film.

The auxiliary Avengers, Black Widow and Hawkeye, are perfect in rounding out the group.  Scarlett Johansson is dead-on as Russian spy Natasha Romanov, even speaking a mean Russian when we first meet her.  She kicks ass and takes no prisoners with the same aplomb as the guys.  Jeremy Renner is great as the initially brainwashed Hawkeye and he shoots every arrow like his life depends on it.  Augmenting the core is a sinister Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury, a comical Clark Gregg as Agent Coulson, and even the acclaimed Jenny Agutter as a member of the World Council.   The British Tom Hiddleston could not be better as Loki:  Whedon chose his villain well.

What makes this movie stand out is that the Good Guys don’t get along initially.  In fact, they’re so disparate and egotistical that their arguments – and physical brawls – seem much more than trumped-up action beats.  Thor versus Ironman is a hoot, while Downey tells Pine, “Everything about you that’s special came out of a bottle.”  Everyone fears the unleashing of Hulk, which Ruffalo, as Banner, accepts with world-weary sarcasm.  Jackson, who spearheads the revived “Avengers Initiative,” is a slippery ally as he retains secrets of his own.  Johansson as a superspy is eminently believable when she wrests key info from Loki by playing on his arrogance.   The sexual interplay between Downey and Paltrow as Pepper Potts is fun without being a toss-off:  it seems real, not just a feeble nod toward having “a girl” in the picture.

Watching good actors with well-defined characters reciting literate dialogue is something I haven’t experienced since All About Eve (1950).  Unlike the Supermans, Spidermans, and – dare I say it – Batmans, this script doesn’t seem to strain or paint by numbers in reaching its set pieces and climax.  The final image (and I won’t give away any spoilers) is downright brilliant.  Someone, probably Whedon, actually sat down and thought about its impact.   It’s a nice finish to an excellent film.

Don’t get me wrong:  I’m not going to pretend that Avengers is Citizen Kane or Sunset Blvd.  It’s just that compared to its comic book ilk, it’s a refreshing piece that delivers on all levels.  I thought that X-Men:  Last Stand was intriguing, but the story was an incoherent mess (ironically, Zak Penn, who wrote the story for this one, was the screenwriter on X-Men).   Alas, even James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, and Jennifer Lawrence – who have all been great in other roles  — couldn’t save that one.

It’s nice to have a summer film, finally, which is more than just huge grosses and provides bonafide entertainment.  Hunger Games was excellent, but its dystopian story is a downer, to say the least.  Avengers is what a summer film should be:  fun, layered, well-written, awesome SPFX, doesn’t take itself too seriously, and leaves you wanting more.  It reminds me of Star Wars – the real one, Episode IV.  Something to infuse life back to the studio film.  Disney, you are hereby forgiven for John Carter.

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Why John Carter Bombed: The Hubris Of Andrew Stanton

JC of Mars

Like most sf/fantasy writers, I have read Edgar Rice Burroughs and was looking forward, though hesitantly, to John Carter Of Mars, later truncated to John Carter.  You almost want it to be:  John Carter, CPA, just to give the guy some identity.

Now, as with most bombs (think WATERWORLD, ISHTAR, HEAVEN’S GATE, MARS (note to Disney:  avoid!) NEEDS MOMS. , we clutch our hair in disbelief, falling prostrate on the ground and yelling “Why?  Why?” with the agony of Nancy Kerrigan.

I think that I know why.  I’ve done extensive research on the Web (where we know that everything we read is true), and, coupled with my fifteen years of servitude in the bowels of Hollywood studios (including Disney), I think I’ve found a scapegoat:  The director, Andrew Stanton.

Now don’t get me wrong.  I’ve never met Mr. Stanton.  I cooed with as much pleasure as the next gal at the charm of Finding Nemo; marveled at the first half-hour of Wall-E, as graceful as a Chaplin short.   Clearly, this guy Stanton was a master storyteller; hell, he’d co-written all of the Toy Stories, and his finesse with CG was acknowledged with two shiny Oscars for Best Animated Film Of The Year.

Stanton was riding high, as high as Woody on Bullseye. His two animated masterpieces had earned Pixar a cool $1.3 billion, and he was the Buzz who could do no wrong.  Per his peer, Pete Docter, director of Up, “He can outthink and outtalk anyone in the room.”  Stanton had apparently started believing his own press – he hung a sign in his home office reading, “I don’t want success to follow me home.”  If you have to remind yourself not to be a prick to your family, it might be time to go in for an Ego Deflate.

Regardless, Stanton had a pet project bathed in the affection of childhood (like Peter Jackson with King Kong), and Disney, convinced of his infallibility, blew kisses and a $250 million budget to film the live-action John Carter.

This is what he said, in a lengthy interview given to The New Yorker (web link below): “We came on this movie so intimidated: ‘Wow, we’re at the adult table!’ Three months in, I said to my producers, ‘Is it just me, or do we actually know how to do this better than live-action crews do?’ The crew were shocked that they couldn’t overwhelm me, but at Pixar I got used to having to think about everyone else’s problems months before all their pieces would come together, and I learned that I’m just better at communicating and distilling than other people.”

Do you hear what I hear? The tinny blast of hubris, which felled a lot of people before Stanton:  Achilles, Ajax, Oedipus, Leona Helmsley, Bernie Madoff.  Stanton thought he was better at the live-action game than its longtime practitioners, and that he could play the same hand as he had in animation:  lots and lotsa reshoots.  However, there is a big difference between manipulating pixels on a screen and supporting a full cast and crew on location at a rough cost of $1 million a day (factoring in CG and post).  In April 2010 alone, he reshot for 18 days.  This is what he told the New Yorker:

“Reshoots should be mandatory,” Stanton insisted. “Honestly, if we had the time and everyone was available, I’d do another reshoot after this one.” When I said it sounded as if he longed for the old studio system, he replied, “That’s exactly what Pixar is! And some of the Pixarness we’re trying to spread at Disney is ‘It’s O.K. to not know, to be wrong, to screw up and rely on each other.’ Art is messy, art is chaos—so you need a system.”

Guess what?  You had better goddamn know before your ass hits the set on a mega-movie. You do what the big boys do:  storyboard, wireframe, rehearse, get a locked-in script, so that you don’t march out to the Utah desert and start bleeding hundreds of millions.

For that kind of green, you cast at least one movie star.  As your lead.  Not an unknown hunk from a low-rated TV show.  You don’t have the only names in the cast hidden behind CG (in this case, four-armed and green).  It has been brought to my attention that certain little films named Star Wars and Lord Of The Rings didn’t have lead stars.  What they had were great directors, stellar special effects, and one primary difference:  they were good.

You write a script that actually makes sense.  Don’t incorporate two lengthy framing narratives at the head, because that’s the way to lose the audience.  The so-called Pixar “Braintrust” tried to tell Stanton, but he wouldn’t listen:  have the audience learn about Mars the same time as JC does. Don’t bore us with exposition for characters we don’t know (and it is still dry exposition, even if spaceships are exploding).  Don’t introduce a cutesy character named “Burroughs” since that’s the way to make us lose our lunch.  Even if it was in the book. Maybe the late Johnny Weissmuller could have leapt from a canoe into the “River Iss.” With Cheetah co-starring as a Thern.

I fully understand that A Princess of Mars, the ostensible basis of this film, was published in 1917.  We all know that filmmakers like Lucas, Cameron, Spielberg, et al have stolen from the source material until only the bleached skeleton remains.  That’s why a set piece like the gladiatorial combat with White Apes was done better by Lucas in 1980.  That the steampunk contraptions flying above Barsoom were co-opted by Terry Gilliam in Baron Munchausen.  That the pulpy serial tone was done, and done better, by Spielberg in Indiana Jones.  Alas, this project was too late, and too little.  But instead of using their brains (as Nina Jacobson, former head of Disney production did, when she passed on M. Night’s execrable Lady in The Water script), the Disney execs bent over and asked for more more more.  Yes, they were trying to please Herr Direktor.  But there was a bit more involved.

None of the execs at Disney have a fucking clue as to what they are doing.  The CEO, Bob Iger, is an ex-ABC man.  His hire for the spot of Studio Chairman is Rich Ross* – former head of the Disney Channel.  The President of Marketing during the JC campaign was one MT Carney – probably great at what she did in the world of New York advertising,, but she had zero movie experience.  See the trend here?  This new slate of suits, while trying to do something “different”, did: they hired people who had never been closer to a movie than the screen at their local Cineplex.

Let’s talk about the advertising campaign for a moment.  Pair a novice (M)adwoman and a hubristic director, and what do you get?  $100 million worth of crap.  Stanton didn’t want JC portrayed as a kids’ film – so he refused to put “By The Guy Who Directed Nemo And Wall-E” in the ads.  He assumed, that since he was a major John Carter fan, this hero was as familiar to audiences as Superman, Thor, and Conan.  Wrong.  So what we got by dint of an advance poster was a strange reddish mishmash of a man – in some kind of caveman gear – walking.  The huge, enigmatic text?  “JOHN CARTER.”  The trailers stank and didn’t attract anyone:  not women, who would have gone for the love story; nor men, since the emphasis was not on action (unlike the film).

Take all of these toxic ingredients – no stars, a bad script, a tired premise, a lackluster ad campaign — shake, then pour, and what have you got?  A $200 million write-off for Disney, acknowledged even before the second weekend.

Yes, the studio was at fault:  Know Nothing executives, unthinking worship of a Cash Cow, an overly compliant marketing staff.  However, I contend that Stanton – with his arrogance, his complete misunderstanding of how live-action is made – shoulders 90% of the blame.  What will happen to him now?  Will he return to the bosom of Pixar, to make animation forever more?  Or will he be given another chance, perhaps on a much, much lower budget?  Only time will tell.  In the meantime, he can hone his superior “communicating and distilling than other people” skills to a sharper, perhaps more modest, edge.

Read more:

* now fired

http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2011/10/17/111017fa_fact_friend

All quotes taken from this article