Doldrums & the Status Quo: WWE Money in the Bank 2012

Last summer, WWE put on their most electric, acclaimed pay-per-view in a generation with Money in the Bank 2011, a triumphant sea-change in the landscape of the business, culminating in a near-perfect feud between outspoken upstart CM Punk and dynastic automaton champion John Cena ending with the underdog triumphing in a masterpiece of a match in front of his enthusiastic hometown audience. Money in the Bank 2012 was never going to live up to that standard regardless of what was on the card, but even with the slightest bit of imagination, they certainly could have surpassed the dull thud of resounding, unyielding sighs that greeted the results.

At WrestleMania in early April, the World Heavyweight and Intercontinental Titles changed hands, and both of WWE’s always-win golden boys John Cena and Randy Orton lost; it was refreshing, even if their opponents were long-in-the-tooth veterans of a bygone era (the Rock & Kane respectively). Since then, WWE has been in something of a holding pattern when it comes to their PPV events: the same guys winning using the exact same finishes every time, but one that has been excused thanks to the quality of the in-ring product. For instance, Sheamus has retained his World Heavyweight Title at all four subsequent PPVs, all with the exact same finishing sequence (a set-up signature move followed by a Brogue Kick), but the first three were the potential Match of the Year with Daniel Bryan at Extreme Rules, a charmingly chaotic fatal-four way at Over the Limit and a gleeful exercise with Bump God Dolph Ziggler at No Way Out in front of a peaked, divided crowd. He was ready to face glorious aristocratic heel Alberto Del Rio at Money in the Bank.

The WWE Champion, CM Punk, has retained repeatedly since November, and after two excellent matches with dastardly legend Chris Jericho at WrestleMania and Extreme Rules, he’s had an intriguing run with his perfect foil, the equally slight-stature, high-charisma ring technician Daniel Bryan, as well as a mutual female acquaintance of theirs named AJ, who rose to main event prominence by enacting a type of anarchic melodrama that was unique to the annals of the WWE, and refreshing in its complexity, especially for WWE’s problematic struggles writing female characters. Punk beat Bryan twice at Over the Limit and No Way Out in matches with deliberately ambiguous finishes, designed to leave you happy but wanting a more satisfying conclusion. After their previous match also involved a third (well, fourth) party in cartoonish monster Kane (whose presence in a romance storyline left a peculiar charge), Money in the Bank seemed like the perfect opportunity to provide a decisive conclusion to Punk-Bryan (namely, allow Bryan to win the belt in their third meeting), closing the loop and pushing the characters in new directions.

The guy taking all of the PPV main events during Punk’s undervalued run was John Cena, who occupies a sort of bygone-era alternate universe where Designated Good always triumphs over Designated Evil through perseverence and fighting spirit, even if those situations so rarely reflect the actual reality of the experiences. Like a Golden Era sitcom, Cena’s matches all seem to end in the exact same fashion, and none of the emotional, physical or psychological baggage of his feuds tend to carry over to even the following day. Cena has main-evented seven of the last eight PPVs, without a single one being for the WWE Title, ostensibly the highest prize in the company. Cena is a ten-time WWE Champion, so I understand that his drive for the belt may be a little tempered, but it seems like Whatever Cena’s Doing is deigned automatically the most important thing going on at the time, regardless of its dramatic weight or emotional interest.

Cena lost at WrestleMania and had an absolutely brilliant, brutal match with returning asshole doom-bringer Brock Lesnar at Extreme Rules in April. These two matches and the feud in the interim gave Cena some intriguing humanity, a quality he tends to lack through most feuds as he glumly traverses through the exact same finishing sequence, derisively known in the wrestling community as the Five Moves of Doom. Cena’s character has basically remained unchanged since 2005 or so, which is preposterous in the high-speed, short-span world of professional wrestling (in the same time frame, someone like the Big Show has turned good guy or bad guy approximately 800,000 times). Cena is always just Cena, so to see this shadow of doubt creep in was appealing, and at the end of Extreme Rules Cena gave a speech to the crowd that implied he was taking some time off, a welcome sojourn where our esteem for him could build.

But instead of leaving, Cena returned the very next night and ended up immediately embroiled in a bizarre, blind-side of a feud with bungling bad guy authority figure John Laurinaitis, who is in his late 40s and hasn’t wrestled competitively since the early ’90s. For some reason, Cena once again main-evented a PPV, and his match vs. Laurinaitis at Over the Limit was an abominable comedy exercise with a telegraphed, faux-shock ending (the aforementioned Big Show did an aforementioned change back to bad guy). At No Way Out, Cena and Big Show matched up in another main event, a insultingly stupid steel cage match that had to break every established criteria of Big Show’s heel turn for Cena to once again triumph, once again in the exact same manner. At Money in the Bank, Cena was involved in one of the two titular matches, where a briefcase symbolically representing an immediate shot at the championship (again, nominally the biggest thing in the company) is hanging over the ring and a large number of superstars (anywhere from 4-10) fight over ladders and each other in an attempt to retrieve it. The bedlam inherent in these matches would provide a perfect opportunity to allow Cena to lose (and considering he could get a shot for the WWE Title pretty much any time he wanted, make the match actually mean something in the long run).

Sheamus, CM Punk and John Cena have been the top dogs of the company for the past three and a half months, and Money in the Bank, befitting the shake-it-up cache earned by last year’s event, could be a perfect time to do something new. Instead, Sheamus once again retained with the exact same set of moves, Punk once again beat Bryan in unsatisfying fashion, and Cena once again defeated all the “odds” in the main event (yes, guys trying to get a chance at the championship was deemed more important the guys actually fighting for the championship) and won the ladder match, fishing yet another PPV smilin’ and joshin’ to the screen as the cameras went to black. Cena had what should have been deeply affecting rivalries all year, but seemingly THE MOMENT those matches are over, he immediately moves on. Punk’s nearly year-long WWE Title run is cool, but Punk’s at his most effective when he’s an underdog. Having him be the unyielding top man just makes his impudence seem smarmy.

The other major match was the up-and-comers Money in the Bank ladder match, which featured a couple promising guys that could genuinely use this kind of push (delicious intellectual heel Damien Sandow, high-flying Tyson Kidd, brutal pounder Tensai), as well as a flippy Lucha guy (Sin Cara), two guys who ALREADY HAVE CHAMPIONSHIPS (the Intercontinental Champon Christian and the United States Champion Santino Marella, and a guy who I love (the aforementioned Dolph Ziggler) who didn’t need to win because he had already attained championship status. Of course, this being the PPV of perfunctory disappointment, the one time I didn’t want Ziggler to win, he wins, proving once again that WWE doesn’t seem to understand how to build or push people in a way that makes room for everyone in the company.

Many things need to evolve in pro wrestling, but the hierarchy of achievement is not one of them: The WWE & World Titles are supposed to be end-points to strive for, the top of the mountain. The Intercontinental and United States titles are supposed to be major steps for guys who aren’t quite main-event but deserve acclaim as they make their way through the company. But WWE has fallen into a disturbing misdistribution of wealth in 2012. They’ve basically eliminated their middle class, their midcard, by designating seemingly everyone either Heavyweight Championship Status or “loser to get squashed in 90 seconds by one of a cavalcade of boring dominators”. There needs to be somewhere between “top-tier” and “about to be fired”. Guys should be wanting to win the smaller belts, and it’s easy to make work: have people react like the belts are important and the crowd will believe they’re important. It worked in April: there was a flurry of activity, and suddenly we’re back to no one ever competing for them and the active champions always trying to win the bigger one.

That’s the real shame of all this. The fixes to these problems are so simple. Wrestling is not complicated. Wrestling storytelling has always operated on primal urges. This is fundamental, big-top entertainment, involving a bunch of unstable, testosterone-laden people who fight for a living. There is a place for nuance but sometimes it’s easy to just have a guy say “I want what you have” or “I want to beat you up because you did something mean to me”. Let charismatic people talk, let talented wrestlers wrestle. Sometimes let the greats lose, and sometimes let the losers win. The Haves always beating the Have-Nots, in the exact same way every time, breeds apathy, and when you get unmemorable matches with unremarkable storylines and uninspiring, samey conclusions, people are going to get tired of it. Yeah, people went to see formula western films for a long time, but eventually they wanted to watch The Ox-Bow Incident, and The Searchers, and A Fistful of Dollars.

Depth, motivation, fresh perspectives, these are things WWE has seemingly declined us every month in favor of the same old shit, and if the matches also happen to be stale, people grow impatient. I feel they may be drawing things out to their next major PPV (SummerSlam on August 19th), but that doesn’t mean we can’t also be entertained and have suprises and intrigue SOMEWHERE on the card month to month. The closest thing WWE has to a rival, Total Nonstop Action Wrestling, is still relatively small-time, but they’ve been doing a lot of interesting things in recent months that have gotten positive attention, and their weekly television show Impact is a nice respite from the inertia of contemporary WWE storytelling. WWE could fix their issues in a SNAP, but in their baffling neglect, they may be giving rise to an upstart. I don’t know if you just need a challenge, or fresh meat, or if CM Punk was right when he said things would only get better when chairman Vince McMahon is dead, but please, guys, you can be so wonderful so easily. All you need to do is be.

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The Death of Maria Malibran (1972, Werner Schroeter)

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After a rocky start featuring a series of faces almost looking at each other that had me staring at my figurative watch, The Death of Maria Malibran transfigures itself into a glorious aesthetic experience, an asynchronous melding of wildly emotional visuals and separately, equally emotional audio that proves rather overwhelming even as it remains hard to proffer a tangible explanation why. Standing as a polar opposite to something like, say, Unsere Afrikareise‘s meticulous cuts, Malibran‘s editing buckets and spills but is no less deliberate than Kubekla’s four-year odyssey, and the occasions when the audio actually does match up with whatever’s happening on screen take on an extra level of sensation.

There was also a level of camp I wasn’t expecting going in. When I hear “avant-garde pseudo-biopic” I was thinking something sternly artistic and DEADLY SERIOUS on the level of The Color of Pomegrantes orChronicle of Anna Magdelana Bach. This was closer to something from an underground provocateur like Kenneth Anger or the Kuchar brothers. This was playful and irreverent as much as it was stark and difficult, more grandly theatrical than Warhol (a connection made by Candy Darling’s major presence in the film) and less rigidly formal and ungodly languorous than Schroeter’s national era-contemporary Hans-Jurgen Syberberg.

Similar to the aforementioned Color of Pomegranates, I knew nothing about the person being chronicled going in, and I didn’t learn a single thing about them from the piece. I’ve discerned from a quick glance at Wikipedia that Malibran was an opera singer who died very young. Past that it really doesn’t matter. There’s not a lot of narrative direction generally, and while it’s not quite Godard’s Film Socialisme actively dissuading you from trying to follow it, I can’t imagine Malibran‘s subtitles are present for anything but completism’s sake.

I’m not particularly taken with lights shined on people’s faces as some sort of artistic achievement (no offense von Sternberg fans) so I began the film rather skeptically, but as it went on and diversified, it grew to seem rather appealing, a grand wedding of high and low art. Malibran‘s appeal WAS sensory, but it was in that juxtaposition, both the shifting of audio & visual, and the order of scenes as they go, building a string of striking tableaux towards the end (in those rich ’70s film-print hues). This didn’t quite bowl me over as much as Pomegranates did, but as an unusual, memorable achievement in the artistic realm, The Death of Maria Malibran sure as hell elicits a response, unduly positive from my neck of the eyes.

[Grade: 8/10 (B) / #18 (of 98) of 1972]

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One Day (2011, Lone Scherfig)

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A boorish asshole and a waifish wimp meet once, decide to be best friends and keep meeting up over the years on the very same date and rekindling their love for one another or whatever. I would love to give this movie praise for presenting realistic depictions of how people actually are rather than the formulas romantic comedies usually slot people into. I cannot give that praise, because this movie is terribly written, an awful parade of canned melodramatic vignettes that never once feel like the way real people talk or act around each other, and it concludes in a tragic flourish so comically overheated that I actually laughed out loud when it happened. Every single moment about this movie feels like something an author had an idea for, instead of something that actually happened to anyone ever. The acting from Jim whatshisname and Anne Hathaway is solid (even if the latters’ Anglo accent is too put-on), and it’s hard to tell their chemistry because their characters are such unpleasant people and there’s no real meet-cute, despite the fact that the entire MOVIE is a meet-cute. Sorry, easily-swayed housewives and tweens, there’s not much here.

[Grade: 4/10 (C-) / #67 (of 82) of 2011]

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Prometheus (2012, Ridley Scott)

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Science fiction as a genre thrives on the promise of the unknown. Dramas get be devastating and comedies can be gut-busting, but there’s only so many ways to do it. Science-fiction, on the other hand, is your ticket to any number of unfamiliar lands and experiences, with the possibilities as far-ranging and endless as space itself. Yet essentially every single cosmos-based sci-fi film of the last several generations has takes its cues from only two major sources: the slow, quiet thoughtful sci-fi of 1968’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, and the grimy, dirty, thrilling sci-fi of 1979’s Alien. Many films try to switch things up by combining the two flavors, but they all seem to be borne from the same two basic strands of DNA.

Prometheus at least has an excuse for being derivative, being connected to Alien by virtue of its director Ridley Scott and a tenuous relationship to the film itself by existing in the same universe a few decades earlier. The film concerns a team of adventurers, spurred by a discovery of ancient cave paintings depicting the same solar system across the Earth, who travel to the far reaches of the galaxy to search for answers to the origins of life itself. The team is led by brusque businesswoman Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron) and spearheaded by explorers Shaw (Noomi Rapace, star of the original Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) and Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green). Also along are a sarcastic Southern pilot (Idris Elba), two buddy-cop scientists (Sean Harris & Rafe Spall), a cautious Scottish lab tech (Kate Dickie) and a robot named David (Michael Fassbender), who kept the crew in cryo-stasis on their journey.

The main problem with Prometheus overall is how overstuffed the screenplay (from Lost co-runner Damon Lindelof and Jon Spaihts, whose only other credit is the much-maligned horror film The Darkest Hour) is. All of the characters mentioned get their own separate, complicated emotional storylines, and I haven’t even gotten to Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce) or the running minor stories of the co-pilots whose names I’m just learning now (played by Emun Elliott and Benedict Wong!), much less what they actually find when they reach the planet’s surface. So many characters have so many things going on for so long without any of them being given the focus as Main Character that, by sheer logistics, the film seemingly doesn’t resolve a predominant amount of the things they introduce. 2001 works because there’s basically only two characters in the whole film, and neither of them talk that much. Prometheus confuses creating three-dimensional characters with presenting everyone’s life story, and this novelistic approach means instead of climaxes or resolutions we end up just wandering with one character until they run into another character with more thoughts to have, like a shuttle-bound Phantom of Liberty.

This could all be forgiven to some extent if the visuals bowled you over, allowing you to tune out all the interpersonal noise and focus on the splendor, but the film seems to take an almost actively jaded, seen-it-all approach. That’s appropriate for inside the ship (which to its credit manages to somewhat recreate the blandly functional design fromAlien without self-consciously making it “old”), but much of the planet’s investigation is done by small floating orbs and the few primary revelations are handled perfunctorily, like the film shares its android’s lack of curiosity in the name of moving the action along. The best science fiction makes you gaze in awe, even as you may be deep in thought or clutching cup holders in terror, and Prometheus treats you like a roller coaster operator, just making sure you’re strapped in and making sure you get out promptly for the next ones.

Contemporary sci-fi in all its recent forms seems compelled to conclude not with a grand epiphany but with a flurry of foggy violence, and Prometheus is sadly no different. Most of the problems already illustrated only become problems after the fact because the film still has time to catch some of the balls being juggled, but once the clashes begin the film hooks a very abrupt right and rather suddenly peters out. The film makes most of its gestures toward Alien in these segments but they betray the individual organic universe Prometheus had already built, and as such, make a 124-minute, plotline-heavy film feel somehow too short and rushed, leading to baffling gaps in logic which lead to irritation (a lot of the climax is spent going, “So wait, why didn’t anyone ask about that?” or “what’s happening with that thing, that was kind of important for everyone to forget about”, which is not what you want to be doing).

The primary source of recommendable quality here comes from the talented spate of actors, who all give their damnedest to make these flabby characters shine. Noomi Rapace displays the same offbeat charm she did in her earlier work. Charlize Theron plays icy without losing her humanity, and Fassbender plays warm without ever seeming human. Logan Marshall-Green does an effective sensitive-tough-guy Michael Pena impersonation. The very talented Idris Elba is called upon to do a good ol’ boy accent despite the international cast (i.e., he could have been just as effective with a sharp British tongue) and makes it an admirable Yaphet Kotto rip. The minor characters get way too much screentime but when they’re on the actors bring them into focus as real people. Patrick Wilson has a cameo as Shaw’s father, and does just fine there, but that entire piece of her story was another thing I completely forgot about as the film went on.

Prometheus still remains watchable and enjoyable for most of its runtime, so it’s far from a complete waste of time. But that juggling act in the script-writing phase begins to fall apart as balls and bowling pins and flaming chainsaws begin crumbling and falling to the floor. There’s a lot to potential here, but an emphasis on the experience and a severe cutdown on the litany of convoluted drama (which never descends into melodrama, which keeps the film from becoming unbearable) could have made this a classic. As it stands, Prometheus ends up being a pretty good, solidly viewed, incredibly flawed, very frustrating missed opportunity on something that could have been amazing. It’s noAlien, it’s more like a professional, better-filmed Event Horizon, and that’s not really a compliment.

[Grade: 7/10 (B-) / #7 (of 10) of 2012]

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Paranormal Activity 3 (2011, Henry Joost & Ariel Shulman)

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I give credit to the PA series for leaving enough hinting breadcrumbs in their plotlines to be able to make TWO PREQUELS and have them mostly make sense. This film is set in 1988 and depicts the initial discovery of the menace that has haunted the sister protagonists of the first two films. Unfortunately, the film runs into too many of the logistical problems that plagued the first film (and, coincidentally enough, also plagued the directors’ last film,Catfish): There’s simply too many situations where it doesn’t make sense to have a camera and keep it rolling on what the audience needs to see. Paranormal Activity 2 succeeded because it found a conceit that worked (security cameras!) and made the handheld camera a character in the film to be interacted with; here, most of the effective scares come from cameras who aren’t being actively held by the actors, including the halfway-ingenious idea to rig a camcorder to an oscillating fan (the “1980s-ness” of the film is mercifully a rather non-issue, but the film seems to get enough right to make it work). But occasionally, disbelief is hard to suspend, and the atmosphere isn’t enough to get it over. It’s a solid watch and it’s better than the first film, but it’s just not quite immersive enough to really thrive, and its climax mostly peters out. There’s a fourth one coming out this year, and although I can’t imagine what it’ll be about if it’s related, the series has earned enough goodwill that I’ll probably give it a shot…eventually.

[Grade: 6/10 (C+) / #48 (of 80) of 2011]

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Paranormal Activity 2 (2010, Tod Williams)

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In 2009, a three-year-old low-budget ghost story called Paranormal Activity captured the zeitgeist with its story of something going bump in the night disturbing a woman named Katie (Katie Featherston) and her significant other Micah (Micah Sloat). In typical Hollywood fashion, a follow-up to this popular work was greenlit and pushed out less than a year after its original release. But in one of the rarer cases of this practice, Paranormal Activity 2 improves on everything the original did and tried to do. While there were a handful of effective moments spread throughout the first film, the general cheapness and lack of ability to quite sell the premise (to say nothing of the typical first-person-found-footage-film problem of why they would hold a camera so constantly) doomed Paranormal Activity to mediocrity. Amazingly, the sequel finds answers to each and every one of these problems.

Paranormal Activity did just enough to suggest some kind of mythological backstory for its characters, so this prequel easily slots in Katie’s sister Kristi (Sprague Grayden) and ties her into the history. Kristi, her husband Daniel (Brian Boland), Daniel’s daughter Ali (Molly Ephraim) and new baby Hunter (twins William Juan & Jackson Xenia Prieto) have moved into a big new house, but become spooked after a house invasion where nothing is taken, so they decide to install a series of constantly-taping hidden cameras throughout the house. The film is structured around footage from these cameras as well as a camcorder initially used to capture Hunter’s early years as well as family gatherings, but as strange things begin to happen, becomes a life-line to capture events as they occur.

Paranormal Activity 2 shares a lot with its predecessor: it includes a lot of superfluous conversations and small-talk to build its world, the entire film is found-footage-based and pretty much all their scares are unseen noises and small mysterious movements. The difference is in the details. I believe Katie & Micah as a couple but as the film went on their reactions to the occurrences seemed increasingly silly, reminiscent of a far-out episode of one of those preposterous stagey Ghost Hunters shows. PA2 gives much more reasonable reactions to the initial happenings, and having two skeptical-realist characters to bounce off of as well as eventually come to be convinced allows the tension to grow and hedge as opposed to just throwing it out in the deep end and hoping it learns to float. The closest anyone comes to hiring a spirit counselor is a couple Google searches and the firing of a superstitious maid (Vivis Colombetti).

Even more impressively, this film has the best utilization of the found-footage camerawork ever. As you would if you lived there, the characters forget about the hidden cameras until spooky things begin happening, and then they realize and immediately check the tape, as you would. Plus, the main handheld camera adapts believably on the fly in most situations, from upbeat family document to anxious confessional to tool of survivor and sanity. It makes more sense than the camera continuing to roll in Cloverfield, or Quarantine, or PA, or The Devil Inside or anything, and that alone is enough to give it a recommendation, but even more impressively, the film develops its uneasiness gradually, exploding in a very effective climax that feels like more than the typical abrupt cop-out that seems a function of the genre (The Devil Inside especially had a blaring finale that suddenly hit a wall both figuratively and literally). This starts out slow and shows restraint until the finale in a way that these films can rarely handle.

One of the most praise-worthy things about the original PA was its sense that the characters knew each other and we were witnessing things that sounded like actual conversations (as much as I enjoyed the powerful Quarantine. there’s a whole lot of theater monologs in that piece). Well, PA2‘s cast blows that out of the water. Kristi, Daniel and Ali seem like a real family, and as such never hit any of the typical movie beats, including eschewing the melodramatic outburst between stepmom and stepdaughter that I kept expecting to come (oddly enough, the only wrong step is a wordy infodump monologue from Katie, who also features here). All three main characters (as well as Ali’s occasional gentleman caller Brad (Seth Ginsberg)) feel like people you know, have met, and can like and sympathize with, making their plight involving and allowing the atmosphere to envelop as it should have originally.

This isn’t complicated. All you need for a good ghost story is characters in which we can invest our interest, halfway-believable story execution and a few things making noise in another room we can’t see or explain. Have those characters act like real people (i.e., don’t have them all jump to GHOSTS after the first pan falls off the counter) and let our senses do the heavy lifting. Paranormal Activity 2 is no masterpiece (it still feels over-familiar and derivative on a macro level and Katie sometimes feels like a character imported from another film entirely, which of course she was), but it does a lot of things well that trip up enough other filmmakers that it should be commended. Just because it’s not complicated doesn’t make it easy, and thanks to good actors, a little thought put into the screenplay and an effective pace, it’s a damn solid film, and a contemporary horror film I can actually recommend without much hesitation.

[Grade: 7.5/10 (B-) / #21 (of 82) of 2010]

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The Avengers (2012, Joss Whedon)

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In recent years, I attained a reputation for “hating” superhero/comic book films, but the more of them I view, the more it seems like I don’t hate superhero movies so much as I loathe superhero ORIGIN STORIES. I was underwhelmed by Spider-Man but dug Spider-Man 2. I hated Iron Man but enjoyed Iron Man 2. I was so underwhelmed by Batman Begins I remember idly speculating to myself about property damage in the theater, but The Dark Knight had a lot of things to recommend. I hated 2003’s Hulk, but its sequel was, for all purposes a reboot, so I hated it too. I thought Ghost Rider looked abominable, but I found Spirit of Vengeance acceptably watchable. So even though I have yet to get my eyes in front of Captain America or Thor, I knew enough about them that I felt comfortable skipping right to everybody’s sequel, The Avengers.

In case you’re somehow reading this despite knowing nothing about the plot of The Avengers, secret agent Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) has a problem. A demigod named Loki (Tom Hiddleston) has come to Earth and stolen a mythical cube known as the Tesseract that can provide unlimited energy for its hosts and a portal to the end of the universe. He has also hypnotized the head scientist working on the project (Stellan Skarsgard) and Clint “Hawkeye” Barton (Jeremy Renner), the man protecting it. Fury must call upon a number of heroes, including sarcastic billionaire Iron Man Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), long-frozen World War II supersoldier Captain America Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), a feisty Russian spy named Natasha Romanoff, aka the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), the long-in-hiding Dr. Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), who turns into a giant green Hulk when provoked, as well as Loki’s own brother Thor (Chris Hemsworth). But can this combustible team work together to save not only themselves, but the entire universe?

The Avengers was set up by a series of movies devoted to each individual hero between 2008 and 2011 (all of which I mentioned in that first paragraph), so the film begins severely in media res as far as its characters go, allowing us to skip the wandering ponderous formalities and get straight into the action. Yet the film must walk a fine line, because the only thing less interesting to me than a superhero’s tiresome beginning is their potentially endless battles (I’ve STILL never seen Return of the King!) and with so many heroes fighting for screen time, I was concerned that we may just end up with a live-action video game, a torrent of nonstop adversaries coming struck down over the course of forever by a buzzsaw of heroes. Director Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, my other favorite film of 2012 Cabin in the Woods) is up to the task.

2008’s Iron Man, the table-setter for all of this, drew my ire for not giving endlessly-chatty Downey Jr. anyone interesting off which to play, and then having the climax be exactly the endless cacophony of generic explosions the film had just spent an hour and a half claiming not to be. The Avengers solves that twofold. The litany of vibrant characters bounce off each other nicely, and the action ping-pongs between all the characters and their different combat styles: Iron Man’s aerial warfare, the hand-to-hand ground attack of Captain America and Black Widow, Hawkeye’s long-range sniper shots, and the all-sizes thunderous swath of brutality caused by Thor and Hulk. Even better, the film managed to pack up and move on at EXACTLY the moment my interest started to flag. I started thinking, “Okay, this is about enough for me” and IMMEDIATELY the sequence transposed. Perfect pacing!

The other thing that keeps it so fresh and wonderful is the writing, which manages to be smart without sacrificing fun. The two Hulk films are a study in kind: Ang Lee’s 2003 film was a dour, sluggish affair, spinning obvious platitudes with a wearying, DEADLY SERIOUS tone. 2008’s The Incredible Hulk overcorrected trying to counteract this, and became a thuddingly stupid action blur, with not a single character uttering a word that wasn’t plot-forward. The Avengers calibrates its script for the exemplary combination of rousing and hysterical. Whedon’s touch is evident in spades, and like Cabin in the Woods, the filmmakers manage to stay in their genre wheelhouses while doling out really funny things in just the right order. They function as glorious relief, without feeling distracting or out of place.

I had no interest in The Avengers. I was intrigued by The Dark Knight Rises and (to a lesser extent) The Amazing Spider-Man, but The Avengers seemed like the kind of thing that didn’t hold any appeal for me; I just went because I didn’t have anything else to do on a Thursday night and all my friends were going. So take it from a skeptic: The Avengers is thrilling, dramatic, hilarious, moving and FUN FUN FUN. It’s about as enjoyable as I could possibly imagine it being, and if The Avengers 2 is anywhere near this good, we’ve got a hell of a franchise on our hands. I promise I’ll see Captain America and Thor sometime, but even if it’s not any time soon, I’ve still got nothin’ but love for ’em. I think for now I’m still putting it behind The Cabin in the Woods for my favorite movie of the year so far, because that took me on a ride to places I didn’t even imagine. The Avengers is incredibly predictable, it just tells its story better than anyone else has, and sometimes, that’s just as good.

[Grade: 8.5/10 (B+) / #2 (of 5) of 2012]

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