The Avengers

If you, like me, don’t understand what all the fuss is over Joss Whedon, then be assured that his summer blockbuster film The Avengers (2012) will do nothing at all to enlighten you. It’s near the top end of summer action films, with plenty of action and witty dialogue, but no more than that. “What’s wrong with that?” you might ask. Nothing, really, but it means that it doesn’t challenge the current gold standard of superhero films, held by Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins and The Dark Knight (both of which are more Christopher Nolan films than superhero films), and last year’s Captain America. While it’s better than, say, Independence Day, it’s a close relative of that film. If nothing else, this will guarantee it a lengthy run on commercial cable TV stations (as if its monstrous revenue this month wouldn’t do that).

Okay, to be brief about it: Action film, witty dialog, minimal characterization, nonsensical plot.

The plot is that the Asgardian demigod Loki (Tom Hiddleston, who as my girlfriend points out rather resembles Tim Lincecum) has allied himself with an alien race the Chitauri in order to procure for them the Tesseract (from the Captain America film, and known in the comics as the Cosmic Cube). He will use the Tesseract to allow them to invade Earth, and after they have the thing then he will be left to rule it, as a sort of vengeance against his brother, Thor (Chris Helmsworth).

He shows up and enslaves several humans, including the agent Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and escapes, leaving Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), director of the global peace agency SHIELD, to assemble a team of extraordinary people to oppose him. These include Captain America (Chris Evans), still adjusting to the 21st century after 75 years in suspended animation, Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Thor, the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Dr. Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) and his alter-ego the Hulk. While Loki’s minions assemble a device to precipitate the alien invasion, Loki is captured and works on manipulating the team while in captivity.

The story pretends to be smarter than it is, with a vague notion of punch and counterpunch between Loki and Fury, and Banner, Stark and Cap all suspecting that Fury’s people are using the tesseract for less than noble means. But the plot is really just pretext for a lot of fighting (sometimes among the heroes, sometimes between heroes and villains), and if you think about it much at all, you realize it’s basically people running around without really accomplishing anything (and without anywhere near the panache of Doctor Who, which frequently employed the same approach back in the day).

The film has its good points. Chris Evans has enough weight to pull off being a leader among the rest of the cast, and Downey and Ruffalo are both quite good, especially when they’re appearing together. (I haven’t seen any of the Hulk or Iron Man films that predate this, but I don’t feel like I missed anything crucial.) The actions and special effects are both top-notch, as one expects from a top-tier summer blockbuster. The humor has its hits (the Hulk confronting Loki) and misses (a couple of jokes at Captain America’s expense, as well as Agent Coulson [Clark Gregg]); I suspect Whedon’s sense of humor is a big part of why people like his stuff, but I don’t think it’s any better than other near-the-top summer blockbuster films. Indeed, it often felt like Whedon was basically trying to write a James Bond film. Not a bad thing (I like most of the James Bond films), but nothing special.

You definitely don’t want to think about the mechanics of the plot, which basically involve a lot of stupidity on both sides: Fury being too clever by half in trying to assemble the team while keeping secrets from them, Loki keeping the heroes well appraised of his plan when he could have done nearly everything in secret (I guess one of the rules of the game is that gods never learn from their mistakes), bringing the Hulk onto the SHIELD helicarrier at all (there’s no particular reason anything they were doing needed to be done from a mobile base), and the heroes trying to shut down the Tesseract at the end (why not, I don’t know, cut the power?). And of course, in finest Star Trek: The Next Generation form, the bad guys have a single point of failure. (For a better story with a similar alien-invasion plot, check out Babylon 5: Thirdspace. It’s by no means perfect, but plotwise and thematically it’s steps up from this.)

I think the biggest frustration about the film for me was actually Scarlett Johansson, who I’m not a fan of. The Black Widow has some fairly meaty material here, but I don’t think Johansson really sells it. I wonder what someone like Cate Blanchett would have done in the role. (I think both Johansson and Renner really underplay their roles.)

I went into the film figuring if it was a film about Captain America managing to pull the team together against all odds, then it would be a good film, but if it was Joss Whedon and Robert Downey Jr being amusing then it wouldn’t. And weirdly, it was both. And neither. It didn’t have the heart or weight of Captain America, but you still root for the heroes putting aside their differences to get the job done, even though it’s all staged very haphazardly.

I never saw Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but I did see episodes of Firefly (awful) and Dollhouse (dull), so after The Avengers I still don’t get what the fuss is about Joss Whedon. But I enjoy an action film from time to time, and after the success of this one I imagine we’ll get several sequels in the future. Honestly I’m more looking forward to the next Captain America film.

Oh, and there are two epilogues during the credits: The first one will mean nothing to anyone not familiar with the comics character who shows up, and the second one is not worth the wait.


I’ve never been a fan of Joss Whedon. I don’t particularly dislike him, either, but my exposure to his work has been limited. I never watched Buffy or Angel because by the time it registered that they might be worth watching, I’d finished catching up on several other series and didn’t feel like catching up on yet more series. I watched five episodes of Firefly and hated it (stories boring, setting ridiculous, characters unlikeable). And I’ve never read any of the comic books he’s written.

But on Friday, planning already to watch the new episode of Battlestar Galactica, we decided to watch the first episode of Whedon’s new series, Dollhouse.

The premise is that an agency is able to wipe peoples’ memories, program them with new personas and skills for particular assignments, and then restore them when they come back. The lead character is one such agent, Echo (Eliza Dushku).

As has been mentioned elsewhere (e.g., in the Boston Globe and by Peter David), the series’ basic flaw is: If you need a professional negotiator, or secret agent, or whatever, why not just hire an actual professional rather than someone “programmed” using some fictional technique? It’s a solution looking for a problem. (I’ve heard that Whedon’s original concept was less adventure-oriented and more intended to explore issues of enslavement and control, which makes more sense as a premise. Rumor is that Fox demanded the series be overhauled with their input, which helps explain what we got.)

The interesting thing about the opening episode is really one of story structure: It’s organized to make it as routine as possible. We have the obligatory introduction to the agency and the obligatory non-adventure to show Echo in a “programmed” role. Then we have the takes-only-2/3ds-of-an-episode adventure with some suspense and action. And then a fade to black amidst a few lingering questions that have been raised. So much set-up and plot mechanics get packed into the episode that there’s no room for characterization or depth, so it ended up being quite bland.

A much more effective approach – which itself isn’t original, but would have made the episode more interesting – would have been to start with Echo in the middle of an assignment, and to have us build up an empathy with her character. Have her really focused on where she is now, and only in the final act peel back the layers to show that she’s acting on behalf of the agency, and finally that she’s not even who we think she is, but is a fake persona. Make her real self very different from the one we’ve gotten to know, and we have some stake in the fact that the woman we knew doesn’t really exist. And not only is there less exposition about the agency, but the nature of the agency gets left as an open question, making us want to come back to find out what it’s all about. To be sure, some of this is known to anyone who read about the series before it aired, but I think this approach would have been far more effective in introducing the set-up while making the opening episode intriguing on its own.

So the overall premise is somewhat interesting, but presents some big challenges to keep us invested in the characters going forward. And the opening episode rates only a “meh”. So they’ve got a ways to climb to make me want to come back every Friday.

(The new BSG wasn’t one of their best, either, but then it was a “calm after the storm” following the excitement of the previous few episodes, so I can understand that.)

This Week’s Haul

  • Justice Society of America #21, by Geoff Johns, Alex Ross, Dale Eaglesham, Jerry Ordway, Bob Wiacek & Nathan Massengill (DC)
  • Terra #3 of 4, by Justin Gray, Jimmy Palmiotti & Amanda Conner (DC)
  • The Immortal Iron Fist #20, by Duane Swierczynski, Travel Foreman & Russ Heath (Marvel)
  • Astonishing X-Men vol 2 HC, by Joss Whedon & John Cassaday (Marvel)
  • Marvels: Eye of the Camera #1 of 6, by Kurt Busiek & Jay Anacleto (Marvel)
  • Mouse Guard: Winter 1152 by David Petersen (Archaia)
  • Hellboy: The Wild Hunt #1 of 8, by Mike Mignola & Duncan Fegredo (Dark Horse)
  • The Boys #25, by Garth Ennis & Darick Robertson (Dynamite)
Astonishing X-Men vol 2 HC I’m not a fan of Joss Whedon. I never watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and I watched about five episodes of Firefly and though it was awful. I am, however, a big fan of John Cassaday, so I was willing to pick up Astonishing X-Men in collected form to see what it was like.

Whedon’s comics writing reminds me of that of Kevin Smith: Smith’s first series, Daredevil: Guardian Devil felt like a rerun of Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s Daredevil: Born Again, and in the same vein, Whedon & Cassaday’s X-Men run feels a lot like Grant Morrison’s New X-Men run. The difference among all these books is that Born Again is one of the all-time great graphic novels, while the rest are fairly derivative works, which means that Whedon’s script feels even more like a “we’ve seen this all before” story than the others, since Morrison’s run was nothing special.

On the other hand, Whedon’s scripts are a hell of a lot funnier than Morrison’s.

This volume starts with Emma Frost being recruited to take down the X-Men by the Hellfire Club, a story which ties back to Morrison’s Cassandra Nova story. This first arc (there are two in this volume) has its tense moments, but when I got to the conclusion I couldn’t figure out what had happened. It felt like Whedon had set things up for a comeback by Cassandra Nova, a vicious powerful telepath, but it doesn’t quite happen, and it’s not clear that the X-Men actually won, either.

The second arc ties together the stories from the first volume: An alien planet named the Breakworld has a prophecy that Colossus will destroy their world, and the X-Men, along with a half-alien special agent named Brand, travel there to hopefully stop it from happening, but in any event stop the Breakworld from sending assassins after them. This story involves the characters breaking up into teams and then running back and forth an awful lot until they have to stop a giant missile aimed at the Earth from destroying it.

While there are many amusing and entertaining scenes in the story, honestly I couldn’t figure out what the heck was going on. Why was the Breakworld significant? Why should the prophecy have existed in the first place? Why was there a giant missile aimed at the Earth? It felt highly contrived; my only guess is that the Breakworld and its situation have appeared in X-Men stories before, but geez, I could really care less about all that. The core of the story felt contrived and nonsensical, which undercut its reason for being. It had a big, loud conclusion, as you’d expect, but a deeply bittersweet ending, which unfortunately felt basically out of place, with no lessons learned as a result of it and not enough attention paid to its impact on the characters.

Whedon does do some interesting stuff with the relationship between Cyclops and Emma, and Colossus and Shadowcat, and the Beast and Agent Brand. (Wolverine seems to be present mainly to boost sales and make smart remarks.) And as I said the script is often quite funny. But it feels like too slight a story, a little too pretentious, not to mention portentious.

On the other hand, Cassaday’s artwork is superb, full of shadows and bright colors and dramatic poses and expressions. His backgrounds are sometimes on the thin side (a problem he’s always had, even at his best), but he is still a very good artist, and his work is shown off to good effect in the oversized pages of this hardcover collection.

Nonetheless, this volume and its predecessor are really for serious X-Men fans only.

And Whedon fans too, I guess.

Marvels: Eye of the Camera #1 Marvels was essentially the book that launched Alex Ross’ career, and made Kurt Busiek a big name in the industry. It’s certainly one of the finest comics series of the last 20 years, and since then Busiek has demonstrated that the core genius of the book – depicting a world of superheroes through the eyes of the people living in the world – was his genius, as he’s expanded greatly on that premise in his outstanding Astro City series. While Ross’ illustration skills haven’t dimmed – he still brings the best mix of visual storytelling and painting skills to the table of anyone – his authorial projects have been considerably less interesting.

So seeing Busiek bring us a sequel to Marvels is cause for celebration. Apparently his first proposal for a sequel was eventually turned into the current Astro City: The Dark Age maxi-series, but after much research we now have Eye of the Camera, which opens with the protagonist of the first series – freelance photographer Phil Sheldon – recapping the dawn of the Marvel Age in the 1960s, and then moving into the 1970s where the remainder of the series will take place. As before, Phil both stands in awe and wonder of the heroes, but has a strong melancholy streak, as if ordinary folks like him don’t – can’t – measure up. And this issue ends on a note guaranteed to bring even more melancholy into his life. While mostly rehashing the themes of the first series, this first issue does so quite well and promises new and different material going forward. Busiek has always been keenly aware of the ‘feel’ of comics from different eras, and I have no doubt that he’ll put a spin on 1970s Marvel comics which distinguishes them from the 1960s era.

Ross doesn’t come along for the ride; instead a newcomer (well, new to me anyway), Jay Anacleto, illustrates the book. It has the look of being drawn and shaded, with nuanced color laid over it; not quite painted like Ross, but still more intricate than typical line drawings, even with modern computer coloring. He has Ross’ flair for layouts and playing with color palettes – for example the scenes in Sheldon’s developing studio – but not quite his skills at body or facial expressions. Still, he’s pretty good, and gives the book a distinctive look.

If not quite the revelation that Marvels or Astro City were from their very first issues, Eye of the Camera still has a lot of promise, and perhaps its biggest flaw is that it is, well, a sequel, but one which has to explain its premise for new readers who haven’t read its predecessor. Nonetheless, I have high hopes that the whole package will be a lot of fun.