New Releases: The Heir of Night by Helen Lowe
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What we talk about when we talk about The Avengers.

The AvengersThe thing is, "we" in this case is you, devoted Pornokitsch readers, and me. Not Jared and me, because Jared hasn't seen it yet. So I'll pop all the spoilers under the jump, and Jared will have to sit on his hands and wonder. 

Okay, you guys. Avengers Assemble (is a stupid title and I'm just going to call the film The Avengers from now on) is really pretty good. It is not perfect, but it's excellent, and that's a very good start. It's also better than several of the more recent Marvel titles - particularly the paint-by-numbers Captain America, but also Wolverine (I'm still upset about what a waste Taylor Kitsch as Gambit was), and X-Men 3, and Spider-Man 3, and the Fantastic Four films... essentially, Avengers was right up there with the best of the recent run of comic book adaptations, and definitely one of the best of the Marvel canon.

And, come on. We all had a bit of a fanplotz when we learned that The Joss would be directing the film. Whedon is at his best when he's running a tightly controlled show about a group of smart, powerful people, and there was every possibility that he'd bring his A game to this, his first really mainstream feature. 

And he did. Did he make some missteps? Yes, yes he did. I haven't read any interviews with or articles about him in years, so I don't know if he wanged on about his feminism with regard to this film the way he has about everything else he's ever created. Hopefully he didn't, because his portrayal of women was here, as everywhere else, flawed.

That's what we'll talk about first - and then we'll get to the good stuff. 

[Spoilers from here. Take that, Jared.]

You guys. The Black Widow. Okay, on the positive side of things, Whedon got a good performance out of a mediocre actress, and that's worth quite a lot. That does not, however, mitigate the fact that Johansson was wearing a costume so tight she had trouble walking. Much less running. Which she was doing in heels

I know. I know that I'm fighting an uphill battle with my grievances about the way women are portrayed in comic books - the things themselves, and their movie adaptations. But for heaven's sake. Even Jon Favreau put the Black Widow in flat boots in Iron Man 2 (see below) - Jon Favreau, the same director who had Gwyneth Paltrow's Pepper Potts run away from a giant robot in stiletto heels in the first Iron Man. Have you ever run in stilettos? No! Because it's impossible.

Even the... other female character in The Avengers wore flat shoes. Why was the Black Widow in heels? Why? I know Johansson is short, but that's what apple boxes are for. For fuck's sake.

Black-WidowWhich brings me to the number of women in the film. Paltrow had, essentially, a cameo - where we were invited to stare at her butt. Aside from her and Johansson there was... one other female character (and a random waitress with a crush on Captain America). I walked out of The Avengers not even knowing that other female character's name. (Maria Hill, IMDB tells me. Her role was... to doubt Nick Fury, and then later believe in him. Yay.) Come on, Marvel, Hollywood, and Joss Whedon. Is that really the best you can do?

My last gripe will actually segue into what I really liked about the film, I promise. After quite a lot of lead-time, we finally get Bruce Banner turning into the Hulk. Banner and the Black Widow crash through a floor and wind up trapped together. Bruce tries to control his transformation while the Black Widow, who's pinned to the floor, attempts to talk him down. It doesn't work. (Which is something I really appreciated; that would have been the easy, lazy route to take with his character.) So Hulk hulks up, and then... chases the Black Widow around, apparently trying to kill her. Why? We've been told it's because he's totally uncontrolled and uncontrollable as the Hulk, and whoever gets in his way winds up, erm, smashed. Whedon shoots the scene like a horror movie, with the imperiled woman running from the terrifying male libido monster, and the scene concludes with her cringing in a corner, shaking with fear. Yes, the Hulk is terrifying, and yes, I'd have crouched in a corner wetting myself too. But would Whedon have shot the scene the same way if the Hulk had been chasing a male character? Would he have shown Captain America squeezed into a dark corner, shaking with fear?

Somehow I doubt it.

So, yes. I hereby ding Joss Whedon several points for his portrayal of women. He made some good decisions with the Black Widow too, though, it must be said: for example, that her relationship with Hawkeye wasn't informed by romantic feelings for him (though they definitely had a lot of chemistry). A particularly nice, particularly Whedonesque touch was the way he had the Black Widow control situations by playing on various male villains' gender-informed expectations about her.

But let's get to the stuff Whedon got totally, 100% right, shall we?

AvengersOh my god, of course Tony Stark would take instantly to Bruce Banner. Of course. That was the perfect decision. They're always the smartest guys in the room, guys who are pretty much all superego and id, with nothing in-between. There's been a lot of buzz already about trying to give the Hulk his own movie (...again) because he was so very awesome in Avengers - but that new Hulk movie shouldn't be just a Hulk movie. It should be a Tony Stark/Bruce Banner buddy film. They can begin from the very end of Avengers, when the two drive off together. That's how all the best buddy films begin and end. Downey's nuclear charisma needs the controlled intensity of an actor like Mark Ruffalo, and vice versa; they bring out the best in each other. Honestly, though, I'd be happy if Ruffalo just walks away from Avengers with more good roles, even if not another Hulk film, because he's one of my favorite actors. 

Whedon writes intelligent characters, and I very, very much appreciated that; every one of the Avengers was written as having brains and initiative, instead of falling into predictable comic book roles (the smart one; the strong, dumb one; the hot one; the lose cannon one). The scenes which depended on the characters questioning each other felt earned, because Whedon had invested enough in developing the characters beforehand. I trusted that the characters were each smart enough to have thought through the issues they were arguing about. More importantly, those early character-developing scenes made it believable that the team would eventually fall into sync, and ultimately trust each other.

The AvengersAnd the acting! The acting was really strong across the board, which is not something that can be said for most comic book adaptations. (Overrated charisma-suck Natalie Portman didn't get so much as a cameo, thank heavens.) I'd completely forgotten that Chris Evans played Johnny Storm, aka the only good thing about the Fantastic Four films, because Captain America was so uninspired. But he was great in Avengers. So was everyone. And, to Whedon's eternal credit, he kept seven extremely charismatic actors balanced over the course of the film - everyone had his moment to shine, but no one absolutely walked away with the film. (It looked, for a time, like Downey might, but then the Hulk did that thing to Loki, and won the movie.) By having the characters pair off early in the film and beat the shit out of each other, Whedon reinforced the idea that they were all pretty evenly matched, physically. Their arguments, and the way they dealt with their mistrust of each other, reinforced that they were all intelligent and resourceful enough to try to figure things out for themselves, and that, in turn, allowed the audience to trust that they'd be a good team, when they finally did pull together.

Was the ending a little mawkish? Yes. But I'm inclined to forgive a smidge of sentimentality, after two-plus hours of shit blowing up. And the flying robot-bone whale monster things were awesome. And Loki's costume didn't even look that dumb, once he ditched his helmet.

Pornokitsch rating: Twelve kittens and a shot of bourbon.