BitDepth#834 - May 15

The Avengers is a bit hit in cinemas, but it began in a scruffy little art room on sheets of blue-lined paper, imagined by the pencils of the King of comics, Jack Kirby.
Some assembly required
Instead of a sleek photo of posed Hollywood stars, consider this image, the true origin of the Avengers, the ink stained desk of Jack Kirby at his Thousand Oaks, California home. Photo by David Folkman from Mark Evanier’s book Kirby: King of Comics (via Genesis Comics.)

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 skilfully 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.
Johansen’s Black Widow gets Whedon’s touch here, emerging from the eye-candy wrapper of Iron Man 2 to become the most formidable unpowered human in the film.

Some of it focuses in on the almost magical transformation that the director managed with Mark Ruffalo, turning around the expectations of those of us jaded by the cinematic fortunes of Marvel’s otherwise successful green machine to deliver not just the first big screen Hulk worth watching but a scene stealing, almost existential, I am furious, emerald.

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. Whether or not you believe that a modern day technological knight and a god-like being with a magic hammer could have a believable fight scene is up to you.

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 jetskis 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.

Note: The caption here corrects an error of geography in the original print publication.
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