Summer blockbuster season is officially here. Realistically, there’s only need to discuss one new release this week. The Avengers combines a whole pack of superheroes and is guaranteed to set the bar high for box office totals in the 2012 summer movie season. It’s also a pretty fantastic film for what it’s worth.
Outside of the teen-pleasing superheroes shenanigans, there’s also a movie about old British people retiring in India (The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) and a blood-soaked Danish thriller (Headhunters). Yeah somehow I think The Avengers is going to beat the competition this week, how about you folks?
The Good: The Avengers
So this is it. The result of Marvel Studio’s four-year master plan of introducing their remaining superhero superstars to the world in movies with the plan of bringing them all together as The Avengers. It was a risky move and I’m thrilled to announce that it paid off in a big, bad way. This all-star comic book mash-up doesn’t just work, it’s possibly the most purely entertaining project that Marvel has cranked out thus far. Sure, there’s not much going on in the movie beyond a sugar rush of giddy entertainment, but in the world of comic book adaptations, isn’t that the goal?
After slipping setup for this epic into Iron Man 2, Thor, and Captain America, the movie hits the ground running. Thor’s jerky brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) arrives on earth via the mysterious powerful cube from Captain America with plans of importing an alien army from another dimension to take over the world. Unfortunately, he forgot about something.
Perpetual movie badass Samuel L. Jackson (wearing an eye patch and thus increasing his badassness tenfold) plays earth’s super-secret special agent who has built up a Rolodex of super-powered friends to call for help. So he brings together special agents Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson showing the kung fu skills we never knew she had) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner with ‘tude to spare), frozen popsicle WW2 hero Captain America (square jawed all-American Chris Evans), billionaire playboy/mechanical suit hero Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr. in full-on wisecracking mode), Loki’s god of a brother Thor (Chrs Hemsworth, also a god to the ladies), and a certain scientist named Bruce Banner with the gamma-ray knowledge the group needs and a certain internal green monster that they could use (Mark Ruffalo, joking and emoting his way into finally giving us a definitive big screen version of The Hulk). The team assembles, they bicker and fight, and then come together to save the world in a New City smackdown that every subsequent blockbuster this summer will struggle to top.
That’s a heck of a lot of characters for one movie to juggle, but fortunately Marvel’s smartest decision was to hand that task over the writer/director Joss Whedon (Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Firefly). With his TV background, Whedon knows how to juggle multiple characters and narrative threads, masterfully pulling this team together. His geek credentials ensure he loves all the characters equally and gives them all a chance to shine (particularly Ruffalo’s movie-stealing Hulk and Scar-Jo’s Black Widow, now the latest in a long line of Whedon’s tough-as-nails girl heroes). His sense of humor also infuses the blockbuster, turning The Avengers into a dysfunctional family with more laughs than most comedies.
Downey and company provide clever characterization and smackdowns in equal measure and even though the movie weighs in at a hefty 140 minutes, so much wonderful writing, acting, and action fills that time that you’ll never feel it (your bladder might, but you’ll just have to learn self-control, won’t you?). We really couldn’t expect a better Avengers movie than this. Marvel’s big gamble paid off and now they face the even more difficult task of trying to top this movie with sequels.
The Avengers instantly qualifies as one of the finest superhero romps ever made and probably one of the greatest summer blockbusters around, for that matter. If you feel like popcorn entertainment this weekend, buckle up and enjoy the ride. We’ll be lucky if even one other blockbuster this summer is as good.
The Bad: The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
Opening the same week as The Avengers is another epic team-up of sorts. This one will play for a slightly different crowd though. No tights or spandex here — it’s a coalition of British thespian types like Judi Dench, Tom Wilkinson, Bill Nighy, Penelope Wilton, and Maggie Smith. Director John Madden’s (no relation) mash-up is about a group of disparate British retirees who decide to movie to India for their autumn years due to a lack of funds.
They all have their own reasons, like surgery (Smith), dot com investment disasters (Nighy/Wilton), discovering a past secret (Wilkinson), or just good, old-fashioned poverty (Dench). Of course, they’re all vaguely disgusted by their new tea-and-biscuits-free environment but gradually learn to be seduced by India’s charms. Sounds like a lay-up gentle comedy that would be impossible to screw up, right? Well
There’s no doubt in my mind that the intentions behind The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel were pure. The problem is that the movie is dripping with a certain kind of distinctly British racism that’s impossible to ignore. It’s not hateful or spiteful racism like the kind we see in the good ol’ US of A from time to time. No, it’s more condescending, that British colonial view of other cultures as cute, but woefully misguided and in need of a little British order to run their country properly. Indian locals are presented as nice people burdened with every possible cultural stereotype from funny accents to deceitful behavior, overbearing mothers, and even call center jobs. It’s an embarrassingly outdated and naïve view of the country that’s undeniably offensive, even if it’s doled out in a gentle side-door manner that many audience members won’t notice.
Now, with a cast that good the movie obviously isn’t without its moments. Madden is able to tease plenty of enjoyable banter out of his actors, shoot some postcard footage of India, and wrap things up in a heartwarming manner. The problem is that he and everyone else are clearly going through the motions. I can’t imagine anyone was under the delusion they were making something special and clearly signed up for a paycheck and a free trip to India. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel isn’t the worst movie ever made, but it is racist twaddle made by elitists who should know better. A good movie to take an elderly relative to if you run out of conversation over the weekend, but even then you might want to sneak into The Avengers while they are placated by the grey-haired escapism.
The Norwegian: Headhunters
Finally if The Avengers gets you so riled up that you feel like another slice of big screen thrills 'n' escapism this week, then you’ll want to check out Headhunters. Admittedly, Norway isn’t exactly a country known for its action/thrillers, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t filmmakers out there who can shift plenty of popcorn when given the chance. Adapted from a best selling novel by Jo Nesbø, Headhunters is an expertly plotted and darkly comedic thriller in the vein of an early Coen brothers effort. It works so well that an American remake is already underway even though it’s hard to imagine Hollywood possibly topping this version.
The film stars Aksel Hennie as Roger Brown, a corporate recruiter (or headhunter) who moonlights as an art thief/forger by stealing his clients' collections to maintain his ludicrously successful lifestyle and please his trophy wife. Unfortunately, he bites off a little more than he can chew when targeting Game Of Thrones’ Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, a ex-military hit man and surveillance expert (or headhunter—see what they did with the title?). Things very quickly spiral out of control for Brown when he inadvertently enters a game of cat and mouse with a master and has to swim through literal rivers of sh*t to find salvation.
Commercial director Morten Tyldum clearly loves this sort of material and has a ball misdirecting the audience with his twisting tale. Tyldum switches genres and tones at will, starting with a slick heist movie before turning it into a gritty revenge movie. All the while, he constantly winks at the audience with a sick streak of humor while torturing the fantastic actor Hennie. Filled with nudity, violence, and excrement, this is not a movie for the squeamish and is definitely geared to an adult audience.
Thankfully, it’s also geared to the intellect of an adult audience as well, offering plenty of movie thrills in a handsome package that actually requires some intellectual engagement amidst the entertainment. This is one hell of a ride that should bring plenty of the cast and crew over to Hollywood. Don’t be scared off by the subtitles. Headhunters might not be able to match the scale of a summer blockbuster, but it can definitely match the escapist entertainment value. Don’t miss out, this thing won’t be in theaters for long.