Never mind Facebook or Microsoft. The ultimate proof that geeks have conquered the world will take place this weekend, when The Avengers takes the U.S. box office by storm. This former comic book collector couldn’t be more pleased, particularly because this jam-packed Marvel superhero mashup’s a whole lot of fun. Even better, it’s character-driven fun.
If the movie, one of two new releases I’m reviewing this week, often feels like an entire season of a TV show has been crammed into just under two and a half hours of summer-tentpole screen time, credit (or blame) the nerd in charge: Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly creator Joss Whedon. You can tell the filmmaker, who also co-wrote and produced the current horror-movie satire/deconstruction The Cabin in the Woods, devoted more time and energy into getting into his costumed do-gooders’ heads than in devising a compelling plot. Whedon is juggling at least six character arcs, an admirable balancing act that doesn’t leave much room for a streamlined narrative.
The Avengers opens with an act of war. Loki (the estimable Tom Hiddleston), Thor’s treacherous deity from outer space, strolls into the top-secret headquarters of the Strategic Homeland Intervention Enforcement and Logistics Division (S.H.I.E.L.D.). His goal: to get his hands on the gleaming cube that caused all that World War II ruckus in Captain America. When expert archer Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) stands in his path, Loki assimilates him Borg-style to join his minions. He also blasts the premises sky-high almost as an afterthought. “We need a response team,” bellows S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury (an eye-patched Samuel L. Jackson) to his international colleagues via video conference. Fury, not one to follow protocol, doesn’t wait for a go-ahead to assemble his all-American motley crew.
Whedon has a blast exploring the conflict zones that could potentially spell disaster for this mismatched crew. Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) can’t stand the rah-rah patriotism that drives Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans), but he’s transfixed by gamma-ray casualty Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo, taking over from Edward Norton…and Eric Bana before him). The Avengers takes its sweet old time getting these super-powered strangers to interact with each other, which yields a few too many superfluous rumbles. (“Boys, boys, enough roughhousing,” kept going in my head like a broken record.) The film kicks into high gear when Dr. Banner, who still struggles to control his own Mr. Hyde, finally turns into the Hulk, Marvel Comics’ Chia Pet with muscles. Iron Man may get all the best one-liners, but the big green monster seizes the lion’s share of Whedon’s spectacular payoffs. (Quick note to Whedon: Can we have a moratorium on deaths by sharp object? It happens in all your movies.)
Try as it might to achieve storytelling parity, The Avengers can’t quite shake off an episodic feel. The film’s fragmented structure also underuses Thor (Chris Hemsworth), who should have been a more vital player because of his family ties with the movie’s villain. Whedon reiterates that Loki’s on an ego trip, but that doesn’t necessarily make Hiddleston’s baddie an antagonist worthy of this everything-but-the-kitchen-sink behemoth. The English actor, who is having a ball playing evil, does have one potent scene in which his character, who forces a Berlin crowd to kneel before him, is defied by an older gentleman who has obviously witnessed another megalomaniac make the same demands. This, The Avengers proclaims, is what true heroism is all about. It may not be a flawless spectacle, but Whedon has restored this geek’s faith in the caped-crusader genre by refusing to sacrifice character depth for loud thrills. It’s exhilarating and smart.
The same, unfortunately, cannot be said about Darling Companion, the first film in nine years from Miami native Lawrence Kasdan (The Big Chill, Body Heat). The light-hearted domestic dramedy should have stuck more with its title character, a stray dog rescued off a freeway by Beth Winter (Diane Keaton), a well-to-do homemaker, and her daughter Grace (Mad Men’s Elisabeth Moss). They decide to name the dog – wait for it – Freeway! They also decide to keep him over the objections of Beth’s workaholic husband Joseph (Kasdan regular Kevin Kline), a successful spine surgeon.
Fast forward several months to the Winters’ picturesque lodge up in the Utah mountains, where Grace is marrying Freeway’s vet Sam (Jay Ali). It’s clear from the authentic banter in the wedding reception that Kasdan knows this milieu, and he captures the intimate familial bond with effortless charm. Darling Companion stumbles, however, when Kasdan, who collaborated on the screenplay with his wife Meg, deals with Beth and Joseph’s toothless marital discord. The film spells out issues which the Kasdans should have conveyed more subtly. Out walking Freeway, Joseph is too busy talking on his cell phone to prevent the dog from running off into the woods. Cue the incessant bitching between the couple, which takes up most of the film’s running time.
With Grace and Sam off to Hawaii for their honeymoon, it’s up to Joseph’s sister Penny (Dianne Wiest, who deserved better), her new beau Russell (Richard Jenkins, ditto), and Joseph’s work colleague Bryan (mumblecore auteur Mark Duplass) to help the bickering duo find the missing pooch. The ace up their sleeve comes in the voluptuous form of Carmen (Munich’s Ayelet Zurer), the sultry and mysterious woman who takes care of the Winters’ rustic abode. There’s gypsy blood in her, you see, and yes, she can see Freeway…in her mind’s eye. As he showed in Grand Canyon, Kasdan likes to incorporate metaphysical elements, but here it amounts to an iffy storytelling device that sends the characters off on a wild goose chase. An overload of whimsy, plenty of eye-rolling dialogue, and a kidney stone-afflicted Sam Shepard ensue.
Cider House Rules director Lasse Hallström handled the therapeutic effect a dog has on its owners far more effectively in the straight-to-DVD Hachi: A Dog’s Tale. He knew better than to prevent his canine protagonist from being overshadowed by his human costars. Darling Companion throws Freeway to the wayside and leaves us stranded with rich white people problems. They don’t amount to a hill of beans in this privileged world.
Darling Companion (sonyclassics.com/darlingcompanion) plays dead starting Friday at AMC Aventura and Sunset Place. That same day, Joss Whedon’s demolition derby (marvel.com/Avengers) crashes down in North American theaters. Nicely done, Mr. Buffy. Now, about those one-dimensional pieces of cardboard you call characters in The Cabin in the Woods…