The Avengers

The Avengers (2012) is an epic superhero film written and directed by Joss Whedon. It is an origins story, following the events of S.H.I.E.L.D to develop The Avengers Initiative, which leads to the coming together of The Avengers. The film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects and is the third-highest-grossing film, over $1 billion.

The expectations for the film were nothing shy of brilliant once Joss Whedon was announced as director for The Avengers. An avid comic book fan and an amazing writer, the coming together of multiple superheroes into one film was in very good hands. Whedon has commented on The Avengers as a group, saying: “These people shouldn’t be in the same room let alone on the same team—and that is the definition of family.” He delves deeply into that sentiment in the film, exploring the conflicts between strong personalities and haughty egos. Whedon is well-known for fleshing out characters, and that’s the most interesting part of this film. He makes the joining forces of these various superheroes feel real and believable. Most of the film is set up as scenes with pairs of characters, which gives the actors a chance to perform with different personalities as well as the audience the chance to see the characters interact with everyone. Examples of this include: 1) when Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) meeting with Bruce Banner/The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) in India to convince him to answer S.H.I.E.L.D’s call for help or 2) when Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) and Thor (Chris Hemsworth) fight each other to (try to) show their dominance over the other. These scenes are incredible because they show a side to the characters that aren’t seen very often in these characters’ solo films. Tony Stark is always in charge in his films, but now he has to work together with others. Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) is the ultimate soldier but has to come to terms with the fact that everybody he’s ever known or cared for is dead and learn to interact with people “of the future”. The way Whedon creates these scenes is insightful, as it deconstructs the illusion that groups of superheroes, like The Avengers or the Justice League, would automatically come together in selflessness for the greater good. Egos must be thrown aside (in Stark’s case) and personal conflicts must be embraced (in Banner’s case) in order to work together. The basic goal for these scenes is for Whedon to show the journey for the characters to build trust, for trust will be the most important force linking their chain together.

Another classic Whedonism found in The Avengers is the witty banter and clever writing. The film’s popularity and high praise has a lot to do with the writing, elevating the “superhero genre” up to match various other genres in terms of quality and artistry.
On the topic of classic Whedonisms, Black Widow’s character must be discussed. Whedon has created a myriad of strong female characters, including Buffy Summers in Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Sarah Michelle Gellar), Echo in Dollhouse (Eliza Dushku), and Zoe Washburn from Firefly (Gina Torres). He promotes and advocates for strong women in media, and he delivers yet again with Black Widow. Her introduction scene has her tied to a chair, being interrogated by Russian criminals. She appears to be in a weak and helpless position, as if she were captured and at their mercy. Agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) calls the Russian criminals and asks to speak to Romanoff. She talks to him like he’s interrupting her interrogation, not that she’s helpless and in need of saving. He urges her to come in, saying it’s urgent, and she consents. Then, she shows the audience that she was always in control of the situation. She begins a fight, disables the Russian criminals, and walks out calmly, after picking up her heels. This is classic Joss Whedon, who sets up scenes with a particular female stereotype and destroys it right then and there. A classic example is the pilot episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. A high school boy is taking what appears to be a timid high school girl somewhere private after school hours. She’s hesitant and timid. Whedon sets up that scene as the high school blonde girl who gets herself in a powerless situation, but the high school girl turns out to be Darla (Julie Benz), a vampire who was in fact seducing the high school boy. Black Widow and Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) are incredibly strong women who are perfectly capable and in control of their situations. Hill does follow orders from Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), but she basically runs the organization and makes things happen. Romanoff, like Darla in Buffy, plays around with female stereotypes in an incredible scene with Loki (Tom Hiddleston), the film’s big bad and adopted brother to Thor. She’s speaking with Loki, and he begins to simmer in his masculine intimidation, picking apart her intentions as she buckles under the harshness of his words. In his hubris, he lets slip his next move. Immediately, Romanoff resumes her strong posture and stoic face and we realize that she was playing him the entire time. Whedon keeps destroying female stereotypes. With so many modern reboots in popular franchises, there are attempts to modernize female characters who were previously stuck in antiquated female stereotypes, like Uhura in Star Trek. In J.J. Abrams reboot in 2009, the entire cast got a jumpstart, including Lieutenant Uhura (Zoe Saldana), who at times was the catalyst for the plot continuing forward. Unfortunately, half way through the film, Uhura was tossed aside as merely a romantic interest for Spock (Zachary Quinto). While there are teases and hints at something between Romanoff and Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) in The Avengers, Romanoff’s character place in the group is never diminished or looked down upon. As Johansson has said about her role in The Avengers, she always felt like one of the guys, not the only woman in a group of guys.
Whedon’s vision for The Avengers is a masterful balance of character development and excitement. He blends together a modern realization of his characters with clever writing and a smooth and realistic filming style. He succeeded in bringing together a group of ultra-strong personalities, both in character and in person, while also elevating the “superhero genre” up to challenge other “respected” genres. The sequel, which is will be released in 2015, will no doubt be just as exciting and successful.

American Hustle

Quote of the film: “You’re nothing to me until you’re everything.” — Sydney

American Hustle (2013) is an American character film loosely based on the ABSCAM operation of the 70s and 80s. Directed by David O. Russell (The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook), the film focuses more on character relationships between an all-star cast.

Christian Bale plays Irving Rosenfeld, a businessman and conman, who makes money by feeding off desperate lowlives who need loans and by selling stolen and forged art. He is quick-witted, charismatic, and quick-tempered. He’s an aggressive businessman, loving father, indifferent husband, and tender lover — and Bale shifts between each side of Rosenfeld with ease. Bale even gained 40 pounds for this role, literally embodying his character.

Amy Adams plays Sydney Prosser, lover and business partner to Irving. She’s a seductive and alluring woman, struggling to turn her life around — managing to turn from stripper to con-woman. Her con is as Lady Edith Greensley, an English woman with bank connections in London. She’s a sharp and intuitive woman, who puts up a strong exterior to hide her desire to be loved. Adams, who tends to play a wholesome character, knocks it out of the park with this sexy role. She’s uninhibited, showing off her body in slinky dresses, and owning every space she enters.

Bradley Cooper plays FBI agent Richie DiMaso. He’s innately a good man, truly wanting to do a good job for the FBI and bring justice to “corrupt” politicians, but his good nature is carried out through a hot head, aggression, and impulse. Cooper does a great job mixing innocence and naivety with instability and drive.

Jennifer Lawrence dazzles as Irving’s wife, Rosalyn. Written specifically for Lawrence, this role is parody of the typical misinformed and mistreated housewife. She is accident-proned, fearless, and unintentionally hilarious. She’s selfish, more concerned about her needs than those of her husband or son, looking to fall in love. Lawrence nails a Jersey accent, and she portrays an unstable housewife with finesse. And, as always, every time Lawrence cries on screen, hearts break.

Jeremy Renner plays Carmine Polito, mayor of Camden, New Jersey. Polito is an honest-to-goodness politician. He works earnestly for the people in his city, doing his best to restore Atlantic City and create jobs for his citizens. Targeted by DiMaso, he’s brought down in the end by the FBI for bribery and corruption, with the utmost honest intentions at heart. Renner plays an incredibly charismatic and compassionate family man and the most respectful politician. The incredible switch that Renner delivers from optimistic hero to devastated and betrayed friend is powerful.

As David O. Russell has said: “I hate plots. I am all about characters, that’s it.” This film truly embodies that sentiment. The plot is engaging and interesting, but it’s nothing to the play between the characters. At almost 2.5 hours, the film feels a touch slow towards the end, but it’s worth the character dynamics that Russell takes the time to develop. The acting between this all-star cast is incredible. The most striking moments are scenes with pairs of actors: Irving and Sydney, Rosalyn and Irving, Sydney and Richie, Carmine and Irving. These moments delve into the cores of the characters, perpetuating the emotional gravitas of the plot. The way Irving is touched by Carmine’s friendship leads to heartbreaking shots of guilt on Irving’s face. The way Rosalyn is disgusted by Irving’s “whore” leads to a shocking kiss and maniacal laughter. These moments are the meat of the film, what make it worth the watch.

The film starts with a bang as the words “Some of this actually happened” display on the screen. Loosely based on actual events, Russell is able to play around with his extraordinary characters and incredible actors. The film is suspenseful, engaging, and funny all in one. The masterful acting in this film is inspiring and powerful, sure to be acknowledged and rewarded this award season.