‘The Avengers’ Was Well Worth The Wait

The Avengers movie poster

So now we finally have “The Avengers,” a movie which has been hinted at over the past few years in “Iron Man,” “Iron Man 2,” “The Incredible Hulk,” “Thor” and “Captain America: The First Avenger.” Director of S.H.I.E.L.D. Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) has made cameo appearances here and there to remind these superheroes there is this way they can all come and work together, and for a bit it seemed too good to be true. But low and behold, Joss Whedon has given us a summer blockbuster which was worth the wait and focuses on character as much as it does on spectacle.

“The Avengers” starts off with S.H.I.E.L.D. experimenting on a powerful energy source known as the Tesseract when Loki (Tom Hiddleston), Thor’s brother and nemesis, appears out of nowhere and steals it. His plan is to use it to subjugate Earth and its inhabitants because he feels they wanted to be lorded over more than they realize. From there it’s up to these various superheroes to join forces and defeat Loki and his army before it’s too late.

This movie does take its sweet time getting started, and it almost seems unnecessary considering how well acquainted we have become with all these superheroes through their individual movies. Still, meeting up with them again feels good as we are curious to see what they have been up to since their last set of adventures. Captain America/Steve Rogers is still trying to acclimate to present day life after being frozen for decades, Dr. Bruce Banner/The Hulk spends his time in a foreign country helping its people while trying to control his anger, and Tony Stark/Iron Man is busy completing a new skyscraper along with the love of his life, Pepper Potts. Others make their entrance at unexpected times and play more of a role here than they did in previous movies.

What makes “The Avengers” work so well is that Whedon never lets the iconography of these characters speak for them more than the actors do. While these few have amazing superpowers we all dream of having, they are seen as freaks who are not part of society as a whole. Being so alienated from the common man and woman, their relationship with themselves and those around them is dysfunctional to say the least.

Seeing these characters interact with one another gives this film its best moments. While they may have a lot in common, their ideas of protecting humanity differ quite significantly. Captain America is as old fashioned as they come, and his methods and beliefs have the more cynical people snickering behind his back. As for Thor, he’s from another planet which has all those around him wondering what the hell he’s talking about.

And then Tony Stark comes into this ruckus like John Bender in “The Breakfast Club,” gleefully and playfully chiding all those around him (he calls Thor “Point Break”). Robert Downey Jr. inhabits this character like few others could, and he makes Stark a likable character even while he’s being an arrogant bastard much of the time. In many ways, Downey is the most prominent presence among these Avengers even while others in the team are nowhere as selfish as Stark.

The actors in “The Avengers” confirm what we already knew in the past, that they were exceptionally well cast. Each one brings a depth of humanity to their characters in a way that keeps them from becoming mere caricatures of what we grew up reading about. Special kudos goes out to Chris Evans and Chris Hemsworth who make their roles as Captain America and Thor count for all they are worth. What could have been made inadvertently laughable has been rendered largely charismatic by these two thespians, and we cheer them on as they fight the good fight against Loki and his army.

It’s also nice to see Scarlett Johansson and Jeremy Renner get more screen time here as Black Widow and Hawkeye than they did in previous films. Renner had one of those blink and you missed it cameos in “Thor” while Johansson’s role in “Iron Man 2” was in a movie which had more characters than it had any right to deal with. In “The Avengers,” the two of them are given more room to grow, and each invests their character with real emotions which makes us root for them throughout.

But the one actor who stands out above everyone else in “The Avengers” (literally and figuratively speaking) is Mark Ruffalo who is the latest actor to portray Dr. Bruce Banner, better known by his alter ego of the Hulk. Marvel has had the hardest time translating this particular comic book character to the big screen despite memorable performances from Eric Bana and Edward Norton. But like those two actors, Ruffalo finds his own interpretation of this famous character, and he succeeds in making this role his own. Unlike the moody Bruce Banners of the past, Ruffalo gives us one who yearns to fit in with everyone else regardless of the angry state he gets in from time to time. In the process, Ruffalo gives us a Hulk worth cheering for as he dominates each action scene he’s in thanks in part to vocal help from the original Hulk, Lou Ferrigno. As a result, I see a future for the actor as this character in a way I couldn’t before. Seeing him slam Loki all over the place as if he were a wet rag had the audience clapping loudly.

Are there plot holes and inconsistencies to be found in “The Avengers?” Probably, but with a movie like this you don’t really find yourself thinking too much about that. What sucks for Thor is he never gets to meet up with his earthbound love Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) who is sent off to some remote place where she’ll be safe. When “Thor” ended, the portal between his world and Earth was forever destroyed it seem. It’s never made clear how it somehow got fixed to where Thor could travel back, but anyway. You’d figure he would at least spend some time with Dr. Foster, but some superheroes can only be so lucky I guess. At least you can give Thor some credit for looking her up. Dr. Banner never looks up his old girlfriend who was been played in past movies by Jennifer Connelly and Liv Tyler. What gives Hulk? You smash things but did you also smash what’s left of your emotional connections? Oh well…

The big problem with big budget blockbusters like “The Avengers” is they can easily get overwhelmed by the special effects to where the human element is completely lost. But none of this is ever lost on Whedon who has given us such great entertainment over the years with “Buffy The Vampire Slayer,” “Firefly” and “Cabin in The Woods” which he co-wrote. Here he gives a satisfying blockbuster which works on us emotionally as much as it thrills us. This could have easily been a major disappointment, and the fact it is not makes the film a huge success.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written in 2012 not long after “The Avengers” was released.

Tom Hiddleston Discusses ‘I Saw The Light’ and Singing Like Hank Williams

I Saw the Light movie poster

We all know him as the villainous Loki from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but now British actor Tom Hiddleston takes on his most challenging role yet as iconic country singer Hank Williams in “I Saw the Light.” Written and directed by Marc Abraham, the movie starts with Hank getting married to the lovely and business savvy Audrey Williams (Elizabeth Olsen), and it follows him from there as he works his way from singing on the radio to becoming a big time star at the Grand Ole Opry. The movie also shows the pain, challenges and addictions he suffered through which led to him creating some of the most memorable country music and his premature death at age 29.

In preparing to play Hank Williams, Hiddleston had to learn his songs and sing them himself. Working extensively with musical coach and veteran country singer and songwriter Rodney Crowell, Hiddleston immersed himself in Hank’s music and worked tirelessly to match his vocals to Hank’s as much as he could. There’s no doubt it was a difficult process for the actor, but watching him in “I Saw the Light” makes you see the tremendous effort he put into his performance.

I attended the movie’s press conference at the London Hotel in West Hollywood, California where Hiddleston was joined by Abraham and Olsen. I was very interested in how Hiddleston managed to get past all the technical aspects of the singing to where he could put all the rehearsal behind him and just sing his heart out. Izumi Hasegawa, a reporter for What’s Up Hollywood and Hollywood News Wire asked him which of Hank’s songs was the hardest to sing, and this would later lead in to my question for him.

Tom Hiddleston: The most challenging song was probably “Lovesick Blues.” “Lovesick Blues” is, I think, of all the songs Hank sang, the hardest, and he probably sang that the most. It was a huge hit for him. He once went up on stage somewhere, it’s on an album called “The Lost Concerts,” and he’s about to introduce it. He says, “I’m going to play a little song for you. I sang this 13,000,001 and a half times and it’s earned us quite a few beans and biscuits.” It was obviously this real hit maker for him and he sang with such control and such authority that he must have done it in his sleep, and I had to accelerate that process because it’s a very technically difficult song. You are yodeling and you are jumping octaves, and so to be on pitch in every note of that song was really challenging. I had days where I felt like I was bashing my head against a brick wall because Rodney Crowell and I would do take after take after take because if I was rhythmically precise the pitch was off, but if the pitch and the rhythm were right Rodney would say, “Well, you weren’t really feeling it. I kind of lost your sincerity, I lost the twinkle, so could you put that back?” And then I’d have the twinkle and I’d go off rhythm again. So yeah, that was probably the most challenging.

Ben Kenber: Clearly you did a lot of vocal work in preparing to sing like Hank Williams. When do you think you got to the point where you stopped worrying about the singing technicality and started to feel the songs instinctually?

TH: It goes back to what I was saying about “Lovesick Blues.” We had to pre-record certain tracks because of the way we were going to shoot them. If Marc was covering a concert performance, it meant he was going to be cutting from wide shots to close-ups to handheld which meant that we had to be very technically precise about the musical track and therefore couldn’t play it live in order for it to cut in. So we had to pre-record the tracks which I would then play and sing along to myself. They each had to have different atmosphere because some of them are radio station tracks, some of them are studio tracks, some of them are live concert performances, and there were some that came very quickly and very easily to me and some that didn’t. I had recorded “Why Don’t You Love Me” in about an hour. It took me about 10 days to record “Lovesick Blues” and I can’t explain why (laughs). Rodney and I used to say that it was like swimming through the ocean, and that I would have to swim for miles and miles through seaweed in order to get to clear water. And that’s how it felt vocally; there would be cracks and strains in my voice. Singing is a physical thing, and once your body and your resonance and your lungs are sufficiently warm, you can actually get to a place where it feels like you’re up at altitude where you are finally in control of the airplane if that makes sense. It’s a fascinating experience for me because I still believe singing is the most naked form of emotional expression. Actors can hide behind characters, writers can hide behind their writing, painters can hide behind paintings, but singers are purely open. The reason we revere the greatest singers is because we feel a raw power to the transmission of their emotions whether it’s Johnny Cash or Amy Winehouse or Nina Simone or Hank Williams or whoever it may be for you. That was challenging because even though there was a technical discipline to it in manipulating my baritone voice to sound like Hank’s tenor, there was still a commitment to emotional sincerity which was really new for me.

Following Hiddleston’s response, Abraham spoke up about what he specifically wanted for this movie.

Marc Abraham: I just want to add something to that because it was a big deal when we decided how we were going to do the music. From the very moment I wrote the script and decided to make the movie, I was intent that we would not have any lip-synching and that whoever played the part was going to have to sing it. I didn’t know they would be able to do it as well as Tom did. I was hoping that would happen, but what’s important to understand and that Tom understood and Elizabeth to some extent when she was even pretending to sing badly even though she gets mad at me for saying she can sing well (she can). Tom and I both knew from the very beginning that he would never sound exactly like Hank Williams. I know Hank Williams like my mother knows her kitchen. There are people who can imitate Hank Williams better than Tom Hiddleston can imitate Hank Williams because he is a natural baritone and Hank’s a tenor, and that’s just reality. What Tom was able to do was to create the feeling not just in his voice and replicate the sounds and the modulations and to get close enough for us, but to inhabit the character. So in the end it didn’t matter that he didn’t sound exactly like Hank Williams. What we wanted was for you to feel that he was Hank Williams, and that was magic. The magic was that he got so close to the music and put so much energy and time and devoted himself so deeply to becoming that character and bring his vocal representation that close, knowing from the very beginning he couldn’t be exactly like Hank. It’s not possible. That was what was really important, and that’s why we didn’t lip-synch it because then you are watching it and you may think you know what it sounds like, but in the end you feel it and you see that character at play and you see Hank singing “Your Cheating Heart” which is done live. That’s Hank Williams.

I want to thank Tom Hiddleston and Marc Abrahams for sharing their thoughts on the making of “I Saw the Light.” The movie is now available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray, and Digital.

Copyright Ben Kenber 2016.