Fantasia Film Festival 2021 Interview: Richard Bates Jr. Talks “King Knight”

Interview by Anna Harrison

Fantasia Film Festival 2021 

Director Richard Bates Jr., known for his horror-comedies such as Excision and Suburban Gothic, recently had his latest film, King Knight, premiere at the Fantasia Film Festival. He sat down to talk with Anna about all things witches and LSD trips.

King Knight is playing at Fantasia Film Festival 2021.

You can read Anna’s review of King Knight here, and you can follow more of Anna’s work on LetterboxdTwitterInstagram, and her website.

Tribeca 2021 Film Festival Review: Stockholm Syndrome

Written by Maria Manuella Pache de Athayde

60/100

Stockholm Syndrome directed by The Architects is a documentary that tells the story of multi-hyphenate artist A$AP Rocky from infancy to world wide superstardom to his arrest in Sweden. Described by his friends and family as unorthodox, visionary, and ahead of his time Rocky is an artist in full control of his craft.  As an artist Rocky is never content until he can execute his vision at the most extreme level.  This apparent quest for perfection never comes off as cocky and instead it is just part of who he is. 

Born and bred in Harlem, Rocky started rapping at 8 years old–at influence of his older brother. This story culminates in Rocky’s 2019 arrest in Stockholm where Rocky and two of his friends were arrested for an alleged assault. While in confinement Rocky was alone with his thoughts, it gave him a lot of time to reflect on his life, especially his relationship with his father and the sacrifices his dad made that shaped Rocky into the man he is today. 

When recalling his treatment in jail Rocky said he felt that Swedish authorities wanted to make an example out of him. The most fascinating aspect of this documentary was understanding the differences between the American and Swedish legal system which has no bail system.  As Rocky remained in jail and his trial approached his arrest could have caused an even bigger diplomatic incident, between the countries, when former President Trump became involved and vouched for Rocky’s release. This was met with considerable push back from the Swedish government and former Swedish prime ministers that praised the independence of the Swedish judicial system. 

Rocky’s plight was also met with some criticism in the US by activists that were upset about arguments he made about the Black Lives Matter movement and Ferguson, MI in the past. When questioned about this, for the documentary, Rocky mentioned he still had a lot of learning to do and that his time in the Swedish prison made him “confront” his own blackness. The main takeaway from this doc, however, is this examination of criminal justice systems outside of the United States. Just as important, it highlighted how broken criminal justice is everywhere in the world and how problematic this idea of “guilty until proven innocent” is. 

It is almost as if Rocky’s story was a vessel to bring attention into systems of incarceration and racism in the United States and Sweden. Rocky and his friends were released on a suspended sentence. While this documentary did start to feel a little bit long towards the latter half, the creativity the directors interwove, particularly in the animation segments, helped drive Rocky’s story home. I’d say this is a must watch for Rocky’s fans and I’d highly recommend this to anyone else that is interested in learning more about the intersection of race, politics, diplomacy, fame, and the law in the US and abroad. 

Stockholm Syndrome Clip

Stockholm Syndrome screened as part of the Tribeca 2021 Film Festival thru Tribeca at Home(available only in the USA). Further Distribution TBD.

You can follow Maria Manuella Pache de Athayde on LetterboxdTwitter, or Instagram and view more of what she’s up to here.

The Projectionist

Written by Patrick Hao

52/100

The Cinema Village is one of the last great independent movie theaters in New York. From its famous triangular marquee jutting out between gentrified buildings to its dated decor that has probably seen more horrors than anyone can imagine, Cinema Village represents a period of time in New York that feels lost. That is why it is great that its owner Nicolas Nicolau, and his career as a movie theater owner, is the subject of Abel Ferrara’s loving documentary The Projectionist

I recently attended a screening of The Projectionist at the Cinema Village with Abel Ferrara as special guest. This screening coincided with a special retrospective of Ferrara’s career and to commemorate the recent reopening of the theater, which had been closed during the COVID-19 pandemic. At this particular screening, Nicolau was there acting like a nervous host during an important dinner party. He walked up and down the aisle of the nearly sold out theater (tickets were free) asking if he could get anyone concessions. Before the movie started, he even began to hand out bags of free popcorn. 

Ferrara, the iconoclast independent New York filmmaker known for Bad Lieutenant and Ms. 45, was as rambunctious as his reputation suggests. As the trailer for his retrospective began playing, you could hear him in the hallways outside the theater screaming for the projectionist to increase the volume in colorful expletives. A real New York independent movie experience if there ever was one. 

The film itself was middling. Nicolau, an immigrant from Cyprus, is an interesting subject for a film. Nicolau’s exuberance for cinema and his career as an exhibitor comes through as the film chronicles his experiences working as a ticket taker at art house cinemas and porn houses to owning several theaters across New York City. Some of the more interesting aspects of the film exhibiting business – the collusion of the conglomerate movie chains with film studios to prevent allowing the exhibition of their films in independent theaters – is only briefly touched upon.

Ferrara kept undercutting the pacing of the film by instilling film clips that lasted far too long and had little relation to what was happening in the documentary. At the Q&A, Ferrara complained that the film originally had even more film clips but he could not secure some of the film rights. And like the Q&A, the film can meander on Ferrara’s amusing tangents. At one point, Ferrara begins asking some of Nicolau’s patrons why they would want to see It and becomes preoccupied by their Egyptian heritage.   

There is an interesting film here but Ferrara is far more interested in celebrating a New York that is slowly fading away. He revels at the section where Nicolau recounts the various movie houses across Manhattan that he worked in. As Ferrara stated in the Q&A, this film is using Nicolau’s story as a medium for Ferrara’s own autobiography. Many of these theaters are the same haunts that he attended which helped develop his unique taste and style.

In the end this film is an ode to a New York that feels like it is slowly disappearing. There are not many people like Nicolau anymore who are happy to forgo profit in order to keep affordable cinema for people. He and Cinema Village are worth celebrating, even in a messy uneven film. 

As Nicolau spoke upon during the Q&A, last year, with Covid-19, he was very close to losing his theater because of the loss of patrons and no reprieve on property taxes. But, he is happy to be able to reopen and is excited to introduce a new batch of truly independent films to the public. I implore anyone who is in the New York City area to visit the Cinema Village. At the very least, support your local independent cinema.

The Projectionist Trailer

The Projectionist is currently available to buy and rent from multiple storefronts and is streaming on Kanopy.

You can follow Patrick and his passion for film on Letterboxd and Twitter.

Tribeca 2021 Film Festival Interview: Director Saul Abraham Talks Short “Enjoy”

Interview by Anna Harrison

When did you first get the idea for this film? How long did the process from development to distribution take?

It is based on writer Callum Cameron’s personal experiences as a home tutor. He sent it to me a couple of years ago and I knew I wanted to be involved in the project straight away and luckily he agreed to develop it with me. I was struck by how delicately he handled feelings of misery, guilt, shame and worry whilst still making something warm, hopeful and funny. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry at times and felt connected to Michael, as well as seeing a younger version of myself in Archie.

Were there any major script changes from conception to end?

As always, the script took many twists and turns in the development process but the original through line that Callum created was so strong that the root of it always remained consistent.

How collaborative was the process, i.e., did you get much say in the script, or was it mostly finalized by the time you were brought on board?

The development process was really collaborative but so was the rest of the process. Callum was fully in the trenches with me every step of the way on this. The story is very personal to him so it made sense for him to be part of everything and I loved that collaboration.

In that same vein, I really loved the color palette and production design; how much input did you have in that?

Glad you picked up on that! Yes, Tasha Back (director of photography), Eve Shillingford (production designer), and I put a lot of thought into palette and tone in each scene. We played with cold, blue tones at the lido and in Archie’s house to show the loneliness and isolation in those two places. Archie’s house in particular had to feel like a nice family house that had been abandoned and left cold by the break up of a family. The lido was to show Michael’s general mood—those scenes feeling almost dreamlike. Then at Michael and Katie’s flat we darkened everything down, making it feel oppressive and claustrophobic showing how boxed in Michael felt by not being able to communicate with Katie.

What was the editing process like? Did anything get left on the cutting room floor?

We were pretty specific with the script and what we shot so actually very little was cut out. But I did cut it myself so maybe I was too precious? Who knows!?

In one of the scenes, Michael and Archie reenact a scene from The Avengers (which was great) where Loki monologues that “it’s the unspoken truth of humanity that you crave subjugation” and we will only be happy when we have no choices. What made you decide on that scene in particular? How does it resonate in a film about depression

That was all Callum and his writing. I love that moment. I think he would agree to leave it all up to interpretation!

Tom Sweet, who played Archie, gave a great performance. How do you change your directing approach when working with younger actors, if you change it at all?

Tom Sweet blew us all away—perfectly balancing the spoilt brat element of the character whilst also getting us to feel for him. Such an intelligent actor for someone so young; it was a joy to work with him. I have lots of techniques for working with child actors and making them feel more comfortable, but to be completely honest they weren’t needed with Tom as he took it all in his stride. What impressed me so much was how well he listened to the other actors. Often with child actors they have learnt their lines and rehearsed a set way of delivering them and it’s hard to break them out of that. But Tom reacted to subtle changes made by Himesh [Patel] and Sara [Stewart] from take to take and was always present in the scene. He also took on direction fantastically.

One thing I really liked about the film was the ending—there wasn’t some big moment where Michael was “cured,” which can often happen in movies about mental illness. Could you elaborate a bit on the ending and its ambiguity?

Callum and I always wanted the film to have an ambiguous ending mainly because that’s our experience of our own mental health. It’s complex and never really has an ‘I am cured’ moment. Sometimes you have days, weeks, months or even years where you feel like you have turned a corner but then suddenly it changes. I feel like that is something we should talk about more with regards to mental health and that is looking at ways we need to monitor and look after ourselves in the ups and downs rather than looking for a complete solution, which to be honest doesn’t exist. Or maybe I haven’t found it yet? Having said that, although the ending is ambiguous I hope it’s still hopeful.

Do you have a favorite film you’ve watched at Tribeca so far? (Or just this year in general!)

I haven’t seen any yet but I just got my sent all the films and I can’t wait to watch. Check back with me in a week!

Enjoy played at the Tribeca 2021 Film Festival.

You can read Anna’s review of Enjoy here and see more of her work on LetterboxdTwitterInstagram, and her website.

Tribeca 2021 Film Festival Review: Enjoy

Written by Anna Harrison

75/100

Saul Abraham’s short film Enjoy finds its protagonist Michael (Himesh Patel) unable to enjoy just about anything. A struggling musician also struggling with the deepest throes of depression, Michael drifts aimlessly around his world, being acted upon by others but never acting himself; he can’t even ask his wife, Katie (Maddy Hill), how her day was. His world is blue in every sense of the word, director of photography Tasha Back and production designer Eve Shillingford draping a sense of melancholy throughout the film through use of a cool color palette so that Michael’s exterior world reflects his interior; the result is a sadly beautiful short that easily conveys Michael’s depression without ever naming it.

While trying to pursue music, Michael begins a side gig as a tutor in order to make ends meet. Through this, he meets Archie (Tom Sweet), a foul-mouthed teenager who needles Michael about his lackluster music career. Despite Archie’s abrasive nature, Michael begins to see parallels between the two and, through his sessions with Archie, uncovers the deep sadness that anchors Archie’s anger. (There is a great scene where Archie and Michael recreate Loki’s speech in The Avengers about how “it’s the unspoken truth of humanity that you crave subjugation,” and though it elicits a good chuckle, there’s a much darker idea there of a teen whose life has spun out of control wanting to relinquish any choices so he can avoid pain—or, alternatively, wants to control others so he won’t get hurt again.)

Enjoy isn’t groundbreaking, but it’s an enjoyable short that deals with depression in a very gentle way. Patel and Sweet both give solid performances, making an impact even with a short amount of screentime (around 18 minutes), alternatingly funny and heartbreaking. There is no magic cure for Michael or Archie, as there isn’t for anyone in the world; the color palette doesn’t suddenly change, and Archie doesn’t become a star student overnight, but there remains a deep humanity in the characters that gives a flicker of hope. Though Michael may not be able to enjoy anything, viewers can certainly enjoy Enjoy.

Enjoy Trailer

You can read Anna’s interview with Enjoy director Saul Abraham here and see more of her work on LetterboxdTwitterInstagram, and her website.

Midsommar

Written by Michael Clawson

90/100

Style and story don’t cohere as rewardingly in Midsommar as in Aster’s debut, but his formal dexterity and ornate, hand-crafted aesthetics make for a visually distinctive and viscerally dreadful trip.

In Hereditary, Toni Collette’s Annie carefully toys with finely detailed dioramas of scenes from her and her family’s life, which, in turn, is being toyed with by an unseen evil. Aster builds this notion of manipulation and interference by outside forces into his film’s very form by shooting the family’s Park City home as if it were a doll house. Sometimes it’s hard to tell whether we’re looking at the house itself or a miniature replica of it, which furthers an unsettling atmosphere of ambiguity about what’s real and what’s not. 

Whether its the colorful and folksy sets, the Horga’s pristine white costumes, or the increasingly bloodied props, the fastidiousness with which Midsommar’s trappings appear have to come together enriches the world with detail, but at the same time, can feel too neat. My eyes were dazzled by the particulars, even as I occasionally questioned the authenticity of what I was seeing. The artisanal lottery balls, for example, struck me as perhaps overly ornamental.

Stylistic precision, in other words, is both a feature and bug, and it seems to have come at the expense of the story’s ostensible themes and characters. Pugh is fantastic, and yet she feels underutilized. Dani is a passive figure throughout, stumbling into her throne as the May Queen by chance and then sentencing Christian to death, which is one of the only active decisions she makes that I can think of. Arguably it’s symbolic of Dani’s emotional progress and her finally having the strength to sever ties with Christian and his friend group, having found a new “family”, but it’s hardly the emotional release it could have been since Aster manages to only cursorily imply the nature of their history together and what they’ve come to mean to each other. On a similar note, by the film’s end, I had no better understanding of how far Dani has come in grieving the loss of her family. 

I actually really like this movie though! Hence the very positive rating. I cannot wait to watch it again, and it’ll make a fantastic double-feature with Hereditary because of all their parallels and rhymes. I just think it’s better defended on sensory rather than thematic terms, and as a nerve-shredding nightmare of sunny psychedelia rather than a portrait of a relationship. Separate from theme or character, what Aster handles masterfully is tone. The horrific tragedy everything begins with, the cliff side ceremony of suicide (there’s some S. Craig Zahleresque skull-crushing there), Dani’s escorts wailing in harmony with her when she breaks down – scene after scene is staged with such a singularly unsettling suspense that’s all the more astonishing for being kept up as its balanced and blended with comedy. “Don’t think about it too much” isn’t usually a viewing strategy I endorse, but I do think Midsommar is better felt than decoded.

Midsommar Trailer

Midsommar is currently streaming on Kanopy and Prime Video.

You can listen Michael and Taylor discuss Midsommar in greater length on Episode 42 and Episode 59 of Drink in the Movies.

Oscar Reflection | Best Picture & Best Director from the 84th Academy Awards

Written by Alexander Reams

The Artist: 42/100

There are some serious holes in my Best Picture and Best Director filmographies and I was given the idea to go through and watch them. I have seen most of the post 2010 Best Picture winners but I even have holes there. The latest film in my Best Picture/ Best Director journey in order from newest to oldest is Michel Hazanavicius’s 2011 film The Artist. This film took home both awards at the 84th Academy Awards. 

When looking back on The Artist, seeing it as a best picture winner seems obvious. It’s a movie about the movies, and Hollywood loves that. However that does not mean the film itself is good. Unfortunately that is the case here. The Artist is a great showcase in how weird/ experimental movies can still thrive in modern film society. However the film has major plot issues. Any attempt at trying to appeal to the audience’s emotional state fails spectacularly and in hilarious fashion. Jean Dujardin winning Best Actor for his performance is just one of many examples where The Academy fell for the Oscar bait hook, line, and sinker. There is very little substance to his performance, and even in the more somber moments of the film, I could never take what was going on screen seriously.

The Artist, while having great cinematography and costume design, is a failure on every other aspect of filmmaking. As well as very frustrating when looking back on what was nominated for Best Picture and Best Director that year. My picks for Best Director and Best Picture that year would have been Terrence Malick for The Tree of Life for Best Director and continuing with The Tree of Life winning Best Picture.

The Artist Trailer

The Artist is currently streaming on HBO Max, Netflix, Roku Channel, and Tubi.

You can connect with Alexander on his social media profiles: Instagram, Letterboxd, and Twitter. Or see more of his work on his website.

Tribeca 2021 Film Festival Review: Last Film Show

Written by Anna Harrison

70/100

Pan Nalin’s Last Film Show opens with a thank you to people the director has likely never met: the Lumière brothers, Eadweard Muybridge, David Lean, Stanley Kubrick, and Andrei Tarkovsky. Some of these names are familiar to the public at large, some less so, but all giants in the world of cinema, and Nalin’s thanks to them as the film opens sets the tone of love and reverence on display throughout Last Film Show, a beautifully shot ode to filmmaking and storytelling, told with care that practically bleeds through the screen (the irony that I watched this on my computer screen and not in a theater with a projector is not lost on me, don’t worry).

It’s hard, even knowing little about Nalin himself, not to view this film as an autobiography of sorts, but then again it could be an autobiography of sorts for anyone who has ever stared transfixed at a movie and wondered at what they were seeing. Last Film Show follows nine-year-old Samay (Bhavin Rabari), who, like so many of us before him, falls in love with the movies. Even if we can’t relate to his specific circumstances, we relate to the feeling, to the transcendence Samay feels as he holds his hand up to the projector light and watches the beams dance through his fingers. Samay’s father (Dipen Raval) disapproves, but Samay begins to sneak away from school and spend his afternoons with the Galaxy Cinema’s projectionist, Fazal (Bhavesh Shrimali), giving Fazal food in exchange for knowledge and free movies. (The love for food is also quite evident in the film; movies tell stories one way, and food another.)

Samay becomes fascinated by the inner workings of the projector: the lights, the reels, the reflections. He finds broken bottles with colored glass and holds them up to his eyes, the world now filtered through blue, or red, or green. He uses a mirror to create light, watching it refract and bounce. “I want to become movies,” he says. Eventually, Samay ropes his friends into helping him build his own projector, using the knowledge that Fazal taught him to bring movie magic to his friends. Cinematographer Swapnil S. Sonawane makes all these scenes as beautiful as possible, and fills them with homages to other movies, most notably 2001: A Space Odyssey. The monolith in Kubrick’s film awakens our ancestors’ consciousness; here, a movie does the same to Samay.

But Samay’s world comes tumbling down with the rise of digital photography, replacing his beloved film reels. There is a real melancholy here, the colors becoming stark and cold as the projector in Galaxy Cinema gets hauled away, replaced by a computer and a room with bleak white walls. The closeness that Samay felt holding the film in his hands, cutting it, winding it through the projector—it all fades. Last Film Show is all about transitions: Galaxy Cinema goes digital and Fazal loses his job, the train that runs through Samay’s town becomes electric and the town loses its train stop and thus Samay’s father loses his job, Samay goes from child to if not adult, then at least a child with his eyes opened to the uglier side of the world.

The gentle awe with which this film is imbued wanes somewhat in the third act, becoming replaced with slightly overwrought melodrama, and the pace quickens too rapidly from the steadiness of before. Yet Nalin crafts Last Film Show with such care and gentleness that even then you can’t help but feel like a kid again, watching a movie for the first time, or perhaps even those first theatergoers who believed the Lumière brothers’ train was going to come out of the screen and into their seats. It’s nostalgic, but not stuck in the past, as the ending voiceover reminds us: the film that Samay watched burn gets turned into bangles, and so the stories of Spielberg, of Ozu, of Eisenstein all live on, even as their medium changes. 

Maxim Gorky, upon seeing his first film—that famous train from the Lumières—cried that cinema was “the Kingdom of Shadows,” forever resting on the edge between real and unreal; Fazal in Last Film Show explains that “movies were invented to con people.” Yet even if the films themselves are lies, what we feel from them are undoubtedly, achingly true, and Nalin lets Last Film Show reminds us of that.

Last Film Show Trailer

Last Film Show was screened as part of the Tribeca 2021 Film Festival.

You can follow more of Anna’s work on LetterboxdTwitterInstagram, and her website.

Episode 112: Rescreening The Big Heat

“I am profoundly fascinated by cruelty, fear, horror and death. My films show my preoccupation with violence, the pathology of violence.”

Fritz Lang

Links: Apple Podcasts | Castbox | Google Podcasts | LibSyn | Spotify | Stitcher | YouTube

This week on Drink in the Movies Michael & Taylor Rescreen Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat and provide a First Impression of the next Rescreening episode title, Martin Scorsese’s Cape Fear(1991).

Connect with us on your preferred Social Media Platform Letterboxd, Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.

Michael Clawson on Letterboxd | Taylor Baker on Letterboxd

The Big Heat Trailer

The Big Heat is available to rent and purchase from select digital storefronts.

Cape Fear (1991) is currently streaming on Starz and available to rent and purchase from select digital storefronts.

MCU Retrospective: The Avengers

Written by Anna Harrison

In these retrospectives, Anna will be looking back on the Marvel Cinematic Universe, providing context around the films, criticizing them, pointing out their groundwork for the future, and telling everyone her favorite scene, because her opinion is always correct and therefore her favorite scene should be everyone’s favorite scene. Avengers, assem— wait, not yet, that comes later.

80/100

Take a moment, if you will, to go back to summer of 2012. I was 13 years old, about to enter eighth grade and be at the top of the middle school food chain, when my sister dragged me to see The Avengers against my will. I was an intellectual, I protested, who didn’t want to see some dumb superhero movie. I had taste.

Well, all those complaints died pretty quickly, and here I am almost a decade later, still invested (perhaps overly so) in these dumb superhero movies. 

The Avengers was a cultural phenomenon. It was ubiquitous, it was unavoidable; references dripped from everyone’s lips, memes were spawned, records were broken. For a period, it was the third-highest grossing movie of all time, and still stands at a very comfortable eighth place. It transformed the burgeoning Marvel Cinematic Universe into a fully-fledged monstrosity, cementing Marvel’s theatrical and cultural dominance; for many, this would become their Star Wars. It was Big in a way that no one could have predicted. The Avengers proved that the previous films weren’t simply flashes in a pan, and that Marvel was here to stay​​—like it or not.

In hindsight, it seems obvious that it would work, now that we have three other Avengers movies under our belt, but at the time, it was risky: there was every chance that these characters, when thrown in a room together, would refuse to gel. This wasn’t the self-contained Spider-Man trilogy, nor was it the X-Men movies, which came with a pre-formed team. This was something new, a grand cinematic gamble that had every chance of crashing and burning. A Russian assassin, a World War II veteran, a wealthy playboy, a man with anger issues, a guy with a bow and arrow, and a Norse god all walk onto a helicarrier—it sounds like the setup to a bad punchline. On top of that, at the time of production, both Thor and Captain America hadn’t come out in theaters yet. No one knew how audiences would receive these characters or the more outlandish aspects of these movies, but The Avengers hinged upon them; if their respective movies did poorly, there was nothing Marvel could do.

But somehow, impossibly, it all worked. How?

It certainly helps that we had five solo movies to establish each character beforehand by the time of The Avengers’ release. Audiences knew Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), and Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson). If you watched the previous MCU films, you were automatically invested in the stakes of this one—even more so, now that you were watching your favorite characters interact. 

Still, even if you walked in with no prior knowledge (as I did), the movie carefully takes its time to reestablish its characters in the opening third. We are reacquainted with S.H.I.E.L.D. boss Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg), who have been working with scientist Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård) to uncover the secrets of the Tesseract, last seen falling into the ocean at the end of Captain America: The First Avenger. When Loki (Tom Hiddleston) arrives through a portal in space powered by the Tesseract and begins wreaking havoc, putting S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner, first glimpsed in Thor but given a tiny bit more to do here), aka Hawkeye, under mind control, Fury decides it’s time to finally activate the Avengers Initiative, first mentioned in the end credits scene of Iron Man

So, Fury goes to collect the de-iced Captain America, who has been working out his feelings of loss on sandbags at the gym. (I have a very distinct memory of rewatching The Avengers for my 14th birthday party with all of my friends and having a lightbulb go off in my brain during this scene. There were several pause requests, for no particular reason.) Coulson gets sent to collect Tony in his new Stark Tower, and Natasha is dispatched to India to find Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo).

Ruffalo is at a disadvantage here: all the other key players have already been introduced in prior movies, and while Bruce Banner had his own movie, Ruffalo did not, and taking over for another actor midstream is never easy. However, even despite this, Ruffalo immediately puts his own stamp on Hulk; his Banner is simultaneously kinder, sadder, and more frightening than Norton’s, making him quite a bit more interesting. When he later says the now-oft-memed line, “That’s my secret, Cap. I’m always angry,” you buy it.

Everyone boards the S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier to apprehend Loki, who has been setting himself up as humanity’s savior. “The bright lure of freedom diminishes your life’s joy in a mad scramble for power, for identity,” he informs the crowd. Where Loki in Thor was a rather tortured figure, here he becomes a full-fledged villain, trying to become Earth’s fascistic ruler in order to assuage his own insecurities and ego. It’s enormous fun, and Hiddleston is solid as always. The Avengers stop his plan and bring Loki aboard the helicarrier, meeting Thor in the process (so much for being stranded on Asgard with a broken Rainbow Bridge), and then we are well and truly off to the races now that everyone is in the same room.

Much of the credit for Avengers’ success has to go to director and writer Joss Whedon; even with all the gross allegations against him that have come to light, it is still thanks to him that The Avengers works as well as it does. While these accusations should be treated with the utmost seriousness (and are made even worse by the fact that Whedon built his initial career by positioning himself as a feminist icon with works like Buffy the Vampire Slayer), Whedon was the director who truly solidified the MCU, and he did it well—though depending on your view of the MCU at large, his work in making it a cultural juggernaut may just be another strike against him. His fast-paced dialogue keeps things from getting too bogged down, and his obvious love for these characters shines through with enthusiasm; it’s a comic book movie made by a comic book nerd, but one still accessible to everyone.

Read More of Anna’s Ongoing Marvel Retrospective Series Here

Marvel has come under criticism for having too many quips and jokes thrown around, robbing certain scenes of any emotional impact; while the amount of jokes per film actually vary wildly (think of Captain America: The Winter Soldier versus Thor: Ragnarok), it seems that tendency largely originated from Whedon in The Avengers. Sure, Tony has a snide comment for everything in his solo outings, but here the quips come a mile a minute. While Whedon would overplay this in Avengers: Age of Ultron, here the gags work, by and large; they help establish a repartee between characters who previously had no interaction with each other, and the awkwardness of some of these interjections (“I do! I understood that reference”) only serves to highlight the awkwardness of the characters as they are thrust into this unfamiliar situation. Plus, they can be pretty damn funny: “[Loki] is of Asgard and he is my brother.” “He killed 80 people in two days.” “He’s adopted.” Worthy of a chuckle, at least.

The best thing about Avengers isn’t the big fight scenes (though those certainly can be a blast), it’s watching all of these actors and characters bounce off each other. Tony tries his hardest to push Bruce’s buttons, Thor watches everything with a certain level of amusing bemusement, Natasha rolls her eyes at all this posturing. The rapid-fire Whedon dialogue works like gangbusters, and he manages to give each character in his ensemble cast individual moments even in the team scenes.

The only thing that mars the more character-driven beats is Steve: he functions too much like a polished Boy Scout here, with none of the recklessness and smartassery that was present in Captain America: The First Avenger. Steve spends most of The First Avenger lying to his superiors and breaking rules, but here he berates Tony for investigating S.H.I.E.L.D.’s shady business? I’m not buying it. Whedon opts for the oversimplified, caricatured Steve Rogers, an easier version of a character that should be far more complex than what this script gives him. It stands out even more upon rewatch when there are more movies to compare against, movies where Steve Rogers continually flouts the chain of command to follow his own largely unerring moral compass. Steve is unmoored and set adrift in time, but there are better ways to play that up than an overreliance on his apparent old fashionedness.

Still, even with that misfire, the banter in The Avengers is just fun. You feel like a kid in a candy store, but like all your favorite candies had combined into one great delicious candy. (I’m not great at metaphors.) The film is at its best when foregrounding character over spectacle; the emphasis on the people behind the masks, the shields, the hammers, is what has given Marvel its staying power in the cultural consciousness and what made The Avengers a phenomenon in the first place. Mindless blockbusters are a dime a dozen, but rarer are the ones where you genuinely worry about a character’s safety, or where their deaths can make theaters full of grown men and women cry (see: Endgame). That’s what sets The Avengers apart. When all these characters come together for the first time, you remember it in a way you don’t remember Transformers. The Avengers may be a dumb superhero movie, but it’s one anchored by a beating heart.

But, of course, we can’t stay in character land forever: this is a superhero movie, after all, and so we need some big fights.

Several things happen all at once: the gang discovers that S.H.I.E.L.D. has secretly been building weapons of mass destruction (a government organization up to no good in a Marvel film? Say it ain’t so!), a verbal fight erupts in the science lab between everyone, and the brainwashed Hawkeye attacks the helicarrier. This spurs our heroes into action, but by then, Coulson has died (apparently), Thor and Bruce have been grounded (but separately), and Loki has escaped. Finally, this disparate group of people realizes that they need to work together.

What follows is just an excuse to have your favorite comic book heroes go and punch things. The Battle of New York (as it’s known in-universe) could certainly stand to be shaved down several minutes, and the alien Chitauri suffer from bland-generic-evil-henchmen-in-Marvel-movies syndrome. The Avengers’ final act is its weakest: no matter how cool it might be to see Hulk smash some bad guys, the fight against these nameless alien hordes goes on for too long. 

But damn if that circle shot of the assembled team with Alan Silvestri’s now-iconic theme swelling in the background doesn’t inspire a quiet little fist pump. We’ve had the setup in the previous five movies; here is the payoff. And it works. 

The Avengers is the first real Marvel movie: not just an action movie, or a superhero movie, but first and foremost a Marvel movie. It establishes the fun, zippy tone that by and large dominates the MCU. It—and I don’t think I’m exaggerating here, given just how enormous Marvel has become—starts an empire. Without the rousing success of The Avengers, the MCU might have fizzled and waned; with its triumph (your mileage may vary on how pretentious you think the use of that word is here), Marvel put its stamp on the collective cultural consciousness in a way not seen for a long time. Within the span of four years, Marvel transformed from a struggling studio forced to sell its best assets just to keep afloat to a pop culture juggernaut—so what’s next?

Groundwork: Marvel has no big master plan; rather, they plant seeds wherever they can in the hopes that some of them might one day germinate. None of these were planned from day one, lest the whole ship sink, but the seeds germinated nonetheless:

  • What’s up, Thanos?
  • Loki’s scepter contains the Mind Stone, and will next be seen in the hands of Hydra as they use it to grant powers to Wanda and Pietro Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron Taylor-Johnson).
  • That whole scene between Loki and Natasha provides a lot of groundwork for Black Widow. “Dreykov’s daughter” becomes not just a throwaway line but a significant plot point, and Natasha will repeat tactics she used on Loki with Ray Winstone’s Dreykov, including her iconic “thank you for your cooperation” line. It doesn’t work as well the second time around, though, and feels a bit lazy. Oh, well.
  • “This is just like Budapest all over again” also gets addressed in Black Widow. (Before the ill-fated Black Widow/Hulk romance and Hawkeye’s farm family in Age of Ultron, a thousand pieces of fanfiction spawned from that single line.)
  • The clock on Grand Central Station gets destroyed in this film and in subsequent outings gets replaced by a monument to first responders to the Chitauri invasion.
  • Coulson’s death will begin a whole #CoulsonLives movement online, eventually resulting in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., where Clark Gregg reprised his role for seven seasons. (Though he wasn’t playing Coulson all those seasons, and in fact plays a Life Model Decoy—first mentioned in The Avengers by Tony—in season seven. It gets complicated.) The cellist that he mentions to Tony here will also show up in season one, played by Whedon alum Amy Acker. 
  • The World Security Council that repeatedly frustrates Nick Fury in this via the Marvel version of Zoom will pop up in person in Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
  • Gideon Malick (Powers Boothe), a member of the World Security Council, will appear in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (including a younger version played by Cameron Palatas) and be unmasked as a Hydra agent. In fact, there are lots of Malick family members working for Hydra. This probably isn’t canon anymore, but as Kevin Feige has not come out and directly said that S.H.I.E.L.D. isn’t canon, I will cling to it.
  • Enver Gjokaj, another frequent Whedon collaborator, plays an NYPD officer here; he’ll go on to play Daniel Sousa in Agent Carter and, later, S.H.I.E.L.D., leading to a lot of different theories about this officer, but he turned out to be just a random cop and not related to Sousa at all. 

Anna’s Favorite Scene: Tony wheedles Bruce in the lab about the whole Hulk situation, producing what the internet will dub the “Science Bros” and revealing quite a lot about both characters involved. Or the Loki and Natasha interrogation, because Hiddleston is so great and the twist is fantastic (the first time around, at least).

MCU Ranking: 1. The Avengers, 2. Captain America: The First Avenger, 2. Iron Man, 3. Thor, 4. Iron Man 2, 5. The Incredible Hulk

The Avengers Trailer

The Avengers is currently available to rent and purchase on most digital storefronts, and is streaming on Disney+.

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