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May 4th 2012
In the last week I've seen The Avengers (I'd rather not use its preposterous UK title of "Marvel Avengers Assemble", so given just in case people flocked to the cinema expecting to see Diana Rigg) twice at the cinema: once in 2D and once in glorious 3D. For those of you not familiar with the world of Marvel comics, the Avengers are a select group of The World's Mightiest Heroes, comprising (in this line-up, at least) Iron Man, Thor, Captain America and the Hulk. These disparate folk had already been introduced to the cinema-going public through their own individual films: one each, plus a sequel for Iron Man (and Ang Lee's "The Hulk", which seems to have been more or less overwritten by the later "The Incredible Hulk"). It was Iron Man's success that first led the head honchos at Marvel studios to dream up an Avengers adaptation, and they have been patiently laying the trail ever since, even cleverly (note: not cleverly) giving Captain America the reasonably inexplicable subtitle "The First Avenger".
There are several reasons why The Avengers should never have worked. Firstly, it's fairly incredible that the film was made in the first place - the difficulties of collecting together the rights to all the characters, as well as setting contracts for all the relevant actors, must have seemed insurmountable at first. But they were surmounted. Secondly, the best of the five or six precursor films - Thor, for my money, although others would make the case for Iron Man - fell some way short of at least seven other comic book adaptations of recent times (Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, Spider-Man, Spider-Man 2, X-Men, X-Men: First Class & Superman Returns). While none of the films were dreadful (Ang Lee's Hulk doesn't count... although Iron Man 2 was pretty poor), they didn't necessarily inspire confidence that a mash-up of all the title characters would be cinema gold. Thirdly - and most worryingly for me - any Avengers film would, by necessity, have to have a lot going on, which has been the key failing of quite a few comic book adaptations (Spider-Man 3 and Iron Man 2 particularly, but it also damaged The Dark Knight). When I learned that, in addition to the main four, the film was going to have Black Widow and Hawkeye in prominent roles, I more or less despaired (and even writer & director Joss Whedon was quoted as saying "I've got too many goddam characters"). I - and he - needn't have worried, because The Avengers is a triumph: my favourite film so far this year and comfortably - magnificently - better than any of its direct precursors.
Let's address the weaknesses first. The plot-line is fairly unimaginative for the genre: baddies threaten the earth; goodies look like they're not going to be able to save it; goodies do save it. Speaking of which, the baddies themselves (aside from Tom Hiddlestone reprising his role as Thor's brother, Loki) are fairly nondescript and appear to be little more than cannon-fodder for the heroes - but, although this is slightly disappointing, I would argue that it was probably necessary for the film to work. The greatest ever villain in a comic book film is, surely, Heath Ledger's Joker, but he meant that Batman was more or less a support act in his own movie. Had the villains in The Avengers been more complex, there would not have been sufficient time to devote to the heroes.

John Steed & Emma Peel

One of the things that impressed me most about the film was the dedication to ensuring that this was a true ensemble piece with six co-leads (I count Black Widow & Hawkeye alongside the four title characters from previous films) - I had feared that the financial success of Iron Man would mean that The Avengers became the Tony Stark Show, but although Robert Downey Jr (Iron Man) and Scarlett Johansson (Black Widow) probably edged the screen time, it was not by much. Freed from the constraints of origin stories, Whedon was able to present characters that most viewers would instantly recognise, and allow them to both interact with each other and develop as characters in their own right. Here he was helped by a strong cast (at least five of whom have had Oscar nominations in the past), with Downey Jr & Mark Ruffalo seeming particularly to relish their verbal sparring, and Chris Evans & Chris Hemsworth enjoying sparring of a rather more physical nature. Ever wondered which would win out of Thor's hammer and Captain America's shield? Answer: neither. Or maybe both. Either way, any nearby trees definitely lose.
Downey Jr is clearly very comfortable in this Marvel universe, and he provides the same self-confident and amusing performance that he did in his earlier Iron Man performances - albeit with improved dialogue this time round. By its very nature, the film requires quite a bit of exposition and some of it can be pretty hokey, but Downey Jr (helped by Whedon's pen) finds the perfect line between being too serious and falling into self-parody. Similarly, Chris Hemsworth as Thor has one or two lines that nicely undercut the cod-Shakespearean pomp that is otherwise his - very impressive - calling card; Chris Evans as Captain America has fewer gags (surprising, given his fantastic comic performance in Scott Pilgrim vs. The World), although perhaps that's because he is more of an old-fashioned hero in the Superman vein than a homoferric wise-cracker.
For me, though, the stand-out performance among the men comes from Mark Ruffalo, an actor I've admired for several years. Within his first scene as Bruce Banner ("You should have got paid up front, Banner" he helpfully soliloquises) it is already clear that he is much better cast than either Eric Bana or Edward Norton, the two previous incumbents of the role. He portrays a mixture of weariness and simmering calmness (yes) right from the start, and gets to deliver one of the best lines of the film: "That's my secret. I'm always angry." He is also the first actor to portray both Banner and "the other guy", and does so with aplomb - the Hulk provides the funniest moment of the film, but is also shown as a genuine and awesome menace when on the rampage.
Which brings me, contrarily, onto Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow (otherwise known as Natasha Romanoff). On paper this is a tough role - amidst a band of superhumans and demigods, she has little to commend herself other than being a mean shot with a pistol and an ability to beat up a bunch of soldiers while tied to a chair - but Johansson gets to demonstrate a range of emotions that are not normally shown by comic book heroes. The first is fear. It is Natasha who is sent to enlist Bruce Banner, and when he tests her by pretending to get angry she is clearly terrified of what he might, as the Hulk, do to her (well-placed fear, it later transpires). It is a powerful moment in a genre where (like Doctor Who or James Bond) heroes tend to greet their impending death with a raised eyebrow and a bon mot.
The second unusual emotion is friendship: specifically, a deep friendship between Natasha and Jeremy Renner's Clint Barton (Hawkeye). While the majority of comic book adaptations have romantic subplots (completely overlooked in The Avengers, give or take a flashback of Hayley Atwell, a picture of Natalie Portman and a couple of scenes with Gwyneth Paltrow) there aren't many that develop a friendship between a man and a woman without it becoming a romance: Wolverine & Rogue is the only one I can think of, and that had more than a hint of father/daughter about it. Perhaps all previous screen-writers have taken the theme of When Harry Met Sally to heart - "Men and women can't be friends because the sex part always gets in the way" - but I'm glad Whedon didn't. It was clever to give these characters that sub-plot because Barton, like Romanoff, is not really in the superhero category, unless you count being a dashed good archer as a superpower. Although the details of their back-story are never given, it is clear that they have fought alongside each other many times before and share a degree of intimacy that binds them more closely than any of their companions... at times it seemed that we were being set up for a Hawkeye / Black Widow prequel movie, and while that would be a hard sell for many, I'd stand in line.
I should point out, I suppose, that The Avengers isn't exactly a feminist masterpiece. Sure, Johansson has a great role, but she fulfils it from within some of the tighter clothing you'll see on screen this year, and Jenny Agutter is pretty much the only woman in the film who hasn't squeezed into some very constricting trousers. Actually, Agutter is only ever shown from the waist up, so it could be a clean sweep. Hey, I'm not complaining - and Chris Evans is similarly attired, for those who are that way inclined - I just don't want to overstate my case.
Back to more traditional comic book fodder, and the big fight scenes at the end. Normally 'big fight scenes' is a phrase that fills me horror, conjuring up thoughts of the mindless and repetitive crashes of, for example, Transformers. But not here. The Sunday Times review described the fighting as 'lucid', and I agree wholeheartedly: it is always clear exactly who's doing what (no shaky hand-held cameras here), and the action is kept personal to each character, allowing the actors to act rather than simply point and shoot. There is one particular sequence, in which the camera moves from each of the six heroes in turn, that was absolutely outstanding in 3D (although the impact was slightly lost in 2D) and ensured that the film drew towards a close on a high.
All in all I was very pleasantly surprised by a film that I had rather expected would go horribly wrong. The plan now, I believe, is for another round of sequels (Iron Man 3, Thor 2, maybe another Hulk) before rounding off with an Avengers sequel - and this time the expectations will be that much higher. If Whedon remains at the helm, I'm confident he'll be able to meet them.

On this day in 2005... I have a theory, from a cursory reading of the papers, that the Beatles are still mentioned in the Times every day.

May 7th 2012
And so Bristol will have an elected mayor. It's good to know that, even if the folk in my constituency insist on voting Lib Dem in the general election, they have the good sense to agree with me when it comes to referenda. Hot on the heels (ish) of a resounding 'No' to AV, Bristol has decided to switch to an elected mayor, being the only city to do so (Doncaster opted to keep theirs, and a couple of cities had a mayor foisted upon them). I'm genuinely surprised that we stand alone in this, because getting people excited about voting for the status quo is a tough gig (unless it's actually Status Quo, in which case: rock on, brother). Interestingly, the leaflet that Bristol City Council sent round was apparently biased against having an elected mayor - the chappie running the whole thing refused to pay for it, on those grounds - so perhaps people just don't like being told what to do.
In other news, if you didn't get enough of Avengers reviews on this page, let me direct you to another one, from a friend of mine. He makes the point (which I had intended to, but forgot) that the film is often laugh-out-loud funny, and awards it 8/10. I'm not generally given to marks out of 10, but if I were I would probably just about stretch to 9/10 for this one.

On this day in 2004... If government worked in the same way as the monarchy, Euan Blair would be our next Prime Minister. I leave you with that thought.

May 26th 2012
It is a gloriously sunny day, and I am sat inside typing away on my laptop ad watching women's football (FA Cup final between Chelsea and Birmingham, since you ask). This is because it is too darn hot outside, and after only a few minutes sitting on my patio reading the paper I scurried towards the coolness of indoors. 'Coolness' being a description of the temperature rather than an allusion to the fact that the inside of my flat is a happening spot - which it probably isn't, all thing considered - as happily I left behind worries about that type of coolness when I left high school. I'd find it difficult to be good friends with anyone who worried about whether or not their jeans were cool.
Anyways, that's by the bye. What's infinitely more important is that Chelsea have just gone 1-0 up, and more important still is that I went on the Cairns Road men's weekend a couple of weekends ago. It's been three years since I last went, but the general format (and, indeed, attendees) hasn't changed massively in the interim. As before, we were in Chepstow and took advantage of the pleasant weather to go on a lengthy walk through the Welsh countryside, which is always a good chance to speak to people I wouldn't normally bump into at church. My highlight of the weekend, though, was the Friday night 'Would I Lie to You' game (see Wikipedia if you're not familiar with the format) in which I was one of the panellists. A hard-fought game was just edged by the team I was on with Richard & Geoff, against a team comprising Mark, Pete & Mervyn. I've always thought that I was no good at lying, but I managed to convince the other team that I once went to a job interview wearing mismatching shoes (one brown and one black); unfortunately several of those present didn't remember afterwards that this was actually a lie, so it may play a part in my CRBC legend. Such as it is. Anyways, it transpires that, although my lying is occasionally convincing, my truth-telling is painfully transparent - no one doubted for a moment, it seems, that I've been carol singing with Paddy Ashdown and once ate the UK's biggest burger.
Not all my weekends can involve such exotic destinations as Chepstow, and last Saturday saw me confined to my living room for almost the whole day, watching the extended Lord of the Rings trilogy with Jenny and Anna (by the way, Birmingham have just equalised in stoppage time). The advertised running time is 681 minutes, although that includes lengthy credits in each film, so we were done in little more than 11 hours. I haven't seen any of the films since Uni, I don't think, and they remain as epic and visually impressive as I remember - a lot of films from that period have dated badly, with what was then cutting-edge CGI having been blunted by time, but Lord of the Rings still cuts a dash. The story gets a little confused by the third film, and the decision to make Gimli a comedy character is still painfully wrong-headed, but they have certainly whetted my appetite for this year's The Hobbit.

On this day in 2004... On a brighter note, I just had my last ever English lesson! Yes! You beauty!

May 30th 2012
If you're looking for ground-breaking observational comedy then you've come to the wrong place, I'm afraid, because today's complaint is one that you'll have heard a thousand times before. You may even have heard it from me. I'm sorry. But here goes. Chuggers: doncha just hate them?
Perhaps you're in the happy position of not knowing that 'chugger' is a portmanteau of 'charity' and 'mugger'; if so, you don't live near my house. These are the people who stop you in the street to request money for their particular charity, usually with an overenthusiastic greeting and a colleague or two just down the road, ready to pounce if you manage to duck past the first one on the outside (I must admit that I am becoming adept at using others as human shields against these people, altering my pace to make sure there is at least one person between me and the chugger whenever possible).
I don't have any objection at all to giving to charity, I just think that there are better ways to choose a charity than simply picking the one which has employed the most hippies to hassle the post-work Sainsbury's crowd. Like, say, donating to a cause that is close to your heart, or actually doing some research. It is, therefore, a point of principle for me that I do not stop and chat to any chuggers, preferring instead to mumble 'sorry' and walk on awkwardly (or, if I've got an umbrella, lower it slightly to avoid the possibility of eye contact). Most of them accept this - it is hardly a minority response, after all - but I have seen some follow their targets down the street for several paces. I do sometimes wonder whether their dedication is due to their passionate belief in the cause, or because they're paid on commission.
Anyways, I have no real reason for bringing this up now, except that I've recently noticed the fairly obvious ruse that almost all chuggers are good-looking young people, and that they tend to approach members of the opposite sex, given the choice. So, for example, I was recently accosted by a stunning girl who wanted to chat to me about... well, I forget, but probably something to do with trees or penguins. I see what the plan is. I am a hapless young man who will be conned by a winning smile into donating many thousands of pounds towards saving butterflies. But there is a problem with that plan. The knowledge that gorgeous young women will only speak to me in order to obtain my money is something that I have come to terms with over the years, but I'm afraid that it doesn't really put me in a charitable mood.

On this day in 2010... I don't have a lot to say today, I just want to draw your attention to the best thing ever.

what was I listening to?
Tapestry - Carole King
what was I reading?
Under the Dome - Stephen King
what was I watching?
Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol
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