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“The Avengers” review: Impressions of a Marvel masterpiece

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Four years ago today, “Iron Man” arrived in theaters and kicked off a bold, long-term plan (by Hollywood standards, at least) that would see four different Marvel superheroes appear in their own solo movies, then unite in a single film featuring not just all of the previous films’ stars, but many of their supporting cast, too.

It was a plan that seemed to disregard the inevitable clash of egos and all of the other behind-the-scenes elements that often doom a franchise before it gets started. And because of that, it was a plan everyone wanted to succeed, but quietly expected to become another ambitious failure.

Yet here we are, four years to the day after Robert Downey Jr. became the living embodiment of armored superhero Tony Stark, and “The Avengers” is riding a wave of positive buzz as it approaches the finish line and its long-awaited premiere.

Even more unbelievable, though, is that despite all of the odds against it and the stratospheric expectations heaped upon it, “The Avengers” still manages to not only live up to those expectations, but to exceed them with an epic adventure that’s just as impressive as its larger-than-life characters.

Chris Hemsworth and Chris Evans in 'The Avengers'

For a film that required so many prologues to get to this point, it’s surprising how little up-front exposition is required to bring newcomers up to speed with “The Avengers” universe. While the film clearly assumes some familiarity with the main characters and a few basic plot points of the preceding films (“Iron Man,” “The Incredible Hulk,” “Thor,” “Iron Man 2,” and “Captain America: The First Avenger”), co-writers Joss Whedon and Zak Penn have done a great job of weaving any necessary information into the early portions of the film and making the exposition feel organic.

The premise of “The Avengers” is this: Thor’s evil brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) has returned, and he plans to use the Tesseract (the powerful, glowing blue cube last seen in “Captain America”) to take over Earth. When Loki proves too powerful for Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and S.H.I.E.L.D. to take down on their own, all of the characters from the previous Marvel Studios films team up to defeat Loki and the alien horde helping him.

It’s a plot that seems laughably old-school in its simplicity, but its genius lies in how this bare-bones narrative foundation allows the film’s talented cast and creative team the room to do what they do best.

A scene from The Avengers

From start to finish, “The Avengers” is a film that draws heavily from classic comic-book tropes. An early misunderstanding has the heroes fighting each other before they eventually realize that they’re on the same side, and the combination of personalities on the team has the expected oil-and-water chemistry. As in all good crossovers, they eventually put aside their differences and cooperate for the common good (in this case, saving the Earth).

It’s the sort of adventure that comic fans are accustomed to seeing in print, but just like the best comics, “The Avengers” truly shines in how it fills out its narrative skeleton and the area around these tropes with vibrant storytelling, compelling character development, and moments filled with so much heart – and humor – that the entire package stands on its own.

Initially, what’s most surprising (though in hindsight, not very surprising at all) is how well director Joss Whedon’s focus on dialogue, humor, and character development drive the film forward and make the moments without action just as enjoyable and interesting as the action sequences. At times, it’s hard to tell where Downey’s clever repartee as Tony Stark ends and Whedon’s influence on the character begins, but it’s easy to see the writer/director’s signature all over Mark Ruffalo’s version of Bruce Banner and – more noticeably – his green alter ego, Hulk.

With Hulk, Whedon somehow manages to find the sweet spot between the raging, uncontrollable behemoth of the 2008 film and a new side of the character that makes him the source of some of the film’s funniest moments. This new dynamic is presented as a natural evolution of Bruce Banner’s relationship with the beast inside of him, and Whedon finds a humor-rich vein to mine in the creature’s lack of impulse control and primitive take on the events transpiring around him.

Marvel’s wise decision to bring back Tom Hiddleston as Loki also pays off in a big way, and the British actor not only holds his own against the film’s cast of heavy-hitters, but draws your attention every moment he’s on screen, oozing with all of the charisma you’d expect from the god of mischief. At times, he’s almost too good, as his scenes with Chris Evans make Captain America seem, well… a little bland in comparison.

Thankfully, for every scene featuring Loki and Captain America, there’s another that puts Loki and Tony Stark in the same room and lets Hiddleston and Downey put on a two-man show as trickster god and narcissistic genius, respectively.

Samuel L. Jackson in The Avengers

It’s worth noting that “The Avengers” doesn’t fail to appease on the fan-service side, either. Over the course of the film, nearly every permutation of hero and villain finds its way to the screen at one point or another, and Whedon masterfully balances the roles each character plays in the big-picture story. Much was made of the dynamic between Captain America and Iron Man in the run-up to the film, with fans wondering how the two characters could possibly share the same screen. “The Avengers” director makes it seem easy, though, and neither Captain America nor Iron Man – nor Hulk or Thor, for that matter – feel relegated to supporting roles.

The most important takeaway from “The Avengers,” however, seems to be the film’s triumph as a comic-book movie that defies the trend toward dark and gritty superhero stories.

Where many films adapted from comic books have kept things at street level, “The Avengers” soars through the air at every opportunity and chooses bright, witty, and unabashedly heroic over dark, grim, and conflicted. Possibly the greatest compliment that can be paid to “The Avengers,” however, is that the film comes the closest of any recent superhero movies to capturing that sense of wonder and spectacle that first turned many kids into lifelong comics fans.

Yes, on top of all the expectations the film lives up to and all of the obstacles it overcame to get to this point, “The Avengers” greatest accomplishment could be this: its ability to make an entire audience feel like children reading their favorite comic for the very first time. It’s a quality that precious few comic book movies seem to capture these days, so let’s hope it’s enough to make audiences assemble for “The Avengers.”

“The Avengers” hits theaters May 4.

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Hard Out

Comedy From The Closet

Janice and Jeffrey Available Now On IFC's Comedy Crib

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She’s been referred to as “the love child of Amy Sedaris and Tracy Ullman,” and he’s a self-described “Italian who knows how to cook a great spaghetti alla carbonara.” They’re Mollie Merkel and Matteo Lane, prolific indie comedians who blended their robust creative juices to bring us the new Comedy Crib series Janice and Jeffrey. Mollie and Matteo took time to answer our probing questions about their series and themselves. Here’s a taste.

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IFC: How would you describe Janice and Jeffrey to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Mollie & Matteo: Janice and Jeffrey is about a married couple experiencing intimacy issues but who don’t have a clue it’s because they are gay. Their oblivion makes them even more endearing.  Their total lack of awareness provides for a buffet of comedy.

IFC: What’s your origin story? How did you two people meet and how long have you been working together?

Mollie: We met at a dive bar in Wrigley Field Chicago. It was a show called Entertaining Julie… It was a cool variety scene with lots of talented people. I was doing Janice one night and Matteo was doing an impression of Liza Minnelli. We sort of just fell in love with each other’s… ACT! Matteo made the first move and told me how much he loved Janice and I drove home feeling like I just met someone really special.

IFC: How would Janice describe Jeffrey?

Mollie: “He can paint, cook homemade Bolognese, and sing Opera. Not to mention he has a great body. He makes me feel empowered and free. He doesn’t suffocate me with attention so our love has room to breath.”

IFC: How would Jeffrey describe Janice?

Matteo: “Like a Ford. Built to last.”

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Mollie & Matteo: Our current political world is mirroring and reflecting this belief that homosexuality is wrong. So what better time for satire. Everyone is so pro gay and equal rights, which is of course what we want, too. But no one is looking at middle America and people actually in the closet. No one is saying, hey this is really painful and tragic, and sitting with that. Having compassion but providing the desperate relief of laughter…This seemed like the healthiest, best way to “fight” the gay rights “fight”.

IFC: Hummus is hilarious. Why is it so funny?

Mollie: It just seems like something people take really seriously, which is funny to me. I started to see it in a lot of lesbians’ refrigerators at a time. It’s like observing a lesbian in a comfortable shoe. It’s a language we speak. Pass the Hummus. Turn on the Indigo Girls would ya?

See the whole season of Janice and Jeffrey right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

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Die Hard Dads

Inspiration For Die Hard Dads

Die Hard is on IFC all Father's Day Long

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Photo Credit: Everett Collection, GIPHY

Yippee ki-yay, everybody! It’s time to celebrate the those most literal of mother-effers: dads!

And just in case the title of this post left anything to the imagination, IFC is giving dads balls-to-the-wall ’80s treatment with a glorious marathon of action trailblazer Die Hard.

There are so many things we could say about Die Hard. We could talk about how it was comedian Bruce Willis’s first foray into action flicks, or Alan Rickman’s big screen debut. But dads don’t give a sh!t about that stuff.

No, dads just want to fantasize that they could be deathproof quip factory John McClane in their own mundane lives. So while you celebrate the fathers in your life, consider how John McClane would respond to these traditional “dad” moments…

Wedding Toasts

Dads always struggle to find the right words of welcome to extend to new family. John McClane, on the other hand, is the master of inclusivity.
Die Hard wedding

Using Public Restrooms

While nine out of ten dads would rather die than use a disgusting public bathroom, McClane isn’t bothered one bit. So long as he can fit a bloody foot in the sink, he’s G2G.
Die Hard restroom

Awkward Dancing

Because every dad needs a signature move.
Die Hard dance

Writing Thank You Notes

It can be hard for dads to express gratitude. Not only can McClane articulate his thanks, he makes it feel personal.
Die Hard thank you

Valentine’s Day

How would John McClane say “I heart you” in a way that ain’t cliche? The image speaks for itself.
Die Hard valentines

Shopping

The only thing most dads hate more than shopping is fielding eleventh-hour phone calls with additional items for the list. But does McClane throw a typical man-tantrum? Nope. He finds the words to express his feelings like a goddam adult.
Die Hard thank you

Last Minute Errands

John McClane knows when a fight isn’t worth fighting.
Die Hard errands

Sneaking Out Of The Office Early

What is this, high school? Make a real exit, dads.
Die Hard office

Think you or your dad could stand to be more like Bruce? Role model fodder abounds in the Die Hard marathon all Father’s Day long on IFC.

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Founding Farters

Know Your Nerd History

Revenge of the Nerds is on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Everett Collection, GIFs via Giphy

That we live in the heyday of nerds is no hot secret. Scientists are celebrities, musicians are robots and late night hosts can recite every word of the Silmarillion. It’s too easy to think that it’s always been this way. But the truth is we owe much to our nerd forebearers who toiled through the jock-filled ’80s so that we might take over the world.

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Our humble beginnings are perhaps best captured in iconic ’80s romp Revenge of the Nerds. Like the founding fathers of our Country, the titular nerds rose above their circumstances to culturally pave the way for every Colbert and deGrasse Tyson that we know and love today.

To make sure you’re in the know about our very important cultural roots, here’s a quick download of the vengeful nerds without whom our shameful stereotypes might never have evolved.

Lewis Skolnick

The George Washington of nerds whose unflappable optimism – even in the face of humiliating self-awareness – basically gave birth to the Geek Pride movement.

Gilbert Lowe

OK, this guy is wet blanket, but an important wet blanket. Think Aaron Burr to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton. His glass-mostly-empty attitude is a galvanizing force for Lewis. Who knows if Lewis could have kept up his optimism without Lowe’s Debbie-Downer outlook?

Arnold Poindexter

A music nerd who, after a soft start (inside joke, you’ll get it later), came out of his shell and let his passion lead instead of his anxiety. If you played an instrument (specifically, electric violin), and you were a nerd, this was your patron saint.

Booger

A sex-loving, blunt-smoking, nose-picking guitar hero. If you don’t think he sounds like a classic nerd, you’re absolutely right. And that’s the whole point. Along with Lamar, he simultaneously expanded the definition of nerd and gave pre-existing nerds a twisted sort of cred by association.

Lamar Latrell

Black, gay, and a crazy good breakdancer. In other words, a total groundbreaker. He proved to the world that nerds don’t have a single mold, but are simply outcasts waiting for their moment.

Ogre

Exceedingly stupid, this dumbass was monumental because he (in a sequel) leaves the jocks to become a nerd. Totally unheard of back then. Now all jocks are basically nerds.

Well, there they are. Never forget that we stand on their shoulders.

Revenge of the Nerds is on IFC all month long.

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