Freitag, 20. März 2015

The Avengers 2: Age of Physical Casting

[Nachdem ich letzte Woche statt erbaulicher Trivialitäten hier einen Nachruf veröffentlicht habe, muss ich diese Woche meine verbliebenen zehn Lesen noch ein bisschen schlimmer verprellen. Aber auch heute ist das einfach etwas, das ich gerade schreiben muss, und auch wenn es auf Englisch sein muss, wüsste ich eben nicht, wo sonst ich es tun sollte.]

So I had high hopes for today. I spent basically the whole week in class, supervision, or meetings, but today I wanted to be productive, in the right way, the one that produces pages of writing. And then I had a chat in the kitchen while making coffee, one of the kind that last for about an hour. Which wasn’t bad in itself, but which kept me thinking about all the wrong things, and now I have to get at least this one thought out of my system.

Miguel and I were discussing research for the most time, and I leave it to him to distill our reflections into something coherent in his blog or, god willing, a book, but as usual, we at some point ended up arguing about superhero movies. We both like them, albeit mostly for different reasons (with his being, needless to say, all the wrong ones). And we both have our problems with them, which, again, come from different directions. But we agreed that action movies somehow never quite got physical acting right – not in the way, at least, that approximated something like the expressiveness of Al Pacino in The Godfather. He is doing so much in the opening of that movie by wearing the uniform and carrying himself like a soldier or, more specifically, like a young officer that he wouldn’t need to say a single word to express the conflict he has with his family, that he doesn’t belong with the other guests at the wedding.

But then I realized that physicality may be exactly what good superhero movies get right, and it might actually be one of the reasons why The Avengers worked for me. In a mediocre superhero comic book, all that sets apart the characters may be their costumes. Especially the 90s school of Marvel style artists, even the big names like Todd McFarlane and Marc Silvestri, have a tendency to draw characters very much alike. They don’t all look the same, but they are definitely made from the same template, a sort of superhero stencil. (This might be most apparent in the ‘gorgeous generic babe’ approach to female characters of that era, but that’s not the point I’m after here).

The Avengers, on the other hand, has a cast that is cleverly orchestrated in terms of physicality, and the movie even presents the characters in ways that emphasize the relative physicalities of the characters and actors. I am not simply talking about size, or physical training, or costume design, but of a casting that takes all these factors into consideration and does so not only for the individual actors, but for the group. One of the few things that people seem to agree on about The Avengers is that it’s the first movie to get the Hulk right, and while a lot of that might be in the writing, the CGI, and of course Marc Ruffalo’s performance, I would argue that it’s mostly because the Hulk is a contrastive figure – he only works against the backdrop of these other characters which are neither as dissimilar as the soldiers from the Eric Bana/Ang Lee version nor as similar as Abomination from the Edward Norton/Louis Leterrier version. And even with this character that is computer-generated for the greater part of the movie, it all starts with the casting.

The third Age of Ultron trailer has this one group shot that absolutely highlights what I’m talking about: Each of these people is pretty much in the prime of their physicality, and whereas some movies don’t even get their one main actor into the proper shape – remember Christian Bale’s chubbyish post-The Mechanic Batman in Batman Begins? –, here they are differentiated in a way that make perfect sense. At first sight, it’s simply: boobs, shoulders, arms, waist, undefined. But it’s much more than that, and I’d say we register it subliminally even in a two-second-shot. It’s the gorgeous woman who doesn’t look the least fragile, whose leather suit isn’t completely clinging, because she not only will kick you ass, but knows that you will hit back at some point. It’s the straight arrow who cannot but face you frontally and, while built like a brick shithouse, carries himself like a boyscout. It’s the Norse warrior who has to flaunt his superhuman arms and his emblematic weapon because his morals are called into question every time he interacts with those puny humans. It’s the cunning artificer, the trickster and magician who always wants to make us believe that he doesn’t have anything up his sleeve while he, in effect, is all sleeve (or suit, in his case), which is why he dresses, moves and looks like a ballerina by comparison (even with the female team member). And it’s the guy without a haircut, who is so nondescript that he is actually put in a cramped frame of his own, a man of size and gravitas who is made to look like a frightened child next to those other physicalities.

That is one of the key aspects for which I admire these movies: an almost dehumanizing obsession with the male and female anatomy that is executed through juxtaposing variations on the theme of “the perfect human body” – in a way, and that is important, that far transcends the 80s action movies’ comparative bicep studies of Schwarzenegger-Stallone-Weathers. If I was cynical I might liken it to the Boygroup/Girlgroup approach to pop music, if I was generous I would call it the incarnation of the ensemble-piece approach to casting. Maybe The Avengers was, to me, the Gosford Park of superhero movies, but that would make Joss Whedon the Robert Altman of genre cinema, and I’m not yet ready to make THAT argument.

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