This week brought us two movies about idealists who seek to use their special abilities to make the world a better place. One showcases tap dance; the other, smashing.
The latter would be The Avengers, the long-awaited Marvel Studios blockbuster that assembles all the superheroes introduced to us in Iron Man (and its sequel), The Incredible Hulk, Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger.
If you missed those films (and the comics), here’s a primer: Iron Man is snarky billionaire Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) in a metal suit. The Hulk is the rage-induced alter ego of deceptively mellow scientist Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo). Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is a Norse demigod who speaks in Shakespeare in the Park dialogue (as Stark puts it). Captain America (Chris Evans) is a straight-arrow super-soldier who’s been in deep freeze since World War II and wasn’t happy to wake and find his world was history.
We still haven’t gotten to the supporting characters, including superpowered humans played by Scarlett Johansson and Jeremy Renner. Then there’s U.S. covert-ops mastermind Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), who persuades all the players to form a superhero supergroup and go after Thor’s brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston), who seeks to open an interdimensional gateway and deliver the Earth to aliens with mayhem on their minds.
Confused yet? Like all superhero films these days, The Avengers amounts to a collection of scenes of talking actors (some in capes) interspersed with fast-moving, explodey digital collages. That the digital collages are impressive goes without saying. The pleasant surprise is that the scenes with actual humans are coherent and funny. Writer-director Joss Whedon understands how to handle ensembles and sneak in character development between explosions, and he’s given this crazy-busy film the dramatic arc it needs to keep casual viewers’ attention.
The Avengers won’t convert committed haters of capes and tights, but it does make its super-people seem remarkably human.
Violet (Greta Gerwig), the protagonist of Damsels in Distress, may not have superpowers, but she’s every bit as proudly anachronistic as Captain America. A student at a fictional East Coast college, Violet leads a trio of girls who run a suicide-prevention center and attempt to lift their fellow undergrads’ morale (and morals) with tap dance, musical theater and gifts of sweet-smelling soap. She’s as opinionated and articulate as any character played by Woody Allen, and often quite wrongheaded. She’s also surprisingly likable.
If Jane Austen were alive today and making movies, they might look like the films of Whit Stillman, who wrote and directed Damsels. Though he’s been out of the game for 14 years, no one who enjoyed Metropolitan, Barcelona or The Last Days of Disco is likely to have forgotten Stillman’s unique mixture of enlightened conservatism and anarchic whimsy. This is the sort of film where characters can have an intense, straight-faced discussion about the proper plural of the word “doofus.”
As Violet faces challenges to her worldview from boorish frat boys, cynical college journalists and even a new convert to her group (Analeigh Tipton), Damsels shows the potential to become a smarter-than-average coming-of-age tale: a Rushmore for college women or a Clueless for adults.
Then, Stillman seems to lose interest. Damsels wanders off on various entertaining but ultimately irrelevant sidetracks, and its lack of focus renders it a slighter film. Still, Gerwig creates an eccentric every bit as memorable as The Avengers’ Tony Stark. And the plural of “doofus,” FYI, is “doufi.”