Wednesday, May 30, 2012

A Brief Review: "In theTall Grass" Part 1 of 2 (by Stephen King and Joe Hill)

Here is what I'm prepared to tell you about "In the Tall Grass":

(1)  It is a new short story written by Stephen King and Joe Hill.

(2)  It is being published in two parts, the first of which appears in the June/July 2012 issue (on newsstands now!), the second of which will appear in the August 2012 issue.

(3)  It is, based on Part 1, a good vintage-style high-concept horror story, of the sort which was once a King specialty.  It has since, arguably, become something of a Hill specialty.

and (4)  It is, based on Part 1, well worth your time.

What I'm about to say next may shock you.  It probably won't, but it may, especially if you are very easily shocked (i.e., if you are shocked by things like low low prices at the Walmart, or when Don cheats on someone on Mad Men, or when eating beans gives you the poots).

So if those things shock you, you'll almost certainly be shocked by the following recommendation: do not read Part 1 of "In the Tall Grass"!


You read that correctly.  I'm advising you NOT to read a Stephen King/Joe Hill story.  Even more shocking, I'm advising you not to read a King/Hill story that I very much enjoyed.


Why would I make such a blatantly contradictory recommendation?  Simple: because Part 1 of this story ends with no resolution whatsoever, and it's going to be two fucking months before you get to find out what happens in that titular tall grass.  So, really, it's not so much that I'm recommending that you not read the story; I'm just recommending that you wait two months and then read it all in one go.

"In the Tall Grass" is the story of a pair of siblings, Cal and Becky DeMuth, who are on a road trip.  They are very close, and act very much as most twins I have known act.  While tooling along in Kansas with the radio off and the windows down, they hear a child shouting for help.  The child is apparently lost inside a big field of tall grass, and they decide to help.

That's all you're getting out of me.

I very much enjoyed the first part of the story.  It's well-written, funny, scary, and ... incomplete.  See, thing is, I just can't judge it in this form; without knowing how it turns out, I don't know how to feel about the story.  Did I enjoy reading Part 1?  Absolutely.  Do I anticipate that Part 2 will reward my patience?  I do.

But I suspect that most readers -- be they King fans, Hill fans, fans of both, or fans of neither -- will mostly be more satisfied if they digest "In the Tall Grass" as a complete work, not as a serial one.

This, of course, should not stop you from buying a copy of the current issue of Esquire.  It's got other goodies, including a short but highly interesting interview with Hill wherein he talks about the process of collaborating with his father.  There's also an illuminating interview with Bruce Willis -- see him on the cover? -- in which he sounds, frankly, like a total douche.  Or, possibly, like the coolest guy ever.  Maybe even both.

So, if you're inclined, give it a buy.  And then sit on it for a couple of months; I'm guessing you'll be glad you did (in BOTH cases).

Monday, May 28, 2012

A Review of "If You Could See Me Now" (by Peter Straub)

The last time I reviewed a Peter Straub novel, it was Julia, his first foray into the horror genre (and also, essentially, the beginning of his career).  Prior to that, Straub had written two dramas, Marriages and Under Venus, the latter of which was not actually published until 1984 but was written over a decade earlier.  I reviewed those novels as well, and my assessments ran something like this: Marriages was simply not very good; Under Venus, unpublished though it may have been at the time, is a decent book, a definite improvement over Marriages; and Julia represented a vast leap in quality over Under Venus.

In 1977, Straub followed up the successful Julia with If You Could See Me Now, another Gothic horror story, and the writer took yet another significant leap in talent.  Have you ever watched one of those time-lapse videos of a house being constructed?  You begin with an empty field or something (Marriages), and then suddenly there is a flurry of activity, and you've got a wooden frame (Under Venus).  Next thing you know, workers moving at the speed of light have put up walls and a roof and windows and given the whole thing a coat of paint, and bam!, you've got a house (Julia).  In this hypothetical scenario, the video doesn't stop: instead, you realize that the workers were only building a guest house, and the next thing you know, there's a mansion standingbehind it.

At the risk of straining my metaphor, If You Could See Me Now isn't quite a mansion -- the mansion was his next novel, Ghost Story -- but it's certainly a quantum leap from Julia.  For a bit of context, 1977 was the year Stephen King was experiencing his own quantum leap forward with The Shining, and while If You Could See Me Now is maybe not in the same league with that masterpiece, I can definitely say that I loved it.

Friday, May 25, 2012

News from the Kingdom: May 25, 2012

Q:  Hello, Bryant.

A:  *sigh*  Hello...

Q:  Say, you sound a bit glum?  Everything copacetic?

A:  Yeah, sure, I guess so.

Q:  So ... no posts lately, I see.  Where you been?

A:  Uh ... around.

Q:  "Around"?

A:  Mmm-hmm.  Around.

Q:  Well, as excuses go, that's a shit one.

A:  You know we're the same person, and that this is a self-interview, right?

Q:  Uh ... yeah.  Yeah, yes, I knew that...

A:  "Okay," he said, skeptically.  "Move it along, then."

Q:  Can do.  Howsabout I ask you questions about recent happenings in the world of Stephen King, and you make witty banter about them?

A:  Sounds like a plan, Dan.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Bryant Has Issues #6 (Including Special Bonus Review of "The Avengers")

Not gonna bother lying to you, folks: this week's column is going to have virtually nothing to do with Stephen King, so apologies to ye if that's what ye've come a-seekin'.

No, this week's column is mainly just an excuse for me to write a review of the movie The Avengers (which, I should point out, was scored by Alan Silvestri, who also composed the score to Stephen King's Cat's Eye -- so THERE).  We'll get to that in a few.  But first:

Swamp Thing #8 ended on what seemed at the time like a gigantic cliffhanger.

Not to worry, though: it's resolved -- more or less -- this month. #9 is another good issue from Scott Snyder and artists Marco Rudy and Yanick Paquette; most of it consists of a fight between Swampy and Sethe, and while the fight comes to a satisfying conclusion, the issue still feels a bit brief and slight in comparison with some of the first eight issues.

Cause for concern?  I doubt it.  The final panel promises a new direction -- NOT a nude erection, mind you, so if you're reading this aloud to your mother for some reason, be sure to make the verbal distinction -- for the next storyline in the series.  I won't spoil anything, but I'll suggest than fans of old-school Swamp Thing should be fairly pleased with this particular development.

Meanwhile, in Animal Man, which also had a massive cliffhanger last month, things are still a bit up in the air.  Spoilers ahead, lol: Buddy, who has been essentially killed, is now a spirit existing within the red and trying to find his way to the Totems for help.  His body is possessed by one of the Hunters Three, so he's doing fun things like putting his hands into maggoty roadkill so as to commune with the Rot.  Yuck.

This comic is heading toward a summer crossover with Swamp Thing, and right at the end of the issue a character shows up who I can only assume is going to facilitate that crossover.

Good stuff, and I am 100% NOT regretting my decision to start buying this comic on a monthly basis.

Which is more than I can say for this one:

I'm an unashamed Star Trek fan, and have been for close to three solid decades now, and maybe even a bit more.  I love every iteration of it: the original series, The Next Generation (my favorite), Deep Space Nine, Voyager, Enterprise (warts and all), and the new Abrasmverse movies.  Love it all.  There are plenty of turds mixed in with the chocolate peanuts, but I can live with that.

I'm not sure I can keep reading this comic, though.  I wanted to love it, and would have settled for liking it, but I realized this issue that I just don't.  The art is terrible, the storylines have verged on incompetence at times, and overall, I simply don't care.

This is a monthly $3.99 that could be going to something better, and I think it's time to make that change.

Conversely, this month's issue of the poorly-titled Ultimate Comics Spider-Man (which is, admittedly, a better title than Ultimate Comics Ultimates, which actually exists) continues to reaffirm my faith in this series.

Most of the issue focuses on Miles' uncle, a.k.a. The Prowler, who is attempting to leverage Miles into using his new powers to help him bring down The Scorpion.  Miles doesn't want to do it, but it looks like he may have no choice.

The art this month is by David Marquez, who does an outstanding job of filling in for series regular Sara Pichelli.  It seems like a title with art as good as this comic typically has could spring for a better cover.  In fact, the cover art for this "Ultimate Comics" line is generally boring as hell; this month is no exception.

But that's okay: read it for what's between the covers.


And now, let's move along to a review of The Avengers.  I'm going to keep it light on spoilers, although if the box-office from this weekend is any indication, there may not be all that many people left to potentially spoil.  Still, I'll play it safe.  I might get into certain plot points, but I won't cover anything that is supposed to surprise you, and I won't give away any of the best lines of dialogue (much though I might want to do so).

I approach this movie in at least two specific ways: as a lifelong semi-casual fan of Marvel Comics, and as a devoted Joss Whedon fan of the last decade or so.  I always enjoy it when I get to bring double-barreled nerd-dom to bear on a movie, and when the results turn out as well as they have turned out here, I tend to get a little ecstatic over it.

Odd thing is, I saw this movie twice last week -- once in 2D on Tuesday night and once in IMAX 3D on Wednesday night -- and yet I never got ecstatic over it at all.  This is not to suggest that I didn't like the movie.  I liked it quite a lot.  But from the second the movie began, I seemed to be merely taking it for granted. "Oh," I'd think, "there's Tony Stark again, saying things that are really, really funny." Or, "Oh, there's The Hulk, smashing things."  And so forth.

It was an odd reaction, and an atypical one for me.  However, over the course of the weekend, in hearing people talk about it, and then in finding myself in a Facebook conversation where I and a few other people were effortlessly tossing off one quote from the movie after another, I began to realize that the reaction was actually quite simple: I'd immediately taken the movie for granted because it seemed utterly effortless as a piece of entertainment.

In other words, I simply failed to realize how good it is.  But enough about me; let's talk about The Avengers.

This movie is the culmination of a process Marvel Studios began several years ago, and in order to understand that process, you've got to take a few steps back and consider the history of Marvel Comics on film.  For decades, Marvel -- when it came to movies, at least -- was a near-complete nonentity.  Marvel's big competitor, DC, had massive hits with the first couple of Superman films, and with the first three Batman movies; Marvel, meanwhile, really had only a successful television show, The Incredible Hulk.  That all finally began to change in 1998, when New Line released Blade, a successful horror/action hybrid loosely based on a Marvel character.  Then, 2000's X-Men from 20th Century Fox was a surprise smash hit.  It was followed in 2002 by the phenomenal success of Sony's Spider-Man.

Marvel itself controlled none of these properties; it had sold the film rights to a number of its characters -- the ones mentioned above, as well as Daredevil, The Hulk, and the Fantastic Four -- to various studios, all of whom seemed eager to get in on the new superhero-movie craze kicked off by X-Men.  By the middle of the decade, it was obvious that the craze was not dying down; if anything, it was intensifying, and so Marvel Studios decided to finance its own film, which it would then release through Paramount.  Taking a look at the characters it had never gotten around to selling off to some other studio, Marvel noticed that it still owned the film rights to virtually all of the major members of The Avengers.  There was one exception: The Hulk.  However, Universal had not had the success they hoped for with Ang Lee's film take on the character, so Marvel -- correctly guessing that Universal would have no real desire to retain the rights to the character -- was able to reacquire the big green guy for their own productions.

Marvel then came up with a plan so ambitious as to seem ridiculous: they decided to make individual movies for several of the key Avengers, and use the hoped-for successes of those films as a means of creating audience interest in seeing a team-up movie.  In other words, Marvel would get to the main event by first creating and releasing a series of spinoffs that introduced the various characters.

This was an unprecedented idea, and the first two movies out of the gate both hit theatres in 2008: Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk.  The former was a smash hit, starring Robert Downey Jr. in an immediately-iconic role as Tony Stark, the smart-alleck genius with enough operating capital to build himself a robotic battle suit; the latter, starring Edward Norton as tormented scientist Bruce Banner, got good reviews and was generally seen as a vast improvement on Ang Lee's film, but only had so-so success at the box office.

There were several strokes of genius in these two movies, not the least of which was casting Downey and then building a movie around his strengths, but the biggest may have been adding a post-credits tag scene to Iron Man: in it, Samuel L. Jackson (!) showed up for about a minute, telling Tony Stark that he wanted to talk to him about something called "the Avengers Initiative."  Audiences, who had been tipped off that there was a bonus scene at the very very end of the movie, went nuts over this; and the few of them who went to see The Incredible Hulk went similarly nuts when Robert Downey Jr. showed up at the very very end of that movie playing Stark again.

In other words, the news got out that Marvel might be building to an Avengers movie, and fans said "Hell yes, we'll have one of THOSE please!"  Marvel furthered its plans along those lines with Iron Man 2, adding S.H.I.E.L.D. into the mix and introducing Scarlett Johansson as Agent Natasha "Black Widow" Romanov.  The movie lacked the snap and charm of the first film, but audiences still showed up in droves, and by this time Marvel had solidified its plans for the next few films.  The post-credits scene on Iron Man 2 introduced the concept for the next one: Thor, which came out the same summer as Captain America: The First Avenger.  Taken as a duo, those films served as near-direct lead-ins to The Avengers, which was already in production by the time they were released.

In other words, by the time those two movies came out, there was no looking back.

Consider, if you would, the sheer number of points along that path where Marvel could have fallen down and broken their hip and been completely unable to continue.  If both Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk had been failures, that might have happened.  Instead, though Hulk was not the huge hit they'd hoped for, Iron Man -- despite starring Downey, who had never been a box-office star and who had attracted years of bad press due to substance-abuse problems (which he seemed by then to have finally kicked for good), and being directed by the guy who brought you Elf -- was successful probably beyond even the most liberal estimates.

Then, they hired a complete unknown to play Thor, and hired director Kenneth Branagh to direct him; and hired Chris Evans -- who'd already played a Marvel hero in competitor 20th Century Fox's Fantastic Four films -- to play Captain America, with journeyman director Joe Johnston directing him.  Any of these choices could have proved disastrous, but instead Hemsworth seemed like Thor brought to life, Branagh used his considerable skill with hifalutin' dialogue to ground the fantastical excesses of Asgard in reality, Evans exuded courage and leadership as Cap, and Johnston used the skills he learned as art director on Raiders of the Lost Ark (and first applied as director of the lamentably under-appreciated The Rocketeer) to craft a pitch-perfect WWII superhero flick.  Neither Thor nor Captain America were huge hits, but they both did well enough, and -- perhaps more importantly, in the long run -- were well-liked by audiences.

Then came the time to pick a director for The Avengers.  Would it be Jon Favreau, who had helmed the first two Iron Man films?  He bowed out of the running early on.  Joe Johnston's name got kicked around a bit, but nobody seemed excited by the idea, and neither Branagh nor Incredible Hulk director Louis Leterrier were apparently ever under consideration.  Ultimately, Marvel settled on writer/director Joss Whedon, the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly.  This was a stroke of sheer inspiration: Whedon, who has written comics for Marvel (including Astonishing X-Men) and also applied a great many superhero tropes to both Buffy and its spinoff series, Angel, not only understood the world he was coming into, he also was well-versed at writing the type of multi-character action-adventure story that The Avengers would need to be.  On the other hand, Whedon's most recent television series, Dollhouse, had been both a commercial and an artistic failure, and he had worked for several years in a failed attempt to bring a Wonder Woman movie to theatres for DC and Warner Bros.  Pundits groused that hiring Whedon might prove to be a major miscalculation.

The film has now made $641 million worldwide in its first week-and-a-half of release, and combined with excellent reviews and rapturous audience acceptance -- an unheard-of A+ score from CinemaScore surveys -- those particular pundits have vanished.  In fact, I suspect Whedon's agent is now one of the busiest people in all of Hollywood; it's all but certain that Whedon's name is now at the top of the list for virtually any upcoming mega-budget movie with a slant toward action or science fiction or fantasy.

A big part of the reason why The Avengers works is that it's simple: a bad guy shows up, steals something from the good guys, who then call more powerful good guys into service; the powerful good guys don't get along very well for a while, but they eventually manage to (mostly) put aside their differences, and combine their considerable force in a fight against the bad guy and his army.

That's it.  That's really all there is to this movie.  However, each of those stages of the story has its own arc, and is able to both be satisfying in its own right and also capable of setting up the stakes for the next stage of the story.  In some ways, this mirrors the conventions of video-game storytelling, but it also reflects both television and comics, both of which Whedon is very familiar with.  Because of this, the movie never feels rushed, nor does it ever feel languid; it's straight-forward, but with enough complexity that individual scenes can have oodles of subtext.  Some of this is Whedon's touch, but not all: a lot of the credit must go to Marvel Studios at large for having the sense to craft individually-compelling films that nevertheless worked toward the common goal of preparing for this very movie.

Let's touch on the individual players here.

Robert Downey Jr. returns as Tony Stark for the third time, and he's just as great here as he was in Iron Man and Iron Man 2.  Stark's Iron Man is clearly the dominant character for Marvel Studios so far, at least as far as the box-office goes, so it would have been both easy and understandable to make Stark the dominant character in this film.  Instead, Whedon pulls off a marvelous bit of sleight-of-hand: he casts Stark as both the potential downfall for the group AND as the cause for its eventual cohesion.  Stark doesn't overpower the rest of the characters; he serves as a catalyst to them (just as, in some ways, the Iron Man films have done for the other Marvel Studios films).  Stark's massive ego threatens to undermine them at various points, but his seemingly-incongruous (but actually quite logical) faith in Bruce Banner is a big part of what eventually causes the group to genuinely achieve cohesion.  Many writers would have felt the need to make Tony the undeniable leader of the group; Whedon -- and, probably, Marvel -- knows that Tony works better when he's a bit of an irritant, one who kicks a lot of ass and cracks a lot of jokes and only becomes heroic when he really has no other choice.

It works completely, and I can't wait to see Downey again in Iron Man 3 next summer (directed by Shane Black, who worked with Downey previously on Kiss Kiss Bang Bang).  As far as I'm concerned, he can keep playing this character for the next twenty years, if he wants to.

Next up, let's talk about The Hulk.  Now, I'm one of the rare people who actually liked Ang Lee's The Hulk; it's no classic, maybe, but I think more of it works than doesn't, and I like Eric Bana in the role.  I liked Edward Norton in The Incredible Hulk, too, and I was initially quite bummed out that he wasn't returning for The Avengers.  I was even more bummed out when I heard Mark Ruffalo had been cast in the role; he's an actor I've never warmed to at all.  Then again, I loathed Robert Downey Jr. prior to Iron Man, and while I'd hesitate to say that I've now been turned as far around on Ruffalo as I was on Downey by that movie, I certainly have give Ruffalo all the credit in the world.  He does great work here, playing Bruce Banner with excellent shades of meekness, resigned sarcasm, confidence, fear, and -- yep -- anger.  Can Ruffalo carry his own solo Hulk movie?  Beats me, but I'd be pleased to see him get a chance.

Enough about Ruffalo.  Let's talk about the big green guy himself.  I can't do it without indulging in a few spoilers, though, so if you don't want to know anything about the character's arc over the course of this movie, find the photo of Thor and skip to it.

Every review of this movie I read prior to its release said that The Hulk would probably be most people's favorite character from the movie, and those reviews were probably correct.  I can't quite say he's my favorite character here, but he's certainly one of them, and Whedon uses him so well that both The Incredible Hulk and (especially) The Hulk now may as well exist only as footnotes; THIS is likely to become the definitive film version of the character.

The reason for this is that Whedon seemingly understands that in and of itself, Bruce Banner's inner turmoil is just not very interesting in a comic-book-movie context.  Maybe Christopher Nolan could make something out of that type of story, but even he probably couldn't do it within the confines of what is essentially a romp of a movie.  Whedon doesn't even try.  Instead, he uses Banner's turmoil as a plot device: first, as a threat constantly looming over the heads of the other Avengers (in this way, The Hulk functions as a bit of a metaphor for their inability to work together), and then as a cudgel when he literally begins just smashing the hell out of the bad guys (serving, in these scenes, as a metaphor for the happiness we feel at seeing the team finally get its act together).  I've seen a few people express the opinion that the film fails to make a transition between dangerous Hulk and helpful Hulk, but I disagree: this is handled by one key line of dialogue from Banner that makes it clear that he can use The Hulk -- "the other guy," as he calls him -- for his own purposes if he chooses to do so.  In other words, when he wants to, he can direct The Hulk; this doesn't mean there's no danger, but as long as Banner is acting consciously, it's all good.

What does this mean to the big picture?  Well, it means that filmmakers wrangling with The Hulk no longer have to make existential movies about a man's dark inner psyche; instead, they can use the character to just tear shit up, which is all we really want to see from The Hulk anyways.  Scenes of The Hulk smashing, with occasional moments of lip-service to the idea of Banner as a man in turmoil.  Whether that approach can work for a solo movie is something that nobody seems to be sure about; like I said, I'd be pleased to see Marvel give it a shot.  But I'd also be pleased for Banner and "the other guy" to simply show up in an Avengers movie every three or four years, or maybe put in the occasional guest appearance in some other hero's movie.  For example, if Marvel wanted to use an appearance by Banner and The Hulk to entice audiences to turn out to see a film featuring a new hero (Black Panther, for example, or Ant Man, or Doctor Strange, or Luke Cage, or Moon Knight, or Iron First, or even to simply spice up a S.H.I.E.L.D. movie), that could work.

Either way, people are going to be buzzing about The Hulk BIG-TIME after seeing this movie.  He has at least six of the movie's very best moments, and kids are going to absolutely lose their shit over him.

Also coming off extremely well here (and likely to also be a favorite of kids): Thor.  When Marvel was casting the role a couple of years ago, I was a big proponent of seeing Alexander Skarsgard (of True Blood fame) land the role.  Looking back on that, it's virtually impossible for me to see anyone other than Chris Hemsworth in the role; he's everything you need Thor to be, from powerful to imperious to charming to cocky.  And yet, there is also a softness to him that makes it more than plausible for him to have adopted Earth as a sort of secondary home; for a godlike character like Thor, humans -- even powerful ones, like Tony Stark and Steve Rogers -- would have to seem a bit like pets, and Hemsworth is able to sell that idea, too.

Thor was the movie that, during the ramp-up to The Avengers, was frequently cited as the big potential stumbling block: how, people speculated, could Marvel possibly make it plausible for a sci-fi/fantasy universe like Asgard and the galactic backdrop for Thor and his ancillary characters to exist side-by-side with relatively grounded characters like Tony Stark.  After all, a man building a robotic suit to fly around in may be an out-there idea, but compared to a blond guy who uses a big hammer to wallop Frost Giants and whatnot, and occasionally flies by twirling the hammer really really fast, it's practically a Woody Allen movie.

It was a legitimate concern, but Marvel managed to make it work.  A big part of this is due to how good Hemsworth is in the movie, but let's give credit to some of the other involved people, as well: for example, Anthony Hopkins and Natalie Portman, who helped in the solo Thor movie to make the character seem both bigger than life and relatably humane (if not quite human).  In The Avengers, Whedon uses Thor primarily for his muscle, particularly in two of the movie's best action scenes, but he also allows Hemsworth's sense of humor to come through on a few occasions, and continues the first film's reliance on the idea that even though he is a villain, Loki IS Thor's brother, and Thor loves him.

Speaking of Loki, he is played here by Tom Hiddleston, who did a great job with the character in Thor and manages to do an even better job the second go-'round.  He's a powerful physical presence -- after all, he's an Asgardian -- but is also a masterful judge of character, and, true to his trickster form, plays everyone against each other in order to keep them off-balance.  At the same time, Hiddleston shows occasional moments of pathos; this is a hurt, scared being who is smarting very badly from lies told to him for his whole life, and while he is apparently using the alien Chitauri to accomplish his goals, it is plain as day that he knows he is actually being used by them; he just doesn't have an alternative, as he sees it, and he's forcing himself to pretend he's in control when really he's anything but.

Almost all of that is rendered as subtext, and Hiddleston carries it off without a hitch.  This guy seems to be a major talent in the making; I'm curious to see where he goes from here.

Returning as Steve "Captain America" Rogers, Chris Evans continues to do solid work in the role.  I was a big fan of his solo movie, which, I think, is still my favorite of all the Marvel Studios flicks so far.  However, I was a little concerned that he might not fit into The Avengers as well as some of the other team members; his character arc in his solo movie took him from being a man who wanted to serve but couldn't to being a man who was the ultimate soldier to then being a man who was lost in an unfamiliar time.  Here again, Whedon seems to known precisely what to do: just let Steve continue to be a man out of time, and not give him the time to worry about it.  At least two of the movie's best lines come directly out of this fish-out-of-water element, and Chris Evans sells them perfectly.  Cap's unfamiliarity with the modern world isn't leaned on much apart from that, though; instead, the movie focuses on his honesty, his resolve, and his innate skill as not only a soldier but a Captain.  Here, when a leader needs to step forward, he steps forward; that's just all there is to it.

I'm very curious to see where the character goes in the second Captain America film.  Presumably, Steve will still be wrangling with the fact that he's now living in an era nearly seventy years further on than his own.  There's plenty of gold to be mined out of them there hills, and Chris Evans seems to be quite well-suited for the task.

Let's talk about Samuel L. Jackson.

This guy has, thus far, probably not gotten anywhere near as much credit as he deserves for the success not only of The Avengers, but the Marvel Studios film universe as a whole.  Earlier, I stated my belief that it was the Nick Fury cameo at the end of Iron Man that primed the pump for audiences to be excited about the notion of a large-scale series of Marvel movie crossovers.  I believe that to be an accurate assessment, but let's pause for a moment to ask ourselves if that has more to do with Nick Fury or with Sam Jackson himself.

Me...?  I think it was Jackson more so than Fury.

Honestly, how many people do you know who have no idea who Samuel L. Jackson is?  Your Mom and Dad probably remember him from A Time to Kill; your cool uncle is a HUGE fan thanks to Pulp Fiction; your stoner friends love him from Snakes on a Plane and from his reading of "Go the Fuck to Sleep!"; your nerdy cousin loves him because he is Mace Windu in the Star Wars prequels; and your niece and nephew love Frozone in The Incredibles, and when that iPhone commercial for Siri comes on, they totally recognize him.  For whatever reason, he's never been the kind of guy who has been a big box-office star in his own right, but it's time to face facts: Samuel L. Jackson is a cultural icon, and is one of the most recognizable movie stars of the past couple of decades.

The number of people who could have slid into that tiny role in Iron Man and yet somehow conveyed the essence of a larger, infinitely more exciting universe is very small indeed.  Nick Fury needs to seem like a guy who can, at least in terms of personality, go head to head with guys who fly and come from Asgard and turn into nine-foot-tall monsters.  As an actor, Sam Jackson can stand toe-to-toe with Robert Downey Jr. and not bat an eye; but, at the same time he doesn't overpower him.  Put the wrong actor in that role in Iron Man and it falls flat, either because Nick Fury feels like a wimp in comparison to Tony Stark, or because you've gone the route of casting a superstar who instantly overshadows the whole thing.  Instead, with Sam Jackson, we got someone who we're used to seeing in a supporting capacity.  It was inspired casting, and I think Marvel is currently reaping the first real rewards of that decision.

In The Avengers, Jackson -- like everyone else -- gets several great lines, and he also gets to be a hero in ways the other characters don't.  Plus, in one scene Whedon gives him a rocket launcher.

Marvel's upcoming slate of releases includes both Iron Man 3 and Thor 2 in 2013, plus Captain America 2 and an as-yet-unspecified release for 2014.  Personally, I'm hoping that second 2014 release ends up being a S.H.I.E.L.D.-centric movie, with Nick Fury as the lead and Black Widow and Hawkeye along for the ride.  We all know Jackson can carry a movie, and we all know Fury can carry a story; so make it Happen, Marvel, and hire Quentin Tarantino to direct it.  It'll be solid gold, I promise.

Speaking of Black Widow, she is played by Scarlett Johansson, and for some reason, the occasional critic seems to be surprised that she is kinda awesome in this movie.  Now, I'll grant you that she was only so-so in Iron Man 2, but guys, come on; this time, she's being directed by Joss Whedon, the guy who somehow managed to make it plausible that Sarah Michelle Gellar and Eliza Dushku and Summer Glau were badasses.  So for him to have achieved something similar with Johansson is  not something it required any precognitive abilities to predict.

Clint "Hawkeye" Barton -- who had a cameo in Thor, but is essentially making his debut here -- is played by Jeremy Renner.  Renner, as you might recall, was awesome in The Hurt Locker, and was also pretty damn good in Brad Bird's Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol last winter.  As if that wasn't enough, he will be appearing as the new star of the Jason Bourne movies (though not actually playing Jason Bourne) in The Bourne Legacy later this summer.

To be frank, he plays badass pretty well, and that's honestly the only reason Hawkeye works in this movie.  The character is and always has been fairly silly, but thankfully, nobody here makes him wear a purple mask, and that steely glint in Renner's eyes helps to sell what could otherwise have been a major distraction.  Apart from that, the character fails to make a huge impact.  A lot of that is because for the majority of the film, Hawkeye is being used by Loki, who has him under his thrall; no time for character development when you're in thrall to a godlike villain.  That's no spoiler, by the way; it happens in the first few minutes of the movie.

All in all, I'd say the talk of a spinoff Hawkeye movie is ill-founded.  I don't think it would work, at least not yet.  But I've been wrong before, and Renner is clearly up to the task, so who knows.

So: where does Marvel Studios go from here?  I'm writing this early on Monday morning after the movie's opening weekend in North America, and the box-office results have been nothing short of staggering.  The initial estimates: $200.3 million in its first three days.  Add to that an already-massive worldwide gross, and you're looking at a movie that now seems suddenly to have a real chance at becoming the top-grossing film ever.  It's unlikely, but one way or another, it's going to get within hollerin' distance of Avatar, and that is truly amazing news.

With that in mind, the obvious answer as to where Marvel Studios goes from here is this: to another Avengers movie, and as quick as is feasible from a creative standpoint.  The movie itself certainly hints at a specific direction in the first of its two post-credits scenes, and while I'm not going to give that direction away, I think it's safe to assume that our collective chains are not being yanked: clearly, that's the character we can expect to see in The Avengers 2, presumably fighting alongside our stalwart heroes from this first team-up.

Will Marvel try to introduce a new Avenger or two into the mix for the sequel?  It seems like a strong possibility.  The two most-frequently rumored candidates are Ant Man (Scott Pilgrim director Edgar Wright has been not-so-secretly developing a movie featuring that character for a while now) and Doctor Strange (whose occult magic automatically stopped seeming so far-fetched the very second the trippy fantasy elements of Thor worked so well).  However, there is an entire stable of characters to choose from, and while none of them are as well-known as the ones we've gotten so far, at this point Marvel can obviously be relied upon to make good decisions for itself.  There's also the possibility that it might regain some of the characters it had previously licensed to other studios, so in-universe reboots featuring Daredevil and The Fantastic Four are theoretical possibilities.

Even more appealing: the company could try to work out a deal with Sony and Fox (respectively) to allow appearances by Spider-Man and the various characters associated with the X-Men.  If The Avengers has taught us anything, it's that when heroes manage to put aside their differences and their egos long enough to work together, they can truly get shit done.  It'd be nice for Hollywood -- not to mention Washington -- to learn that lesson, too.

I'm not going to hold my breath waiting on that to happen, but if nothing else is clear about the company's future, we've certainly got more movies with Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America to look forward to.

For now, that's good enough for me.