Note: this review is safe for unspoiled humans.
Writing this review is going to be interesting. I’m kind of arrogantly assuming that people will read this and use it (alongside other, better qualified reviews) as a basis to inform their decision on whether they see it or not. But how do you critically assess something that’s so dependent on confounding audience expectations?
Here’s what I’ll tell you about THE CABIN IN THE WOODS: it’s about a spooky cabin in the woods that is visited by some teenagers. It’s a horror-comedy. It is written by Joss Whedon (THE AVENGERS, Buffy, Angel) and Drew Goddard. It is ‘post-modern’ horror, in the same sense that SCREAM is – it assumes you’ve seen a horror film before, and are familiar with a few of the genre’s tropes.
That’s about all I’m willing to give away, although the trailer reveals much more, and from the first five minutes tell you’re pretty much told that the film’s up to something. Even if you’re privy to a bit more information, however, I think it’s safe to say that THE CABIN IN THE WOODS is still going to surprise you. It understands that subverting expectations is at the root of all horror, and all comedy for that matter, and this is something it manages to do consistently with great skill and impeccable timing.
Note: I'll be calling the film THE AVENGERS in the following post, as opposed to the new UK title AVENGERS ASSEMBLE because I am lazy and fear change, in that order.
OK, I’m in.
Just to clarify. I’ve always been more of DC guy than a Marvel guy, although I did have a brief flirtation with being a Marvel man a few years ago when the Civil War mini-series was going. I also dip in and out of Ed Brubaker’s Captain America and Matt Fraction’s Invincible Iron Man as I’m a fan of both writers, and I also pick up Daredevil every now and again, as he’s by far my favourite Marvel superhero (which makes the achingly mediocre Affleck-tation all the more painful). I’m definitely more of an Avengers person than an X-Men person, which I think puts me in a minority – that said, I haven’t read any actual Avengers comics in a very long time. As for the movies – I’ve enjoyed them all to varying degrees (if we’re discounting the two Hulk movies, and frankly who isn’t at this point?), but I haven’t actively loved a Marvel film since SPIDERMAN 2.
As a result, I’ve been vaguely interested in THE AVENGERS, largely due to the involvement of good guy Joss Whedon, but I’d never felt the HOLY SHIT excitement than many seem to have been enjoying until now.
This trailer is great in just about every way it’s possible to be great. It’s brilliantly edited, for a start. It’s not needlessly enigmatic – the story, the chracters, the conflicts and the beats of the story are set up perfectly, but crucially it doesn’t give away the whole plot of the film like a lot of modern trailers do. It gives you exactly as much as you need to know about the film, while still adding in a couple of amazing context free WTF moments.
One trope that’s prevalent in nearly all blockbuster trailers is the a snapshot of something indescribably epic, followed by a jump cut to black – the tease of unimaginable spectacle that will only become clear to you once you go see the film. Think the White House exploding in INDEPENDENCE DAY, or the tsunami crashing into the coast in DEEP IMPACT.
The trouble is (at least for me) is that the crazy CGI shots of battles, explosions, and disasters have become so prevalent that I’m totally numbed there’s virtually nothing you can show me that’s going to shock or impress me any more, spectacle wise. Show me a world folding in on itself while a intergalactic space battle rages in its orbit and I’ll show you a fat, yawning mouth that belongs to me.
I was thinking this during the shot where Iron Man is battling his way through a city scape, firing lasers and getting fired at. Same old, same old. A lot of computer generated sound and fury signifying nothing that I don’t quite comprehend.
Then the Hulk appeared from nowhere to save him, and I was out of my seat. Same with the shot of OHMYGODWHATISTHAT at the end. Get away from him, Downey Man! You are but a speck on its mandibles!
It’s these two shots that made me realise how ingenious the whole concept of THE AVENGERS is, and how successful it’s going to be. What’s been missing from most blockbusters in recent years is genuine character development. The increased reliance on delivering special effects spectacle has squeezed out more and more time spent getting to know and/or care about the characters who are in the middle of these crazily intricate, technically stunning worlds. That character development is essential for an audience to give a fig about happens in the film (especially in a time when special effects have sort of plateaued), or ultimately the actors become just as disposable as the pile of pixels inevitably attacking them.
What’s brilliant about THE AVENGERS is – we already know these characters. And not just the characters, but these particular interpreatations of those characters. All the character development’s been done, in some cases years ago, in IRON MAN 1 and 2, THOR, THE INCREDIBLE HULK and CAPTAIN AMERICA. We know what Downey Jr’s Iron Man, Chris Hemsworth’s Thor, and Chris Evans’s Cap will be like, and (hopefully) we’re already invested in them.
Crucially, this means the spectacle’s already been earned before anyone’s even stepped foot in the cinema. We’ve already got our context – we know Downey Jr’s Iron Man is brave and fearless but also cocky and foolhardy; we know the Hulk struggles with channelling his rage into good or even into anything that can be controlled; that’s why the Hulk/Iron Man moment has actual resonance and an emotional impact in the frigging trailer.
So the ability to concentrate on pure spectacle is combined with the sheer geeky pleasure of seeing the first ever big blockbuster cross-over realised on screen, by people who actually know what they’re doing and have money (see ALIENS VS PREDATOR and FREDDY VS JASON for what happens when this isn’t the case).
This genuinely feels like a recipe for a film we’ve never been able to see before. If Marvel pull it off, it’s something we might get used to seeing – you can bet the JUSTICE LEAGUE movie that’s been in development hell for years will be fast-tracked if this ends up killing at the box office. What else? How about ROBOCOP VS TERMINATOR? KING KONG VS TRANSFORMERS? BATMAN VS SUPERMAN? ASH VS THE DALEKS? MUPPETS VS GREMLINS?
I could be cynical about all this inevitable brand cross-pollination and hold it up as a prime example of an increasingly homogenised artistic landscape slowly being poisoned by its own nostalgia…but then if you’d gone back and shown my 11 year old self the trailers for THE AVENGERS, THE HOBBIT, and THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, I’m pretty sure seeing all my 90s nerd dreams realised at once would have resulted in my head exploding 30 seconds in.
Yes, the motives behind all of these films are cynical. But somehow the suits have managed to find their way back to the heart of what makes the original blockbusters so special, even if it was probably by accident – impeccably realised and technically impressive fantastical worlds, sure, but ones that are populated by iconic characters, brilliantly realised, by film-makers who have been given the time and space they need to make us care about them.