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Retro Rental: If You’re Excited For ‘Avengers’ Try ‘Serenity’

Serenity
Universal Pictures

[Each week, inspired by what's in theaters or in the news or even just by random firings of neurons, "Retro Rental," by film critic James Rocchi, looks at an older film on disc or download that links up to the here-and-now ...]

Promoted, advertised and teased within an inch of its four-colored, high-flying life, ‘The Avengers‘ opens this weekend, and Disney gets to finally bust open the multi-billion-dollar toy chest it bought when it purchased Marvel Comics and play with all the action figures — Thor, Iron Man, Captain America, Black Widow, Hawkeye and the Hulk. Putting aside the fact the film feels like a hallucination you would have while locked in a sauna during a house party at Sundance in ’96 — “It was hot, it was loud, very few things made sense, and on occasion I saw Robert Downey, Jr. and Mark Ruffalo …” — it’s also a big step up for writer-director Joss Whedon, who’s given a big budget and big canvas and big characters to play with.

At the same time, though, Whedon has to return all the toys to the box pretty much as he found them so some other kids can play, which kinda limits what he can do; that sense of weird, corporate predetermination is why I found myself re-watching Whedon’s prior feature film, 2005′s ‘Serenity’ and, even in the absence of power armor and divine hammers and emerald forces of pure rage, think it’s a better film than ‘The Avengers,’ even as it’s very similar.

Both, for example, spring from prior works — although for ‘The Avengers,’ it’s some 70 years of comic-book history, and for ‘Serenity,’ a more-manageable 14-episode 2002-2003 run on Fox about the rag-tag crew of a spaceship in a future that’s a little too well-run by the powers that be. Both revolve around groups of people brought together more by chance than choice — although ‘Serenity”s crew and passengers are mostly mortal, and, therefore, a little more interesting. And both revolve around bad guys who want to, in the words of Nathan Fillion’s Captain Mal Reynolds, “… make people be good.”

Whedon’s always rooted for messy humanity over the cleanly inhuman in his work, and if that distinction works better in ‘Serenity’ than in ‘The Avengers,’ it’s in part because the former is driven by one very human bad guy, The Operative (played with pitch-perfect velvet menace by Chiwetel Ejiofor) while the latter has demi-God Tom Hiddleston and an army of faceless, nameless, CGI aliens.

‘Serenity’ is currently available to watch online via Netflix

And no, ‘Serenity’ isn’t as expensive as ‘The Avengers,’ but I like watching Whedon and his crew think around problems in that film as opposed to simply hurling money and pixels at them. And sometimes, they can’t even do that — the final battle in ‘Serenity’ hinges on one very big deus ex machina that comes out of nowhere very, very conveniently, and yet I’ll take that messy-but-skillful finale over watching a bunch of movie stars gazing up at a building with a machine on top of it as it hurls light into the sky, just like the end of ‘Transformers’ or ‘Men in Black’ or ‘Transformers 2′ or ‘X-Men’ or ‘Transformers 3′ or … well, you get the point.

‘The Avengers’ will make a lot of money and compared to, say, Fox’s ‘Fantastic Four’ or Warner’s ‘Green Lantern,’ it’s ‘Citizen Kane.’  But hopefully Whedon’s potential triumph at the box office will mean he can step back and make more films where the scale is just as widescreen but a little more down-to-earth, and one where the shades of grey being explored by characters like us are more important than the bright, bold colors of the costumes on the superheroes.

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