The Avengers has a lot of geeky charm to it – the sort of giddy “this is so cool!” spectacle that appeals to the popcorn-munching child in each of us. That’s more than enough help it coast through a somewhat muddled first act, through a stronger second act and into a truly awesome finale. I think that the carefully choreographed large-scale action sequence that caps the film off might be worth a ticket alone. While there seem to be some very fundamental problem juggling a cast this large in a movie that technically a sequel to at least four films, Joss Whedon knows his audience well enough to ensure that most of the individual moments are satisfying, even if the overall film feels a tad uneven.
I think it’s worth reflecting on what an interesting accomplishment The Avengers actually is. Whatever you might think about big-budget franchise films, the structure of Marvel’s super hero films has been incredibly interesting. The movie follows four different character arcs from five different films. While there was a fairly minimal overlap with each other in terms of basic plotting, they all lead it to this single film. Most franchises tend to develop in a logical progression one film at a time, with threads flowing from one to the next. Instead, plot points, characters, macguffins and dynamics all pour towards The Avengers from all possible angles.
It’s certainly daunting, and I can’t imagine that it was an easy task for Whedon or fellow writer Zak Penn to smooth each of those streams into one gigantic pool of film footage. There’s no getting around it: The Avengers isn’t perfect. There are significant flaws, especially during the first act when Whedon is tasked with re-introducing all these characters and plot points from earlier films to audiences who may have seen some, but not all, of the previous films.
To be fair to Whedon, every character gets a fair share of lovely moments. Each member of the ensemble is effectively characterised. I had worried, based on the trailers and the towering financial success of Iron Man and Iron Man 2, that this would essential by Iron Man & His Amazing Friends, but it isn’t at all. There are some problems with this approach evident early in the film - at times, the script can’t seem to decide if it’s introducing or reintroducing characters to the audience.
On the one hand, Captain America gets a whole twenty-second flashback encapsulation of his film including spliced footage. On the other, Thor’s back story is only fleetingly and obliquely referenced and the script makes the slyest possible references to the last Hulk film. In fact, all of those references seem to gently prod the studio, affectionately mocking the final cut and using a deleted scene as an emotional hook.
Still, Whedon is sure to give each character at least one or two impressive character moments or telling interactions with one another, and uses each member of his ensemble effectively in the finale. This is an understandable approach, and probably the fairest to all involved, but it has problems. Some of these are practical – as it seems to take Thor a few hours to bother to pick up his hammer while we catch up with everybody else - but some are fundamental.
The most obvious is that the movie lacks a viewpoint character. Towards the start of the film, it looks like we might be watching Steve Rogers adjust to the modern world packed with men in metallic suits, green rage monsters or ancient gods. When Nick Fury arrives with a dossier, Steve asks, “Trying to put me back in the world?”As the movie starts, it seems like Steve’s confusion about the complexities of modern living might make him a focal point for reconciling the rather different bunches of characters and backgrounds.
However, he’s swept aside pretty quickly, and put on an even keel with Iron Man and Thor. Of course, Thor doesn’t get the smoothest introduction at all. He literally drops out of the sky – apparently sent by his father, despite the fact that Branagh’s Thor apparently saw Asgard permanently separated from Earth. Thor’s dialogue with Loki quick handwaves that plot point, and it also brushes over something that worked rather well in their own film. We discover that Thor learned about his brother’s adoption off-screen, and any impact this has on their relationship is downplayed.
Indeed, the mythos established in Thor was always going to be the toughest to tie into The Avengers. Iron Man is just a dude in a suit. Captain America is a soldier on steroids. The Hulk is a big green rage monster created by a science experiment gone wrong. Thor is… an alien who is actually a god. You’d imagine that would raise a few eyebrows among the superhero types. Especially since Thor’s brother Loki is given the task of playing the villain in this movie. However, Whedon seems to just sort of gloss over that quite quickly, with Iron Man dismissing him as “Shakespeare in the park.” Cap gets a nice character-defining line (“there’s only one God, ma’am, and I’m fairly sure he doesn’t dress like that”), but you’d expect a bit more.
It’s a bit of a shame, because Tom Hiddleston’s Loki was perhaps the most compelling antagonist in the entire series of Marvel movies, the one with the most tragic motivations and most relatable ambitions – not necessarily to conquer worlds, but to prove himself worthy of his father’s love. Here, there’s none of that. Though Hiddleston is as graceful as ever, Loki could really be any character with any motivation. There’s no sense that he’s plotting to destroy the planet for any reason other than for the sake of evil.
His character motivation seems to be that he hates freedom. While that does fit with the mind control schtick (or, literally, stick) that he’s been given, it feels a bit strange. After all, we’ve already had a film featuring one of the team battling a character who hated freedom (and was obsessed with the same cosmic artifact), so surely it would have made sense to bring back that delightfully one-dimensional red-faced Nazi. There are a few hints that Loki is actually being coerced into orchestrating this invasion, but the angle is never developed – as it might have made for a more powerful scene with his brother.
That’s not to dismiss the work that Hiddleston does here. Like the rest of the cast, he gives it his all. However, Loki worked as one of the best four-colour villains brought to the big screen because Hiddleston found an unlikely humanity in his character. Unlike the other baddies in the other Marvel films, you actually understood why Loki did what he did, rather than chalking it up to “he’s insane” or “it’s the third act and we need a fight sequence.”
Hugo Weaving did that sort of shallow cackling foe quite well, as did Jeff Bridges, but it feels like a bit of a waste of Hiddleston’s talents – if only because the actor seems intent on keeping his performance dignified and restrained rather than chewing through the scenery. In fact, it seems like Loki’s only really included in order to reference the original comics – Loki was, after all, the first villain to face the team, and did unite the characters in Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s Avengers #1.
His actions here aren’t really too well-planned-out, save to fulfil the same plot functions. In many ways, Whedon does feel a little too attached to his source material. We get a bizarre mind-control plot that exists only to reference one character’s brief comic-book-history as a villain. We get a costume for Captain America that is far too bright, although it does look much better when he takes off his mask. Part of me wonders why they couldn’t keep his costume from Captain America: The First Avenger.
On the other hand, Whedon’s film is powered by a geeky sense of fun, with everything else coming second to that. It causes the biggest problems early on, as he struggles to get the pieces in place. (Given how much foreshadowing was incorporated into earlier films, I’m amazed at how much heavy lifting The Avengers has to do.) Once he gets to the point where he can actually play with his toys, it becomes a lot more fun.
Whedon is clearly overjoyed to be working with these icons, and it bleeds through into enthusiasm on screen, with even the awesome Agent Coulson awkwardly geeking out about Captain America. “I was watching you while you were sleeping,” he suggests. Realising how awkward that sounds, he rephrases, “I meant I was with you when you were unconscious.” Coulson even has a set of Captain America trading cards in near mint condition (“boxed a bit around the edges”), and it’s not too difficult to imagine Whedon tackling his subjects with similar affection.
During the second act, things begin to click together. In particular, we start to detect the Whedon-esque touches that must have been sacrificed from the first act to keep everything running relatively tight. There is an obscenely geeky pleasure in seeing these toys playing together in the same sandbox, watching Chris Evan’s old fogey butting heads with Robert Downey Jr.’s arrogant and ego-centric playboy, or Chris Hemsworth’s Thor making casual remarks from outside everybody’s frame of reference. (“I got that one!” Cap declares of one pop culture reference, desperate to prove he’s not thatout of touch, while Thor looks confused.)
It seems like a bit of a spoiler to even mention it, but Whedon does use a few of the storytelling tricks and tropes that he’s picked up from years working in the industry. It’s easy to deride some of these tricks as cheap emotional manipulation, but I generally think that Whedon uses them because they work so well. There are moments in the second act where the gigantic science-fiction-fantasy-superhero mish-mash suddenly becomes decidedly real, and Whedon uses these tricks of the trade to anchor it somewhat, to keep the story relatively human.
While the first act has serious problems, and the second act represents a considerable improvement, the final action sequence is something to behold. It might be worth the price of a ticket on its own, to be frank. Whedon effortlessly juggles even primary character each getting a moment or several to shine. (That’s Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, Hulk, Black Widow, Hawkeye, Nick Fury for those keeping score.)
To be fair, Marvel’s movies have traditionally had a bit of bother with their third acts, tying everything down to a massive fight, but Whedon manages to produce the year’s best action sequence. Ironically, the only movie released so far this year that might have a more energetic third act is Cabin in the Woods, which Whedon co-wrote. In an era where it seems that Hollywood has forgotten how to make an action climax work, largely thanks to Michael Bay’s work on Transformers, it’s strangely refreshing.
There’s no confusing quick cutting, no jumping back and forth. Rather than intercutting seven action sequences, Whedon cleverly queues them up. It works remarkably well, because it allows each little sequence to flow before moving on to the next one. Iron Man has a problem. Iron Man and Hawkeye deal with that problem. Thor has a problem. Thor deals with that problem. Captain America spots a bad guy. Captain America deals with that bad guy. It’s an efficient way of managing a final confrontation, and Whedon deserves credit for his work here.
Even before we reach that finale, there are nice moments. There’s a rather enthusiastic brawl between Thor and the Hulk which stands out as one of the few times the Hulk has really worked in live action. Whedon takes fiendish delight in throwing his cast through objects (walls, trees, conveniently stacked crates) and it works as visual shorthand – there’s a genuine sense of the level of power going on here. It is pure and unashamed geekery, but there’s nothing wrong with that.
Whedon’s Hulk deserves special mention, given how much trouble the character has proven to be in the past. I love The Incredible Hulk far more than most, but I think that the creature himself was still awkwardly handled. I still think the decision to recast the role of Bruce Banner was a mistake.
Ed Norton looks like a nerdy guy carrying a shedload of deep-rooted personal issues and might have a very nasty side underneath his cold exterior. Mark Ruffalo, on the other hand, looks like he might pinch the last biscuit in the packet on a day he’s feeling especially bold. While Banner gets considerable focus here, perhaps to help mitigate against the multiple failed movies, Ruffalo lacks a certain edge.
It is worth noting, though, that Whedon and Penn’s script seems to go out of its way to mock the somewhat troubled final cut of Leterrier’s Incredible Hulk. When Banner claims to have discovered the secret to managing “the other guy”, Black Widow mocks him, “What’s your secret? Yoga?” The final opening sequence of Leterrier’s Hulk (which I quite liked) saw Banner using regulating breathing exercises and other techniques to manage stress.
Later on, in a tense a moment, Banner confesses to attempting suicide as a means of resolving his problems - a reference to the rather powerful deleted opening sequence that was cut from the film against Norton’s vocal objections. By the way, this isn’t the time, but I would buy the hell out of a “Writer’s Cut” of The Incredible Hulk. C’mon Marvel, you know you want my money.
However, the Hulk himself is something else, when he finally breaks out. I suspect it’s a combination of the visual effects used and the manner that Whedon treats the creature. The Hulk truly is the strongest there is. It’s the best portrayal of the green goliath I have ever seen. Grafting Ruffalo’s face on to the monster makes him look almost pathetic, illustrating that Banner is trapped inside, while Whedon lets rip in some truly impressive action sequences. The Hulk and Thor wrestling atop an alien monster heading to Grand Central Station is a wonderful moment, as is Loki’s defiant last stand against the monster.
Aside from the four leads, Whedon does a solid job with his impressive supporting cast. Finally, Samuel L. Jackson is allowed to do something other than foreshadow a movie coming several years down the line, and Fury works remarkably well as a manipulator. There’s a welcome hint of ambiguity to how the character manages his band of heroes, even if we never doubt that Fury is trying to assure the best possible outcome. While I wouldn’t have been too bothered about a Nick Fury solo film before, I would love to see him handle some problems without the spandex crowd cramping his style.
The other character who gets a lot of development, surprisingly given the movie if not given the director, is the Black Widow, played by Scarlett Johannson. It’s become a cliché to talk about Whedon writing strong female characters, especially because it gives so many other writers a pass for doing the opposite, but the importance of the Black Widow to the film comes as quite a welcome surprise given the fact that there are so few successful superheroine films. Okay, there isn’t enough room for a full arc, but Whedon manages to give her some decent characterisation – hinting at a shady past, and at a more human side beneath her cold exterior. It’s telling that she gets to check off quite a few important plot points – dealing with Loki, Barton and the portal.
There’s a lot to like, but there are some fundamental problems. For example, Whedon seems to have a bit of difficulty with his central theme. I know Whedon has an affection for old-fashioned superheroics, but is he trying to make a comment on post-9/11 America. As Captain America struggles to keep up with all the changes, Nick Fury notes, “We’ve made some mistakes along the way. Especially recently.” Loki seems to conspire with terrorists. Fury engages, without qualm, in the sort of super-surveillance that gave Batman pause in The Dark Knight.
In contrast, Whedon’s superheroes seem to reject such ambiguities and uncertainties, seeming refreshingly heroic in a morally complex world. Even the Hulk doesn’t seem that conflicted or tormented any more (“Hulk,” Cap commands, “Smash!”) while Tony Stark is genuinely committed to changing the world through green energy and seems to have found a stable relationship with a woman he loves. However, I’m not sure if Whedon’s romanticism is undermined by the fact that these unambiguous heroes still have close ties to more morally dubious black ops agents, and are still lied to and manipulated by Fury even afterthey’ve called him out on it.
In fairness, Whedon isn’t too heavy-handed, and maybe that’s a good thing. He accepts that these are inherently silly and childish constructs. “Do not touch me,” Thor insists during the mandatory “two heroes fight” sequence. “Then don’t take my stuff,” Iron Man responds, and the most epic playground scrap ever commences, Hell, Whedon at one point seems to even answer the question of what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object, as Thor’s Hammer and Cap’s Shield collide.
Sometimes it seems tough for creators and fans to concede the somewhat shallow and playful nature of these archetypes – that they are ultimately toys in a sandbox – and it takes considerable skill for a writer to acknowledge that while still treating them with respect and skill. Whedon does both remarkably well, and it’s clear that he loves having the opportunity to play with these toys without taking any of them too seriously.
The Avengers is a flawed film, but it has enough charm to carry it through a somewhat rocky first act. From there, it just climbs, reaching the most impressive superhero action sequence I think I’ve ever seen. It’s a mess of a film, but it’s a glorious and enjoyable and occasionally awesome mess of a film.
Filed under: Non-Review Reviews Tagged: | arts, Avenger, avengers, captain america, captain america: the first avenger, film, hulk, iron man, IronMan, joss whedon, loki, marvel, marvel comics, Movie, Movies, nick fury, non-review review, premiere, review, robert downey, thor, tom hiddleston, Whedon, Zak Penn