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12 Movie Moments of 2012: Throwing the Toys Together (The Avengers)

As well as counting down the top twelve films, I’m also going to count down my top twelve movie related “moments” of 2012. The term “moment” is elastic, so expect some crazy nonsense here. And, as usual, I accept that my taste is completely absurd, so I fully expect you to disagree. With that in mind, this is #9

The Avengers had its share of problems – it was weirdly paced; the Hulk’s character arc seemed to come a bit out of left field; Loki had no real sense of motivation; the film effectively undermined the wonderful ending to Thor; it didn’t really deal with any of the questions raised by Nick Fury’s actions; and Disney insisted that we call it Marvel’s Avengers Assemble in this part of the world, in case my grandmother might show up and wonder where “the nice chap with the umbrella” had gone. However, it also had its strengths, and these strengths were rooted in the fact that director Joss Whedon was keen not overly intellectualise the premise or the characters, and accepted the glee of knocking all those iconic toys together.

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I’ve watched The Avengers a number of times. Each time, it has become a little clearer that the first two acts have some serious problems. However, the movie hits its stride in the third act, as we witness an invasion of New York City. To be entirely fair, it’s a fairly shallow threat. Although we see hints of the aftermath of a massive alien attack, it seems like Bane and his rag-tag League of Shadows do more damage to Gotham than Loki can do to New York with an entire alien armada. Then again, that’s the point. Bane was fighting for Gotham’s soul. Loki just wanted to watch a cool lights show.

Despite the scale of the invading force and the obvious property damage, the threat in The Avengers never feels too substantial, and there are no real philosophical stakes to the combat. The aliens want to destroy New York, and the the Avengers are not cool with that. There’s some nonsense about free will thrown in, but that seems to merely justify Loki’s mind-control, which is there so we can get a variation on the comic book “Hawkeye as a bad guy” origin. Discounting that somewhat dead-end mumbo-jumbo, it’s a very simple framework, and – in some ways – that simplicity holds the movie back a bit.

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However, that simplicity also allows the final action sequence to work absolutely superbly. Our iconic and instantly recognisable heroes are pitched against a nearly limitless army of interchangeable aliens. As a result, each of our characters is given an almost infinite opportunity to demonstrate their prowess and skill. It’s okay for the Hulk to take down five or six of those massive carrier things, because there are always more. Captain America can wipe out platoon-after-platoon, because there’s always more waiting.

It might not sound like the most narratively-satisfying conclusion, but it isn’t trying to be. The Avengers isn’t about the bad guys that are getting massacred in their thousands. It’s about watching our heroes do all manner of cool and geeky stuff. Whedon completely dispenses with any real attempt at depth or symbolism during the combat sequences – although he does make some none-too-subtle references to 9/11 iconography in the aftermath – and instead embraces the idea at the very heart of The Avengers as a concept: sometimes bashing the toys together is great fun.

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The third act of The Avengers looks a little bit like my eight-year-old self would have imagined a team-up of “Earth’s mightiest heroes.” Of course, Whedon’s imagination easily trumps my own in this area, and he a team of sound technicians on stand-by to make sure his lasers sound more legitimate than my own “pew pew” effects, but the core concept is the same. Both Whedon’s climax and my own imagination runs on logic that always begins with “wouldn’t it be cool if…”

Wouldn’t it be cool if the Hulk could smash with impunity? Wouldn’t it be cool if Iron Man fired his repulsor beams and they reflected off Captain America’s shield? Wouldn’t it be cool if Thor used the Empire State Building as a lightening conductor? Wouldn’t it be cool if Captain America dealt with a hostage situation in the middle of a larger crisis? Wouldn’t it be cool if Nick Fury had a rocket launcher? Wouldn’t it be cool if Cap took control of the police at the scene while showing off with that fancy shield? Wouldn’t it be cool if the Hulk swung Loki around like a rag doll?

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The climax of The Avengers all by runs on that logic, and it works fantastically well. It’s fun, light stuff, and Whedon clearly has a lot of passion for that. The entire third act of The Avengers is pretty much my childhood playtime put on screen with slightly better editing and more convincing performances. Oh, and better witticism too. Also, a lot more joint movement from the characters involved. But you get my point.

There is something exceedingly giddy and enjoyable about that extended action sequence. Wally Pfister has criticised the climax for the way it was shot, and I can understand his complaints. As I noted above, the conflict between Bane and Batman felt a lot more substantial than the invasion by the Skrulls Chitauri, and the cinematography was a lot more artful and impressive. However, it’s a case of using a different approach for different material.

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The Avengers lacks the philosophical complexity of The Dark Knight Rises. However, its strengths lie in different areas. Structuring the final sequence to show off the sets makes sense because Whedon’s primary objective in the final confrontation is to maintain clarity – to make sure that we know where each of the characters are relative to one another. Unlike the climax of The Dark Knight Rises where the separate threads build in tandem towards one gigantic moment, Whedon structures his climax as a series of “short cuts” – we’ll spend a minute with Hawkeye, two minutes with the Hulk, a minute with Captain America.

Each of those encounters has its own structure and beats. You could cut those moments out, restructure them, mess with them, and they’d still make sense. We don’t need to see the Hulk and Thor in Grand Central to make sense of Captain America rescuing hostages. We don’t need to see the Hulk under heavy fire in order to understand why Iron Man is weaving through the skyscrapers. Whedon’s approach to the climax of The Avengers is one that values the clarity of each of those individual moments. And I think that those moments do have a clarity that is largely missing from many blockbuster action sequences.

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In the end, the climax of The Avengers makes a lot of the weaknesses of the rest of the film work to its advantages. The simplicity and the straight-forward nature of the plotting make it a lot easier to follow and engage with each of these numerous tiny encounters, allowing them to add up to more than just the sum of their parts.

One Response

  1. If Wally Pfister had a problem with “The Avengers,” I can imagine what he thought of “Transformers”!

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