Film reflection: Marvel’s “The Avengers” (“Avengers Assemble” in the UK and the Republic of Ireland)

The Avengers debuted in April 2012 and has since become one of the most successful films in cinematic history. It’s also garnered significant praise from fans and critics. It hardly needs me to add my voice to the chorus of adulation, but I want to share my thoughts about it anyway, so here goes.

Quick note before we get started: I have three younger sisters, and I frequently consult the eldest sister regarding the various films and television shows we like to watch, including this one. Her livejournal pseudonym is Ptolemaeus (after Ptolemy from Jonathan Stroud’s “Bartimaeus” trilogy), and even though she hasn’t used that account in several years, I’ll refer to her by that name henceforth.

Warning: This post contains major spoilers for The Avengers.

Following the events of 2010’s Thor, Loki returns to Earth with the help of an alien army on a mission to open a portal for the aliens to invade. He begins by nicking the recovered Tesseract from an underground SHIELD base, and brainwashing agent Clint Barton (Hawkeye) to aid him in his efforts. In response, Director Nick Fury assembles agent Natasha Romanoff (Black Widow), billionaire playboy Tony Stark (Iron Man), supersoldier Steve Rogers (Captain America), and physicist Bruce Banner (The Hulk) to thwart Loki’s schemes. The team is soon joined by Thor, sent to protect the Earth by Odin and a butt-load of dark energy. Together, this group of superheroes is Earth’s last defense against the coming invasion; if they can’t save the world, they’ll surely avenge it.

I liked this film. I loved this film.

The characters are terrific and play off each other superbly, the acting is pretty good, the plot decent, the action appropriately epic, and the dialogue is snappy. Joss Whedon headed this project, and I’m relieved to report that (at least for this film) he appears to have recovered from whatever state he was in throughout the first season of Dollhouse (and possibly the second season, for all I know). As already noted, his dialogue and characterization are back up to scratch, and best of all, for once he isn’t Trying Too Hard to be all deep and profound—he just cuts loose and has fun, which is exactly the approach a movie like this needs. This is not to say that it isn’t clever and even weighty at times, just that those are byproducts of The Avengers having a fun, well-written story.

I can only imagine how daunting it must have been to take on a big-budget action movie with an all-star ensemble cast. To my knowledge, that’s unheard of. I’m hardly an expert filmmaker—if I were, I suspect I would be even more impressed at the way The Avengers balances its cast to spread the viewer’s identification among so many characters than I already am; as it is, I’m a little in awe.

I’m also impressed at the way Whedon and company managed to give all of these characters something to do. In both the Thor and Captain America movies, there was basically at most one bad guy who had a snowball’s chance of touching the titular hero, and all the rest might as well have been so many bowling pins. So given that the writers of those movies had a hard time creating a credible opponent for just one of these powerhouses, I was a little nervous to see how The Avengers‘ creative team was going to provide a challenge for four such bruisers, plus two master assassins. Well, as it turns out, the answer is “massive alien invasion,” which works quite well, but there was also the battle aboard the SHIELD Helicarrier midway through the film, which featured no supervillains or Elite Mooks to speak of, but rather a bunch of complex problems for our heroes to overcome.

A significant amount of the entertainment value (apart from the awesome action sequences) derives from the characters’ interactions—the good guys all work together of course (eventually), but there’s enough friction between them to keep things interesting.

The plot is not exactly mind-bending or revolutionary, but neither is it completely stupid. Nor is it tediously predictable: I missed out on most of the trailers, and lacking their input, I didn’t realize that the Avengers were actually going to have to square off against an alien invasion force in the end. Nor did I catch onto the significance of “Phase 2” until Captain America made his discovery, nor the importance of Stark Tower until a few heartbeats before Tony himself made the connection. All of these seem like they should have been obvious in hindsight, but I missed them completely when I was in the moment. The plot also has some pretty good (if minor) twists, such as Bruce Banner’s secret of controlling when he transforms into the Hulk (“I’m always angry.”)

And for all that it’s a superhero action-fest driven primarily by “wow”-factor, The Avengers actually contains a significant amount of subtlety, as in the implication (never directly stated) that Loki’s scepter is provoking strife among the Avengers aboard the Helicarrier. There’s also a scene where Tony is trying to help Bruce come to terms with his propensity for turning into the Hulk by relating it to Tony’s own experiences of living with an arc reactor in his chest. They’re talking to each other through a highly reflective transparent screen, and if you look closely, you’ll notice that when the camera is on Bruce, you can see Tony’s reflection in the screen—but when it’s on Tony, the other reflection changes from Bruce’s to the Hulk’s.

I picked up on that last point just before the scene ended, but there are other aspects of Bruce and Tony’s relationship—as well as other things which are brought up on, e.g., the film’s TV Tropes page—which I completely missed the first time around. In stark contrast to most superhero movies, The Avengers is a film which rewards multiple viewings.

In preparation for seeing this movie, my family watched Captain America: The First Avenger. Afterward, I had a discussion with Ptolemaeus about the state of contemporary superhero films, because she’d noted that both that movie and Thor—while greatly enjoyable—were kind of bad. Taking my cue (appropriately enough) from the Incredible Hulk’s analysis of the Twilight movie, I suggested that this is because in the 21st century, Hollywood doesn’t like its “big successful cinema to be silly.” They’re embarrassed by superhero stuff, so they generally do one of two things. The first is to play everything super-serious and gritty, as in Christopher Nolan’s “Batman” trilogy—which appears to have paid off very well, though not without some problems, one of them being that the actual superhero elements often become the weakest part of the movie; (this is the main point of Dan Hemmens’ review of Batman: The Dark Knight, which he ends thusly: “So … yeah. Great film, shame about the guy in the rubber suit.”) Despite Nolan’s tremendous cult, critical, and financial success, most superhero films (including Thor and Captain America) have taken the second option, which is to make the whole thing deliberately camp, hold the subject matter at arm’s length, and treat the movie like a big in-joke the cast and crew are having with the viewer at the story’s expense—in this case, the films can still be entertaining, but not very good, because if you treat your movie’s subject matter like crap, the results are bound to be kind of crap.

One difference Ptolemaeus pointed out between those movies and The Avengers is that the latter was directed by a man who is not just a good storyteller, but a proud comic book nerd. Joss Whedon loves superhero comics for what they are, so instead of trying to eliminate their inherent silliness (Batman) or mock it (Thor, Captain America), he embraces it with all his heart. With The Avengers, Whedon has crafted a movie which takes pride in its source material, which is not afraid to be silly, and because it’s not stuck distancing itself from or trying to criticize its own subject matter, it’s free to have fun with its self, and also to be smart and funny and charming and touching and occasionally even insightful. In short, The Avengers succeeds so spectacularly both as a movie and as a superhero movie specifically by playing to its nature as a superhero narrative instead of trying to “escape” it.

The morality in the story is more complex than I expected. The good guys are good, certainly, but that doesn’t preclude them doing some seriously dodgy shit—which, unlike a certain Whedon protagonist I could mention (don’t worry, Firefly, your time will come), the film is quick to call them on. And when they are out of line, it doesn’t feel thrown in just for the sake of having moral complexity, but a natural extension of the characters.

My favorite example is SHIELD’s Phase 2, which turns out to be an advanced weapons’ program based on Asgardian technology. This becomes a major source of conflict in the middle of the film, and though it isn’t much explored after that one scene, it does raise several very interesting questions. During the big argument aboard the Helicarrier, Thor makes a remark to the effect that he thought humans were better than this, and Fury responds: “Excuse me? Do we come to your planet and blow stuff up?” to which I in turn reply: “No; but only because our technology isn’t advanced enough to get us there yet.” I don’t think we the viewers are supposed to agree with Fury on this issue, but Whedon respects the character enough to provide him some pretty compelling arguments—even if we aren’t supposed to see it this way, we can at least understand why Nick Fury does.

Even Captain America, the idealized American male (and what does it say about a country that its’ national ideal is embodied by a man of war?) occasionally gets put in his place, such as the time he confronts a grief-stricken Tony over the latter’s reaction to the loss of one of their soldiers, to which Tony responds: “We’re not soldiers.”

The guy they lost was none other than Agent Phil Coulson, who played an important supporting role in Iron Man and Thor, as well as here in The Avengers. I have to give props to the production team for giving Coulson sufficient development in this movie to make his death meaningful without over-inflating his role, and also for making it genuinely surprising (at least, I didn’t see it coming, and I’m usually pretty good at spotting when the narrative is shaping up to liquidate a character).

I was saddened and touched by Coulson’s death; I think the movie handled it almost perfectly, and though I think “let us pull together in memory of our fallen comrade” is a lazy device to get our misfit heroes working together as a team, it does add a certain dramatic weight to the proceedings. When Tony Stark confronts Loki just before the final battle, the viewer does get some small sense of the damage Loki has caused.

While I was sad at Coulson’s death, I’m also okay with it. There are some characters who are so integral to a given story that killing them off decreases my ability to engage with that story, and sometimes with any related story. Anakin Solo, Mara Jade, and Jacen Solo are all examples of characters whose deaths had such a profound effect on me that I will never be able to enjoy their entire franchise as much as I did before. Robb Stark from “A Song of Ice and Fire,” and Assumpta Fitzgerald from Ballykissangel are two other such characters (though to a lesser degree). With these and a few other beloved characters from various franchises, I would applaud a resurrection under any circumstances because their absence (and specifically their absence due to death, rather than merely not being in the story anymore) detracts from my enjoyment just that much. With most characters, including Coulson, I tend to be more demanding: while I wouldn’t object to bringing him back per se (there are conflicting reports as to whether or not such an event actually is in the works), I would object to any resurrection which undermined the purpose of killing him off in the first place. So while it would be in character, say, for Fury to be lying about Coulson to get the Avengers riled up, it would completely destroy all that dramatic weight I mentioned earlier. If it were a choice between that kind of resurrection and having the character remain dead, I’d vote for the latter.

As long as I’m discussing the heavy stuff, here’s something which bugged me: Loki’s straw dictator speeches about how humans are born to be ruled and freedom is a curse and blah, blah, blah. I wouldn’t mind so much, but the dialogue here is painfully trite, and the only mercy is that it’s dropped by the end of the first act. But since Whedon and company included it at all, it would be really nice if the ordinary human beings—not the superheroes and the highly trained and heavily armed super-spies, but the everyday civilians—got some chance to give the lie to Loki’s authoritarian philosophy by standing up for themselves just once.

Okay, there was that one old man in Germany who stood up to Loki, but this is hardly new. Generally in this scenario, the lone heroic bystander stands up to the villain, gets killed off, and then the rest cower in fear with no further protest. This says nothing about humanity as a whole to disprove the villain’s philosophy, and the only reason I can see why it didn’t go that way here is that Cap intervenes before Loki can make an example of the old man—which also tells us nothing about ordinary people’s commitment to freedom and self-determination. As US activist David Cobb recently pointed out, one lone person standing up to oppression is noble and courageous, but where lots and lots of people stand up to oppression, that’s where the magic is.

For all its virtues, The Avengers is a very white, very male, and very straight movie; there’s plenty of implied and confirmed heterosexuality, zero homosexuality, transexuality, or queerness of any kind. There is exactly one (male) person of color in the main cast. There is exactly one female Avenger, and apart from her, there’s an additional female SHIELD agent, Maria Hill—who, granted, is several kinds of awesome—and a cameo by Gwyneth Paltrow reprising her role as Pepper Potts, Tony’s girlfriend and general manager, and her brief interactions with Tony and Coulson are pretty cute. The upshot being that the movie still fails the Bechdel test.

There are no women with superpowers in The Avengers (for the purposes of this discussion, I differentiate “superpowers” from “super-skills”), and none with problems relating to ego, self-doubt, hotheadnesses, childishness, and the like. Both Natasha and Agent Hill are confident, smart, tough, super-competent, and pretty damn near perfect—in short, they’re put on a pedestal. Ptolemaeus cited the fight between Iron Man and Thor—with Captain America thrown in at the end—as a prime example: admittedly, it was awesome, but she felt it had an undertone of “boys will be boys,” because obviously women would never be so immature. This is Joss Whedon-style feminism, and it absolutely could’ve been much worse, but I know it still irked Ptolemaeus for one.

I do want to give props for the interrogation scene between Loki and Natasha, where I seriously thought it was going to get much worse, with Loki manipulating Tasha’s feminine insecurities into getting her to free him, or something similarly disastrous—and then she gives that twitch and reveals that she’s been playing him (should’a seen that coming—should’a, but didn’t). Apart from the successful fakeout, what I really like about this scene is that Tasha is clearly playing on her own vulnerabilities to manipulate Loki—he’s really getting to her, and she admits as much to Clint later on, but she’s still the one who’s in control, and comes out ahead. To me, that’s a lot more heroic than merely feigning vulnerability.

Another thing Whedon gets right in terms of gender at least is the composition of the Helicarrier’s crew—about half of them are women. It’s a really neat statement on gender equality which is not trumpeted and touted or even remarked upon, it’s just how things are, and I know my youngest sisters were very pleased to see it. (He also thankfully failed to include even one of the interminably over-the-top straw misogynists which have plagued his various tv series over the years.)

Speaking of political correctness, I wish Whedon had played around with Cap a bit more. This is a man who has been in suspended animation since the 1940s; that means he missed out on the civil rights movement, the feminist movement, the queer rights movement—his sensibilities are completely alien to this time period. I’m not saying I want him to be a racist, misogynist, homophobe—he is fundamentally a decent guy—just that his expectations of normality are going to be different, and he’s going to need some time to catch up. Heck, I’m a hardcore social justice activist, and if I fell asleep for seventy years and woke up in a more free, egalitarian society, I’d probably act like a reactionary (by that society’s standards), just because I’m not accustomed to living in a society which treats people of color, women, queer people, people with disabilities etc. as full human beings.

Okay, enough of the heavy stuff; on to lighter topics. Ptolemaeus made us watch the movie in 3-D, over my objections, and in hindsight I’m glad that she did. 3-D is all about spectacle, and a live-action cartoon movie with such epic scope for its action sequences is nothing if not spectacle. In other words, this is exactly the sort of movie which 3-D is best suited for. Yes, the glasses were a nuisance and the on-screen activity got blurry at times (fortunately, not during the most important scenes), but it was more than worthwhile.

And as long as I’m on the subject of visuals, I should point out that the movie is visually gorgeous … as befitting a film so reliant on spectacle. I don’t know how much artistic merit the cinematography has, all I know is that it looks damn pretty.

I was amused to note after the invaders’ mothership is destroyed that apparently, the Boss Battle victory condition* applies for the Chitauri, as all their combat troops and monsters instantly die or go dormant when their main base is taken out.

*Credit for the term goes to Chuck Sonnenburg of SFDebris in this video.

The climax is terrific, but I have two lingering issues with it which I want to address before we wrap things up. First, there’s the blonde waiter (Beth, I think her name is) whom the camera pays special attention to in a couple of scenes, and who sees Cap’s face after he saves her and a bunch of other civilians inside a besieged bank. The way the movie plays this all seems like a set-up for Beth becoming Cap’s new love interest—a profoundly stupid set-up, so I hope that’s not where the filmmakers are going with this.

Second, there’s the immediate after-climax, where it looks like Tony might have died after taking out the Chitauri invaders’ mothership with a nuclear missile. I don’t think Whedon was seriously trying to kid us that he was actually dead (which puts him lightyears ahead of Doctor Who‘s Steven Moffat), and the jokes are pretty good (“please tell me nobody kissed me”) but … well, the thing I actually liked about the movie CPR death scene* in Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows was that they actually had a plausible explanation for why Robert Downey Jr. comes back (the first time) other than just “surprise, he’s better now!” And the thing is, they had an opportunity to do that here, too: my impression of the scene was that all Tony’s power had gone out, including the arc reactor that protects his heart—and earlier in the film, we saw how Thor’s lightning could power his suit and reactor, and Thor just happens to be the other Avenger standing over Tony when he goes down, so … Instead, we get an amusing but kind of dumb joke where the Hulk roars and jump-starts the reactor because Rule of Funny.

*And credit for that term belongs to Noah Antwiler, a.k.a. the Spoony One in this video.

Bottom Line

The Avengers is unabashedly a superhero movie, but because it’s unashamed—nay, proud—of what it is, it’s also an extremely good superhero movie. If the superhero genre just isn’t your thing, The Avengers is not the movie for you; if you’re at all interested in the genre, well, The Avengers is one of the very best films it has to offer.