More Than a Few Thoughts on “The Avengers”

An extended analysis, just in time for the DVD release!

Soon after seeing the bazillion-dollar-earning-comic-book-hero-team-up-movie “The Avengers” this summer, I told Stacey I’d jot down a few thoughts on the film. It ended up being a massive three-part opus — which we’re publishing here, now that the movie is coming out on DVD just as Crunchable is starting back up again.

Crunchable contributor John L. Micek generously published a very slightly abridged version of this first part on The Cineaste’s Lament back in May. I’m re-publishing it here, because Part 2 — which I’ll post as Crunchable’s regular Wednesday update — will probably make more sense alongside Part 1. Also, all the links in the text below are new to this version.

What follows is only slightly spoiler-ish; it doesn’t give away any plot points, though it will make somewhat more sense if you’ve seen the movie.

Here’s some of what’s been bouncing around in my head since seeing “The Avengers” last weekend. As it turned out, my thoughts ended up being … not brief. So I’ve chunked this into three pieces, in the hope of making this a little easier to read.

I’ll start with an explanation of the three snap judgments I texted you immediately after I walked out of the theater.

1. Joss Whedon’s fingerprints were all over that thing

… and he might have been one of the only people on the planet who could have pulled off a movie like that.

It’s not for nothing that nerds throughout the English-speaking world revere Whedon. First, it’s his ability to take ridiculous, fantastic situations and then populate them with characters that are actually worth caring about. It’s not overthought or overserious (he’s best when he knows his universes are more than a little silly, whether they’re a high school vampire drama or a space western or a bunch of spandex-clad demigods), but it’s not just camp, either. He really cares about these worlds and what happens to the characters who live in them, and that comes through.

And then there’s of course his way with dialogue in general, and group dialogue in particular. You’ve seen this on dozens of library scenes on “Buffy”; I’m told it was also a hallmark of “Firefly.” The big group argument in the Helicarrier lab is the bravura performance here; he has four or five different characters in there, all going at it and talking across each other, and each with a unique perspective and a point to make that’s different from anyone else’s. Just writing the scene coherently is impressive, but it’s even more so that he and his crew could piece all those fragments of film back together and make it hold together. (Okay, I’ll admit that scene starts to fall apart at the end, around the time Black Widow jumps in, but still.) It’s just about as impressive as all those gigantic multi-player fight scenes. (More on those in a moment.)

But what’s maybe most impressive is that the whole film hangs together as a single creator’s vision. It bore almost none of the signs of being written by committee (incoherent characterization, irrelevant side-plots, etc.); watching the credits at the end revealed why. Whedon co-wrote the story with just one other person; he alone is credited with the dialogue, and he alone is credited as director. It’s simply astonishing that Marvel and Disney and Paramount would have trusted this one guy with such an enormous franchise that’s years and at least four movies in the making; it speaks to remarkable faith in Whedon or maybe extreme desperation — or maybe both.

2. The storyboarding on the fight scenes was remarkable.

These days it’s common to see movie fight scenes between just two combatants that descend into incoherence — and this movie had to juggle at least six heroes and an army of bad guys. In both of the big set pieces — Hawkeye’s assault on the Helicarrier and the battle in New York — Whedon’s team of camera people, editors, animators did a bravura job of keeping all that chaos understandable. It was sometimes still disorienting (which can occasionally be the point; you want the viewer to feel the chaos of battle), but at any given minute you had a pretty good sense of what each of the heroes was doing, where he or she was, and how it fit into the larger picture of the battle.

Whedon’s team made this look easy, but it truly is a feat to do it this well.

3. The experience was a lot like reading a really excellent comic book

This is a bit like damning with faint praise, but I mean it sincerely. I would never expect this to win an Oscar; it didn’t transform the way I view the world. But it did create an immersive world that’s great fun to hang out in.

Achieving depth has always been a struggle in comic books. The earliest characters were defined largely by their superpowers (“This one is strong!” “This one wears a magic ring!” “This one … uh, he has a mask!”). One of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s key innovations was to define them just as much by their personas — the brainy scientist, the hotshot little brother, the misfit teenager. But the characters were still types (or archetypes), and not so much the kind of fleshed out characters you see in great cinema or literature. Subsequent decades of writers have layered on complexities, but when it comes down to it, the classic comic book characters are always going to run up against the limits of their source material.

There are a few comic book movies that have transcended that limitation, almost always by diverging from the source. “The Dark Knight” posed some really good questions about the nature of order and justice, while Heath Ledger totally inhabited his Joker and terrified us by showing us just how seductive a charismatic madman could be. Tobey McGuire and Sam Raimi made us care about a poor loser (no money, no girlfriend, no confidence, no muscles) and asked what would happen to him if his world got turned upside down; Robert Downey Jr. and Jon Favreau asked what it would take to make a superhero out of someone who started out with money and fame and wealth and charisma and questionable morals. But those are, broadly speaking, the exceptions.

In the comics themselves, usually the fun comes not from new, ever-more-subtle shading on a character, but from taking all these archetypes and smashing them against each other and watching the sparks (not unlike a toddler gleefully crashing Matchbox cars together). “Good” vs. “Evil” is the obvious conflict, but it’s far from the only one; the first-ever major crossover comic featured a battle between the first Human Torch and the Sub-Mariner — fire vs. water.

Whedon seems to understand and embrace this. It tends to be how he conceives of his characters, at least initially (think of Buffy and the discrete roles for everyone in her Scooby Gang: the sincere nerd, the pretty-but-shallow girl, the wisecracking wingman, etc.). And it most certainly has always been part of the dynamic of comic book teams like the Avengers. You take the archetypes, you throw them into a crisis (both the external, world-threatening kind and the internal, intrapersonal kind), and you lean forward on the edge of your seat to watch what the heck’s gonna happen.

Coming in Part 2: What Worked, What Didn’t

Article © 2012 by Michael Duck