More on “The Avengers”: What Worked, What Didn’t

There’s a whole airborne alien army, and you’re sending in a guy with a shield?

A continuation of Monday’s close reading/extended analysis of “The Avengers”, published here just in time for the DVD release! (It was originally written as a note to Stacey; she’s the “you” the piece addresses.) Some spoilers ahead, though most deal with smallish details of the movie rather than major plot points.

In no particular order:

I know a lot of people have observed this already, but Robert Downey Jr. and Mark Ruffalo really were the high points, acting-wise. I know there were in-story reasons for the rest of the characters to be less deep or emotionally expressive — one is a man from a simpler time (or what was a simpler time in this fictional universe’s history, anyway) who doesn’t question orders, one is a spy who is trained to suppress her emotions, etc. And it also helps that Downey’s Tony Stark and Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner were the only two members of the team with no military training; naturally they’d be a little looser. Part of what makes them crackle is that they’re geeks, and writer/director Joss Whedon obviously loves writing for geeks.

But I have to think most of it was the acting chops of Downey and Ruffalo; they both really inhabited those characters, showing how they could be simultaneously arrogant and self-doubting, engaged and distant, afraid and heroic.

The scene where Banner has crashed to earth is also worth noting. A lesser movie would have just left that out, but the emotion and characterization packed into those few minutes between the janitor and the just-recently-de-Hulked Banner make it one of my favorite bits in the whole film.

I know you kind of liked Scarlett Johansson in this, but I thought her Agent Romanoff/Black Widow wasn’t all that impressive. Granted, Black Widow is a tough character to write for and to portray — in the comics, she’s a Russian assassin and spy who’s been trained since childhood; she defected for reasons I no longer remember, but she’s gone back and forth so many times that anyone dealing with her always has to keep in mind that maybe she’s a double agent (or a double-double agent, or … you get the idea.) And, yes, she’s a badass and a phenomenal fighter.

I don’t blame Johansson for dropping the Russian accent (a Natasha Nogoodnik impression for the whole film would have gotten really old, fast), and I don’t blame her or Whedon for trying to make her a little more likable and relatable and a little less cold. But the result was pretty generic — a less interesting Buffy Summers, basically.

That said, her best scene was easily that reverse-interrogation bit from the beginning. It’s a clever bit of writing that actually reveals quite a bit about her character (her no-nonsenseness, her self-confidence, her control of her emotions, her Russian connection, and, oh yeah, her astonishing fighting ability) while also showing off some very cool stunt work.

In contrast to my thoughts on Johannson, I thought Gwyneth Paltrow and Whedon did a nice job redeeming Pepper Potts after her silly, help-I’m-out-of-my-depth characterization in “Iron Man 2.” Here, she obviously cares a lot for Stark, but she’s very much aware of his limitations (his incomprehension of social graces, his narcissism, his obsession with his latest project to the exclusion of their relationship) — and she’s more than happy to remind him of how all of her strengths compensate for those weaknesses. She’s not waiting on the roof anymore for Stark to come back with that martini; now she’ll just smile and hand his ass to him, remind him of exactly what he’s missing out on, and jet off to DC on her own, knowing they’ll catch up some other time.

And she’ll do it all while wearing Daisy Dukes, apparently. (That was the only part of that scene that seemed off to me. I’m searching for what kind of pants would have fit that scene better — what would a rich, very smart, very technologically astute woman wear while hanging out with her boyfriend and bringing a skyscraper’s power grid online? Designer jeans? Really nice yoga pants?)

The character of Loki was quite a bit better than he was in “Thor.” Loki’s so much more interesting when he’s being a badass than when he’s whining about how his father never loved him. Thankfully, there’s very little of the latter in this film.

This is a pretty subtle point, but one of my favorite things about the way the Hulk was “drawn” in this film was that he actually resembled Bruce Banner/Mark Ruffalo! The mismatch between Hulk and Banner’s actors has been sticking around since the Lou Ferrigno days. It even plagued Ang Lee’s “Hulk” from 2003, wherein Bruce Banner moved like Eric Bana and the Hulk moved like Ang Lee (yeah — the director himself did a lot of the motion capture work). I don’t know whether Ruffalo actually did the motion-capture for the Hulk’s animation (Postscript: He did, it turns out!), but the physical continuity was at least plausible. And somebody even took the time to give the Hulk Ruffalo’s hair!

(I also liked that — during the first time he Hulks out, anyway — his pants are just as destroyed as his shirt. Which really only makes sense.)

One of my favorite, quick beats near the end was when Captain America showed his skill as a field commander. The aliens are approaching, the team’s looking for a leader — and Cap rises to the moment, sizes up his teammates and determines exactly how the skills of each one can contribute to the overall effort. It’s a really nifty trick in the scripting: That quick monologue tells us something about Cap’s character, and about the team’s dynamics, and it also functions as exposition that helps us make sense of the battle we’re about to see. (See? Whedon is that good!)

That said, that giant fight scene at the end unfortunately made it a little obvious that Cap and Black Widow, in particular, don’t belong in this fight. Let’s face it: When you have a squadron of flying attack ships assaulting your city, the last thing you need is a guy on the ground with a shield; I don’t care how good he is.

As a result, the screenplay keeps contriving ways to give the guys on the ground something to do. (The aliens ground themselves by leaping off their much-more-powerful flying chariots and choosing to fight hand-to-hand instead! Look, Hawkeye’s helping a half-dozen people out of a bus! Now Cap’s saving a bunch of hostages that the aliens have inexplicably not killed outright! Meanwhile, Iron Man is taking down a massive snake-like airship, and in the process has endangered hundreds more lives as he intentionally tries to get the alien ships to crash themselves into skyscrapers filled with civilians )

The fault here is less Whedon’s than that of the comics in general. (Call it the “What is Aquaman doing fighting in space?” quandary.) Whedon seems to recognize that a bunch of stuff in his source material doesn’t make much sense, so he lovingly throws lampshades on everything. A few more examples:

  • A Helicarrier is a flippin’ awesome concept that’s been an iconic part of the SHIELD story for ages, and it makes an amazing visual. And it’s also a horrible, horrible idea in practice, as Whedon’s script easily demonstrates when he has it nearly fall out of the sky and into a populated area, where it would have killed thousands of people.
  • Also: There’s a reason nobody uses arrows in combat anymore! Starting with the fact that you can’t carry all that many arrows, and they tend to run out at inopportune times — as happens to Hawkeye at a critical moment. They’re also a lot slower than bullets — though I actually like how Hawkeye (and Whedon) use that to their advantage in that nifty bit where Loki catches the arrow in midair but gets blown up anyway.

Coming in Part 3: The comic book references, explained!

Article © 2012 by Michael Duck