Sunday, May 6, 2012

The Avengers

I also watch movies every now and then. I saw The Avengers yesterday, and had enough thoughts about the film that I decided to put some of them on paper. Overall, although it starts slow, the film’s action set-pieces more than makes up for its initial clunkiness, as do the ever-present Whedonesque touches of cleverness and humor, almost always stemming from the various characters’ personalities and the way in which they engage with one another.
Let’s get the bad out of the way first. The first 45 minutes or so are somewhat lumbering, which can be partially blamed on the film’s needing to pick up where all of the major characters’ solo features left off. However, not all of the blame can be placed at the feet of the film’s position in regard to its predecessors. The film’s very first narrative material concerns a deal made between Loki and the (evil) forces dictating the terms of his return to Earth, but it is rushed, and strangely withholds Loki’s identity, a needless restriction since Loki appears just a few minutes later in the film’s next scene. Additionally, much of the action at the soon-to-be-destroyed S.H.E.I.L.D. base is overly concerned with the film’s MacGuffin, a cube of energy called the Tesseract.

While he is menacing, Loki is somewhat of a strange choice for a villain (if one partially determined by the preceding films); despite Whedon’s bona fides concerning supernatural forces, Loki does not connect well to the kind of personal conflict at which Whedon excels, and which gives much of the Marvel universe its tremendous appeal. Marvel heroes have superhero-level problems, of course, but unlike the characters in many DC comics, they also often remain grounded in the problems of everyday life, or are often analogues for how people can feel at different times in their lives (the X-Men and teenagehood, for instance), which is a part of what makes Marvel characters so appealing. The first two Spider-Man films are exemplary; they did a wonderful job of relating the threats represented by their respective super villains to Peter Parker’s struggles as a person and a hero. Aside from some humorous parallels between Tony Stark and Loki, and the familial tension between Loki and Thor, much of that sort of connection between Loki and the heroes is missing from The Avengers. To certain extent, this is somewhat inevitable, given that the Avengers consists of a group of otherwise unrelated heroes who assemble only to take on threats bigger than any single one of them could handle alone, and it is admirable that the film is able to make it personal for as many of them as it does. Nonetheless, for many of the film’s characters, it does not feel like much is at stake in Loki’s particular threat aside from the routine need for good to triumph over evil; any other interpersonal conflicts the film explores (and thankfully, there are many) merely seem to be happenstance. While Loki occasionally has the opportunity to display his particular brand of maliciousness (trickery), his grasp of human psychology seems tenuous at best. His gibberish about humans being made for subjugation is particularly void of merit; super villains are often more compelling when there’s something substantive at the core of the beliefs that motivate them to their heinous acts. However, that’s the last of anything even mildly negative about the film.

Much of what makes the film work so well is the mileage Whedon is able to get out of interpersonal conflict amongst the Avengers themselves, and the friction generated when so many powerful and well-developed characters are put into a room together (a staple of any Marvel super team). In addition to Loki, each of the characters faces more personal struggles stemming from their pasts, their personalities, or their powers. Whdeon seems to have had the most fun writing for Iron Man and Hulk. Tony Stark is the closest equivalent the film has to a quipster (a stock Whedon character), whereas Hulk nicely serves many different dramatic functions (and gets nearly all of the film’s biggest laughs). More than any of the others, Bruce Banner is tortured by his “superpower,” which in itself provides good dramatic material, as does the unease it creates in his allies. As the strongest and wildest character in the Marvel universe, the other characters are rightly afraid of the potential for the Hulk to become unleashed in a contained space, and the film’s lengthy middle, aboard a flying S.H.I.E.L.D. aircraft carrier, gains much of its gravitas from the possibility of Banner losing control and Hulking out. This gravitas is paid off nicely when Banner does indeed transform, with only a terrified Black Widow around to serve as the focus for his rage. This is a particularly smart choice; she is the least super-powered of the group, relying on martial artistry, subterfuge, and psychological manipulation to achieve her ends (we see this repeatedly in her interrogation methods), so she has no other recourse but to flee in terror when confronted with an unstoppable, unreasonable, irrational force (and her terror is very well-played by Scar Jo, who shakes visibly after nearly getting destroyed).

The climactic battle is particularly masterful, pitting the Avengers against an invading army of aliens flowing through a wormhole into the streets and skies of New York. It is worth a detailed discussion, as it is one of the best team-oriented superhero action scenes I’ve seen – much better than anything on offer in the X-Men films, for example. Whedon is able to clearly convey how the team works as a cohesive unit both stylistically and narratively. Captain America serves an important function in this regard. As the battle commences, he takes charge, and dictates to the audience as much as to the other members of the Avengers what role of each of them will play in the following fracas, making the action much more comprehensible, both by making it easy to understand where certain actions are taking place in relation to one another, as well as why the film’s six heroes are able to corral an invading army of soldiers on hover-chariots and giant, flying, armored space worms. Once we know where each of the heroes will be, and what they will be doing, crosscutting back and forth between them is not confusing, nor is the way in which they communicate with each other (although the cohesiveness of the heroes’ plans does not make the invaders’ plan of attack any clearer, beyond “destroy cars and create fireballs”). Additionally, Captain America’s orders have the added bonus of clearly delineating the strengths of each of the superheroes, which in turn further supports the clarity of subsequent action.

Iron Man, the swiftest and most mobile of the bunch, is on perimeter duty, and it’s his job to prevent any enemies he faces from escaping a three-block radius. Thor is charged (nyuk nyuk) with using his command of lightning to bottleneck the wormhole that’s transporting the invaders to New York. Hawkeye is perhaps the most crucial of the bunch, as he takes the high ground and serves as a watchtower, picking off the occasional foe, but mostly alerting the other heroes (and viewers) of the status and whereabouts of clusters of invaders, civilians, and each of the heroes whereabouts in relation to one another. He’s largely the reason that the battle does not become illegible and incredulous – the heroes know where to go and what to do because of his vantage point, and he enables viewers to piece together individual skirmishes into a larger picture of the overall conflict. Black Widow and Captain America hold the center, duking it out with whatever invaders get past Thor, although Black Widow soon takes it upon herself to close the wormhole. And in a funny line, Captain America gives Hulk the only order he can really follow: “Smash.” Effectively, the Hulk functions as a wildcard, running amok throughout the battle, taking out both the human-sized invaders and the giant space worms, and in an extremely crowd-pleasing moment, even giving Loki a brutal thrashing.* Later, he is joined in his rampage by Thor.

However, this battle's impact is not derived solely from our understanding of the role each of these heroes serves; its grace also derives from film style. There are many shots in which we observe one hero battling the invaders, and though camera movement or the use of different spatial planes, another hero enters the frame, either battling their own set of enemies or supporting another hero who is about to be overwhelmed. The most visceral of such shots are those in which the battle is on the move through the air, weaving in, out, and around the buildings of New York. Three of the six characters can more or less fly (Iron Man is a rocket, while Thor and Hulk can leap tall buildings in a single bound, and Black Widow eventually steals a hover-chariot), creating the opportunity for shots in which Hulk or Thor are battling atop the back of a giant space-worm in the middle ground, and where Iron Man swoops into the frame in the foreground, shooting down hover-chariots in pursuit of Black Widow. Combined, all of these factors – our cognizance of the location and role of the heroes, their ability to communicate with and support one another, and the film’s graceful maneuverings between various segments of the action – do an excellent job of conveying the epic scale and scope of this confrontation, and the need for so many heroes of such high caliber to work together to stop it. This battle effective conveys what the Avengers were always meant to do in the comics – meet the challenges any of them would not be able to face alone in their solo titles, while also simultaneously overcoming their own personal shortcomings. As such, it’s a worthy adaptation that far exceeds the quality of any of these heroes’ individual feature films thus far. 

*The film is careful to demonstrate that the Hulk is triggered both by making Banner angry, but also as a sort of autonomic defense system – Banner will transform whenever he is placed in life-threatening situations, even ones of his own devising. However, to put on my nerd glasses for a moment, the film could have been a little clearer in explaining the degree of control to which the Hulk can be subjected. My (somewhat layman) understanding is that he’s like an overpowered toddler: you can give him suggestions and hope the he listens to them (relatively easy to do when his only instruction is to smash things), but that he can also have tantrums and focus his rage on whatever is closest at hand. The former describes the last scene of the film when, he is given free rein to smash, while the latter describes the middle section, where Banner is attacked on board the airship and loses control, and where only Black Widow has the misfortune of being nearby when it happens (fortunately for her, this film also has Thor).

1 comment:

  1. Sepinwall also touches on what makes the film great: