Some Assembly Required

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If I had anything genuinely novel to say about The Avengers, I would’ve come up with a more original title. But it seems wrong somehow to have a nerdblog and not write something about it, especially since I’ve seen it twice now in two days. It’s pretty much the perfect super-hero team movie, and just might be the perfect super-hero movie, period.

Which is pretty amazing when you stop and think about the billion opportunities it had to go horribly wrong. It should’ve collapsed under the weight of its own hype — this is a movie that hasn’t just been getting buzz since a Comic-Con trailer; it’s been building up across post-credit sequences for years. But while I’ve never been a fan of The Avengers in any incarnation, I have seen and really enjoyed almost all of the lead-up movies (I passed on both attempts to make The Hulk interesting on his own), so I wasn’t able to sufficiently lower my expectations. And still, I loved it. I’m considering myself lucky that I wasn’t a fan of the comics, because I’m not sure how I would’ve handled it otherwise.

It could’ve fallen victim to Spider-Man 3 syndrome, desperately trying to cram so many characters into one summer blockbuster that they all get lost in the noise, and the whole thing falls apart. I was already concerned about that going in, so it was alarming to see them come right out of the gate with Robin Sherbatsky as another character I’m supposed to get semi-attached to. And yet, it’s near-perfectly balanced: it’s not just that characters aren’t overlooked; each character actually gets the chance to steal a scene. The most obvious danger was having the two “underpowered” characters become completely overwhelmed by everything else, but Black Widow and Hawkeye each get multiple opportunities for bad-assery. The movie hits exactly the right tone there: acknowledging that they’re humans fighting alongside super-humans, but not dwelling on it.

At almost two and a half hours, it could’ve very well turned into either tedium or numbing spectacle. But as I was watching it, it seemed like the perfect length. In fact, there were several points during the movie (Black Widow’s initial interrogation scene, and the assembled group arguing on board the S.H.I.E.L.D. aircraft carrier) where I found myself wanting it to be an ongoing television series, immediately. “I don’t want to stop watching this. I want it to last at least another 20 hours.”

JosswhedoncaptainamericaAnd of course, it’s written and directed by Joss Whedon, which means that it could’ve easily ended up teetering on the knife’s edge between brilliant and insufferable. The dialogue could’ve been self-consciously clever; instead, the script seems to transition effortlessly between the romantic comedy banter of Iron Man, the ostentatious monologuing of Thor, the naive pulp comic conversations of Captain America, and (what I imagine to be) the tortured-and-haunted-genius dialogue of The Incredible Hulk. Then it seamlessly blends them all together.

It’s even got several of the what-have-now-come-to-be-expected Whedonisms, but they don’t feel like gimmicks or directorial tics. There’s one line of dialogue that sums that up perfectly: “They needed something to avenge.” We never hear the last word, because we don’t need to; we already know how it goes. The line has to be in there, because that’s just how these things work. But finishing it would’ve been too over-the-top. It’s exactly the right level of restraint. In all the breathless reviews and comments I’ve read online, I’ve seen multiple people say, “This is the movie that Joss Whedon’s entire career has been building up to.” I don’t think it’s that much of an exaggeration.

In fact, I think that the aspects of Whedon’s other projects that had me so skeptical — the self-conscious dialogue and the self-satisfied “look how much I just subverted that stereotype” — are what made him perfect for this movie. You can’t build a career out of subverting expectations without first understanding how traditional stories work and how audiences interpret them. When Whedon turns off the irony and lets the earnest Marvel comics fan take over, the result is an innate understanding of how to bring together movie fans, comic book fans, and fans of these characters in particular.

The perfect example of that is the way The Hulk is handled. Everybody in the audience knows the character; there’s nothing to be gained by pretending that it’s a mystery, or that there’s the need for an origin story. Most attempts at handling the character have either been too shallow — he’s just a big, stupid, unstoppable force — or way, way, way too maudlin — a tragic figure desperately looking for a cure for the beast he can’t control and also he’s psychologically damaged by child abuse. Whedon understands that neither of those are going to work, and the most clever bit of all is that he actually winds up getting both.

For the entire first half of the movie, he builds up this aura of foreboding around the Hulk. We see Black Widow, immediately after establishing herself as a bad-ass super spy, react with dread at the thought of having to run up against him. People, including Banner himself, are reluctant to mention him by name. We see brief flashes of his attacks on video screens. He’s established as the one thing powerful enough to tear apart the entire group. The movie doesn’t take it too far — Tony Stark’s there to make it clear that we all know who and what The Hulk is, it’s not like we’re supposed to be genuinely surprised. And then The Hulk’s first appearance turns out to be as horribly destructive as we’d been led to expect; it’s not Hulk as super-hero but Hulk as super-werewolf. But after giving us all of that build-up and the requisite pay-off, then the movie can deliver one final twist on the character: characters have been asking Banner repeatedly how he maintains control, and he’s been reluctant to answer. It’s not just a case of Dr. Jekyll desperately suppressing his Mr. Hyde; it’s not a completely separate personality, but something he has some degree of control over. Hulk as super-werewolf and super-hero.

The nearest I can come to a complaint: there is one gag that’s used repeatedly — one character gets interrupted as another suddenly comes in and knocks him off-screen. And yet somehow, it never stopped working.

Ever since Iron Man took me completely by surprise, I’ve been trying to figure out exactly why Marvel’s had so much more success translating super-heroes to film than DC has. Sure, Daredevil and Elektra were abominations, and I’m still waiting for them to make a third X-Men movie (hopefully it’ll come out before they make a sequel to Aliens). But it’s not just that they’ve avoided a string of disasters like Tim Burton’s and Joel Schumacher’s desecration of the Batman franchise. (If you still think that Tim Burton’s first Batman movie wasn’t that bad, then I suggest you haven’t seen it recently enough). They’ve actually managed to produce a string of good-to-outstanding movies. I’ve never been interested in Marvel comics but have loved DC, while with the movies, it’s the opposite. I even liked Thor.

I’ve speculated on why that is, exactly: for one thing, pairing directors with the franchises they’re ideally suited to handle, and letting them put their unique mark on each one. But watching The Avengers finally made it clear. It comes down to the oldest and most obvious observation you can make about the comics: it’s New York City vs. Metropolis and Gotham City. DC’s characters have always been inherently fantastic and larger than life, and their adventures are in fictional cities. Marvel deliberately made its characters human and flawed and placed them in real-world settings, so they’d be more relatable to angst-ridden teens. DC heroes are the ones you aspire to be, Marvel heroes are the ones you identify with.

That’s why Christopher Nolan’s interpretations of Batman are fine as movies but simply don’t work for me as Batman stories, and why The Avengers is the perfect capstone to Marvel’s string of successes. (It’s also why DC works better in animated formats than Marvel tends to). It’s because translating Batman (or Superman) to the real world inevitably drains them of something. Translating Marvel’s characters to film makes them come alive. They’re already designed to be real humans placed into fantastic situations. No matter how bizarre their stories get — and Marvel’s had some of the most bizarre and convoluted continuity imaginable — there’s still something tethering them to the real world. Even Thor’s got family issues and an annoying kid brother.

So you can have a moment like a $10 bet between Nick Fury, one-eyed commander of the paramilitary spy organization S.H.I.E.L.D., and Captain America, the super soldier who fought Nazis and the Red Skull in WWII before being frozen under the ocean for 70 years, that he’s about to see something he’s never seen before. And it’s a moment that actually works.

3 thoughts on “Some Assembly Required

  1. I honestly didn’t think The Avengers was great–that’s not to say it was a bad film, but I don’t think it’s the greatest superhero movie ever made, nor do I think this is the direction superhero movies should take.

    What I love about the Batman films from Christopher Nolan is that they are clearly his interpretation of the characters and he’s telling the stories he wants to tell. I don’t get that feeling when I watch The Avengers or any of the recent films from Marvel Studios. Sure, there are some of the director’s traits in them, but they’re mostly driven by what the studio wants and end up being simple popcorn films. There’s nothing wrong with popcorn films, but Marvel Studios has settled on making nothing but that. I enjoyed Captain America, but there’s not a lot of substance in the film to make me revisit it. And I really didn’t feel invested in The Avenges as I did with the first Iron Man movie, The Dark Knight, or X-Men: First Class.

    It’s true The Avengers could have been a big mess and I congratulate Joss Whedon on making the film work, but everything I saw in the movie was things I’ve seen before with nothing new attached to it. I wasn’t fond of the dialogue (“We’re not a team. We’re a time bomb”), thought the humor was too frequent and hit-or-miss, and felt most of the characters didn’t stand out and were painfully static. Iron Man was great though, since Robert Downey Jr. was just improvising in every scene. I also enjoyed the third act, where the Avengers get to the inevitable slugfest with Loki’s army, the most. It felt more naturally paced than the previous acts and allowed the characters to do what they do best. Again, I don’t hate The Avengers, but I don’t think it’s the greatest thing since sliced bread.

  2. I think it’d be a big mistake to say that the DC movies are any less of a franchise than the Marvel ones are. I have a hard time believing that Christopher Nolan ever said, “YES! I finally get to make the Bane movie that I’ve always wanted!” (And for that matter, I’m skeptical that Ra’s al Ghul and Scarecrow were first choices, instead of being the only villains left over that weren’t already covered in the earlier movies. The fact that he managed to use them to make a solid origin story doesn’t say much other than that he’s a really good filmmaker).

    But I definitely got the feeling that Joss Whedon has been wanting to make an Avengers story for years. I don’t know enough about the background to know whether that’s true or not, but it sure as hell feels that way. (You got the same feeling from his run on Astonishing X-Men — it seems like his love of these characters is just pouring out of the story).

    What you’re complaining about is what I think is a big part of why the Marvel movies tend to be better: they never stop being super-hero movies. The directors put their own spin on it (you can see Sam Raimi’s sense of humor and pulp horror sensibilities in the first 2 Spider-Man movies, Jon Favreau’s sitcom/romantic comedy take on Iron Man, Bryan Singer’s X-Men-as-outsiders-and-gay-rights-parable, etc) but they don’t try to abandon it.

    All the DC movies I can think of, even back to Superman, seem to be trying to step outside of the source material and examine what it is exactly that makes comic books work. Nolan’s two Batman movies, while technically great, seem like he’s almost begrudgingly taking all the pieces of the Batman franchise and trying to construct a three-part classical hero’s journey out of them. But the post-Spider-Man Marvel movies just start with the assumption that people already like comic books, so you don’t need to step out of them at all. You can take what already works and make entertaining stories out of them.

    (And it’s a nit-pick, but I’m extremely skeptical that Robert Downey Jr. was improvising. Joss Whedon writes some of the most natural-sounding dialogue in movies and TV. It’s just that he’s got a tendency to ruin it by adding too-clever flourishes on top in an attempt to be over-charming. When he reins that in, it’s kind of amazing. After seeing scripts for some of his other projects, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if every line of dialogue in The Avengers was word-for-word from the script).

  3. I can see your point about Marvel’s superhero films embracing their comic book origins, but I think there are times when it hurts them. I thought the first Iron Man movie struck a brilliant balance between reality and fantasy, but felt the sequel suffered when it had to adjust its world to fit in with Marvel’s other heroes. Where Iron Man made sure all the imaginative things going on in the film looked plausible, the second film made no such effort and the inclusion of Nick Fury and Black Widow distracted the story more than add to it.

    In fact, I thought the way Marvel Studios build up The Avengers through Thor and Captain America hurt those films as well–more so in Captain America, because it felt rushed to include everything it could before setting up Steve to awake in the modern world. And a lot of potential character development for characters like Captain America in The Avengers didn’t seem to happen because it would be handled in their own movies. The Avengers movie touched upon Steve not accepting his new world, but didn’t do much with it, which is disappointing because Whedon emphasized how important his role would be in the film.

    As for whether or not Robert Downey Jr improvised his lines, Marvel Comics Editor-in-Chief Axel Alonso said he heard Robert Downey Jr was improvising most of his script when talking about The Avengers. Here’s the link:

    http://www.comicbookresources.com/?page=article&id=38518

    I am curious about how much of the Zak Penn’s original script was re-written by Whedon. It will be interesting to see if there’s any difference in The Avengers sequel if Whedon is given sole writing credit. Unless Marvel does the unthinkable and replaces Whedon like they did for the directors of Thor and Captain America.

    I don’t mean to sound harsh on The Avengers, so let me talk more on what I liked about the film. Like I said before, I loved Robert Downey Jr as Iron Man; he just fits the character so well. The moments between him and Bruce Banner were also good and made sense given their backgrounds. I also thought they nailed the Hulk–in writing and looks. And while I thought the film series played its cards too early by having a full scale alien invasion in the first film, it was fun to watch the Avengers take ‘em on. And most surprisingly, everyone in the film were given a good amount of spotlight. No character felt cheated because of another. The post-post-credits was also funny.

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