A note on The Avengers






















You know, it’s quite good.

And it appears the entire world wants to see this movie about a scrappy band of misfits who put their differences aside and refuse to bow down to an individual who would oppress them.

Many years ago I went with my friend R. Sikoryak to see the first Sam Raimi Spider-Man movie.  R. had been waiting all his life for that movie, and it did not disappoint him — it all felt right to him.  I wasn’t well-read in Spider-Man comics at the time, so I assumed he was right.

Looking back on it now, Spider-Man is a wonderful movie, but does it capture the tone of the comics?  My reading of Spider-Man was that he wasn’t so tortured, that he wore his heroism lightly, that he was always there with a quip, that nothing really bothered him that much — as long as he had his Spider-Man suit on, anyway.  The act of putting a teenager in a Spider-Man suit on film, I think, meant that the character and his world needed to become — here’s the dreaded word — “grounded.”  And the Raimi movies got that down well.  When you take a character in spandex and put him on screen, he’s bound to look ridiculous.  Because of that, everyone in the movie must take this all very seriously, or else there is no dramatic tension.

Look at where we’ve come in this genre from the Batman TV show to The Avengers.  The Batman creators saw that a man dressed like a bat punching people was ridiculous, and so everyone played it for laughs.  The Superman movie creators saw that a little weight could add resonance to this pulp material, but they had no real faith in the source material.  Deep down, they thought it was all kind of silly and gave Superman a buffoonish Lex Luthor to fight.  Look at a project like Justice League of America: The Movie and you can see how disastrous a too-light approach can be to this kind of material.  How can we care about anything onscreen if everyone is an idiot?

The Avengers, I think, gets it all right, more so even than X-Men: First Class, up ’til now my favorite Marvel movie.  The characters are well drawn, well played, taken seriously and grounded, but it all plays very lightly, the way I remember Avengers comics being.  Disaster always looms, the world is always on the brink of collapse, but everyone in the movie manages to bear the burden with a grin.  I mean, we’re talking about a world where a thawed-out super-soldier, a Norse god and a Jekyll-and-Hyde monster all live in the same space, where an aircraft-carrier can fly, where the multi-billionaire arms dealer with the flying super-suit is the most “grounded” character of the bunch.

Add to this the fact that the movie has to juggle the concerns and arcs of no fewer than ten main characters, and does so with grace, humor and panache.  There is never a moment where you’re thinking “Come on, where’s the Hulk already?” or “Ugh, Captain America, I’m gonna go get some popcorn,” but neither does the movie get so bogged down in any one character’s struggles that the narrative slows.

And we remember, we read superhero comics as children because they were fun.  The adventures were huge, the mayhem panoramic, the tests of will and strength arduous, but above all, they were fun.  The Avengers remembers that.


21 Responses to “A note on The Avengers
  1. Patrick Brooks says:

    I am fascinated by the battle between The Dark Knight Rises and The Avengers – from the trailer of Rises, I think it would be hard to come up with a superhero movie that’s more of a polar opposite to everything that The Avengers is.

    I saw The Avengers on Wednesday and heartily enjoyed it (it’s refreshing to see a script that is genuinely witty), with Mark Ruffalo being the stand out for me, but I did feel it was slightly too long (the middle aircraft carrier sequence dragged a tad) and although I laughed a lot and certainly had a lot of fun, none of the characters really came close to forming a proper emotional engagement with me, and so in the end it all felt a bit superficial. A rollercoaster ride whilst I was watching, but… unmemorable. It’s in this area that I’m hoping The Dark Knight Rises will excel.

    • (Spoiler Alert, anyone who hasn’t seen the film yet, don’t read any further in this comment)

      I think the character with the biggest emotional engagement with the audience is Agent Coulson. Since he’s appeared in every movie (Except Captain America) and the added short films that the audience has seen him as a constant. Maybe even as an avatar for the viewer because, even though he’s a spy, he’s as regular as any fan in the audience. I don’t of anyone who’s seen the Avengers that wasn’t shocked and a bit sad to see his fate.

      • Curt_Holman says:

        I always thought Coulson was one of the parka-wearing guys who discovers the downed aircraft in the Arctic at the beginning of ‘Captain America,’ but apparently not – he’s not in the credits.

        • I thought that strange that he wasn’t one of the agents in the Arctic too. They even kind of “retconned” Coulson being in the Cap film when he tells Rogers that he was watching him sleep.

  2. Curt_Holman says:

    Spider-man comics always had a mix of escapist hijinks and the angst that made Marvel Comics stand out in the 1960s. Spider-man has always been the quintessential wisecracking superhero, but Peter Parker’s personal problems never went away just because he had super-powers. I’d say ‘Spider-man 2’ better captured the tone of the comics, with scenes like the hard-luck humor of Peter trying to deliver a pizza on time to keep his job. (“Spider-man just stole that dude’s pizza!”)

    Joss Whedon and comics writer Brian Michael Bendis (who I really like, but sharply divides comics readers) frequently give their characters ironic senses of humor, which can appeal to grown-up readers because 1.) their banter can be genuinely funny; and 2.) they reveal that the characters have a level of self-awareness that one would expect from a real super-powered person in the present day.

    My question is, who is the protagonist of THE AVENGERS?

    • Todd says:

      That would be Nick Fury. Although, as Mr. AO Scott has pointed out, he’s more of a master of ceremonies.

      • Nat Almirall says:

        Fury puts things in motion, but it felt to me that Tony Stark became the de facto protagonist. At least he’s the most interesting character (and, I think, the only one who has an arc), going from wanting to get screwed to wanting to get S.H.I.E.L.D. off his back to wanting to get this over with to realizing this is a legitimate threat but still wanting to get this over with to realizing this is a legitimate threat to the point that he’s willing to take orders and even sacrifice himself to wanting to get screwed again. Fury, on the other hand, gets to argue with Powers Boothe, a manly escapade in and of itself, but he seems to bow out in the last part.

        • Todd says:

          The movie is a pretty clearly-defined ensemble piece. You may have characters you like, but pretty much everyone gets equal screen time, and if not equal screen time, equal weight in the screenplay. Which is an impressive feat in and of itself, and worthy of analysis on this here blog, once the DVD comes out.

        • McGone says:

          You could also make the argument that Banner is the protagonist, IMO. He’s got the genuine conflict of trying to control himself and remain hidden. And frankly, he sacrifices himself too by letting the Hulk come out after more than a year of keeping him caged. It just doesn’t seem like a sacrifice since that’s the point where he more or less steals the movie. I loved the “That’s my secret – I’m always angry” line.

          I know that Captain America is meant to be the audience surrogate, but Banner seems to be as out of place as the super soldier unstuck in time. Whedon did a great job of juggling so many fleshed out characters.

          • Ted Slaughter says:

            I’d agree with Todd that Fury is the protagonist for the basic reason that he’s there at the inciting incident, and he makes the big decision that moves along the rest of the plot.

            SPOILERS – He’s there when Loki steals the tesseract and he makes the decision to form the Avengers because of it, breaking away from (I think they were called) the committee in doing so. While he might not have the same kind of powerful arc as some of the other characters, like Banner or Black Widow, he’s still the character whose decisions keep the plot moving. For example he uses Coulson’s death to motivate Stark and Rogers to keep fighting.

  3. jediafr says:

    I enjoyed the movie as funny and a lot more well ritten than the average blobkbuster these days.
    But reflecting upon it, i question some lines mostly from Thor and Loki jokes (“he was adopted”, “i’ll have that drink”‘)…In my opinion Thor should have been played the righteous semi god not smiling and actually caring to save Natalie Portman with Loki being more mischievous…

    Well i guess the lines will be cut by a fanedit edition after a release on blueray.

  4. Dave Ray says:

    I had a question about this movie, but after seeing it again I think I figured it out. So can I ask you a question about Cabin In The Woods instead?

    • Todd says:

      Sure! I greatly enjoyed Cabin.

      • Dave Ray says:

        Thanks. I loved the film, but this one element has been nagging at me and I hoped you might have some insights.

        ***Spoiler alert***

        I’m baffled by the early reveal of the invisible wall. It just seems to undercut any potential tension in the later scene where Hemsworth’s character tries to jump across the ravine. Instead of wondering, ‘is he going to make the jump?’ or, ‘what have Jenkins, Whitford, et al. got up their sleeves to stop him?’ we know exactly what’s going to happen and are left counting down the seconds until the (admittedly cool) special effect. Is there something I’m missing there? I can’t see what the early reveal gains them that’s worth detracting from the later scene.

        • Todd says:

          I think the only real problem is that you’re clever. I saw the movie with a packed house and nobody saw Hemsworth’s death coming for a second. The beat got a huge reaction. I actually found the beat perfectly timed — they told us exactly what would happen in Act I, then threw so much weird stuff at us at such a pace that we had no memory of it an hour later. Then, when it happens, everyone laughed because yes, they had told us that was going to happen.

          • I too enjoyed “The Cabin In The Woods” . I wasn’t bothered by the early third wall reveal (I see a ton of movies every year, in fact I’m up to 27 thus far in ’12, but I had yet to see a trailer for “Cabin”. I was told by friends that the third wall reveal was in the previews).
            What got me towards the end of the film, just before they descended the elevator, I was torn who to root for. I felt for the remaining cabin survivors but I also was rooting for the controllers to succeed sensing that they were doing something for the greater good.

          • Dave Ray says:

            Thanks. I suppose there are worse problems to have. I’m glad to know the jump scene still worked for others.

        • Doug Orleans says:

          The motorbike smashing into the wall was no surprise to me either. It didn’t even occur to me that it was supposed to be a surprise, but I’m glad that it was for some.

          I greatly enjoyed Cabin in the Woods as well. But, I am a little confused about the intended message (if any) of the final choice. It seemed to me to be roughly similar to the libertarian argument for ignoring global warming. Am I reading too much into it?

  5. Matt D says:

    Is there an argument for Loki being the protagonist? Especially in the second act?

    • Todd says:

      There is an argument for “The Bad Guy” being the protagonist of every genre picture, I think. Which, in this case, would make The Other (hooded guy with strange hockey mask) the protagonist, since he sets the narrative in motion.

      • Matt D says:

        Your Phantom Menace search for the Phantom Protagonist causes me to always suspect the Bad Guy.