The Avengers part 2
At the end of the last post I mentioned “stakes.” An important thing to understand about stakes is that they are directly related to the success of a cinematic narrative. When the stakes are low, the movie feels “small,” and the narrative decreases audience involvement. A movie about a guy who loses his keys is going to be less involving, to most people, than a movie about the end of the world. On a macro scale, less audience involvement generally means less audience. When the stakes are life-or-death, audience involvement increases. So The Avengers takes care to mention, right up front, that nothing less than the fate of all humanity, and the universe, is at stake. Not the planet, not the solar system or even the galaxy, but the universe. Obviously, this movie is playing for keeps.
Who is in the helicopter in the picture above, and where are they going in such a hurry? “Helicopter,” in a thriller setting, is usually a shorthand for “government.” Only the most powerful people get around by helicopter. This dates back to the war in Vietnam, where American helicopters rained death on a civilian population for years. The helicopter, cinematically speaking, became a symbol of oppressive authority.
But in this case, “helicopter” means human, as opposed to the creepy alien dudes we’ve seen in the movie so far. So a helicopter, while still a symbol of power and authority, is downright cuddly in the context of this narrative. Whoever is in that helicopter, we know he’s powerful, very powerful, and we also know that he’s human.
Where is the helicopter going? The helicopter is going to some sort of government installation, The Joint Dark Energy Something. What’s happening at the Joint Dark Energy Something is that everybody there is getting the hell out. This, in screenwriting, is called “getting into the scene as late as possible.” We don’t know what everyone is running from, we only know that they are running. This, too, increases audience involvement. The audience leans forward to gather information when they are not spoon-fed it by a cautious narrative. We don’t even get a clear look at the sign. Do we need to know exactly what this place is? Not really — the sheer size of it, which we’ve seen from our helicopter’s POV, is enough to indicate that it is “important,” and the panic erupting all over is enough to indicate that it is in great danger. Again, stakes. “Important” and “Great Danger.” Concision.
Everyone at the Joint Dark Energy Something is in a panic, except this guy, this guy who’s there to greet the helicopter. This guy is, Marvel fans will know, Agent Coulson, beloved agent of SHIELD. But to the viewer who just wandered in from off the street, all we know is that he is The One Guy Who Isn’t Running Around Panicked. That makes him very powerful in his own right, and the fact that he is waiting for the helicopter makes whoever is in the helicopter that much more powerful. Keep in mind, we’re still only a minute or so into the movie — if nothing else, The Avengers is a sleek deliverer of information. We’ve not only been given a ton of information, we’ve been given it in a highly cinematic style.
And finally, after an exhausting two minutes of movie, we meet our protagonist, Nick Fury, getting out of the helicopter. This is the powerful man in the helicopter, this is the man The Only Man Not Panicking is waiting for. Everyone else is Running Away, this man is Walking Toward. You don’t need to know anything else, he hasn’t opened his mouth, he hasn’t introduced himself, all he’s done is fly in in a helicopter and get out, and already you know he’s very important and very powerful.
(Technically, the true protagonist of The Avengers, is, of course, whoever is on the other end of the celestial jukebox that Mr. Bigrobe is talking to. This turns out, eventually, to be a guy named Thanos, and Mr. Bigrobe turns out to be a guy named, er, “The Other.” The “protagonist” of a story, the way the Greeks used the term anyway, was the guy who set events into motion. Thanos wants The Tesseract, The Other sends Loki [the “ally”] and The Chitauri to get the Tesseract, and it falls to Nick Fury to stop those guys from doing that. This, technically, makes Nick Fury the antagonist of The Avengers. To make this distinction seems picayune, but, in fact, this protagonist problem is why so many superhero movies suck — it is inherent in the genre that the protagonist of the narrative is the bad guy. The moment you have a main character whose job it is to run around stopping things from happening, you have a reactive protagonist, which means a weaker narrative. When you have a weaker narrative, you end up throwing all kinds of nonsense at the screen, hoping that no one will notice that you have a reactive protagonist. This is, incidentally, why Batman barely even shows up in Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies — he understood that the protagonist of his Batman movies had to be Bruce Wayne, not Batman, and that, for his narratives to succeed, the bad guys had to be reacting to the actions of Bruce Wayne, not Batman reacting to the actions of the bad guys.)