The Avengers part 4
Now that our movie has a protagonist, the question, as always, is “What does the protagonist want?” Superficially, the protagonist of The Avengers, Nick Fury, wants “to save the world,” that most generic of motives. To save the world, Fury must get a group of superheroes from vastly different backgrounds to work together.
Surprise! What the protagonist wants is exactly the same thing as what the writer-director wants! If Joss Whedon cannot succeed in getting his dog’s-breakfast of a cast to mesh, meld and work as a unit, his narrative will fail and no one will go see his movie. This not only gives the writer a keen insight into his protagonist’s character, it’s a stroke of genius, giving the narrative a spine that would otherwise make it an ensemble comedy-spectacle, an It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World with superheroes.
We now move briefly to Russia, where we meet Black Widow. This is the first of what will be a number of “assembling the team” scenes, which will form the basis of Act I. “Assembling the team” acts can be a real drag, a laundry list of scenes that don’t further the action, especially when the audience knows that the team will assemble. “Avengers Assemble!” is the freaking catchphrase of the whole franchise, how could they not assemble? The screenplay gets around this potential narrative cul-de-sac in a number of ways, starting with the excellence of the individual scenes.
Black Widow is Somewhere in Russia, in a black evening dress, being interrogated by Some Bad Guys. Who is Black Widow? I don’t really know, I’m only glancingly familiar with her, but her introduction in The Avengers certainly gets my attention. It’s a brilliant scene, one that tells you everything you need to know about the character and delivers that information in a concise, funny, inventive and dramatically effective way.
We meet her tied to a chair, teetering on the edge of a big hole in the floor. Our hearts instantly go out to her: that poor woman! She’s being interrogated by some really scary dudes about something or other, it really doesn’t matter, it makes no difference, the point is that she is in a position of extreme duress and discomfort and facing impossible odds for escape.
Except, of course, that she is not. One of the thugs gets a phone call from Agent Coulson, who has (or says he has) a bomber ready to kill them all. (This elevates Coulson quite a bit in the narrative, from “Guy Subservient To Nick Fury” to “Guy Impressive In His Own Right.”) And we learn that Black Widow’s helplessness is an act, that she has been using her helplessness to get the Russians to reveal more information than they would have otherwise, and that she is perfectly capable of taking care of herself, reversing her situation and making the Russians the helpless ones, in a hugely impressive fight scene.
She’s reluctant at first — she tells Coulson “I’m working.” So we see how she responds to a guy capable of destroying a city block with a phone call — “Can this wait?” Coulson tells her “Agent Barton has been compromised,” and that’s sets her into action. So we see that Black Widow is not motivated by “duty to her superiors” but rather by personal friendship: Hawkeye means something to her. This makes all the difference in the world.
A few years back, I did a piece about the difference between Bruce Timm’s Justice League series and the Superfriends show of the 1970s. I found that the difference between the two shows is that Superfriends treats the Justice League as all the same protagonist, while Justice League emphasizes the differences between all the characters and mines dramatic gold from those differences. The same applies here: a simple line like “Agent Barton has been compromised” changes The Avengers from a movie about a fait accompli triumph of team spirit to a movie about people, and superheroes need to be people, no matter how broadly drawn, if we’re going to care about them.
(I love the shot of Coulson waiting on the phone while Black Widow turns the tables on her captors. Listening to Black Widow beat up thugs is Coulson’s version of hold music.)