The Avengers part 6
Perhaps the most impressive feature of The Avengers is the way it balances the separate stories of its wildly disparate leads, so that we never, ever feel like “Oh, another Thor scene, ho hum, I guess it will end soon.” The screenplay keeps so many balls in the air that everything feels lively and inventive and fun, even when the plot isn’t being forwarded, or especially when the plot isn’t being forwarded. The balance of the superheroes is so strong, here it is, twenty-three minutes into the movie and we are suddenly thinking “Oh yeah, Iron Man is in this movie too, I totally forgot.”
What does Tony Stark want? Tony Stark wants to show the world that the machine that powers his heart, and his suit — his life, really — the Arc Reactor, is also a viable energy source. “Energy,” in this instance, is just another word for “power,” and power is what superhero narratives are all about — who has it, who does not, who wants it and what they will do to get it. In the case of Iron Man, “power” defines the two sides of Tony’s life — he is both a weapons merchant, a power broker of the purest kind, and a power provider, with his Arc Reactor. He bets both sides of the coin, even if he stops selling weapons, he is still a weapon himself, a walking, thinking weapon.
Of defense, of course, which is always the problem of a superhero narrative — if the protagonist has more power than those around him, he must, must use that power in defense of those people. The trick is how to make that character interesting, to not make him a Boy Scout. Batman makes its protagonist obsessive and brooding, Hulk makes its protagonist an agonist who doesn’t want to use his powers at all, and Superman — well, that’s part of the reason why Superman is so hard to do in a cinematic narrative, he’s both a boy scout and resolutely unbeatable. Iron Man, on the other hand, makes its protagonist kind of a jerk — flawed, vain, conceited.
Who has power in The Avengers isn’t as interesting as who wants it, and who loves it. Thanos, apparently, has all the power in the universe, except for that one thing. The Other, it would seem, has as much power as any being could hope for — he towers over Loki, a freaking god already, and has armies at his disposal, but is a mere lackey in the presence of Thanos, and a bootlicker at that. Contrast him with Nick Fury, who also must report to a mysterious disembodied power, his committee, but who holds them at arm’s length, with distrust, and wants primarily to create a family. Then contrast Fury with Coulson, who is polite and diffident with Fury but holds a stunning amount of his own power, then contrast Coulson with Tony Stark, who treats Coulson like a teaching assistant he has to be nice to.
Coulson, “Phil,” to Tony’s girlfriend Pepper Potts, busts in on Tony and Pepper while they’re in the middle of a celebratory glass of champagne: Tony has made his first steps away from “bad” power and toward “good” power. Luckily for us, this hasn’t made him less of a jerk.
(That “Phil,” inserted as a tiny, tiny joke, intended to give the merest suggestion of a past between Pepper and Coulson, will have repercussions later, another example of how the smallest moments in The Avengers, delivered in the most casual ways, pay off.)
Coulson gives Tony a huge file to study and Pepper takes her leave, with a whispered promise of later sex. Coulson, stuck holding Pepper’s champagne flute, averts his eyes and looks uncomfortable. It’s an answer shot to him waiting on the phone while Black Widow beat up the Russians — Coulson, while jetting about saving the world, waits for super-spies to beat people up and then waits for billionaire industrialists to get sex talk from their girlfriends. It says the most about Coulson in the fastest way possible, again, humanizes him, in ways that will pay off later in the movie.
Who is Coulson, anyway, in the context of this drama? He wields enoromous power, he clearly outranks the individual heroes involved, and yet he doesn’t merely defer to them, he loves them, they mean the world to him. Coulson, in short, is the audience. If Fury is the writer/director, Coulson is the audience. But not just any member of the audience, he is the way all comics readers imagine themselves on an adventure with one of their heroes: the coolest sidekick ever. He’s blase, unassuming, patient, unflappable and openly adoring, as we see in a moment, when he gushes at Steve Rogers as they head out to the SHIELD carrier.
And here, at the thirty minute mark, we end Act I of The Avengers. The threat has been established, the team has been built (almost), the characters established. They’re in it now, whatever “it” is.