Sunday, May 20, 2012

The Avengers

The Avengers (4/5)

            Well, it’s finally here.  Many of us have been waiting for this moment for years, some for even decades.  But despite the bumps along the ways, and fears that we may never see its realization, us fans finally have what we have wanted for so long.  I’m talking, of course, about Joss Whedon’s first time helming an existing property in a major motion picture.  As much as Whedon fans have enjoyed his original work over the years, many of us have wondered what he could do not only with preexisting characters but also with the backing of a major budget and the epic panoramic screen of the multiplex.  Oh, and of course the film itself happens to be The Avengers, the most anticipated movie of the last ten years or so.  And I’m happy to report that no one other than Whedon would have been able to pull off a film with this scope and this huge cast of characters. 

            As you might guess, this review will be Whedon centric.  Plenty of people have dissected The Avengers from the point of view of comic book fans or critics of summer blockbusters.  But I would like to approach it from the perspective of one entry within Whedon’s larger oeuvre.  I have a long history with Whedon’s work, starting in high school when I first started watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer on a lark.  The concept of transforming a poorly received film into an ongoing series appeared to be such an idiotic idea that I decided to tune in order to witness some schadenfreude.  But eventually I found myself sucked into the story of a group of teenagers struggling simultaneously with adolescents and the supernatural, both elements of the show serving as metaphor for the other.  Not only did Buffy provide a surprisingly accurate view of growing up, but it also dipped into narrative experimentation.  Like many TV shows from the 90s, Buffy was acutely aware of genre conventions and subverted them whenever it could.  From then on I was a devoted fan of Whedon’s work, from his spin off series Angel to the cult classic Firefly to his work in comic books. 

            And of all the elements Whedon is most known for, the one that makes him most suited for an Avengers film is his ability to handle a large cast of characters without letting anyone slide into the background.  Whedon once said that he had to add more characters to Angel because he had such a difficult time writing for just the three principle actors.  It’s also not uncommon for ancillary characters to become series regulars in his shows.  So if anyone is capable of balancing out four superheroes who had previously anchored their own films along with a good helping of backup characters, it is Joss Whedon.  The Avengers combines elements from many of the previous films.  The Iron Man movies initially introduced the idea of “The Avengers Initiative,” first in a post-credit scene from the first film and later in the sequel SHIELD and the Avengers served as an entire subplot that nearly derailed the movie.  The MacGuffin, here known as the tesseract, was first introduced in Captain America and has a connection to the Norse Gods that filled out the mythology of Thor.  And the main villain, Loki, is of course the adopted brother of Thor himself.  Of all the previous Marvel movies, The Incredible Hulk is the least essential.  But with a new casting (Mark Ruffalo replaces Edward Norton) audiences have an opportunity to become reacquainted with the green guy. 

            The basic plot of the film is relatively straight forward with only a few curves thrown in for good measure.  Loki wants to steal the tesseract so that he can lead an invading alien force that will take over the Earth.  Without too much plot to get in the way, Whedon is capable of focusing his energy on the story’s core pith: the friction between the heroes.  A lot of the film’s drama comes from the fact that these characters don’t belong together.  Their personalities and ideologies just don’t fit.  In most comic books this means that the heroes have to fight before they team up, and in true comic book form when Thor tries to extract Loki from SHIELD custody and take him back to Asgardian jurisdiction Captain America and Iron Man team up to stop him.  Likewise, Captain America, who is a man out of time, continually brushes up against Tony Stark.  This makes sense, since Steve Rogers is a veteran of World War II when it was necessary for the individuals to sacrifice himself for the greater good, but, as Iron Man, Tony Stark doesn’t do anything without first considering his own ego.  And in the midst of all this tension lies Bruce Banner who is liable to Hulk out at any provocation. 

            Whedon is able to steer the film towards the interpersonal thanks to a few tricks he learned back in his Buffy days.  In the episode, “The Yoko Factor,” the gang captures the punk rock vampire Spike only for him to psychologically manipulate each of Buffy’s friends in order to get them to turn on one another.  The point of the episode is that these tensions have existed for some time, and it only took a little spark for all of the resentment between friends to ignite into hatred.  Similarly, in The Avengers, Shield manages to capture Loki who then proceeds to sew seeds of distrust among the newly formed super group.  By making the tensions between the Avengers a weakness the villain can exploit, Whedon is able to clearly illustrate these characters for the audience while keeping the plot moving along.  The story doesn’t need to stop in order for us to get to know these characters.

            If Whedon is known for one authorial tick, then it is probably his use of witticisms and word play.  The team dynamic allows him plenty of space to incorporate some of his well known dialogue.  The film trades in lots of quips between heroes and has a sprinkling of snark without going overboard.  Critics of Whedon’s writing find his dialogue to be treacly rather than charming, and while I mostly disagree with these critics, it’s certainly true that not all of Whedon’s verbal jabs land properly.  This is especially true when Whedon isn’t present to carefully direct his dialogue’s delivery (see Halle Berry in The X-Men).  But like an athlete who does his best work in front of millions, here, when the world is watching, Whedon’s humor absolutely shines.  And he has found a great ally in Robert Downey Jr. who is known to insist on making his own improvements on his scripts (the “Shwarma” joke was apparently all his idea).  In fact, Whedon is confident enough in his humor to momentarily take a break from the action to show us a Shield agent playing Galaga on a multimillion dollar computer when his boss isn’t watching.  A joke that wouldn’t work if he didn’t trust that his audience shared his own bizarre sense of humor. 

            In addition to his use of repartee, Whedon’s also well known as a pop culture feminist, which in practice means he likes to watch an attractive lady beat up guys much bigger than herself.  Here Black Widow (played by Scarlett Johansson) serves this particular purpose.  Several times throughout the film, Black Widow uses others’ perception of her as an emotionally fragile creature in order to, jujitsu-like, convince her enemies to spill important information.  What might be first seen as a weakness becomes a weapon.  Whedon is clearly within the ideological confines of third-wave feminism, which seems to maintain that women can both serve as sexual objects while simultaneously kicking ass.  And there’s some legitimate criticism to this approach to feminism, but Whedon generally gets away with it because he’s able to write strong, interesting female characters.  We learn that Black Widow has a history with another SHIELD agent, Hawkeye (played by Jeremy Renner and, unfortunately, not given much of a role).  And when he is taken by Loki, Black Widow, in a role reversal, is allowed to become his savior.  Third wave feminism suits Johansson, an actress who most directors seem unable to do anything interesting with.  Arguably, this is her best role since Lost in Translation.

            But if there is a single major theme of The Avengers, then it is the question of the place of the individual within a larger community.  While making a pit stop in Germany, Loki takes the time to make a crowd of people bow before him while he pontificates on the useless notion of freedom.  And if the parallels between Loki’s philosophy and fascism aren’t clear enough, an older gentleman in the crowd decides to stand up and all but call Loki Hitler (obviously this fellow has never heard of Godwin’s Law).  But the Avengers have their own problems formulating a cohesive group.  Each character is in some manner or other cut off from the larger society, whether it is Bruce Banner’s rage or Tony Stark’s ego.  These are individuals who are marked as outsiders, a favorite theme of Whedon’s work.  But their very survival, and the survival of the world, is dependant on the ability of these individual parts to interlock.  Whedon represents the eventual coming together of these heroes in the final battle with a single shot that moves around the city in order to let the audience see how these characters work together as a cohesive unit.  For Whedon the answer to forced unity is not pure individuality, but rather a volatile mixture of the singular within the communal.

            But Whedon hasn’t lost his healthy distrust of governing bodies.  Without giving too much away, in addition to dealing with an alien invasions, the film’s heroes must also contend with the unclear motives of SHIELD, the quasi-military/quasi-intelligence agency that first assembled the Avengers.  Not only do members of the Avengers accuse SHIELD of attempting to create weapons of mass destruction, but the organization also purposefully attacks a civilian target for the “greater good.”  In fact, Whedon’s portrayal of SHIELD may have been too subversive for the U.S. military who cited its portrayals as a reason why they refused to cooperate with the movie by lending military equipment, an offer they regularly extend to films that represent the armed forces in a much more “patriotic” light. 

            For the most part the movies produced by Marvel have been, by necessity, studio films in the classic Hollywood tradition.  Superhero movies have become so popular that most studios have banished any ultra stylistic auteurs who, early on in the superhero craze, put out some of the more distinctive films in the genre.  The likes of Ang Lee and Sam Raimi were deemed too idiosyncratic to helm multi-million dollar films.  That doesn’t mean that there haven’t been some interesting superhero films in the last few years, but it does mean that singular visions have been replaced by the work of handy craftsmen.  When you watch Tim Burton’s Batman, you immediately recognize that this can be nothing but the work of Tim Burton The same could be said about Nolan’s Batman series, thanks to the fact that they were first made when superhero auteurs were still in vogue.  (It’s unlikely in today’s environment that the studio would give Nolan as much free reign as he wielded).  Joss Whedon’s The Avengers (a title that would make more sense than Marvel’s The Avengers) attempts to derail this trend.  While Whedon is still constrained by the visual and narrative template established previously in earlier Marvel movies, he still manages to create a film that speaks with his own artistic voice.  This is especially impressive when you consider the fact that he was entrusted with an astronomical budget.  Maybe from within the deafening confines of the studio system, a singular voice can make itself heard after all.

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