Revisiting The Avengers

I didn’t review The Avengers the first time I saw it for reasons that escape me, but having now seen it a second time I find there’s still plenty to say. My second viewing not only held up but confirmed the film’s strengths for me, whereas some blockbusters resolutely do not (Avatar, for instance). Much has been said about what Joss Whedon achieved with this film, and it’s largely correct. It’s not a film that touches your soul, and I don’t even think it’s going to be a touchstone film for future budding filmmakers like Star Wars or Raiders. Instead, what’s so impressive is that it exemplifies exactly what blockbuster filmmaking should always be, but so rarely is. If we have to pay around $20 per 3D ticket for a film, we deserve quality escapism like this.The Avengers feels complete. You can sense that the script and editing have been vigorously perfected, not hastily assembled and thrown out the door. Although Whedon had a release date deadline like most other big movies, he was evidently given enough time to perfect the screenplay. Many blockbusters set that release date and rush the film into production whether the script is ready or not. Occasionally the script may not even be finished, and that slapdash approach usually comes through on screen.

But despite The Avengers‘s surprisingly modest narrative goals, Whedon uses the breathing room of a straightforward story to intensely hone the characters, the dialogue, and the emotional arcs. Each character has a role to play, a distinctive motive, and scenes to shine. Each has hilarious lines and moments of tenderness. And crucially, no character is more important than another. The popularity of Iron Man and Robert Downey Jr. no doubt made Tony Stark as protagonist and de facto leader an enticing prospect. But no, he steps back and takes his place in the ensemble, allowing Captain America to take the traditional leadership role.

But even that is somewhat subdued. Whedon places greater stock in building a team of equals and making us care that they come together. The conflicts between them feel a little forced but are largely organic, so their antagonism is compelling rather than overwrought. You believe that Stark has a sincere problem with Rogers’ hubris, particularly thanks to a chilling, rarely-seen disdain in Downey’s performance. Bringing heroic characters into conflict without it reeking of contrivance was a hell of a challenge, but Whedon was a logical choice.

Why? Let’s examine Serenity, Whedon’s film of his short-lived Firefly TV series, which is principally renowned for its miraculous existence and being feverishly adored by its fans. What tends to get short shrift is its tight and adept screenplay. Like The Avengers, Whedon had to equally service a host of characters and construct a plot that built on what came before while remaining accessible to newcomers. It had to function as a stand-alone movie, but also as the culmination of a long-running story. And it absolutely succeeds, so why many who knew Whedon’s work were skeptical about him bagging The Avengers is puzzling.

Fear that the film wouldn’t look cinematic enough – would look ‘too TV’ – was the prevailing objection that did have some merit. Serenity looks genuinely so, I find, and any sense of limited scope is more  a consequence of its budget than Whedon’s aptitude. But would he squander $200 million+, mustering only flat action and a sense of confinement, with a few explosions and lots of CGI to make the film look more expensive?

Fortunately not. The Avengers doesn’t have a distinctive visual style like Christopher Nolan’s Batman films, but that may be to conform to the Marvel Studios style rather than because Whedon lacks the capacity. Where it excels is in delivering dynamite action scenes where you can actually follow what’s going on. When did this become anathema? Of course, the CG and stunt assistance required for the larger-than-life action sequences we  now expect make a simple wide shot difficult. But a fight scene can be edited within an inch of its life to create the illusion that certain blows are being struck without us actually seeing them, and why has this become stylistically desirable?

Only one scene in The Avengers struck me as being built this way (some of Thor and Loki’s fight on Stark Tower). In all other scenes, the camera just took the action in or didn’t deny you comprehension when it got up close, such as during Hawkeye and Black Widow’s fight. CGI was obviously used for the death-defying shots and anything involving the Hulk, but it didn’t draw attention to the fakery. The action was built step by step to ratchet up our tension and involvement rather than with a blur of flailing limbs.

And then there’s the scope of that action. The climactic battle did indeed just take place in New York, as many feared, but it was far from a hindrance. The ‘limited’ scope actually ensured that we always knew what was happening and that the characters remained connected as a team, as the arc of the film demanded. And with those immense alien beasts flying around and Hulk jumping implausibly long distances doing all kinds of crazy shit, I didn’t feel like I’d been shortchanged on superhero action. No, the film didn’t transport the characters into orbit or another planet, but it never felt small. For his second feature, Whedon exhibits a confidence that explains why the film has continued to bring in the money.

Yes, that opening weekend was huge, but if word-of-mouth was poor the gross could have plummeted. Because Whedon worked hard to deliver a film that worked on every level we needed, it continues to bring in the dollars and shame the lazy films that followed by forcing them into second or third place (take that, Battleship). Yes, it’s a franchise film built on brand recognition, but it’s the superbly made culmination of a hugely ambitious creative endeavour, not a quick, script-free cash-in on a barely filmable property (again, see Battleship).

To me that offsets the corporate implications of movies like this. This is a film, first and foremost. It never feels like it’s trying to sell me toys or a video game. That’s down to creative integrity, and blockbuster filmmaking needs more of that. As The Avengers and The Dark Knight prove, having some can bring you more money than having none.

A few other thoughts:

– as every review has noted, The Avengers has indeed rehabilitated the Hulk on screen. The honesty and vulnerability of Mark Ruffalo makes Banner a lot more endearing. As bummed as I was that Norton wasn’t brought back for this film, I recognise now that he’s not the best at playing an everyman. I did actually feel for him in parts of The Incredible Hulk, but Ruffalo has a warmth that the character needs. Plus, allowing the Hulk to finally be fun and in control is a lot more enjoyable than more of Angsty Banner/Hulk. But can he sustain another feature film? Marvel Studios head Kevin Feige has wisely noted that he may work best in a supporting capacity, so we’ll have to see.

– sadly, this is yet another Marvel film with an unmemorable score. Alan Silvestri musters an adequate theme for the team, but no more. Not charging the composers with creating a memorable theme for each character in their own films and then having Silvestri integrate them in The Avengers was a massive missed opportunity. The characters coming together musically as well as visually would have enhanced the thrill.

– the sheer fun of this film makes the dark superhero movie trend all the sillier. The Avengers resonates with believable stakes and emotive characters, but it’s still funny as hell and a great ride. Despite their lack of gothicism, I love the Nolan Batman films. I love the grandeur he’s infused them with. Nonetheless, they’re terribly serious, and the prospect of the Nolan-produced Man of Steel having a similar real-world aesthetic and attitude is disspiriting. Superman should capture our imagination in the richest way; we don’t need him to be utterly believable. The Avengers understands that to ground superheroes in real-world credibility too firmly diminishes their charm and mythic resonance.

– so will Whedon return for the Avengers sequel? He’s no doubt welcome back, but then since Kenneth Branagh and Joe Johnston aren’t returning for their sequels, perhaps Marvel mystifyingly won’t consider him crucial. I wouldn’t mind Whedon using his newfound clout to get some more idiosyncratic projects made, but the prospect of a cosmic Avengers without him is a sad one too.

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