aka The Avengers
As a writer, Joss Whedon has an unwavering grasp of what makes for a crowd-pleasing moment. As a director, he has a less-than-perfect ability to achieve that. On revisit, it’s striking how much Avengers Assemble (or plain Avengers if you don’t live in the Britain) resembles a big-budget TV movie, from its aspect ratio to the mild, contained staging of set pieces. It even opens in a basement. Despite this, for the most part, it does exactly what it needs to do, bringing Marvel’s superhero brands together in such a manner that they strike sparks off each other, both playful and antagonistic.
However, the lustre of that main-event status, the one that made it such a phenomenal success, has worn off to the extent that Kevin Feige’s formula is now somewhat unflattering. The hugely satisfying moments go hand in hand with trademark Whedon dialogue, such that everyone makes smart remarks and quips whether or not it’s appropriate, and everyone is thrown hero moments, whether or not they land. As often as the plot mechanisms succeed, they’re clunky and derived. When you’re too conscious of the inner workings of an engine, it’s difficult to buy into the illusion that it’s magic.
On Whedon’s side, the structure of Avengers Assemble is suitably robust (he reportedly threw out Zack Penn’s draft, telling Feige they should pretend it never happened). Loki as the villain was Marvel’s stipulation, but it’s a good one, as he’s erudite, witty and one you want to spend time with – pretty much the antithesis of most MCU bad guys, then.
He’s made a badass from the start, taking out everyone guarding the Tesseract (in that basement) or converting them to his will. He has a masterplan that shows he smarter than everyone else too – although I’m not sure if Whedon constantly nodding to this being the case before the reveal was wise. On the one hand, it means you can’t say it wasn’t up to much (and it hinging on Hulk hulking out isn’t really that clever, special or involved). On the other again, it over-eggs the anticipation.
Whedon needs to operate continual twists by way of reversals; it’s in his blood as a plotter. Which means a smart character in one scene has to be stupid the next, which isn’t always satisfying for a masterplan. Everything’s going swimmingly until Loki’s hoodwinked by Black Widow, a scene that might have played better if you believed Scarlett Johanssen could believably hoodwink anyone.
The scene’s also notable for Loki, rather vulgarly, calling her a mewling quim, which has retrospectively worked wonders for Whedon’s cred as a poster boy for progressing the feminist cause. There’s a problem here structurally too, in that we know Loki is working for someone (the Other), and that he’s under his own form of pressure. This is a GREAT choice, as if you give the villain stakes, forcing you to care about his outcome, you’re more invested in the whole endeavour from all sides. Unfortunately, Joss doesn’t remember to really dig into this aspect again.
Loki: I am a god, you dull creature!
Hulk: Puny god.
There’s an interesting moment where Thor pleads with his brother to stop what’s coming and Loki replies “It’s too late. It’s too late to stop it“. Worst case scenario: the movie turns into Terror of the Autons, with the Master and the Doctor working side by side because the former didn’t bother to think things through. Fortunately, that doesn’t happen, but what we needed and didn’t get was a repositioning of the ultimate villain where the stakes were raised.
The Centauri are never anything more than cannon fodder and the Other (Alex Denisof), let alone his master, remains out of play, so the third act becomes a series of heroes vs Chitauri showboats, while Loki well and truly falls off his pedestal when Hulk smashes him. He retains his wit (“If it’s all the same to you, I’ll have that drink now“), but the climax is more about a deed (Tony disposing of the payload) than besting the bad guy.
I mentioned Black Widow, and I should preface comments on the B-heroes by saying there’s little overall dissatisfaction with how Whedon services the coming together of the Avengerers. However, even when he’s at pains to give them screen time, the lesser mortals consistently underwhelm. Sometimes because he’s so at pains to do right by them.
The only way he managed to keep Hawkeye central to the action was to turn him bad, but because Renner’s got a face for playing shifty and because Hawkeye is utterly dull and has really shitty powers, he’s only even a remotely compelling character when he’s on Team Loki. It’s pretty cool when he tries to kill Nick Fury, admittedly. Turn him good again, giving him a detox and letting him take out Chitauri with his frickin’ arrows – while falling – and he’s not just out of his depth, you wish he’d been banished from the entire movie, never to return (“Just like Budapest all over again“).
Black Widow. Well, I shouldn’t go on about Scarlett’s deficiencies whenever she’s in a movie, but Whedon’s basically doing his identikit sassy female, more Faith than Buffy, but less charismatic than either Eliza Dushku or Sarah Michelle Gellar. And some might call it foreshadowing that Whedon has her introduced fooling Jerzy Skolimowski – director of that Europudding masterpiece The Adventures of Gerard! – that he‘s interrogating her, just as she later fools Loki. Others might suggest it’s lazy repetition.
Joss will also no doubt say he saw something he wanted to develop between Natasha and Bruce here. Everyone else will attest it was the most clod-headed move imaginable. As ever, though, Scarlett’s stunt double does fine work (the resemblance to an episode of Buffy is striking in the editing of these sequences).
Cap: We have orders. We should follow them.
Tony: Following’s not really my style.
Cap: And you’re all about style, aren’t you?
There’s SHIELD too. It’s probably fair to say Whedon hasn’t had a great year. His work on Justice League went down like a bag of cold sick reingested and then regurgitated once more (doubtless he envisaged a salvaged-in-the-edit response on the level of Rogue One), his ex-wife levelled the accusation against him that he was a multiple louse, and he subsequently left (or was never really going to helm it at all?) Batgirl, since he was now deemed part of the problem rather than part of the solution (see “feminist cause” again).
On top of that, Trump got made President and Joss’ Twitter crusade has been preoccupied with how much he really wants him to die. Which must be exhausting for him, particularly since he seemed quite at home previously with voicing suspicion of anyone in power, not just the one Hollywood, and the MSM generally, has been earmarked to hate.
SHIELD here is picking up from Iron Man II, the nominal powers-that-be who want destructive might for their own purposes and are inherently not responsible enough to be trusted with it. SHIELD’s justification is that there are external threats needing reckoning with, necessitating the development of the Tesseract as a deadly force, rather than purely as an unlimited free energy source… I don’t think we ever heard any more of Tony’s similarly skewed experiment for powering Stark Tower with self-sustaining clean energy – “like Christmas, but with more me” – so maybe it, and Wakanda’s openness with advanced tech, are destined to fall conveniently by the wayside.
Phase II – surely a nudge-joke at this being the climax of Phase I – is code for the Tesseract’s weaponisation. Hence Tony being cut out of the equation: “An intelligence organisation that fears intelligence? Historically, not awesome“. The most effective thread here, in terms of the greater MCU, is the growing loggerheads between Cap and Tony, which will eventually see them exchange places, come Civil War.
Right now, though, the superheroes at their best are the outsiders, characterised as “a handful of freaks” and “exactly what we need“. The likes of Nick Fury, Maria Hill (Coby Smulders) and Phil Coulson, and Black Widow and Hawkeye, as extensions of the establishment apparatus, very much do not fit that bill, so the device of basing the emotional turning point of the movie on Coulson’s death is a lumbering blunder.
Even more so in retrospect, as in a move worthy of Steven Moffat, it was undone with the mystifyingly-still-running TV spinoff Agents of SHIELD; remember kids, death carries no weight in the SF and fantasy genres. Whedon may have been in a bind – he couldn’t permanently flatten anyone important as that would undo future plans – but you have to care about a character in the first place for it to mean something. He’d be at it again in Age of Ultron with Quicksilver. In a thirteen or 22-episode TV show, you can achieve this kind of development. Truncate the proceedings and it becomes a bit of a shrug.
Tony: His name was Phil.
The build-up to the big motivator (“Because, if we can’t protect the Earth, we’ll be damn sure we’ll avenge it“) doesn’t carry enough oomph, so Whedon can’t quite deliver the emotionally-charged goods. All I can hear in Coulson geeking over Cap is Buffy‘s Xander (how he “watched you while you were sleeping” and wants his cards signed), while the hokey sentiment of “People might just need a little old fashioned” ill-advisedly hearkens to nostalgic value systems that never were. Then there’s that awful eulogy scene in which Nick embellishes his passing with Coulson’s blood-smeared cards (“They needed the push“); if you don’t feel the loss in the first place, you can’t underscore it.
Tony: Apparently, I’m volatile, self-obsessed, don’t play well with others.
Pepper: That I did know.
At the time, the biggest rave point in respect of the main heroes was probably the bromance between Tony and Bruce, and rightly so (“Finally, someone who speaks English“). But you also tend to notice the things Whedon can’t resist overdoing onrevisit (Tony’s movie references – Reindeer Games, Point Break, Legolas – Bruce continually warning of how bad the Hulk is gets irritating very quickly).
Rufffalo is a great low-fi Eeyore of a Bruce, but Feige prefacing the decision for a new Banner with the need for someone who would embody the “creativity and collaborative spirit of our other talented cast members” was a monumental “ouch” directed at Ed Norton. Likewise, getting to the point where Bruce explains how he controls his anger; a great beat on the first couple of viewings, but now it seems crudely over-deliberate (“I’m always angry“).
I’m not sure I quite buy the sincerity of Tony’s delivery to Bruce either (“Not just armour; It’s a terrible privilege, and you can control it“). Still, anything with the guys suited up works like gangbusters, be it the set piece of Tony fixing the propeller (he and Cap working in tandem), the gag of Hulk punching out Thor, or Hulk saving Tony as he plummets back to Earth. And the scene between Ruffalo and Harry Dean Stanton is a nice touch.
You tend to notice where Whedon has done something clever, as much of the movie’s progression is very linear. Having all the characters score points off each other at Loki’s behest is satisfying but very schematic (“Take that off, what are you?”: “Genius playboy millionaire philanthropist“; “Everything special about you came out of a bottle“). Likewise, the “heroes assemble” circular camera move during the New York climax – Whedon isn’t enough of a visual artisan that it doesn’t come away whiffing slightly of cheese, particularly as the action all seems to take place on one street.
In contrast, look at the (much) earlier confrontation between the Asgard brothers, disrupted by Iron Man and then again by the arrival of Cap (you have to love the “SLAM”, “BOING” of shield and hammer going at it). It’s a great example of virtuoso structuring and sleight of hand visually, in terms of character, and very funny too; the result is easily the best sequence in the movie.
Nick Fury: He killed eighty people in two days.
Thor: He’s adopted.
Whedon is like a pig in shit with these interactions, but they don’t always play. The Thor line above is rather weak, a gag that might work in another context but not from the God of Thunder (Waititi would do this kind of thing with wild abandon in Ragnarok). Cap’s “I do, I understood“, in response to the “Flying monkeys” reference is better, playing off his innocence; Whedon generally has a better grasp of Steve’s character, such that he doesn’t feel the need to break the tension for an unmotivated joke, and when jokes do come, they’re germane and deadpan (“There’s only one God, ma’am. And I’m pretty sure he doesn’t dress like that“).
It’s Whedon all over that the deconstruction (sitting around post-shawarma in the post-credits scene) takes precedence over the actual heroics, because at this point, he’s still carrying around the mindset of the TV guy made good. When he steals from movies, they’re invariably bad choices (The Phantom Menace Effect, whereby taking out the control centre brings the Chitauri invasion to a crashing halt). And when he wants to get self-consciously serious for a moment (the old German – Auschwitz survivor? –WWII veteran refusing to kneel before Loki) you end up wishing he’d just stick to glib.
Most of the MCU entries on this revisit have reconfirmed my initial or subsequent thoughts. Iron Man II improved somewhat, but Avengers Assemble is a marginal step down. It’s frequently a very enjoyable picture, but it can’t escape its indebtedness to the voice of Joss, or his limited directorial chops. It takes the Phase I silver medal, when previously, it might have been gold.
Whedon’s a writer who will try to make elements work (Black Widow, Hawkeye), even when he knows they don’t, thus worsening matters by overcompensating. Further, he might even undercut what does work (Tony Stark) by turning everyone into merry quipsters. But that’s not to undermine the balance he achieves here, a balance not just anyone can replicate. Go ask Zack Snyder.