Part 6 of A List to Marvel At
It’s maybe hard only four years later to appreciate just how strange, novel and downright risky The Avenger‘s was on conceptual level alone. A series of movies that builds up a number of lead characters coming together for a movie that will effect each of their arcs coming in and going forward, was at one point thought to be so impossible so as not to bother. That novelty is a big reason I think it made so much money compared to previous films – more than Thor, Incredible Hulk and Captain America combined – and why Kevin Fiege and company changed so quickly the landscape of Hollywood filmmaking. Like the old guard critics can pile on Star Wars for the age of the Blockbuster, this is the focal point for every modern day gripe with franchising and “cinematic universes”.
But there’s a reason it worked beyond just money. The Avengers mega-blockbuster filmmaking on the scale of the risible Transformers films, but it works like all these Marvel films at their best do; because it’s a character piece. Specifically an ensemble action comedy, with everything from Silvestri’s score to the comedy quips to the catharsis of the final thirty minutes acting as one big party to itself. And with geek lord Joss Whedon it got the best talker in the room to organise the party. When you get a guy like Joss Whedon doing the dialogue you know you’re gonna get something “clever”, and even in a film as embracing of pulp as The Avengers it has both ideas of clashing ideologies and somewhat dark undertones (particularly with Banner). But Whedon’s big trick here is to make the big idea of the movie the question everyone who was going into the movie first time was thinking: will putting this team together actually work?
And damn does it. Maybe I could just fill a review with memorable quotes from this movie that immediately entered public lexicon, but I again should stress that all those quotes and all those scenes are character driven. Chris Hemsworth as Thor always seems to be a better character in these movies than his own films. Tony Stark and Samuel L Jackson are the kind of quipsters Whedon kills to write dialogue for. Chris Evans’ Captain America has an instantly commanding presence (though some follow it more than others). But Whedon’s two best works come with the most difficult characters. This movie is pretty much the reason the character of Black Widow has had such a burst of popularity, with both Whedon and Scarlett Johansson making her a compelling action hero (making that whole controversy with her character in Age of Ultron a weird shame which we’ll get to). Then there’s Hulk, a character who is proven here to work gangbusters in small doses. At first it was a shame Ed Norton couldn’t return, but for me Marc Ruffalo is the best Hulk, with the nuances of his voice and posturing conveying the constant struggle when the dialogue doesn’t make that explicit. I mean, that bullet speech. Jesus!
But now that we’ve got enough distance from The Avengers as the cultural phenomenon it was, the legitimate criticisms of the movie start to reveal themselves. For one the opening 20 minutes, whilst establishing all the characters for those who hadn’t seen the other movies, is just clumsy (also, wasn’t the whole point of having set up movies to not do this?) and with TV level direction. Like a lot of these movies the character arcs are over by the time the big action starts, and the way the movie ends is pretty convenient compared to how smart the movie has been otherwise.
Like in a lot of Whedon projects, his clever dialogue can sometimes come in the way of consistent characters, and his TV background shows in his direction. Whedon himself has been critical about the direction of actors and scenes in this movie, saying he didn’t have time to get particularly creative. Though shots like Loki’s reflection in his container (Tom Hiddlestone as marvellous as ever), the camera turning around the scepter as the Avengers argue, the circling hero shot and the one take action sequence all show that cinematographer Seamus McGarvey knows what to do with a camera. Oh and Hawkeye. No one gives a shit about Hawkeye.
But The Avengers is one of those movies that transcends the grade I’ve given it. There’s a reason I ticked that “seen it before” box, and if it would let me I would catalogue my watches in at least the double digits. I like these characters, and I just like spending time in their company. And the events of this movie would certainly effect those characters going forward…