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Marvel Retrospective: The Avengers (2012)
Posted: Posted March 3rd by Jet Presto

(Boy have my weeks gotten bananas. This project is really taking a looooot longer than I hoped.)

It is a little odd trying to recall the Hollywood landscape before The Avengers. Marvel Studios's cinematic cross-over event redefined studio releases, forcing so many of them to consider crafting "cinematic universes" and prioritizing event-building up to solid stand-alone films that occasionally connect. The reason The Avengers works as well as it does is that Marvel made a few films that worked on their own and effectively established that these characters can appear in a film together.

Writer/director Joss Whedon's script smartly relies on a solid structure as well. Boiled down, the superhero team-up plays a lot like your typical sports movie. A team gets built. There isn't a lot of chemistry at first. Big personalities create internal conflict. Big event occurs - usually something traumatic - and they rally around that. They win the big game and they are all working in an extremely cohesive fashion. This is the base structure.

Overall, the simplistic but solid construction keeps the film grounded. It is especially effective for a genre predominantly drawing on distinct characters. At times, Whedon's overly quippy dialogue hurts that. There are plenty of times in which lines are delivered and you just read it out loud, you wouldn't be able to tell who said it. Whedon often tries to get audiences on board by entertaining them above all else, just before he pulls the rug from under them for some moment of tragedy.

The balance among the core characters is surprisingly perfect. No one character stands out over the others, which is saying something given the screen time absorbing nature of Robert Downey Jr.'s Iron Man. Hawkeye suffers the most, but primarily because he has to be a mind-controlled henchman for half of the film. In the final action, however, he fits in better than one might imagine.

There isn't a ton of depth to the film. Largely it exists as spectacle, and largely it succeeds. Not subtle is the meta-narrative in the subplot surrounding Nick Fury and the shadowy Council that we are almost certainly never going to learn about at this point. (This, as well as the mid-credits tag with Thanos, sort of highlights how Marvel actually totally has been making this up as they go.) That dead-end plot thread talks a lot about "Phase I" and the world not being ready for "Phase II." Obviously, this is a very tongue-in-cheek reference to Marvel's film plans, which famously broke down stages in terms of Phases - each capped off with a mega-crossover event. It's a fun and clever little nod to themselves - indeed Hollywood really wasn't ready for The Avengers - but it ultimately doesn't pay off in any meaningful way.

Some plot threads get a little confusing, or are repetitive. As great as the Cap/Iron Man animosity is (and as important as those moments were in planting the seeds of everything to come later in the franchise), Tony flying the nuclear missile into space in what could have been a one-way trip doesn't exactly have the same thematic oomph when you remember that we already saw the invincible Iron Man make the "sacrifice play" that Cap talked about half way through the movie. Stark puts himself at great risk to get the propeller running again. Steve even mentions that if he did that, he would be shredded. Yes, the stakes are bigger by the end of the film with the alien invasion of New York City, but the point is a repeated one. We as an audience, and more importantly, Captain America, already know that Tony would be willing to make the sacrifice.

Then there is some confusion around how the Hulk actually works. For the entirety of the film, Bruce Banner is terrified of losing control and turning into the beast. Up until the final act, we have reason to believe that he isn't actually in total control. He can even be a little bit mindless. Yet when Bruce shows up on the moped, he reveals his big secret: he's always angry! Cool line, but...what? So he's in control of the Hulk? The incredible Hulk - of all the Avengers characters - makes the least sense in terms of how it works. Whedon doesn't really clarify things very much.

The Avengers is mostly interested in having its cake and eating it too. It establishes many key character threads that impact the future of the franchise, but it really just scratches the surface of more interesting dynamics. One of the most captivating scenes occurs when the team is starting to fight among themselves. Nick Fury gets caught in some of his bigger lies. It's hard to ignore just how manipulative Director Fury actually is. We are all meant to trust him, but he doesn't exactly give us much reason to. He doesn't get the team together without deceiving them. And by the end, he doesn't motivate them to save the day without outright lying to them. He was literally mid-lie to Captain America when Tony Stark called him out on it after hacking SHIELD computers and Fury was backed into a corner with no choice but to tell the truth.

Which brings up the question of why, exactly? Why did Fury, with the help of Natasha, have to deceive all of these people who we've already seen act as true heroes? Was lying really necessary? Fury thinks so. He argues it was necessary because the fate of the world was at stake. However, are we really meant to believe that if aliens invaded and attacked New York, these characters wouldn't have worked together to save the day? Even Fury himself at the end makes a case that they'll just come back if this happens again, without the need for supervision or oversight. What exactly is Fury's thought-process here? Lie, deceive, and manipulate to get them together, but then now they can operate totally autonomously?

Threads like that don't get explored very much. It isn't very interested in asking those questions itself, nor are they compelled to explore those themes. Mostly, it's just focused on spectacle, and boy is the spectacle good. The final battle drags on maybe just a little too long, but hey, it's the fireworks finale. Sometimes you just want big, loud, crazy stuff that doesn't actually make sense but is just mindlessly fun and entertaining. In that, The Avengers thrives.

It works better than it should. It's plot structure makes it easy to follow even if you've never seen a Marvel movie. Infinity War this is not! It's accessible to new audiences while paying off in a big way for those who have attended every Marvel movie. It's a bit shallow, with meaty bits here and there that probably should have gotten a little more attention. The villain is weak (which is disappointing given it is Loki), and it's climax a little generic, but the journey to that point makes it a shockingly re-watchable film that simultaneously pays off past films, sets up future films, and stands alone as its own.


I think my personal favorites ranking so far (which is not to say what I think are the best):

1. Captain America: First Avenger
2. Iron Man 2
3. The Avengers
4. Iron Man
5. Thor
6. The Incredible Hulk

There are 8 Replies

Yeah Infinity War was kinda like playing Mass Effect 3 on Wii U. In that a newcomer wouldn't have the slightest clue in fuck what's going on. I missed the hulk/thor movie and doctor strange before I saw it and I had no idea what was going on. I watched them later but the damage was done. Disney has done a good job making it so that you have to go and watch every single one of their movies if you want any reference points of closure. I really hope End Game is the end of this series. Not because I don't enjoy it, but because I'd rather see more standalone movies again.

Posted March 3rd by I killed Mufasa
I killed Mufasa
long live the king

Most of the non-Avengers movies are their own stand-alone film. Even ones that are sequels, you can mostly pick up what you need to know within the film itself. I don't mind the Avengers films being these big, elaborate films that require a rather solid knowledge of past events. I mean, in terms of plot, there's not really that much you need to go into Infinity War. It's not like Thanos has really been that present of a character, or his motivations ever actually clear. The trouble is following aaaaaaall of the characters. If you didn't see Guardians of the Galaxy, you're going to be lost. I don't mind this for Avengers, since it is sort of a big cross-over event, and that's kind of how the comics work. In some ways, it's almost nicer on film, because in the comics, these big events wind up changing the status quo of the stand-alone series as well.

I do think that Thor: Ragnarok is still worth watching regardless of what Infinity War did to undercut it. Mostly because, to me, it's just a fun, humorous experience and I quite enjoyed it. I think that is going to be the trick going forward: making films you can revisit despite knowing what happens in the big crossovers.

Posted March 4th by Jet Presto

This is actually one of the MCU films that I enjoyed more on repeated viewing than the first time around, and I think it's because I was more easily able to forgive the things that made zero sense (the Hulk thing being one of them) and just enjoy the romp. More than most of the Phase 1 films, and certainly more than the other Avengers films, this movie's just fun, and the clash of personalities between the various Avengers was both interesting and entertaining. I love the science-bro connection that Stark and Banner form almost instantly, I love that this is the start of the often antagonistic friendship between Steve and Stark, and I enjoy Thor's interactions with just about everyone. Whedon's humor mostly is a plus to this film for me, as opposed to Age of Ultron where it often felt forced.

Probably the most important thing this film did was establish the character of Natasha--her formal introduction might have been in Iron Man 2, but we didn't really get all that much about her personality until this one. She gets an awesome introduction here, the best of all the Avengers, and she has some nice discussions with a number of the other characters, most notably Loki and Hawkeye. There are certainly some aspects of her that remain mysterious, which is both appropriate for a character in her profession and unavoidable for someone who didn't get a solo film, but this is the first time we get a good sense of what she's like personally outside of being a generic badass super-spy.

Hawkeye's inclusion in the original lineup of the Avengers seemed strange when it happened, and it still seems a bit random on a rewatch. At least Natasha got some memorable screentime in Iron Man 2--all Hawkeye got before this movie was 20 seconds or so in Thor in which he doesn't even fire an arrow, so casual MCU viewers could be forgiven for wondering who the hell this guy was when this movie came about. Really, War Machine would have made much more sense as part of the original group (and his absence here is strange), but I would guess they didn't want two guys with the exact same powers involved. At least his connection to Natasha and SHIELD made it plausible enough for him to join the team by the end and it mostly works, but I remember wondering why I should really care about this guy getting mind-controlled on my first viewing.

I recall a solid consensus at least among my friends going into this movie that the Hulk was the hero (besides Hawkeye) that we were least interested in, but who made the best impression in the actual film. Or at least relative to expectations. Ruffalo is awesome in the role and really provided more pathos than I was expecting, and you could really tell how haunted he was by his unwanted powers. And the Hulk himself provided some really solid action and comedy beats throughout--the "puny god" scene in particular is an absolute classic. Though, yeah, the "I'm always angry" scene has never made any sense and his eventual control over the Hulk was entirely unearned.

I really like all of the Fury stuff you highlight. He's unequivocally on the side of the good guys (and if there was doubt, his arguing not to bomb NYC places him firmly on that side by the end of the film), but he's also absolutely not someone the good guys should take at face value. Part of that is that he's engaged in some things he knew some of the Avengers wouldn't like, like developing weapons. My take on his constant manipulation is that it's pathological. He's a control freak that doesn't want to leave anything he feels he can influence to chance, so if there's a way he can improve the chances of something succeeding, he'll do it. Coulson's death was moving and tragic, and probably would motivate the Avengers to come together as a team...but Fury thinks that he can make it even more of a certainty, so he retrieves Coulson's trading cards from his locker and gets them all bloody to slam the hammer down even harder. There are definite drawbacks to this approach, which this film, Winter Soldier, and Agents of SHIELD touch on, but mostly he's good enough at manipulation to get away with it.

I get your point on the Iron Man sacrifice thing, but I don't entirely agree. We (and presumably Steve, given Stark's fame) already know that Tony will risk his life when he feels it's necessary, but I think there's a difference between going into a situation where there's a chance that you're going to die and going into a situation where it's almost certain that you will. Stark fights most of his battles and engages in things like the ship's repair with the knowledge that he is in some danger, but is also probably arrogant enough to think that he'll probably succeed, whereas I don't think he expected to survive when he flew the missile into space (it's sort of the difference between a soldier going into battle and a soldier willfully falling on a grenade to protect people). That's enough of a difference to me to make his sacrifice still land.

My personal Phase 1 rankings have been pretty firmly solidified after this rewatch:

1. Avengers
2. Iron Man
3. Captain America: The First Avenger
[big gap]
4. Thor
5. Iron Man 2
6. The Incredible Hulk

Posted March 5th by white lancer

At least his connection to Natasha and SHIELD made it plausible enough for him to join the team by the end and it mostly works, but I remember wondering why I should really care about this guy getting mind-controlled on my first viewing.

It would have been cool if marvel had started doing tv shows along side the phase 1 movies. Like randomly drop a 6 episode "Hawk Eye and Black Widow" show a few months before the avengers to help set them up more.

Oh well.

Posted March 5th by S.O.H.

Yet when Bruce shows up on the moped, he reveals his big secret: he's always angry! Cool line, but...what? So he's in control of the Hulk?

Though, yeah, the "I'm always angry" scene has never made any sense and his eventual control over the Hulk was entirely unearned.

My personal interpretation of this wasn't at all that he's in control of the Hulk, quite the opposite. What I feel this line suggests is he's in a constant battle to prevent the Hulk from breaking out and all he has to do is give in and let the Hulk win in order to transform (which I think is the context that the line is used in). But because he's in that constant battle then it's also easy for the balance to be tipped, something that "makes him angrier" gives the Hulk more strength for example. But yea my interpretation is he was simply referring to how easily he can let the Hulk out.

I think the only thing they fail to explain is how we go from Hulk rampaging earlier in the film to Hulk being willing to team up with them. Maybe he just prefers to beat up invading aliens rather than a team of super heroes

Posted March 5th by Moonray

I think the only thing they fail to explain is how we go from Hulk rampaging earlier in the film to Hulk being willing to team up with them. Maybe he just prefers to beat up invading aliens rather than a team of super heroes

well in later films its indicated that both bruce and the hulk are aware of whats going on and process the same information. I belive the hulk just understood that there was a greater threat that needed to be dealt with. Also wasnt he mind controlled by loki in his rampage?

Posted March 5th by S.O.H.

I guess it's also confusing because he also is a Hulk that is a total team player. All that together with that line made me think the implication was that he at least has some more control than we are meant to think previously.

Posted March 6th by Jet Presto

I mean, in The Incredible Hulk it's indicated that there's at least some of Banner in the Hulk (when Hulk protects Betty). They're not completely disconnected. But even in Ragnarok (which I just watched last night), there's not much indication that they see through each other's eyes or whatever. Banner has zero knowledge even of what planet he's on, let alone that he's been there for two years, and Hulk has no problem trying to beat the stuffing out of Thor. Pretty much the only indication that they have any familiarity at all with what the other experiences is the whole "I feel like I know you" thing between Banner and Valkyrie.

I can buy into Moonray's theory about why he's able to control his transformation at the end of Avengers (it could have used, like, any real explanation in the film as opposed to coming completely out of nowhere, but I suppose time is scarce in this one). But mostly it seems like Hulk swaps between mindless ragemonster and cooperative ragemonster when it suits the plot, without a great explanation why. Ragnarok at least gives Hulk himself a little more characterization, and while it doesn't really seem to mesh with prior depictions, it's at least understandable if it's coming after the first real stretch of time that Hulk has been completely free.

Posted March 7th by white lancer
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