Looking for the narrative conceit By M.Schinke
I’ve been looking at things all wrong, Opinionnerds…
So I’ve had a moment of clarity recently…..
They do not occur often, so I tend to cherish them.
I was looking through my drafts folder at articles I had lined up and I decided that I wanted to start in on my What Was That All About for Tron: Legacy. I started to run through the movie in my head, developed my thesis and then put it aside to get back to some other things. I came back to the folder later to get started on a draft of that article and, scanning down the page a little further, this title caught my eye; “The Avengers (2012)”. I had put this title in the folder and, frankly, hadn’t given it much thought. For the longest time I had been under the impression that, as fun as it was, The Avengers wasn’t really, “about” anything. I have never held that against the movie unless someone wanted to challenge me on whether or not it’s the bestest thing that ever ever-ed in the history of ever.
I’ve always liked The Avengers. It’s not a particularly heady film but it’s good, visceral fun supported by a great cast, something Marvel Studios has always had going for it, and containing just enough character work to make the whole affair feel like it has some substance. It’s mix of humor and action (heart and heroics, bah; no one even knows what the fuck that all means anyway) makes the movie engaging enough on a reactionary level. One key aspect of the movie has always eluded my analytical mind though was the story. What’s the emotional core of the film? Each character has a few emotional beats that they hit with enough momentum to make you feel them, but what is the emotional drive behind the film as a whole? What story is driving the plot or, at least, which characters story are we supposed to be following?
Looking over the characters there doesn’t seem much to go on individually. Each character is given a little bit to do that’s less a real character arc and more a series of setups and payoffs, though I feel that Thor (Chris Hemsworth) gets the closest emotionally. As the film picks up from his first solo outing, he is still dealing with the fallout of Loki’s (Tom Hiddleston) betrayal and subsequent swim in the inky black waters of the cosmos. Having to come face to face with his estranged brother after his so-called exile, Thor has to deal with how far around the bend Loki’s experiences have pushed him and try to determine if his brother can be saved. This makes him the only character with an actual emotional investment in what’s happening. Since Loki is at the heart of the plot this would seem to be a good place to look for a story, but even he is denied any real internal challenges to overcome.
The MCU as a whole, at least the Avengers side of it, can almost be looked at as an extended Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) story. His was the film that kicked the whole affair off, he seems to suffer the after effects of The Avengers films more than anyone else (including Avengers 2.5 – Civil War) and is poised to be more or less the central hero of the Infinity War films. And yet, even the Invincible Iron Man is not impervious to being left bereft of a true story. What he gets is a prime example of writer/ director Joss Whedon’s proficiency with the aforementioned setups and payoffs. In his introductory scene, Tony quotes the psyche profile SHIELD drew up on him as it outlined how he was not fit to be considered for The Avengers. (The revelation that The Avengers was quietly side-lined between films marking the shift away from Marvel’s initial plans to follow in the footsteps of the Ultimate’s; Marvel’s modernized, ground floor re-tooling of their universe that published between 2000 and 2015) This idea is expanded on when he tries to Lone Ranger the pursuit of Loki after Thor takes him from Tony and Captain America’s (Chris Evans) custody, and it’s finally nailed when Cap flat out tells him that he isn’t the guy to, “make the sacrifice play” when it really counts. This illusion of an arc is completed when he Uber’s a nuclear missile meant for New York into the portal Loki has opened to his invading Chitauri army and Independence Day’s them right out of existence in one of the most conveniently unsupported, “Hey, I guess they had a hive mind; lucky us!” plot resolutions I can recall. And while it was a cool payoff, it’s not exactly as if his nature as one who is, “volatile, self-obsessed” and who doesn’t, “play well with others” ever got in the way of anything The Avengers were trying to accomplish and he doesn’t exactly struggle with the decision. Setup and payoff as it might be, it’s not a character arc as this shift in perspective isn’t contrasted against anything in the film except a handful of words; there isn’t even subtext to paint the picture.
As for the rest, The Avengers certainly does it’s job of getting Cap, “back into the world” as this movie shows him he can still be useful. Again; setup and payoff, but not really much of an arc as it more marks a functional transition between his appearance in The First Avenger and The Winter Soldier. Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) gets close, but we don’t get to see the process by which he gets from being afraid of Hulk getting out to being in some kind of control of it. There isn’t much to say about Scarlett Johannson’s Black Widow or Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye – they’re just happy to be included. To look at the characters individually is an exercise in futility – as it rightfully should be, because this movie isn’t about Iron Man or Captain America.
This movie is about The Avengers!
I Becomes We, Except After Me
Ensemble films are a different animal when it comes to assessing story, and this was something I often have a hard time keeping in mind. This has certainly been true when watching The Avengers, no matter how many time I’ve seen it. The instinct was always there, but the unfocused intellect was getting in the way. Because of the fact that almost all of the main characters have their own films and their own stories, I was spending all my clock cycles trying to pick out which one of their individual story lines was being most serviced and, thus, leading the film. What I wasn’t taking into a account is that when you have an ensemble film, the ensemble is the character. Taking that into account it was necessary to step back and look not at what the experience of one character was, but to look at the collective experience of all the characters. So with that in mind, what is the story of The Avengers?
Individually, The Avengers have a lot of issues; trust issues, personality issues, family issues, anger management issues, having their minds taken over by magical blue glowing rock issues – it’s a pretty mixed bag. As a group they are presented with a challenge, and the only way to defeat that challenge is together. The question they face is whether or not they can set aside their individual issues to forge a team and overcome this challenge. The answer is they absolutely can, and they absolutely do but I find the process, or lack thereof, in which they accomplish this to be less than satisfying.
As noted above, the characters don’t really have arcs so much as set up and pay off gags for a couple of them, mainly Stark and Banner, with a little bit of character work for Black Widow. What the movie tells us is the real impetus for the team coming together is the apparent death of venerable secret agent and soon to be TV exile Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg); an act he says will give the embryonic Avengers something to avenge. I find there are a few issues with that from a storytelling perspective. Firstly the only characters this death seems to affect in any tangible way are Thor and Iron Man. Cap and Banner didn’t actually know Coulson- hell, Banner wasn’t even there when he died and no one bothers to tell him about it anyway. Cap, Stark and Romanov are all present when it happens, but as stated Cap doesn’t know Coulson from any of the other agents who died and Natasha doesn’t address it; neither does Clint for that matter. Thor watches his brother murder Coulson but even he doesn’t address it; and he had plenty of opportunity to do so directly to Loki. The only character that the storytelling actually informs us is genuinely affected by Coulson’s death enough to even mention anything to Loki about it is Stark; and the movie uses his feelings as an exclamation point on another statement. There is no funeral or memorial for the character and his death isn’t addressed again after Stark’s quip, so if this was supposed to be the event that brings The Avengers together it doesn’t seem to be all that important to anyone. The audience is meant to keep it in the back of their minds and use it to subconsciously provide motivation for the characters, but the storytelling itself doesn’t support the assertion of it’s own text.
What You Saw Is What You Got
The fact that the Avengers will indeed assemble is treated as a given. The movie provides some justifications for doing so but it all boils down to, “we have to do this because it has to be done”. Tony seems like he might genuinely have a beef over Coulson’s death. Cap cowboys up because of his sense of duty, and he accepts Clint because…. mostly just because. Banner returns to the fold even he has more than a few good reasons to stay as far away from any of the goings on as possible. Everyone shows for the party because if they don’t there are no Avengers; and that won’t do. The gang simply tables any of their personal issues and begins to work together with the efficiency of a well oiled group of people who weren’t just arguing about all of their various interpersonal issues just an hour or so previously. And even that little spat served no actual dramatic purpose, as far as I’m concerned. Cap and Stark are right up in each others faces and threatening to take it out behind the schoolhouse at 3:15, but this doesn’t prevent them from immediately working together the moment it becomes necessary. Their defeat at the hands of Barton’s invasion has nothing to do with an inability of the heroes to work together and everything to do with the fact that Hulk is a rampaging monster who lashes out at everything and the fact that Hawkeye is the best damn archer in the MCU. At no time does any potential interpersonal conflict between the heroes actually threaten the construction or function of the team outside of Stark and Thor’s completely pointless dust up which Cap manages to quash by just showing up and being Cap. The team efficiently plows ahead regardless of the illusion of obstacles that might thwart them. The outside challenge might require them to join forces to overcome, but joining forces doesn’t present any challenges dramatically.
The truth is that no one who walked into the theater and sat down to watch The Avengers was looking for the deep, existential journey of characters learning how to relate to each other and, ultimately, themselves. They wanted to see The Avengers join up and be super heroes saving the day. I think it would be fair to categorize that as a shallow desire, but it’s a sincere desire and one that someone at Marvel Studios was aware of. I don’t know what Joss Whedon’s early drafts of the screenplay looked like or even what his initial cut of the film was, I can only evaluate what I saw. At the time, what I saw was an incredibly exciting film that gave me the impression I was making an emotional connection with the characters because I had an emotional reaction to things that happened. Movies are all about illusion and by rights that illusion only needs to work once. No one at Marvel ever claimed that the film was going to deliver more than a solid piece of entertainment and on that front they delivered in spades. I will never say the movie is not entertaining or enjoyable in a theme park kind of way that, being Marvel’s first billion dollar film, certainly set the pattern for how they would approach their films from there on out. Unfortunately, that includes making movies that don’t say much of anything.
Bring It Back To Me
So I came into this evaluation with the idea that The Avengers isn’t a movie that’s, “about” anything and, while I don’t hold that as a negative, I’m leaving it having returned to that same conclusion.
“Hold on Mike, I thought you had this big epiphany that was going to radically alter your take on the film, what gives?”
Look, all I said was that I had been using the wrong metric for evaluating the movie; I never claimed that changing my standard would return different results. If there is any metaphor guiding the film it’s got to be something simple about working together; your kind of boilerplate team-up stuff. And that would be fine if the movie went about showcasing the consequences of when your team can’t get it’s shit together. It seems the producers were very keen on making sure none of the individual characters looked bad and it’s hard to have any real kind of team-breaking conflicts if you aren’t willing to make one of your characters look like an asshole, *cough* Tony Stark *cough*. What we have are a series of circumstances outside of the characters control that literally keep them separated until the films finale. I understand the desire to make everyone look good. Each of these characters is a potential goldmine of solo film dollars, so putting them each in their best light to capitalize on that is in the company’s best interest. It’s dramatically lacking, but its a sound business decision.
Do the Avengers ever manage to resolve any emotional issues or grow as people in any substantial way? No, of course they don’t. But they do manage to save the world in a city smashing, alien killing, “boy howdy are we all having a good time!” kind of way. The Avengers is peak MCU; delivering humor and action with solid performances that manage to make you believe that something substantial has just happened. It’s cinematic illusion at it’s best; and I don’t mean that in a negative way. Like I said, I genuinely enjoy this movie for what it is; a roller coaster ride that takes you round and round and upside down but, when it’s done, drops you off right back where you started. The reason it succeeds is because it finds the right balance to maintain the illusion. By relegating any semblance of story to vague notions there’s a buoyancy it maintains that more recent entries, including Infinity War, lose as they try to push their paper thin stories to the fore front and pretend they are going to, “get serious”. It makes them leaden and dull in a way The Avengers manages to avoid. It’s definitely the Dr. Pepper to the later films Mr. Pibb.
It’s a rare thing when a movie like this has a real operating conceit behind it so no one should be surprised that my analysis concludes this film to be devoid of one. That doesn’t mean the movie is without merit as a piece of entertainment or that undertaking an analysis of it is a waste of energy; at lest not to me. It’s an enjoyable experience that hasn’t dulled all that much since it’s release. It’s a tasty, airy cotton candy snack that knows exactly what it wants to be and delivers on that, and that’s a success no matter how you measure it.
Clever endings aren’t my bag.