It’s a solid, summer blockbuster that feels like a whole movie. That even as I’m leaving it feels like I got one square meal of beginning, middle and end for a movie I could get involved in. If there’s one regret, and the more I think about this one, it really does break my heart, it’s that I got to a prerelease screening rather than seeing The Avengers tomorrow, on Free Comic Book Day. Seeing Joss Whedon’s The Avengers on Free Comic Book Day, for the very first time, would have been sublime—the kind of moment the building of a life can conspire around. And I’ll get to all of these points in turn, one after the next. Why it needs to be “Joss Whedon’s” The Avengers rather than simply The Avengers or rather even Marvel’s The Avengers. Why it kills me, just that little bit more each time I revisit the decision, that I hadn’t seen the movie first on FCBD. And why we should all be more involved in the idea of movies that tell one single, solidly structured story as this movie does, without the overt cliffhangers to drive us into theaters next summer. There’ll be more Avengers on the silver screen to be sure, and we’ll be in theaters again the next time round. But that’s down to the strength and coherence of Whedon’s vision, rather than the forced gambit of a well-timed “to be continued…”. I’ll get to all of those points, promise. But not before I get to the guy playing galaga.
Here’s the thing to understand about Whedon’s The Avengers, it combines the depth of character acting that Johnny Depp vehicles like Rango or the Pirates movies do, with the sheer thrust-into-action mode of storytelling of say a James Bond. Right from the beginning you’re deeply involved in the characters that find themselves awash in the specific plot mechanics. So amid the action, The Avengers is a bundle of tidily interwoven character arcs, more than the movie is an array of plot-points and action sequences. We see high art here in these characterizations as they arc their way through the tempest of the story itself.
Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Tom Hiddleston, Clark Gregg, Cobie Smulders, Stellan Skarsgard, Samuel L. Jackson, Gwyneth Paltrow, Paul Bettany
(Disney; US theatrical: 4 May 2012 (General release); UK theatrical: 25 Apr 2012 (General release); 2012)
We see Whedon’s careful hands devolve Sam Jackson’s Nick Fury from that sinister, uncompromising puppeteer-spymaster he was in Jon Favreau’s Iron Man 2. We see perhaps the most beautiful Hulk ever. Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner really acts with all his heart, and his ongoing battle with the “Other Guy” makes for one of the core, and perhaps most meaningful of dramas of The Avengers. And we see the Tony Stark, Steve Rogers and Thor begin to be drawn into a friendship that will not only define each friend themselves, but the world around them.
Whedon’s The Avengers conspires around its second act. Usually a time in the movie when things get thick, Whedon finds a way to dial back from the action and keep the drama running high. This act finds its core in a scene where Loki is being held aboard the S.H.I.E.L.D. hellicarrier, and the cast (they’re not yet the Avengers, barely even a team) are secure in their plan, but trepidatious. Having the Prince of Lies and Illusion aboard is something akin to juggling primed nukes, every word is an act of deceit, every exchange a lie weaponized for maximum impact.
It’s during this act that things begin to unravel. Nick Fury’s secret plans for the tesseract cube are revealed during this act. And the already overwrought interpersonal conflicts, the ones that have been bubbling beneath the surface all along, come foaming fully to the surface. Each character’s greatest inner weakness is recognized and exploited by the other. There’s aren’t mere insults, these are highly personalized, savagely individual attacks. Captain America’s blow against Iron Man is crippling, even if Tony Stark puts on a brave front. As is Stark’s blow against Thor, and Thor’s against Hulk.
It’s this emotional crippling of the team by the team itself that really drives the movie. Clearly the team has become subject to Loki’s manipulations, but the clarity and the savagery with which they attack each other’s emotional soft-spots points to these tensions and misperceptions preexisting Loki’s manipulations. The craft of this middle-phase of the film comes from Whedon extrapolating this emotional brutality from the physical brutality of Iron Man, Thor and Cap coming to blows just a few scenes earlier.
After Loki is first captured, after Iron Man has entered the fray joining with Cap and Black Widow, Thor is drawn into events. In one of the conventions of superhero team stories, Iron Man and Cap give pursuit when Thor simply snatches Loki in an attempt at Asgardian diplomacy. But as with gathering of titanic forces, there’s misunderstanding and the three come to blows, all the while with Loki looking on snidely. Heroes coming to blows before they band together is a common turn in the superhero genre. And it’s almost a necessary hoop that each superhero team story must go through.
Whedon’s own insight is to not simply leave the conflict at the physical level, but to protract that conflict into the emotional and psychological level. It is a stroke of genius. These aren’t simply characters. They’re titanic forces, egos that readily, gleefully attempt hubris, as with Tony Stark, or find themselves thrust into hubris, as with Cap, or finding themselves having to step back from hubris, as with Thor. If these egos weren’t large enough to attempt the impossible, why would it be interesting at all if they band together or not? Why would it matter?
There’s a deep need in ourselves as audience to understand that this story should play out at a far more mythic level than just five guys who showed up to do a job. We animate this “drama of the gathering” ourselves, in our own everyday lives. Steve Jobs didn’t just bump into Steve Wozniak one day at lunch. We draw they fabric of myth around that partnership like a cloak. We animate the encounter with Jobs’ character as needing to usher in the age of the personal computer almost as a crusade. We animate Woz as a solitary genius who couldn’t really understand the social scale of what he was busy building, instead he’s painstakingly focused on the detail of solving the engineering problem. It’s only when these titanic forces meet, that Apple can be born.
We mythologize the birth of Google, of Microsoft in exactly the same way, the work of George Lucas, the life Mozart or Einstein or Lincoln. It’s this powerful psychology that Whedon taps when he dives the second act into emotional conflict, rather than rest the story with the inevitable physical conflict. And this is why The Avengers needs to be “Joss Whedon’s The Avengers”. Because in it’s working through, he can sense the hand of a master storyteller. What Whedon’s done to draw together the unique visions of Jon Favreau in Iron Man and Kenneth Branagh in Thor and Joe Johnston’s Captain America is nothing short of astounding. The characterizations of Tony Stark and Thor and Cap are as vivid, as lucid as they are in their own movies.
But to go beyond even that, and to craft out a story where these pinpoint accurate characterizations can engage and play off of one another, to plot out the kind of narrative that can make superhuman demands on these characters, to elevate the role of Clark Gregg (the actor in the cameo roles in the two Iron Men and the Thor and the Captain America movies), and to bring in his own quirky dialog at key moments (like when Black Widow fails to see how a space dragon would be a party, or when Fury instructs a pilot how to navigate using the sun), shows an evolution in Joss Whedon. This is a Joss Whedon who has come far beyond his popcultural roots with shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer; he’s taken up into the role of auteur, without having disavowed the path he walked to get here. As with James Cameron after Titanic or Steven Spielberg after Schindler’s List, the Joss Whedon we’ll begin to see after The Avengers will be a very different Joss Whedon. And I for one, look forward to the years of filmmaking I’ll begin to enjoy.
And if for no other reason than The Avengers catapulting Whedon into the role of auteur, I cry a little on the inside for not having seen the movie for the first time on FCBD. The event held every year at comicbook stores across the country on the first Saturday in May, has in many ways become more of a cipher for the self-exclusion of the comics industry than even an event like the mythic ComicCon. Comicbook stores really have become that kind of Third Place of American popular culture. Much like coffee-houses or churches, they exist in a realm other than Work or Play, they’re open to all, but each has their own codes and rituals and obligations that facilitate or prevent access.
If you wanted to read Avengers stories, books can be bought from Amazon. But walking into an Atomic Comics or a Forbidden Planet or walking into Flying Colors Comics means something very different. It means that you’re opening yourself to learning about the very first time the Avengers fought Count Neferia. It means the history and the practice and the art that has enthrall for generations now, is as important as the current adventure. It’s not just the immediate, it’s the story of how our current present is connected to the past. And FCBD is nothing if not the working through of that idea, the packaging up of that sense of the meaningfulness of history, and the making that sense available to everybody, regardless of whether they understand the codes or not. Just for one day each year, have a free comicbook, enjoy Xmas in May.
And that’s the real dilemma here. It’s what’s really at stake with the great debate between print and digital, at least for comics. It’s not a question of will there be comics, rather, it is the plea for comics as a medium to continue to be as vibrant and as vital in shaping human lives. Will digital distribution mean the medium becomes more inaccessible? How would comics then continue to be that tool that builds childhoods?
And in the same way, these are the concerns around the “ownership” of The Avengers. Enough has been written about an ethical rot that lies at the heart of Marvel. Writers have asserted that they are not prepared to endorse the movie or the company in any way since one of the original creators, the genius artist Jack Kirby who first visualized these characters, has effectively been disavowed by the company. One solution to this situation is certainly to fight for the economic rights and the royalties and the acclaim due to Jack Kirby, his estate and his heirs.
Another route is to simply take a cue from Jack Kirby’s own disassociation from Marvel, and to actively pursue a kind of “disownership”. If you work with these characters and you leave, you cede them to someone else or to some other creative team, you’ve entered a virtuous cycle of stewardship. You’ve grown into the statesmen-like position of having been entrusted with something long enough and then passing that trust to another generation. And the real reason it hurts that I haven’t seen The Avengers for the first time on Free Comic Book Day, and the real reason it should be Joss Whedon’s The Avengers is the same reason it should be Olivier’s Hamlet. Because the very instant we make that jump, from it being Marvel’s The Avengers to it being Joss Whedon’s The Avengers, we’ve become participant in making The Avengers our own.
And this is what Stark recognizes when he incessantly teases Banner in hopes of luring out the Hulk, what he means when he calls the ARC reactor that powers his Iron Man, “a terrible…”, and then a pause, “…privilege.”