Robert Downey, Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson
(Walt Disney Pictures; US theatrical: 4 May 2012; 2012)
If the thought of vague, ill-defined power sources falling into the clutches of vague, ill-defined armies, resulting in all kinds of terrible vague, ill-defined consequences sends tingles down your spine, then you’re probably part of what’s fuelling this faux-renaissance of the superhero movie. Luckily for you, The Avengers offers up all kinds of wooden, simplistic heroes to face up to this vague threat.
It’s surely no spoiler that the Avengers win a fight against a bunch of flying CGI things (as in every other recent superhero movie), but what’s somewhat surprising is just how little trouble they have in doing it. That is, it’s surprising for those viewers who still hold on to the belief that fantasy scenarios—no matter how outlandish—are still vehicles for exploring real human tensions and conflicts. The latest round of superhero movies would seem to suggest that there’s a new principle at play. The principle that awesome people are awesome.
Being a modern superhero is all about being smug—as is, it often seems, being a fan of modern superhero movies—and then going through some minor personal journey. The journey pretends to be about learning humility or something, but is really more about the hero realising how great they were all along. Director and co-writer Joss Whedon taps right into this pandering template when he stacks the deck firmly in his heroes’ favour, serving up passing time-killing threats of dubious interest in place of a substantial villain.
It’s this lack of real antagonistic threat that is most troubling, befuddling and probably most representative of the new mainstream formulation of non-problematic wish-fulfilment: The Avengers win fights because they are awesome.
They are so awesome that, once they’ve overcome their film-school-script-template background of troubles and stock inter-character conflicts, they rarely seem like they’re ever actually in any real danger of losing. Whenever a villain makes a threat, our heroes can barely stifle the smug quips that come with the certainty of victory. Whenever we glimpse a weakness, it’s only a trick to show just how far ahead of everyone else they are. Whenever they seem worried, it’s only because they’re momentarily not sure that they can live up to their own awesomeness by pressing a magical robot-suit button or something (which, of course, they always can).
The Avengers doesn’t just stack the deck in favour of our heroes, it expects us to thoroughly enjoy the fantasy of constantly dealing from one. It’s like playing Monopoly with a young child who doesn’t realise that the game doesn’t work if you simply give yourself all the money. Eventually the kid realises that too, and you can play the actual game. Through two-and-a-half hours of The Avengers, “non-awesome” audiences will be stuck waiting for that moment of realisation.
Remember Freud’s observation of the “fort/da” game, where he observed a child throwing away his toy yelling “fort!” (“away”) only to recapture it with a cry of “da!” (“here”)? This process may be at the heart of all fantasy construction—the constant negotiation of loss and achievement. In this, The Avengers is no different, except that it never seems to have the guts to throw the toy very far from its grasp.
Somehow this fact that the villains really aren’t very good or interesting or confronting is a key selling point. As is the fact that our heroes are essentially omnipotent.
Our heroes always act beleaguered, but they always have another magical wild card to play. The card represents nothing except for the fact that they always had it. It’s a strange adolescent and culturally-enclosed self-awareness that summons this fantasy image of the underdog who always wins.
As a result, the excellent Tom Hiddleston as villainous Loki is entirely wasted. So good as a troubled and layered quasi-villain in the first half of Kenneth Branagh’s Thor (2011), The Avengers reduces Loki to a simplistic black-hat bad guy barely worth Hiddleston’s time, or ours. It’s never entirely clear what Loki is capable of—he never seems to do much of consequence—and by the time there’s a final confrontation, it’s clear that Loki really can’t do much of anything, just as he isn’t motivated by much of anything. That’s exactly how this show likes it. The final confrontation with this supposedly central villain is shrugged off in a cheap joke. It’s an amusing moment, but the ease of the villain-destroying points to the hollowness at The Avengers’ core.
After a climax of what seems like hours of video game style shooting, where our heroes calmly stand around mostly unguarded while knocking off waves of uninspired and incompetent CGI meanies (who seem incapable of actually fighting back against anything but unmoving buildings), the lack of any actual human element in the conflict becomes painfully apparent. Superhero and fantasy movies can summon all kinds of silly battles and exciting images, but what’s the point when they’re not tangled up with a hint of authentic human conflict?
Sure, there is one key conflict in The Avengers. Namely, can the Avengers discover that they are all awesome in time to win a random battle? The first hour and a half of the film is filler, killing time until the space bugs can appear. So, the characters quibble and bicker and summon conflicts that even the dopiest viewer can see are only there so that they can be quickly and painlessly overcome. Our heroes are omnipotent until it’s convenient for the storyline for them not to be; and then, to overcome that temporary setback, they suddenly are again.
Despite helming a film based almost entirely on the idea of having a bunch of colourful pre-established characters in the same room, Whedon can’t even manage this inter-character conflict (aka prattle) in a group setting. Instead, Whedon splits his heroes into various groups of two so that their conflicts never have to grow into anything more complex that two people agreeing or disagreeing with each other over minor personality traits.
The Black Widow
There’s no life to these conflicts—they simply serve to slow the end of the film and make it appear as though there’s character to be explored. There isn’t; unless variations on “I don’t like you, but really I do” seem new and fresh to someone out there who hasn’t seen any 1980s buddy-cop movie ever. Acrobatics and gymnastics solve crankiness between Iron Man and Captain America. The Black Widow and Hawkeye have a deep and troubled past, or something. When a moderately central character dies (nobody with any non-fan name-value), we’re supposed to treat it like a big deal, even though it’s the standard “he died so that we may fight on” group-hug motivator (the attached hint of a mild ethical compromise that comes with it is merely an thrown-away nod to possible complex moral ambiguities, in no ways a real exploration of them).
In between all the posing and TV drama posturing, there is one story that offers a hint of human depth, or at least human texture. Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner (aka the Hulk) is the only cast member actually in the business of acting in the film, as opposed to reciting a line in whatever emotional tone seems appropriate at the time. As the man fighting a monster, he’s a tangled mess of poise and fury, philosophical distance and uninhibited rage. Metaphorical representation of the Hulk is nothing new, but it’s a hint of “something more” that the other heroes are deprived of. The few truly strong moments come from Ruffalo, seeming like the only grown up among children playing dress-up. The constant onslaught of pointless camera angles and droning underscore even seems to recede when we first encounter him; Whedon may prop up most of The Avengers with these lazy techniques, but is at least smart enough to realise that Ruffalo can carry the scenes on his own without the dubious directorial “assistance” doled out elsewhere.
The impact of the the Hulk’s unleashed rage comes when it seems to truly unnerve one of our otherwise unflappable heroes—perhaps the only human response any of them have to anything. For a moment, it suggests a glimpse into something not merely capable of punching things made of CGI, but also capable of tearing oneself apart from the inside. Ruffalo balances this tightrope sensitively, giving his final Hulk transformation a sadness that lingers even through the CGI spatter.
But ultimately there’s no room for tensions and sombre uncertainties in Whedon’s larger vision; whatever tensions Ruffalo builds, Whedon is happy to throw away for some cheap laughs and empty action in the finale. I guess there’s no place in the “we’re all awesome!” group hug for the kind of depth that could have been extracted from Ruffalo with some extra care.
The rest of the mega-cast give power through their presence rather than their various levels of ability; for the most part, this bombardment of celebrity works, helping us feel that these guys are a big deal even when they’re little more than simple stereotypes (yes, trendily-troubled Iron Man included, kids). As a result, the weaknesses of pretty-boy casting can’t help but stand out. Chris Hemsworth’s Thor is a little less awkward than when he was embarrassingly (and not surprisingly) outperformed by Hiddleston and Anthony Hopkins in his first hammer-twirling outing; now his delivery just sounds a little silly, which is a step up and no big problem in this kind of thing anyway.
Chris Evans’ blank-faced Captain America suffers the most; the role seems to be designed for the Captain America of the comics—a veteran hero of a past age, with values and character traits that simultaneously confront modern sensibilities and demand respect. But the Captain America of the new Marvel franchise is the same kind of superhero modern audiences always seem to get—hot, young, brash, bland, “awesome” (think Green Lantern, or J.J. Abrams’ Captain Kirk). Cap makes a few “cute” references to being from the past, but there’s no real sense of values in conflict; it’s probably too much for Whedon to deal with and Evans simply doesn’t have the ability or presence to slip some depth in through the cracks, as did Ruffalo. Captain America is supposed to be the glue that holds it all together—but instead his wooden-faced blandness seems representative of just how hollow it all is at the centre.
For all that, The Avengers isn’t a bad film; Whedon proves to be entirely competent in this swing at unremarkable averageness, which will no doubt fuel the hailing of the film in some circles as a modern comic-book masterpiece. The new standard for superhero films seems to be that they don’t suck as opposed to actually containing any ideas of interest. It may be awesome, but that doesn’t mean it’s any good. With an increasingly-vocal online fan-base, that’s something we’re all going to have to work hard to remember.