Movies: The Avengers

I don’t generally do movie reviews. I’m much better at books. Movie reviews tend to be more time-sensitive, and I’m not so good at time-sensitive. It’s also a lot harder for me to talk about movies without revealing spoilers (I think I did okay here; the ones that I did reveal are minor, and usually in the prequels rather than in The Avengers itself). That said: The Avengers was so amazing, I feel inspired to talk about it… which is not exactly the same as reviewing it.

I admit, I was both nervous and excited about The Avengers. I love a lot of what Joss Whedon has done, but the parts I don’t love, I tend to reeeeeaally dislike. Whedon has a history of killing off people you’ve grown very attached to, just for the emotional impact of it, regardless of whether it helps the story along. (Minor spoiler: he does kill off a character in The Avengers. While I was sad to see that character die, I do think it helped the story along a little.) Whedon is known for strong female characters and less so for strong male characters, so I joined the crowd in worrying about the movie becoming The Avengers: Black Widow and Her Slavering Idiots. I hadn’t even bothered seeing Captain Americabecause that movie seemed boring, and I truly disliked The Incredible Hulk. Thor was a weak film, and Loki was a weak villain in that film. I did love Iron Man and Iron Man 2, largely because I heart Robert Downey Jr., but I was also really worried about this movie being The Avengers: Tony Stark Brings Some Friends Along To Tell Him How Awesome He Is While He Does All The Real Work.

I’m pleased to report that all of those fears were unfounded. Black Widow holds her own, but doesn’t run circles around the rest of the team. Tony Stark doesn’t ride roughshod over the plot, Captain America is interesting enough that I’ll probably go back and watch his prequel now that I know a little more about the character, The Hulk has been recast and rewritten to be interesting as well, Thor has more depth and less of a fish-out-of-water aspect to him, and Loki does too– I could actually buy him as the major villain this time. What’s left is Whedon’s remarkable storytelling abilities, with a goodly amount of humor mixed into the serious and poignant.

And thus ends the obligatory review portion of my babbling. On to slightly more philosophical musings:

I have a friend who writes off any movie about superheroes simply because it’s about superheroes. I’m going to try to convince her to see this one anyway, but I already know it’s going to be an uphill battle. The thing is, she’s not exactly wrong. There’s two ways to write a superhero story.

  1. You can focus on the powers and the awesome things the hero can do
  2. You can focus on the person underneath the hero, how being a superhero affects them and the reasons why they do what they do with their powers– why are they a superHERO instead of a superVILLAIN?

Most movies focus on the powers. Most movies are bad because of it. Oh, they’re profitable, because they’re effects-filled extravaganzas most of the time. They are usually wildly entertaining; they’re just not very GOOD. That’s fine, if what you wanted was mindless entertainment with no redeeming value– and there’s a place for that. You can’t be constantly bombarded with just culture and thought-provoking stories, because if you were, you wouldn’t have any time to think about the thought-provoking stuff. But there’s plenty of mindless entertainment already out there, so there’s no reason to bother with mindless entertainment in a genre that doesn’t do anything for you.

The movies that do focus on the person tend to provide weak reasons for them being a hero rather than a villain. The Phantom does it because his family has always does it. Superman does it because his alien parents told him to protect the planet he landed on and his human parents were “good people”. Spiderman does it because his early actions get his uncle killed and he feels guilty– which is better motivation than many, so it’s a pity that Spiderman is generally portrayed as such a whiny loser. Batman does it to avenge his dead parents, which is also passably decent motivation, but I didn’t find Batman terribly interesting until the Christopher Nolan films, in which Batman was willing to do what needed to be done regardless of whether it made him LOOK like a hero. The X-Men movies have a good dichotomy of “mutants should protect the humans” and “mutants should rule over the humans” as played out by Xavier and Magneto, but the individual reasons why each mutant chose the side they did is either lacking entirely or rather weak– and never was that more obvious than in X-Men: First Class when Angel switches over to Magneto’s side. (“Wanna join us?” “Yeah, sure, let’s go.”) Some of this is just a function of the format– when you’ve got a large team of people and two hours to tell a story in, you can’t focus on each of their individual backstories and still have time to tell a decent team story. (The decision to make all the prequels for The Avengers was inspired, because it saved a lot of setup time and produced complex characters with real depth, but I don’t know how well it will work out for people who didn’t see the prequels. I still had a decent grasp on Captain America without seeing his prequel, so I guess it will be okay.)

Contrast this with the two Iron Man prequels. Downey Jr. as Tony Stark makes such a compelling character that he actually becomes LESS interesting when he puts the suit on and starts flying around. He’s a hero, but only in the loosest sense of the word, and mostly because he’s already tried villain (as an arms dealer who sells to the highest bidder regardless of what they plan to do with the weapons) and he’s bored with it. He protects the people and things he cares about, and as for the rest of it…. meh. In other words, just like a real person who was suddenly handed an inordinate amount of power. And yet, Stark already had a lot of power in the form of wealth. The Iron Man suit is just a way for him to play superhero, like an overgrown child who doesn’t want to come in from recess. He’s at his most interesting when circumstances force him to grow up for a little bit– but if he had to grow up all the time, the juxtaposition that makes it interesting would be lost.

There ARE movies that tell a good story about why a person makes the choice between good and evil. Many of them are not superhero movies, and some of the ones that are superhero movies might be better stories if the superhero part were taken out– because to be a superhero, one needs to fight supervillains, and plenty of superheroes fight lame-ass villains who get in the way of the story rather than augment it. (Spiderman, I’m looking at you. Until the Downey Jr. Iron Man movies, I was looking at Iron Man too, so there’s some hope for Spiderman in the future.)

There’s a second aspect here worth discussing, that of Team Movies and how teams start working together, but this is already too long. Perhaps I’ll muse about that some other time. Perhaps not. Time will tell.