Extra Medium #4: The Top 10 Worst and Best Things About “The Avengers”
Comics don’t stay in comics. For better or worse, most comics are produced in the hopes they will lead to films, cartoons, action figures, video games, backpacks, beach towels and bubble baths. Extra Medium is my column about all these things and more.
I fell in love with The Avengers. I know that sounds like a fairly lame and generic reviewer thing to say, but I mean it much more literally than you may think. I don’t mean I’m going to marry it and open a joint bank account (though, that would work out nice for me). I mean that while The Avengers was my favorite film of the year; that I saw it five times in the theater (which is something I haven’t done since I saw Tim Burton’s Batman eight times before it left the second-runs) and do not regret a single viewing; that it may very well be the best superhero film ever; the flaws of The Avengers were glaring, and I noticed most of them as early as my first viewing. None of them hurt my experiences in the theater though. I didn’t care about things that would’ve at least irritated me in just about any other film. I didn’t care because I didn’t just love the movie. I fell in love with The Avengers and my objectivity was shot.
Now that some time has passed and the DVDs and Blu-rays are due to be released today, I thought I’d put aside some time to think about those flaws. But since I love the thing, I didn’t just want to talk about that. So here are this columnist’s choices for the Top 10 worst and best things about The Avengers.
And since it’s always nice to save the best for last, let’s start with the worst.
THE TOP 10 WORST THINGS ABOUT THE AVENGERS
10. CAPTAIN AMERICA VS. IRON MAN
My only problem with the conflict is that it seemed to come from nowhere. Sure, there are good reasons for them to rub each other the wrong way, but they just hate each other too quickly. You can tell as soon as their first meeting that they’re going to push one another’s buttons. Iron Man seems just as annoyed to have saved Cap from Loki as Cap seems annoyed to have been saved by him. As soon as they’re in the Quinjet, Tony goes overboard trying to antagonize Cap with his “Capsicle” comment. It doesn’t seem like they have enough time to even get to know what they hate about one another before they’re swinging. I felt director Joss Whedon was trying too hard to build upon the conflict between the two in Civil War but just didn’t give us enough of a foundation for it.
9. BLACK WIDOW’S LACK OF COOL STUFF
My only disappointment with Scarlett Johansson’s portrayal of Black Widow was that she didn’t sport many cool gadgets. If I recall correctly, there’s one brief moment in the final battle when she has some kind of electric shock thing in her uniform that she uses on one of the aliens, but that’s it. Other than that, she just has her hand-to-hand skills and her guns. It just seemed very plain. Even though her appearance in it was much shorter, they gave her some cool spy stuff to work with in Iron Man 2. It’s tough to watch her firing her handguns at the aliens and not think “Yeah, uh. I could do that.” I couldn’t probably, but I’d still think that.
In spite of how wonderfully Hulk was portrayed in The Avengers, in spite of the irony that it was the best Hulk movie yet even though it wasn’t a Hulk movie, the Hulk does not belong on a team like the Avengers which is why he took a hike as early as the second issue of the original comic book series. He returned occasionally for brief appearances – usually during big we-need-every-Avenger-ever stories – but was never a regular member again until the popularity of the movie made it a no-brainer to throw him back in.
But he isn’t an Avenger. He destroys cities. His alter ego has spent most of his adult life thinking of him as a curse or a disease. The guy spends most of his time fighting the US military. You think he’s going to take orders from a dude wearing a flag?
Others may argue that there are less wild and more intelligent versions of the Hulk, like the Merged or so-called Professor Hulk who enjoyed the intelligence of Bruce Banner but the strength and power of the Hulk. But even at his most civil, the Hulk has never been a team player. Check out the “Professor” Hulk in Infinity Gauntlet or any of Jim Starlin’s Infinity series. Read the Incredible Hulk issue included in the Onslaught crossover. Read that earliest of the Marvel crossovers, Secret Wars. Even at his most intelligent, the Hulk doesn’t like other superheroes, considers himself better than all of them, and does not work well with them.
Still, I doubt I would’ve enjoyed the movie quite as much without my favorite good guy.
If any of the four major characters with their own film franchises got the short end of the stick in Avengers, it was Thor.
First, the Thor of Avengers clearly lacked a lot of the power of the Thor of the comics. The Hulk might not have KO’d the thunder god, but he clearly manhandled the guy.
Second, while words like honor and loyalty are part of what defines the Thor of the comics, Whedon sacrificed a lot of that for effect. There’s no way in hell (or Hel) that Comic Book Thor would’ve opened the fight with Iron Man by hitting him from behind. Nor would he have swung a blow at Captain America which, had it found its mark, would’ve killed him. In the final battle, when Loki blasts the Quinjet carrying Cap, Black Widow, and Hawkeye out of the sky and Thor responds by ignoring his allies’ danger and pounding on Loki, I couldn’t help but think, “Um, super-strong guy who can fly? Yeah, your friends? Gravity?”
6. CIVIL WAR
There were a lot of hints that Whedon may be building the foundation for a Civil War story somewhere down the road. The very presence of Maria Hill harkens back to it, as does that untrusting look she gives Nick Fury at the end when he assures her the team will reform if the world needs them. Of course, the ongoing conflict between Cap and Iron Man is also reminiscent of Civil War. From what I’ve seen of the deleted scenes, there were even more hints originally intended.
I don’t know if I like the idea of the Avengers movies going in that direction. Civil War had great potential but in the end it failed to deliver. Not to mention that it’s difficult to imagine a Civil War without a Marvel Universe filled with many more heroes than Marvel Studios has adapted for the screen so far.
Perhaps Whedon or another director could give a film adaptation of Civil War what it lacked in the panels, but for now I’m not thrilled with the idea.
Brainwashing Hawkeye in the beginning was a mistake. Unlike Black Widow who enjoyed some significant screen time in Iron Man 2, before Avengers our only film introduction to Hawkeye was his cameo in Thor and that achieved little more than have all of us already-invested comic geeks go, “Oh, hey. Hawkeye.” We didn’t get to know him enough to even care that much that he was in trouble.
And I don’t care what everyone else says. I like the purple comic book suit. To hell with all this black leather crap, Purple it up.
I miss the days when superheroes didn’t kill people; when that was, in fact, pretty much their Prime Directive. Sure, there were the exceptions like Punisher and Wolverine, but now it seems like just about everyone in a mask has taken a page from Frank Castle’s war journal.
I don’t like seeing Captain America cut off an alien’s arm or kicking a guy off a helicarrier. Yes, you could argue that the Earth was at war, and Cap didn’t have a problem killing Nazis in World War II (either in the comics or in Captain America: The First Avenger). You could also argue, however, that the comics have found Cap and his team in other wars – like Kree-Skrull Wars, Secret Wars, Subterranean Wars, wars with Atlantis, wars with Kang the time-traveling warlord, or the Destiny War of Avengers Forever – but Cap didn’t turn off the No-Kill button any of those times.
Call it personal preference. Call it nostalgia. Even call it childishness. I don’t like superheroes killing people.
3. LAME EXPLANATIONS, PLOT HOLES, etc.
The plot of Avengers has quite a few holes that are easier to see once you get some distance, and there were some that were glaring the first time I saw it. Some explanations just don’t make sense, and some are acceptable but stretch your suspension of disbelief to its limits. Thor’s return to Earth is explained only by Loki’s brief “dark energy” comment at the brothers’ first meeting. In spite of how crushing it was to Thor to destroy the Rainbow Bridge and sever his physical connection to the women he loves, he doesn’t bother to even visit Jane Foster (sure he was busy, but he freaking made time for shawarma). While it was a well-directed scene, Black Widow’s “interrogation” of Loki never rang true to me. I just didn’t buy the way Loki’s dialogue was supposed to reveal that he was manipulating Banner. Speaking of the Hulk, while it was such a moment of pure awesome, no one ever bothers to tell us exactly how Banner’s “I’m always angry” moment works; i.e., why is he suddenly in control of the Hulk when earlier he was going to turn Black Widow into a red-and-black smear on the deck of the helicarrier?
Of course I think the most glaring oh-come-on moment is Dr. Selvig’s revelation that he somehow subconsciously built a tesseract off-switch into Loki’s scepter while he was still under Loki’s control. First of all, it would’ve been more convincing if Whedon showed us Selvig resisting Loki’s control earlier in the film. Second, exactly how did he subconsciously build a safety into the scepter while he was brainwashed when he was utterly incapable of purposely turning off the tesseract in the beginning of the film when no one was screwing with his mind?
2. IS THE BAR TOO HIGH?
Really, at this point is there anywhere to go but down? With Iron Man 3, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and Thor: The Dark World all on their way – not to mention what may come of new franchises, including the possibility of a Marvel Studios produced Daredevil reboot – how can things not get convoluted? Whedon masterfully weaved together the different storylines with this one, but the stuff’s just going to get more complicated. How could Avengers 2 ever beat what we got this time?
1. JACK KIRBY’S HEIRS DIDN’T SEE A DIME FROM THE AVENGERS
After Marvel won its legal battle against Jack Kirby’s heirs in July 2011, a number of noteworthy comic book bloggers and critics vowed to give none of their money or attention to Marvel products – including the films – until Marvel made things right with Kirby’s estate.
After my first viewing of Avengers, because of course it’s legally mandated I do so, I immediately went on Facebook to spread my geek-joy. A lot of comments from friends followed, and among them was a professional writer who wrote deep in the thread, “I have so far resisted saying that I hope you enjoy dancing on Jack Kirby’s grave and making the soul-less corporations rich.” I was not very happy with her, but she wasn’t wrong.
I am not proud that I did not side with Kirby. My voice wouldn’t have put a dent in Marvel’s armor, but that’s hardly the point. The guy helped to create the characters that littered the landscape of my childhood dreams, and I see my lack of support towards his heirs’ cause as a genuine failure.
It is stupidly melodramatic, but when I try to come up with an analogy justifying my love for the film, the money I spent to see it in the theater, the money I will spend again on the DVDs, and the fact that I am helping promote it; I think of Rusty Sabich cleaning the blood and hair off the hammer his wife used to kill his lover in Presumed Innocent. I almost can’t help it. I can, but I almost can’t. I fell in love with it, so I’m willing to do wrong to have it.
And on that lovely, fairy tale note, let’s move on to happier thoughts.
THE TOP 10 BEST THINGS ABOUT THE AVENGERS
Most either loved, hated, or were just confused by the second post-credits ending of Avengers. I definitely find myself in the Love camp.
It was the kind clever play on audience expectation that only Whedon could’ve come up with. And besides, it felt genuine. We’ve all had those days when we’ve been pushed to our physical limits and when we finally sat down to eat something it was so satisfying that rather than spoil the moment with discussion we enjoyed utter silence. And wouldn’t fighting off an alien invasion fit the criteria for one of those days?
9. HULK AND IRON MAN
I was hoping for a tussle between Hulk and Iron Man in Avengers. Instead, I was surprised to enjoy some great chemistry between Robert Downey Jr. and Mark Ruffalo. It makes sense. Bruce Banner represents a very there-but-for-the-grace-of-God character to Tony Stark. Stark is what Banner could’ve been if his own super-ness hadn’t brought him down a much darker path.
If you think about it, after that initial “enormous green rage monster” comment Stark makes to Banner on the helicarrier bridge, Stark treats Banner with more respect and deference than just about anyone we’ve seen him interact with in all three of the movies in which he’s appeared. At best he’s usually an arrogant but likeable jerk, but he treats Banner as a genuine colleague and even tones down the sarcasm when they’re alone in the lab (save for the brief shock treatment).
8. CAPTAIN AMERICA
I was concerned Chris Evans would get crowded out of Avengers by the more proven talents of guys like Downey and Ruffalo. That would be a huge shame considering that almost none of these characters are as integral to the overall history and identity of the team as Captain America. You could throw just about any other superheroes into the team and no matter how mismatched or obscure they were, as long as Cap was leading the charge I’d nod my head and say, “Yep, that’s the Avengers.”
Evans didn’t let himself get sidelined. He delivered a solid performance. He still isn’t exactly like the Cap I know, but I think that’s because he’s a more human improvement.
Tom Hiddleston deserves every greasy drop of geek love he’s received. Ten years ago if you’d asked me to write a list of supervillains I thought would be amazing in a film adaptation, Loki wouldn’t have been within 100 miles of it. The Loki of the comics was an uninteresting, one-dimensional cackling little weasel who always reminded me of the Grinch. Tom Hiddleston rendered Loki sexy, devious, manipulative, and one of the most sympathetic supervillains out there.
6. THE FACT THAT THIS WASN’T X-MEN
Before Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch built the foundation that made the Avengers movie-ready with Ultimates, and before Brian Michael Bendis frustrated Avengers purists by bringing top-selling lone wolves like Spider-Man and Wolverine into the fold, the notion that an Avengers movie would be one of the biggest superhero movie success stories was pretty damn laughable. Before comics like Ultimates and New Avengers, most of Marvel’s successes were not unlike pirate treasure: X always marked the spot.
With the resounding success of Bryan Singer’s first two X-Men movies, I was convinced that superheroes of a more traditional sort – like Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor – would find little love outside the funnybooks. They just weren’t as edgy or hiply relatable as Professor X’s students.
The Avengers not only proved me wrong, it gave me hope that characters like Superman and some of the more dated members of the Justice League, under the right direction, could find contemporary success on the screen. That hope has definitely not been realized yet, but give it time.
My biggest fear for The Avengers was that – just as Singer’s first two X-Men flicks were essentially Wolverine and His Amazing Friends – Downey would steal the show. The Iron Man film franchise is more successful than the others, Downey is a much more well-known and proven actor, and some of the advertising suggested he would be the focus.
Thankfully, Whedon was smarter than that. I felt like The Avengers didn’t really have a main character regardless of who got top billing. While as I mentioned earlier I do think Thor didn’t exactly shine as much as he could’ve, for the most part Whedon did an excellent job giving everyone equal time center stage. In spite of all the conflicts between the characters, no one ever seemed to come out as being more “right” than the others, and the chemistry was surprisingly enjoyable.
4. THERE WASN’T A BORING SECOND
As I wrote in the beginning of the column, I saw The Avengers in the theater five times. I can say without fear of correction that I didn’t yawn once. After 5 viewings, I didn’t find a single scene to be anything but completely engaging. If anything, I just got bored with seeing the same trailers over and over.
Whedon was smart enough to not burden the plot with background. He assumed we’d seen all the movies and didn’t need to be reminded why Tony Stark has some glowing thing embedded in his chest or what the tesseract was or where it came from. If he had bothered worrying about that stuff, the exposition would’ve dragged the movie down a dark, lonely crevice.
I cannot hide my bias, but considering what I’ve heard from fans of the movie who aren’t rabid Hulk nuts like me, I don’t think this is a stretch.
The Hulk’s prominence in The Avengers was a huge and very welcome surprise. It would’ve been tough to blame Whedon if he had chosen to either downplay the character’s involvement or not include him at all. Neither Incredible Hulk nor its predecessor broke records with ticket sales, and to render an impressive CGI character in a film already heavy with special effects and expensive talent couldn’t have been easy. Not to mention that out of all the superheroes in the film – including the ones without their own film franchises like Hawkeye and Black Widow – Hulk is the one least associated with the Avengers.
Ruffalo was a great choice for the role. I will say, however, that while I’ve heard a lot of noise about how much better Ruffalo was than Ed Norton, that I think if Norton had been directed correctly in Incredible Hulk – and if the film had a better story – he would’ve been considered essential to The Avengers. My suspicion is that there were at least a couple of Avengers scenes written with him in mind. Black Widow’s first meeting with Banner, I think, was probably scripted with the assumption that Norton would be playing Banner. Incredible Hulk’s director, Louis Leterrier, was too short-sighted to utilize the very reason why Norton could have made the perfect Bruce Banner: Norton’s unnerving ability to play a complete wimp one second who transforms into an intimidating bully the next. That’s why I can so easily superimpose Norton over Ruffalo in that moment Banner appears to lose his temper and scares Black Widow into pulling her gun.
For the first time, you could physically see Banner in his CGI-rendered alter-ego. If you watch the behind-the-scenes stuff for Hulk or Incredible Hulk, you’ll hear plenty of talk about how the faces of Eric Bana and Norton respectively were incorporated in the Hulk’s appearance. Then if you watch those movies and squint here and there, you can kinda-sorta-maybe see it a little. This was the first time you didn’t have to try. That’s Ruffalo’s face roaring back at the alien horde. That’s Ruffalo’s face screaming at the attacking jet pilot.
He provides so many classic moments. The “I’m always angry” punch. The sucker punch. And, of course, his “battle” with Loki.
I’ve got to say it’s kind of shocking. I love the Hulk, but I’d like to think I have a sense of humor both about the character and my adoration for him. And it shocks me that three different directors have dealt with the character over the span of a decade now in three different live-action films, and it took the third one to figure out that a big green half-naked guy might have some potential for humor.
2. THIS WAS THE COMIC BOOK MOVIE
In my mental list of the best comic book superhero movies, The Avengers is at least a nose beyond The Dark Knight.
Out of all superhero movies that blasted out of the flood gates when X-Men opened them back in 2000, The Avengers was the first that made me think “I am watching a Marvel comic on the screen.”
In other words, I did not think, “I am watching a film adaptation that takes the iconic characters of comic books and updates them to render them more relatable, more topical, and easier for a more mature audience to enjoy.” I thought, “The Hulk and Thor are batting around aliens while riding on the back of a flying space whale. I am watching a Marvel comic on the screen.”
I’m not saying films like The Dark Knight are bad. They’re freaking genius. I simply appreciate a film like The Avengers differently from how I appreciate The Dark Knight.
Whedon took the magic of Thor’s world, made it work with the more believable science of Iron Man’s world, and pitted them both against the kind of grand, fantastic intergalactic conflict that all of the Marvel film franchises have shied away from until now. He made it all work, just like it works in comics.
As much as any film possibly could be, The Avengers was more than an adaptation. It was a Marvel comic on the screen
1. THE FACT THAT IT HAPPENED
There was no reason this movie had to be made. And there was no reason it had to be good.
The success of the Iron Man franchise didn’t guarantee anything. The second Marvel Studios movie, Incredible Hulk, was not the same resounding success Iron Man was. Even Iron Man 2, while good, didn’t make the same splash as the first.
Consider the summer of 2011. First came Thor which was followed by Captain America: The First Avenger. What do you think would have happened if both had flopped?
There’s no reason why they couldn’t have failed. Neither Chris Hemsworth nor Chris Evans were household names. Thor not only had to introduce its main character, but a whole cast of magical characters living in a fantasy world where science and magic were the same thing. It had to make us believe that Asgard existed alongside a more real world. Its director, Kenneth Branagh, did not exactly make his name directing big action flicks. Captain America: The First Avenger was a period action piece that didn’t even bring the main character into the present day until the last few minutes of the film. Its character suffers one of the corniest looking superhero get-ups out there. Neither of these films had to work. And if both had flopped, what would it have meant for The Avengers?
At any point, this whole thing could have come crumbling down around its various architects’ ears. At best, Marvel Studios would have been left with some individually successful franchises, but probably would never attempt such an ambitious move again.
But it did happen and no matter what else you want to say about Marvel or Disney, you have to admit building a Marvel Universe on the screen took guts, commitment, and ingenuity.
Whedon got more than a half-dozen leading actors to work together on a movie whose plot was dictated by four disparate film franchises.
And Axl Rose can’t get Slash into a studio.
The Avengers was more than just a great action flick. It was the result of five years, four film franchises, and five films; not to mention the decades of comics that laid the first foundation. That probably has a lot to do with my creepy, gushing love for the flick. I never expected Marvel to pull this off, but that they did it feels like a childhood promise I never knew was made has finally been kept. If every other Marvel Studios flick that follows fails miserably, if Avengers 2 crashes and burns; I will still be grateful that I got to see The Avengers.
The DVDs are scheduled to come in the mail today. Don’t expect to hear from me for a while