When They Said “Assemble”, I Didn’t Think They Meant An Ikea Table, AKA Why I Disliked The Avengers Movie

When They Said “Assemble”, I Didn’t Think They Meant An Ikea Table, AKA Why I Disliked The Avengers Movie

A still from Marvel's The Avengers, produced by Walt Disney Co.

I am currently girding my loins because I am going to post an extremely unpopular opinion.

I did not like the Avengers movie.

First off, a disclaimer: I am not a comics fan. While I may dabble in the occasional graphic novel and hang around comics geeks more than half the time, I basically know nothing about the Marvel comicsverse, aside from what I read from Neil Gaiman’s 1602, and what I learned monitoring some of the comics communities on LJ and Dreamwidth while I was working in an ultimately-doomed local comics studio. (Storm Lion, you may have heard of them.)

But perhaps this puts me in good stead to review the film. I’m not emotionally invested enough in the source material to have it eclipse everything else, but I’m also not so detached from the comics fandom that I’ll start tearing apart things that are generally accepted as comic book tropes.

I really wanted to like this film. I don’t head out to the theatres much these days, owing mostly to time constraints, but this was one film I bookmarked as a must-see after the rave reviews given by almost everyone who had caught an advance screening. I sussed out the opening date and marked it out weeks in advance: Must go see this when it opens. Find someone who wants to watch it with you. Cannot miss it.

And maybe that was its problem: It didn’t live up to the hype. Cut for spoilers!

My initial reactions to the film are preserved in the tweets I wrote right after I came out of the theatre:
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So, what were my issues with the movie?

Characters have a development arcs shortened to a couple of points, in order to make way for the fighting.
Hawkeye is one glaring example. His entire character arc in this movie boils down to: He gets mindfucked by Loki. He wakes up, complains that he got mindfucked by Loki, and vows to kick his ass. He then goes on to kick ass. THE END. That doesn’t make for very engaging storytelling. It’s the same for most of the other characters. We don’t see enough development between the Avengers hating each others’ guts, and them suddenly getting together and fighting evil like best of buds. What’s Bruce Banner’s reason for suddenly turning from Bad Dog Hulk to That’s A Good Boy Hulk? His “That’s my secret: I’m always angry” one-liner does not explain it adequately. Etc., etc. I felt that the middle third of the movie showed up a lot of potential– and then all of it suddenly disappeared to make way for thirty minutes of Manhattan being hacked into rubble. (Or whatever city they were actually in. It makes no bloody difference to the film at all.)

But it’s a movie with a huge ensemble cast, you say. There’s no way to cram in that much attention to all the characters in the film. Actually, there is. Cut out 10 minutes of the CGI, replace it with 10 minutes of character development. Not only do you wind up with a better movie, it would also be a cheaper one to make because that’s 10 minutes less of CGI that you have to pay for. And the 20 minutes of CGI and explosions that are left will be 20 better minutes of CGI and explosions because they will be 20 minutes of CGI and explosions that have meaning.

Lousy villains.
No, I’ll say this– from a design perspective, Loki’s army from out of space is very cool indeed. I particularly loved the airborne, gigantic bony-fish-from-hell. Every minute they were on screen was a joy.

But they make lousy villains.

The problem with having an army of faceless, undifferentiated villains that pop out of nowhere to wreak destruction is that it takes your emotional investment out of the story. It kills the dramatic tension. If the enemy is shown to have no goals, no motivation and no purpose other than to serve as an adversary for the heroes, then it becomes painfully clear that there is no way they can win, because their victory would be utterly meaningless. There’s nothing to concede to them, because they are only the hollow shell of a concept. That takes all the bite out of the fight scenes, because it literally becomes the Avengers shooting fish in a barrel until they’re all dead. Emotional flatliner.

“But LOKI was the real villain of the show,” you protest. Yes. Except that during the climatic battle Loki flat-out says he has no control over the marauding army, whoop de doop. So the purported real villain of the movie becomes nothing but a sideshow during the last twenty minutes of the film. Fantastic writing, that.

Worse still, the resolution of the conflict comes about by fucking deus ex machina.
That’s right, the destruction of the Tesseract was achieved not because of anything any of the marqueed heroes did, but because the engineer somehow, by magic, managed to work a weakness into the Tesseract even though he had been brainwashed at that point. Sure, they tried to work a bit of drama into the closing of the space portal by having Iron Man put himself in grave danger by flying in with a nuke (which you knew was going to happen the moment a nuke showed up in the film). That Iron Man could potentially die doing this would have had a lot of resonance if the film had, at any point, hinted that coming to terms with making the ultimate sacrifice would be something Tony Stark would have to deal with. But it didn’t. So.

Let’s not even get started on the portrayal of women in this film.
Because it’s a superhero movie, based on superhero comics, and I really shouldn’t have been surprised that it failed the Bechdel Test. Indeed, I wasn’t. I was not even disappointed.

Ironically, I felt that Black Widow’s character treatment showed the most promise out of all the Avengers featured. The idea that her loyalties to Hawkeye might supersede her loyalties to the Avengers made for delicious dramatic potential, even if she was only putting on a show for Loki. But it’s problematic because a) not only does it play into the White Male Saviour trope, it also carries icky overtones of women being unreliable because of those damn emotions they can’t keep under control. But b) it was never resolved textually anyway, so that makes a moot point.

I could go on about Whedon playing straight into the Russian Femme Fatale trope (TVTropes warning!!) with no trace of irony, but I don’t know enough about the source material to make conclusions from it. Maybe he is subverting Natasha’s character archetype from how she is typically portrayed in the comics. But then again, this is the man who invented the school of Strong Female Characters = Kung Fu And Pointy Sticks. Not keeping hopes up.

 

No, it wasn’t all bad. Joss Whedon’s talent has always been for snappy dialogue, and there was plenty of it in the film. And I’m not going to deny that I laughed out loud in the cinema at some points — mostly at scenes involving The Hulk. But you can’t sustain a movie on clever repartee and comic pratfalls. Even the best scene in the movie–where the Hulk puts Loki in his place, in a neat Loki-shaped hole in the floor–is nothing more than the big kid beating up the obnoxious smartass in class. Ironic tension and all aside, it still boils down to schoolyard humour.

I do love a good superhero movie. X-Men: First Class was fantastic. So are the Christopher Nolan Batman films, the first Spider-Man movie, and the first Iron Man movie. I thoroughly enjoyed watching all those, even if they had their flaws. Marvel’s The Avengers, however, was two hours spent vacillating between boredom and antsy “So is the awesome going to start now? Like now?” moments. It’s like an Ikea table– it looks good from the outside, structurally sound, but push harder and it all falls apart. (And I’ve had someone else’s Ikea table catastrophically fall to pieces on me before, taking my dinner with it, so I speak from experience.)

I’ll give some credit where it’s due: At least it was a lot better than the Green Lantern movie. But that’s a low bar to set, considering that anything would be better than the Green Lantern movie by pure virtue of not having Ryan Reynolds in it.

 

**ETA: I ought to point out I made the brilliant decision to post this less than six hours before I have to hit the airport to fly to Shanghai, aka The Land Of The Great Firewall, where I will be marooned with no 3G and patchy Internet connectivity. Comments… may take a while to appear. Sorry. I’ll be back by Saturday. (Er.)

3 thoughts on “When They Said “Assemble”, I Didn’t Think They Meant An Ikea Table, AKA Why I Disliked The Avengers Movie

    1. A lot of credit has been given to Joss Whedon for being feminist for his portrayal of strong female characters (and this is something he personally makes a big point of). However his writing is not without issues–for example, many of his women characters are physically strong but still emotionally dependent upon men, or have their lives centred around men. He basically fathered the Strong Woman == Kick-ass Woman trope which is problematic in itself: There are many different types of strength and physical prowess is the least of them.

      This blogpost has a good dissection of the problems w/ giving all of Whedon’s works a feminist pass: http://www.themarysue.com/reconsidering-the-feminism-of-joss-whedon/

      Note that I do give him credit for actively trying not to be a sexist douchehole when writing. This, however, does not mean that the stuff he produces is without problems.

    2. Also I want to add that most of my exposure to Whedon has been through Firefly and Serenity: I’ve only watched a couple of episodes of Buffy and Angel, so I can’t give much in-depth, texual analysis of those two series.

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