I’ve been trying to get this post started for a while now. I want to blog about Joss Whedon’s “The Avengers” because a tweet doesn’t cut it. I can tell people I thought it was amazing in <140 characters but I definitely couldn't pack what I felt into so small a space.
The trouble is what I feel is still hard to reconcile with an effects-fest superhero movie. I try and explain why “The Avengers” moved me, quite literally, to the verge of tears and I suddenly fear that maybe you didn’t see the same movie I did. Not literally, of course, but in the philosophical sense. Hopefully when I spit it out I’ll hear from one or two of you (I have names in mind) that you reacted the same way and I’ll feel less like a crazy person.
Cut for potential spoilers (though I’m not planning on any).
“The Avengers” was a movie a long time coming. I forget whether “Iron Man” or “The Incredible Hulk” technically launched first1. To me it doesn’t much matter, I didn’t watch “The Incredible Hulk”. Can you blame me? Whilst the superhero movie trend was kicking off with a vengeance in 2008 I personally hadn’t seen much that I thought was worth while.
“The Fantastic Four” films left me cold. I hated “Ghost Rider”. “Superman Returns” made me wish he’d stay away. “X-Men: The Last Stand” was a wince-fest. I, controversially I admit, didn’t like “Batman Begins”. “Elektra” was … slightly better than “Catwoman”, which is the nicest thing I can say about it. “Catwoman”, on the other hand, wasn’t. I watched “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” in the comfort of my own home and still got up and walked out half way through. As a “Daredevil” fan that film offended me.
Let’s face it, we can take this back further. The Tim Burton “Batman” films were like a breath of fresh air in a desert where comic book movies didn’t get made but they were ‘loosely inspired’ by the comics. Were “Darkman” movies good? Did “The Phantom” ever get a good movie? Can we honestly say there’s ever been a decent “Punisher” movie? If we’re honest, isn’t ‘superhero movie’, in the mid 00s, synonymous with ‘disappointment’?
There were exceptions, I’ll admit. “Spider-man” stood out. The first “X-Men” was ingenious. I’m struggling to think of more, though.
Then “Iron Man” happened. Then Robert Downey Jr hit us in the face with an ice cold glass of AC/DC, strapped on a robot suit and kicked ass. More than one of my friends who’d never really read comic books walked out of that cinema, into a friend’s comic book store and picked up Extremis, starting a new obsession. The casting of an effortlessly charismatic, alcoholic genius is tricky but in casting an effortlessly charismatic, alcoholic they scored. It was a risky business too. Let’s not forget Iron Man reignited RDJ’s career.
Iron Man was made with no expense spared. This was not a movie that looked cheap. It did not look rushed. This was a slick, high budget movie. What’s more impressive, though, was that it was character driven. So often comic book movies are origin story followed by bash the bad guy with perhaps a sledge-hammer subtle personal tragedy for motivation along the way. Iron Man was a character piece. This was actual film-making, not just blockbuster manufacturing.
Of course, the exclamation point was this:
And that, as they say, was that. Iron Man was no longer just a new, more faithful and dedicated take on the superhero movie. It was the first in a series. Marvel had planted their flag. An Avengers movie was coming. A, legitimate, cross-franchise superhero teamup movie.
It continued. As I said, I didn’t see Hulk so I’ll skip writing about it. Thor, though, well… Thor’s my guy.
It’s funny. Going into The Avengers all my friends have their guy. A lot of my friends are Iron Man fans because RDJ’s performance was their big entrance into the Marvel comics universe. That said, I do have friends who are all about Cap. All about Hulk. I’m the only guy I know who calls himself a Thor fan, though. If you read my blog regularly you might have got the impression that I’m a DC fan. You would be correct and I barely read Marvel any more. My one exception? The Mighty Thor. Norse mythology meets Shakespearian prose and narrative devices. Science fiction, turning that Norse mythology into a new mythology of alien worlds and science so advanced as to be perceived as magic. Ultimately, Thor. Just a son trying to make his father proud. It’s my marvel book.
Kenneth Branagh seemed, to many people, an odd choice to direct a superhero blockbuster. Not to me. As a Thor fan I’ve done a lot of reading around the book over the years and I already knew Ken was a fan of the comics and had been since he was a child. Couple that with experience directing Shakespeare on the big screen and you have the perfect director. The fact that Marvel would recognise that and go to him, make a film so different in tone to their runaway Iron Man success, reassured me. These guys were serious. Iron Man hadn’t been a fluke. They were hiring the right men for the right jobs.
I still had my doubts going in, though. After all, at least half of the Thor books takes place in Asgard and there’s a whole cast of Asgardians that make those books what they are. I couldn’t help but feel like they would be sidelined for the Earth-bound story. I was stunned to find out how wrong I was. That over half the film was set in Asgard. Or, rather, off Earth. That the Asgardians really were the primary cast and Earth was almost the b-story. It had the star power to carry through even if it got less time. Asgard, meanwhile, got the lion’s share of the screen time and Loki was the stand-out of the piece. Which is good, I like villains. The reason I’m a Batman fan is not Batman. It’s Joker, Two-Face, Catwoman, Riddler, Harley, Poison Ivy, etc. Batman isn’t much of a character, if we’re honest. He’s so relentlessly driven and single-minded that he’s interesting as a character study but not as a companion. Thor is … similar, in one regard. He’s big, militaristic, handsome, powerful and yes, loyal and good. He is not overburdened with intelligence and creative thinking, however. Which is why Loki is so important to his franchise. A good villain makes the story interesting, a simple but invulnerable and powerful hero means it’ll get resolved. Thor was everything I could have wanted.
Captain America would prove to be the real test. I’ve never been a huge fan of Captain America. In truth, because I’m not American. I get that he stands for good, he stands against the bullies and looks out for, well, everyone really. I just can’t get past the A on his hat. He’s an ultra-patriotic propaganda piece and if I was American I’d cheer him from comic to comic. As a Brit he’s not someone I want to read about month by month. If Iron Man and Thor hadn’t come out, if The Avengers wasn’t coming and the momentum building to crescendo I’d almost certainly have skipped it. I’m glad I didn’t. Yet again the film suited the subject matter perfectly. It had the feel of a vintage comic book movie, that stilted primary-colours charm and pacing. This gave it an air of nostalgia that a film largely set in the 40s needed. The script, however, was clever and compelling. Chris Evens and Hugo Weaving kept me invested the whole time.
Fever pitch was reached.
Joss Whedon was doing The Avengers. Due for release in under a year. Marvel on a roll. This was going to be a tough wait.
I can’t remember the first time in The Avengers when I felt myself nearly tearing up. I do remember being instantly engaged with the story. Each of our heroes had had an entire movie to establish themselves. In Iron Man’s case, two movies. There was no need for introductions, no need for origin stories. No wind up, needed, The Avengers gets straight into the story. If you know me, you’ll know how much this matters to me. If you know me you’ll probably have heard me say one of the following:
“Who goes to a Batman film without knowing his parents are dead?”
“Who goes to see Spider-man and doesn’t know he was bitten by a radioactive spider?”
“Who’s in a cinema watching Superman that doesn’t know he’s from Krypton?”
If you read comics, the origin stories are lore they are not what brings you back week after week. What I’ve always wanted was for superhero movies to be like story arcs in the comics. Recognising that readers probably know who these characters are and getting on with telling a compelling story to a familiar audience. The Avengers is that movie.
At some point, though, I had a realisation. Here was a film that was enormously expensive, made in a recession. An ensemble piece, the first time we’d had such a teamup super hero film. That the studios had green-lit at least four whole movies, arguably five, as background material to this one film. The investment, their product was the entire franchise and it was all about this film. This was the result of four years of build up. It was a two-hour, complex, character-driven, hilarious, effects-laden masterclass in superhero movie making and it was unlike anything that had come before it. It was faithful to the material. Not a slave to it, but honouring it. And the cinema was rammed. I don’t remember when I had that realisation but that, that was why I welled up. It wasn’t the action on screen, it was the whole genre of superhero stories growing up.
Superhero movies used to be as well made as they could be but cost effective, because they were niche products. The Avengers marks the coming of age for floppy monthly comic books going up on the big screen. Either there’s a lot more of us geeks in the world now or The Avengers is so well made it shifts the genre into mainstream appeal. I don’t care which it is, either is remarkable.
What’s more, this was not a film that played fast and loose with the characters and the lore that we comic book fans value. This was not a ‘Batman had machine guns mounted on the batplane’ retcon. Joss Whedon wanted a full-scale alien invasion, which is quintessentially Marvel and he got it. Complete with daliesque, other-worldly alien locations. The climax all took place in New York, which is so Marvel it hurts. As the civilians flee in panic, the police are heading towards the danger. Firefighters are everywhere on scene trying to free people. Marvel’s attention to ‘the true heroes’ alive and well and on the big screen. At one point even the darkest of The Avengers, Hawkeye and Black Widow, merciless killers by trade, stop to help women and children off a stranded bus. I could practically see the yellow narrative boxes and the guttering. This was a Marvel movie. Not by brand but by heart and soul.
I’m not ashamed to say it moved me. Whilst people rant and rave about Nolan making the Batman universe ‘real’ I weap that Bane is a white man in a gas mask, that there were machine guns on the Batpod, that Joker was a joyless sociopath, that Harvey Dent’s storyline got squandered on b-roll and that everyone thought that was the best a Batman movie could be.
I implore anyone who has the privilege of making a DC movie to look at The Avengers and realise you’re doing it wrong. You don’t have to change what a comic book story is to make it a worthwhile film any more. Comic books are filled with characters, with depth, with subtly and drama. In many cases, they’re doing a better job of story telling than hollywood. A better job at tackling important issues. They’re ‘good enough’. Actually, a lot of them are great. Just film what’s on the page of the books at your local comic book store with enough attention and love and you’ll get a great movie.
Thank you, Joss.
1 It was Iron Man. Thanks to Shane in the comments for that clarification.