Roundtable: Marvel’s The Avengers

Sigrid: I saw the movie about fours days after everyone else, and by the time I did I —

Well, wait. Do we need to summarize the movie here for people? Is anyone reading this who does not know that The Avengers is Marvel’s latest movie? I’m going to take it as read that everyone knows this. I certainly could not avoid it the entire weekend I was resentfully avoiding the internet, hoping to go into the film somewhat spoiler-free. (I did not succeed in this goal.)

By the time I did see it, I knew that nothing could live up to the hype I’d heard. No movie could be as good as the one people were describing. And I was partially right. I did not see the movie the internet glimpses had revealed to me — a story about Loki and his brother Thor, Steve and his boyfriend Tony, and the powerhouse that is Agent Phil Coulson. I saw, instead, a different film, one that was more nuanced and self-aware while also being an utterly straight-up superhero film, than the one I’d been expecting.

I thoroughly enjoyed The Avengers, or, as I’ve started to call it in my head, The Indispensability of The Black Widow and The Hulk.

Anika: Oh, fun! I’d call it Tony Stark and His Amazing Friends. Possibly I am biased. Also Black Widow Deserves a Film. And Loki Wibbles. Okay, I’m totally biased. You guys are just lucky I’m not calling it The Tony and Pepper Show Plus 2.5 Hours of Other Stuff. Except where I just did!

Anyway, I saw it at midnight that first Friday and was able to avoid spoilers. And it pretty much exceeded my expectations — going in my husband said I was weird because I seemed more excited about the “random Spider-Man film” coming out in July than the “biggest comic book movie EVER”. But I was scared! There has been so much build up…how could it possibly live up to the promise? But it did. I don’t know if it lived up to the hype but I do think it lived up to the promise. And did well by the superteam that has always been my favorite even if it wasn’t the line up I love best.

Caroline: I will continue to call this film what I have called it since I saw a fortuitous juxtaposition of movie titles on a theater marquee last summer: Captain America: Friends with Benefits.

Seriously, I like that we can come up with all of these alternative titles, because it suggests that the different parts of the film were well-balanced. I came away from the film most intrigued and impressed by what it said about Steve Rogers, and completely blown away by the subtlety and effectiveness of Chris Evans’ performance. At the same time, I’ve heard the point made that he actually had one of the least-developed plot arcs in the movie, and I can see that this is objectively true. Yet it was exactly what I needed from a Captain America movie, effectively providing the final act that I don’t think the original Captain America movie quite stuck the landing on.

I also loved the Black Widow story (featuring Hawkeye), I loved the Hulk story, I was pleased by the development of Tony and. . .well, truthfully, I’m never going to be super-invested in Thor and Loki, and, looking back, I’m a little ho-hum on most of the SHIELD stuff. But the movie clipped along at such a nice pace that I didn’t have time to ho-hum anything while I was watching.

Jennifer: My own alternate titles for this film are Joss Whedon Understands Captain America and Joss Whedon Fixes What Went Wrong with Dr. Horrible.

Both of these titles involve the words “Joss Whedon,” and I think it’s only fair to give him the most credit here, as the director and primary screenwriter. I agree with everything my co-bloggers have said above, but particularly the points about Captain America. This is my Cap, so much more than he ever was in his own movie. And I feel like Whedon was keyed into the same anxieties I had about the first film — the attempts to make Steve more hardcore to show his badassery, the mockery of his costume and pop culture resonance. Here, we had Coulson (a character we’re all supposed to see as the epitome of cool, calm, adult responsibility and togetherness) being an unabashed Cap fanboy, and adamantly saying that we need “a little old-fashioned,” as represented by Cap’s red, white, and blue costume. (And oh, I loved this bright costume so much more than the first one.) We had Steve as strong and capable and a brilliant leader who could also be a little goofy (the flying monkeys exchange is my FAVORITE in the film), and he never once cursed or advocated for extremism. I was partially terrified that we’d get Ultimate Cap here, and we got exactly the opposite.

But I also think this film represents real growth and maturity for Joss Whedon, especially with the superhero genre. I’m not a Whedonite in the purest sense — I never cared very much about Buffy or Angel — but I adore Firefly and when I first got into comics, it was Whedon’s run on Astonishing X-Men that served as my introduction to the Marvel Universe. I knew from the beginning that Whedon + superheroes was a thing I’d enjoy. But I found myself disappointed by Dr. Horrible and the way it attempted to subvert superhero tropes (especially the fridging of a female character) by… replicating them. As a result, I was a little worried about how he’d handle this film, especially with the gender imbalance of the team. But this was a film in which every single character who was killed-to-provide-motivation or put-in-danger-to-be-saved was a white, straight male. This, among many other things, proves to me that Whedon is keenly aware of both the strengths and weaknesses of the superhero genre, and he managed to play to the former while avoiding, and even subverting, the latter.

So yeah, I really loved this film.

Sigrid: Something for everyone is an excellent way of viewing the film. I think that not only applies to the fans, fannish responses, and the other movie-goers who may not have been fans before they saw it. I think that also applies to some very, very skillful writing, directing, and performance.

It’s one of the difficulties of superteams that the writer needs to provide something for each character to do. And if one of your characters is a god who can defeat immortals, and another is a spy with a pistol, what can they each contribute? How do you find balance? The Avengers gives us something for each character to do without seeming contrived or forced. Natasha is sent to get Banner and bring him in. This makes Watsonian, in-universe, sense because, as she points out, she can’t go get Stark, Stark hates her. But it also makes Doylist, meta-narrative sense. We need to see that Hulk is dangerous. We need to understand this without being exposited at. By establishing Natasha in her first scene as an operative of unparalled calm and cool, and then showing her rank fear at Bruce’s display of temper, we understand. We understand Banner, we understand Natasha, we understand something about the Hulk. The plot has advanced, each character was developed, and the scene didn’t lag or falter.

I thought the entire film was like this.

Caroline: Wow, this is going to be a great big agree-fest isn’t it? Even though we’re agreeing from different angles, I think even that points to the strength of the film.

So, yes, I agree with the points above and, to bring it back to Whedon — first of all, I think it’s pretty safe to refer to him as the primary ‘author’ of this movie. He’s the only writer credited with the screenplay (and think for a minute how rare that is for a blockbuster film of any kind, much less a superhero film), and he’s basically said that he threw Zak Penn’s initial screenplay out and started from scratch.

I’ve got nothing against screenwriting teams, or artistic collaboration. Also, while I have made no secret of being a huge Whedon nerd who is fascinated with the arc of his career, I’m not one of the “Whedon Can Do No Wrong” kind of fans. In this case, though, I think that having a single driving storyteller for the movie is a huge advantage. Avengers requires narrative threads from four different franchises to be brought together, not to mention the introduction of a completely new storyline involving Black Widow and Hawkeye.

As I think is inevitable with a film this big, I’ve read some supremely silly things about it. For example, this GQ article about Whedon ties itself in knots in order to assert that Joss is the most creative guy working in Hollywood and that basically everybody else in a related genre is just ripping him off. This line of argument seems to miss the point of Whedon’s career to a remarkable degree. His work certainly has its wild, inventive aspects, but he’s never struck me as interested in telling brand new stories that “transcend genre” or any of that garbage. Rather, what he’s proved himself to be is an outstanding integrator of existing tropes and story structures — whether from horror or Western or space opera or musical theater — through a lens of character-based storytelling. That’s no small achievement. It might not be what every audience member is looking for, but it’s an awfully good skill set for making an ensemble movie based on a bunch of different properties.

Anika: The only other Whedon outing I have any familiarity with is Firefly but I’ve seen all of that, including Serenity, and when it was announced I was actually concerned about his direction of the film. Not in terms of storytelling or character but that literal, physical direction. I was pleased to be wrong about that, too — most notably with Natasha. I have complained a lot about the characterization and presentation of Black Widow in Iron Man 2, especially her big fight scene in the corridor. I read a fan’s list of “What to Expect In The Avengers” and the only entry for Natasha was “spin around and land with her leg thrust out”. But that’s where Whedon impressed me. Because that happened exactly, and more than once, but every time there was something in the way of the shot — scaffolding, bad guys, random debris — so there were no lingering sexy music video shots, just a trained gymnast with guns doing her job. Whedon gets a lot of attention for handling female characters well and I’m glad it proved true in this film.

What I am most interested in at this point is what’s next. The main weakness I found with the film is tied directly to the source material — there is a real lack of diversity. So now that the world has been won over, what new Avengers can we look forward to seeing? I know we all have favorites — I was scrutinizing every pilot on that helicarrier for a nod to Carol Danvers — but I think this is a bright, shiny opportunity to switch things up a bit to address the diversity issues. Janet is Asian in the Ultimate comics. Valkyrie takes over bodies so she could be played by the likes of Zoe Saldana. I have a host of blonde actresses I want to play Carol, depending on what age she is, and I can make an informed argument for why she should resemble Barbie… but I loved Idris Elba’s Heimdall. I want diversity in my comic books and in my comic book movies and I say get creative and get brave. I’m the biggest Carol Danvers fan ever and I can get behind Naya Rivera playing her. In fact, we can call this the beginning of my campaign for it.

Caroline: I like your ideas! I am personally not going to advance any theories for who should be in future movies, because I frankly have a terrible track record at it. I didn’t think Pepper Potts was a good idea for the Iron Man supporting cast. I was sure the presence of Hulk would drag the Avengers movie down, and I didn’t think Loki was going to be the right villain. I was wrong about all of those things, so I’m not going to make any future suggestions!

That said, there are definitely places where you could poke at this movie and find more opportunities for diversity. James Rhodes couldn’t show up for a cameo (or at very least a mention of why SHIELD wouldn’t call on the other guy they knew who had a giant robot suit.) Maria Hill — with no offense to Cobie Smulders, who was perfectly fine — could have been cast as a character of color, as she is in the Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes cartoon. And, while the decision to include Hawkeye in the cast must have been made at least as far back as the Thor movie, there’s no good reason that his role in Avengers couldn’t have been filled by a female character like Bobbi Morse or Jessica Drew.

Jennifer: My own wish-fulfillment character choice for the next Avengers film is, unsurprisingly, She-Hulk. While I’ve always loved the character, it didn’t occur to me how well she’d fit into this universe until I saw this movie and found myself with the most interest I have ever had in Bruce Banner/The Hulk. Introducing Jennifer Walters into the ensemble would bring in family for Bruce, which could be a fascinating development for him and would provide a point of contrast in just what repressed personality traits Gamma radiation can bring out. She’s also quippy, which would be perfect for this bunch, and she could do banter-flirting with Hawkeye (especially if Black Widow ends up with a version of Winter Soldier down the line). In the comics, Jen is white, but she’s only Bruce Banner’s cousin — there’s no reason his aunt couldn’t have married a person of color, and I’d be more than happy with a biracial She-Hulk.

All that said, I give Joss a lot of credit for what he did with the three women in this movie (Natasha, Maria, and Pepper), and it’s because of this that I’d love to see more female Avengers in a future movie. And Jane Foster should definitely come back and be a science nerd with Tony and Bruce.

Sigrid: Yes.

I could say more, but, just, yes. I think there’s a lot of room now, in this franchise. There’s a lot of promise, a number of plots and characters for future writers and directors to explore. I hope that this movie is allowed to stand, and doesn’t get too retconned by the next creative team to come along.

But … but I read comics, and I’m used to that. And I understand that whatever future movies may say, this one still exists. That makes me happy.

  • I too thought that Loki was not going to be the right villain — but that opening fight sequence established him perfectly, and also gave us something that I think we REALLY missed in Thor: some context for the power and strength of the Asgardians compared to humanity. And I LOVED having that. I loved seeing that Thor could head-butt Iron Man without so much as a stumble afterward, and I loved seeing how Thor handled the Hulk’s strength, and how the Hulk handled Mjollnir, but I REALLY loved seeing Loki, not even the strongest or most physically powerful of the gods, take out an entire room of shield agents, and subvert the people who were left standing without even really breaking a sweat. I loved seeing his complete lack of concern for the bullets flying, and understanding that he really WAS that powerful, and so was Thor. But that’s why I really doubted Loki as a villain before this film — because it seemed to me, that in Thor, he just got beat up a lot, or let other people do his fighting, and didn’t have anything left to give us that was new.

    Clearly I was wrong.

    And I also loved all of the above mentioned stuff. For me, this movie was everything I hoped it would be.

    But I want to pose a question here, too, since you ladies are more knowledgeable than I am: Is it possible that Natasha’s fear of the Hulk stems from the fact that she knows Hulk is a creature she can’t manipulate or trick with the right words? I mean, we see her play this interrogation game twice, and it seems like its one of her greatest strengths as an agent — her very particular skill set — and we see her trying to talk Bruce down, later, but she comes up empty, so I guess I just want to know how you all would weigh in on that point, if that element of the Hulk plays a role.

  • Sigrid

    @ Amalia YES. I see that the same way. I mean, Natasha is confident manipulating LOKI — because he uses words, and she can some angle on that. But Hulk? All Natasha can do it get out of his way and hope he gets distracted. (By being hit in the head by a flying god, as it happens.)

  • londonkds

    I want more diversity, but if Jennifer Walters appears I also hugely want her to be played by Eve Myles.

  • Sigrid

    @londonkds I am with you on the diversity request. By a lot. I’m thinking if Kang is in some upcoming film we could bring in the Young Avengers. Eli! Billy! Teddy! Kate!

  • Caroline

    I’d be cool with Gina Carano as She-Hulk.

  • 2 alternative movie titles I thought of for this movie:
    The Ticking Time Bombs
    The Puny God Show

  • Don

    Nice job, Fangirls! That was fun to read

  • Carlos

    While Hill is Hispanic(Or mix) in the EMH toon, she is Caucasian in the comics. That said, it would have been great to have a Latina actress play her, though I though Colbie did a great job.

    As for She-Hulk, I would assume she’d be introduced in the next Hulk film, if they do one.