Sunday, May 13, 2012

The Avengers (Some Assembly Required)

Don't let the quirky title fool you!  I loved the Avengers movie as directed by Joss Whedon.  I went to view it on Sunday afternoon and since it was showing on so many screens in both regular and 3D versions, as I was walking in, a large crowd of pumped up moviegoers - many families with young kids - were walking out.  I couldn't help over hear parts of the conversation and how one character in particular captured their attention.

You haven't seen the film or you care about the plot to The Avengers being given away.

I will discuss my idea of how Cap specifically fares in the Avengers.  This is after all a blog about Captain America...  Along the way, I will touch on plot, character and screenwriting - and the rest of the Avengers team.

I was happy to report that the Captain America appearing in the new Avengers movie has a lot of similarities to the Cap in Captain America: First Avenger.  Chris Evans really comes across as feeling comfortable in this part and he plays it well.  I was afraid he might get crowded out of this cast which includes but is not limited to Nick Fury and female assistant, Agent Coulson, Captain America, Hulk, Iron  Man, Thor, Black Widow, Hawkeye, and Loki.  Each character gets the opportunity to take several turns at the front of the class.  Cap is allowed to show his natural leadership qualities as well as his courage and resolve.

A few solid lines are made as to Captain America's transitioning from WWII via a block of ice and how much time had past.  While he was called a relic more could have been done with this to show the character growing and coming to realize his place in the modern world.  I understand that this was not Cap's film and that there wasn't three hours to play with.  It brings into focus Cap's conflict with Iron Man.  At one point in a heated argument, Cap asks Stark what he would be without his armor.  A millionaire, playboy inventor was the response.  Immediately, Stark comments that the best part of Cap was from a test tube.  It is an interesting exchange and it serves several functions in the script.  I took Cap's question as meaning: without the fancy armor what values or character did Stark really have?  On the flip side, Stark's remark meant that Cap was nothing without the super serum - his moral center meaning nothing.  It showed a lot about the way the characters view the world.

Chris Evans reacts to these remarks with a certain mixture of hurt.  I take it to mean that Cap is pained by the loose, morally ambiguous culture he is now dropped into.  Everyone else in the script including Thor seems to be inoculated to the back stabbing having come from a world of spies or the military.  Cap hails from a time when actions and ideals were more straight forward, direct and had personal consequence.  In his day, taking a stand and sticking by your decisions meant the measure of a man or hero.  Iron Man with his compromised values bothers Captain America.  It is only later that we discover that Stark uses a lesson he has learned from Cap while confronting Loki.  You will not succeed because you lack conviction - paraphrase.  The climax of the film also shows Iron Man making a decision to sacrifice himself for the rest of humanity - a position Cap had also endorsed.

There are a few opportunities for Captain America to show his leadership abilities but these didn't hit the mark completely.  By the time the big finish was in progress, Cap really had nothing to do except smash nameless hordes of aliens inside the "video game" storyline.  There are a few instances where Cap is put in a position of mediating between other heroes.  These touches lack punch because the director has made a conscious decision to shy away from using closeup shots in favor of the medium shot.  What this ultimately means is that all the heroes including Cap are treated fairly evenly and so it might not be obvious that Captain America emerges as the team leader.

As a side note to Cap's story inside the Avengers... He should have given the "Avenger" speech to Loki instead of Iron Man.  It would have further defined him as the FIRST Avenger and cemented the moral standing of the group as a whole.  Stark delivers the speech including the tasty line, "We have a Hulk."  Cap could have delivered the same line better AND hinted at the fact that he probably knew during WWII that the U.S. had the A-Bomb.  Of course I think that the director was trying to go for the whole chaos angle as far as group dynamics.  This is only fine if those same dynamics allow for the individuals involved to put aside their differences and become a real team.  Only Captain America is poised to be the leader that is needed.  His reason for being in the group is to knit it together.  Unfortunately, that does not come across on screen.  Perhaps it is hinted at or talked about between explosions but it is not expressed as a major point in the story.  It is not simply personal bias, Captain America should have been the one character to lead the viewer and ultimately tame the competing interests of the team.  None of the other characters can do it.

Agent Coulson, Nick Fury and the bloody trading cards.  Wow.  What a mess built contrivance on top of contrivance.  This makes Fury look like a huge A-hole for manipulating the death of a man to influence others.  It is more than a cold hearted move.  It is the stroke of screenwriting magic, improperly set up that should have nothing but a negative effect on the team.  As an audience we are expected to not only bite but swallow the lie.  The fact the Fury confesses to the manipulation only makes it worse.  The only one in the room who is going to react to the stunt is Cap.  The cards are a reminder of his past shilling war bonds before he got into the fighting and they are a direct link to him.  There was not enough set up of Agent Coulson in relation to individual Avenger members to say that he was loved, adored and therefore should be avenged.  This is designed to be a turning point in the story and it certainly feels like something that should have been left on the cutting room floor.  I felt this was poorly executed and not needed as far as motivation.

It is difficult to discuss the overall "story" of the Avengers movie because it comes across as a patchwork of screenwriters creating set pieces.  Loki comes into possession of the Cosmic Cube and enlists an alien race to raise an army to crush the humans of Earth, as a starting point to galactic domination.  This is established early on in a breezy, mostly wordless mind numbing series of effects shots.  This premise is tired plotting having appeared in countless science fiction writing, films, comic books, etc.  Loki, who is played with dramatic flair by Tom Hiddleston, schemes in a very non-specific way.  The filmmakers only roll out enough information to satisfy the story at hand.  There is no suspense or foreboding other than how certain Avengers will join the growing team.  When will the Hulk appear?  Thor, meanwhile who has the most at stake personally in Loki's plans is neglected in the same way the other characters are: not by being excluded but by being included in a large cast and presented on film in medium or wide shots.  The audience does not make the emotional connection it needs to make.

I was bored by the Black Widow (Johansson) spy stuff.  Not too concerned about Hawkeye (Renner).  Wished Fury (Jackson), Coulson (Clark Gregg) and the Helicarrier  had found their own movie to be in.  Not that I disliked any of them but this would have cut an hour of screen time best used for the conflicts and resolutions of Iron Man, Thor, Captain America and Hulk.  Loki could have made a fantastic villain instead of spending half the film in a glass cage.  When the final conflict arrives it is not that exciting to watch and not really an important part of the story.  The aliens were pretty generic and not really threatening.  I am failing to see how they thought they could take over the planet.  The fighting was "furious" but signified nothing and the menace was easily dispatched.

The Hulk as played by Mark Ruffalo is perhaps an unexpected treat.  The motion capture CGI is great and the few scenes with the Hulk can barely contain the character's strength, rage or enthusiasm.  Banner playing against Stark teases us with the promise of an unstoppable force of nature seething under the surface.  It is unfortunate that the Hulk had nothing to reveal other than he was angry ALL the time.  His character is the least exposed out of the cast and maybe it is for good measure - keeping the glimpses fresh and powerful.

Tony Stark/Iron Man

Avenge what exactly.  Again?  Quit mumbling.  Avenge?  Really?

Captain America 
[directed to Tony Stark]

This 'living legend' signed up to fight evil during the darkest days of WWII.  Time may have past but I still know courage, honor, sacrifice and duty when I see it....

Tony Stark/Iron Man

You're a relic Mr. Rogers, a broken down soldier who just follows orders and never questions the sacrifice you are asked to make.  Isn't that what you are asking me to do?  This team?  Make a sacrifice in the face of overwhelming odds?

Captain America

Frankly your selfish attitude is what I have come to expect but not for myself.  My generation did not have that luxury.  People were being killed, starved, burned and pushed out of there homes by an evil that wouldn't compromise until the whole world was an ash heap.  This alien army intends to do the same and if I must strike alone I will but if ever we were needed to be a team, to stand against injustice then it is now!

[Cap pushes past Stark and the others in the room heading toward the open hanger door]

Tony Stark/Iron Man

You don't have the guts.  They are too many...

Captain America

Avengers assemble!

[Cap jumps out the hanger door - twenty thousand feet above the earth.  Heroes collectively gasp and no one moves.  Sound of rushing air.]


This mortal shows more courage than a dozen warriors.

[Thor picks up his hammer and turns it, catching the light.  Inscription reads: "Whosoever holds this hammer, if he be worthy, shall possess the power of Thor."]

Tony Stark/Iron Man

How about one for the road?

[Downs a mixed drink then shutters his helmet]

We better assemble before Cap disassembles.

During the time the Avengers comic book first appeared (Lee/Kirby), rivalry between comics publishing companies was pretty fierce.  Characters, stories, artists and writers were swapped back and forth, especially if they were successful.  Copy cat comic books were usually of lesser quality and did not do as well financially.  This was a common practice however for the times as rivals tried to capitalize on hit books.  The Avengers owed a debt to another team book from another company.

The Avenger movie has generated a huge pile of money for Marvel/Disney.  I am sure there will be sequels and copy cat films for the next decade.  The movie is well crafted and carefully designed while proving to be entertaining.  One of the great strengths of the film is it's ability to stroke in the broad shots both in scenery and in character.  It is hard to create any meaningful growth or depth however with 10+ characters clamoring for screen time.  This is something that is lacking here and it makes me wonder why half of the action takes place on the heli-carrier.  Why is Nick Fury lurking in the scenes or Agent Coulson?  Their task was to launch the story not be a continual part of it so their involvement is flat and unneeded.  Hawkeye does what exactly in the story?  He advances the plot how?  I love Jeremy Renner but his character could have been cut without affecting anything.  Ditto The Black Widow.  She is fun to look at but her scenes ultimately take the action of the story nowhere.  Neither she nor Hawkeye were in the original team either.  I suppose that doesn't mean much.  Like a lot of comics, there have been so many layers of revisions that the truth just isn't important.

Iron Man, Thor, Hulk and Captain America all certainly belong.  When writing this script, it must have been a high wire act in keeping certain things the studio wanted in or out and trying to write a fresh take on characters that are long in the tooth.  Additionally, any script simply must make sense and pack a punch as a movie.  In this case, the superhero/action genre demands certain conventions on it's own in order to get butts in seats and sell buckets of popcorn.  Writers today have the threat of toy lines and fast food tie-ins looming over their head.  While usually they don't directly deal with these concerns, upper management does and directives get sent down to fix things that don't really need fixing.  I would like to have seen the rough draft, final draft or shooting script to see what got axed.  Extra scenes that don't make the film are now usually bundled together in a sort of blooper reel on the DVD release.  Some scenes are even shot as teasers for the audience or to test the ratings board.

In the final analysis, what can you really say about the Earth's Mightiest Heroes?  When assembled they can defeat just about any foe.  So, if you want to watch two hours of special effects to come to this conclusion, be my guest. I enjoyed this movie.  The Avengers tried hard on a lot of levels and had varying degrees of success.  The costumes, sets, backgrounds, motion capture CGI Hulk and fights were all well done.  Where it lacked was in the difficult task of creating drama and real characters from paper thin source material.  I kept hearing rumors about what great dialogue Joss Whedon was going to contribute.  I know that it is hard to do with all the constraints a massive picture like this exacts but the scripting should have been a lot sharper. 

Maybe next time and there will be a next time.

4/5/2012 - Central NY

1 comment:

  1. Since this post was written, I have moved to New Mexico and had the opportunity to watch two other movies in the superhero genre. I will not review those movies here but I think that insights into character can be revealed.

    The Avengers, Dark Knight Rises and Amazing Spiderman all strain to produce film versions of their characters in any satisfying way. Efforts at defining and growing the characters on screen are flailing and clumsy AND take two hours of time to do so.

    Christopher Nolan is the most successful in fleshing out his characters yet the plot takes over and the people he sketches for us seem less interesting, involved or intimate than the previous two films. It is a noticeable departure.

    Avengers, directed by Joss Whedon, wallows in creating depth for his characters. Close-ups which generally create drama and a connection with the audience are rarely to be seen. Too many characters fight... for screen time. Not very effective at all despite the fact that ticket sales were more than a BILLION dollars.

    Spiderman is a study in how NOT to handle your characters. Character is the weakest element, both poorly planned and executed. It can not be compared to Avengers or Dark Knight in any way except the characters wear masks.

    "He's an ex-cop and they have his daughter..." The total amount of information needed was given to you during the opening credits. The rest was all plot driven. Would he save his daughter before time ran out? These were action films and it did not matter because the plot would move things along.

    What makes characterization? Action reveals character. When Hulk is flailing Loki around like a rag doll, it reveals his character. Cap would never have done that. Iron Man might have given a few hits more than needed. Thor actually loves his half-brother and would be more compassionate. Iron Man SAYS he will not sacrifice himself under any circumstances and yet he does not hesitate to put himself in harm's way. His actions define him. His words contradict his deeds and add tension to the film.

    Creating real, believable characters in film is difficult. With a cast of 10 or more characters? Think Ocean's Eleven. Lots of characters and when you are introduced to them, you get the one or two sentence intro. Each one of them is not fleshed all the way out. Just the majors. Why is that too hard to understand in the hero genre? Try to coax depth out of 10+ characters and do it poorly. Add a confusing plot and you have a recipe for a poor film.

    To be fair, not many films get it right - even with smaller casts. Want to see an current example of expert characterization? Watch the film The Descendants with George Clooney. Ask yourself how well you know the characters? How much do you care about them and what happens to them? That is the essence of what character develop is capable of producing. It is what the writer, screenwriter, director and actors all focused on when taking the written word to the screen. Can't superhero films, when they spend two hours of a movie doing characterization, get it right? Maybe they should just say, "He's an industrialist with a bad heart and a suit of armor..." Cue action! Is that all we need to know about the character? Do we care? Is there tension? What will happen?

    I want to close by mentioning, star of the blog, Captain America. As far as developing characterization, I feel that Cap's movie was better than the three other films mentioned. You got to know him, watch him grow and his relationships in the movie are complex. He is the heart of the film, as he should be. His actions reveal his character while his words help us as viewers to understand his motivations. A lot of time is spent giving him depth and the plot moves the story along. A film not without flaws to be sure but a solid example of how characterization can be executed in a complex superhero piece.

    Think it over. Reply in the comments and enjoy the discussion.