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Dissecting the Classics – The Avengers

April 27, 2018 | Posted by Aaron Hubbard
The Avengers Team Marvel Cinematic Universe Image Credit: Marvel Studios

Believe it or not, I’ve had this column planned since I wrote my Jurassic Park column back in January of 2017. It only seemed right to look back at this film the week of Infinity War‘s release. I haven’t seen it as of this writing, but I will have seen it by the time most of you read this. It’s hard to succinctly express my excitement, but suffice to say that it’s been an unreal and profoundly rewarding experience over the last decade.

Welcome to Dissecting the Classics . In this column, I analyze films that are almost universally loved and considered to be great. Why? Because great movies don’t just happen by accident. They connect with initial audiences and they endure for a reason. This column is designed to keep meaningful conversation about these films alive.

The Avengers

Wide Release Date: May 4, 2012
Written and Directed By: Joss Whedon
Story By: Joss Whedon and Zak Penn
Produced By: Kevin Feige
Cinematography By: Seamus McGarvey
Edited By: Jeffrey Ford and Lisa Lassek
Music By: Alan Silvestri
Production Company: Marvel Studios
Distributed By: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark/Iron Man
Chris Evans as Steve Rogers/Captain America
Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner/The Hulk
Scarlett Johansson as Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow
Chris Hemsworth as Thor
Tom Hiddleston as Loki
Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury

What Do We All Know?

Released in spring of 2012, The Avengers was the sixth film released by Marvel Studios and the first one distributed by Disney. The unprecedented crossover featured the main characters from Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Thor, and Captain America as well as much of the supporting cast. Deemed by some analysts as “the riskiest sure bet ever”, the film surpassed all expectations, dominant the spring and summer on its way to becoming the third highest grossing movie of all time. And until this year’s Black Panther, it was still the most successful movie released by the studio.

In fact, the film was a truly unparalleled success for the fledgling studio, making roughly triple the gross of Iron Man and five times as much as Captain America: The First Avenger (you can read my reviews of those here and here). It was not just another successful comic book movie, but proof positive that the “shared universe” concept could work and a statement piece; Marvel Studios was here to stay, and they were going to be the dominant force in the movie industry in this decade.

Is It Too Soon?

This column rarely delves into films from this decade, though it will become a more common occurrence over the next year and a half. So the obvious question would be; is it too soon to declare The Avengers a classic? With most movies, it probably would be a little too soon. Often, we need time and perspective to see if something is really as good as we remember it being. The Avengers making a ton of money obviously means it was culturally relevant, but Jurassic World made even more money and do any of us really care about that movie? I don’t think so. Time also gives us the benefit of seeing how something can influence other culture and subsequent media.

But it has not taken very much time to see the impact that The Avengers has had; virtually every other comic book film since has been an imitation, a deconstruction, or some other reaction to it. Warner Bros. has done their own comic book universe to largely negative results, Universal’s “Dark Universe” arrived dead on arrival with The Mummy, Sony tried to spread Spider-Man into several connected films before ultimately asking Marvel to bring Spider-Man into the MCU, and Disney is using a version of the model with their Star Wars movies. You can also look on television, where most of DC’s films have realized the potential of crossovers and mostly delivered. Bottom line, the mega-success of The Avengers took the dubious concept of a shared universe and transformed it almost overnight into the new hot take for the industry. For good and ill, The Avengers is the single most influential movie of this decade, and that is not likely to change.

Aside from that, after six years and literally dozens of viewings, I think it’s pretty fair for me to say that I have a thorough, objective view of this movie and its quality. And I’m sure I’m not the only one; hell, if the box office is anything to go off of, many of us saw this movie three or four times in its original theatrical run. Now, admittedly, The Avengers is not a deep, layered movie with themes, philosophies, deeper meanings, etc. It’s a fireworks display that tells us that it’s nice to make new friends. To paraphrase Bob Chipman, it’s a party celebrating its own existence. I’m not going to argue that there’s anything more to The Avengers that what it appears to be on the surface, because there isn’t. But on its own terms, for what it is, and in comparison to all other feel-good blockbuster summer party movies… yeah it kind of is a modern classic.

The Basics

The Avengers is, intentionally, a simple movie. There’s a bad guy, he wants a magic weapon so he can start a war, and a bunch of good guys are our only hope, they have some misunderstandings but eventually band together to stop the villain and save the world. It’s Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai but with superheroes. This is by design and almost by necessity, because this movie is kind of insane in the amount of disparate elements it brings together. The cast includes the viking gods of thunder and mischief, a radioactive ogre, a super smart mechanic in a rocket-propelled space suit, several spies straight out of a Jason Bourne movie, and a super-powered World War II soldier. So that’s high fantasy, universal monster movies, futurist science fiction, espionage thrillers and old-fashioned morally uncomplicated war movies all coming together. Now, we’re all far enough into the zeitgeist that Marvel has created that this sort of genre bending exercise probably seems like old hat, but it was not too long ago that the prevailing wisdom was that this would not work in a movie. This wasn’t the X-Men where everyone is a mutant and there’s some commonality; it’s totally new ground.

And that can’t be overstated; much of what makes The Avengers truly groundbreaking is now business as usual. The idea of balancing six superheroes in one movie being a daunting task seems laughable when Captain America: Civil War managed it with a cast twice as large. Marvel keeps topping themselves, which is kind of insane when you stop and think about it. With a product this ambitious, it’s kind of a miracle that this movie ended up going so smoothly the first time out. Which is not to say it lacks rough edges, because The Avengers is a film with numerous flaws. And since I’ll be gushing about this movie shortly, it will probably do me some good to take a sobering look at those problems now.

What Went Wrong?

One cannot watch a film as many time as I’ve watched The Avengers and not be cognizant of its shortcomings. On a story level, there’s a few notable points where the film falls flat. Loki getting captured on purpose is way too similar to the Joker’s plan in The Dark Knight and does not make sense. Clint Barton does not get enough time to really develop and earn his place in the movie, and unless you’re a comic book fan who knows how important he is to the team, his presence makes little sense. Similarly, the Thanos tease is such an obscure bit of comic lore that many viewers thought he was the Red Skull. The primary emotional moment of the film carries little weight thanks to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.. The Chitauri all dying like Trade Federation Battle Droids at the end is too convenient and even Whedon admitted he wasn’t proud of it. See also; Thor getting to Earth because of Dark Energy.

On a technical level, the film is consistently overlit and it has a tendency to make the sets, props and costumes look artificial. No amount of lighting can make Steve’s new Captain America outfit look good, though perhaps letting us see his ears would have helped. Conversely, Hawkeye looks underdressed compared to everyone else on the team. The hand to hand combat is poorly edited, transparently cutting to avoid showing where no contact was made. Almost every Marvel movie since has left this in the dust on the production level, while usually having smaller budgets. I also feel it’s worth noting that Joss Whedon’s screenplay is far from perfect. Amid the funny and memorable quips there are serious groaners, and there are more than a few lines that are awkward in their construction that I still don’t know what he was trying to accomplish with them. Whedon is a good and occasionally great writer whose talent shines through in this film, but his flaws are just as apparent.

But here’s the thing about The Avengers; you don’t have to look very hard at any of these flaws to see that they are by-products of choices that make the film better. Loki’s capture facilitates one of the best scenes in the movie. Hawkeye’s lack of screen time means more time to develop Widow and Banner into fully fledged characters. The Chitauri dying gives closure and decisive victory that feels earned. And while Joss Whedon is far from perfect as a writer or director, he excels at balancing humor, action and drama. More importantly he understands how to juggle a huge cast. While many movies have incidental flaws, most of this film’s problems are examples of Marvel choosing its battles carefully so that the film delivers where it counts. For all that went wrong, so much more tipped the scales for this to not just be a good movie, but a great and beloved one.

What Went Right?

The Avengers is a remarkably well-constructed film that tells its story in a logical, well-thought manner, excels at smuggling information into action beats and impressively predicts audience reaction. The prologue sets the stakes in clear terms and gives us the solution with the title card. Were you dubious about Black Widow deserving to be in this movie? Her first scene shows how awesome she is and establishes her emotional stakes for being there. Not sure you care about Hawkeye? Well, now you like Natasha and she cares about Clint, so you’ve got investment by osmosis. Were you sad about Edward Norton leaving? Aw, we’re sorry, here’s Mark Ruffalo giving the best acted, most nuanced, most intriguing and impressively fresh take on Bruce Banner ever. Hey, not a comic book fan? Did you miss the TV show? Well, you know that Natasha can take out a room full of guys without breaking a sweat, but is terrified of Bruce, so whatever is going with him must be pretty scary.

Not familiar with Captain America? Cue easily understood cliff notes backstory weaved into a punching bag scene that shows off his power and his frustration with his situation. Did you skip those Iron Man movies everyone was talking about? Here’s a really cool suit flying through New York and inside is a funny and charming Robert Downey Jr. playing an obscenely wealthy, smart and capable man with a hot girlfriend. You want to be this guy. Hey, Thor seemed to come around at the tail end of the third act. Good thing we get a scene with him establishing his history with Loki, making Thor compelling and Loki nuanced even if you didn’t watch their movie. And now that all the players are here, here’s a misunderstanding fight where we get to see how Science Billionaire and Viking Underwear Model interact. Isn’t this movie weird and fun?

What you may be noticing here are the two big secrets about this movie. One, despite the much ballyhooed “shared universe” concept, you do not need to see the five previous Marvel movies to understand and enjoy The Avengers. It might help, but you don’t need it because this film is so effective at boiling down the appeal of these characters in its first act. Second, this movie is really about the characters, their reactions to the situation and their interactions with each other. After the prologue, there’s only three brief action scenes in the first act and the second act is all talking until its ready to end. For a summer blockbuster action movie, the focus is solely on getting you invested in these characters and making you want to see them work together. And there are few if any memorable action beats that aren’t memorable precisely because they accomplish one of those two goals.

In fact, the movie actually has a clever strategy that gets you invested, even if you weren’t a particularly big fan of the Avengers going in. At the start, Thanos’ lackey is so dismissive of the Avengers concept that he considers victory inevitable. The world counsel has more faith in Phase 2 (the weapons, not the movies) than in Fury’s band of isolated “freaks”. Loki is positive the heroes will combust instead of coalesce, and maybe he has a point when Steve and Tony come to blows and the Hulk nearly destroys the helicarrier. Even the heroes themselves are dubious about them working well as a team. The narrative thrust of the film thus becomes “Can this Avengers idea actually work?” Which is exactly the same as the meta-narrative, the stakes we as viewers had in our mind ever since Nick Fury showed up at the end credits of Iron Man. The movie subtly nudges the viewer to put aside their doubt, trust in the Marvel magic, and believe in the power of their own dream. And the movie rewards us for our faith with a now iconic circling group shot that says, without any doubt, that the Avengers. Have. Assembled.

Which reminds me, I should probably mention…

The Avengers. Is. Awesome.

Yep, it’s time to bust out this category a second time. While it’s important to acknowledge that this movie succeeds at storytelling, characterization, and even at subliminal cheerleading… it is not hard to explain what makes The Avengers a great piece of entertainment. The film speaks for itself. How many other movies can reach their logical narrative climax and then keep going for another thirty minutes celebrating its own success? How many movies can do that without feeling pretentious or just flat out dragging? Hell, did you even consider that the thirty minutes or so after the Avengers have their first group shot, symbolizing that they have come together at last, might just be a tad excessive and self-congratulatory?

No. Because that’s what you came to this movie to see, and dammit, The Avengers earned it. There are so many cool moments in this film’s final act that it would be impossible to list them all. There’s humor and tension to spare, the action balances all six characters and comes up with new situations for them to deal with, the scene geography is sprawling yet easy to follow, and it still remains character driven. Who can forget isolated bits like the “one take tracking shot that follows all six Avengers through New York, or Iron Man going inside the belly of the space whale to bring it down? Been a while? Maybe you did forget gems like Captain America convincing the NYPD to follow his orders by being awesome, or Loki catching Hawkeye’s arrow only for it to literally blow up in his face. The Hulk pummeling Loki half to death? Possibly the defining mark out moment of this decade at the movies.

And surprisingly this culmination of five years of work is not my favorite stretch of the movie. My favorite scene is the helicarrier attack. Why? Because it puts our heroes in crisis and reveals the core of their character. Tony Stark, faced with a crisis, focuses and becomes a mechanic, repairing the ship. It’s a task only a man with his know how and technology can do. Steve Rogers becomes a soldier, taking action and orders to help Stark achieve the task of saving lives. Their petty issues don’t matter when push comes to shove, and they both reveal themselves as heroes. It’s a crucial moment of teamwork between two characters who so often at odds, and has become even more important for me as their rift has grown.

Bruce Banner can’t help reverting to the raging monster he fears. While he’s made thinly veiled threats about his party trick, the remorse and fear when he transforms is palpable. It serves as a great counterpart to the Hulk’s more heroic turn, reminding us all that while we may love the big green guy, he is a risk. Thor, as a Viking god, becomes a man who fights monsters. After all, who else is mighty enough to take on the Hulk and save countless lives? When that issue resolved, he focuses on finding his brother. And Natasha? Once she catches her breath from running away from Hulk, she quickly accepts a critical mission from Fury, and manages to save her best friend in the process.

The Avengers reveal their true selves through action. It’s not pretty or well-polished at this point, but we see that all the posturing and bickering that’s gone on doesn’t matter all that much. The villains and the world council are wrong; this group is not a combustible game of misfits. They are heroes, and when they are needed most, they are Earth’s mightiest.

And In Summary…

So with all this praise I’m throwing around, I feel like some context is important. I like comic books. I’ve enjoyed superheroes since I was a kid watching X-Men and Batman on TV. That being said, I did wait my whole life for an Avengers movie. These guys aren’t my guys; my first love was the X-Men, and I own far more DC shirts than Avengers merchandise (except Captain America). For me, I was happy to see the movie being made, but it was just a movie to me, maybe the next notable release in a genre I liked but was probably on the downslide. Instead, The Avengers turned out to be the comic book movie I didn’t know I was waiting my entire life to see. It is not just an adaptation of comic book characters and ideas; it is an uncompromised comic book movie.

This is not Tim Burton or Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies, which both changed Batman drastically to fit within their own stylistic sensibilities. This is not X-Men, which threw almost everything about the comic out to be a series of generic 1990’s action movies. It isn’t even the Superman or Spider-Man movies which do their best to provide authentic adaptations of the heroes, but are still conventional Hollywood movies. Kevin Feige and Joss Whedon made a movie that includes not only comic-accurate costumes, but the genre bending and world connections that have defined the Marvel comic line since the early 1960’s. They have classic team up tropes like the misunderstanding fight, the suiting up montage, the group shot, the faceless mooks, and the villain tease. This is comic books, just on the big screen. One artform finally translated to another, more respected medium. It’s not trying to adapt so it can be “almost as good as a real movie”; it knows that what it is is good enough.

This is a movie that I can point to and say “This is why I love comic books.” And for all of its warts and imperfections, this is why I maintain that The Avengers is the greatest comic book movie ever made. Maybe not the best, even Marvel has topped themselves on a few occasions, but it is by far the best example of the form. Not every Marvel movie will be a generational touchstone; most of them are good in an amiable but average way. But the great ones matter. The good ones will stick. The Avengers will still be talked about decades from now as a game changer and the defining blockbuster of its era.

A classic? Full-stop. The Avengers is one of the best blockbuster movies ever made.

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Check out previous editions!
Jurassic Park, Back to the Future, Chinatown, Taxi Driver, The Matrix, Batman (1989), Casablanca, Goldfinger, X2, King Kong (1933), Beauty and the Beast (1991), The Dark Crystal, The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Godfather, The Godfather, Part II, The Silence of the Lambs, Alien, Aliens, Casino Royale, Superman: The Movie, Superman II, Batman (1966), The Maltese Falcon, Spider-Man, Spider-Man 2, 12 Angry Men, Aladdin, The Wizard of Oz, Dial M For Murder, Godzilla (1954), The Hurt Locker, The Breakfast Club, The Shining, Dr. Strangelove, A Clockwork Orange, Eyes Wide Shut, Blade Runner, Rosemary’s Baby, Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Princess Bride, Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, Toy Story, Star Wars – Part 1, Star Wars – Part 2, The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, Die Hard, Spirited Away, Airplane!, Dirty Dancing, RoboCop, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, In the Heat of the Night, West Side Story, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Rocky, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Sixth Sense, The Terminator, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Clerks, Goodfellas

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Well, that was exhausting. Next month, I’ll be doing a theme month, looking at four generations of iconic Disney Princess films and looking at the evolution of the genre over time. Now, time for a break…