Part 2: The Avengers, Specifically (some SPOILERS here)
I really SHOULD have loved this movie, like everyone else seems to (93% on Rotten Tomatoes, no complaints from my friends). Going in, I had little doubt it was about to become my New Favorite Movie Ever, or at least my favorite superhero film. I’m a huge Joss Whedon fan; I’ve loved his previous work in the Marvel Universe (“Astonishing X-Men” and “Runaways”), and I’ve been waiting for two years to see what he did with the Avengers. I’d enjoyed every previous Marvel movie, especially the two Iron Mans okay, not so much “The Incredible Hulk,” but he was basically being rebooted here anyway. So what went wrong?
Ultimately, for my partner and myself, the movie had four major failures: poor pacing, uneven dialogue, awkward characterization, and sexism.
1. Pacing: My partner and I have a long-standing running joke about “The Serenity Chair” - that the directors of poorly paced films should be tied to a chair and forced to watch the movie “Serenity” over and over until they figure out how good pacing works, how to balance action, exposition, and humor and keep their movies moving. Ironically, Whedon’s own Avengers felt overlong - 2.5 hours that could easily have been cut down to 1.5. The first two-thirds of the movie are taken up with repetitive character conflict and overlong action sequences. The initial car chase was uninventive, and the clumsy town square confrontation with Loki in Germany made me wonder how Joss had never heard of “Godwin’s Law.”
There are great moments even in these first two hours, but they’re entirely too spread out. I sat there waiting for the heroes to GET ON WITH IT! far too often.
2. Dialogue: The movie veers widely from cheesy 1970s comic book stiltedness (right from its awkward and cliche, “The humans don’t know what’s coming for them, master!” opening) to the usual Whedon wit, and back again. I love Joss’ unique and much-discussed dialogue style, but it only felt in evidence about every fifth line here. It felt like a first draft, like someone needed to go back and strike through the jokes that didn’t work. [In case anyone wondered, 60% of my job as J’s editor is to delete the jokes that don’t work. 30% is transitions between scenes and 10% is punctuation and grammar. – RD] When it does work, the movie can really sing, like the first time Black Widow, Cap, Thor, Iron Man, and Banner are together on the Helicarrier, trading banter like a community college study group. R turned to me at that point and said, “Why isn’t the whole movie like this?” I agree, it should have been.
3. Characterization: In the film’s best moments, like the aforementioned banterfest, the characters’ personalities play off each other beautifully. In the worst moments, which are often right upon the best’s heels, the conflict feels forced. Captain America goes far too quickly from, “We need to trust Fury and follow orders, Iron Man is a jerk!” to “I’m gonna sneak around and find out for myself - whoa, Iron Man is right, Fury is a jerk!” The Hulk terrorizes Black Widow on the Helicarrier, but later has little trouble telling friend from foe in the final battle. Loki is heartbreaking when he can’t bring himself to accept his brother’s kindness, yet I never actually got a sense of what he really thought he was going to accomplish with his Evil Scheme - was he a petulant child wanting to crush humans like ants, or was he a lonely child desperate to be loved and/or worshipped? It seemed that he was both, hence the conflict that drives the whole movie, but this was never explored or explained. To simply call Loki “mad” and let him get on with the ranting is a tedious and somewhat ableist cliche. And I really wanted to see Thor take some joy in finding new warriors to play with. I realize he was angsting about his bro, but the joy Thor takes in people in his own movie is the second best thing about it (after Sif), and I wanted to see more of that here.
4. Sexism: Joss Whedon is a feminist. I love that about him. But he and I don’t always agree about what constitutes good feminist storytelling. (See: “Dollhouse.”) He likes to show us women being treated badly and then overcoming that treatment. Sometimes that works (see: Black Widow’s first scene here in Avengers, tied to a chair and totally in control), and other times the comeuppance isn’t nearly enough to justify yet more men being creepy (see: Black Widow’s scene with Loki). Loki calls the only female member of the Avengers a “mewling quim,” (a fancy Shakespearean way to say “whiny c—t”) and threatens her with sexual violence. It’s supposed to be okay because she was only pretending to be scared to get information.
The explanation here is that misogyny is something bad guys do to make them even more bad, and to show the viewer that misogyny is bad. I’m tired of the assumption that every bad guy must be a misogynist one, and even more tired of the idea that every female character is subject to gendered insults and sexual threats. Sometimes I just want to see men and women allowed to get on with being awesome as equals, dealing with threats that have nothing to do with the misogyny all too rampant in the world. [I’ve seen at least a dozen fanboys crowing that “mewling quim” is now their favorite insult. If they actually used the c-word, they’d get called out on it, but because the phrase is archaic, it gets a pass. Even J didn’t remember the meaning of the word “quim” during the movie, so he didn’t understand why I almost wanted to walk out at that point. – RD]
What’s worse, the movie was surprisingly sexist in a host of smaller and more subtle ways as well. It didn’t even come close to passing the Bechdel Test. Maria Hill, the second biggest female role, is a kick-ass agent during the first scene and then spends the rest of the film providing exposition and asking Nick Fury for orders. (Was anyone else reminded of Sigourney Weaver in “Galaxy Quest?”) Black Widow is the only hero who is directly threatened by the Hulk, and the only one shown in a moment of weakness when she cowers in the Helicarrier during the attack. And then there are not a few SHIELD agents wearing tight skirts and chunky heels, which are not the most practical outfits for agents stationed on a battleship that is also an airship and probably not always an entirely steady surface to walk on. [Really?! – RD]
I’m not saying that there wasn’t a whole lot of awesome in this film. I loved Black Widow and how she kicked all of the ass, even when the script put her through the wringer. Loved Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner and the bonding with Tony Stark. I loved most of the final third of the movie, with all of the characters finally working together as the team we all know and love from the comics (and fanfic), but it took way too long to get there. I adored the second secret scene way at the end of the credits. Maybe I just expected too much from Whedon; not every movie can be “Serenity.” Maybe some great fanfic spoiled me, and set me up to expect these personalities to bounce off each other in ways different than the actual movie chose to show us. (I wanted so much more from Steve & Tony - sharper conflict, and more sexy subtext. [Please note that J has never before actively shipped two men. This is a proud day for me and for all of the writers of the fic I forced him to read. – RD]) But for me, the disappointments just added up a little too much, overbalancing the love.
Your mileage may vary, and that’s okay. (See Part 1)