Thursday, May 10, 2012

Avengers: what I liked, what I would have changed

I saw The Avengers yesterday, and thought I'd share my observations.

Generally, it's a positive contribution to the superhero movie genre. It's better than most, but probably not on the level of the greats: Batman Begins, Dark Knight, Incredibles, Kick-Ass, Iron Man, X-Men: First Class, and Superman.

What does Avengers to well? Numerous specific things are done well. In the big picture, I think there are a couple weaknesses.

And since I watch movies with a political eye, I actually assumed Joss Whedon was writing from a Right Wing perspective. Actually, he's an atheist who has taken liberal positions and he's donated to Barack Obama.

I'm going to write about the whole movie below the fold. Consider this a spoiler alert. But I don't think I'm going to spoil the ending because it's not the kind of movie that can be spoiled any more than the trailer spoils it.


I liked that SHIELD is portrayed as being morally complex. Nick Fury has to argue with the Council. He also engages in trickery to manipulate The Avengers psychologically. Fury disobeying orders out of loyalty to his personnel is a trope that feels a little cliched. It might have been better if the Council was divided with Fury siding with different factions at different times. But this might have cut down on the action to talk ratio.

Jeremy Renner

Casting Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye was a good move. I remember Renner from the Hurt Locker. While there are some minor differences in the two characters, they both had a brooding, meticulous loner quality. It made Hawkeye easy to "get" without breaking to some back story.

Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner

Mark Ruffalo is strong as Bruce Banner. He captures the tension between reacting to what we feel and using intellect and discipline to control our feelings.

Black Window (ScarJo)

The writing for Black Window is cool too. Every time she's acting hurt or vulnerable, she's totally in control of the situation and manipulating the guy she's dealing with.

Loki (beginning)

I also liked that Loki was having problems with the aliens he was bringing to Earth to destroy stuff. Which starts to bring me to the problems with the movie.

Robert Downey, Jr.

But before the problems, I have to acknowledge, Robert Downey, Jr. and the writers have totally re-conceived Tony Stark that makes him interesting. In the 1970s the chief thing Stark needed was to get his battery re-charged. Later his alcoholism was emphasized.

As re-conceived in the movies, Stark is a vehicle for understanding the excesses of the elites and discussing the Military-Industrial Complex. He's funnier, more hip, relevant and more human.

Why don't aliens double cross Loki?

Loki cuts a deal with the aliens to bring them to Earth so they can be destructive. The aliens want the Tesseract, which produces energy and opens portals between different parts of the universe.

OK. Once the aliens pass through the portal, why not just renege on the deal and take the Tesseract from Loki? They don't like him anyways. The thing they want is right there. Why bother reigning destruction on New York City, especially since they are taking a large number of casualties in the fight?

Parting with the Tesseract and letting the aliens kill Loki seems pretty aligned with the interests of everyone but Thor, who feels obliged not to kill Loki because they are brothers.


And that brings me to discussing the main weak character in the movie: Thor. Thor is from Asgard and has taken to Earth the way that rich people take to a vacation community. Thor is not only a god, but a royal among the gods and something of a pompous ass. Thor has decided he loves Earth, humans and Jane Foster. (IMO that was done poorly in the movie Thor, but that's spilled milk at this point.)

To make Thor interesting, the differences between human culture and Asgard should be developed a little bit. I'm skeptical on the whole "magic and technology are one" perspective, but artistic brain trust opened that box in Thor, so they probably should have developed it.

I was recently listening John McNaughton speak to the Chicago Screenwriters Network about writing and directing. He was pretty hostile to actors rewriting lines written by people he respected. His attitude was that writers put significant amount of time into a script before it gets to the actor. It's been rewritten numerous times with input from a bunch of people. Generally, the idea that an actor is going to improve on the dialogue on the fly is... absurd.

However, if I was having a beer with Chris Hemsworth or his agent, I'd encourage them to push for some deeper analysis of the Thor character. I think there's potential at exploring the differences between culture in Asgard and on Earth. Steve Rogers/Captain America is socially awkward because he's from the past. It seems like some smart writing could allow Thor to be more interesting and be active in the social commentary packaged into the movie.

Back to Loki

Loki supposedly wants humans to realize that freedom is pointless. He tells a crowd he has kneeling:
Is not this simpler? Is this not your natural state? It's the unspoken truth of humanity, that you crave subjugation. The bright lure of freedom diminishes your life's joy in a mad scramble for power, for identity. You were made to be ruled. In the end, you will always kneel.
The problem is that Loki has complete contempt for humans. It doesn't make sense that he wants to be worshiped by humans.

I can believe Loki would love to turn humans against Thor. Thor actually likes humans, sorta the way my sister-in-law likes her chickens. But why would Loki care about teaching humans a lesson? Doesn't make sense.

The final fight sequence seemed a bit long and pointless from a plot perspective. Also, the Avengers aren't working as a team so much as multiple individual efforts in parallel. And the fighting doesn't lead toward the resolution of the conflict. It's something that happens and takes up time until the event that resolves the conflict happens.

Stuff for the comments

I have more points to make, but this is too long already.

Ask me about:

1. "Pentagon Quit The Avengers Because of Its ‘Unreality’" by Spencer Ackerman
2. "The Awesome Politics of 'the Avengers': The latest superhero flick foregrounds clean energy and other progressive politics" by Julianne Escobedo Shepherd
3. The Americana of the movie


  1. Most likely the studio did whatever it thought would make more money. They probably held focus groups that controlled what the characters looked like, what they said, how they said it and how the story ended. There is no pure art in a Walt Disney Company conglomerate movie. The only good news that I'd see here is that some of the environmentalist stuff has made it into the mainstream enough to make the cut. The bad news is that people are still looking for heroes, too afraid to be the heroes themselves.

    1. While I will fully agree that the corporation invested with the hope and expectation of getting return on its investment, something seems wrong about reducing the discussion of a work of art to a discussion of the corporate culture that provided the capital for the art.

      Is there evidence that big budget movies are made in a process that includes the kind of focus groups you describe? What triggers the studios using these focus groups? At what point in the process are they used?

      My suspicion is that Hollywood executives are arrogant and think they know what makes a great movie. I'm open to learning that other things play a role.

    2. I didn't pick up on the discussion of energy as being green the way the Alter Net's Shepherd did.

      To me it felt like hawking the Fountain of Youth or a perpetual motion machine.

      The message seemed to be that if we give geniuses and industrialists enough resources they will "fix" the energy problem.

      Of course, the real fix is going to involve changing the way we live. We need to live more efficiently and have more social discipline. See the quote by Lester Thurow.

      While the Left is often pushing various forms of solar energy, the sources all have drawbacks too. The metals involved in making the batteries to store the energy are toxic. Wind turbines make noise and kill birds. Etc.

      So, my take on the movie's take on energy is that the film re-enforces unrealistic expectations on energy more than it promotes a "green energy" agenda.

    3. I have heard the comment--maybe in a documentary?--that at one point there was a school of thought that superheroes were inherently fascist. The emphasis on physical strength, an elite hero or team, etc.

      The superhero story de-values the true source of progress and problem solving: human cooperation.

      There is some truth to this. And it's a perspective that probably deserves more attention.

      However, the criticism that a story emphasizes the role of the individual over the power of collective action kinda applies to fiction in general. A story tells of a protagonist that has a journey and makes a decision and reveals his/her character in the decision.

      The writing (and other media) about collective action tends to be non-fiction.

      So, it's a little unfair to indict the superhero genre as enabling a fascist worldview without noting that all fiction tells stories through individuals.

    4. How do you tell a story that encourages people to be heroic? How do you tell this story in a way that makes the audience feel empowered to be heroes in their own lives?

      I think Hunger Games did a particularly good job of critiquing what we're up against in society. But the hero of the story is someone who is thrust into the role and ultimately plays a role in transforming society.

  2. The ending of Fatal Attraction was well known to have been changed by a focus group--the Glenn Close character was the good guy in the original script which was about a loser cheating husband and the havoc he caused until they decided to make the woman evil because that appeared to sell better. I have also seen posts on the Internet claiming other movie endings were changed by focus groups such as I Am Legend and Dodgeball. There is also the Pretty In Pink ending, as written Molly Ringwald ends up with the John Cryer character and not Andrew McCarthy. The Film Screening wiki devotes a section to the use of focus group screenings There's an entire company called U.S. Audiences devoted to finding audiences for screenings, including focus group screenings. I'm not making this stuff up anymore than I made up the likely outcome of the IL-10 congressional election which turned out to be the actual outcome. I would agree with you that many if not most Hollywood executives are probably arrogant, but they also want to make a lot of money which probably makes them at least a little smarter than that guy over at JP Morgan.

    1. OK. Making big budget films is an economic activity in our society. And we should keep this in mind.

      In the speech Existentialism is a Humanism, Sartre said it was nonsensical to talk about "What if Marcel Proust wrote another book?" Proust wrote the books he wrote.

      When discussing movies, it probably makes sense to discuss the film that was released.

      If there is reason to believe a specific alternate version exists, then that specific version can be discussed.

      But I do not assume that there were effectively an infinite number of films and the studio executives screened all the versions to focus groups and then spliced together the best parts from all films.

      I do not rule it out as a possibility, but it seems like there needs to be some evidence things went down this way.

    2. And, they do the focus groups at various stages of production. They don't wait for the end to try and splice something together.

  3. Nonsensical not to look at the reality. It's sort if like ignoring the person who blogged the district for a decade and believing people who knew nothing about the district just because you prefer hanging out with them. You enjoy those hero figure movies, so you decide to see them as having a purety They likely don't have.