How The Avengers Succeeds

“They’re a mash-up; they’re insane,” Whedon says. “But the beauty of that is as exciting as the problem of that is daunting.”

Marvel’s The Avengers is an impressive monster. A juggernaut at the box office, Joss Whedon’s film smashed the competition in Hulk fashion garnering a cool $38 million more in its opening weekend than its nearest rival: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2.

However, it does seem like these records are being surpassed all the time now. Indeed, last weekend’s usurper comes out only a year after the former champion was crowned, and the Dark Knight Rises, set to release this upcoming July, could edge past both of them.

But The Avengers is more than just a 21st century loom wheel upon which Whedon has been hard at work spinning gold. It’s also the product of a comic book culture that’s been appropriated, remade, and resold to a mainstream audience that had all but forgotten about it. There is something intoxicating about men and women in tights unleashing punishing blows and snappy one-liners with ageless energy in a post-political and prepubescent world that otherwise so closely resembles our own. At least that’s what the ticket sales tell us.

In the end it’s difficult to know why exactly The Avengers succeeds so spectacularly. And this is coming from someone who loves comics books and continues to throw away good money to read bad plots about often one dimensional characters whose ability to captivate derives almost entirely from their unique brand of violence.

Captain America was a scrawny but heroic young man given the power to be the change he wanted to see. The only reason there are hundreds of issues of Captain America though is because his shield is super strong and he can throw it like a boomerang to beat bad guys up. Iron Man has shrapnel in his chest and an ego that he can barely contain, but he also has a flying metal suit that shoots lasers and missiles.  Thor is a god with a wicked heavy hammer, the resounding thud of which is more entertaining than anything he might ever say. And Bruce Banner has to contain the monster within. Not very original, but who cares because, well, Hulk SMASH!

Iron Man’s promise to Loki is thus prescient, “cause if we can’t protect the Earth you can be damn well sure we’ll avenge it.” Though of course (Spoilers!) in good Hollywood fashion the Avengers must end up saving the Earth, they aren’t on the whole as preoccupied with protecting as they are with killing. Despite a few rushed “good Samaritan” moments like when Captain America help’s civilians out of a crushed bus, it’s safe to assume that many more people died than could possibly have been saved.

Instead, the ending action sequence has the Avengers focus on “crowd control” which is a nice way of saying: kill as many of the alien invaders as they can, really fast. It’s not Superman rescuing babies from burning rooftops, or Batman immobilizing evil and taking it prisoner. It’s eagerly destructive, dishing out epic pain and relishing the results. And Joss Whedon’s comical script and exquisitely timed gags only help to accentuate the orgy of carnage these superheroes seem all too comfortable wallowing in.

All of which is to say that what sells The Avengers is how well it distills brutality from the synergistic coalition of franchises that form its hazy core.  The film is a phenomenon born of nearly a billion dollars in production and marketing costs. An event more decadent and ridiculous than Nick Fury’s floating dual-aircraft carrier. When confronting the almost biblical absurdity of it all, what’s most striking is how close Whedon comes to actually taming it and making the movie his own. Of course, just as the Avengers are sure to win, Whedon was sure to be outdone by the very spectacle he was tasked with delivering.

Marvel’s The Avengers is the best comic book movie yet. The story is useless but the narrative barrels forward over plots holes and motivational voids with reassuring gusto. Instead, it’s the unlikely charisma of the superhero ensemble that forces the project to succeed despite itself. Like the self-perpetuating, unlimited energy source at the story’s Swiss cheese center, the Avengers propel themselves forward on an attractive primal blend of superpower, comic genius, and force of will.

Having already been diligently assembled, all Whedon needed to do was give Marvel’s The Avengers his best one-eyed directorly nudge. Once pushed, the comic book blockbuster does what comic books do best, but with all of the star-powered personality and consummate polish that money can buy.

Please do be so kind as to share this post.
Share

86 thoughts on “How The Avengers Succeeds

  1. Regarding the box office numbers, are those in any way adjusted for inflation?  Do they account for iMax, 3D, and iMax 3D tickets, which can run more than double the cost of a normal ticket?

      Quote  Link

    Report

  2. I’m thinking about this and I’m curious as to what would be a “better” reaction to the portal to hell opening over New York.  Enemy soldiers are storming a metaphorical beach-head in downtown NY, and there’s criticism that a) they’re not doing more to save people and b) they’re killing too many of the “bad guys”?

    I’d hate to read your review of, say, the Longest Day….

     

      Quote  Link

    Report

  3. There are movies and comic books where I have criticisms about how casually killing is treated.  This is not one of them.  Whedon’s called it a “war movie”, and I think that has some merit – they’re fighting an invading force, not running after criminals or pursuing terrorist groups.  You don’t just arrest an invading army (unless the army’s really pathetic).  It’s expected that they’d use lethal force.

    However, I wasn’t such a big fan of the nuking of the mothership – I don’t like nukes being treated casually, even in fiction, and the way the Chitauri just collapsed left a horrifying implication that they might have wiped out ALL of the Chitauri, if they were somehow all connected to the mothership.  Which is a bit less “yay, we won” and a bit more Ender’s Game.

    I thought it was good.  It wasn’t thoughtful in the way that Nolan’s Batman films or even the X-Men movies (1, 2 and First Class) were.  It was an example of how to do a summer blockbuster right (as opposed to Wrath of the Titans, the Transformers films, or X-Men 3 as examples of how to do it wrong).  It had some complexity of plot, it had a lot of good funny lines, and it had well-done action.  Pretty much every part of the movie served a purpose – there weren’t scenes or lines just shoehorned in.

    It managed to give each of the main characters (if we don’t count Maria Hill as a main one) some level of characterization, and kept them basically consistent with that characterization, and is in general a good example of how to use an ensemble cast in a big-budget action movie.  This something that hasn’t been done before in comic book movies to this extent, and that has generally been done poorly by those that tried – the first three X-Men were “Wolverine and some other folks” and Spider-Man 3 got flak for poorly splitting its time between three villains, even while having just a single protagonist.  Managing to have 6 main characters, 4 of which had had their own movies, and balance things between them is a difficult thing that Whedon did well.

    The movie doesn’t have great artistic significance (unlike, say, critical consensus on The Dark Knight, and hopes for The Dark Knight Rises) but it tries to do something technically difficult (use a big ensemble cast well), it does it well, and it has immense business/capitalist significance in that it’s basically a license for Marvel to print money from here on out.

     

     

      Quote  Link

    Report

      • Thor was underutilized, especially given that this plot came directly from the first Thor movie.

        On the other hand, the Hulk treatment was magnificent, although they glossed over the kind of important difference between “Hulk transforms gracelessly” and “Hulk transforms with intent”, and what that means.  Storytelling wise, it was a weaker moment in the film.  But Ruffalo’s Banner just slammed it right out the the park, and the Hulk finally looked right.

          Quote  Link

        Report

        • I was also thinking Thor was kinda short of screentime, but the guy who plays Thor has the least acting chops of any of the top bill cast, so it seemed a good choice to me.

          They used Black Widow *just* enough, but actually utilized very little compared to the usual trip though the  Wheadonverse.  Though I imagine that’s why the How I Met Your Mother woman got so much script and screen time.

            Quote  Link

          Report

  4. One thing that I think this movie did that was so very interesting was the fact that it had sooooo many prequels.

    The Iron Mans, Thor, Hulk, Captain America, and I’m sure I’m forgetting one or two. Even if you didn’t see one of them, you probably saw another. This is the biggest attempt to apply synergy that I’ve ever seen.

    It has, apparently, worked.

    (Aside, we had a short conversation in the lab today about what would be required to have a JLA movie… we’d need a Flash movie at the very least and the question of who would be the bad guy loomed large. For reasons that are obvious to some, opaque to others, Darkseid isn’t an option. Maybe Starro the Conqueror is available…)

      Quote  Link

    Report

    • One of the charming aspects of this was the Avengers pretty much entirely chucked out all the introductory backstory that so many hero movies labor under. Each of the protagonists could spring, Athena like, from the forhead of their respective progenator films. As a result the Avengers was two hours and some change of rolicking fun, humor and spectacle. I was delighted, Marvel deserves every dime they’re going to make off this puppy.

      Also the humor had me in stitches, as a Hulk fan I was transported by his interaction with Thor and schwarma!

      And as if it wasn’t ambitious enough what the hell was with that shout out at the end?? I watch the Avengers cartoon (I know nerd) and guess who popped up this weeked? Adam Warlock with a special stone imbedded in his forehead.

        Quote  Link

      Report

          • Personally I think it’s a headfake. No way they kick it up to the fellow who was shown in the teaser in Avengers #2. Where do you go from there? And the gauntlette? No way. The comics were interesting but as a movie it’d be -terrible-.

              Quote  Link

            Report

            • > Where do you go from there?

              Ah, to be clear!

              Niratref 2 vf n ybff zbivr. Guvax Rzcver.

              Niratref 3 vf gur jva zbivr. V’q fnl, “Guvax Erghea bs gur Wrqv”, ohg V qba’g jnag gb urk vg.

              Gunabf vf oruvaq gurfr fprarf, va 2, tngurevat gur trzf, jbexvat ba gur cybg. Zbivr raqf jvgu gur Tnhagyrg nffrzoyrq naq gur Niratref trggvat gurve nff xvpxrq.

              Niratref 3 unf gb gbc rirelguvat gung’f rire orra qbar gb gung cbvag. V’z guvaxvat vg jvyy or gur Zbivr Havirefr rdhvinyrag gb Frperg Jnef. Rkcrpg gur xvgpura fvax.

                Quote  Link

              Report

          • No matter how genteel the surface, if you scratch at it hard enough you will reveal the fanbody beneath.

            And in comics, the fanboy is 97.3755% likely to be either a Marvel fan, or a DC fan.

              Quote  Link

            Report

              • For what it’s worth I’m actually kinda okay with the “new 52”.

                Look, they’ve been trying to keep some kind of plot continuity for some comics for 50 years.  They’ve had to say over and over that here’s this alternate world and here’s this one, and here’s that one.  Some comics have said “okay we’re going to have 3 comic lines with the same characters but different continuities.”

                My read on the New 52 is to say “Look, we’ve got some cool character concepts that could use some new directions so we’re just going to go back to the origin story, and we’re going to see what happens to them this time through.  No alternate timelines, no alternate worlds, we’re just going to start fresh with new ideas for a new time.”

                Of course I’m coming to this late in the game (I’ve never collected comics before) and I’m coming to it with my dad who collected them in the 60’s when you didn’t  have 100 different worlds to keep track of; you had one main story continuity and that was it.

                 

                  Quote  Link

                Report

              • The New 52 isn’t *THAT* bad. I like the Justice League title a lot. I like the Suicide Squad a lot (but don’t let kids read it). The new Action Comics, of all books, have made Superman an interesting character again (BELIEVE IT).

                I, personally, think that Marvel’s Ultimate Universe is the best thing to happen to comics in the last decade so I’d say that if you feel like dipping your feet back into comics to pick up a collection of Ultimate Spider-Man or Ultimate Fantastic Four (dude, they made the Fantastic Four interesting!!!)… but if you’re a DC feller (like *I* am), the new 52 sounds a lot worse than it actually ended up being.

                  Quote  Link

                Report

                • I’m still hoping that Jay of the Birds does a 1-year retrospective on the New 52 when August/September rolls around.  What worked, what didn’t, did it meet it’s overall goal, etc?

                  This notion was inspired by reading the recent Suicide Squad and realizing that they’re setting up Black Spider to be the new Ben Turner/Bronze TIger as well as the reader’s ceaseless complaints/requests to have Deadshot grow a moustache and Amanda Waller to be fat again.  (The second is actually more significant than it sounds since one of the slogans of the new 52 could be: The New 52: Women with more than 3% body fat need not apply.)

                    Quote  Link

                  Report

    • The problem with JLA is that it’s Superman, Batman, and some second or third tier guys no one cares about.  (Maybe Wonder Woman if you can get Zoe Saldana or someone like that, but seriously, you’re going to pay to watch an Aquaman prequel?)  I

        Quote  Link

      Report

      • Not only would I pay to watch an Aquaman prequel, I’d give it 50-50 odds of being the best of the prequel movies.  Compare with Iron man:  a movie about a not particular superhero that nobody expected to do particularly well.  It blew us all out of the water because they managed to make a great movie AND we had low expectations.  I think an aquaman movie can do the same thing.

        In general, it’s weird to suggest that The Justice League is a bunch of second-stringers compared to the Avengers.  Marvel’s biggest comic book properties are Spider-man and the X men.  Of the avengers, the Hulk was probably the only popular one before the movies came out. (well, and captain america, but that’s more fondness for the flag than fondness for the character)

        The real reason it’d be harder to make a justice league movie is that the members of the justice league have more diverse origins than the Avengers.  Except for Thor, every avenger in the movie got their superpowers from the military-industrial complex.  The justice league has much more thematically diverse origins.

          Quote  Link

        Report

        • The real reason it’d be harder to make a justice league movie is that the members of the justice league have more diverse origins than the Avengers.

          I read this sentence, and then I tried to imagine a team superhero movie in which the JLA fights aliens alongside Chris Nolan’s version of Batman. That’s pretty ridiculous.

          Also, I don’t know why everyone picks on Aquaman. The Martian Manhunter and the Flash are both considerably stupider.

            Quote  Link

          Report

          • People pick on Aquaman because of the Superfriends.  No matter what he does, it always comes back to that.  It’s kinda like Doom crying in Marvel’s 9/11 issues.  It doesn’t matter which board you go to.  That scene always gets brought up, at least, once a month.

            Oddly, (I’ve been doing site maintenance on a different site) I came across a rant/argument that I had roughly a year and a half ago against someone who said that an Aquaman prequel was a new low for DC.  While part of my rant was because the guy is always so pessimistic, the major part was that he was basing his argument off the Superfriend’s argument.  I pointed out a number of things such as:

            what DC had done with Aquaman since (His leadership of the Detroit JLA which was hampered by his personal issues.  What happened between him and Black Manta.  The events of One Year After, etc.)

            That Hollywood has advanced some since Mark Harris: Man From Atlantis

            It’d be nice to see a DC movie that wasn’t about the big two.  (Technically, it should be three but Hollywood hasn’t been able to do a Wonder Woman since Lynda Carter.)

            Admittedly, since then, we’ve had Green Lantern and that …… wasn’t a good argument for doing movies about the other heroes in the JLA.  However, even Marvel has movies like Ghost Rider so I’d be willing to cut DC some slack on that.

              Quote  Link

            Report

      • Y’know, I was just talking to someone at work about this and it dawned on me what has probably been the biggest problem with Wonder Woman and, by extension, a JLA movie (since any JLA movie would have to have the Big Three in it).

        Pretty much all the other superheroes who have had single movies have, at least, one arch-nemesis and a handful of secondary nemesii. Even Aquaman (Black Manta) and Flash (Professor Zoom, Rogues Gallery) have villains that, despite not reading their comics, I can name and you could very easily plug into a movie.

        Wonder Woman really doesn’t have a Rogues Gallery. The closest Wonder Woman has had to an arch-nemesis is the Cheetah. If you stretch, you can include Circe and Ares but, otherwise, Wonder Woman doesn’t have a shovel-ready villain to drop into any movie about her.

          Quote  Link

        Report

        • I’m pretty sure that Cheetah and Ares are better known than Professor Zoom, at least.

          Remember, people already know their greek gods a bit, so you have to lay less groundwork than you would with most villians. If I were plotting a WW movie, I’d have Ares as the main villian, with him transforming one of his followers into a cheetah monster at the beginning of the third act.

            Quote  Link

          Report

    • Why isn’t Darkseid an option?  It’s been a long time since The Great Darkness saga in Legion of Super Heroes where Darkseid was still this mysterious yet powerful being.  At this point, Darkseid has become one of the “go-to” guys whenever DC needs a big bad.  Even without that level of public exposure, most of the people who would watch a JLA movie saw the Superman/JLA animated series when they were growing up.  Also, he’s got that “ruler of a dark planet full of evil” thing that Hollywood likes to crap out in their films.

      Darkseid is hardly the worst or most obscure option for a JLA villain.

        Quote  Link

      Report

      • SPOILERS SPOILERS SERIOUSLY SPOILERS DON’T READ THIS IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THE AVENGERS

         

         

        The post-credit scene in The Avengers makes it clear that Thanos is the secret villain driving the movie’s action. Thanos is Marvel’s direct copy of Darkseid. You can’t have the same villain in two different series.

          Quote  Link

        Report

        • Yeah but we’ve known that since Thor. (The Infinity Gauntlet was one of the props that was shown off during the run-up to Thor and there have been enough hints dropped that Loki was more the front-man than the Big Bad.)

          I would argue that you could still take two semi-different directions to differentiate the two. Once again, the target audience has the familiarity and both have had enough exposure to the mainstream that people aren’t likely to confuse the two.

            Quote  Link

          Report

    • A post I made in my G+:

      Okay. As I heard that Avengers made 700 million worldwide, I decided to crunch some numbers. (Plus, I wanted to see how Titanic stacked up since I mentioned it above.)

      For Titanic, I’ll mention inflation-adjusted price for Domestic as well because it’s been long enough to make a significant difference. (Foreign gross adjusted for inflation would be beyond my interest level.) After all, Gone With The Wind’s domestic gross may not sound impressive at 198 million but, when you adjust for inflation, GWTW weighes in at 1.6 billion.

      For opening weekends, Avengers dominates both world and domestic (208 million Domestic). The closest rival was the last Harry Potter which did 169 Domestic and 483 million worldwide.

      To put the Avengers opening weekend in perspective, Avatar made 760 million Domestic and 2.8 billion worldwide for it’s ENTIRE run. So, in it’s opening weekend, Avengers has already made 1/4 of the current record-holder’s sum.

      As for Titanic, it made 28 million original opening weekend, 600 million Domestic (1.01 billion adjusted), 658 million Domestic including the recent 3D rerelease (1.07 billion adjusted) and 2.18 Billion worldwide(including rerelease).

        Quote  Link

      Report

  5. Ethan nice post I know I’m supposed to be comic book geeking but as a textile geek your metaphor The Avengers is more than just a 21st century loom upon which Whedon has been hard at work spinning gold.” doesn’t work . You can’t spin on a loom. You need a spinning wheel to make straw into gold. just sayin

     

      Quote  Link

    Report

  6. Actually, what kind of surprised me about “The Avengers” was how they didn’t have scenes where The Military Is Powerless Against The Invaders. Other than when Loki shows up in the beginning and blasts some SHIELD guys, there wasn’t the usual “hooray it’s the US Air Force! Oh no they’re all being shot down! Hooray it’s the US Army! Oh no they’re all being blasted with lasers!” you’d expect from a movie like this.

    In fact, for a movie where aliens blow up New York for forty-five minutes, there was surprisingly little death.

      Quote  Link

    Report

      • Sure, but the “Transformers” movies were PG-13 and there was plenty of cannon-fodder death in those. It’s increasingly the case that you can kill as many people as you like and still get PG-13 as long as there’s no blood.

        And I’m not trying to claim that nobody in “The Avengers” died on-screen; my point is that there wasn’t the typical “the military is powerless to stop them!” scene. Which I thought was a nice change, because usually this kind of movie goes out of its way to show that scene in order to make the heroes that much more mighty.

          Quote  Link

        Report

      • You also have to have the one shot where the car hits an inexplicable small ramp on the side of the road and flips over, and then the subsequent shot of the bad guys getting out of it, dazed and spent but otherwise unharmed.

          Quote  Link

        Report

        • Or the shot of the bad guys (often behind a barrier) being blown in the air by an A-Team tossed grenade or other explosive, and then a shot of the bad guys getting up, “dazed and spent but otherwise unharmed.”

          I watched that show when I was 7 and that nonsense bugged me. When I watched some episodes recently (I miss you Retro TV!), it just made me laugh. I kept thinking, “These guys are elite soldiers, and they couldn’t hit the side of a barn with a fully automatic assault rifle from 30 feet away.”

            Quote  Link

          Report

            • You’d think that when they have laser gun technology, they’d have small targeting systems technology that would remove the need to aim altogether. You’d think…

              Then again, the Empire’s military was stupid enough to make it possible to blow up a warship the size of a moon, which could destroy entire planets with one (apparently guided!) laser blast, with a couple photon torpedoes in a ventilation shaft, so ya know, maybe they fucked up the targeting systems for their laser guns, and it wasn’t the Storm Troopers’ fault at all that they couldn’t hit a Jedi and his group of misfit friends from 20 feet, down a straight corridor.

                Quote  Link

              Report

  7. So many of these comments bring up good points and make me want to read all of these comics to find out who these characters are. I only first heard of The Avengers after a co-worker at Dish suggested that I check out The Avengers cartoons on Dishonline. She said that they would help me understand the hype with the Hulk, Iron Man, Thor and Captain America films. I’ll admit that they seemed childish, but after watching the movie, I was thrilled by this newfound genre. I plan to watch the other comic book movies I’ve missed, and whenever Avengers 2 comes out, I’ll be sure to see that too.

      Quote  Link

    Report

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *