Joss Whedon’s Disney’s “Marvel’s The Avengers”

Sax von Stroheim writes:

I finally caught up with the year’s biggest hit. I’m a longtime reader of super-hero comics, and while the Avengers comics by Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, et al. aren’t my favorites from Marvel’s Silver Age, I do like them quite a bit.

Here’s what I liked:

1)   There’s a very Marvel comics-style moment where Hawkeye – the world’s greatest archer – shoots some kind of super, high tech arrow at a computer so that it plugs directly into its USB port to give him access to it. It’s goofy, but I smiled because it’s exactly the type of thing that would happen in an Avengers comic.


Hawkeye, as drawn by the great Don Heck

2)   There’s a very Joss Whedon-style moment near the end, where the bad guy, Thor’s evil step-brother Loki, is starting to deliver a pompous, gloating, villainous monologue to the Hulk, and the Hulk cuts him off by grabbing his leg and swinging him repeatedly into the floor. It reminded me of the great moment in “The Train Job” episode of Firefly, where a bad guy is threatening to take revenge, and Mal (the Han Solo-like leader of our heroes) kicks him into a spaceship’s engine intake, killing him instantly. In both cases, Whedon gets a laugh by tweaking our genre expectations of what a hero usually does when confronted by a raving villain (i.e., listens to him rather than doing something sensible).

3)   After he’s told that he can’t compete with Thor and Loki because “they’re gods”, Chris Evans as Captain America delivers the movie’s best line: “There’s only one God, and I’m pretty sure He doesn’t dress like that.” Evans plays it completely straight, here and throughout the movie, never condescending to Cap’s old-fashioned idealism.

I don't know, Cap: who BUT a god would dare to dress this way?

I don’t know: who BUT a god would dare to dress this way?

4)   Tom Hiddleston as Loki was good. He nails the Stan Lee-style faux Shakespeare dialogue.

5)   ScarJo:

...look at her...

…look at her…

Here’s what I didn’t like:

1)   The visual effects are poorly integrated, both with the “live action” and with other visual effects. Michael Barrier joked that the movie could be called The Battle of the Visual Effects Houses, and I agree. I never had the sense of a coherent aesthetic vision behind any of the CGI. This leads to several problems:

a)    The seams are showing all over the action sequences. It’s very noticeable every time we go from effect to effect, so the spaces all feel needlessly chopped up.

b)   There’s a very apparent change from actor to videogame avatar every time one of the heroes does something heroic. CGI-Captain America doesn’t move anything at all like Chris Evans as Captain America. That was a problem I had with the Sam Raimi Spider-Man movies, too, but I was kind of surprised that after ten years they haven’t gotten the technology to the point where it looks any better.

c)    Relatedly, every time Robert Downey Jr. speaks as Iron Man (i.e., when it’s not him on screen, but just a CGI’d suit of armor), he sounds like he’s phoning in voice-over work on a videogame.

d)   More on videogames: I guess if you don’t play videogames, you might not notice and be bothered by the way these movies feel like videogames. A friend described the alien army in the movie’s climactic battle sequence as “a bunch of video game extras”, and, well, they are. I felt something similar while watching “Prometheus” earlier this year: all these people were raving about Sir Ridley’s sense of design and all that, but the movie just seemed like it had been cobbled together with bits and pieces from HALO and Dead Space. To be fair, those games were deeply influenced by the original “Alien” movies, but still…

2)   Putting a drippy fan-service character – Agent Coulson – at what’s supposed to be the “emotional center” of the movie. In case you aren’t familiar with the term, a “fan-service character” is common archetype in contemporary super-hero comics. He (or very, very rarely she) is supposed to stand in for all the comic book fans of the world. He usually parrots, in the world of the comic, the same kind of feelings that the fans have towards their favorite characters. Sometimes, in the comics, this works, and I’d be happy to provide examples if anyone actually cares. Most of the time, though, it comes across as one of the more masturbatory things in an already ridiculously masturbatory genre, as it does here. The problem is always that the love/admiration the fan-service character has for the super-heroes isn’t based on anything in the comic book, or, in this case, the movie, itself, but on the feelings the writers are presuming we already have for the characters.

A nerdy white guy: just like me!!!

It’s a way to use our pre-existing feelings of nostalgia for these characters as a replacement for having to write scenes that express any kind of honest, emotional connection between them. Actually, I didn’t just “not like” this aspect of the movie: I outright hated it. I agree with Michael Barrier that it’s a sign of the movie’s emptiness that Coulson is at its center: it turns the movie into a game of fill-in-the-blank.

3)   Samuel L. Jackson. He just seemed to not give a shit. Which, normally, a guy getting paid to walk around in a big CGI spectacle, not giving a shit? Normally, I think that’s fine. Sometimes, I think it’s kind of admirable! But Jackson threw a Twitter fit when A.O. Scott gave the movie a mixed review, and if you’re going to throw a fit about a movie you’ve made, at least try to throw it for a movie that it looks like you gave a shit about when making it.

4)   Oh yeah: out of the billions that this movie made, virtually none of it went to any of the guys who actually created these characters and these stories in the first place.

Hail to the King!

Hail to the King!

To sum up: though I had a few laughs along the way, “Marvel’s The Avengers” really demonstrates how the Marvel Movie Method works: take some charismatic, funny actors and blend them in with some shitty CGI and indifferently directed action sequences. Since audiences will happily drink this stuff up, I guess I don’t blame them for not bothering to make better movies. Still, that philosophy just seems to add insult to injury, considering it reveals just how little they really comprehend and/or care about the artistic legacy of Jack Kirby (and others) that is, unfortunately, under their stewardship.

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8 Responses to Joss Whedon’s Disney’s “Marvel’s The Avengers”

  1. Blowhard, Esq. says:

    I’m sort of the target audience for this movie — I love Buffy and Firefly and grew up reading Marvel comics — but I can’t bring myself to muster any enthusiasm for it. My guess is that it would be like all modern comic book movies: lots of weightless and colorfull animation, plodding story arcs, and thundering battles. I’m sure I’ll eventually catch it on cable, but I’m in no rush.


  2. Sax von Stroheim says:

    It’s watchable! The story arcs meander more than they plod, but that’s precisely the style of the CGI animation. Joss Whedon makes his presence known in two major ways: getting laughs out of the inter-character dynamics (bravo!) and making things seem fresh by (mildly) undercutting genre expectations (eh, whatever). I just don’t get the point of super-hero movies where the filmmakers aren’t even interested in trying to translate what is perhaps THE the central, defining feature of super-hero art: spectacular, if not outright psychedelic, visuals. It can be done! The technology has been there at least since 1999 and “The Matrix”, but the Marvel folks seem to want brand/project managers rather than real filmmakers helming these movies.


  3. Fabrizio del Wrongo says:

    I liked it more than the majority of the Marvel movies. Thought the ensemble nature of it was a good match for Whedon’s talents…though, even at 2.5 hours, the canvas feels too cramped for what he’s trying to do with the characters. I thought the pace was overly relentless, pounding even; by the end I felt kind of exhausted, and not in a good way. I didn’t have the problem with the action stuff that you did, though I was definitely thinking “too much!” during certain portions. The principal influence wrt to the action seems to be Michael Bay, particularly during the big finale. Hard to match Bay’s feeling for red-meat spectacle. Fave performance was Ruffalo’s. I almost always love watching him. I was also surprised to find myself being okay with Johansson. She seems looser here than she normally does.


    • Sax von Stroheim says:

      There are many, many things than Joss Whedon does better than Michael Bay, but there isn’t a single image in “Marvel’s The Avengers” that’s as memorable as the giant floating head of 3D John Malkovich in “Transformers 3”.


      • Fabrizio del Wrongo says:

        I knew I’d regret not seeing it in 3D!

        I sort of liked the two “Transformers” movies I’ve seen, BTW (first and third). Bay’s sensibility is pretty close to Bollywood in some ways. In fact, the big robot snake from T3 reminded me of the one in the Bollywood film “Robot.”


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  5. Finally caught this on Netflix. You’re right, it’s watchable. (Then again, the other movie on my impromptu double bill was INLAND EMPIRE, so pretty much anything is watchable in comparison.) I liked Stellan Skarsgard delivering gobbledygook technobabble. Very much agree about the lack of memorable comic book visuals — nothing matched ScarJo tied to a chair while in black nylons or Paltrow in jean shorts walking barefoot through Stark Tower. I’m with Fabrizio on the Ruffalo love, too.


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