III. The Why
“I don’t like to create something that doesn’t say anything.”
The Avengers is, more or less, an almost-seamless machine for producing childlike joy. Given how fully it succeeds in this respect, it seems churlish to ask of it what I’m about to ask. But I’m a man who owns a 500-page book of essays on Whedon’s work and… well, see the above quote.
Is it meant to make you feel anything, being awesome? Is it about anything except the maths of Iron Man + Hulk = AWESOME? Does it have anything to say?
Yes. Maybe. No. Kind of.
Emotionally speaking, all you’ve got is the trad. Whedon death. But here, it’s explicitly worked to fuel the plot. As well-worked into the public’s affections as Coulson is, his passing isn’t really worked for emotion the way any number of Whedon characters are (e.g. [REDACTED], [REDACTED], and, of course, [REDACTED]. Boy, that one was really something, wasn’t it?)
The story, intermittently, is about a lot of the usual modern-superhero-film things – America as a superpower; the military-industrial complex; image and perception; all adding up to the question of how superheroes function in a realistic, modern world. It’s about a lot of the usual Joss Whedon things, too – outsiders vs. authority; the cost of victory; and, perhaps most of all, building a family out of what was previously just a disparate handful of people.
It’s not especially about those things, though. So maybe it’s a character study?
After my first viewing, I was a bit disappointed there wasn’t more attention given over to each character. You know, just time chilling with the heroes, maybe a little peek at how Whedon reckons each of their minds work. It seems likely a lot of that may have ended up on the cutting room floor, but there is still plenty there – it’s just under the surface.
It’s in Ruffalo’s fidgety faux-calm performance, and little throwaway lines, and how we meet each character. I was left craving their characters’ company (Which I reckon goes some way to explain the millions of people who apparently have come out of the theatre, bought a ticket and maybe some overpriced salty snacks, and just gone right back in. They’re not, I think, going back in to see the same dozen explosions.)
Really – and this should come as no surprise – the characters are what The Avengers is all about. And what the character stuff wants to talk about, mostly, seems to be control.
Look at Loki. Like all the best baddies, the threat he poses isn’t solely violent, though obviously with all the explosions and the alien invasion, there is that. It’s a philosophical threat. Loki doesn’t want to destroy the earth, he just wants to impose his worldview on it – that, as a god, he is superior, and as such they should relinquish their free will. Which is precisely what he does to Hawkeye and Dr Selvig at the start of the film. (Interestingly, though, they’re not quite empty-eyed drones. Rather than being fully stripped of their sense of self, they’re just reduced to their roles as scientist and soldier – and Selvig especially seems to be really enjoying himself.)
But Loki, it turns out, is part of a larger chain of command – he’s bossed over by the slightly naff-looking alien, who himself turns out to be a lackey of Thanos. And that echoes the one on the Avengers’ side, of the World Security Council – who are trying to exert power over people because They Know What’s Best (rarely a good sign in Whedon’s work) – and Nick Fury – whose most heroic moment in the film is simply resisting the control of his shadowy superiors and letting the Avengers go free. It’s a chain of people trying to exercise control over one another – and mostly failing.
Control over oneself, though? That’s quite different. It’s pretty much Black Widow’s superpower. Twice in the film she shows her ability to remove herself from her emotions, and weaponise them. That that self-control is only broken by her fear of the Hulk sets up a fascinating dynamic between the two and, in breaking her outer shell a little, provides a way in for any future filmmakers dealing with her.
Tony Stark sits at a balanced midpoint, having had time in two solo feature films to run through most of his self-control issues. That’s great, because it stops Downey Jr from stealing the whole damn show like he threatened to in the trailers, and because it allows him to bond with the character around which the film naturally finds its fascinating centre. The Hulk.
If ever there was a character about the questions of self-control, it’s the Hulk. It’s built into his verdant DNA. Whedon finds a fresh spin on it, something more nuanced and subtle than most interpretations of the Hulk, and Ruffalo sticks the landing effortlessly. He’s treated like a poorly-stored nuclear weapon by most of his teammates but, for the most part, Banner’s pretty damn chill about everything.
It doesn’t fit with our basic perception of the Hulk, but then you start to notice Ruffalo’s ever-busy hands, and then he casually drops the littlest of big reveals: “I’m always angry”. The first time, it knit my brows. It’s such a throwaway line, but in its implications – embracing that life isn’t a clean break between calm and anger, that anger perhaps isn’t such a bad emotion – those three words manage to make the job of the next Hulk director a whole lot harder.
All that control stuff is built into the structure, too. It’s a byproduct of the way The Avengers works – as each franchise-bearing personality steps on screen, they exert their influence on the style of the film and struggle for control of it. We’ve all done it: you walk into a room full of people you don’t know, and the best way to make an impression is to be an exaggerated version of yourself, to try and take some of the control back.
Let’s take a look at that in action in the actual film, though. Stuttgart, Germany. Most of the characters still haven’t met, and we certainly haven’t seen them in action together. And, the inciting incident once again, Loki strides into an operahouse, in slow motion, to strains of classical music. The music starts out diagetic, coming from the assembled orchestra, but as he takes over the scene it fluidly moves into score territory. Each act of swift violence matched with the shrill squeal of a violin bow.
It says, much more clearly than his dread soliloquying and insistence that the assembled crowd kneel before him, that he is in charge. In control. And then Captain America enters, and the dynamic starts to shift. There’s a bit of on-the-nose comment on the historical implications, but the choice of setting brings all sorts of stuff to the forefront. Cap fighting to protect the people that were his sworn enemy only weeks before – at least as he perceives it. Facing off against an enemy from a theology which has been notoriously co-opted by Nazi organisations (see: the controversy surrounding Idris Elba’s casting as Heimdall). Whedon reminds you of the two very different contexts of these characters, and picks a logical overlap for them to meet in.
Until finally Iron Man appears, and rewrites the situation once again with his own music – AC/DC, obv – and snappy quips and modern technology, all of which he brings to bear against the two old men. And we barely need to see how it goes down – the film cuts bashfully away to Loki in handcuffs, Stark’s sheer textual presence victorious.
As I was saying … throughout the film, these big bright characters struggle for control, and then eventually relinquish it to become a team. It’s that which ties together all the disparate elements – the different speech, visuals, fighting styles – which fight for dominance in the film’s first hour. The way they all combine by the time of the climactic action scene, like spectral colours run a through a prism into a single beam of pure, muddled white, is what makes it all so satisfying.
So, the question stands: is that enough of an idea to explore, in something that takes up nearly three hours of your time, and billions of our dollars?
Hmm. I’m not sure. Hang on, I think I need to go and watch it again.