Comfortable and Furious

The Avengers (2012)

So, how was The Avengers?

You know how in boxing they have weight classes, but then also Pound for pound rankings in an attempt to sort out who is the best quality fighter, regardless of size advantages? On a pound for pound basis, I would say The Avengers is quite good. In the heavyweight division, I would say it is a deserving champion, perhaps warranting a place in the pantheon of greats. I don’t want to get into boxing too much, but the analogy holds a lot of water here.

Are you going to go on about the Klitschko brothers or something? For the love of God…

Hear me out! If you don’t know, the Klitschkos are these giant Ukrainian goofballs who have Ph.D.s in P.E. and dominate the heavyweight division with ease. A lot of people would say that this is mostly because large African American guys who are great athletes pursue other sports these days, leaving the heavyweight division. It is undeniably true that this is the case, and I think something similar can be said of blockbusters. We can speculate on what has caused it, but if you watch Transformers or something, it’s pretty clear that nobody involved is even really trying to make a good movie in any traditional sense. This creates a competitive void in which someone with big-time talent who is actually willing to venture into this field, i.e. Joss Whedon, can take all of the competition to school.

So it is good by default?

Well, that’s the question. See, with the Klitschkos, some people say they are only good compared to the tomato cans currently populating the heavyweight division and that they would barely be competitive in past eras. Others say that they are indeed great fighters, unfortunately fighting in an era of mediocrity. I fall into the second camp with the Klitschkos and I’m inclined that way with the Avengers as well. The dilemma of these scenarios is, when you do nothing but talk about how much better everything was in the past, you sound like a bitterly nostalgic old dickhead. But at the same time, if it is not the case that Transformers and Iron Man are objectively worse films than Raiders of The Lost Ark, then my basic faculties are called into question to the point where maybe I shouldn’t be allowed to drive.

So, one reason I responded so well to The Avengers was that it provided a sense of relief. It’s not just my imagination. A big budget action movie* can have characters who have clear motivations. The fact that I found many of the quips in this movie to be funny proves that I wasn’t just being a spiteful old man by never laughing at the jokes in similar films.

*I’m excluding movies for children, Pixar movies in particular. For reasons known only to the movers and shakers of Hollywood, movies can be intelligent and funny if they are made primarily for six-year-olds, but not if they are made for anybody older than that. 

Motivations? What are you talking about? Bad guys are motivated by being bad and good guys are motivated by being good!

Aha! You’ve played right into my hand. It’s almost as if I’m writing these questions myself! Simply identifying one character as bad and the other as good only goes so far. And when all of the smashing begins, it’s much more effective if we know why things are being smashed. I don’t have access to the exact lines, but there are consecutive scenes, involving the death of that one guy who collects Captain America trading cards.

First he says to Loki, something like, “you’re going to fail.” And Loki is like, WTF, I’m a badass with all of the advantages, why would I fail?… And the dying guy says, “because you lack conviction.” And Loki, and the audience, sense that this is probably accurate. Then, before he checks out, Dying Trading Card Guy says to Sam Jackson something like, “It’s OK, they needed something to bring them together.” So very quickly, we know what is motivating this guy and why he feels like he can die in peace, we get a plausible rallying point for The Avengers, and an indication of why Loki’s desire for power for the sake of power is not going to end well for him.

Then there are little touches. Like, a little bit earlier, when The Avengers are all at each other’s throats beyond any rational point, the direction lets us know that Loki’s scepter is influencing them. I really appreciate the effort, though it shouldn’t be anything special. But normally in these movies, if the heroes need to have an irrationally heated argument, the filmmaker will just be like, oh well, I’ll just have them escalate a petty squabble to the point where it is more important to them than the survival of earth for no reason. Most of the stuff that happens in The Avengers is driven by some kind of cause. Contrast that with Iron Man 1. Since the day that film opened, I’ve had a standing offer of $1 million to anybody who can explain what is motivating Jeff Bridges character in any way that makes sense. The prize remains unclaimed.

Alright, so why is The Hulk suddenly able to control himself and understand who is who and interact with the other Avengers in a productive way, half way through the movie?

Because he is always angry? I don’t know. It’s a movie about superheroes fighting aliens, so there are going to be a few leaks in the story, but they did a great job of plugging as many as they could, where most just ignore them. And I think that the fact that the buildup to the big conflicts is coherent made many of the action scenes entertaining, while normally I just see these CGI dust ups as glossier versions of Roadrunner cartoons. It’s true that I’m bitter, old and incapable of fun, and that there were some fight scenes during which I just got bored, but I did feel a little bit of the old Star Wars juice flowing during some of the climactic scenes.

You said it was funny. Tell me, how the fuck is it funny?

Yeah, it is. Again, I think that this has a lot to do with the story and characters being coherent and relatively believable, which provides the platform for the comedy. Here’s a script excerpt that covers eleven minutes of screentime from Transformers: Bark At The Moon

Transformer: Woooooosh. Blam!

Transformer (making transforming sound): Wwwoooowawawawawawawa

Something explodes

Transformer: Fart!

Transformer: Imma gets me sums robot watahmelon. I sho’ do hate books. Holla!

Something explodes

The Avengers is physical comedy too. When Loki lectures The Hulk and The Hulk just grabs him and smashes the shit out of him, I laughed out loud. A lot of attention obviously went to making the visual effects look funny, and I’m sure gifs of the scene will become an internet staple. But it is even more funny because of the way the characters are set up.

There’s more subtle humor too, like how someone makes a Wizard of Oz joke and Captain America is like, now that’s a reference I get! Or how Cap is trying to describe a piece of technology to Stark and is like, “it seems to be powered by some sort of electricity,” which is a play on both dialogue cliches and Cap’s character being out of touch and not very adept with technology.

I’ve heard a lot about how Scarlett Johansson is not very good in the movie. How bad was she?

I’m not going to say she’s actually a great actress or anything, but coincidentally or not, the performance she gave was right for the part. She plays an Avenger called Bow and Arrow Man’s Girlfriend and, apart from generally being good at fighting, her super-powah is using passive aggression to manipulate people into spilling the beans.

Therefore, she is usually kind of a blank page, allowing her adversary to dictate most of their interaction because, in doing so, he reveals things about himself. I do this all the time when I play poker. If you can understand your own image in the other person’s mind and understand what drives the other player, by allowing him to dictate the narrative you will know what his expectations are and have a very good idea of what he is up to. Then you can pull the rug out. This is exactly what Bow and Arrow Man’s Girlfriend does. So, while the performance could easily have been the result of an accidental lobotomy during some kind of plastic surgery, it worked. Since it did work, let’s give her the benefit of the doubt and just say she did a good job. Maybe she learned these tricks from the guy who got her to agree to those nude pictures.

I love that guy they found to play The Hulk.

Holy fuck, that is Mark Ruffalo, who has been one of the best actors in the world for like fifteen years and starred in the best film of the past decade. It’s hardly surprising that he is great, yet again. Speaking of narratives and stories, I think that is why Downey is so overrated. Remember when he was partying too much and every single article was like, what a waste of an enormous talent. Maybe they meant that in the Milton Berle sense, but it just kind of took on a life of his own and now, every time some hack mentions Downey, they talk about how talented he is.

They always use that word, too. Talent. Like they do with black athletes. So, I guess by comparison, Ruffalo is a white athlete. Gritty, hardworking, determined, gets the job done. I have no idea if he’s actually hard working or not, but he wins all of his scenes with Downey or anybody else and I want to marry him. Ruffalo is perfect for the Hulk because his acting super power is being this low-key guy who is still able to convey his emotions effectively, and then when he is drawn into intense conflicts, freaks out a little bit because he is not really wired to deal with that shit.

You don’t like Robert Downey Jr.?

I like him fine. I just don’t think he’s Robert De Nero simply because he is an addict. I’m glad he’s not too, because it would be a shame for a historically great actor to be wasting his peak years doing stuff like Kung Fu Sherlock and Iron Man almost exclusively. In addition to its many objective deficiencies, one reason I dislike Iron Man was a subjective distaste for Downey’s Tony Stark. I realize that the character is meant to be a smug bag of penis holes, but enduring that from a hero becomes pretty tedious over two hours. The Avengers still uses the super genius device that is so popular in contemporary blockbusters, where the principals can fall out of bed hungover, peruse a couple of abstracts on the subject at hand and run circles around a room full of MIT professors, catering to our disdain for hard work.

But one reason The Avengers works so well is that the Supermen are all there so they can check each other. All of the qualities that make a particular Avenger tedious or annoying over the course of a full film, are also tedious and annoying to the other Avengers and, being Avengers themselves, they are not afraid to say so. It’s easier to enjoy Downey’s smug bag of penis holes, for example, when he is repeatedly called out on it, rather than just being put on a pedestal. So, all of the personality traits of The Avengers are set in relief when contrasted to the others. It’s almost as if interpersonal conflicts between well-defined characters make for better stories than a bunch of robots or freaks zooming around for no reason.