Earth's prettiest heroes
Marvel's Cine-CHAT-ic Universe: The Avengers (2012)
Guess who's been emailing again! That's right, we're back with our regular feature that I'm only just now realising we should have called 'We see you, MCU'. Hmm, maybe not actually. But a better title than the one we went with certainly does exist somewhere. Anyway, please enjoy the latest of our rambling chats that are pieced together during an editing process so painstaking, that this article is its own heroic assembly.
Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
Iron Man 2 (2010)
The Incredible Hulk (2008)
Iron Man (2008)
I mean, it's very good, isn't it. Not to cheapen the concept of this feature, but it really is very, very good. It seems obvious now, 20 movies and eighty bajillion dollars in, but the key to unlocking the entire MCU was humour - the level playing field of levity that meant you could have pretentious Thor joshing with angry Hulk messing around with super-soldier Cap. I have never been one for the deification of Joss Whedon, but you can probably trace the complete and utter success of the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe back to this movie, to him and his tone of voice. I still can't really believe Justice League was so terrible, but that's a conversation for another feature.
Luke: Fuck off did this film come out in 2012! That's only six years ago. Hard to judge time in these hyper 24-hour news cycle/twitter-addled days though. For instance, last week was three months long, and tomorrow is a fortnight away. I just sat on the toilet for 20 minutes. Yet all the time has gone...somewhere...and I've got...nothing to show for it except a weird throbbing sense of anger in the back of my head?
I do remember not being as overwhelmed by superhero movies back then - it took a couple more years before it really began to grate, which is in part due to the success of Avengers making billions and ensuring further spin-offs, a TV series for every minor character, and coverage in every outlet and website. That said, I've warmed to the franchise a lot over the years. It's true that the quality is so consistently high that you never feel like you're being fobbed off with a 'will this do' effort, and I can get on board with that, even if overall it's not my cup of tea. This will be a great series of films for our kids to explore.
Matt: Excuse me while I play devil's avocado a bit for this film, because obviously I love it - obviously - but I do think it gets talked about in slightly higher esteem than it deserves. I put this down to the fact that it's the origin story, the first big crossover of the whole franchise, and you're right, Joss Whedon absolutely nails the balance of everything here - character, tone, humour and action. It's an incredible ensemble/assemble piece... BUT I think there are some objectively bad things in this film.
For example, I was at that first press screening (pfft, soz Ali) and I could not have been more excited, especially as a fully indoctrinated servant worshipping at the Altar of Joss. But as it started, I remember being hugely disappointed in the first scene where Loki appears in front of Nick Fury and Agent Hill with the Loki pokey stick. It just looked really flat, like I was watching a TV show on the big screen. And I think that's true of the film as a whole - the design throughout is a bit too ‘comic’ for my liking. I can see why they ditched the Captain America costume for something a bit grittier in the later films.
Ed: Does the Altar of Joss have joss sticks on it?
Matt: Yes, it’s where I go to smell joss sticks and listen to Joss Stone with the cast of Jossey’s Giants.
Ed: I do enjoy this one overall, but I don't like the group ones as much as the solo ones. A bit like the Wu-Tang Clan. I suppose part of it is that when you bring them all together you have to address the question of who's harder than whom when they're going to fight each other and the bad guys, and more often than not it just fudges this. (Thor's a god so should beat everyone, but Iron Man can at least duff him up a bit in the woods, etc).
Matt: I remember seeing the first confrontation between Thor and Iron Man in the woods - they meet and start fighting and I remember thinking right at the beginning "well, this film isn't about to solve the question of who would win in a fight between Iron Man and Thor, so this scene is pointless"... and it is. They bash each other about a bit, but it doesn't drive the plot forward. It's just an impotent aside that's there to make the characters look cool for a few minutes… and there's quite a few of these. I get why making the characters look cool is important, obviously, but I would argue that there are better ways to do that than have them fight each other for a bit before resolving their differences and carry on about their day.
Ed: You think back to the Christopher Reeve Superman films, and they never compromised the idea that no one was a physical match for him, and so they had to come up with plots where his strength was compromised by kryptonite and so on to even it up and remain consistent with that. The Avengers' internal logic is all over the place by comparison. It is a great moment, for example, when Hulk brings down a metal space monster the size of a football pitch by punching it on the nose, but it makes zero sense, and makes you question why he doesn't then just do the same to the rest of them in turn.
Maybe the problem is more that you're encouraged to believe that this giant space army is going to be invulnerable, but fortunately for the story it turns out that they can be killed with arrows. Their only advantage really is that there are loads of them. I don't feel their threat, and the idea is that this is the biggest threat these guys have ever faced. It all feels a bit small-scale.
Ali: The point about the Avengers having a pointless dust-up in the forest is fair, but it's pretty functional (they all have to be evenly matched if we're to think of them as a team) and it's actually pretty clever because it'd feel like really lazy writing if all three of these massive characters, each the centre of their own universes, would just slot together conveniently. It also makes the final single-take action sequence in New York have a little more resonance.
Matt: Ok then. Here’s a few more: the first time we see the Avengers all working together in the MCU - in one of the biggest action set-pieces in the whole film - is just them trying to keep the Helicarrier working. They are literally just managing to keep themselves alive and it's all a bit pedestrian.
Then there's the bit at the end during the invasion where Loki escapes Stark Tower by jumping on an alien spacebike thing and just DISAPPEARS from the film for 10 minutes so that we can concentrate on the heroes, only for Hawkeye to eventually blow him up with an explodey arrow and he conveniently lands right back on the Stark Tower platform again because that's where the script needs him to be right then.
And let's not talk about the fact that, when Iron Man blows up the ship at the end, all the Chitauri just helpfully power down so the film can come to an end.
Oh and Joss clearly had no idea what the fuck to even do with Hawkeye in this film so just sidelines him for the most part to even out the teams.
It's a great film, and you might say I'm being really picky, but all of this is the start of me arguing why Age Of Ultron is the far superior Avengers movie and I will fight anyone who says otherwise for a really long time in the woods until we are both still standing and there is no winner.
Ali: You can go mad trying to unpick bits from all these movies, out of context. There isn't a single one of them that holds up to exhaustive aggressive scrutiny, not really. So yeah, while the Avengers trying to restart the Helicarrier is, in essence, about as exciting as me trying to reboot my printer, it's all about how it feels in the moment and what it means to the wider story. I doubt any of this occurred to you the first or second time you watched it. That scene is the first instance of The Avengers actively working as a unit. So I get it. I'll allow it, just this once. (Just all of the times).
Maybe the fact these specific bits stick out is more a testament to how the rest of the film is otherwise consistent and cohesive? The best bit about Avengers Assemble for me is how great it is when you get everyone in a room together. It never feels like different worlds clashing or colliding awkwardly, it feels like everything coming together.
Matt: Honestly, it's the opposite. These did occur to me at the time - possibly because I had impossibly high expectations - but I think the criticisms stand up. And I don't want to get ahead of myself by talking about Age Of Ultron, but I do think it's interesting to note that it seems to address and correct some of the issues with this film. The fact that Hawkeye gets a major part arc, that the film makes a point of The Avengers having to painstakingly kill every last Ultronbot, that every argument between the Avengers lingers and drives a wedge that informs the rest of the movie... I think Age Of Ultron is, in some ways, Whedon reacting to some of the failings he sees in this first film.
Ed: I’m actually watching Avengers Assemble right now. SHIELD are building WMDs because Asgardians turned up and smashed up a town? Thor points out the bad Asgardians are a small minority but Fury says: "You're not the only ones out there." So all outsiders are to be feared. Essentially SHIELD are the EDL and the Asgardians are Muslims. Nick Fury's an eye-patched Tommy Robinson, radicalising a disparate bunch of football hooligans. And they let children watch this.
Harry Dean fucking Stanton has a cameo?
Ali: You’re quite set on rewriting the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a Danny Dyer vehicle, aren’t you? Fuck me that’d be a brilliant idea. A Danny Dyer superhero movie. He’d be a great Aquaman. “Got me fackin’ flippers on. Cunt.”
Ed: Funny you should say that because I just hit this scene and had to pause it and find Dyer's Avengers vid from when he went through that brief, glorious phase of overdubbing movie scenes, of which this was the pinnacle.
Luke: One thing that surprised me about rewatching Avengers, and in light of these conversations, is they do show quite a lot of blood - normal people getting scratched and bleeding in fights, etc. There's real collateral damage (re Loki: "he killed 80 people"). And poor Agent Coulson - Phil! - blood all over his antique trading cards. It's quite realistic violence, when really it should be more cartooney. Was it some kind of watershed victory for people who love seeing blood but want to take their kids to the cinema? I don't recall the history of the BBFC ratings or any fuss about it, and I shan't google it.
Ed: I'm often guilty of missing explanations for stuff like this so maybe I have. Did I miss why Banner can suddenly switch Hulk on when he wants to and has control over his actions while he's in the green, explaining that he's "always angry"? If that's the case why couldn't he control it, or stop himself trying to fill in Black Widow, earlier on?
Matt: The whole 'I'm always angry' line later on tracks with this for me. To me it reads that the Hulk is always under the surface and Banner is doing all he can to keep a lid on it. So, yes he can turn into the Hulk at will if he just lets go of his self-control, but it's not like he can easily switch back. Works for me, and it gives Banner a profound character arc throughout the film.
Talking of arcs, I think I mentioned it before in one of the other chats, but I'll say it again: My favourite thing about the film is that we see Tony actually graduate into a hero. It's a fairly subtle shift, but in his solo films, he was always acting in retaliation to something - his weapons being misused, other people attacking him, etc - but he becomes the true hero of the film here. In his showdown with Captain America earlier on, Steve says "You're not the guy to make the sacrifice play" but that's literally what he does at the end of the film to save the day. That's the moment that proves his worth as an Avenger.
Becs: Can we talk a minute how Banner's admission that he attempted suicide is just brushed over, and then essentially used as a plot point because of the effect Loki´s pointy stick is having on everyone?
Whilst Captain America and Iron Man are having a dick-measuring contest, he admits that he's so tortured by his 'superpower' he has tried to kill himself, but "the other guy" won't have it so he's condemned to this unpredictable cage of rage. And then it's a case of "we've tracked the gamma rays, so cheer up, buddy".
This passed me by the first time, but shook me up a little second time around.
Ali: It's a bit much in retrospect, isn't it? Having a character admit to suicidal tendencies in the middle of a Disney movie? Kind of speaks to the balance they have to find between flirting with adult topics to keep grown-ups interested while maintaining the facade of a family flick. See also: Tony Stark's drinking problem in Iron Man 2. Never so much as mentioned again.
I'm on the fence because although I really love the individual Marvel movies and the different genres of storytelling they afford, I am also a sucker who falls hook line and sinker for the ensemble ones, just because the scale is always bigger, there's more spectacle and generally the stakes feel higher. For example, I loved the first Ant-Man but Ant-Man & The Wasp felt like a bit of a comedown after the insanity of Infinity War. It shouldn't be overlooked that the first Avengers was SO praised because the team-up dynamic was still so fresh and exciting. There was no franchise fatigue then like there perhaps is now.
Luke: As someone who follows Marvel from the sidelines, it was good to get the interesting speculative questions addressed: who would win between Thor, Iron Man and Captain America? How could you trap the Hulk? Why doesn't Banner end it all? The line is great, by the way: "I swallowed a bullet and the big guy spat it out" or something like that - almost poetic in a modern kind of way, which softens the whole suicide thing imho. He didn't just scream "I TRIED TO KILL MYSELF" which Batman would shout in a DC film, probably at his butler. But yeah, I appreciate they took the time to cover some of the fun talking point stuff for people who don't know the characters and situations so well.
Ed: The suicide attempt thing is something else that's completely at odds with his later revelation that he can switch Hulk on and off at will. It could well have been part of his journey to discovering that, but it's not explained. The Banner character's maybe suffered a bit from not having his own Ruffalo film.
Matt: The Bruce Banner suicide thing is interesting because, for me, it's Whedon solving a couple of things about the character very economically: it establishes Bruce's resentment of still turning into The Hulk (when the last shot of The Incredible Hulk kinda confusingly suggests that he likes/enjoys it) and it shows that he is resigned to the fact, that he can't do anything about it. He spent the entirety of his solo film running around trying to find a cure, and I think the line establishes here that he has given up on that. Interestingly, I read somewhere that this line was actually a deleted scene from The Incredible Hulk, which got written out when execs realised they probably shouldn't open a superhero film for kids with their main character trying to off himself.
Becs: Can you be economical when you’re talking about something as tragic as suicide, though? We know that Banner is tormented but adding this point into a kids’ film just seems tonally off, especially when it’s just quickly brushed aside. He’s scared he’ll never come back (which then happens in Ragnarok) and he’s talking about how he tried to shoot himself in the head. I don’t know, it just doesn’t sit right.
Luke: Are these kids films though? Nazis, war, guns, death... pretty bleak, and this is all well before Thanos. I'd say they're more aimed at IMMATURE ADULTS (Ali bold this please) [Nah – Matt]. Always surprised when Captain America turns up on a children's ward in a hospital all smiles with that jaw of his, like, you're not The Muppets mate - you give goons brain damage.
Becs: If you put your characters on sweets, lunch boxes and bedding, I’d say they’re kids movies.
That’s not to say they can’t deal with adult themes (Nazis, war, suicide) but there’s blowing stuff up and not seeing the dead bodies with claret splashed everywhere, and then there’s talking about mental health and using it as an anecdote.
Luke: Going back to Chris America and Robert Downey Junior showing up in kids' hospitals; there's been an ongoing real-life movement that's slowly sprung up from these films which has blurred the lines between the characters and the actors. It started around the time of Avengers Assemble as a marketing gimmick, but during the US elections and ensuing shitshow, it took on a life of its own. Chris Evans especially is quite vocal about the state of the US and doing good for truth and justice and whatnot. He's a great ambassador for Marvel's values - what I perceive them to be anyway - and it's very inspiring in this modern day when we're still somehow dealing with fascists and various institutionalised -isms that he'd use his platform for altruism and make himself a target, and makes me feel like a total shitbag for ogling Scarlett Johansson in her Black Widow costume.
Matt: Obviously the best bits are seeing the Avengers all play off each other, and its easy to see this is where Whedon's real strength lies. Not a single line of dialogue goes wasted, and they always feel perfectly suited to the character saying them. That sounds stupid, but what I mean is... choose any character - say, Steve Rogers - and look at just his dialogue and you'll see that it's all very relatable to the core of his character. Here's the first exchange at the top of IMDB's quote section that includes him:
Yes, Thor dialogue is easily recognisable with all the Shakespeare speak and other-worldy information, and maybe it's obvious that Banner should be all science and diagnosis, but Cap's input is just as character-centric. His lines here are about about strategy "What's his play?", and then, when Thor lays all that alien information out, the bit he picks up is "An army". I just think the script here is incredible in having a perfectly clear voice for everyone, and I bet it'd be hard to find many lines here that sound like they could have been said by anyone other than the character they were attributed to.
And of course, this just so happens to be one of the funniest exchanges in a film filled with them.
Becs: Has anyone mentioned "mewling quim" yet? That was almost as shocking as the suicidal thing (but in a good way). Does quim mean something else in America, like fanny does?
Ed:Yes, I think they call bum-bags "quim satchels".
Matt: When I interviewed Joss Whedon (*CLANG*) I congratulated him on that line as I was leaving the room and he just said something like "Yeah, I was really surprised that made it in the film". So I think he knows it means bums or whatever.
Becs: FYI: quim doesn’t mean bums, Matt.
Matt: Can I also say that one of the things Whedon really gets right here as a director is actually having some truly iconic shots, particularly the circle around the Avengers when the huddle back-to-back. That kind of thing is really missing in the DC films - I can't think of any real air-punch moment in Batman v Superman, for example, that reveres its main characters in the same way that this film reveres the Avengers. And that tracking shot of all the Avengers fighting the Chitauri in turn is the first time I think a superhero film did something close to emulating a double-page splash in a comic-book. Although, Whedon does this much better in Age Of Ultron...
Ed: tbf I pretty much punched the air when Batman hit Superman over the head with a sink.
Luke: My closing observation about all of this really is that Avengers Assemble was such a success that we can now consider cinema as pre and post-MCU. Like how Jaws and Star Wars created the blockbuster, Jurassic Park and The Matrix levelled it up, Marvel has come along and dominated the last decade of film. All they had to do was pour hundreds of millions of dollars into it, commit vast resources of FX workers, and make sure Robert Downey Junior didn't die.
And The Rest