I waited on seeing this until I finished my thesis, hence the lateness. The short version: I liked it. I could see myself growing to love it, even. But I don’t think I love it now/yet. It feels scaled back in a lot of ways: obviously, yes,
of story, of cast, but philosophically it’s not as elaborate as it could be, and the plot is fairly predictable and not all that twisty. Much of the dialogue and some of the character arcs read to me as too on-the-nose and obvious. But what the movie seems to me, on a first viewing, to lack in subtlety it makes up for in, again, size of the story, and clarity of it. This is a story that gives genuine dramatic arcs to a series of characters and has a central theme that runs through all of it, and manages to make the big inevitable action blowout fully dramatically satisfying by letting all its characters resolve their own conflicts in the big battle. It is pretty impressive.
So the protagonist of The Avengers is…“the Avengers.” The movie is, obviously, about the team first and foremost. Bracketing the team are, primarily, Loki and Fury, both of whom desire to control the Avengers for their own purposes. Loki sets up what the movie is “about” at the very beginning (or early on) by both brainwashing Hawkeye and Dr. Selvig, and by declaring to humans that not only are humans going to be ruled, but that they are going to be free from freedom. This never much goes anywhere plotwise except for the brainwashing of Hawkeye and Selvig, nor is it directly discussed all that much, later on—the question of whether humans would be better off ruled, etc., probably because it's too ridiculous an idea, on its surface, for anyone to take seriously. But it sets up the central question of the film (arguably), which is about the Avengers themselves. They are a bunch of people who are all too powerful to control, who are, you know, UNRULY. And so they represent not only the best of humanity, but have huge character flaws. They represent what human freedom looks like: a bunch of guys who choose, and can, if they want to, damn the whole Earth, or kill each other, or save it. As Banner says, “We're not a team! We're a time bomb!” They are, basically, “humanity,” in its weirdest forms, yes (how non-human Thor fits into this will be discussed later), but humanity, and the question is whether they will let themselves be manipulated by the guys with the institutional power—Loki with his Chitauri army, and Fury with SHIELD, both of whom play on the team’s emotions.
Loki wants to get the team angry, so that he can bring them to fight the Chitauri at the end of the movie. In particular, this means ensuring that the Avengers, as the representatives of human team interaction, the choice to behave as part of a community, will be defeated by his highly regimented army. In order to manipulate them, Loki goes for personal slights and by playing. He plays on Natasha's guilt about her past by taunting her, Hawkeye's understandable desire for bodily autonomy by possessing him [plot aside: it's from Hawkeye that Loki learns about the Avengers, right?], Cap's patriotism and the related desire for his death to have definite meaning by playing Hitler in Germany (is this kind of an offensive thing for the movie to do?) and thus indicating that Cap “died” for no reason, Tony’s narcissism by stealing his building of lights, Banner’s shame about his condition by manipulating him into anger and Hulking out, and Thor’s sense of propriety and big brother superiority complex by besting him and locking in him the prison cell. Of course, with Natasha, Cap and Banner, you can argue that he is playing on some of their unselfish traits (desire to atone, desire to defeat Hitler, and desire to not hurt others with your own rage are all good things), BUT they are still primarily, I think, about their own self-image. Because Loki is obsessed with his own self-image, he can't imagine anything beyond that motivating them. (Of course it’s Tony who figures it out.)
By contrast, Fury wants the Avengers on board for a good reason: to save the Earth. That said, he works for the human order, and is secretly working on lots and lots of guns. And the guns don't make a direct appearance, but the destructive tendency that they represent shows up later in the movie, where the human order up above are about to blow Manhattan up to save the Earth, which Fury is, you know, against, but also can’t himself stop. Guns have no purpose except to destroy, which is not to say that they can’t be used well, but they end up creating a similar situation to the Chitauri army on Earth, with interchangeable soldiers given weapons to use force under orders from above, as opposed to individuals choosing to use their own remarkable abilities. The way Fury manipulates them is that he withholds information which is a mechanism of removing their agency, which keeps him in parallel with Loki. He also appeals to their egos and self-image, rather like Loki: Banner is the best at gamma rays! Thor is the only one who knows Loki! And so on. But he does build them up rather than tear them down. And more importantly, his biggest act of manipulation late in the film is to use, crassly but effectively, Agent Coulson’s death to motivate Tony and Cap. This is, you know, gross: I do tend to think that Coulson wouldn’t have minded, ultimately, but it’s still awful to use someone’s death (and lie about it) to push people’s emotional buttons. (I hope that Agent Hill is supposed to be a little disgusted with Fury—I need to check Cobie Smulders’ expression more carefully next time—because otherwise that scene has no purpose except to explain what we should already know/be able to figure out, so….) But this last manipulation is not quite about them, the Avengers, in the same way that Loki’s manipulations are. I mean…it’s still egotism, in a way (Phil thought of Cap as a hero!), but it’s very much, “Live up to someone else’s idea of you, for them” rather than appealing to, and attacking, their own self-perceptions. It’s about fostering a community spirit, a world outside them, and about suggesting that the beliefs of others can positively impact them.
And that is what Loki lacks. He doesn’t trust or like his community of Chitauri and they don’t trust him. They can make deals that are mutually beneficial, but that’s as far as it goes. And indeed, the carefully calibrated deals he makes leaves no room for freedom of choice, obviously, and the lack of freedom of choice means that the actions of sincere, spontaneous friendship/love/heroism/etc. actually mean something, and are inspiring. So, Loki, because he thinks he’s fully constrained the Avengers and thinks he knows them, is bound to lose. As Coulson said, it’s in his nature. This is…well, actually, Buffy season four is pretty much the first time Joss did this plot, and he keeps doing it, but Adam is a good analogy, despite being deeply unpopular. Adam assumed people would act with self-interest, and be unable to overcome their emotional triggers in order to work with other people, play well with others, etc., and that’s why he couldn’t “understand the source of [Buffy and her friends’] power.” Similarly, while Loki doesn’t believe the Avengers will ever be able to overcome their problems and work together, Fury assumes they will be able to, because he does basically believe in people. The Avengers fighting is what Loki expected, but them being able to work together is something he didn’t. If Loki’s army of Chitauri, who from what we see have total conformity and complete servitude to their leader of the moment, represent the complete subjugation of individuality and individual choice, Loki’s goal to impose, Loki himself, who cares for no one, is the case of total individualism, unable to conceive of emotions beyond the self. These enemies are, of course, the extremes which the team has to, and does, navigate.
The way that Fury changes his position over the movie is that by having faith in human individual choice, he lets the Avengers deal with the Tesseract and decide to send it with Thor back to Asgard. This contradicts his orders, of course, but he believes in the Avengers’ rights to do what they think they should, with this power, having been the ones to fight for it. While he engaged in manipulation throughout, his basic belief in individual choice is paid off at the end of the film. (There is, or should be, some ambivalence here, I think: isn’t the prince of Asgard the ultimate authority figure? Isn’t sending the big power off is a way to get remove human choice from the equation? But I think that it’s a matter of removing the power a) to create impersonal weapons, and b) from the big centralized human institution which is anti-choice. Maybe Asgard is a stupid monarchy, or maybe it’s a good monarchy, but it has a better chance of making use of the power properly than Earth does as it is.) Fury gets some, if not total, redemption for his for-the-cause manipulations by siding with the Avengers and the innocent humans against the administration in terms of both the launching of nuclear weapons and the loss of the Tesseract.
On the meta level, we can say that Fury and Loki both stand in for Whedon (and Marvel, but I’ll stick to Whedon). Manipulator and storyteller, Whedon brings the Avengers in (Fury) and finds ways to make the event personal for all of them individually by hurting them (Loki). He kills Coulson (Loki) and uses his death to further the narrative (Fury). But of course, Whedon is more Fury than Loki, because at his core, he not only expects the Avengers to win (he will write them winning!), but as he’s said in interviews, he wants them to win. He doesn’t think Watchmen, the film, is necessary yet, because there have been almost no good superhero movies where we examine why we need superheroes, rather than why we don’t. The problem with superheroes is huge, and needs to be examined, and I can understand the argument that this movie, while vetting it somewhat (in particular, by reminding us of our main cast’s big character flaws), doesn’t go far enough, and that the “old-fashioned”-ness of the story goes against it. But I like the idea that good things that superhero stories can do aren’t fully behind us: that we can still find hope in trying times from them.
And I think, you know, I think Joss has set up the philosophical conflict here of ragtag bunch of misfits vs. homogenous army in the same way that Fury and Loki have. Fury thinks ragtag misfits will have a better chance than guns; Loki is more or less certain that misfits will lose. We’re supposed to feel awe at seeing superheroes win by being themselves, absolutely and truly, and by sacrificing the community. Superheroes are meant to be, in part, identification figures, so that we can identify with one of these heroes and see the possibility of ourselves being extraordinary, not only applying our particular skills at the very best of their ability, but also overcoming, in the moment, our proportionally huge flaws. And we are in this world together. Pure selfishness is not the answer (Loki), nor pure conformity and servitude (the Chitauri), nor partial self-annihilation (the nuke sent to Manhattan): we, as individuals and as a species, can believe in ourselves, believe that if we are careful, pay attention to one another, and channel ourselves for good, we can save the world, rather than destroy it. As a species, we are “super”: we are changing the very face of the planet. But we get to choose what that face will be, and by seeing fictional people doing that, we can have hope that we might do/be the same. All that said, that Loki is the villain and Fury, while ultimately a positive force, is still an ambiguous figure, should let us know that ambivalence is coded into the film about the role of the storyteller, and perhaps about the story itself. But the ambivalence is still dominated by positivity about people, about teams. This is the movie about triumph of belief and hope over cynicism.
So, before I go on to talk about the individual Avengers, and any other points that remain, let’s talk about the problem with this type of story. It’s all very well that Loki’s character flaws—primarily his narcissism, lack of faith in community, as well as his God-complex inability to conceive of humans as powerful—lead to his undoing. But I can’t help but feel that the human forces wiping out Manhattan with nuclear weapons is something he should have thought of. And more generally, as great as it is that Loki and the alien army’s underestimation of the Avengers follows from the thematics, it still means that the plot requires Loki to arrange his own destruction by bringing the Avengers to the big battle, in a way that blurs the narcissist/idiot boundary that is pretty blurry for mostly all megalomaniacal villains in superhero lore. And I think it’s too convenient to imply that it’s just impossible for any narcissist or any constrained hierarchy to understand how a group of individuals working together for the community spirit can work much better than expected. Since the battle scene itself shows the Avengers working very impressively, but not, to me, in a way that absolutely defies reason or prediction, I’d be more comfortable if the movie more clearly established that this really was Loki’s best shot, rather than making him just look stupid for taunting the Avengers into coming after him. I will have to watch the movie again, but I’d say there are two ways this could work for me, especially in conjunction with each other.
- Loki does hope that some of the Avengers will get killed through his plotting throughout the film—for example, when the Hulk smashes SHIELD—and desires to piss off the remaining Avengers enough to ensure that any remaining ones die in the Ice Giant attack. This way, he is not deliberately protecting the Avengers until the big night out, but just ensuring that he can manipulate them well enough to ensure that none of them survive the whole plan.
- Loki doesn’t really know if his Avengers plan will succeed, but has to try. If the Avengers are not defeated, then people won’t bow to him; if the Avengers are not defeated, they will come after him. Basically, it’s not arrogance, exactly—though his constant lack-of-fear is—but desperation.
- The Chitauri are pretty much going to kill Loki if he doesn’t succeed at getting the Tesseract, so he has to do the best he can.
I do think it’s worth noting that Loki tried to do the possessing thing on Tony, and it is certain that things would have turned out differently on him. (And, yeah, this is not dissimilar to the trick that was used with the Operative’s death grip and Mal, in Serenity. This moment is much quieter than the equivalent moment in Serenity, but it’s…well, it’s nice to know Joss is using his whole bag of tricks here, and probably he doesn’t mind reusing on the thing the most people everywhere will see one of the key moments in his film that a much smaller number have seen.)
Now, onto individual character arcs for the five Avengers who have their own franchises or in Natasha’s case are about to. Hawkeye probably has reservoirs of awesomeness I’m unaware of, but he spent so much of the movie possessed. Of the franchise characters, each character’s arc is fairly simple, but is done well, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there were many hidden depths.
Banner: I start with Banner, because he’s my favourite, and also because his plight is the one that is the closest to representing the team itself. Banner doesn’t trust himself: he doesn’t want to acknowledge the Hulk as part of him, and he believes that the Hulk is all bad, untrustworthy. In a way, he wants freedom from “choice”: he wants the Hulk to be totally submerged and controlled, he wants never to be in a situation where he has to use that. But when he discovers that he can fall from the sky and, as the Hulk, he avoids hurting people, he realizes that losing control isn’t so bad: that it’s possible that his instincts, that the Hulk which is in some senses the most human part of him, is worth saving. When he Hulks out in the final battle, he even saves Tony, the guy who encouraged him the most to let his inner Hulk out. In a way, the superego/id metaphor that’s clear about this maps this way: Bruce’s control is social constraints (again, the military as an example; Loki’s plan to rule the whole world is another), the Hulk is the human element, the problem of human irrationality and spontaneity and emotion and choice. The Hulk is still a monster—he punches Thor out!—and still needs to be harnessed correctly, but he is not intrinsically evil, either, which is moving. As a more general aside, I love his secret to keeping the Hulk at bay. “I’m always angry,” so he never gets angry; his guard is never down enough for him to be blindsided by anger. That is, until SHIELD in the middle of the film. Central lesson: willingness to trust his “dark” side, inner nature.
Natasha: I have less to say about her than I’d like, though this is a good piece on her (though yikes, I wouldn’t recommend reading the comments). She is, of course, amazing: cool professionalism, emotional manipulator in the Nick Fury tradition, but whereas Fury does it with the whole might of SHIELD behind him, Natasha does it with…um, nothing, I guess? She does it with herself. If anything, her arc is probably most centrally about realizing that she can have authentic emotional connection to the fight at the end, allowing herself to hope for superheroism as a way to make up for her past. It’s what Loki taunts her about, and she refuses to let him get to her. (Let’s note, by the way, how smartly done it is that it’s only Banner that actually scares her; she seems to be rattled by Loki, but it’s part of the interrogation. She is totally inauthentic in the interrogation at the beginning, but it’s suggested that she calls on real feelings in her interrogation with Loki, and it’s partly the use of those real feelings that gets her through the final battle in which she’s expected not just to get in, get information and get out, but stay for a potentially life-risking operation that requires faith above and beyond professionalism. This larger arc is reflected in the smaller one with Banner: she mostly needs to play act faith in him at the beginning of the film in order to get him onto the project, but when he’s about to Hulk out later in the movie, she is, I think, genuine in trying to swear on her life for him. In a movie that is partly about reclaiming old-fashioned hope and wonder from a cynical world, the discovery of finding the truth behind her icy veneer and gaining power from it, rather than making herself more vulnerable as a result, is quite nice and, like Banner’s arc, close to the centre of the film. Central lesson: world-saving as more than a job, but an emotionally live wire.
Tony: His narcissism is the one that matches closest to Loki’s; he is so used to being the smartest guy in the room that he basically assumes that he doesn’t have to listen to anyone else. And what’s great about this movie is that it actually takes a Team Movie to deprotagonize this guy; as long as he’s in a movie with Iron Man in the title, he is pretty much still going to be the star, no matter what happens in the movie to humble him or see the value of others are whatever. Here, he genuinely moves to take orders from others, falls on the grenade at the end of the movie, and confronts the negative mirror of his own narcissism when Loki takes over his tower. We also see that his flaw is his source of strength: his lack of traditional heart is what makes him invulernable to Loki’s mind control. Tony also recognizes Phil as a person rather than as “Agent,” and is inspired to die partly because of Coulson’s sacrifice. Noteworthy: I was surprised by the fact that Tony takes to Bruce so easily, and I realized that he actually is not just an egotist: he genuinely really just nearly always goes for/trusts the smartest guy in the room, and when Bruce is around, that is, well, it’s still Tony, but he gives enormous amount of credit to Bruce and doesn’t really seem to be threatened by having someone who’s his intellectual equal. On the other hand, while his constant needling of Bruce to Hulk out is partly a genuinely kind act, it’s also an expression of self-centredness. Tony is constantly “Hulking out” in his own, milder ways, and Banner’s control threatens Tony’s belief that he is living the best life he can live. So he needs to convert Banner to his life. Tony, of course, gets the last shot of the movie, along with Pepper; but it’s a shot that reaffirms the group’s centrality, as well as what it requires for someone as self-absorbed as Tony. His building is partly destroyed, and the monument to his own vanity (“STARK”) has to be partly trashed to make room for Tony’s involvement in the team (“A”), in one of the film’s best visual metaphors. Central lesson: willingness to acknowledge and sacrifice for others.
Cap: While Tony’s reaction to Coulson’s death is to recognize, finally, the value of people who aren’t geniuses and their own internal lives, Cap didn’t really have that problem. He already knows the value of human life and doesn’t particularly think he’s better than other people who aren’t Tony Stark. What he had a problem with is the identity of “Captain America,” the propaganda tool, the old fashioned playing card hero. It’s weird to say that his arc is just about accepting that he is that guy, and accepting that he’s a hero, but in some ways I think that’s what it is. Which is another version of the central question of Belief in the Avengers: Loki and, early in the movie, Tony, would say that Captain America is a silly nobody; Fury to an extent, and Coulson much more so, would say that he’s a bona fide hero. The movie is really him starting off with just a lot of physical power and anger, and no bearings in a world that’s completely different from him. And of course, initially, he’s a soldier, too—more of a follower than a leader, and uncertain what his individual voice is. Discovering that SHIELD is working for the shadowy supergovernment to make weapons is part of his disillusionment with currently-in-place human structures but also a bigger wake-up call for his inner conscience and moral conviction. In the end, he takes on the mantle of leader, organizing the fight, because he simply is the best soldier of the bunch, the best with people, despite not having other skills (besides super strength, obviously); he uses his skills, gained as a follower of others, to become a leader of others, outside of a clear army hierarchy. Central lesson: willingness to accept the role thrust on him.
Thor: Like Tony, he has to get used to other people having meaning; but in particular, he has to get used to the idea that humans, whom he intellectually admires, have the same rights to exist, and in particular emotional import, as his own (evil) brother. He basically assumes that Loki, and protecting the Earth, are his responsibility and duty, but has trouble seeing humans’ concerns as valuable, and has trouble believing that humans are trustworthy to protect themselves or worth listening to about how to deal with their own problems. His authoritarian attitude, while not submerged at the end of the movie—it’s he who takes Loki and the Tesseract into custody—are still lessened. He submits to Cap’s leadership in the final battle, is willing to take the slight of Hulk punching him, and though I’m not sure about this one, I’m pretty sure he fights Loki with all he’s got, and doesn’t hold punches on him because he’s closer to him emotionally/power-wise than humans. Central lesson: willingness to acknowledge human power, authority, and experience.
None of these arcs are stories that couldn’t be done in their own narratives—Cap’s, especially—but I think in all cases, though especially Tony’s and Thor’s, these are enhanced by a narrative that does not prioritize one of them over the others. Captain America is the organizer of the fight, maybe even the leader, but he doesn’t make the grandest gesture. Thor walks away with his brother and the power source, but makes fewer decisions in the fight proper than the others. Bruce is maybe the decisive player in the battle and gets to trash Loki, but he has little rational-mind control over the battle. Tony makes the grandest gesture of them all, so…okay, maybe in Tony’s case there’s not as big a “but,” but I hope you get my point.
I do think that these arcs are streamlined to a point that might be a flaw in the movie. It’s kind of a concession that is necessary. And I’m not sure any way around it. Still, the fact that the Hulk isn’t so bad anyway is a little unavoidable, isn’t it? Tony’s sacrifice is weakened a bit because we know that won’t be it for him, but it’s still worth noting that he was willing to make it. (I am glad there was no discussion of the earlier wire discussion with Cap, because I think it was already a little too obvious as was.) Does Captain America actually have any flaws that the story is going to vet besides “lacks confidence,” and is equating old-fashioned with good with Americo-centric patriotism really so hot? I have trouble actually tracking Thor’s arc in the movie, though maybe the God playing fourth banana was kind of the point. Anyway, I like all the characters’ stories but am not sure if I quite love them, and we’ll see whether rewatch, more thoughts of my own, or more thoughts from the in-person and online community will move me over to love. OK guys: fandom is my Avengers. So, Earth’s Mightiest Meta-Writers, what do you think?