Marvel’s The Avengers: Some Thoughts
PART 1: Why do reviewers treat Joss Whedon as if he were the primary creator of The Avengers?
1. People who read the mainstream press reviews of the film who know nothing about the origin of the film might be forgiven for thinking that the film is the sole product of Joss Whedon’s imagination because these reviewers never mention the primary creators, who are primarily Stan Lee and Jack Kirby (and Joe Simon, who co-created, with Kirby, Captain America.) Why do these reviews give this false impression? Although the primary creators are mentioned in the film’s credits, their absence from 99% of the reviews suggests that Marvel’s PR pushed Whedon as the creator. That’s quite an achievement for someone who had yet to be born when The Avengers #1 appeared on the newsstand in 1963. Marvel could have emphasized the primary creators, and this emphasis would have been echoed in the reviews. But they did not. So instead of coming away from the film thinking what a great imagination Lee and Kirby had, movie-goers are more likely thinking about the “genius” of Whedon.
The film’s credits are also part of the problem. While the names Kirby, Lee, and Simon, as well as others such as John Buscema, Jim Starlin, and Roy Thomas, do show up during the seemingly interminable credits scroll, their lack of prominence clearly gives the impression to viewers that these creators were no more important to the film than someone such as Robert Downey, Jr.’s hair stylist. (Note, however, that none of these names are included in the full credits section for the film on imdb. Why is that? Perhaps because Disney or Marvel supplied these credits.)
Update, May 4, 2012: Kirby and Lee’s name now appear on IMDB, but in the writing credits section rather than as creators of the characters, which is how the names appear in the film’s actual credits. Other names are still missing. Guess how many credits IMDB does list for the film? 2001! Yet, there’s no room for people such as Joe Simon, Roy Thomas, or Jim Starlin, who are, as I already said, actually in the film’s credits. Whether or not they magically appear someday, the fact is that more than two weeks after the film’s release in the USA, they are not on the IMDB page for the film.)
But perhaps, despite not creating any of the film’s main characters, Whedon’s story is so original that he deserves the star auteur treatment. Let’s see if that’s true.
2. I’ve already pointed out that the comic book appeared in 1963 before Whedon was born (in 1964), so he certainly could not have created the concept of The Avengers as a team of super heroes. In fact, the team superheroes concept was not even new in 1963. Marvel itself had already begun publishing Fantastic Four in 1961. But the first superhero team was created long before that: Justice Society of America appeared for the first time in All Star Comics #3, dated Winter 1940. In any case, this film was setup by Marvel at the end of the first Iron Man film. Whedon was hired to make an Avengers film. He did not go to Marvel and suggest that they should do an Avengers film.
3. But if Whedon did not create the team superhero concept, perhaps he had the idea to team up characters that no one else had thought to team up before. Unfortunately for Whedon, most of the primary Avengers, the ones who had films named after them leading up to this film, were already on the team in the first issue in 1963: Hulk, Thor, and Iron Man, although Hulk’s membership was temporary. And Captain America joined the team a few months later, in issue #4. Even the film’s major villain, Loki, was in issue #1 as a villain. The film’s other team members, Hawkeye and Black Widow, were also Avengers long before Whedon was hired by Marvel. At best Whedon can be credited with going back to the first Avengers comic, but this is more of what an editor, as opposed to a creator, does. But it’s more likely that he was handed the membership list and told that this is what he had to work with.
4. Now we come to something that seems to depart from the early comics. In the film, Nick Fury, who works for the US government, forms the team. The team is his idea. The original Avengers form after fighting a common enemy (Loki) when one of them, Ant-Man, suggests they form a team since they fight together so well, and the Wasp christens them, “The Avengers.” The original team had no government connection.
In the film, it appears that since the government forms The Avengers, the funds to operate the team also come from the government. Not so in the comic. Tony Stark, aka Iron Man, is the team’s benefactor and funding comes through a non-profit organization set up by him.
However, Nick Fury was already shown recruiting Iron Man for the Avengers Initiative at the end of the first Iron Man film. Once again, Whedon had nothing to do with this.
It appears that the general plot of the film is derived directly from The Ultimates comic books written by Mark Millar. There is already an animated version of that story called Ultimate Avengers: The Movie. It’s likely the decision to use this material for the film was made by Marvel before Whedon even signed on as director/writer.
5. American film critic Andrew Sarris is the one most responsible for introducing the idea that a director is the author of a film to America. He called it the Auteur Theory, as opposed to Auteur Policy, the term used by the French who were the true originators of the approach. I wonder if he thinks when he sees someone such as Joss Whedon hailed as a genius for a film like The Avengers. Does he have any regrets? Or is he simply proud for changing the way the public sees films?
UPDATE: MAY 24, 2012
In an interview on Hero Complex, Avengers production designer James Chinlund says:
I found the Marvel Studio to be an incredibly supportive and positive environment to work in, I have so much respect for the Marvel tradition it was an absolute thrill to step in and carry the baton for a while and help execute the design for “Avengers.” The process at Marvel is a very inclusive one, lots of voices and opinions, but all focused on a singular goal. In the early days there were epic roundtable presentations where we would present the work and discuss it with the Marvel team. I found these meetings to be always productive, Kevin [Feige, producer], Jeremy [Latcham, executive producer] and Victoria [Alonso, executive producer] all have amazing taste and such a profound understanding of the path they are on, I felt that every time I left the table the ideas were that much more focused.
This description of the filmmaking process as a collaborative art may seem obvious, but it nevertheless is not the image one comes away with from the reviews by critics brainwashed by the “auteur theory” who pin all of the credit for the film on one man, ie Whedon. Chinlund speaks of an “inclusive process” and “the Marvel team.” Although he mentions Whedon elsewhere in the interview, he does not feel the need to mention him in this paragraph.
Has the “auteur theory” gotten out of hand?
For what it’s worth, I wrote the above before even seeing the film at a free screening hosted by HeroComplex. I also see that I’ve mentioned Whedon far too many times, doing the same thing that I said mainstream reviewers did. So to make up for it:
Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers.
UPDATE: JUNE 14, 2013
The above are the character creator credits for Lego Batman: The Movie. Not only can you read them, but they are placed prominently: first credits at the end of the movie; before the film’s director’s credit and before the film’s writer credits. That’s how you do credits for a comic book movie! (Lego Batman, by the way, is pretty good.)
PART 2: The Film
What the film does right
1. The interplay between characters: Thor and Iron Man beating the crap out of each other; Hulk unexpectedly punching Thor; Iron Man’s wisecracks at the expense of Captain America. The characters are neither campy nor overly serious and grim. Whedon (I’ll give him the credit) gets the balance just right. He captures the Marvel style almost perfectly. No surprise, Whedon having written Avengers comics before this movie. So many superhero team stories are like this: the team gets together, then the team breaks up and fights their separate fights, then they come back together in the end. This film is not like that. It knows that the best way to bring out the characters is by having them play off each other more so than play off their opponents. Loki is the official antagonist, but in a way his role is no different than any of the official Avengers. The heart of the film is the characters’ relationships with each other rather than their fight against space invaders. Loki is part of that and that’s why he’s treated at the end more like a naughty boy than a “war criminal.”
Stan Lee, in an interview done in 1967 for Castle of Frankenstein #12 (the issue is dated January 1968), cited the character interplay as one of the innovations Marvel brought to the superhero genre:
By getting this right, Whedon shows that he understands what made Marvel Marvel.
2. This is the first movie where they get Hulk almost perfectly right. But I think the secret to this success was to simply go back to the comics. For whatever reason, the people who made the first Hulk movies did not want to make the character in the comic books. Whedon and his team did. Kudos to them. (Lou Ferrigno, who played Hulk in the TV series, provided Hulk’s voice for the movie.)
3. The scale of the plot, like so many of the post-Jack Kirby Marvel comics, is cosmic. Big heroes need a big canvas against which to act, and there are fewer canvases bigger than an invasion of Earth by aliens from another dimension. (However, they should have been Skrulls, the default alien race invaders in the Marvel Universe. Is it true that Marvel could not use Skrulls because the rights to them are owned by another studio?) Super hero comics should stimulate our imaginations, and make us think big thoughts. A team of super heroes fighting off an alien invasion is at least a step in the right direction. It sure took a long time to get here, though. Remember the big fight scene in the first Hulk movie where Hulk fights off those most cosmic of all cosmic villains: dogs? Remember when Galactus was transformed into a cloud in Fantastic Four 2, thus proving that alien invasion plots can be screwed up.
It should be pointed out, however, that the alien invasion plot, despite having taken so long to find its way into these movies, is already becoming something of a cliché . Transformers: The Dark of the Moon movie as well as the upcoming Battleship both use similar plots. But it’s worth remembering that the aliens were invading Earth in The Avengers comics long before any of these movies way back in the Sixties.
4. The biggest surprise of the movie was neither Harry Dean Stanton, who, in a bit part, gets to ask Bruce Banner if he is an alien; nor the appearance in the post credits teaser of the Jim Starlin created Thanos. (Hero Complex has an interview with Starlin related to the film and this character. Finally, someone acknowledges that the film is based on work done by people other than Whedon and his crew, as well as pointing out that Jack Kirby is not the only creator to get screwed over.) The biggest surprise of the movie was seeing Polish film director Jerzy Skolimowski play a Russian general early on in the movie. Did anyone else notice him?
What the film does not do right
1. The plot is confusing. Critics talk of refrigerator logic: the kind that gets you through the film, but makes you wonder later what the hell was going on. Well, I didn’t have to wait for the refrigerator because I kept wondering what the hell was going on throughout the film.
2. Some of the dialogue, especially in scenes with Loki, is atrocious. However, the truth is that it’s no worse than many of the comics that inspired this movie. So if the goal was to mimic those comics, mission accomplished.
3. The weakest members of the team are Hawkeye and Black Widow. Hawkeye may have come through better if he had not been reduced to a zombie for much of the film. If he had not been a zombie in the employ of Loki until the climax, he could have benefited from being at the receiving end of barbs from Iron Man, just as Bruce Banner and Captain America benefit. But the real problem is that neither Black Widow nor Hawkeye fit with the team, despite being on the team in the comics, is because they don’t have super powers. They begin as members of Nick Fury’s spy team, S.H.I.E.L.D., but eventually end up as Avengers. I’m not sure how that happens, but if some of the real super heroes in the Marvel super hero bullpen, such as the Vision and Scarlet Witch, could not have been used instead of them, then perhaps the fact that Hawkeye and Black Widow don’t have super powers should have been played up. Perhaps something like this: they never expect to be on the team, but they become members by accident because the moment demands their participation, and they perform above and beyond what, as mere mortals, was expected from them and become the equals of the real super heroes. This would have fit because the film already has Iron Man and Captain America questioning the hero credentials of each other. However, the film shows Hawkeye and Black Widow doing things that you would expect only from a true super hero without acknowledging that they are not really super heroes. (The same is true for Nick Fury. For example, one wonders how he, or anyone else, could survive the first scene of the film, let alone the rest of it.)
4. The aliens: Are they robots or organic beings? Or were they alien Iron Men, that is, organic beings in metal costumes? Whatever they are, they are a bore because they are something that someone such as Willis O’Brien, especially, or Ray Harryhausen would have been ashamed to have committed to film: monsters without personality. We don’t even know their motivation. (Yes, a hint of one is suggested in the post-credits teaser, but that’s something that should have come first, not last.) Doesn’t anyone know how to make good monsters anymore? CGI makes it too easy to create hordes of cookie cutter villains who all look and act the same. It’s rather sad to look at the hordes of artists who were enlisted to create these boring monsters. Did Whedon reject the use of Skrulls thinking that he had a better idea? If so, he was very wrong.
On the other hand, boring aliens help keep the emphasis on the superheroes and the relationships between the team members, which is what the film is really about. The aliens function as a foil and little more. Once the team comes together, the aliens literally vanish, their plot function completed. However, now that the team is formed, the next opponent cannot be similarly faceless. The Thanos teaser suggests that this will not be the case.
5. Loki. For the most part, he’s a cliché . He’s the villain who wants to rule the world and have everyone in it bow down to him. He should have more of the trickster about him, like the original Norse god from which he derives. There’s some of that in this film, but it’s not his primary trait. More of the trickster would separate him from the already overcrowded field of super villains who want to be world dictators, with still more coming soon such as General Zod in Man of Steel (Superman) and Khan in Star Trek 2.
6. Did we really need to see another villain, in this case Loki, turning people into zombie slaves? Is Loki’s mode of operation any different than that of the villains in countless TV cartoons and comics where villains turn people into slaves by controlling their minds? And just like many of those TV cartoons, the fate of the world in the end depends on one of the characters, a non-superhero scientist, somehow partially escaping Loki’s mind control to install a safety override on the device that creates the portal. This is the best that Whedon and his team could come up with?
Nevertheless, despite these major complaints, the film did a decent job translating what I loved about Marvel comics into a live action film. My ten year old self would have gone gaga for it.
1. To what an extent is The Avengers, as a team, a stand-in for the United States as Earth’s sole super power and police force? The plot of the film centers on a cube of cosmic power that the government wants to use to develop advanced weapons system. The Avengers are created instead, but their purpose is pretty much the same. However, the relationship of the team and the government is not exactly smooth. Only Nick Fury knows their whereabouts, and refuses to divulge it to government representatives. We of course side with Fury at this point against the shady government figures. However, it should be remembered at this point that they are elected officials in a democracy, whereas Fury is part of a secretive organization that can override orders from democratically elected officials. In fact, in the film these government figures order the nuking of Manhattan. In other words, democratically elected officials are bad guys; unelected figures who are part of a secret, para-military organization are good guys. Let me say it again: the members of government who have been democratically elected want to nuke Manhattan, but the members of an unelected, secretive, paramilitary organization are the ones who save the day. The fascists, not the democrats (with a small “d,”) are the good guys!
Of course, this is the standard mode of operation not just for comic books of the superhero sort, but of American pop culture in general where the heroes often are in conflict with the law and its representatives as much as the villains who operate outside the law. The masked superhero with a secret identity may be the perfect realization of the ideal American hero because he is part bad boy, outside the law and, in fact, untouchable by any law enforcer; part cop, upholder of the law. The Avengers end up being where most American heroes end up: neither completely part of the official law force, nor completely outside it. Of course, the home of the film’s producers, the United States, often operates in a similar way, sometimes ignoring, sometimes honoring international law, depending on its purposes. But don’t we all have ambivalent relationships with authority? Such is the world we live in. And that may account more than anything for this film’s popularity.
2. I grew up reading the comics this film is based on, alone in my bedroom. None of my friends read comic books, and comic books were considered just another weird subculture, despite the presence of Hulk and Spider-Man on TV at various times. In the Fifties they burned comics, and even decades after that it seemed that burning comics was the only use most people had for them. So it’s more than a little surreal to wake up in a world where a film that features superheroes that most people had not even heard of until a few years ago is setting box office records throughout the world.
3. The biggest lesson? That the best guy to make this type of film is someone who knows and loves the comics on which it is based. Of obvious as this may seem, it, sadly, is not always the case. I’m thinking especially of Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer. Isn’t it obvious that the people who made that film had little to no love for the original comics, Fantastic Four 48-50, the Galactus Trilogy? They just didn’t get it, and it’s hard to make a good film about something you don’t get. Whedon gets it. That’s the difference.
4. One of my first thoughts walking out of the theater was that the words “Avengers assemble!” are never uttered. However, it’s clear that they don’t belong. We see the heroes assemble on their own and it’s the best moment of the film. If someone had shouted just before that moment, “Avengers assemble!,” it would have weakened that moment because it would be as if someone had ordered them to assemble. By coming together in a circle formation of their own volition, and without the benefit of someone uttering the famous catchphrase, the moment becomes an image of people with differences coming together despite their differences to unite against a common foe, Loki. Loki, in contrast to the way the Avengers are brought together, creates his team by turning people into zombies that work for him because they are controlled by him. When the Avengers assemble, making it seem as if they come together of their own free will creates a contrast with the formation of Loki’s team. It’s the difference between a volunteer army and one that is drafted.
5. I’m not the only one who thought the above “Avengers circle” moment was a highlight of the movie. However, I can’t keep myself from asking: Who would you rather have at your back, Hulk or Black Widow? There’s no denying that Black Widow and Hawkeye are weak links in this chain. If the same actors had been playing Scarlet Witch and the Vision, this moment would been a lot stronger. But as is, it does not survive “refrigerator logic.”