Writer & Director: Joss Whedon
Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Don Cheadle, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Bettany, Cobie Smulders, Anthony Mackie, Idris Elba, Stellan Skarsgård, James Spader, Samuel L. Jackson, Linda Cardellini, Andy Serkis, Julie Delpy, Josh Brolin.
So I went to see with some friends the new Avengers movie on Monday and have been wrestling with the idea of whether I should write about it or not. I will premise this with saying that I did not like the film, and knowing what type of fanbase Marvel movies have made me worried that it would open me up to some backlash. Ultimately, I needed to write down my thoughts about the movie and hopefully I will be forgiven the difference of opinion. Clearly a movie like this has such a strong built in audience that it can sustain the criticism of a few detractors.
I will also go on the record and state that I am definitely not the target demographic for this movie, and that I am not even close to being an informed commentator on the genre. Growing up I never read comics. One time I remember my mother put an issue of Superman in my stocking for Christmas, and while I did read the issue I was overall more confused than amused (Superman died or something, and then came back as some sort of robot… Not sure to this day what that was all about. I lacked the context for that particular storyline). I never really saw any of the cartoons of the various Marvel and DC movies, with the exception of some Batman episodes, but there too my memories are fuzzy. I have, though, seen several of the movies in recent years especially. The ones I enjoyed most were the first two Tim Burton Batman movies (I know it’s DC, but I am just establishing my knowledge of comics and movies in general) and I really liked last year’s Guardians of the Galaxy: it was fun, funny, and entertaining… It definitely did its job and had me satisfied with the experience. The other movies all left me a little cold, but I don’t remember having strongly negative reactions to any, really.
I should also say that although I don’t consider myself much of a sci-fi, comic, and adventure fan there is a very special place in my heart for the works of Joss Whedon. I am a huge Buffy fan, although not perfect the show holds a very special nostalgic place in my heart. I watched every episode of Angel, even when it got a little crazy even by vampire in Los Angeles standards. Firefly had me falling in love with a western set in outer space – on paper my worst nightmare. Heck, I even watched every episode of Dollhouse in spite of it being easily Whedon’s most uneven television production.
So what happened in this specific film that had me so bothered?
Like many others out there, the most troubling aspect of the film was how it (and most movies in this genre as a rule) treated the female characters, either directly or indirectly. The film started off with a bum note for me that it didn’t quite ever recover from. In an otherwise amusing scene in which all the characters attempted to lift Thor’s hammer unsuccessfully, Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark makes a comment that if he were to succeed his first rule of action would be to reinstate Prima Nocta. While maybe this comment went over the majority of the viewer’s heads, it seemed like a cheap and completely unnecessary joke that has a troubling connection. While it is unclear if this was ever really put to use, Prima Nocta has its history in Medieval Europe and it gave the feudal lord the power to bed any woman under his serfdom with or, predominantly, without her consent. Why the joke? We know that Stark is quite promiscuous, but even for him this was out of character.
With so many characters, story lines, and an ungodly amount of fights and battles the movie was overstuffed. Clearly it was hard to appropriately address the central struggle and provide enough background and backstory for many of the central characters the audience has grown to love. And yet something weird happened with Black Widow. Along with Hawkeye, these two characters were the least fleshed-out of the bunch, partly due to the lack of stand alone films for both and because a casual viewer like me knows very little about them coming in (unlike the Hulk, for example, which has become a more central component of cultural knowledge). Hawkeye, though, is given enough to satisfy the viewer without clunky and out-of-left-field shock. Sure, no one knew he was married with children, but it fit his character and it was just enough to appease my doubts. Black Widow, on the other hand, felt like much too much with much too little context. Suddenly she and Bruce Banner are in love, and not only that, but they are discussing their future immediately after some light flirtation. The characters themselves don’t seem to be completely aware of the level of their relationship, but Tony Stark (again) finds it appropriate to ask her during a fight sequence if she was playing “hide the pickle” with Bruce – clearly if a woman was off fighting elsewhere and not visible to the rest of the gang, the only clear explanation is that she was off having a quickie. During a vision from the Scarlet Witch we see some glimpses of her training to become an assassin (hi there, Julie Delpy, I love you but am not really sure what you are doing in this movie for all of 30 seconds). Afterwards the most infuriating conversation happens. Bruce tries to tell Widow that they cannot be together due to his monstrosity, to which Widow replies that she was forced to have a hysterectomy in order to graduate from her program, thus rendering her a monster too. Why? Firstly, bringing up the inability to have children in the first place felt awkward and unnecessary, but why does this render her a monster? She was a trained assassin with lots of baggage, she had done unspeakable things prior to channelling her resources for good. Wasn’t that enough to go on, enough motivation, enough backstory to build upon? These were some of the most problematic issues I had regarding what could have been a totally badass female character! (The less said about the lack of Black Widow merchandise the better, others have expressed their feelings about this better than I could.)
For a two and a half hour movie I felt very overwhelmed by the amount of things that occur, finding it hard to even keep track of everyone. So many people appear that it’s hard to care for the minor ones that enter, in spite of the fact that these are really the only truly expandable ones. That’s the other issue with these movies. We already know the next decade worth of film releases that Marvel has in store. We know who is getting sequels, stand-alone movies, even television series – so what surprises can we really expect? No one important is going to die, nothing truly horrific can happen and still allow the movie to retain a PG-13 rating. In an era where our favorite television shows can keep us on the edge of our seats because no character is ever safe, these comic book movies full of unbeatable heroes don’t offer the very thing that we have come to love and expect: unpredictability. They are extremely successful franchises that make ungodly amounts of cash, but I wonder how much longer can the audience remain interested when the stakes are so low… Actors, contracts, and aging also become issues. Spiderman is about to be rebooted for the third time in 13 years – how many origin stories can we take? These are questions that may not be answered, especially if these films keep doing so well at the box office. But at a time in which quality in cinema is declining, I may find myself opting to sit out the next superhero reincarnation and pay more attention to films and shows that try to break new ground instead of rehashing the same old storyline over and over.