I’ve been thinking a lot about The Avengers since I read this astoundingly dense (and hyper-useful, if you’re a writer or artist) scene-by-scene dissection of the film by Todd Alcott. He meticulously explains why each element in the movie does (or doesn’t) work, what it all means thematically, and how it all supports the multiple arcs and narrative threads that combine to form the overarching story.
Many of Alcott’s filmmaking observations have been stuck in my head over the past few days, but one in particular got me thinking. Alcott says:
Now that our narrative has a protagonist (Nick Fury), the question, as always, is “What does the protagonist want?” Superficially, Nick Fury wants “to save the world,” that most generic of motives. To save the world, Fury must get a group of superheroes from vastly different backgrounds to work together.
Surprise! What the protagonist wants is exactly the same thing as what the writer-director wants! If Joss Whedon cannot succeed in getting his dog’s-breakfast of a cast to mesh, meld and work as a unit, his narrative will fail and no one will go see his movie.
Makes sense, although you could really say the same thing about any movie: the director needs the hero to succeed so people will want to pay to see him succeed.
What it actually got me thinking about was the other way a writer-director imparts himself upon any story he creates. See, no one writes a story about people they don’t care about. And in order for a writer to care about a character, s/he has to see that character as a human being worth relating to. Thus, every character in a story represents that author’s worldview about what that type of person means to the author personally.
Which, really, means The Avengers is the logical culmination in Whedon’s career-long lionizing of the pop culture [white male] geek obsessive as hero. In other words, The Avengers is about how Joss Whedon would be a hero.
Not sure about this? Here are the notes I spewed across my laptop as they came to me in a flood of self-recognition; stop me when you see yourself.
Hulk (Bruce Banner) = the geek who always wants to punch the jocks / racists / idiots at the bar, but there would be repercussions if he did; yet, as the Hulk, you’re invincible AND there are no repercussions (especially because what he finally unleashes himself upon are faceless and anonymous representations of pure militant evil). Thus, Whedon’s Banner is “always angry,” and Whedon’s Hulk is finally allowed to take all the punches that Banner — and Whedon, and we — must pull, every day.
Hawkeye (Clint Barton) = the emotionally distanced technician who’s exceedingly good at something a human actually could become good at if he tried (and he’s funny, and the only girl in the group likes him), which makes him the surrogate for all the geeks in the audience, as they imagine themselves to be (in their idealized versions of themselves).
Black Widow (Natasha Romanoff) = the alpha female fantasy of all guy geeks; she’s smart, impossibly attractive, uses her body as a weapon, allows herself to be fetishized and abused, yet always turns the tables on the bad guys she’s manipulated and beats them down (although she’d never manipulate you because you’re on her side — see? finally, a hot chick you can trust AND understand!), AND she’s secretly in love with the guy who most obviously resembles the proxy character for the male audience. Yay! You have a girlfriend!
Iron Man (Tony Stark) = the smart, funny geek playboy athlete billionaire, AKA what you presume you’ll grow up to be someday — especially because he makes it all look so easy, as though you really don’t have to work all that hard to achieve it because IT WILL JUST COME NATURALLY TO YOU IF YOU HAVE THE INHERENT SKILLS (wish fulfillment!) and then your biggest problem will be which of your amazing achievements you’ll be remembered for.
And who’s Iron Man’s opposite in this film?
Loki! The truth is, if Hawkeye is how the geek audience already sees itself, and if Iron Man (actually just Tony Stark) is what it aspires to become, then Loki is what it’s afraid it would become if it DID have access to extreme power — petty, angry, vengeful, totalitarian, and loved by no one. This is why Loki (who’s a completely irredeemable asshole in most of the comics) works so well as a villain the way Tom Hiddleston plays him in the Marvel film universe: his craven motives are implicitly understood by the audience, because he is us (as we fear ourselves to be). Which brings us to Thor.
Thor = the hardest character to assimilate into this geek self-actualization fantasy, which is (I suspect) partly why Whedon waits the longest to introduce him. The other characters are all shades of Whedon’s own personality (and, by extension, of ours), but Thor is essentially the jock in a room full of geeks. He’s unearthly handsome, strong, athletic, and charismatic — just like the high school jocks that the comic geeks naturally feel like (resentful) insects in the presence of. So how does Whedon make him accessible to the audience? By
- making him awkward and uncomfortable (just like he’d be at YOUR party, if he actually showed up), and
- by focusing his character arc on achieving some kind of reconciliation with his brother Loki, AKA the bad version of us.
In other words, Thor becomes a character the geek audience can reluctantly embrace because HE LITERALLY WANTS TO EMBRACE US (LOKI) AND MAKE UP AND LEARN HOW TO WORK TOGETHER (wouldn’t it be GREAT if the jocks sat down at the geek lunch table of exile and were all like, “Hey, we respect you, and we’re not happy unless we’re all getting along?”). It’s telling that the thrill of Banner’s Hulk indulgence is punctuated by self-satisfyingly punching Thor out of the frame. Thor is a character the geeks need on their side, and will tolerate, but only when he recognizes that their brains are equal (or superior) to his brawn (and good looks).
Captain America (Steve Rogers) = represents the audience’s own naive, childish, and stubborn belief in two things: the individual potential of the audience members themselves to grow up and become the kinds of “real men” that their own dads and grandfathers would be proud of, and the possibility that America actually *could* be the greatest nation on Earth, *if* we all learned how to work together in honor of our mythical common dreams of justice, equality and the pursuit of happiness. Making Cap a dork makes him human (it’s akin to the tactic Whedon uses with Thor), rather than a holier-than-thou espouser of arbitrary ideals. And if this dork can grow up to embody America, so can you, dear viewer.
Nick Fury = just like the Black Widow represents the ultimate male geek fantasy as it pertains to women, Nick Fury represents the ultimate white male geek fantasy as it pertains to black men, on two levels. By making Fury black when he was always white in the comics (until The Ultimate Avengers, anyway), Marvel wins all the politically progressive brownie points AND audience demographic spillover it could hope for while only angering the sub-audience of comics purists and white supremacists whom it would rather not have to take into consideration anyway. This allows the audience (and Marvel) to feel progressive, in the same way that going to Starbucks makes you feel like a citizen of the world: no, listening to Count Basie while you sip your vanilla latte doesn’t really make you actively cosmopolitan, but it’s a visual shorthand for WANTING TO BE SEEN AS SUCH.
Likewise, in the context of the film, Samuel L. Jackson as Fury is the ultimate scary angry black guy who is, in this case, ON YOUR SIDE, IN CHARGE, NEEDS YOUR HELP, AND IS WILLING TO BREAK ALL THE RULES (AND LAWS) SO YOU HAVE EVERY CHANCE TO SUCCEED. He’s really a mix of Thor and the Black Widow — the kind of guy you can’t be and secretly resent because you think women like him better than they like you, PLUS the kick-ass cathartic fantasy of a type of humanity (black, as opposed to female) that you can’t understand and therefore secretly fear, BUT WHICH NOW RESPECTS AND LIKES YOU, so we’re really all cool, right?
This isn’t all meant in any way as a knock on or oversimplification of Whedon. He’s spent his entire career (Buffy, Firefly, Dollhouse) chasing these themes, the same way Woody Allen and Kathryn Bigelow and Spike Lee and Quentin Tarantino revisit their same themes over and over, each time re-peeling the same grape from a different side. And in The Avengers, he finally achieved his thematic apex.
Personally, I’m curious to see how much more time he’ll spend on this particular adventure before he turns his attention to another shade of his themes — feminism, intellectualism, traditionalism, etc. — and explores them in another fictional universe. But for now, the Marvel universe is his self-analyst’s couch, and we get to see every session in 3-D.