Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Zak Penn, and Joss Whedon, 2012
So you've got a bunch of bozos with silly code names bickering with each other. No, not the Avengers — I'm talking about Usenet. One of the last things I ever read on Usenet impressed me, though. This was a 2005 article by one "jriddle" that took the reader on a guided tour of the Avengers comic from its first issue to the end of the 1960s. It was called "Avengers Essentially Pointless." As you can guess, it was not a rave review. Read the issues and you'll see why not.
Here's the origin of the team. Loki is imprisoned in Asgard, and wants Thor to come fight him. The problem is that Thor is spending all his time in his civilian identity, Dr. Don Blake. Loki thus uses his powers of illusion to frame the Hulk for the near-wreck of a train, theorizing that this will prompt Blake to change into Thor and fight the Hulk — "All because of Loki, the master schemer!", Loki crows. How this would get Thor to Asgard is left unclear, but, you know, baby steps. The Hulk's friends in the Teen Brigade read about the train incident in the newspaper and radio the Fantastic Four for help. (Apparently Hulk attacks are headline news in Albuquerque but don't make the New York papers.) "The Fantastic Four will ruin everything!" Loki seethes, and redirects the radio waves to "a different wavelength… one which I know Don Blake is listening to!" As jriddle points out, "Unless Blake has, as his hobby, listening to random dead radio frequencies, this means the signal was broadcast to thousands of listeners of a regular radio station," any of whom could have passed word along to the Fantastic Four that there was a message on the radio beginning, "Calling the Fantastic Four!" Instead, three other super heroes, who also happen to be listening to the same radio station ("Lucky I was tuned in to the right frequency!" remarks Tony Stark), decide to respond to the message themselves. Loki is peeved. "Bah! This complicates things for me! I only want to find a way to lure Thor up here! I am not interested in those others!" So he casts an illusion of the Hulk outside the window. "It's the Hulk!" thinks Thor, who was still using contractions back then. Thor slips out ("No need for me to disturb the others!" he chirps) and discovers that this Hulk is an illusion, at which point he concludes, "Only Loki is capable of such wizardry!" and flies off to Asgard. Which was Loki's goal. Which is to say that Loki (i.e., "Loki, the master schemer!") could have accomplished his goal by casting an illusion of the Hulk wrecking stuff outside Don Blake's office window in the first place and that getting the real Hulk involved accomplished less than nothing.
Anyway, so the rest of the issue is a solo fight between Thor and Loki while Iron Man, Ant-Man, and the Wasp fight the Hulk. Thor wins, and then brings Loki from his Asgardian prison back to Earth, solely in order to use him as a visual aid: "This is Loki, my arch-enemy! It was he who planned the train wreck!" Loki then turns himself radioactive — as you do — and announces that he's giving every non-Asgardian ten seconds to leave, after which he will go back to fighting Thor. However, Ant-Man makes up for Thor's own-goal by immediately opening up a trap door underneath Loki. ("It all depended on Loki carelessly standing in the right place… and he did!" Ant-Man explains. Also, the trap door leads to a lead-lined tank, which is a handy thing to have on hand in case a villain randomly happens to have turned radioactive right before carelessly standing in the right place.) At this point, having done nothing but fight amongst themselves and clean up each other's mistakes, the five of them form a team. Why? What's the premise of the team? It's not about joining together to take on the threats none of them could handle alone, because the only actual threat is Loki, and Thor does handle him alone. In fact, had the others never shown up, things would have turned out better, because Thor would have just left Loki imprisoned in Asgard and returned to his medical practice instead of bringing him to Earth to cause more trouble. Furthermore, the Hulk would have been left to his career pretending to be a robot for a circus troupe (don't ask), sparing the city of Albuquerque a fair amount of property damage. Nor does the premise of the group have anything to do with actually avenging anything — they take on the name because the Wasp suggests "something colorful and dramatic like 'the Avengers'" and no one else can think of anything better. No, the pitch Ant-Man makes when he proposes a permanent team-up is that "if we combined forces, we could be almost unbeatable!" The Hulk likes the idea: "I pity the guy who tries to beat us!" Thor chimes in, "We'll never be beaten!" And if I were an editor and someone brought me a script like this, my note would be that this kind of talk might make sense if these five were starting a basketball team, but as it stands, there seems to be a piece missing. They're talking about the outcome of battles that have no stated reason to happen in the first place. Like, are they going to patrol the streets of New York fighting crime like Spider-Man? Are they going to try to proactively solve the world's problems like the Squadron Supreme? They need to have some sort of purpose, or the audience is going to think that in the issues that follow they're just going to be hanging around Tony Stark's house waiting for random villains to show up and try to "beat" them.
Anyway, so it turns out that in the issues that follow they mostly just hang around Tony Stark's house and random villains show up and try to beat them. This actually isn't quite as bad as jriddle makes it sound. Take the second issue, which jriddle describes thusly: "At the beginning of issue #2, the Space Phantom, a new villain, appears, intent on destroying 'the Avengers,' even though the Avengers haven't yet done anything as a team except deciding to found the Avengers — certainly not an event that would have reached the ears of a 'Space Phantom.' This establishes what will become the book's signature 'plot,' if the word may be so abused: Villains just show up intent on 'destroying' them, they fight back." That's not entirely fair. The Space Phantom doesn't just want to destroy the Avengers for fun; he reasons that "if I can destroy the Avengers single-handed, then no power on Earth can stop the total invasion of my people!" And while it may seem odd to put such emphasis on eliminating a team that hasn't yet done anything, it's not unreasonable to think that Thor's reputation alone would make an alien invader count this group as likely to be a formidable obstacle. Even attacking the Earth at its strong point (Tony Stark's house) rather than establishing a beachhead at some undefended spot makes a kind of sense, in that if you figure you're going to have to fight the Avengers at some point, better to do so at a time and place of your choosing. That's what I would say if I were writing in for a No-Prize, at any rate. The cover of Avengers #1 bills the team as "Earth's Mightiest Super-Heroes," and this does in fact turn out to be the niche that the Avengers fill. Unfortunately, this is where the problems with the concept start. These problems include:
- Unbalanced mightiness.
We've seen how #1 is about Thor defeating Loki by himself while the other
future Avengers fight each other.
So what's the plot of #2?
The Space Phantom shape-shifts to mimic the appearance and abilities of
each Avenger except Thor and gets them fighting each other.
The Wasp fetches Thor.
The Space Phantom attempts to use his powers on Thor, but, whoops, Thor is
invulnerable to them and the feedback sends the Space Phantom flying off
into another dimension.
End of story!
And as in the first issue, all the other Avengers do is draw out what
would have been a very short Thor solo tale.
Can you guess what happens in #3?
If you answered, "The non-Thors fight each other for a while and then Thor
beats the actual bad guy," you're almost right.
What actually happens is that everyone fights the Hulk, and then three
pages from the end, Namor shows up; his goal is to "bring humanity to
its knees," and the first step is "to deliver a smashing defeat to the
The non-Thors actually stop Thor from doing his thing lest the Wasp be
injured by Thor's reckless fighting style, and then ineffectually battle
Namor for a while.
Eventually they concede that only Thor can stop Namor, and ask him to do
Thor says no.
Namor gets away.
End of story!
In short, Thor gains nothing, and sometimes even loses a fair amount, by teaming up with heroes with lesser powers. Eventually Iron Man powers up to the point that he isn't constantly blowing fuses or rusting mid-battle and becomes more of an asset, but by then the team is full of even weaker characters like Captain America and Hawkeye. Finding a scenario in which Thor is challenged but Hawkeye isn't instantly killed is always a stretch, and is a big part of what has made the Avengers kind of ridiculous for fifty years now. (This was less of a problem for Stan Lee than for the writers who followed him, in that Stan had no qualms about giving characters whatever abilities the story required. In the space of Stan's first five issues:
- Ant-Man makes the ground collapse underneath the Hulk, drops a metal
can on him, and ties him up in a net, by… instructing ants to do
- Iron Man transforms his right arm into a giant mallet to hit the Hulk
with ("This should be just the thing to do the trick… with
apologies to Thor!")
- Thor channels "an irresistible torrent of cosmic magnetic waves"
to lift a buried spacecraft out of the ocean
- Captain America hypnotizes the Hulk into submission by twirling his shield in front of him ("The reflections are dazzling him!")
…and that's before Hawkeye joins up and discovers some interesting new laws of physics: "I did it! By vibrating the arrow at the correct frequency pitch, I made it actually lift a one-ton safe! I've proven that weight means nothing provided the ultra-sonic vibration is perfectly pitched!")
- Ant-Man makes the ground collapse underneath the Hulk, drops a metal can on him, and ties him up in a net, by… instructing ants to do those things
As the above suggests, Stan Lee had little interest in filling out
Champions-style stat sheets codifying what his characters could
do and writing stories accordingly.
Judging from the backup stories he put into the Avengers' solo books,
Stan had a penchant for a different type of tale.
Call it Twilight Zone Lite — very, very lite.
These were little five-page dealies with plots like this:
- Once there was a guy who was so smart, he could have solved all the
Instead, he builds a spaceship to get away from the "backward
But when he finds a planet inhabited by a more intelligent species, he's
so far behind them that they lock him up in a zoo!
- Once there was a vicious alien race who sent scouts to other planets
to report back on their defenses.
One scout comes to Earth, and discovers that Earthlings are so puny that
the invasion will be easy.
But the invasion never comes — because the scout never reports
back, having landed his spaceship in quicksand!
- Once there was a dying tyrant who worried that he wouldn't be remembered unless he somehow demonstrated his unsurpassed power. So he orders his scientists to build a "delta anti-matter" bomb, with which he destroys an entire galaxy. He thinks he's committed "the mightiest act of all time" — but then we see that all of this is taking place on a microscope slide!
These were the sorts of twists that Stan Lee thought made for good storytelling, and so after the first couple of issues, he brought them to The Avengers. This meant that henceforth the bad guys would in fact get the drop on the titular heroes, only to be defeated in some unexpected way. For instance:
- In #4, Namor makes a deal with a marooned alien: destroy the Avengers,
and Namor will retrieve the alien's spaceship from the sea floor.
The alien turns the Avengers to stone.
But then the Avengers are rescued by Captain America, in his first
He joins up at the end of the issue, but this story still qualifies as
"Avengers saved by outside help."
- In #5, the Lava Men are about to literally blow up the planet Earth,
and the Avengers are helpless after "a freak, one-in-a-million combination
of molecules" takes out Thor.
But then the Hulk attacks the rest of the Avengers, and inadvertently
destroys the Lava Men's weapon in the process.
- In #6, the Avengers have been defeated by the Masters of Evil, only to
be bailed out by an imprisoned super-villain who would later be called the
Trapster but who, this being 1964, is currently called Paste-Pot
"This is your chance to do something to reduce your sentence, Pete! If
you're smart, you'll take it!"
"I'll do anything to get out of here sooner!"
- #7 opens with the Avengers court-martialing Iron Man for missing a
They kick him out for a week.
(We see a couple of panels of Tony Stark spending the week watching TV and
The Enchantress hypnotizes Thor into attacking the rest of the remaining
Avengers, only for her plan to be wrecked when the banished Iron Man
breaks the rules and returns prematurely.
(This issue also features a classic moment in which Rick Jones offers Cap
some sage advice: "You can't just go around fightin' guys because they
used to be Nazis!")
- In #8, Kang, a conquerer from the future, time-travels to 1964 and
easily defeats and imprisons the Avengers.
He is then defeated by the Teen Brigade.
- In #9, the Masters of Evil power up a disgraced industrialist named
Simon Williams, whom they rename Wonder Man.
Their plan: the next time the Avengers fight the Masters, Wonder Man
will pitch in on the Avengers' side to gain their trust, and apply for
Then, at a key moment, Wonder Man will turn on his new allies —
and if he doesn't, he will die, for his new powers are killing him, and
only the Masters have the antidote.
Everything works out as the Masters have planned, and the Avengers are
defeated… but then Wonder Man changes sides again, deciding that
he'd rather die as a hero than live as a traitor.
- The cover of #10 trumpets, "Featuring: The truly different villainy of the evil Immortus!" It is exactly the same villainy. Immortus teams up with the Masters of Evil, and the Avengers are defeated, but then Immortus reverses himself and releases Captain America, allowing the Avengers to regroup. Even so, they don't actually beat the Masters, because the Enchantress just turns back time and undoes the events of the whole issue.
You get the idea. I doubt that Stan Lee meant for the premise of this book to be "Hey, kids, check in every month to see who will rescue the Avengers this time!", but that's what he wrote, so that's what it became.
- Once there was a guy who was so smart, he could have solved all the world's problems. Instead, he builds a spaceship to get away from the "backward Earthlings." But when he finds a planet inhabited by a more intelligent species, he's so far behind them that they lock him up in a zoo!
- Thematic emptiness.
The big success that first put Marvel Comics on the map was Fantastic
Four, which combined devil-may-care universe-building with the patter,
squabbles, and affection of a family sitcom.
Shortly thereafter Stan Lee would top his own success with the creation of
Spider-Man, and it's easy to see why: here was a young guy with real,
everyday problems like paying the rent, who was truly heroic, his sense of
responsibility driving him to fight crime even in a city where he was
considered a creepy menace — and yet in spite of all this he
was light-hearted enough to incessantly crack jokes, many of which were
actually pretty funny, and was an aspirational figure who let nerdy boys
dream of making the scene with Gwen Stacy and Mary Jane Watson.
By the time I was old enough to read comics, Marvel had yet another
flagship title: The Uncanny X-Men.
Stan had created the title as a civil rights allegory with a school
setting, and a decade later Chris Claremont tweaked the premise to offer
marginalized teens a world in which the outcasts weren't just different
from everyone else, but special, and while shunned by their
families and society in general, found a surrogate family in each
And then you have the Avengers. They weren't a family, they weren't a school, they weren't even friends — as jriddle notes, "they run the team like it's some kind of Elks Lodge," with a rotating presidency and system of formal tribunals. They initially have at least a semblance of an identity in that the "Earth's Mightiest Super-Heroes" tag is fairly accurate: Thor and the Hulk are foremost among the early Marvel Universe's powerhouses, with Iron Man and Giant-Man only one tier beneath them. For sheer "might," the only hero missing is the Thing. (Actually, the most powerful characters who were already appearing at this time were Susan Storm and Jean Grey, but neither of them had yet discovered the full extent of her abilities.) But this identity is compromised when Captain America joins, and when the originals all quit and are replaced by Hawkeye, Quicksilver, and the Scarlet Witch, any pretense that they are "Earth's Mightiest" is a joke. Many have therefore suggested that, right from the start, the core idea of the Avengers was a bunch of random superheroes fighting random supervillains (on those rare occasions that they weren't fighting amongst themselves). The first issue I ever bought, #237, certainly seems to fit that bill: Captain America, Captain Marvel, the Scarlet Witch, the She-Hulk, Spider-Man, Starfox, and the Wasp fight Blackout, Electro, Moonstone, and the Rhino. But now consider some of the lineups The Avengers went on to trot out for extended periods — and this is just the main book, not the spinoffs:
- late '80s:
Black Knight, Captain Marvel, Dr. Druid, Marrina, Namor, She-Hulk, Thor
Black Knight, Black Widow, Crystal, Hercules, Sersi, Vision
- early '00s:
Goliath, Iron Man, Scarlet Witch, She-Hulk, Triathlon, Warbird, Wasp
- late '00s: Luke Cage, Dr. Strange, Echo, Iron Fist, Ronin, Spider-Man, Spider-Woman, Wolverine
The point here is that not only are the Avengers a bunch of random superheroes, they're not even any particular bunch of random superheroes. So you can't even say that the themes of The Avengers are the relationships that develop among the characters, because a few issues later, those characters probably won't be around.
- late '80s: Black Knight, Captain Marvel, Dr. Druid, Marrina, Namor, She-Hulk, Thor
Thus, when I say that the Avengers movie is true to the spirit of the comic, it's not a compliment.
I guess I'll start with the random superheroes the filmmakers have assembled. Cap, Thor, Iron Man — these are widely considered the Avengers' big three, so it stands to reason that they'd all be picked, even though, as the lists above suggest, it's historically been quite unusual for all three to appear on the team at the same time. Hawkeye would also be on the short list of archetypal Avengers (along with Hank Pym, the Wasp, the Vision, and the Scarlet Witch). The Black Widow is kind of an odd choice, but I guess that of the early-ish female Avengers she comes with less baggage than the Wasp (whose backstory is all tied up with Hank Pym's) or the Scarlet Witch (Magneto's daughter). And then there's the Hulk, who left the team in 1963 and didn't come back until movie tie-ins required it. The She-Hulk actually has much more of a legacy as an Avenger and would have balanced the sex ratio a bit more, but I can't really argue with the Hulk choice — he is a founder, he's famous to non-fans, and Avengers lineups do usually include a wildcard. But while the individual selections are defensible, look at what they add up to. You've got three characters each of whom can devastate entire countries and three characters who are basically just lightly armed athletes. Deploying this Avengers team is the equivalent of saying, "Okay, let's drop our atomic bomb on Hiroshima, but let's also send in a guy with a bow and arrow just to be sure." You can argue that Cap, Hawkeye, and the Widow have skills that the others don't, but what skills are those exactly? Cap's strategy and leadership? The problem with a character whose strength is supposed to be strategy, as I argued when I wrote about Ender's Game, is that to really convey this, the author must devise a scenario which makes audience members think, "Hmm, I guess I'd do this…" and then have the character come up with a plan that makes audience members think, "No, wait, that's much better!" But when Captain America barks, "You need men in these buildings! I need a perimeter as far back as 39th!", how are we supposed to know whether that's clever, obvious, or stupid? It's just stratego-babble. As for leadership — the problem with writing a character whose power is giving amazing, inspiring speeches is that you need to be able to write amazing, inspiring speeches. In the comics this generally amounted to Cap saying, "This is the time to set your own concerns aside — for the good and safety of the entire world!" and people reacting as if that were amazing and inspiring. We see the same sort of thing in the Avengers movie with the Widow's purported manipulation skills. On a couple of occasions she seems to be at a disadvantage, either taken prisoner or reduced to tears Empowered-style, and then abruptly tells the bad guy that, ha ha, in taunting her he's given her the information she was after. Problem: the manipulation on display is not actually skillful. Like Cap's speeches, it only works by authorial fiat. I suppose you could argue that it's only by authorial fiat that a buff guy can punch a building and make the building fall down, but that's different — we can't feel those punches ourselves and say, "Hey, wait, that felt like getting smacked by a pillow! Why is that building falling down?" But we can listen to the Widow say "y-you're a monster" very unconvincingly and wonder why Loki is falling for it.
Which brings me to another problem with this particular assemblage of Avengers: bad casting. Thor and Iron Man are fine; Cap is passable. The Hulk… I guess Mark Ruffalo's Bruce Banner is more or less in line with some portrayals of the character, but never have I read a comic about rugged, square-jawed Bruce Banner with his shaggy salt-and-pepper hair. You need a weedy little guy. If Edward Norton wasn't willing to come back, well, again, you've already got Thor for your muscleman role, so the Hulk isn't the greatest choice anyway. Call up Alison Brie and stick some Wasp wings on her back. Done. As for Hawkeye — I guess he's not so much miscast as mis-written. The Hawkeye in the comics is brash. He's a rascal. He's not a dour government hitman. Now, is fidelity to the comics — especially when, as noted, the comics are pretty bad — the be-all and end-all in a cinematic adaptation? Of course not. But when Tony Stark is doing the rundown of the Avengers membership, he describes Hawkeye and the Widow as "a couple of master assassins." If you're going to rewrite a character, why rewrite him into a duplicate of a character you're already using? Speaking of whom — Scarlett Johansson as the Black Widow is terrible. She's Danielle Bowden from Cape Fear wearing a catsuit. There's a bit in which she says in her flat mallrat voice, "I'm Russian," and the only way to make that remotely believable would be to have her add, "…Delta Gamma next semester."
That covers our random superheroes and the people who play them, so how about our random supervillains? As in Avengers #1, the chief malefactor is Loki. Given that in his previous appearance he was soundly defeated by one-sixth of the team in this movie, he might not seem like much of a threat, so he's been buffed up with a Cosmic Cube and an army of Chitauri — the Chitauri being the "I Can't Believe They're Not Skrulls" aliens from the Ultimate line. The idea is that the Chitauri will help Loki take over the world and Loki will help the Chitauri take over the rest of the universe. Thematic emptiness: check. But what do I mean by "thematic emptiness"? Consider the Avengers Forever miniseries, which is largely an exercise in continuity cleanup. It had been established that the time-traveling supervillains Kang and Immortus were in fact the same guy — i.e., that Kang, who travels from century to century and planet to planet with massive conquering armies, eventually ages into Immortus, the elderly scholar who manipulates timelines from his office in Limbo. It had also been established that Kang's journeys through time had created any number of divergent timelines, each with its own Kang, and that the more successful of these Kangs regularly convened in great councils. In Avengers Forever #9, Kurt Busiek does a bunch of housekeeping, sorting through all of Kang's appearances and declaring which version of Kang had appeared in which story. To a certain extent this is just nerding it up — but Busiek also crafts a narrative out of this material, as Kang realizes that with each scheme he has become subtler, craftier, more like Immortus. And now he's sixty. He decides to accept the inevitable and enter Limbo to become Immortus. But Limbo is full of "chrono-flashes" from different times, and Kang sees one of Immortus agreeing to become a servant of the "Time-Keepers," and he's disgusted: "This is my destiny?! THIS?!" And he vows that henceforth he will fight on, to keep himself from becoming Immortus. This is a story that is thematically resonant. It's about something. It's about the vow you take as an adolescent that you're never going to become a sell-out — and then you get older, and things that interested you before start to seem juvenile, and you start to see nuance where before everything seemed so black and white, and you have rent to pay… and then you get older still, and you look at what your life has become, and compare it to what you had envisioned, and you pray it's not too late to get it back on track. To turn a bunch of crappy Kang stories into this is a textbook case of what I call the redemption of the ludicrous. But Loki's scheme in the Avengers movie has no such underpinnings. It's just ludicrous.
To be fair, Busiek had the advantage of not having to cram his story into a feature film. Whedon has to introduce and develop six main characters in the interstices of a loudness-war action movie that spans just a touch over two hours. This sort of thing is a common enough challenge in screenwriting that there are a number of established tricks for dealing with it. The problem is that these tricks are inherently kind of terrible. Here are a few that Whedon deploys:
- The three-beat arc.
What do you do when you want to add a subplot delving into how a character
changes in response to the events of the story, but because this is a
feature film, you only have thirty seconds of screen time to work
Split it up into three ten-second moments, scatter them forty-five minutes
apart from one another, and hope that to the audience it feels like more
than thirty seconds' worth of material.
Beat one: Cap says that Tony Stark is all style and no substance; beat
two: Cap specifically says that Stark isn't a self-sacrificing hero;
beat three: Stark is the one who makes the big self-sacrificing move at
the end of the movie.
It's personal growth for the Twitter age!
The hollowness of this trick is evident in the four-beat arc that gets
assigned to the Hulk.
Beat one: the Widow asks Banner what the secret to controlling his
Beat two: Stark asks Banner the same question.
Beat three: Banner starts to answer, but gets cut off.
Beat four: Banner reveals the answer: he doesn't worry about getting
angry, because "I'm always angry."
That's a cool line that pairs nicely with an effortless transformation
into the Hulk, but what does it mean?
As noted, I have Peter David's entire Hulk
run, so I know the answer to that: Banner was an abused child who has been
screaming on the inside with rage and terror since he was two years
But none of that is actually in the movie.
If this were television, you'd probably have a whole episode that started
with the Chitauri leviathan about to attack, and Banner saying, "That's my
secret, Cap," and then the title sequence, and then forty minutes of
flashback in which we actually find out what the line Banner is about to
deliver actually signifies, and then the line, and then the punch,
and then the
It could actually be pretty awesome.
Instead between the setup and the line we get nothing at all.
- The vague summary.
Speaking of childhood, here's an exchange from an old Clint Eastwood movie
that I've heard cited as first-rate screenwriting: "What kind of childhood
did you have?" "Short."
The reply takes almost no time, and is clever — but best of
all, proponents of this style contend, it is suggestive.
It allows members of the audience to mentally fill in their own individual
details, which will be more compelling than anything you could come up
And while this position is not without merit, I'm more inclined to go with
the camp that says that if you really believe this, then you should give
the audience your paycheck.
An author's job is to generate content, not the illusion of content.
When the Black Widow says "I've got red on my ledger," it is meant to
suggest that there is a whole series' worth of black ops adventures behind
this version of the character.
But the line is so clearly a screenwriting gimmick that it serves only to
emphasize that there isn't actually anything there.
- Allusions to nothing. Now, wait, you may protest. There is too something there! Loki recites the items on her ledger: Drakov's daughter, São Paulo, the hospital fire! And that's fair enough — the Widow's backstory does indeed encompass a string of nouns. So… what happened in São Paulo? If you have an answer, you are making shit up, and making shit up is supposed to be the author's job. Or if you don't have an answer and don't mind that you don't, you and the author are basically striking a deal that you will pretend that the reference has a referent, even though you don't know what it is, and the author probably doesn't either. It's Potemkin storytelling. As I discussed in my Captain America article, it makes a world of difference for allusions to connect up with referents that actually exist. In the comics, if Hawkeye and the Widow talk cryptically about their past, we can go buy Tales of Suspense #57 to get the rest of the story. The movie is different. When the Widow says "Just like Budapest all over again!" and Hawkeye replies "You and I remember Budapest very differently," it's an attempt to use four seconds of screen time to imply a wild adventure, but the sum total of available information about said adventure is contained within those four seconds. An interesting wrinkle to this is that, heretical as it may be to the ghosts of the mid-20th-century New Critics, a lot of my reaction to this is based on an attempt to reconstruct the author's psyche. If I believed that Joss Whedon had actually sketched out full biographies of Clint and Natasha before writing this scene, including an assignment in Budapest, and was referring to this already-existing event — even if the event only existed in Whedon's mind and would never be filmed — I would have little problem with it. But I don't believe that. My guess is that he reached this spot in the script, wanted some banter that would both get a laugh and cement the idea that these two have worked together for a while, chose "Budapest" at random, and does not himself know the details of that adventure. And therefore the moment felt to me like screenwriting gimmickry, and instead of laughing, I said "feh."
A quick tangent on the topic of laughing and allusions: As I've discussed in earlier articles, how funny we find things is not simply a function of their comedic content. Someone who laughs at Elroy T. Funbun's Big Book of Golf Jokes does so because, on top of whatever humor the jokes might contain, they bring up associations with an activity the reader finds pleasant (viz., golfing), provide a sense of satisfaction at understanding references that many would not ("Ha ha! I know what the red tees are!"), and even reinforce part of the reader's sense of identity. It's interesting that the effect of all this is to make the jokes seem funnier — it's not obvious that the pleasure of comedy would be goosed by these seemingly unrelated pleasures, but somehow it is. And the "references should actually exist" rule applies here, too. Take sitcoms — they often become funnier once they've been around long enough for characters to refer back to episodes we've already seen. The early seasons of Friends are full of "Ross married a lesbian" jokes, but because his having married a lesbian is part of the backstory, these jokes have to succeed or fail on their own merits. The "Ross has been divorced three times" jokes from the later seasons, on the other hand, benefit from the fact that loyal viewers have been through all these divorces with him as they occurred, and the sense of having (vicariously) shared this history with him and the other the characters gives this material an edge over references to things that happened before we met these people.
As long as I'm talking about comedy — while I did like Friends, I was an even bigger fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, so I was pretty shocked at just how unfunny the Avengers movie is. At one point the writers have Tony Stark say to Thor, "Doth Mother know you weareth her drapes?" — apparently under the impression that they're writing frickin' Deadpool. What happened to the funny Stark from the first Iron Man movie? When I was twelve years old, I used to make comics drawn on 8½ × 11" paper, colored in with colored pencils, and one line I was particularly proud of was when one superhero shows up late and another asks him, "What, did you stop for a hamburger and fries?" Cue laugh track. So here I am 27 years later watching the Avengers movie, and the quinjet is heading for New York City, and the Widow radios to Stark that they're on their way, and he replies, "What, did you stop for drive-thru?", and people got paid for that. At that point I was just waiting for someone to bust out with the "What did the Incredible Hulk say to the dollar bill?" joke that I came up with when I was five. Anyway, I don't want to just sit here reciting lines from the movie and saying they're lame, so let me single out a couple of attempts at comedy that struck me as noteworthy. Both of them involve the scene around the 55-minute mark in which the team discusses Loki's plan. Here's one exchange:
|He'd have to heat the cube to 120 million kelvin just to break through the Coulomb barrier.|
|Unless Selvig has figured out how to stabilize the quantum tunneling effect.|
|Well, if he could do that he could achieve heavy ion fusion at any reactor on the planet.|
|Finally, someone who speaks English.|
|Is that what just happened?|
First, this is basically a rerun of the splash page from Secret Wars #1. But let's ignore that it's not exactly fresh. The joke here is that two geniuses are saying things that are so smart that they're impossible to understand, and then one subverts expectations by suggesting that this language is in fact easier to understand than common speech, and then a regular guy mocks that contention. The problem with this is that the language is not incomprehensible because it requires more intelligence to understand than the viewer has; it's incomprehensible because it is, transparently, dialogue constructed to "sound sciencey." I have frequently been assigned to perform this exact task as part of my job: i.e., take a ludicrous piece of technology from a decades-old comic book and explain how it works in dialogue suitable for a 2010s movie. The thing that drives me a little crazy is that when I actually break down the concepts into simple terms so people can follow them, I get notes from upstairs saying that my explanations are way too complicated, but if I just leave the dialogue as unexplained jargon and buzzwords, as above, I get a thumbs up. Because the audience isn't supposed to understand. The audience is supposed to think, "It seems to run on some form of Science!" Which brings us to Cap's line. Ions, fusion, and reactors are all pretty familiar concepts — when Cap reacts like he's never heard these terms, is it supposed to reflect that he's a relic from before the Atomic Age? That's a pretty good rationalization, but my experience suggests a different reason. See, again, I've been told that lines like "he could achieve heavy ion fusion at any reactor on the planet" will make the audience feel stupid, and my response has always been to say, no problem, I can just explain in simple terms what heavy ion fusion is. But it turns out that the studios don't want you to waste time educating the audience — your job is to signal to the audience that feeling stupid is okay. Cap's line is really there to offer people who don't get it a flattering subject position to slip into.
There is one really big laugh in The Avengers, but even it gets undermined. This one comes during the same scene, when Stark makes his entrance and sprays the room with rapid-fire chatter. He tells the group about the importance of iridium to Loki's plan; offers to fly Agent Phil to Portland; continues the iridium explanation; tags Thor with a smug no-hard-feelings line about their earlier fight; once again returns to the iridium explanation; barks orders at the technicians manning their viewscreens; and in the middle of all this, points at some unseen guy and declares, "That man is playing Galaga!" And for a moment I thought things were looking up, because that's hilarious. The scene continues for another minute and forty seconds, and then comes the button: as Stark and Banner leave, we cut to a guy at his station switching his Galaga game back on. Argh! The callback ruins it! Look at the properties of the joke. It's generationally specific — instantly recognizable to anyone who spent any part of 1982 in an arcade, yet not a phenomenon like Pac-Man or Donkey Kong that your grandmother would recognize. And it's thrown away, buried in a barrage of other lines. In addition to the inherent comedy of the premise — a guy at an elite intelligence facility playing the frickin' Galaxian sequel on his billion-dollar workstation in the middle of a crisis, and casually getting called out on it — it rewards the listener for paying attention and for being part of the in-group who will get the reference. And then the movie turns around and blatantly calls renewed attention to what was supposed to be your private joke! In go this would be called "inconsistent play" — so much so that I can't help but wonder whether the button was some executive's price for keeping the original line in the movie. "Without the button it doesn't work for all four quadrants!" Have I already said "feh" too many times in this article?
I see that I've finally mentioned Agent Phil, so I guess I'll cover him next. Here is a rundown of the first half of the Avengers movie. Loki steals the Cosmic Cube, ensorcells Hawkeye and Thor's physicist pal into becoming his servants, and destroys a SHIELD facility in the process. The Widow collects Bruce Banner and Agent Phil collects Tony Stark. Cap is already on hand, so he and Iron Man capture Loki, only for Thor to interfere, saying that Asgard has jurisdiction. Iron Man objects, and he and Thor have a big Hoo'd-Win fight that concludes with Cap getting involved for a Mjolnir-vs.-the-shield showdown. (Spending a long sequence on the Avengers fighting amongst themselves is very true to the spirit of the comic, which again is not a compliment.) Everyone hangs out on the Helicarrier for a while and has personality conflicts with everyone else, until the bad guys attack and take out one of the engines. While Cap and Iron Man do some repairs, we get a big melee sequence of Hulk vs. Thor and Widow vs. Hawkeye. (Spending a long sequence on the Avengers fighting amongst themselves is very true to the— wait, I just said that.) Loki gets out of his cell and stabs Agent Phil. Thor screams "DO NOT WANT" or words to that effect. Nick Fury attends to Agent Phil, who with his dying words says, "It's okay, boss. This was never gonna work… if they didn't have something… to…" To what? To avenge, presumably. In which case, uh, seriously? These superheroes would have just shrugged as Loki and the Chitauri killed seven billion other people — on top of the eighty people we are told Loki has already killed in the past two days — but they'll fight like devils in memory of Agent Phil? "He made it personal," Stark says, looking at the blood stain. He did no such thing! Killing Uncle Ben makes it personal. Killing Gwen Stacy makes it personal. Killing Agent Phil is a half-step above killing Lentil Merchant, Running Pedestrian, or Faceless Pilot. (I was going to say "or Man #1" but that turns out to be the script's code name for Thanos. Whoops.)
All right, what's left? Going through my list again, I've talked about "unbalanced mightiness" already, so what about the next item, "incompetence"? Remember, in the early comics, the villains are beaten not by the actual Avengers, but by outside forces and by their allies changing sides. And, as in the comics, in this movie once the Avengers stop fighting each other and start fighting the bad guys, they're actually losing — yeah, they're taking out individual alien troops and even some of the leviathans, but lots more are coming through the portal as they do. So how are the bad guys defeated? The Secret Board of Shadowy Figures tries to solve the problem by nuking New York, and Iron Man redirects the missile into the portal, nuking the Chitauri ship, which conveniently makes all the Chitauri creatures who had come through the portal keel over. Which is to say that if SHIELD had just fired the missile directly into the portal in the first place, the Chitauri would have been taken out immediately — no Avengers necessary. I guess there would still be the matter of closing the portal, but even that can largely be chalked up to shifting allegiances, as the scientist Loki had hypnotized into aiding him turns out to have built an Achilles heel into the portal spawner. Stan Lee would be proud. (Actually, that makes it sound like he's dead. I watched a few recent interviews with him and of course he is proud. He's also 100% sharp at the age of ninety and that is awesome to see.)
Finally, I already addressed "thematic emptiness," but I think I'm going to take that back to a certain extent. In the comics, the Avengers form pretty much on a whim, but in the movie they are gathered together by Nick Fury, and around the 68-minute mark, he says why: because "the world's filling up with people who can't be matched," and "we are hopelessly, hilariously outgunned." What does that mean? In the world of the story, yes, there's Asgard, and the Chitauri, and who knows, there might even be some Space Phantoms lurking out there. And it's possible, maybe even likely, that this isn't meant to speak to our world at all — that making a movie about superheroes requires a threatening world to justify their existence, and we're supposed to take it as a crazy alternate reality that has nothing to do with us. But even if that was the intent, the fact remains there are lots of people in the U.S. who seriously believe that we are surrounded by hordes of enemies who have us outgunned, which is hopelessly untrue — I can't say "hilariously untrue," because it's not actually all that funny to cripple the economy with useless and exorbitant military spending due to paranoia. So to the extent that the theme of the movie fosters that paranoia, I think I'd actually prefer it if it were merely empty.
Thus concludes my interminable pan of the Avengers movie. I really didn't want to dislike it, because I am a Joss Whedon fan — maybe not as much as a lot of people on the Internet, but enough that if you forced me to name my favorite television show I would probably have to pick Buffy the Vampire Slayer. So I've tacked on a postscript to this series, in which I write up something by Joss Whedon that I thought was pretty awesome. Check it out.
(By the way, the answer to the Hulk riddle is "Let's be friends we are both green.")