Monday, May 07, 2012

Avengers Ensemble or In-Universe cohesion by Joss Whedon

It seems almost as though Joss Whedon, when given the monumental cinematic and financial task of weaving 4 Marvel film franchises into one script and one movie did the unthinkable.  He actually watched all the movies that would be part of his subject matter and deliberately incorporated and distilled themes from those movies and those moviemakers into his finished story.  Compare this with the efforts of George Lucas (Star Wars), Joel Schumacher, Tim Burton (Batman), Zack Snyder (Superman Returns, not 300 or Watchmen), J.J. Abrams (Star Trek), Tom Cruise (I'm putting Mission Impossible solely upon him) and whoever wants to take credit for X3 (I hesitate to say Zak Penn, however, if so, X2 and the Avengers are his redemption) - each of whom were adding parts to a storied franchise.  With little to no (artistic) success.  Much like the awe-inspiring way Jon Nolan and David Goyer can take three different comic storylines - The Long Halloween, The Killing Joke and Batman Year One in the Dark Knight (and it looks like No Man's Land, Knightfall/Knight's End, and The Dark Knight Returns will form the Dark Knight Rises) - and fuse them into a story that seemed only too obvious and logical, Whedon and Penn penned (ha, ha) a script where the dialogue had just enough self-awareness and self-references of what had gone before to give real satisfaction to anyone who had seen the previous movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  I'm starting to see why these two principles - in-universe history/dialogue and story fusion - is so important to comic book adaptations.  And it isn't to stoke the Geek within all of us...

Simply put, comic books aren't tight works of art.  They are loose.  They are serialized.  They are designed to keep you coming back, not put together a densely packed story.  They are drawn out expositions on a single theme or gimmick - break Batman's back, Gotham left for dead, Joker wants to prove that anyone can become crazy like him. They aren't designed to show how various themes come together or play off one another.  These are all great ideas from great comic writers separated by years.  Combine a couple of them into one story with a little inspiration, and the talk moves towards masterpiece.  Joker trying to drive Gordon insane is a powerful idea - a sick and selfish act to legitimize his twisted existence.  Expand that to an urban scale: Joker driving Dent insane (and vindicate his existence by proving even the best can give into madness) while at the same time using terror (the Long Halloween) and the excuse of Batman's 'madness' to try and drive the whole city get the picture.  It becomes dense food for thought and changes the discussion from "comic book" to "story".

In contrast, the plot isn't the central point of the Avengers.  It is the togetherness of the main characters.  The main theme of the Avengers is the process of coming together to become more than the sum of parts (cp. with the shameless mutilation of Mission: Impossible from an ensemble spy intrigue to a popcorn vehicle designed to prop up the increasingly irrelevant 5 ft 7 wonder).  Dialogue, obviously, plays the essential role in reaching that objective - of convincingly conveying the sense of brotherhood between people who otherwise would shine alone.  It would have been interesting to have had a meta-enemy manipulating all the Marvel heroes from the background to have a big reveal in the Avengers, but Marvel didn't go that route (this time!).  Instead they picked one enemy from one of the franchises (Loki) that could plausibly cause enough mayhem to necessitate the combined efforts of all the heroes.  Once we establish that Loki is a big enough problem that no one can deal with alone, the rest of the film between that point and the inevitable ass-kicking (and, oh, what an ass-kicking it was!) boils down to a little thing known as commitment anxiety - the ways in which individuals reconcile their desire for individuality with their shared identity as a group.

Like in so many different stories, the process of getting hard-headed people to set aside there differences in a two hour movie usually boils down to one of two things: Profound urgency of a common foe or shared tragedy of a common friend.  While the former is created by Loki and his imminent invasion, the movie itself (in the form of Nick Fury and Agent Coulsen) is self-aware enough to acknowledge that it is the latter - the loss of Coulsen - that makes true fusion possible.

But in the process of getting to that fusion, there has to be growing pains.  Or more precisely, growing together pains.  And here is where the dialogue becomes desperately important.  It is also where a lot or writers completely fail at ensemble stories.

There can be no better example of failing to make proper use of an ensemble cast than Heroes.  Heroes had all the ingredients and couldn't accomplish in 77 episodes what Whedon did in an hour.  For some reason that defies understanding, Kring and co. did everything possible (to the point of absurdity) to prevent the kind of coming together that would be obvious among a bunch of unique individuals save for more than a few minutes a season.  Characters that know one another and each others stories and powers talk to each other like they just met.   Characters die off at the drop of a hat (sometimes multiple times). You'd think if you knew someone who could stop and travel back and forth in time that you'd have that person's number on speed dial.  However for reasons defying explanation, the characters made pains to make sure they weren't friends and couldn't get a hold of each other when they needed one another the most.

In-universe references make the characters that much more real.  This is essential in fantasy tales, where the existence of your characters require a suspension of disbelief in the first place.  If you were Tony Stark how would you insult Captain America?  "Anything special about you came out of a bottle!"  Tony Stark knows Captain America, presumably better than a script writer.  He's not a comic book character to Stark, he's real. Why wouldn't he form opinions and judgements about the man? - a man whom his father "looked up to like a God."  With a mere two lines, Whedon firmly tied together Stark's lingering feelings of paternal inadequacy (fleshed out in both Iron Man movies) and his natural (defensive) sense of entitlement and exceptionalism AND contrasted it with the "artificial" exceptionalism of Steve Rogers as examined in Captain America.  Stark has a firm opinion of Rogers and Rogers has an equally firm opinion of Stark, an opinion forged by..surprise, surprise...his visceral experience of war and courage.  An experience that is contrasted to the safe, dispassionate and removed experience of war, the sham courage, embodied by the "Iron Man" weapon system.  Stark has the luxury of being a smarmy prick because he's never really put his ass on the line, and Cap only has the luxury of putting his ass on the line because someone else made him a super soldier.  When you hear characters pushing each other buttons like that, you forget for a moment that they're wearing spandex and have glowing light coming out of their chest.  The superhuman is humanized.

Stark's rapport with Banner is only...I don't like using the word 'logical' but I swear another writer would have done it completely differently, missed the opportunity entirely.  They are Eggheads.  Products of their own experiments.  Dangers to themselves. The introspective Stark, waxing about how the technology isn't just a product - it is a part of him, his beating heart - the good that came out of the horror; the innovation that came from desperation.  Maybe the Hulk is a blessing, too...maybe you have more to give, maybe the monster saved a good man from being destroyed. That's how you build a team.  Stakes.  Caring.  Passion.

I swear I could listen to those actors in character talk about anything.  What would Captain America say about Islamic Fundamentalism?  What would Bruce Banner think of the idea of temporary insanity as a legal defense?  What would Tony Stark do if Iran got ARC reactor tech?  Would he blow up the reactor or argue that clean, free energy would help bring about a free Middle East?  What would Thor do if Earth became embroiled in a third World War?  Would Asgaard intervene?  Would he?  These are questions that a writer like Joss Whedon make you wonder about.  It's easy to agree upon saving the Earth.  You begin to wonder about the deeper implications and responsibilities of people who have the power to change the world.  The simple fantasies that started as an appeal to the kid's desire for self-actualization and freedom become the questions that adults wrestle to answer.

And then of course, you just have some moments that just are flat out, visually wonderful.  No words needed.  I'll go in order with the movie:

1. The man in black stepping off the chopper.
2. Rogers punching the bag off and lifting another on.
3. Stark's Iron Man disassembly system, removing the suit as he casually strides.
4. Rogers giving Fury the $10 bill.
5. Cap standing up to Loki in Germany.
6. 'Shoot to Thrill' playing as fanfare to announce Iron Man.
7. Iron Man and Cap standing side by side.
8. Iron Man v. Thor.
9. Cap's shield v. Mjolnir.
10. Banner looking up at Natasha in fear.
11.  Thor holding out his hand...waiting for Mjolnir.
12.  Hulk tearing a plane to shreds.
13.  Stark thrown from his tower, caught by the Mark VII.
14.  Iron Man rocketing up to the portal against the first wave.
15.  Cap running through the streets to the Police officers.
16.  Hawkeye and Widow dancing through the foot soldiers.
17.  Banner on the Scooter.
18.  The man who is always angry.
19.  The Money Shot! (you know what it is!)
20.  Widow, panting, at her limits and still fighting.
21.  The steadishot of the Avengers helping one another leading up to Thor and Hulk on the carrier (and the well timed sucker punch).
22.  Mjolnir and the Shield return, Cap and Thor.
23.  Hawkeye pulling his last arrow out of a dude.
24.  The demi-god that wouldn't stop talking...
25.  The Iron Man rocketing through the Portal, dialling Pepper...
26.  Banner catching Stark
27.  "We won...Yay!"
28.  "I'll have that drink now."
29.  The man in black, always on duty.
30.  The "A" in Stark.
31.  Thanos.
32.  Shawarma.

Quite an accomplishment.  It inspires me to write the Chronicles.   I need all the 'ensemble' inspiration I can get.

P.S.  I read a couple of the bad reviews and thought to myself...aside from the people looking for must be an awful thing, to be in a theatre surrounded by smiling tweens...and feel nothing but resentment.  To see a room full of people erupt in laughter...and remain unmoved.  To be completely unable to relate to something that could give so many people such satisfaction.  I saw a 10 year olds jumping up and down as they exited the movie theatre.  To genuinely be ambivalent to that...I'd rather die.