By Bob Clark
Truth be told, I’ve always been a lot fonder of the idea of the Marvel Universe than how it usually plays out in the comics themselves. Oh sure, it’s fun to think about how, starting from the 60’s the company became something of an elaborate creative petri dish for Stan Lee and the bevy of writers who would follow in his wake, creating and repurposing characters left and right and using them to populate a series of interconnected superhero books that give new meaning to the word “crossover”. It’s even fun to look at the way in which these connections usually come about, in the form of occasional guest-starring roles in different titles– the Fantastic Four occasioning to solve a case with Spider-Man, or the friendly neighborhood shutterbug himself swinging in to help the X-Men battle Magneto or mutant-haters for an issue or two. In the earliest times that characters meet one another in the old books, there’s often a kind of goofy sincerity at work that belies the epic scope that later creators would eventually push the crossover-system into. With Stan Lee and many of the other original authors, it was simply enough for the various heroes and villains to mingle without any real sense of narrative entanglement– nobody had to live or die permanently in their legendary showdowns, or even settle down into conflicts that expanded beyond the scope of their original storylines (superheroes, even with their villains, forever seem something of commitment-phobes).
In later years you could see drastic shifts in the various rogues galleries orbiting around all these protagonists, and even see rotating cast-members rotate out of one hero’s circle, and into another. Perhaps the definitive example of this occurred during Frank Miller’s storied run on the then second-tier title Daredevil, repurposing the classic Spider-Man mastermind villain Wilson Fisk, “the Kingpin of Crime”, into an all encompassing nemesis for the blind lawyer turned vigilante. At other times, it’s possible to see almost the entire roster of one book transcend into a new title, and all their old spots taken up by new characters– if it weren’t for the classic X-Men line-up of Cyclops, Jean Grey, Angel and Beast splitting for a brief while, we’d have never gotten the equally classic additions of Wolverine, Storm, Nightcrawler or Colossus. However, this phenomenon of characters moving in and out of different books for keeps is something that really began in earnest with the cadre of invented and recycled characters that have made up the dream-team of superheroes known of the Avengers, and with the essential members of the multiple decades’ worth of various line-ups finally reaching the silver screen altogether after a four-year long round of origin stories and franchise table-setting, we can now witness the cinematic manifestation of the fabled Marvel Universe interconnectedness coming true before the eyes of millions in as mainstream a medium as it’s ever found. And my god, is it boring.
Again, the Marvel Universe is something that’s always worked best in small doses, even when it comes to the Avengers themselves, a collection of second-tier characters concocted largely by Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby over the years, stretching from the WWII propaganda creation of Captain America all the way to 60’s era figures like Iron Man and the Mighty Thor. Lee himself had originally been opposed to some of the additions to the team, like ol Cap, who he’d always seen as a rather corny star-spangled stock hero, but in both their hands and the various creators that followed over the years, the book became something of an anchor for the rest of the Marvel Universe at large, and a testing ground for the various high-concept narratives that could be thrown at the characters as they mixed and intermingled on a regular basis. Lee came up with Captain America’s second origin story as a man out of time, found frozen in a block of ice and thawed out to greet the post-war modern world just in time to help save it from all manner of confrontations with villains and most iconically heroes alike. As far back as the Avengers first assembled, they’ve always been at each other’s throats in one form or another, their disgruntled failure to connect with one another as individual manifesting as action-packed superhuman fights that all kids read comics for at some point in their lives.
With the unashamed billionaire playboy Tony Stark butting heads with the stone-cold patriot Steve Rogers, not to mention the literally out-of-this-world alien from Norse mythology, reading these and other heroes come to blows with one another has become something of a summer tradition over the decades, as far back as when when the team was first put together to control the eternal wildcard of the Incredible Hulk and as recent as blockbuster crossover series like Civil War and this year’s succintly titled Avengers Vs. X-Men (which has a plainspoken simplicity admirable in the way it boils down all the bombastic dramatics comics creators are prone to down to the way that most fans really appreciate their works– arguing who would win in a fight). And in recent years, as Marvel seeks to attract new audiences by repopulating the team’s roster with more mainstream and recognizable characters like Spider-Man and Wolverine, it’s been more common to see epic fights between heroes than any meaningful battle involving villains anymore, something that’s rather interesting in how it asks its readers to navigate the moral minefield of a battle without any clear sense of right and wrong.
Still, it’s all of it as ambiguous as a set of bright, primary colors and none of it ever as permanent as the various deaths that might beside the revolving-door cast of a television soap-opera. Because so many of these clashes are allowed to repeat and reset over the decades, it’s often hard to find much weight to the big, epic battles they encounter, knowing how it’s all just going to happen again in another year or so. As such, it’s again more meaningful to concentrate on the ways in which these characters only occasionally visit the other heroes in guest-starring appearances, serving as reminders of the universe at large without necessarily dragging the reader into it. A prime example comes from the classic Daredevil arc Born Again, as the classic roster of Captain America, Thor and Iron Man swoop in at the last moments of a cataclysmic battle between “The Man Without Fear” and a brainwashed soldier laying wage to Hell’s Kitchen on the Kingpin’s orders. There, they serve as something of a classical, nearly literal Deus Ex Machina to the story at hand, putting an end to the violence at the battle’s climax and displaying their characters in turn before the humble, human audience of reporter Ben Urich. The combination of Dave Mazzuchelli’s distinct artwork and Frank Miller’s clipped, straightforward captions turns the Avengers’ entrance onto the scene and the concluding portion of the arc’s narrative a winning blend of streetsmart realism and cutting edge science and magic, and does a canny job of contrasting the gritty, noir trappings of the Daredevil comic-book against the lighter, epic underpinnings of Captain America, Thor and Iron Man– emblems of all-American optimism and power in a story of gangland vendettas writ large with superheroes.
That sequence, and others like it, found the right balance of the larger universe-spanning nature of the Marvel comics, while at the same time grounding them in a solid, insular story that didn’t rely on intimate knowledge of the other titles just to keep up. It’s something that the filmmakers adapting the various Marvel properties for the screen have been able to do fairly well in the X-Men and Spider-Man movies, and those pictures were helped due to the fact that they were telling stories for heroes whose own cast of characters and reservoir of storylines could well last into decades without straining themselves too much. This has been one of the very problems with the whole notion of the Marvel Universe at times– each corner of it threatens to get so big on its own, it doesn’t really need crossovers with everybody else to generate new ideas and content, and indeed obligations to do so regularly can just get in the way. When Iron Man and the rest of the Avengers build-up movies began production with the newly minted Marvel Studios, there was some speculation as to whether or not they could manage to generate sufficient interest in an assembly of characters who were always something of a second-tier ranking among all but the most die-hard of “true believers” in the Marvel brand. Besides the career-revitalizing turn that Robert Downey, Jr. took as Tony Stark, however, the main strength this new franchise has had, so far, is in starting with such lesser-known characters and building them towards this all-star team-up. It doesn’t really matter too much that Spider-Man or Wolverine can’t join the Avengers (until Disney, Sony and Fox get their respective ducks in line, of course), because Spider-Man and Wolverine were never a part of the most iconic Avengers line-up, and indeed might threaten to draw too much attention to themselves and the storylines they represent, anyway.
As such, the Avengers film represents a unique opportunity to provide a franchise-spanning sequel to at least four character-driven movie series so far, while at the same time beginning a new series of its own, capitalizing on everything that has been established so far in the four years since the first Iron Man, not to mention the decades’ worth of comics. And that’s what makes the finished work something of a disappointment, in part, for how overly bland it all feels. Picking up from the disparate pieces of where last year’s Thor and Captain America left off, the film follows the various agents of SHIELD as they scramble to put together their team of superheroes and combat the villainous Loki, who threatens to lead an invading force of aliens so generic and obscure that even die-hard fans will be hard pressed to recognize them. From the perspective of the comics reader, it’s interesting at first to see so many of the touchstones from the book’s original inception and most modern forms given so many nods and references throughout– the debut issue’s plot saw the team coming together to stop the Hulk after he’d been brainwashed by the trickster Loki, and in casting Samuel L. Jackson as SHIELD Director Nick Fury, the production manages to complete a circle begun when Marvel Comics asked Jackson to allow their artists to use his likeness when starting a brand new line of modern comics in the Ultimate series.
Beyond that, however, very little makes an impression that hasn’t already been done before in the other films. We get a blender assortment of the main-stock characters– Robert Downey, Jr.’s Tony Stark as a cocky, flippant playboy superhero with a heart of titanium-plated gold; Chris Evans’ Steve Rogers as a resolutely earnest boy-scout who just got the super-soldier merit-badge; and Chris Hemsworth’s lion-maned Thor, who still looks as though he stepped off from the pages of some trashy Harlequin romance book (or perhaps nowadays, some even trashier piece of fan-fiction). There’s some additional familiar faces along with the parade of testosterone overdosing heroics on display, and even a new face set to Bruce Banner, the pre-CGI form of the Incredible Hulk (Mark Ruffalo this time, whose performance consists almost entirely of wringing his hands). They all bicker, banter, battle and sulk throughout the running time of the picture, and the cattier they get the more one is reminded of how much has changed in the voice of the modern superhero from the olden days of Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and the dynamic, yet innocent voice of friendly adventure they penned in their best works together. The Avengers onscreen are very much like their most contemporary incarnations, yet without the tempering presence of characters like Spider-Man (perhaps the one and only superhero in mainstream comics who isn’t a dyed in the wool alpha male) and Wolverine (who takes the machismo thing to such absurd, animalistic limits you’d wonder why someone hadn’t had him put down, if not for the fact that it’d only make him mad).
In one sense, this ought to be a pretty reliable format for a superhero team movie to take shape, as it follows the standard trope of team-based action movies like Predator and The Usual Suspects, bringing together a group of pumped-up heroes just diverse enough in their skillsets to portray an entertaining mix of explosive destruction to the screen, and just different enough in their personalities to get underneath everybody’s skin and trade insults the whole time. Yet those movies were able to sketch all their characters in a flurry of minutes and get straight to the heart of their stories without any time wasted– The Avengers languishes for most of its running time attempting to establish characters and storylines that had already been set down fairly well in the previous movies, thus wasting one of the prime opportunities here to simply hit the ground running and not look back. Even the recent G.I. Joe movie managed to establish its team roster in broad strokes and get to well shot, choreographed and edited action without wasting time– something you’d think a Marvel movie ought to handle perfectly. As scripted by writer and director Joss Whedon, the film spends a great deal of time simply letting its characters bicker in his usually overwritten and hammy dialogue style, when they’re not showboating in the superhero equivalent of exhibition matches that would be acceptable if only they hadn’t been shot and cut within an inch of their lives.
Picking cock-eyed and canted low and wide angles in the perplexingly limiting aspect ratio of 1.78, the film looks as though it were directed with a dog-eared copy of How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way as its guiding textbook, looking for all manner of exagerated “worm’s eye view” angles that draw attention to themselves and make much of the fast-edit fight choreography hard to follow. The angels he picks would look quite good on the comics page, where everything can be taken as individual slices of time, but when projected in full motion, it puts as much of a strain on the eyes as a bad Bourne knock-off. When shooting dialogue on generic looking spy-base soundstages, the movie has the look of one of Whedon’s blandly directed television programs. When shooting one-on-one fights, it’s like a Where’s Waldo album turned into a flipbook. One senses Whedon attempting to establish himself as something more than just a verbiose TV showrunner and moreover something other than a media-conglomerate corporate journeyman selected to keep the fanboys happy. At times it livens up the screen and gives him something to do other than merely follow the aesthetic choices that directors Jon Favreau, Kenneth Brannagh and Joe Johsnton had established before him– altogether, the Marvel movies force their directors to balance a visual style and design even more aggressively set in stone than the Bond movies.
Besides that, Whedon also has to balance it all with the visual content of everything that’s come from the comics themselves, putting him in a position even more constricting than Irvin Kershner was when he picked up The Empire Strikes Back in the mold of Lucas. But more often than not his mis-en-scene just makes you wish that he’d let somebody else step behind the camera, as tends to lead to the best episodes of his series (not to mention this year’s Cabin in the Woods). Things come together somewhat towards the end, when the Hulk finally blossoms and the heroes are forced to do something other than fight amongst themselves. A series of set-pieces following Iron Man and Captain America putting aside their differences to repair a damaged flying air-craft carrier in the middle of a battle allow us to see the characters display their abilities doing something other than fighting. And an extended series of battles as the generic alien force finally arrives over Manhattan impresses as a set-piece of Michael Bay scale and detail, with all the requisite shaky-cam tactics made surprisingly tolerable with the added benefit of having so many primary-colored heroes to follow through the rubble. Yet it’s all just a bit too little too late, a brief spat of tire-burning speed after a long stretch of wheel spinning in the air.
For those who want nothing more from their comic-book movies other than cookie-cutter action spectacle only as impressive as the money being thrown at the screen, or merely the thrill of seeing their favorite characters brought together on the screen in a superhero-equivalent of the modern day ensemble rom-com (Iron Man’s Just Not That Into You, or What to Expect When You’re Expecting an Alien Invasion), then by all means, go see it. For anyone else, you’re on your own. Maybe I’d feel different if some of my own favorite superheroes were able to cross the corporate battle lines and join the fray, and maybe I’d feel different if I weren’t already so out of step with the house style that Whedon and Marvel sought for the enterprise. Hell, I know I’d feel different if I were still ten years old, as the bulk of the movie’s demographic is, but all that really does is solidify a universal truth for me or nearly any other comics-reader. If I were still ten years old, I’d be a happy man.