Avengers Assemble

Posted on September 20th, 2012 in film and tv

Mixed feelings about this one.  On the one hand there were some good moments and some great set pieces – the final half-hour long battle was pretty spectacular and must have been still more so in the cinema.  On the other, I think one’s first feeling on looking at the poster is – wow, there sure is a lot going on in that film, might it all become a muddle?  And, yeah, it did.  Great cooking doesn’t necessarily involve every spice in the rack.

The central players were all decent enough, it’s just that there were too many vying for attention.  Having had so many of their back stories set up in other Marvel films over the past few years certainly helped and leant a bit of depth, but there wasn’t much room for development within this film.  One member we hadn’t seen before (I don’t think, anyway), was the only female member of the crew, Black Widow.  I thought Scarlett Johansen was a bit of an odd casting choice there, not that I dislike her as an actor but they could have done with someone with, I don’t know, a bit more edge.  She rather lacked oomph as a character too.  No doubt she kicked a bit of ass, but amongst a bunch of mega powered men calling down the lightning, zooming about jet-powered and demolishing buildings, Black Widow’s significant contributions all seemed to consist of tricking men using her sexy/vulnerable feminine wiles.

There was a bit of a frustrating lack of consistency in places.  I know I keep banging this drum and it matters less in some contexts than others, but even so, it always seems to me that it’s as easy to have things make sense in a script as to have them not make sense, and far preferable.  The Hulk, for example.  One moment he was an uncontrollable menace, deadly to friend and foe alike.  The next he was quite capable of co-operating with others, taking instruction and, indeed, grinning at his cohorts like everyone’s loveable green best mate.

There was a slightly odd imbalance too in that, typically in these superhero movies, the hero faces a more powerful villain with greater resources and must use grit and ingenuity or the power of love or whatever to prevail against the odds, whereas here you had five or six really highly powered superheroes, backed up by the bottomless resources of the world’s combined governments facing, well, Loki on his own, really.  You couldn’t help feeling a bit sorry for Loki.  Rooting for the underdog.  He it was who had to come up with all the clever schemes, take the chances and stay on the offensive while the Avengers squabbled, dithered, and squandered their home advantage.  Loki was – I dunno – sort of the hero of the film, wasn’t he?  He certainly had more good lines than anyone else.  The result was that the plot sputtered along for most of the considerable length, lots of time spent with the heroes rather bittily reacting to minor crises of their own making.

Hey, given the amount to juggle, it could have been a lot worse.  It had it’s moments, and I’d probably watch another one.  I remain to be convinced that our Superheroes aren’t better served up individually, though…

EDIT: I haven’t expressed my thoughts about Black Widow very well.  There are some further ruminations on the representation of women in the film (or lack thereof) lower down the comments.

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  1. Yep, if I was going to tell someone to try some comics it would be “Preacher” and “Hitman” ( Both written by Ennis ) and “The Unwritten”.

    If you gave them a try and were not interested, then comics are not for you.

  2. I gave Preacher a go many years ago when it first came out, I think. Liked it well enough but didn’t find it hugely compelling. Just don’t know that it’s ever been a format that particularly spoke to me. That may be changing, though…

  3. Joe, if you got a decent artist to collaborate with, the First Law could be pretty spectacular as a graphic novel.

  4. Joe, Black Widow is in Ironman 2 – maybe you missed that one? But yes she’s there mostly as Eye Candy.

  5. Damn….didn’t notice the comments page was already on number 2 – please feel free to point and laugh at my “Oh so late to the party” comment above….

  6. I don’t think that Black Widow was all about her “feminine wiles” – she kicked a lot of butt all the way through the film, from beginning to end, and I think her character was made more impressive by the fact that she was the only one without super-powers or amazing equipment.

    And the Hulk’s personality change made sense to me, considering that the first transformation was when he lost control, and the second was done of his own free will.

  7. Scarlet Johansson is most definiely eye candy. A large portion of the male population would most definitely like to see physical evidence of her not being a natural redhead.

    Talking about graphic novels again, The Invisibles by Grant Morrison is another good one to check out, if anything because it is so out there with conspiracy theories, aliens, alternate universes, end of the world etc. Is a fun read, but one that requires a lot of thinking.

    The Sin City books are quite good fun too. Black and White Noire style with a sprinkling of dark humour.

  8. I 3rd (or 4th) Tom Hiddleston for Jezal or possibly Bethod. He would be a great addition to the show no matter what role he played. We might as well start planning roles because it’s GOING TO HAPPEN!!!

  9. Joe

    The Hulk was under the sway of Loki’s scepter. That’s why Banner lost control while on the shield helecarrier.

  10. You missed a plot point point or two that would have cleared up the Hulk confusion for you. Basically, Banner was now able to control the Hulk but on the helicarrier everyone’s emotions were being manipulated by the staff (which was Loki’s plan). Notice the hostility before the explosion and the camera focusing on the staff.
    Later Banner showed how he was able to control the Hulk.

  11. I think Sean Bean for… no, wait, he’s done enough.

    I do see Tom Hiddleston in the film adaptation of Joe’s fine work, but I kinda see him as Glokta.

    And whoever plays him, it’s got to be James Earl Jones’s voice for Bayaz! I’ve had it in my head since day one and on a recently finished re-read it was still him!

  12. Maybe The Unwritten might strongly appeal to you Mr Abercrombie, because its whole thing is a long interesting browse on the idea of, and ideas behind “Literature” (stories) and its power over humanity. And Morality being a story we tell ourselves, it is about that too.

    Plus, various highlights and all sorts of goodness.

  13. This isn’t going down at all well at Wheedonesque. Apparently we’re all rather ‘sexist.’

  14. Chris,
    We’re sexist because we want a better range of female characters? I’m not ragging on Whedon, a lot of his stuff is conspicuous for having some really good female characters, and to a large degree he’s got the framework the comics have given him. But taking a step back from the history of the comics or whatever and looking at this on its own, in a film with this many characters, very few were women. You had, what, Pepper in a very minor role, Fury’s competent female sidekick, but the only one given any screen time was Black Widow. Sure, she kicked ass, and that’s great, but everyone kicked ass. What was the special skill she brought as the one woman in the crew? Largely, sexy seductiveness or cunning trading on her feminine vulnerability. The men tended to bring things like world class Gamma Ray expertise, billionaire genius, old school American grit and leadership, super-vision, or megastrength and lightning. Loki’s a trickster, but he can do it without necessarily being sexy, know what I mean? Hey, don’t get me wrong, it could have been way worse. Probably some of my stuff is way worse. But I think you’d have to say it could have been better.

  15. I think it would be a person looking for something to pick on who said as a group we had been being discriminatorily sexist.

    Anyone candid, who read the comments on this thread would see that some of us were merely saying she was too underpowered in comparison to the other characters.

    The same could have been said about Hawkeye, but we were talking about her simply because she was the only female. Hawkeye wasn’t carrying any extra weight because after all there were already four big hitter men on the team, why would we need five.

    Actually, I am only saying “we” out of a sense of fair play, I didn’t express an opinion of her, or one of who she could have been replaced with, because I couldn’t think of a point to add. I was part of the discussion though, so will line up for my whipping with the rest of you.

    Sometimes you come across people who have pitched their tent in a particular camp, and they shoot first and call what they hit a target.

  16. It bothers me that of all the issues with the film you call out the one female hero. I’d say she played a much stronger role in the film than Thor did, for example. It’s not all about superhero strength.

    I saw your comment to the other poster above, and I can see your point, but when a respected author like you only draws attention to a few specific things, and you choose the female hero as one of them, it does come across as a bit sexist, even if you meant the opposite. It’s like no girl can be good enough.

    Personally, I don’t think her manipulation of Loki was really all about feminine wiles. She wasn’t out to seduce him. She wanted him to think she was weak and scared, but she was really in control of the situation the whole time. It was awesome. When I saw it for the first time I was extremely extremely excited to see how awesome a girl hero could be, especially when she doesn’t even have a superpower. Not even supersmarts. Reducing that to “feminine wiles” feels like belittlement. And it kind of hurts.

  17. I actually am a long time comic geek and basically loved the movie. Did it have flaws? yes, but it kept my attention worlds better than the last couple of Batman movies or that dreadful attempt to reignite Superman from a couple of years ago. Mind you, I’ve still not seen Dredd, but for me, the Avengers is one of the better attempts, and decidedly the best I’ve seen when it comes to juggling that many characters.
    Still, yes, Loki stole the show.
    And eye candy or not, I liked the handling of Black Widow, because at least they showed WHY she was in the mix with the others, even if the main reason was her ability to manipulate men to answer her questions.

  18. Sammy,
    Thanks for your comment. Respected author, though? You must be thinking of someone else…

    Sorry if this has come across as sexist, that’s certainly not my intention. I’m looking at this from a writer’s point of view. Treatment of female characters is very much on my mind because it’s an area where I have decidedly not always covered myself in glory, and where I’m always trying to do better. Maybe I’m more sensitive to it than I should be, but when you notice something you can’t just pretend not to notice it. People are of course free to disagree with me, point out what I’ve missed with an admittedly pretty superficial viewing and so on.

    I would have very much liked to see some more women in the film. In a way Black Widow is forced to behave a certain way because everyone else in the film is a man. Are there any significant relationships between women in the film? Is there even one line of dialogue between women? Of course that’s not the be all and end all test of anything but, given the number of lines, it’s quite surprising when you think about it that virtually none are from one woman to another, but sadly not all that uncommon in films.

    I’m not saying Black Widow is an awful character, necessarily, but as the one and only female character I did think the writers had made her rely on being a woman a lot as her weapon. She kicked ass at the start, but it was implied she’d lulled her adversaries into a false sense of security by wearing a sexy dress. I’m not saying she couldn’t have kicked their asses in overalls, but that’s just the point, the writers chose to give the whole thing a honey-trap vibe. She tricked Loki by convincing him she was, in his words, ‘a mewling quim’. It’s not a criticism of her, she’s not a real person, it’s a criticism of the writing, because everything that’s done or said in a film is a choice by the writers. In this case the decisions are complicated and the writers are many, because you have the weight of the source material and a pressure to remain faithful to the source material, and comic books are not known for their brilliant representation of female characters.

    But let me stretch your patience with some blue sky thinking for a moment. Imagine if, say, Stark had been a woman. A wisecracking, smartass, risk-taking, genius, smart suit-wearing billionaire businesswoman with super armour. What an interesting and refreshing character that would be. Perhaps she could have some dialogue with Black Widow and add a bit of a different flavour to things. A female friendship. A female rivalry. What a more varied dynamic within the group it would create. In James Bond, M was always a man. I think one of the best things they’ve done in the recent films is to cast Judi Dench. She is a powerful woman with no recourse to sex appeal. Not that she doesn’t have any, but it’s in no way the source of her authority. It’s made for a far more interesting relationship with Bond. I just don’t see the downside to having a far wider variety of interesting women in our entertainment. Real life is full of ‘em, after all.

    So, you know, very sorry if I’ve offended, but it struck me as a missed opportunity.

  19. Completely agree with you. I would love to see a Deborah Meaden character in a film just for once. What I don’t understand is why you beat yourself up over female characters. Even in the Blade Itself, your female characters were great, even if there was only one protagonist.

  20. Avengers Assemble. At last a Marvel film that actually rates more than a 3/10. I might even buy a copy it was that good. Maybe I’ve just had my expectations reduced severely by the previous crap that they have pumped out? All the same, it made my Sat night viewing.

  21. Chris,
    I’m certainly keen to improve my writing in any way possible. I think I’ve made mistakes with female characters in the past. I’ve discussed that a bit in my rereads of the First Law recently. A lot of them are the sort of mistakes that are very common, especially from male writers, but that’s no excuse, or at least it’s no reason to not try to do better. I’ve seen criticisms that on sober reflection I find ludicrous, and ones that on sober reflection I find telling, but either way I think sober reflection is important. As a writer I think you’ve got to do what you want, and that means you’ll make mistakes, but once you do make them you’ve got to try and own them and learn from them.

    On the one hand, separating this entirely from the political aspect, if you like, presenting a world which seems to have a lot of varied and interesting female characters in it is just presenting a world like the real world, which is simple good writing. I don’t see the downside of it. It makes for a more vivid, more interesting, more satisfying reading experience, which is what I want to give people. Occasionally in response to this kind of argument people will say things like, ‘but the writer must be free to do what they want!’ and, yeah, that’s true, but who wants to write shit female characters?

    On the other hand, without wanting to labour the point, there’s the possibility that ‘art’ (used in its broadest possible sense when applied to my stuff, say entertainment if you like) influences the way people think, and hence there may be some smidgen of responsibility on creators to use their powers for good, as it were. I don’t delude myself that any influence I might have is anything but infinitesimally small, but why not use it in a positive direction? Which, from the standpoint of the representation of female characters, might be to try and carry the message, ‘women can be diverse, interesting, powerful and unpredictable in all kinds of ways,’ rather than ‘women fit into a few easily recognised categories always defined by their relationships with men.’

    This is a difficult, complicated area and there aren’t any easy answers. One person’s crappy stereotype is often another’s perceptive examination. But reflecting on it is always a good thing, I think. Writers probably should beat themselves up a bit from time to time.

  22. i actually like your female characters, because they always disappointed me by not doing things, i expected them to do, as a media infested man :)

  23. “This is a difficult, complicated area and there aren’t any easy answers.”

    Quite – and the situation is complicated in part because some people in various ways conform to the stereotype with which they are identified.

    “One person’s crappy stereotype is often another’s perceptive examination.”

    Or just a reasonable depiction of a character. For example, there has been an objection made to the depiction of Terez in The First Law as pandering to a supposed stereotype (I think the word ‘shrill’ was a particular focus), but I interpreted Terez’s manner as simply reflecting the fact that she is pissed off and furious about being put in a situation that she desperately doesn’t want to be in.

  24. Couldn’t agree more – my own review raises the same issues and adds the following: with Ironman, Hulk and Thor up on the screen throwing around real superhero moves, Captain America, Black Widow and Nick Fury are greatly diminished; Cap’s “action” takes are basically nothing more than running, jumping and shielding himself behind his shield.

    100% – there was just too much squeezed into one little old film.

  25. Joe all I can say is that both my wife and I have read your books (she actually got them first) IMO, your writing is at the top end of the chart, and your female characters were well done.

  26. With regard to Black Widow not having any interaction with Maria Hill, it’s called the Bechdel test and Avengers is far from the only movie to fail it. While Black Widow may fall into certain tropes with regard to female characters, I’d rather have one woman than no women at all and at least she wasn’t a damsel in distress. That said, I’m really hoping the sequel gets a few more women in there, say Captain (formerly Ms.) Marvel.

    I thoroughly enjoyed the movie but I know plenty of people who were utterly bored, such is the way with subjective perspectives. Maybe there was a lot crammed into the film but I didn’t feel overwhelmed.

    I don’t know why I read blog posts I know I’m going to disagree with, perhaps it’s some sort of bizarre intellectual masochism, and I generally don’t comment on them for fear of rocking the boat. But I appreciate your critique and felt like I had to put my two cents in.

    P.S. I haven’t read any of your work but based on the comments I’ve read here I fully intend to as soon as I make it out of the working poor economic class.

  27. Marissa,
    Heh. You can come back and tell me how badly my books fail the Bechdel Test…

    Realising that the entire First Law just barely passes was one of the first steps in my own faltering awareness of this entire issue.

    If one only reads opinions one agrees with, how will one ever learn anything?

  28. Let’s forget this superhero stuff and focus on the important topic at hand: Judi Dench’s sex appeal.

  29. To don my comic book hat for a minute, the character of Maria Hill (played by Cobie Smulders in the Avengers) is actually a tough, smart and really well drawn character in the comics. She was introduced by one writer then taken to lots of new places by others, moving her from a bland new face to someone to watch. In Invincible Iron Man (pretty much the whole run by Matt Fraction) she goes toe to toe with Tony Stark / Iron Man and is really well fleshed out. Fraction is a writer who is very aware of gender and both Maria and Pepper Potts prove to be Stark’s equal in the series. So if you want to see more of either character then take a look. Also (and I stand to be corrected) but Fraction and a small team of other comic book writers are part of Marvel’s comic book brain trust, so they get to add their 2 cents to every Marvel owned comic book film. They make suggestions and help massage the script, so I’m sure Fraction and others would have raised the gender issue.

    I understand some of the frustrations about Black Widow in the Avengers, but staying with the comic book history for a moment, she’s was a cold war agent, so it was all sex appeal, espionage, using what assets she had to outsmart the spies. Yes, the film is not set in the Cold War era, so an update is necessary, but there again, suddenly giving her super powers or making her invulnerable would have been an odd decision. I think there was a lot crammed in there, so some characters did suffer a little, including Black Widow, but in my opinion, Cap was the worst off.

    My hope is, Maria Hill be seen in the forthcoming sequels (Iron Man 3, Thor 2, Cap 2), have her character fleshed out a bit more (maybe even become a bit of a foil for Stark as she is in the comics) and then get more screen in The Avengers 2. Also, before Av2, as someone else mentioned, Captain Marvel might (totally a rumour) be on the team, if she appears in Guardians of the Galaxy (another Marvel film that is on the cards). She’s ex-military, so she has that bond with Cap. She’s pretty much tough and nails and super powered, so she could go toe to toe with any of the others. Fingers crossed she joins the team.

  30. I do hope and presume that your sober reflection is used in a balanced manner along with the counter-weight of appropriate time spent in joyful inebriation to glean meaningful and uninhibited insights into strong women.. I note you are married and have daughters, so imagine you have no lack of staunch females around and ready inspiration/not infrequent direction..
    (Great books, thanks!)

  31. Opps, what is that?. Only “Staunch” and “Strong” female characters are good?. And we mere males have to get them from observation, even talented writers?.

    Do talented FEMALE writers have to study strong male characters for inspiration?. Never allowed to use thier imaginations?. Are they constrained to only use “strong” and “Staunch” male characters?.

    That is the entire problem with bigotry, in a nutshell.

  32. Ouch …nothing wrong with a bit of study.. (“..i before e except after c..)

  33. “If one only reads opinions one agrees with, how will one ever learn anything?”

    Totally true.

    But I don’t accept the Bechdel test as a primary standard for assessing the value of a literary or cinematic work, even though some works would be enhanced by meeting the criteria. In other words, there are certain works that don’t need to pass the Bechdel test in order to be great (just as there can be great works that don’t meet similar criteria vis-a-vis male characters.) ‘The Wind in the Willows’, ‘The Hobbit’,’The Name of the Rose’ and perhaps the earlier Earthsea books are all examples of such works [though see Le Guin's important later reflections on this - and the fascinating development of her later Earthsea books], and ‘The Brothers Karamazov’ is possibly another. Would they be enhanced by meeting the Bechdel test? Probably, if it was done well, and especially if prominent female characters were essential to the story – as they are in Dostoievski, but not in the other books.

    So dare I propose the following principle:
    A good work of fiction explores the experience of certain characters, and if that experience plausibly involves limited or no interaction with members of the opposite sex, then the work should not be faulted for failing to include any exploration of the experiences of characters of that sex.

  34. Giasone,
    I’m not sure that anyone does hold the Bechdel test up as a primary standard for assessing the value of anything, but it’s always pretty surprising how many things fail. I agree there might be many reasons why a book might not have many female characters in it. The Name of the Rose, for example, is a book about a catholic monastery so, yeah, women by definition not going to play a big role. The Heroes is about warfare, soldiers, and male conceptions of heroism so I don’t have as big an issue with the limited female presence there as I do with the First Law.

    Don’t really agree on the hobbit, though. I’ve been reading it to my daughter recently, great book, sure, but no significant female characters at all? For why? The dwarves, all male. The shire, no female hobbits. Rivendell, no female elves. Beorn, a man living on his own. The goblins, all male. The wood elves, all male. Laketown – maybe it’s implied there are women about but none actually say or do anything that I can recall. One could be forgiven for thinking Middle Earth was a world without women. Where’s the upside in eliding half the population? I mean, it’s a great book, with all kinds of things to celebrate and admire, but I don’t see why you can’t also express some disappointment that it appears to include absolutely no women. I don’t necessarily see what’s ‘plausible’ about that either.

  35. Good point about ‘The Hobbit’.
    Even though the narrative is limited in what it covers (i.e. the time spent in each social setting is limited, so interactions between the main characters and other people are limited) the absence of female characters is very notable. But I did acknowledge that all these books would probably be enhanced by meeting the B. test (i.e. the presence of female characters who interacted with one another) – I just don’t think it would much change the fact that they are great books, by which I mean (to explain myself a bit) that their greatness lies in something not dependent on the depiction of relationships between the sexes.
    For example, The Hobbit is a legend or fairy-tale of personal transformation that is artistically perfect (or close to) in its use of the convention of the hero who undergoes a series of adventures that allow him to ultimately make a decision that requires his courage for a greater good (i.e. when Bilbo gives the Arkenstone to Bard and Thranduil). The sex of the characters is not essential to the story in what it attempts to do. However, by the same token , the presence of central and non-central female characters would not detract from that either, so you’re right – disappointment about the absence of women is reasonable.
    But perhaps the real test of fairness would be whether – taking my position – one would also appreciate a great book with an exclusively female cast. The problem here, of course, is plausibility, because human beings have often lived in societies in which women are excluded from some domains (most obviously, public life) while men have a decisive presence in all, so it’s very difficult to construct a story in which males don’t appear – even nunneries and female-headed families are likely to acknowledge at least one male, like the visiting priest or the absent father. Arguably, fantasy and sci.fi. are the genres in which this kind of gender reversal could be most plausibly explored, but I suspect there is a limit to how far an author could take this without their work starting to look like wishful thinking. The new realism in other-world fiction – exemplified by your work and GRRM, but also by Le Guin’s later Earthsea books and perhaps also Lois Bujold’s ‘The Curse of Chalion’ – has raised the threshold on how much authors can expect to get away with in depicting worlds significantly different from our own.
    Of course, this brings us straight back to the plausibility of The Hobbit, vis-a-vis female characters, and I guess the only way this could be resolved is to conclude that the societies of Middle Earth have a very hierarchical structure in which males can engage in manifold social interactions to the exclusion of women – a conclusion that is disappointing, to say the least, especially when its a precondition that is totally unnecessary to the greatness of the story.

  36. I’ve actually read all of the preceeding posts before commenting, and felt a desire to point out a couple of little things. Mind you, I’m on hour 25 of work in the last 36 hours; will do my best not to ramble incoherently.

    The first being that Whedon basically had 5 different movies written, produced and directed by other people leading up to The Avengers. Characters were already established with back stories, yes, but it left him with no wiggle room for what characters he could chose to be in the movie. Hawkeye was in Thor, Black Widow in Iron Man 2.

    The second thing is that the movie tried hard (and successfully to a point, in my opinion) to show that the heroes without powers could be as needed as the heavy hitters. I don’t know that DC’s Justice League will be able to do the same with Batman and Green Arrow rubbing shoulders with Superman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern and Martian Manhunter.

    Third: Collectively about the Black Widow. We could have had Wasp, who shrinks down, flys and zaps with little energy blasts. Don’t get me wrong, love her character, but not a power hitter.
    Instead we got Black Widow, who used not only her physical training but her mind to find the weakness of her foe each time, and then easily manipulated it to her advantage.
    Who else could we have had, considering the ‘boys club’ that the Avengers was in the early years?
    Finally, it was pointed out in the movie that Black Widow was trained as a spy, not as a soldier. I think she was shown pretty well as a soldier.

    Enough blathering. Cannot wait for Red Country’s release.

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