The Avengers – a Failure of Basic Storytelling or Why I Want my Money Back
The Avengers had everything one could have wished for a good movie – great actors, a strong brand name and Joss Whedon as writer, the provider of “Firefly” and other quality products including “Buffy” and “Toy Story” (yes, he was one of the writers). But Whedon’s story writing in this case, which is usually superb, made a complete mess of The Avengers.
While a real effort is felt to make the characters believable, distinct and interesting in the first half of the film, the movie falls flat on some very fundamental errors of storytelling as well as a strongly felt notion that this is just yet another summer action hero movie that was cranked out to make some money by actors and producers who really don’t care about comic books, audiences or, for that matter, good movies. In other words the story lacks vision. And no amount of bombastic music, special effects and even Samuel Jackson did not change that.
Lazy Strory Writing
The problems start with some simple plot holes which are exacerbated by lazy storytelling. Firstly there is Loki, who has some undefined and vague sense of hurt and therefore is a pain in the ass. Rather than having the audience see his side and consider that while misguided, his actions stem from understandable causes (as it happened with Magneto in the “X-Men” movies) we are handed a few flat monologues of him being bitter with Thor. Loki is no more interesting than King Joffrey in “Game of Thrones” and is just as one-dimensional. At the same time, Whedon seems to be undecided whether Loki is supposed to be fearsome and properly evil and villainous (as his monologue with Black Widow suggests) or just a pampered annoying little kid that’s throwing a tantrum (which is suggested all over the movie).
So Loki wants to do… what?
He wants to take our freedom. It’s just that simple. Added to a flat character is a flat and insanely vague intent that is very easily identifiable as bad. You could almost say that he hates us for our freedoms. No interesting discussion about free will or his greater villainous plans or whether there is more to it, because there isn’t.
And we have to fight him because, ya know, freedom. ‘Murica!
Then there are the Chitauri. We know nothing about them, other than that they are evil and ugly, two notions which Hollywood equates. Would it really have been so difficult to have villains who have genuine grievances, as was the case in “Hellboy 2“, where you could not help yourself but to root for the bad guys as well and feel that they too have a just cause from a certain point of view? Apparently so; having an evil guy with depth demands too much from story writers these days. Who are the Chitauri? We don’t know. They’re ugly, they’re evil, they have ugly evil flying armoured wyverns, end of story.
Now our good guys defend some conveniently vague sets of principles against some people with destructive intentions who are unquestionably evil. I hope this hackneyed, one-dimensional and entirely ludicrous setup had the same effect on others as it did on me: an almost jaw-breaking yawn.
Don’t get me wrong, I like fun movies. Movies don’t have to be deep or gritty to be good; “Starship Troopers” is a classic example of a fun movie. But they should at least be logically consistent and make some sense.
No Character Motivations
Given that the enemy is created to be so utterly simplistic, it’s astonishing to see how Whedon then wrecks havoc on the character motivations. Character motivation is important; it gives a story logic and drive, it provides narrative propulsion. Unfortunately, The Avengers lacked those. Instead we were presented with character exhibitions – an exposition of how every protagonist is different and how those characters react on one another.
Whedon does this expertly and the personalities of Stark, Banner, Capt America and Thor are played out well in wonderful little wordplays which make the audience chuckle and gasp – “how do you do it, big bag of weed?” “clench up Legolas”. Whedon played the characters truly wonderfully, especially the Hulk.
This approach however is problematic for two reasons. For one, for it to work it has to be done subtly, and in this cas it isn’t. The movie is far too aware of the character plays and refers to those character freaks too frequently as ‘freaks’. The situations have a manufactured feeling which communicate to the audience very clearly: “This is the character part where the guys work out their teamwork issues. We’ll get to the smashy-smashy later.” It would have been better if they had been a random bunch of people, each with their own quirks which the audience gets to know and appreciate. This is what happened in the ‘Hangover’ movies and it worked there.
The second reason is that a character-driven story usually cannot be an action movie. Character driven movies work by putting the protagonists into different situations and seeing how they react and grow and change as it happened in “Citizen Kane” or quite wonderfully in “Spy Game“. Those movies do not work up to a big, loud finale but to a conclusion which brings the story to a full circle.
Action movies however must have a finale where good conquers evil and for that reason action movies need a lot more causality and motivation. None was available here. Captain America was just drifting along after his thaw; Stark had better things to do than bother with SHIELD; Banner was never actually convinced at any point and Thor was only around because of the one-dimensional Loki. It would have been nice to include Natalie Portman on Thor’s side for added depth and tension but no such luck. Loki had some fun drawing out Black Widow in the interrogation, but that had an annoyingly unfeeling touch to it because we knew all along that she was playing him – as she turned out to have been. Which makes Loki less potent the moment when he is required to be threatening.
Some people have suggested that this lack of narrative propulsion is irrelevant as this is only an action movie. That’s exactly wrong. Action movies absolutely need a sense of cause and effect and reasoned-out villains and heroes. Sitcoms and comedies can do without, which is why Whedon is excellent at writing these. Whdeon should have stuck to his strengths in those departments and left the big screen alone. A sitcom where Stark and Captain America are trading one-liners and funny comments would have worked brilliantly; however an action movie falls flat if it is based on this because action movies require narrative causality as a basis. Smart and funny dialogue is just the icing on the cake for action movies, not the basis.
This is the fundamental weakness of Loki’s character. This is expounded below; but for now I will say that he was neither threatening nor crazy enough to be a proper villain. This leads me directly onwards to an important story element:
No Stakes = No Tension…
The galvanising catalyst for the Avengers’ motivation was supposed to be the death of Phil Coulson. This of course did not work at all; no-one cried after him because he was a glorified government bureaucrat. We’ve never seen him without a tie and suit; nor have we seen him kick ass and he’s never endeared himself to the audience. And now the mega-rich super-smart super-strong alien god heroes are supposed to get up in arms over the death of the most meaningless of characters, a man who looked and acted like a tax collector. Sorry, no. Motivation does not work this way.
Whedon should have looked to Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” for character motivation. If you kill the love interest of the Batman, you’ll have your protagonist seriously and believably agitated and the audience will be at the edge of their seats to see what happens next. But of course Whedon could not kill a major character because all the major characters have their own highly lucrative franchises to return to. In other words, the fact that halfway through the movie a minor character gets killed and this is treated it as a major tragedy signaled very clearly to the audience that none of the major characters would ever be in any real danger. This lack of stakes translated directly into a lack of tension for the rest of the movie.
Tension could have been created if Loki had taken some hostages, like Gwynneth Paltrow or Natalie Portman, so that the protagonists, and by extension the audience, are engaged on an emotional level and feel like they have something to lose. But that too did not happen.
Storytelling also functions by working with setup and payoff. That is how causality works and how jokes function. For example Captain America provides the setup by asking Stark: “Take away your suit of armour and what are you?”, Stark provides the payoff: “Billionaire genius playboy philanthropist”. The same applies to actions and the overall story. When Loki clearly had himself captured voluntarily, the audience held its breath. It was a wonderful setup. What was his plan? What was his play? What was the payoff going to be? But that payoff either never arrived or was so badly misconstrued as to make all tension evaporate; it was like watching a condensed version of “Lost”.
Ostensibly, having himself captured was a ploy to set loose the Hulk in airship (incidentally an airborne aircraft carrier is probably the most moronic idea since the inflatable pincushion; moreover it’s not a novel idea on TV either – UNIT had one when fighting the Centaurans) and to set the Avengers against one another. This leaves open questions such as how he knew about the Hulk in the first place, or the other heroes, and most of all how he was going to do it and how he would escape.
None of these were answered and no payoff was delivered. We have no idea how he knew about any of the Avengers and about the Hulk. He did not escape, he was freed. And he did not agitate the Hulk; Hawkeye did that. So why did he get himself captured? Maybe to lead Hawkeye to Banner. But what would make him assume that he would be held in the same place as Banner? Or that Banner would even be near Loki’s sceptre? And most of all, the Hulk’s release did not have nearly the devastating effect we were anticipating from Loki’s plan it would. The story of the movie simply did not make any sense, which is very un-Whedon. This leads me to suspect that someone else had a hand in the writing of the story; maybe George Lucas.
And this again exemplifies the problem of the movie – utter lack of stakes. Not only is the only stake for the heroes a minor character’s death, but also are the stakes for the world unbelievable since they are either nonsensical or undeveloped. Loki is nonsensical, because the movie attempts to connect two contradictory villain archetypes. The first is the evil genius (most frequently seen in James Bond movies); and I have the feeling that this is what the filmmakers were going for. However Loki’s plan was so simplistic, his ideology so one-dimensional and most of all his strategy of having himself being captured so ineffectual and random that he is not a credible threat on that basis. The second archetype they were going for is the power-hungry madman who is driven by intense hatred for society or the world and has a burning desire to destroy; he is the essence of the terrorist. There is something of this in Loki, given his jealousy issues concerning Thor. His monologue with Black Widow also supports this. The problem is that those two archetypes are contradictory. The evil genius is cool, merciless, calculating and unemotional; the terrorist is driven by emotion, passionate and even inspirational in the strength of his conviction. But you cannot be both. This is why Loki as a character and as a threat to the world is unconvincing and deprives the movie of stakes.
…Leading to an Unsatisfying Conclusion
Which leaves the Chitauri invasion. This could provide a credible threat in lieu of Loki. However they are so terribly underdeveloped and pictured as nothing more than evil and ugly that they cause the same threat level as a natural disaster like an asteroid or a tsunami. They are so deprived of personality that it is difficult to ascribe any meaningful responsibility to them. Incidentally, and sadly, the movie deals with them by nuking them, which is precisely the same way Hollywood deals with almost all natural disasters: Asteroids (Armageddon, Deep Impact), the earth’ core slowing down (The Core), the sun going out (Sunshine), etc.
Let’s talk about the battle in New York and the final 60 minutes of the movie. Of course it had to be New York, it’s the classic city for big showdown. The Chitauri arrive and they are fought off in a series of cuts and scenes which have all the tension and expertise of the final hour of “Transformers 3”. Not that the effects and shots are badly done, the craftsmanship is perfectly acceptable, but we’ve seen them all before and by this time the lack of tension, stakes and character motivation provides us not with a tight and gripping ending but simply fireworks. The movie has by that point failed to make the audience connect to and care about any of the protagonists and the ending has a very perfunctory feeling to it; at no point is there any question about how it will end and what will happen next.
The final scenes bear some analysis as well; Stark decides to ride a nuke into the gateway to destroy the evil Chitauri. Since they are evil and ugly and have no depth, there is no moral difficulty about this. We don’t know whether there are children on board of their mother ship, whether without Loki they could be negotiated with and we don’t care. Nor do we know if we should feel any pity for them at all. The destruction of the Chitauri mother ship causes all the Chitauri on Earth to die as well through supposedly some psychic connection or something, and that too was never addressed. Unlike Loki’s ploy on the airborne aircraft carrier, which was setup without payoff, the Chitauri’s death on Earth was payoff without setup and is just as unsatisfying.
Stark’s final act would have had a smidgeon of meaning if he had not made it back to Earth and had perished on the other side of the gate. It would have been an easy plot point to state that his’ remaining there was the only way to close the gate permanently. Even Michael Bay’s “Armageddon” managed this way to carve some meaning into an otherwise quite flat movie. Stark’s subplot with Captain America about honour and dying for a cause could have come to a conclusion here. Sacrifice is an interesting and powerful theme to work through war and action movies and I am willing to bet the laptop on which I am writing this that it will be a major theme in Nolan’s upcoming “The Dark Knight Rises” [Update: I won]. But again Whedon misses even this very last straw to give the movie any hint of depth and meaning; Stark’s survival is a cop-out. (For anyone arguing that we needed him for Iron Man 3, firstly, other franchises don’t justify sloppy screenwriting, and secondly, his return could be dealt with in a five-minute plot point in Iron Man 3.)
In short we have been provided with a movie might as well have been titled “Transformers 4: Stuff Happens and Things Go Boom“. Oh well, I want my money back.