'Better clench up, Legolas'
As we count down to the long-awaited uber-team-up Avengers: Infinity War (out May 4), EW’s Marvel Movie Club is preparing by revisiting the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe in the weeks leading up to the mega-sized movie. EW’s Chancellor Agard (that’s me!) will revisit one Marvel movie a week, every week, to reassess its powers and hopefully answer important questions along the way like “What was The Incredible Hulk?” “Does Nick Fury wash his eye-patch?” and “Is there a point to Hawkeye?” This week, two EW comic nerds look at The Avengers, the movie that changed everything.
It’s team-up week here in Marvel Movie Club!
In 2012, Marvel Studios released The Avengers, the culmination of four years of work that began with Iron Man. Directed by Joss Whedon, this movie united Iron Man (Tony Stark), Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), and the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) for an epic battle against Tom Hiddleston’s Loki and an endless alien army. The Avengers was the first time a major live-action movie had ever brought so many heroes together for one story — and in a lot of ways, it changed the game (and made a lot of money). For comic book fans everywhere, it was the superhero team-up film they’d been waiting for, well, forever.
Rewatching The Avengers this week inspired me to stage my own team-up. So this week, I asked my colleague Christian Holub, with whom I usually recap Marvel’s Netflix shows, to join me to discuss this movie, which, it’s fair to say, rocked both of our worlds.
CHANCELLOR AGARD: Christian, welcome to EW’s Marvel Movie Club! I’m happy you agreed to join me to talk about this kind of crazy movie, because (a) my journey through the MCU has been a lonely one so, and (b) I know this movie probably meant as much to you when it came out as it did for me.
As I’ve mentioned in this space before, the two most formative things for me as a comic book nerd were the DC Animated Universe, which is a proto-MCU, and Marvel’s Ultimate Universe, which is one of the strongest inspirations for The Avengers. Basically, this movie was designed for me. I remember rushing down to the AMC Lincoln Square in New York with my classmates after our political philosophy finale to see this movie the Friday it opened — and it definitely lived up to the hype. It was almost everything I could’ve asked for from a superhero team movie. The film not only had that visceral excitement of seeing your favorite action figures crash together, but the story actually had stakes, not the least of which because the movie remained so focused on many characters whom we’d grown to love in their solo movies. I felt that same excitement rewatching it this week.
So Christian, to start off, how did you feel when you rewatched The Avengers? What jumped out to you? Was there anything you liked less or more this time around? (Also, did you figure out if there was a point to Hawkeye?)
CHRISTIAN HOLUB: Well, Chance, if I’m being honest, I didn’t detect many new things on my latest rewatch of The Avengers, because I’ve already seen this movie dozens of times. I watched it multiple times in theaters and then it became my go-to hangover movie for the rest of college.
I do have takes, however! The hottest of which is that I don’t think the MCU will ever quite live up to The Avengers. Sitting in that theater, watching these characters from different films interact in a way that went against all the traditions of cinema but that you as a young comic nerd knew was the way it was supposed to be, was truly awesome. On top of that, it was written and directed by people who were familiar with comic book storytelling, and waged the kind of epic superheroes-vs-aliens battle that for so long was imaginable only in the pages of comics. Nothing beats that first time. It’s fun to watch every MCU character gather for Infinity War after years of further build-up, but I’m already used to the basic sensation.
The Avengers’ magic trick worked spectacularly, as evidenced by its huge box office. But one question that will be interesting for you, Chance, to explore as you go forward with Marvel Movie Club will be to see how the MCU was forever changed (or…not?) by The Avengers. For now, I want to focus on one specific element that The Avengers introduced to this big-screen playground. You’ve already written about The Incredible Hulk, a.k.a the red-headed stepchild of the MCU, the one movie that doesn’t fit the grand plan. The Avengers is the movie that officially replaces Edward Norton with Mark Ruffalo in the Bruce Banner role, in a movie that revolves quite a lot around the Hulk. What do you think about Ruffalo’s take on the character? Are you as bummed as I am that he never got a full-length solo movie?
CHANCELLOR: Mark Ruffalo is hands down my favorite part of The Avengers. (This is far from unique.) Every time I watch this movie, I laugh hysterically when the Hulk punches Thor at the end of that Avengers-assembled long take, and I cheer when the Hulk pulverizes Loki. “Puny God” might one the best lines of the movie. Look, I think the best thing that can be said about the failure of The Incredible Hulk is that it allowed Whedon and Ruffalo to take a new approach to the MCU’s version of Bruce Banner. They completely ignored Norton’s angsty take on the character and turned Bruce into this nerdy, kind of goofy teddy-bear and gave him a wry sense of humor that Ruffalo handles beautifully.
I think what makes this Hulk quite successful is that Whedon found the humor in Bruce’s unfortunate situation; then again, there’s very little that Marvel can’t find humor in. The MCU is really scared of taking itself too seriously. This lighthearted version of the character immediately made him more endearing. That being said, I’m glad the movie doesn’t ignore that there’s a darkness there, too. A few lines here and there tease that Bruce is still a troubled man, which prepares us for the upsetting revelation that Bruce tried and failed to commit suicide in order to rid the world (and himself) of the Hulk.
To be fair, I shouldn’t be surprised that Whedon managed to make me — someone who has never been too invested in the Hulk — fall in love with this character. As we’ve seen on Buffy with the vampires Angel (David Boreanaz) and Spike (James Marsters), Whedon is really good at making you care for monsters. Speaking of Buffy: One of the most Whedon things about The Avengers is how he started pairing Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), a master assassin whose job it is hunt monsters, with Bruce Banner, a man who turns into one. It’s hard not watch the movie and not think of slayer Buffy’s relationships with those aforementioned vampires.
I’ll be honest, I’m not nearly as bummed that we haven’t gotten another standalone Hulk movie, but that’s only because I like the fact that the MCU has spread Bruce’s arc across multiple movies. Our conversation about the Hulk, however, brings me to something else I want to talk about: Loki, who unleashes the Hulk in order to distract S.H.I.E.L.D. It’s one of several moments in this movie that lean into Loki’s more mischievous side. The Hulk is only part of Loki’s larger plan, but Whedon includes shots of Loki smirking amidst the chaos on the Helicarrier (and elsewhere in the movie, too) that lets us know that part of him is enjoying this, too. I feel like Thor kind of ignored the fact that Loki was the god of mischief, too, instead focusing on the sadder parts of the character. How do you feel about Loki? Are you as in love with Hiddleston’s baddie as the rest of the internet?
CHRISTIAN: NO! I’ve never gotten the Hiddleston hype. In fact, I was so disappointed by his performance as Loki in Thor and The Avengers that it took me quite a while to figure out why so many people considered him an icon.
I don’t want to sound too much like a “better in my day” comic nerd, but the fact is that the comic book version of Loki is a cold, calculating bastard. It doesn’t matter whether he’s female (as in the J. Michael Straczynski/Olivier Coipel Thor comics) or aged-down to adolescence (as in the Kieron Gillen/Jamie McKelvie Young Avengers) or just his regular old self—Loki is always 10 steps ahead of everyone. He plays everyone against each other and betrays anyone if it’ll give him short-term gains, but people still go along with his schemes because of his unbeatable charisma and constant utility. He’s like if Littlefinger from Game of Thrones had cosmic powers and no weird psycho-sexual hang-ups to drag him down. He acts, in short, like the unpredictable god of mischief and chaos who comes down to us from Norse mythology. And when you go back to those original myths, as Neil Gaiman did in a recent book, it’s easy to find Loki the most compelling character in that entire pantheon.
Hiddleston’s Loki, by contrast, is an unbearable whining weenie. Far from being 10 steps ahead, he’s constantly getting undermined by everyone around him, from Thanos and the Chitauri to Hulk and Iron Man. He does manage to break out of his Helicarrier cell with a rather ambitious plan, but since this movie arrived in that post-Dark Knight era where seemingly every blockbuster had a second act where the villain got caught and imprisoned as part of their grand plan, it’s never read as a terribly inventive plot. I actually think the version of Loki we see in Thor: Ragnarok (playing one side against the other, always trying to find his own way out, funny and sneaky) is a much better depiction of the character, but it took a whole six years to get there. But even though I dislike Loki’s whiny insecurity and jealous petulance in the earlier movies, I can see why fans like him. There’s at least some kind of relatable character motivation there, which is better than almost every other villain Marvel has given us.
Speaking of “puny god,” let’s break down the epic battle against the Chitauri invaders in the movie’s climax. This would go on to spawn nearly identical climaxes in many MCU movies to follow (heroes fighting down an endless army of identical drones/aliens without any individual personalities) but this one at least has a lot of great beats, whether it’s Cap rallying the emergency responders or Thor and Hulk tag-teaming one of those dragon transports. What do you like about the massive Manhattan sequence, and what do you think about its influence?
CHANCELLOR: I think you nailed what makes the Battle of New York (or The Incident, if we were characters on a Marvel-Netflix show) so exhilarating right on the head. Sure, there’s a lot of over-stimulating CGI and explosions, but what sticks in your mind after watching The Avengers are the characters beats, which make this 30-minute sequence feel dynamic and not just like an endless assault on your visual cortex. When I think about the battle, I don’t remember some awesome punch. I think about Captain America giving Black Widow the boost she needs to hijack one of the alien’s sky scooters, and Captain America and Iron Man, who started out the movie off the wrong foot, fighting back to back.
Obviously, my favorite moment of the entire fight is the lyrical long-shot of the Avengers fighting together that humorously ends with the Hulk punching Thor. It’s not just aesthetically pleasing, but it also feels earned because the movie’s main arc was about how these clashing personalities put aside their differences in order to team up and save the day. Introducing most of these heroes in their own standalone movies was the best move Marvel could’ve made because then The Avengers became a film about the origin story about the team itself.
I also love that The Avengers takes its time to actually save civilians during the battle. It’s not about who can punch Loki the hardest, but about making sure no one gets hurt. Lesser superhero movies would’ve left out the moment when Captain America saves a bunch of hostages because it has nothing to do with the big beam of light in the sky that needs to be handled. That’s the thing: many superhero movies that have followed (Man of Steel, Avengers: Age of Ultron) have tried to the copy the Battle of New York’s mayhem and destruction, but they ultimately pale in comparison because their big battles don’t have The Avengers‘ heart.
As we come to a close, I want to hear your thoughts on how this movie affected the MCU going forward. Does Phil Coulson’s death still matter since he was resurrected on Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.? How did this set the stage for future Marvel’s movies? (In hindsight, S.H.I.E.L.D.’s original plans for the Tesseract in this movie are definitely worrisome given what happens in Captain America: The Winter Soldier.)
CHRISTIAN: Well Chance, as you and I both know, I’m a pretty big fan of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. But although that show had a few Nick Fury cameos in its first season, by now it’s pretty well disconnected from the MCU (partially because the big Inhumans story the show had been building toward for years ended up being a gigantic flop, and none of the other MCU shows lasted very long either). It barely even mentions superhero euphemisms like “the green guy” anymore. For all intents and purposes, Phil Coulson is still dead in the MCU, which means his death scene here (which I LOVE) still has that emotional impact for Iron Man and Cap and the rest, to the extent they remember it at all. And let’s just say that, with all the homework viewers will already have to do to understand Infinity War, I don’t expect an additional, “Hey, hope you also watched those five seasons of my ABC show” cameo from Clark Gregg. I mean, he didn’t even make it into that big class photo. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is a compelling and inventive sci-fi show (check the recent run of episodes where the team is catapulted into a futuristic dystopian space station orbiting a dead Earth), but it’s pretty separate from the movies by now.
I love your note about how the Manhattan battle scene depicts the heroes actually saving lives. You and I both grew up on the DC Animated Universe, which always went to great lengths to do the same. If you don’t have that, then they’re not really heroes at all, are they? Which is why Henry Cavill’s Superman ends up looking like a genocidal mass-murderer not very different from his supposed enemy Zod. That may have been the whole point Zack Snyder was trying to make, but it certainly doesn’t make for a good superhero movie.
Back to the topic at hand, you make an interesting point about how S.H.I.E.L.D.’s weapon development program looks even shadier given the Winter Soldier revelations that the entire organization is infested by its supposed enemy HYDRA. You’ll probably get into this in your eventual Movie Club post about it, but the reason Winter Soldier still stands above the rest of the MCU movies is that it actually has something to say about our world. That is, maybe we shouldn’t grant counter-intelligence and homeland security organizations such unlimited power over our lives, since we don’t actually know who they are and their motives could be wildly at odds with the public good. Avengers does get on this early, and does a good job of showing how S.H.I.E.L.D.’s shadiness actually undermines its professed desire to protect the world. If Nick Fury had been honest with his friends and employees from the beginning, Loki wouldn’t have been able to get out of the Helicarrier at all. And if such secrecy hadn’t been allowed to poison S.H.I.E.L.D., the Earth would probably be in a much better position to deal with Thanos’ coming arrival in Infinity War.
One last question for you: One of the lines I quote most in this movie is Mark Ruffalo’s declaration right before he Hulks out for that final battle, a follow-up on something he had started to say earlier in the Helicarrier. “That’s my secret, Cap: I’m always angry.” This suggests that he actually does have control over his green alter ego, and can transform at will. But then… why did he uncontrollably Hulk out in the Helicarrier earlier? Does the nature of his relationship to the Hulk just change based on the needs of the plot at any given moment? I remember having passionate arguments about this at the time, and so I just wanted to see what you thought. Is this amazing line actually a plot-breaking loophole?
CHANCELLOR: I think the only reason he transformed on the Helicarrier was because he hit his head in the explosion and couldn’t regain control over the Hulk in time to stop the transformation from happening. And I think it’s sort of a one-way thing: He can let himself go and transform into the Hulk, but it’s harder to do it the other way around, hence the Hulk rampaged through the Helicarrier for an extended period of time before falling to Earth. If that’s not a good explanation, maybe we should ask Quincy Jones, who seems to have the answer for everything.
Next Week: Iron Man 3: The PTSD Avenger