I went to see The Avengers yesterday!
And, okay, you know how I’m usually Ms. Betty Buzzkill when it comes to SF/F, right? With my Critical Thinking Cap on and everything?
And how I don’t like Joss Whedon, because his character-writing is formulaic, and he has significant issues writing women, PoC, and queer characters? And how I’ve never been an Avengers fan, and even if I was, I’m not about “classic” line-ups, particularly when they’re conveniently all-White/all-male?
I freaking loved The Avengers.
Easily in my top five live-action superhero/comics movies, and while that’s still a rather specific and solidly a B-movie (though a climbing B-movie!) genre, I’m all about the nerdy B-movies. (In case anyone was wondering: the other movies that made my top five are Hellboy II, X2, Blade II, and Captain America, but the Avengers definitely knocked out Constantine and bumped down the sixth-place and seventh-place contenders, Iron Man and Punisher: War Zone, respectively– don’t you judge me right now, I know the acting and dialogue was heinous, but it was visually gorgeous, and directed and produced by women– well out of the running. Note that I also don’t count AvP as a comic-movie, since it apparently had nothing much to do with the comics and is hugely unpopular, even though I love it more than it probably deserves. Honorable mentions to the Burton Batverse.)
I still wish it had passed the Bechdel test, or the racial equivalent, but the second one was pretty much rendered impossible by the “classic” casting, of course, and while the first would definitely have had to be shoehorned in to make much sense [I can’t see Natasha, as characterized in-film, talking shop with anyone she didn’t have to (want to?) work with, because, duh, spy, though I could see Pepper trying for that conversation], I still would have loved (would love??) that as, like, a deleted scene, or an after-credits extra.
The women: Scarlett Johannson as Natasha Romanoff, “The Black Widow,” was actually amazeballs, to my surprise. (Let no one say comic book movies don’t fly with me because of my high expectations– my bar is actually really, really low.) She kind of blew me away, and every time I was irritated by something with the character, it was incredibly rapidly addressed in-story (except for her horrible accent while speaking Russian, but, like, that’s explained by Johannson as an American actress speaking a language she’s not fluent in; pronunciation tends not to be great), and made sense in context. Love, love, love her, and very excited about the possibility of a solo movie– and this is coming from someone who doesn’t always like ScarJo. Also, whoever her stunt double is is fabulous, honest-to-god. In fact, all the movie’s fight choreography really sets a new bar for superhero melée movies; all the characters’ fighting styles really shine at the same time as showing off who those characters are and what their skillsets are, which includes non-supes Natasha and Clint (who I was also surprised to like in this!).
Cobie Smulders as Maria Hill was competent, though I felt like she didn’t get much room to flex the character (but it wasn’t really her time to factor more majorly in the story– yet???). Still, you get a great read off of her that she isn’t fond of either Cap or Iron Man, and I think she might be kind of over having to ask Nick Fury for orders on everything, though I’m very likely projecting, here. I also kind of wish she was as unapologetically butch as she’s drawn in the comics with her pixie cut and all, but the military bun (with bangs! I never understand this desire to give fighting women grabbable hair, honestly) is an acceptable replacement. I was weirded out that other women on the deck of the SHIELD helicarrier wore skirt-uniforms while others, including Hill, wore pants, because that does not seem even a little bit practical considering what SHIELD does, even if you’re working a desk job– since, you know, after all, you’re still on a helicarrier that happens to hold a fuckton of SHIELD-tech, SHIELD air transportation, etc., plus the Avengers, who aren’t even a team yet, and don’t really like each other. Idk, long, narrow skirts in a location that could very likely be the popping-off point for some serious battle situations seems poorly-thought-out, especially in 2012.
Gwyneth Paltrow, as Pepper Potts, is shown for the super-genius mega-multitasker she is in her first scene, and is acknowledged/praised for it by Tony immediately (who also complains when she keeps on getting shit done even when he’s ready to blow everything off, but if Pepper was willing to flake out like that, how would Tony Stark have even functioned as an adult? I ask you). He also seems weirded out that Pepper knows Agent Coulson’s first name (Phil), but not in a weird and possessive way, just in a bewildered-that-Pepper-knows-EVERYTHING, even-things-beyond-my-notice, kind of way. (By the way, the scene I would have loved would have been, in passing, Natasha and Maria talking shop while Pepper talks with them about schematics and tactical plans and things, without it being a, “Hey, look at all the super-dudes over there watching the women be ‘hot’ by catering to our/their interests!” sort of focused moment. It wouldn’t have worked, tbh, because I don’t think anyone should be divulging a lot of information to SHIELD like that, particularly since Natasha’s all about being awesome at spying and privacy, and Pepper’s very situationally astute, but I also know how Maria ends up characterized in the comics, so it remains a pipe dream. But seriously, Hill didn’t talk with or directly give orders to any of the other women on the helicarrier in the whole movie! This could have been easy to squeak past with, is what I’m saying.)
Obviously there’s a lot of male gaze going on– for example, Pepper’s in two scenes, and in one she’s in short-shorts and barefoot (but, like, at home, so I’m not that worried about it)– but there’s a lot of equal-opportunity ass appreciation shots going on in this film, and some of everyone’s got a nice booty situation, so yay for that! No weirdly lingering camera shots, though, and the only time anyone’s cleavage is displayed prominently, it’s one of those justified-Black-Widow things I was talking about, so far better than expected for a superhero film.
On the PoC end, Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury continues to play the Nick Fury version of himself, which is pretty great, though I wish we’d gotten to see more of him (maybe a Nick Fury/SHIELD movie in the future?). He also plays a part in one of what must be a Joss Whedon bit in the script, which was incredibly self-aware writing, and which I will love to see the aftermath of in the inevitable Avengers sequel. Still, though, there have been plenty of non-White folks in the Avengers, and while I think this movie did fantastically with a lot of people who could easily have been portrayed as very one-note, no one can tell me that PoC Avengers would have been too second-rung for a team that includes Hawkeye. Don’t get me wrong, Jeremy Renner was fantastic, but he’s still an archer on a team of superpowered beings, gods/near-gods, and spies, and he dies (and is brought back, because, you know, comics) an awful lot. Like, Monica Rambeau? Luke Cage? Maya Lopez? Snap Wilson?? WOULD HAVE BEEN AWESOME. (I think Black Panther’s movie rights have already been bought up; Amadeus Cho’s already been whitewashed; and Namor’s probably been bundled in as an F4 property, though he was more interesting in the Defenders anyway– but there’s still potential for War Machine to make an appearance, which would be fine if we could hold on to a Rhodey for more than one movie, ya hear me?)
The cinematography was really good, though it slightly overuses shaky-cam? Note: I didn’t notice the shaky-cam at all in The Hunger Games, though I was aware of the super-duper-ultra shaky-cam in Cloverfield, and it didn’t bother me, so know that I’m not really sensitive to it unless it “feels” out of place. Likewise, there’s only one lensflare that I noticed (if there’s more, I tuned them out, tbh), which is always kind of jarring when it takes you out of the scene. But otherwise, all the fight scenes were incredibly clear and easy-to-follow, product-placement shots tended to not jump out from the rest of the story (I really wanted a Bodum kettle I saw used in one scene, but no label was actually shown for it– I just recognized it as a Bodum because I covet an electric water heater).
The storytelling was easily the least-Whedon-y Whedon writing I’ve ever seen, and I know he was collaborating with Zak Penn on this– but there were only, like, two obnoxiously “Whedon dialogue” moments, and both of them were from Black Widow, so I was inclined to handwave them (despite being kind of OOC, imo) because of how hard and fast I fell in love with the character. And as much as I can’t stand a lot of Whedon’s character writing issues, he’s good at plot-writing (…she admitted, begrudgingly), and The Avengers is no exception to that. While I was worried the Iron Man/Captain America clash teased in the trailers was going to play into time-period related structures of “manhood” and “Americanness” and “American manhood,” which has been a tone I find/found grating when it pops up in Marvel’s comics, the team dynamic became very much an exploration of all the characters’, including IM’s and cap’s, brokenness in a lot of ways. (ALL THE HEART HANDS FOR MARK RUFFALO’S HULK! I wasn’t convinced when he was cast, but I was soooooooo wrong, you guys.)
Also, a mad shout-out to whoever made the call for the macroplotting of the villain(s) and the political complexities of vigilantism within/through a government agency, because, WHOA, fantabulosity right hurrr. No spoilers, but, yeah, NO DISAPPOINTMENTS, and this film does a very good job of not “feeling” limited by Marvel properties owned by other movie studios, because, in case anyone forgot, there’s plenty of big-name heavy-hitter baddies left in the Marvel U without having to touch on the X-verse, F4, or Spider-Man. (And on that note, I’d like to add that Hiddleston’s Loki remains flawless, and the expansion of Thor’s fighting abilities in-film made me feel a lot better about the less-great Thor movie and Chris Hemsworth’s casting; I still don’t really like the movie-Thor “look,” which I think is throwing me, but movie-Loki’s costume works for me, so I think it’s Thor’s stubbliness instead of dedication to a full beard or a clean-shaven face, and the weird shade of blond the stylists went with and how it doesn’t really work with Hemsworth’s skintone?)
There’s a lot going on with who, and what, the Avengers are fighting, and for whom, and it rapidly becomes apparent that the team really is greater than the sum of its constantly self-improving parts. Which is a good thing– because they’ll need to be, if the two post-credits scenes are any indication.
So, consider me an Avengers– movie– convert. I just hope the producers, writers, and directors find– make– write a place for more women, PoC, and non-hetero/gender-binary characters, because I’d love to be able to see some of me, and people like me, starring in action fantasy, especially one with this kind of potential.