There is some lamentation over the dying art of film projection, as digital projection becomes the norm. Recently I saw a perfectly projected old print of Thief (Michael Mann, 1981), which did highlight for me the pleasures of viewing something physical, complete with scratches and flickers. I also recently saw Avengers Assemble (Joss Whedon, 2012) twice, and each time beheld a (seemingly) pristine digital copy that was fresh, bright and clear. There are advantages both ways, but Avengers Assemble lends itself extremely well to digital projection. Over the past thirty odd years, superhero movies have gone from bright (Superman) to dark (Batman) to bright (Batman & Robin) to dark (Daredevil) to bright and dark (Iron Man, The Dark Knight), depending on the franchise. While Christopher Nolan and Warner Bros. take Batman to ever darker depths of derangement and depravity, Marvel has gone the other way and kept its heroic exploits light-hearted, while not skimping on the action and avoiding the dreaded pitfalls of campness that can so easily be fallen into when your arc reactor fails.
Digital projection aided the brightness of Avengers Assemble, rendering a clear, crisp image that would not benefit from a third dimension that dims the image (both of my viewings were in 2D). Within all this brightness, there was ample visual room to admire the production design and smooth cinematography, including director Whedon’s fondness for long complex takes. For earlier instances of this directorial signature, see the introduction of the characters in Serenity and various sequences in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel (especially “The Body”). In Avengers Assemble, a superb long take during the climactic battle features all of our heroes laying their own signature smacks down upon the invading alien army. From Captain America’s (Chris Evans) spinning shield to Hawkeye’s (Jeremy Renner) tech-arrows, Black Widow’s (Scarlett Johansson) fists and feet to Thor’s (Chris Hemsworth) lightning bolts, Iron Man’s (Robert Downey, Jnr.) repulsor rays and Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) being, well, smashing, all are contained within a single dizzying take that dives and swerves through New York in a perfect demonstration of the visceral thrill of cinema. Orson Welles would be proud.
Aside from the energetic style, other Whedon trademarks abound, including the intertwining of humour with the action and the plot. Indeed the single most memorable aspect of the film may be its humour, from Tony Stark’s quips to Nick Fury’s (Samuel L. Jackson) sardonic comments, Bruce Banner’s slightly bumbling jokes and Steve Rogers being at a loss in the modern world. Best of all is Loki’s (Tom Hiddleston) determination to not only conquer the world, but to do it in style and have the last laugh (reminiscent of Whedon’s earlier villains such as Spike, Angelus, Mayor Wilkins and Glory). Grand clashes between heroes and villains can seem perfunctory or even little more than generic fulfilment (such as the anti-climactic battle in Iron Man), but Loki’s plan to lead an alien army to take over Earth, motivated by his own bitterness at being cast out of Asgard and jealousy of his brother, not to mention a divine superiority complex, provide a suitably meaty character trajectory, not to mention a cruel wit that sparks superbly with Tony Stark’s wryness and the Hulk’s bluntness.
Whedon also utilises his strength as a writer and director of ensembles, demonstrating how wise a choice he was for this potentially most unwieldy of blockbusters. As well as the five super-powered stars, we have super-skilled spies Black Widow and Hawkeye, Nick Fury, S.H.I.E.L.D. agents Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) and Phil Coulson (Gregg Clark), and there’s even time for Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard). Despite varying screentime and limited space for character development, it never feels that anyone is just there as dressing or collateral damage – each character, sequence and plot point fits neatly into the film’s rich and engaging tapestry. If the previous Avengers instalments were sometimes underpowered, spending too much time on the origin and/or too little on the plot, they served to build a strong foundation upon which this builds. The scale of S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters is impressive yet functional – not only is it a grand display of diegetic and non-diegetic technology, it forms an impressive location for much of the drama. One of the best scenes is an argument between the principal characters that steadily escalates, Whedon and his editors Jeffrey Ford and Lisa Lassek cutting precisely between the participants to escalate the tension, yet keeping a key event hidden until the reveal; meanwhile, events outside increase the stakes for the viewer as well. Similarly, the final sequence strikes just the right balance between superheroics, pyrotechnics, humorous comments and character interaction, from the bemused to the deeply emotional.
Despite the potential problems of amassing these different elements, Avengers Assemble never fails to engage and entertain. It is, in many ways, a magnificent achievement to have struck the right balance and maintained pace and tone throughout. It may lack the troubling and thought-provoking elements of The Dark Knight, or the intensity of the inter-personal battles in Spider-Man 2, but it marshals its characters, plot, style and execution into a marvellously entertaining whole.
Perhaps more interesting than the film itself, though, is its place within Hollywood production. Avengers Assemble is the climax of four years’ preparation and development, from Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk in 2008, through Iron Man 2 in 2010, to Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger in 2011. The continued presence of the main players is in some ways quite remarkable. Ever since Superman: The Movie (Richard Donner, 1978) featured the unknown Christopher Reeve, it has been evident that with a superhero as the star, the wattage of the actor playing them need not be blinding. Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer, George Clooney, Tobey Maguire and Christian Bale were certainly not unknowns when they were cast as various men in spandex, but they were hardly at the level of Tom Cruise, Will Smith or Harrison Ford (it is worth noting that superhero movie Hancock was marketed very much as a Will Smith picture, as the character of Hancock has none of the fame or cultural capital of Marvel and DC’s characters). Robert Downey, Jnr., Mark Ruffalo and Chris Evans were also well known, but rarely were they leading men in blockbusters, as demonstrated by Evans’ previous superhero role of Marvel’s Human Torch in Fantastic Four, again as part of an ensemble. Tom Hiddleston and Chris Hemsworth were virtually unknown prior to Thor (interestingly, an earlier Hemsworth/Whedon collaboration, The Cabin in the Woods, though produced in 2009, was not released until this year, most likely capitalising on Hemsworth’s exposure in both Avengers Assemble and Snow White and the Huntsman). Yet all these stars lend their combined radiance to Avengers Assemble, accompanied by others of equal if not greater fame. Samuel L. Jackson has had brief appearances in all but one of the previous instalments, and potential A-lister Scarlett Johansson fits easily into the ensemble, as does twice Oscar-nominated Jeremy Renner (set to be a leading man later this year in The Bourne Legacy). Most surprising perhaps is (Oscar winner) Gwyneth Paltrow, appearing in a paltry three scenes (only one of which is substantial) despite being able to headline a movie in her own right. Even more striking is that this trend seems unlikely to stop, as Jackson has signed a nine-picture deal with Marvel (Variety). Ruffalo has also signed a deal to appear in six further Marvel pictures (The Guardian), so we will hopefully see more of the Hulk in the future, while reports of Iron Man 3 appear on a seemingly weekly basis (Total Film) and Thor 2 and Captain America 2 have been greenlit (IMDb.com).
While stars have stayed, directors have come and gone. Jon Favreau lasted two Iron Man films before being replaced with Shane Black for the third instalment, and Alan Taylor has succeeded Kenneth Branagh for helm(sworth)ing duties on Thor 2. No reports yet on a director for Captain America 2. Despite these different authorial presences, the Avengers films have been remarkably consistent, maintaining the bright tone mentioned earlier and the balance between the far-fetched superheroics and the relatable people who perform them (a poignant moment in Avengers Assemble features Stark and Banner discussing their respective “terrible gift[s]”). S.H.I.E.L.D. has more advanced technology than actually exists (we assume), making the possible world of the Avengers one that is more heightened than “realistic” superhero films such as the current incarnation of Batman. The consistency of the films despite the disparate writers and directors raises the question of authorship over the films, individually and collectively. Avengers Assemble is regarded by some as a Joss Whedon film, which has angered comic book fans who insist it is a Marvel product (In Media Res). While each film has had distinctive elements from its writer and director, such as Whedon’s trademarks as mentioned above, if there is a franchise auteur the most likely candidate is producer Kevin Feige. Feige has a producer credit on Marvel movies since 2000’s X-Men (Bryan Singer), and Marvel’s “prexy of production” since 2006, so has overall supervisory responsibilities. If it is unrealistic to assign singular responsibility for an individual film, perhaps it is easier to consider an overall steering influence on a franchise, viewing Feige as the series auteur, akin to a TV executive producer who oversees each episode to ensure consistency and continuity.
The combination of different influences and considerations (not to mention egos!) involved in the Avengers make it perhaps the ultimate franchise. As has been written elsewhere (In Media Res), the Avengers movie franchise is not unlike comic book publication, where different titles run in parallel but with crossover. The scale and success of the Avengers’ ambition can be traced to earlier multi-chaptered franchises such as The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter. Instalments can be consumed separately or cumulatively, with the potential to expand, consolidate and maintain the market. Viewers who missed Iron Man may see Thor, and then Avengers Assemble, and subsequently come back for Iron Man 3. Fans of comic books, superheroes, science fiction, action films and blockbusters may watch each instalment at the cinema and then acquire every film upon its DVD/Blu-ray release (I do). Already Avengers Assemble (or The Avengers as it is known everywhere that isn’t Britain) has collected over $1 billion at the global box office, so Marvel’s business model seems to be working. In Hollywood, if an idea succeeds then it is worth copying, so perhaps we will see more integrated franchises in the future, parallel storylines as well as sequels that simply continue the same story. Long-form narratives work well on television, as 24, The Wire and Mad Men (to name but a few) demonstrate. Films have long been about contained, encapsulated narratives, but Marvel’s The Avengers has demonstrated that there is room for more experimentation. The development of future franchises will be very interesting to observe. Digitally projected, of course.