Thursday, 10 May 2012
Deconstructing The Assembly
Right. Now that I've seen The Avengers (or Avengers Assemble, if we must), my little prior data conflict problem from a few weeks ago has now been resolved.
Let's start by comparing Wilson's comments on the film with what I like to call "objective reality." Wilson's comments can be divided into three groups: bafflingly stupid, deliberately mendacious, and actual unquestionable falsehoods. His least ridiculous claim is that the film has weak dialogue. That's certainly a position I disagree with pretty strongly, but whatever floats one's boat, right? Of course, his one actual example of crappy dialogue "They're gods, basically!" is misquoted, mis-stressed, and shorn of context, but at least all those words did appear in the same sentence at some point. Not all of his objections are so grounded in fact.
Wilson's next objection is that the film is deeply anti-feminist. I suspect he has at least a ghost of a point here (though as his co-host pointed out, he's basically complaining that Whedon hasn't done enough of a job restructuring the sausage-fest source material), but he undercuts whatever argument he could sensibly construct on the topic by crafting his examples from whole cloth. There is not only one female character unless you whisper under your breath "who's an official member of the Avengers." I'd not argue for a second if Wilson were to suggest Maria Hill deserved more screen time, but just pretending she doesn't exist to make the claim of sexism easier to apply is the work of a hack. Pepper Potts gets little more than a cameo, but in her brief time on screen she shows herself completely able to stand up to Stark's overwhelming charm and force of will, and frankly beats him down more than once as well.
(From here on in, there are minor spoilers, folks)
It's with Wilson's discussion of the Black Widow that things really fall apart. First, the untruth: Scarlett Johansson does not start the film in her underwear. She starts it in an evening dress. This is our James Bond character, basically, and she arrives on-screen wearing the direct female analogue to the tux Bond sports for apparently about 73% of his life. As falsehoods go, we're not exactly talking Nixon levels, but if you want to claim small details are evidence of a larger theme you have to get those details right.
Indeed, Wilson's foolishness particularly rankles because he insists on taking at face value a scene - Black Widow is all pretty and tied up and being slapped around - that is deliberately constructed to subvert that initial reaction. Natasha is deliberately feigning being a helpless woman because she knows she'll get more out of her enemies boasts than she would from interrogating them herself. Complaining this scene is sexist is like saying The Usual Suspects suggests that people with limps are always losers. And the film makes this point again later on, as another male character is lulled into underestimating Black Widow to his cost. Did that just sail past Wilson entirely? Did he stop watching after the first act? If you watch multiple subversions of chauvinism and complain they're chauvinist, what business do you have reviewing films?
Oh, and "the film is very right-wing"? Fuck off. The main subplot is explicitly about the dangers of over-militarising cultures and always trying to build a bigger gun. When a former arms dealer is on screen criticising the idea of a planetary nuclear deterrent, it's pretty hard to claim the film is particularly right of centre. As far as I can tell, Wilson has noticed some of the characters are pretty right-wing, and figured that'd do as analysis goes. I can't say I'm surprised someone from Front Row might not be too impressed with a popcorn-friendly action-heavy film like this one (nor would I even say that disliking this sort of thing is bad in itself), but if you can't even summon up the energy to analyse a blockbuster correctly, I'd say the problem definitely isn't with the film.
In short, John of House Wilson: I name you liar and fool.
Anyway, that's the criticism of the criticism out of the way. What did I think of it? In general, I loved it. It's funny, sharp, fast-moving, exceptionally visually impressive, and full of nods to the comics without feeling beholden to them. Listing the positive points would take forever, so instead I shall take the standard route of fanboys everywhere and just beat on those few areas I think don't quite come up to snuff.
First, I'll partially agree with Wilson on two points: there wasn't enough to do for the female characters (though what they did do was often brilliant), and this is definitely one of Whedon's weakest scripts. Of course, even the worst Whedon script ever written (until now I'd say that was "Amends" from Buffy's third season) are still pretty damn good, so a dip in quality isn't quite the end of the world, but there are occasional moments when it's tough to recognise these characters as themselves rather than Joss Whedon in costume. Oddly, it's Downey Jr's Tony Stark that suffers the worst here, which I can't quite understand, since Whedon writes very well for him and he is, as always, a joy to watch. Something isn't entirely clicking, though.
Those are minor points, really. The biggest problem the film has is the sheer amount it has to force into its run time. Juggling seven active superheroes and three SHIELD characters was never going to be easy, even for someone like Whedon who's used to handling comparatively large groups (and it's not like Serenity was perfectly balanced in that respect either). Everyone gets at least one brilliant line, of course, but Hill, Hawkeye and probably even Thor to some extent all get less to do than one might hope (and if we're talking about cliche, having a hero be mind-controlled might be a time-saver characterisation-wise, but that's not really enough to save it). The Chitauri are also a problem, an entirely undeveloped cookie-cutter alien race of the kind we've seen a thousand times before. The film sidesteps this problem at least in part by doing so well with Loki, but their giant space-snake-flying-tanks aside, there's nothing particularly interesting about them.
As before, this is entirely understandable - trying to keep ten heroes and a villain going is tough enough without giving names to all the Stormtroopers, but the fact that the very nature of the film's setup makes it impossible to do everything right doesn't mean we can't note the problems that inevitably develop.
Basically, then, Avengers is within a hair's breadth of being the best possible movie that could have been made given what was required. If it isn't the best of the six "Earth - 199999" films, then it's a strong second just millimetres behind Iron Man.
(Cross posted at Year X.)