I already did two Avengers blogs focusing on how Whedon balanced the character motivations and development in the script, which I should mention also has a story credit to Zak Penn. I’m sure at some point I’ve given credit to Whedon for an idea that was actually Penn’s, but I’m just going to continue to use his name as shorthand for “whoever in the creative process was responsible for this decision”.
So let’s pull back a bit from the handling of specific characters and look at how The Avengers works in the big picture as a sequel and part of the Marvel movieverse. We’ll start with it’s status as a sequel. It is odd in that it can be looked at as both the first in a new series and a sixth entry in the overall Marvel franchise. I think it would work pretty well even if you hadn’t seen any of the prior movies, but I can’t really put myself in that mindset as a longtime fan of these characters both in print and on screen. Thor’s introduction is probably a bit awkward if you haven’t seen that one, and Loki’s motivation might be a little murkier too, but as time goes on I’m less certain we should hold that against it even if it is the case.
It seems like every review I read of any sequel takes time to address how someone who hadn’t seen the original might react to it. And while it is important that each film be coherent and tell its own story, I have started to wonder where exactly we got the idea that it should be the goal of a sequel to work just as well whether you have seen the original or not. It’s been a long time since we lived in a world where it was difficult or prohibitively expensive to track down a movie once it left theaters, after all, and if you aren’t building on what came before in some way, aren’t you failing to take advantage of the full potential a sequel offers?
It has been a gradual transition to this Brave New World/Integrated Marketing Synergy Environment, though. Not too long ago most sequels were of the James Bond-ian variety, with maybe some vague nods toward continuity, but overall functioning more as a remake of the original than a continuation of the same story. Sure, in the 70s and 80s you had some stuff like The Godfather series or Star Wars that built significantly from the first film, but mostly there would be a retread of the same basic concept (like Rocky II), or a largely unrelated “Character X Adventure” (like Rocky III/IV or a Die Hard/Lethal Weapon sequel).
This has changed in the new millenium, and more and more you see the remake-style sequel relegated to horror franchises (or direct to video comedy spin-offs). Even James Bond embraced continuity! Or look to Indiana Jones. Temple of Doom went so far as to take place before Raiders just to be totally clear that it was its own unrelated adventure. Then when Lucas and Spielberg revisited the character in the 21st century, they decided that what was really needed was closure on the relationship between Indy and Marion that the previous two sequels had completely ignored, to the audience’s delight.
Well, I say “for some reason,” but there are a few why they would want to do that. On the studio side of things, in the post-Star Wars/LOTR/young adult book series du jour world, everyone is looking for the next “saga” they can milk for a decade. But of course they’ve gotten that idea because audiences have shown they are willing to follow a single onscreen story one chapter at a time for years on end. And I think the source of that new openness can be traced as much to television as to the fantasy book series Hollywood has been mercilessly plundering of late. Since the 90s, TV has become home to great drama to rival anything in film, largely through embracing the medium’s potential for longer-term storytelling to build up emotional payoffs with a greater cumulative weight. The rise of DVD boxsets, and then DVR and streaming technology, which have made it vastly easier to catch up and keep up with a show you might otherwise have lost track of, certainly helped larger audiences come to appreciate the merits of serialization as well.
But yeah, we were talking about The Avengers, right? And the question of how it plays to a Marvel neophyte. I think it plays pretty well, but the point I was trying to make is that there is really nothing wrong with a movie not being for neophytes these days. I think pretty much everyone understands the basic concept of a movie being one part of a larger story by now. Not that I have any particular critic in mind when it comes to this, but I think it’s odd and a bit condescending to suggest (even indirectly) that a significant portion of the audience will not or somehow shouldn’t have to understand that if they start watching the Twilight movies with the third one, they may be at a disadvantage when it comes to understanding the full nuance of the character relationships or side plots. Or that it should be a point against a film that calls itself Harry Potter 7, part 1 if it doesn’t tell a complete story and function as an ideal introduction for the uninitiated.
Which is all by way of saying that The Avengers has the unique distinction of functioning as a sequel to four distinct film series at once. The only real examples of movies even attempting such a thing that I can think of are the horror mash-ups like Hammer or the Freddy/Jason, Alien/Predator “Vs” films, and they are not necessarily great models for a superhero franchise to emulate. I spent the last 2 entries elaborating on some of the ways the script makes sure to serve all of its composite heroes, so suffice to say that in my opinion the film functions fairly well as a continuation of the stories of its multitudinous progenitors. And I think focusing on those responsibilities is ultimately more sensible than trying to make a movie whose basic conceit is that it’s a team-up of established heroes somehow work equally well for people who haven’t seen the films that established them as for those who have.
But, since apparently this wasn’t complicated enough, The Avengers also needs to be a launching pad for its own series of films. To that end, while it piggybacks on characterization from the previous films, it also functions as an origin story. I talked in the earlier pieces about how there isn’t a clear protagonist, because this is the story of the team first and foremost. They spend most of the movie at (gloriously punchingful) odds with one another, but at the end they have come together at a real group.
The point being that The Avengers had to be everything to everyone all at once, not just in how it served all the characters but in being the climax of the Marvel Movieverse, Phase 1 (and given how many reviews I’ve read that praise it specifically for great “payoffs” I’d say it succeeded in that regard) and also the first entry in the Phase 2. And I’m definitely excited to see the further adventures of this group, so I’d say it succeeded there as well.
This is a balance superhero comics have had to strike for decades now. Since they are endless by nature but largely (often prohibitively) continuity-bound, even the biggest cosmic crossover storylines have to lead directly into the next, even bigger, threat. And the threats do have to keep escalating, as while serialization allows for greater cumulative weight to the conflicts between the heroes and villains, the flip side is that diminishing returns sets in quickly after the team has trounced MODOK for the second time.
This is another reason why Loki was a great choice for villain. He could easily have not worked and been a disaster, but due to some of the deft maneuvering I went over last time (and Hiddleston!), he managed to carry the film on his own against all these heroes. And since he is not one of the heaviest hitters in the Marvel universe, it left plenty of room for sequels to up the ante when it comes to challenging the team. I’ll wrap this little series up by looking at a few of the options available for doing so.