Lost in the Movies: The Avengers (The Unseen 2012)

The Avengers (The Unseen 2012)

"The Unseen" is a series in which I watch popular films for the first time. The list, which moves backwards in time, is based on the highest-ranked film I've never seen each year on Letterboxd (as of April 2018). The Avengers was #2 for 2012.

The Story: Jumping right into the action and never letting go, the film begins when the godlike Asgardian extraterrestrial Loki (Tom Hiddleston) arrives at a secret scientific laboratory to steal the Tesseract energy source (and intergalactic gateway) from the spy agency S.H.I.E.L.D. That's a mouthful, but The Avengers is largely unconcerned with the details of this intrigue which provide an excuse for its real purpose: assembling "the Avenger initiative," a team of misfit superheroes. Their task is enormous: stop Loki from opening a portal and marching an army of alien supersoldiers who will subjugate the Earth. Loki is determined to enslave the human race, converting them into mindless drones which - he proclaims - will be good for them as well as his own imperial ambitions; freedom is a curse and submission is the true nature of mankind. Only the plucky if unruly spirit of disparate individualists can prove him wrong, if they can coordinate that spirit without losing its drive. On a floating battleship where they've been brought together, these protagonists will quip and banter, fight amongst themselves, learn to work together, and develop a deep loyalty and commitment to one another, utilizing their disparate skills in order to save the world. While the narrative functions in a fairly self-contained way, it draws upon backstory and character development stretching into earlier entries from the Marvel Cinematic Universe like Iron Man (2008), Thor (2011), and Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), as well as a half-century of comic book lore. A certain familiarity with the characters is assumed despite some slight exposition.

These characters, contacted and persuaded - or forced - to enlist by S.H.I.E.L.D. in a globetrotting first act, include the cocky New York tycoon Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.); the old-fashioned Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) who was recently thawed from ice after sixty-plus years and remains encased in a World War II era outlook; the weary, on-edge scientist Bruce Banner/Hulk (Mark Ruffalo, controversially replacing Edward Norton after Marvel's 2008 The Incredibe Hulk) who transforms into a raging green monster when he gets too angry; lightning/hammer-wielding Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Loki's brother and the Mufasa to that villain's Scar who is determined to protect this planet from the power of his own alien race; and Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent herself with a dark past (what Loki sneeringly calls "a lot of red" in her ledger). They are overseen by the determined but perpetually frustrated S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) who must balance their unruly natures with the demands of his ruthless superiors, and they're eventually joined by the deadly archer Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), who is initially captured and converted into a brainwashed henchman by Loki. Together they battle Loki's hordes in Manhattan, until Iron Man travels through a portal that has opened up over the city, delivering a nuclear payload to the enemy before falling back through this closing wormhole just in time to declare victory - and lead his new friends to an exhausted shawarma dinner after the closing credits roll.

The Context:
Within the tight - but increasingly hegemonic - confines of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, The Avengers ends "Phase One" which began with Iron Man: separate films which introduced different characters from the Avengers team independently and then teased upcoming movies - and ultimately The Avengers itself - in their mid-credits sequences (Stark is introduced to S.H.I.E.L.D. after Iron Man, Thor's hammer appears after Iron Man 2, etc). Upon reaching this summit, The Avengers unsurprisingly outperformed all the earlier Marvels, earning $1.5 billion worldwide and falling just behind two James Cameron movies, Titanic and Avatar, on the list of all-time biggest hits. The Avengers broke numerous studio, genre, and opening weekend box office records and received a rapturous audience response; while critics weren't quite so gung-ho, they generally praised the movie as solid entertainment. In a sign (hardly the first) of a growing divide between prestige and audience popularity, the only Oscar nomination was for Best Visual Effects; unlike the Camerons, or Jaws, Star Wars, and E.T. before them, The Avengers was never remotely in contention for Best Picture or other top awards. Not that it mattered; if anything, Marvel's success proved the Academy Awards' growing irrelevance, not vice versa. Although I usually like to keep the context section trim and focused, this is the most culturally consequential entry in the Unseen series so far. A few more paragraphs are necessary to explore this impact...

The Avengers represents a turning point in the American film industry (and thus film history more broadly) which I'm not sure was entirely evident at the time. Although already owned by Disney, Marvel Studios was still distributing its films through Paramount, as if cloaking the reach of its brand. The Avengers had the feel of a conventional, even derivative summer blockbuster in that context: the big tentpole release of 2012 in the way, say, The Dark Knight had been in 2008, or Independence Day had been in 1996, or Jurassic Park had been in 1993. The Avengers' immediately apparent innovation was its ambiguous sequel status - less a diminishing-returns copy of earlier success, and more a bigger-than-ever culmination, pulling together several separate but carefully prepared threads. What Marvel fine-tuned was the notion of blockbuster franchises as perpetual motion machines, a variation of the formula first established by the standard sequel approach of the eighties (in which the original entry would remain as the summit, often financially as well as artistically) and further developed in the zeroes when reboots and pre-designed ongoing stories improved upon the ad hoc and/or Xerox nature of the earlier approach. With The Avengers, Marvel proved that a franchise could multiply, re-assemble, and ascend with no natural termination point on the horizon. In retrospect, The Avengers looks less like the culmination of a process than the moment when liftoff was achieved - or perhaps the opening of a portal which has never since been closed.

Of course, The Avengers was also that culmination, not just of Marvel's worldbuilding, but of Hollywood trends stretching back as far as Jaws and Star Wars. After (literally) a decade of subsequent films arising directly out of this release on May 4, 2012, its own roots can be obscured - especially to a younger generation growing up in its shadow. But The Avengers was building not just on four years of MCU films but a dozen years of continuing-story blockbusters (think not just the open-ended format of the Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter adaptations but also 2000's X-Men, one of Marvel's first tentative forays into tentpole cinema, which ends with minimal resolution and the promise of sequels to come). And beyond that, The Avengers follows forty years of high-profile comic book/superhero movies - Superman opened the genre up just a couple years after the blockbuster era began - and a century of adventure films and serialized storytelling on a smaller scale. Everything in the movie has ample precedent - the ensemble dynamics, the fetishization of high-tech gear, the apocalyptic urban battles - to the point where the film might have even appeared as a self-aware genre riff to critics of the time, a sign of exhaustion rather than ingenuity. This too, in a perverse sense, indicates the movie's steely power; the ability to cast such a vast shadow over the medium without actually doing anything new (aside from innovations of external packaging, branding, and marketing, rather than aesthetic or narrative form or content) is perhaps the most awe-inspiring flex of all.

The tightly managed visual and narrative stranglehold of Marvel Studios has generally been perceived as trampling on the auteur tradition (in contrast to earlier Lucas/Spielberg blockbuster franchises which represented the zenith of individualist filmmaking within the industrial system, a synthesis of studio desires and personal visions). However, Joss Whedon's involvement as writer and director arguably does bring something new to the table, or at least expands and crystallizes what Downey's riffing and mugging in Iron Man already established. While big-budget special effects-driven hits have long found a place for comedy (think Ghostbusters or Men in Black), The Avengers establishes sarcastic dialogue and knowing self-reference as the norm rather than a cute variation. Many have observed that Whedon honed this tone as the showrunner of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, so it's notable that the film's one potential internal innovation is the infusion of a televisual sensibility into the big screen spectacle. That spectacle itself has been characterized as disappointingly bland in its formal elements, a bit too TV-ish (emphasized in this Reddit post from a fan, but most pointedly critiqued by Tony Zhou when he compared Akira Kurosawa's group grieving shots with those in The Avengers). Not that any of these objections have any real, tangible traction. The Avengers succeeded where Loki failed, establishing pop culture dominance that has not dimmed and shows no imminent signs of retreat.

My Response: My take on this film is going to be somewhat idiosyncratic, because it's a layman's view of a subject where there appear to be few remaining laymen. Before beginning work on the Unseen series in 2018, I'd only seen two MCU movies: Iron Man and Iron Man 2. I enjoyed the first film well enough as a piece of popcorn entertainment, more than expected given my irritation with Downey's fidgety, motormouthed screen persona in previous works, but there was still an air of grating smugness about the movie. Between its veneration of billionaire playboy braggadocio, its Gen X-hits-middle-age pop culture cockiness, and its brash Bush era neocon triumphalism (despite feints toward a critique of arms dealers like the pre-Iron Man Stark), I contrasted the film unfavorably with The Dark Knight's differently conservative vision, an elitism which at least felt more honest and thoughtful. I was intrigued by the sequel's promise of a more troubled and troubling Stark, as well as the casting of Mickey Rourke in his post-Wrestler comeback mode, but both aspects were letdowns and Iron Man 2 left me deeply unimpressed and uninterested in following the universe from there. And so I did not, until this series of entries began. Having enjoyed Black Panther quite a bit for its imaginative design (at least outside of the tedious battle sequences) and especially its engagement, however flawed, with Killmonger's ideology, and having found Guardians of the Galaxy to be passably entertaining if overhyped, now I'm finally reach Marvel's crown jewel. What did I think?

Well...it was fine, I guess. I'm not burying the lede by waiting seven paragraphs to share my personal opinion of The Avengers; ultimately I'm just more interested in the film as a cultural phenomenon than as a two and a half hour narrative and visual experience. But I felt it moved along nicely, enjoyed many of the character interactions, and found the action compelling if not exactly transporting on blu-ray. I was surprised to see that the film was not presented in the usual anamorphic widescreen 2.35:1, but rather in an almost exactly 16:9 TV-friendly size, supposedly to accommodate the Hulk's height as well as the skyscrapers of New York. My favorite visual moments were probably those sequences in which S.H.I.E.L.D. tracks down the various Avengers - cartoonishly bright, colorful, and iconic visits to exotic (or, in Steve Rogers' case, nostalgic) locales that capture the comic book movie sensibility at its best. While the rest of the movie certainly isn't afraid of primary colors, emphatically departing from the monochrome grimdark grime of Nolan's Batman films, it also feels fairly bland if inoffensively so (can something be offensively bland, or is the determination not to offend part of what produces that blandness?). I did enjoy the confrontation between Thor and Loki in what appeared to be some kind of European steppe landscape, and Starke's penthouse is a fun location though we see little of it. The traveling S.H.I.E.L.D. craft didn't do much for me, and we spend a good deal of the film there.

The characters were all intriguing enough, although (despite their reputation) to me they mostly lacked the iconographic spark of, say, the Batman villains, or even the sharp personality contrasts of the X-Men although there's plenty of potential for that. The sharp divergence between Stark and Rogers is the richest vein of drama the film taps into (if only in a preliminary fashion) because it's not just the usual juxtaposition of a hero and his odd-couple sidekick, or even one hero visiting another's terrain. They present a seemingly unresolvable juxtaposition of two radically different conceptions of what a hero can be, belonging to eras that seem unbridgeable. In fact, Evans' portrayal of a stoic, morally pure good guy - by sheer virtue of appearing in a Joss Whedon ensemble - feels the most refreshing and unusual; all that's old is new again. That said, I'm not sure Captain America has enough opportunity to flesh out his relatively subtle persona, Hawkeye is very much sidelined, and the Hulk is also relegated to an essentially supporting cast member (although Ruffalo digs into Banner's trauma, much to critics' delight). Of course these aren't necessarily fair as criticisms given my lack of familiarity with the earlier films - except maybe in Banner's case since this is Ruffalo's first opportunity to flesh him out. Consider them observations, or reflections of my own standpoint instead.

As an outsider with little context or association, I was most impressed on a visceral level with Hiddleston's performance. He relishes the opportunity to invest Loki with a haughty sense of superiority that the movie of course needs to punish, although his smirking gaze and scenery-chewing delivery delight us nonetheless. I do wish the screenplay had done more to develop his philosophy of submission's superiority to free will, after teasing the idea in several sequences, but ultimately The Avengers has other things on its mind. The film does a good job balancing all of its elements - including Thor's beneficent grandeur (as sincere and out of place in its own distinct way as Cap's all-American everyman nobility), Fury's forceful reliability, and Romanoff's brooding intelligence - if one could zero in on a single presence The Avengers to identify them as a primary protagonist it would probably be the Black Widow. The fact that this piece follows Her in the Unseen series makes for an interesting Johansson double feature, capturing her cache in the early teens zeitgeist. And of course as a Twin Peaks fan (and just as a general cinephile), I was delighted to discover Harry Dean Stanton's cameo as a nonchalant security guard who tosses the groggy, nude Banner a pair of pants while offering some personal advice. Incidentally, I happened to spot one other very fleeting Peaks connection during the end credits when the distinctive name "Heba Thorisdottir" - buried amidst make-up artists for individual actors - jumped out at me and I couldn't quite place why. Turns out she was a make-up artist on the original Twin Peaks, and David Lynch was so delighted with her Scandinavian name that he gave it to one of the minor Norwegian characters. Big universe, small world.

When I missed The Avengers upon initial release, I was exactly two months into my move to Los Angeles. Just a few days earlier, I'd received the idea that would later develop into my own short film later in the year. While it's about as far from the scale and scope of The Avengers as one could conceive, as I write this I'm realizing, with some amusement, that it too draws together six characters with divergent personalities. Something in the zeitgeist I guess. Unlike most of the entries I've covered so far, The Avengers does not quite evoke its own era; there's little of the bittersweet reminiscence of a just-barely-bygone moment that accompanied, say, my viewing of La La Land or Inside Out. This may be because Avengers is too big for that sort of thing, its head too high in the superhero clouds. It may also be because of a gap in writing the series. When I left off composing these reviews in late 2018 and early 2019 (those entries were published a year later), I was looking back across a mere half-decade at most, covering essentially my early to mid-thirties. Now, with the subject on hand reaching its tenth anniversary, the past seems more distant both personally and as a matter of history (especially given all that was packed into those two years since publishing the Her piece, which went up just weeks before the pandemic). Nonetheless, what can The Avengers tell us about the world of 2012?

Signs of the Times: A running thread through several recent entries has been the odd quality of the late Obama era, in which a certain elite-drive pop culture sensibility attempted to paint an optimistic vision of a vaguely depoliticized society absorbed in personal pursuits and technological breakthroughs. This was the milieu, perhaps with a hangover of self-satisfied nineties "end of history" technocracy, out of which Hillary Clinton's 2016 campaign would emerge, only to find itself rudely confronted first by the populist uprising of Bernie Sanders and then, fatally, the cultural flamethrowing of Donald Trump. But 2012 was the year of Obama's re-election and against Mitt Romney he sounded a more populist note himself. The fallout of the '08 crash was still very much in the public consciousness, even in the corners which would pull up their blankets and daydream away the president's second term; Occupy Wall Street was barely six months in the past, the Tea Party was raging, and the Arab Spring was giving way to the Syrian Civil War and the rise of ISIS. While The Avengers doesn't come anywhere close to The Dark Knight Rises' aggressive zeitgeist-humping, it does feel more at home immersed in the anxious mood of the early teens than the superficially complacent attitude which would follow (despite the ever increasing inequality of the economic "recovery"; growing culture war turmoil surrounding issues of identity and speech; and the birth of the Black Lives Matter protest movement, all of which would come to define the subsequent Trump years).

This manifests onscreen in the Avengers' awkward relationship to authority; S.H.I.E.L.D. and even Fury are largely distrusted and our non-S.H.I.E.L.D. heroes - the studious Banner, traditional Rogers, regal Thor, and plutocratic Stark - struggle to find their place within this structure as outsiders kept apart from the real source of elite control. They are figures of both commanding power and rebellious defiance for a time that can't quite decide if it wants to build up heroes or tear them down...or for that matter if it wants to locate world-redeeming force in individual talent or collective action, or some syncretic fusion of the two. Stark in particular represents a time capsule from a period when the sparkling innovations of Silicon Valley's tech elite were more straightforwardly revered. (Speaking of tech, the phones are the most strikingly outdated objects onscreen - iPhones were already ubiquitous at the time, but these look more like Blackberries with video screens.) And who exactly does Stark's personally branded Manhattan tower bring to mind? It's probably worth noting that at film's end, the "STARK" logo has been demolished until only the collaborative "A" remains.

Other Films: The other major franchise release of 2012, in this case launching a new series altogether, The Hunger Games depicted a competition in which the impoverished children of a future society battle one another to the death. The books had become a publishing phenomenon over the past several years and fans were eager to see its dystopian vision, an odd marriage of kid-friendly storytelling and extremely disturbing subject matter, realized on the big screen. Perhaps even more important than the adaptation itself was the birth of a new superstar, leading lady Jennifer Lawrence. A ubiquitous cover girl across magazine stands in the weeks following The Hunger Games' release (and leading up to The Avengers), her golden year culminated in a Best Actress win for another film, David O. Russell's Silver Linings Playbook. The Academy's choice for Best Picture of 2012, like The Avengers, presented a wisecracking, ad hoc crew assembling to pool their talents on a rescue mission in the name of freedom - in this case, Argo was inspired by the true story of a fake Hollywood production set up to secretly rescue hostages in 1980 Iran. The film's star and director, Ben Affleck, would be cast as Batman a few months after winning this award, part of DC's creation of their own interconnected cinematic universe to rival Marvel's output (coincidentally, former Batman George Clooney also received an Oscar for Argo that night as a fellow producer).

This represented a shift from the more self-contained, auteur-driven approach of an earlier Batman franchise which ended the same year the The Avengers launched Marvel into a higher stratosphere. Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight Rises premiered in July, accompanied by a grim incident that further underscored its distance from the poppy, tongue-in-cheek Avengers: a mass shooting in which a disturbed young man dressed up as the Joker, armed himself with guns and a bomb, and attacked a movie theater that was screening the film, killing a dozen people. (This no doubt fueled the panic that accompanied the release of Joker seven years later, although oddly enough it was rarely brought up in connection, a sign of how quickly the zeitgeist had moved along in that period.) Despite the cloud of tragedy surrounding it, the film was a massive hit. The actress cast as Catwoman would - like The Hunger Games' Katniss - go onto receive an Oscar for another film (Les Miserables) although in Anne Hathaway's case she endured an odd backlash that pitted her Supporting Actress tears against the cool Lawrence's more casual acceptance of the lead award.

In addition to Argo, Silver Linings, and Miserables, the Best Picture contenders were Amour, Django Unchained, Zero Dark Thirty, Lincoln, Life of Pi, and Beasts of the Southern Wild - an unusually memorable batch of nominees. Remarkably, however, they left out Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master, one of the iconic films of the decade and one of Phillip Seymour Hoffman's last roles (too many Scientologists in the voting pool?). Other prominent 2012 releases include Holy Motors, A Separation, The Act of Killing, Spring Breakers, Prometheus, Looper, Pitch Perfect, Moonrise Kingdom, This is 40, Magic Mike, Killing Them Softly, Battleship, Dredd, Wreck-It Ralph, Hotel Transylvania, Compliance, The Five Year Engagement, Cosmopolis, Mud, The Lorax, Frances Ha, and To the Wonder. Although I still haven't seen many of these titles, looking over an even longer list, I realize that this year - a decade ago - was the last time I engaged with contemporary cinema beyond just a cursory handful of viewings; many of the year's releases showed up in in full reviews or capsule round-ups throughout 2012 (including A Dangerous Method, Lincoln, and The Dark Knight Rises), many appeared amidst my screenshot diary the following year, and my "alternate Oscars" list closed with 2012 (I chose Don Hertzfeldt's animated It's Such a Beautiful Day as my own Best Picture).

For the box office's domestic top ten, many of the remaining films were - like the top three of The Avengers, The Dark Knight Rises, and The Hunger Games, either continuing or initiating ongoing series: Skyfall, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part 2, The Amazing Spider-Man, Brave, Ted, and Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted. A word on that #7 film is order before we close out - The Amazing Spider-Man is a fascinating artifact of 2012's transitional status. On the one hand, this film with its new cast and director was rebooting a film series begun barely a decade earlier, an absurd proposition to many at the time (though not enough to keep most of them from buying tickets). This emphasizes how Marvel properties already saturated the market and found ways to sustain far beyond the normal sell-by date for pop culture fads. On the other hand, Spider-Man - owned by Sony - was still not officially part of the MCU and so The Amazing Spider-Man's very existence challenged the hegemonic dreams of Disney and Marvel Studios. A few years later, this major holdout finally joined the fold, resulting in a third reboot of Spider-Man in fifteen years and eventually even a merging of the different universes in Spider-Man: No Way Home. While an affectionate tribute to the Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield years, this gesture also represented an assertion of the all-encompassing reach of Disney/Marvel's vast empire over both the other films and the larger culture: You too belong to us now...and isn't it better that way? Isn't that submission what your hearts desired all along?

Next - seven months later (Wednesday, December 14, 2022 at 8am): Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)Previous: Her (2013)

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