How does The Avengers treat its characters?
A conventional review would be pretty blasé. We all know that Joss Whedon is an incomparably popular and capable writer with a fetish for creating strong women and then ruining their lives. We all know that this film was designed as an insane summer blockbuster, with explosions occurring probably at an average of one every five minutes or less. Of course it's going to be entertaining as hell. It's hard not to be when you're talking about a power fantasy where you watch incredibly powerful people (and gods) rip the hell out of aliens so generic that you can't even remember their names.
Anyways, all of that aside, what really caught my interest were the characters. Unlike the average movie-goer who witnessed the multicolored super-powered clusterf**k, I've read the comics behind every single one of these characters. To say that I've read all of their comics would be ridiculous, but I've read enough to get a sense of what these characters were meant to look like and act, as well as their failures that may or may not have been improved upon by the movie. So, without further adieu, here goes. Comics versus movie in an epic face-off.
Clint Barton – Hawkeye
In the comics, Hawkeye is frankly one of the least interesting characters in The Avengers roster. What he basically boils down to is a badass with a bow who can hit anything without trying. … That pretty much sums him up, which means the movie honored his character precisely. On a power level, the only difference is that, in most of the comics, Barton is downright dangerous with anything. If there's a shard of glass nearby, he can stick it in your eye without effort. If he's got a pen in his pocket, he's dangerous. In one memorable moment from The Ultimates comic series, he manages to break himself out of prison single handedly by ripping his own fingernails out and flicking them into the guards' throats so hard that it kills them. It would have been interesting to see the movie Hawkeye do anything other than play around with his bow like he did but, in the end, it isn't a huge issue.
What movie Hawkeye improves upon however, is making his character less of an asshole. In the comics, Barton is legendary for being a prick and hard to work with, a hothead far more likely to disobey orders and act independently instead of work as a team. Thankfully, the movie avoided this. Though you definitely get a sense of Jeremy Renner's self-confident streak, we see that, with regard to the Black Widow, he's got a heart behind it. Their scene where he is struggling to free himself from Loki's mind control is indicative of this, along with the knowledge that, once upon a time, Hawkeye was sent to assassinate the Black Widow but chose instead to bring her in and rehabilitate her. Though these are pretty much the only gems of his character that I remember, it is worth considering him a success since I came out of the movie wanting to know more about him.
Natasha Romanoff – The Black Widow
The Black Widow is a character who really deviated hard from what I know of her in the comics. In the comics, she genuinely lives up to her name. She is hand picked by SHIELD to do the dirty work that they want off the record. She's completely fine with sleeping with her targets and then killing them without remorse. Black Widow is easily the darkest of the characters (in the comics) because she almost never allows her badass amoral side to crumble. Whenever it does appear to, it is often a ruse.
Scarlett Johansson's (or, should I say, Joss Whedon's) Black Widow acts more like she's reformed. She makes constant hints to a darker character within her that existed in the past. Whenever she does, you can pretty much gather from those descriptions exactly what the comic Black Widow was. However, unlike the comics where she generally gets as much 'screentime' as Hawkeye (which is, not very much), in The Avengers it almost felt like Black Widow could be considered a main character, if not the main character. A great deal of focus is put on her and, to my surprise, on her vulnerabilities. Some of the tensest moments of the movie are when her facade seems to crack and we see a scared little girl. Her scenes with Hulk and Loki are incredible and Scarlett Johansson manages to give the character significantly more heart than I've ever seen her have. You have to keep in mind that, in the comics, it is constantly up in the air whether Black Widow will actually betray the team or not, she's that opportunistic. In the movie, we see a Black Widow that, while not precisely loyal to her comic book origins, still manages to achieve that perfect blend of sexiness and sensitivity. It's a change, but it's a good change.
Though his power level is one of the strongest, it's remarkable how uninteresting they made Thor's character. The problem with Thor in The Avengers is that they took away anyone with who he might meaningfully connect. Odin is back in the prequel, as is his love interest, Natalie Portman. Everyone else either seems deliberately out to get under his skin (Tony Stark. Nick Fury, to some extent) or simply amusing or incomprehensible to him (“You humans are all so strange”). His interactions with Loki, while a trifle sad, are rather hard to believe or get invested in. It is just too painfully obvious that Loki just isn't going to listen. Thus Thor is left surrounded by colorful characters but with nothing to do but twiddle his beardy hairs.
However, they still do a great job of balancing his power level and that's perhaps the most important thing of all. Thor is a god. Not only that, but he's a martial god, meaning his powers and skills derive from kicking ass. For those of you who saw the prequel, we know he's single handedly capable of destroying an entire world by himself if he wants to. This is like putting a pro football player on a team with fairly skilled teenagers and expecting it to play evenly. This was probably my number one concern with this movie: that Thor would render the rest of the team meaningless.
But that's pretty well avoided. Sure, those lower down the power food chain have to do less glamorous things like rescue civilians a lot, but they still get their time in the limelight. Despite the total power discrepancy, both Iron Man and Captain America manage to prove to the audience that they aren't total pushovers. And the Hulk spends a good amount of time using the Thor like we might use a pinata. Altogether, though, Thor was disappointing, felt like he got the least screentime, and almost came off feeling like a minor character.
Steve Rogers – Captain America
Captain America is one of my favorite comic book characters. He's a man who embodies everything idealized from an older generation. He's polite, calm, commanding, thoughtful, capable, deadly, and stands for the idyllic America that is within our cultural memory. Steve Rogers is a character who is less powerful than most everyone around him and yet, through sheer determination, grit, and training, is arguably the most dangerous of them all. He is the leader of The Avengers, and is able to keep all of the dysfunctional personalities in line through a combination of standing up for what he believes is right and by serving as that team dad who you know will never fail you. He has a gravitas that makes people watch in awe as he shows up to save the world just one more time, and he doesn't even require thanks.
Sadly, Chris Evans is no Captain America.
To be fair, part of this is Joss Whedon's fault. And we have to acknowledge that it is devilishly hard to write a good Captain America story. The man is near faultless and represents everything good in this world. To be frank, like Superman, he is an impossible character because nobody like this exists or has ever existed. Characters like Superman and Captain America are the essence of what we aspire to be, it isn't what we are. Consequently, to write a good Captain America story you have to give him an existential problem with which we can empathize.
Some of the best Captain America stories are written about how, though he now lives in the present day, Steve Rogers is still a man from a different time. The discrepancy between what he knows as right and normal and how the world has changed is an interesting one. The Avengers tries to put some focus on this issue but ultimately fails. Having everyone make fun of him for being an old man unable to understand the present day just doesn't do it. By the end of the movie, he takes charge, but I didn't feel like he deserved it. It felt almost like Tony Stark was only letting Rogers lead so as to humor him. It didn't help that, in the final battle, what he does feels the least epic of anyone there.
Joss Whedon tries to give him that sort of legendary feeling among the people that he saves, but it just doesn't quite do it. Casting the old 'Human Torch' from the Fantastic Four movies as Captain America also just wasn't quite good enough. Chris Evans gave it his all, but it's arguable that an older man would've given the role the proper weight. Instead, Chris Evans just looked insignificant when compared to the personality of Robert Downey Jr and the size of Chris Hemsworth. I think Joss Whedon knows what it takes to write a good Captain America (the seeds are there, but just weren't planted right), so we can just hope that the sequel gives Captain America the time he needs to be taken more seriously as a character.
Bruce Banner – The Hulk
The Hulk was an unexpected and interesting deviation. To put it frankly, Edward Norton's Hulk is closer to the comics than Mark Ruffalo's. In the comics, they tend to focus majorly on the personality conflicts that come from having a Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde thing going on. Edward Norton managed to capture that brooding nature spot on, as well as the yearning for a normal life that comes with it. That Hulk movie also captured perfectly the blend of Banner's incredible intellect and the Hulk's savagery. It is an interesting dichotomy and, given the nature of the comics and Banner's huge issue in controlling his alter-ego, I half expected the Hulk to turn out to be the real antagonist.
Despite all of this, though, Joss Whedon seemed to want to go with a Hulk who was... funny. And I'm still not sure what to think of that. Mark Ruffalo's Hulk seemed to make constant light of his uncontrollable power and, even though Black Widow freaked out all the time about it, nobody else seemed too worried. Part of what threw me off was what must have been a plot hole: why on earth was Hulk uncontrollable on the aircraft carrier but suddenly subject to Banner's will in the final battle? It didn't make any sense where that transition came from, and so just got me confused.
All in all, though, the Hulk obviously wasn't a main character and so the issues of depth aren't that important in the scheme of things. He also got some of the best scenes, what with arbitrarily beating the crap out of things to slinging Loki around like a sack of potatoes. Puny man, indeed. I suppose time will tell as to which depiction of the Hulk (Norton's or Ruffalo's) is better. I can't decide.
Tony Stark – Iron Man
Really, I can't do much else but say what everyone else has said. Robert Downey Jr. is the real life incarnation of Tony Stark. He inhabits the character completely and improves upon his comic book original, whose main difference is that he's far more of a self-righteous, navel-gazing prick. By contrast, Robert Downey Jr's Tony Stark is self-aware, impetuous, and just completely awesome in every way.
All in all, The Avengers was a great movie with a plethora of characters that ran the gamut from meh to average to exceptional. Though Thor and Captain America were personally disappointing for me, everyone else fit the bill or even exceeded expectations. And I didn't even mention Tom Hiddleston's Loki, who absolutely rose to the challenge of being a terrifying, powerful, and yet flawed villain.
I'm not sure how the sequel can meet up to this one's standards, though, without getting incomprehensible. For those not in the know, the scene at the end pretty much indicates flat out that Thanos the Mad Titan will be next movie's villain. There's nothing inherently wrong with that; the comics that I've read with Thanos in them are pretty damn interesting and good. But the problem is that, to face Thanos, the Avengers will have to leave Earth. We've already had an extraterrestrial invasion in the form of the Chitauri. For Thanos, things will go into a cosmic scale, and I highly doubt that they'll be able to retain the average movie-goer's attention as well on that level. And that isn't even going into how much it'll cost to CGI everything.
In the end, though, I have hope that The Avengers will continue to be awesome, especially if Joss Whedon comes back for the sequel. It's definitely worth seeing, particularly in theaters, and its success tells us that comic book movies will still be made for a long time to come.