Wednesday, May 30, 2012

We Shall Gain the Universe: Avengers, Plot & Structure

As I mentioned in my last post, I've seen The Avengers three times now; once in 3D, twice in 2D (in case you're wondering, it was neat in 3D but not really worth it.)

Why did I see it three times? I rarely ever watch a movie twice in one month (the only exceptions were Iron Man 1 & 2, actually. I've seen Iron Man 2 four times). Usually I don't watch a movie more than twice in one year. There are even some movies I would be content never seeing again. (Sorry, Alice in Wonderland. Just didn't click with me.)

But The Avengers is a movie that you can't just see once. It's a movie that you want to watch again and again to immerse yourself fully in the world and catch all the hilarious phrases and quips and subtle little expressions and actions.

Just to be clear, this is not, strictly speaking, a "review." It is riddled with spoilers, so don't read if you're trying to decide whether or not to watch it. My recommendation is: go ahead, watch it! You will most likely not be disappointed. And then you can come back and read this review.

All right, you have been warned. On we go...

The most common complaint I've heard about the movie is that the opening is too slow. I tend to agree to some extent - the whole part at the beginning where Loki steals the tesseract seems to drag a bit, because we're all waiting for what we came to see! Not Nick Fury, not Loki, not Maria Hill, not Hawkeye (okay, well, my sister came to see Hawkeye) but Thor, Cap, Tony Stark, and Bruce Banner, and it's at least 10-15 minutes into the film before we see any of them.

But the way that they're introduced is absolutely brilliant, and each introduction sets their tone for the whole film.

Let me explain.

When we first see Hawkeye he is sitting up near the roof. Nick Fury asks Selvig where Barton is, and Selvig replies:

"The Hawk? Up in his nest as usual."

Not only does this clue us in as to Hawkeye's real name (Clint Barton), but also his codename as well, not by telling us, but by showing us.

Think about it. Nick Fury could have said "Where's Clint Barton, codename Hawkeye?" (which would be really dumb.)

But no. We're told he's a hawk, and then shown him sitting up in his "nest." Brilliant little intro there.

And then there's Loki. With his appropriately dramatic entrance -

"I am Loki, of Asgard. And I am burdened with glorious purpose!"

Then after the tesseract is stolen (by the way, Loki escaping in the back of a truck was pretty hilarious) we begin the cleverly constructed introduction to the main characters of the film.

First off we're introduced to Natasha Romanov, the Black Widow. And what's she doing? She's "in the middle of an interrogation" - showing us her super spy powers.

But to keep us from getting too confused by the introduction of a new character, we're given our link - our one familiar item from the beginning - Agent Coulson.

Throughout the whole sequence of introductions we're given a link back to the opening scenes or to the previous scene, something to keep us on the right track, to show us that the movie is progressing purposefully.

In the Black Widow's scene it's Agent Coulson, our link from the beginning. What does he tell her?

"You get the big guy."

She replies "Stark only trusts me as far as he can throw me" - a hint to an upcoming scene (and, of course, to the character of Tony Stark).

And then Coulson clarifies - "No, I've got Stark." (a hint about where we'll see Coulson next) "You get the big guy."

And then where are we next? In India. Completely new surroundings, completely new characters. We're introduced to Bruce Banner, a gentle doctor helping sick people. What bearing could this possibly have on the story?

And then we see the Black Widow, our link from the previous scene. And we remember "the big guy." Obviously, Bruce Banner is not "big" in any sense of the word. But he refers to "the other guy" (which I loved, by the way). And how he doesn't "every time get what I want."

Those are plenty of clues to let you know that the character here is the Hulk (unless, of course, you're new to comic book movies and you hadn't seen any of the poster, ads, or previews).

What's next? Natasha mentions Nick Fury. "He doesn't tell me everything," she says.

Next scene: Nick Fury talking to his secret council. He's asking permission to assemble a "response team." When the council chides him "war isn't won by sentiment" he responds:

"No. It's won by soldiers."

Hey, look where we are next! With Captain America, the supersoldier! Not a coincidence, folks, Joss Whedon knows exactly what he's doing.

In a few brief scenes we're clued in to Cap's backstory, as well as the important fact that he's been frozen for 70 years. When Fury comes to visit Cap we get a little more talk about that as well.

Then Fury pulls out a file and begins to tell Cap about the tesseract, and how Howard Stark fished it out of the ocean. Since Cap has been out of it for a while, he's the perfect candidate for a bit of viewer-friendly exposition.

Just before Cap leaves with the file, Fury asks him "anything you can tell us about the tesseract?"

Cap replies "you [Stark] should have left it in the ocean."

Cut to: Tony Stark. In the ocean.

Brilliant transition there. In fact, it took me two showings to fully appreciate that transition. I could sense it worked, but wasn't sure why, until finally it clicked.

Of course, after Tony gets back to Stark Tower we meet Coulson again, just like we were promised in the earlier scene.

Our last introduction, Thor, is preceded by the captured Loki looking a little unnerved by a sudden lightning storm. Why? Because he's "not particularly fond of what follows" - showing us that he knows what the lightning means. It's familiar to him. And then who appears? Loki's brother, Thor!

It's the repeated phrases and recurring characters that really keep this introduction tightly together, and what makes it able to bring in a bunch of characters without overwhelming the audience.

The last thing I want to point out is the almost perfect application of the Story Engineering model of the four stages of a hero's journey. The four stages are orphan/wanderer/warrior/martyr.

In Act 1 the heroes are all "orphans." They're going about their normal lives, minding their own business, when BAM! (hey, it's a superhero film, I get to use sound effects) -  Loki appears to shake everyone's lives up.

When all the heroes arrive at the helicarrier (Act 2), the next stage, "wanderer," begins. The heroes don't have any particular purpose or drive; Loki is a prisoner, they're trying to locate the tesseract, they're squabbling amongst themselves. They're wandering around. What they need is an inciting incident, something that drastically shakes things up again, something that changes the way they view their place in this story.

Phil Coulson is that inciting incident. He practically says it himself; his last words are "This was never going to work, unless we had..."

Unless they had an inciting incident. Or, as Nick Fury says, "they needed a push."

When the heroes realize that they can't go on as they are, that they need to change and fight for something, then they become "warriors." They suit up (literally!) and go forth to avenge Coulson's death and save the world.

But the world can't be saved by warriors. It never can. It can only be saved by "martyrs" - those who are willing to make the ultimate sacrifice.

And Tony Stark is the one who best exemplifies this stage. He really does make the ultimate sacrifice. He figuratively "dies" and is "resurrected." He has gone through all the stages; he completes his character arc.

It's the classic structure; and it works. That's part of what made the movie work, as well.

The title of this post is from the first few lines of the movie. The alien, known only as "the Other," is informing Thanos of his plan - the villain's main objective.
The Tesseract, an item of great power, has been placed in the keeping of those who know little of its scale. But our ally is prepared to aid us. Our army is ready at his bidding. And while he may get a planet, WE shall gain the universe!
Think again, Thanos. Not while the Avengers are around...

How many times have you seen The Avengers? Did you find the opening a little slow? Were you able to keep track of all the characters? Which introduction was your favorite?

Check back next Wednesday for part 2 - Sort of Like a Team: Avengers, Character & Continuity. 

All images in this post from Fandango unless otherwise noted.


  1. I've seen it twice, and I didn't find any part of the movie slow. I'm having issues trying to visualize that opening as slow.

    I love Black Widow's opening scene.

  2. Really glad you liked this one, Lauren - me too! Finally saw it over the holiday weekend. IT WAS EPIC. So buying in on the Blu-Ray/DVD combo.

  3. LOVED this movie. It's the first superhero movie I've seen in theaters in a looong time, and it was such the perfect one to see.

    I didn't find the opening slow at all. There were a couple of times I felt annoyed at the "wandering" stage (why weren't they ACTING TOGETHER??), but after reading this post and seeing that they were just following the journey, I get it.

    Excellent post.

  4. I've only seen it once - I thought it would be absolutely terrible, due to a negative review I read, but I LOVED it. And I NEVER love action movies. the characters were fantastic!! And I really liked Loki - he was a great villian. All of it was amazing! Unfortunately, I didn't pay much attention to the trailers, and I've never read the comics, so I had no idea that Banner was the Hulk until Iron Man mentioned it. I'd really like to see it again! It was super enjoyable.
    I can't really pass judgement on the beginning - I liked it, though - because the theatre we were in had the focus off for like five minutes into it. Sorry, juuuust griping about that to everyone. Lol.
    Did I mention: the special effects were from HEAVEN.

  5. Popping over from Emily's...

    I must say I haven't seen the movie yet, nor read the comics, so I can't contribute much here, but from the above comments, and the whole post - it seems pretty good, and worth it.

    Roadtrip: On my way from A all the way to Z!
    English Speaking Zone

  6. I hadn't ever thought of it this way. I had seen all the lead up movies and liked Hawkeye from Thor, so I had no trouble knowing who was who or what was going on. But this makes sense, because not everyone saw the lead up movies and they would have been very lost without this.

    *Sob* Colson died 8-( I will never get over that and hope Fury was just lying to get what he wanted. Which he would do.

    Hawkeye's introduction was my favourite, because I like him, A LOT.

    Now I need to go see it again so I can pay attention to all of this. *Grin*

  7. I only saw it once - not for wishing I could find time to go again and again!!! Loved this movie, and while I didn't notice the way each character introduction segued to the next like you showed, I'm sure i picked up on that subliminially or something, because I thought the beginning was brilliant. My only slight disappoint was wanting a little more backstory/arc with Loki, I suppose because we were so spoiled by his brilliantly tortured character in the movie Thor.

  8. I have total Avenger-obsession. I saw the movie and then went back and watched all the prequels. I can't wait to go see it again, especially after reading this post. BTW - I didn't think the opening was slow at all.

  9. Excellent break down of why the movie worked. Those transitions between scenes and characters were awesome. I didn't realize how perfect they were until you pointed it out.

    I have to say I loved Black Widow's intro the best. I wish she and Hawkeye had their own movie like all the other characters. I thought they were interesting characters with an interesting back story.

  10. Love your comments on the Avengers and couldn't agree more. I thought it was well structured and still had that superhero feel. Too many times, the more heroes on the screen, the more the movie sucks, but that just didn't happen here.

    And you're right, Joss Whedon is a genius.

    Great blog!

  11. Hey! Thanks for leaving a comment on my blog! I'm so glad you left your link. I loved this review. Very good. I loved it. I've seen it three times and had no problem keeping up with the characters and honestly, no, I didn't think it opened slow, but hey, I was there to see Loki and Hawkeye. ;) <3

    Also, I loved all the other parts to your review. :D I think you did a fantastic job.

    Love your blog! Thanks again for your comment! <3



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