Chapters 1 & 2. “Loki’s Arrival”/“Tesseract Lost” (0:00 – 11:49)
Logline: Loki arrives on Earth and steals the Tesseract, Hawkeye, and Stellan Skarsgard in one fell swoop.
The Sequence. If you watch a lot of Joss Whedon’s TV shows and movies, you start to see his tricks. I’m not even talking the stuff we’ve all made hay of like his doomed romances, the 90 pound women who can beat people up, or all the quipping. (So much quipping.) I’m talking about more writerly tricks, like his love for reversals. Characters gaining the upper hand for the briefest of moments, just to make their deaths more surprising. Or villains whose grand pronouncements are undercut by forces they can’t control. There’s like ten moments in this movie where Loki tries to come across as evil and scary only to be flustered that no one is that impressed.
The thing is though, audiences roar in approval when Hulk beats up Loki. Joss Whedon leans on his tricks, but that’s because they actually are pretty good tricks. And because I haven’t really revisited his shows or this movie in some time, I found them more fun and novel than I might have otherwise.
The way he constructs stories, the tone he keeps from scene to scene, his propensity for having larger than life characters clash before learning to fight together, Whedon’s sensibilities meld perfectly with a crossover superhero epic. For better or for worse, there’s no Avengers without Joss Whedon. If you don’t think he makes the movie great, you have to acknowledge that he at least makes it distinct.
I bring all of this up in this first sequence to highlight the absence of these tricks starting out. There’s occasional little glimpses of Whedon’s voice in this pre-title scene, but as a whole the first 12 minutes are more generic than a lot of what’s to follow. It’s not quite the rip-roaring James Bond/Indiana Jones type prologue I feel it ought to be. There’s too many (necessary) plot moves for the spectacle to breath. There’s characters to introduce and reintroduce, glowy cubes to establish, kidnappings… Hawkeye has to be essentially introduced, then redefined very quickly as a new (brainwashed) character. It doesn’t feel like an action prologue, as much as it feels like a lot of exposition made palatable by some action.
We’ll talk a lot going forward about how admirably uncluttered the story structure of The Avengers is, and that’s largely because this prologue does a lot of heavy lifting. It takes care of the plot, and leaves the rest of the movie free to concentrate on character interactions and big setpieces. This first sequence feels a bit like work at time, but it gives us a strong foundation going forward.
The Big Picture. We can’t help but examine every sequence not just in the context of The Avengers, but in the series overall. And I’m the right guy to see how the movie plays as a standalone, because I’d watched Iron Man and that’s it. I had no idea Thor was even a Marvel movie. I’m coming at The Avengers as someone who really likes this one movie but doesn’t pay that much attention to the MCU overall.
Is Loki a big enough threat to band together the Avengers? Does him showing up and stealing the Tesseract feel like an unprecedented, all-hands-on-deck kind of situation? I don’t know if it does. Later sequences reveal the extent of Nick Fury’s suspicions about extraterrestrial threats and it makes more sense why he would call in a team of Earth’s greatest heroes to counter Loki. But in terms of me as an audience member, I’m not sitting here like “Oh shit, Loki. This is worse than anything we’ve seen before.”
I’ll see how I feel about Avengers 3/4 overall, but Infinity War does a much better job setting up the need for a big crossover event film. Opening with a new villain who kills off Loki, the villain of this movie, as well as clobbering the guy who defeated Loki the first time, that raises the threat level right off the bat in a way The Avengers does not.
0:26 – Love a good logo gag (Paramount is swallowed by the Tesseract.)
0:27 – Wait I thought Avengers was Disney. Don’t @ me, I probably wouldn’t find the answer interesting.
0:40 – That staircase is 100% going to feature in the Marvel theme park. Time will tell but it might be my favourite thing about the movie.
1:00 – Opens with a lot of fades between shots of the staff, Loki, the army getting ready. It feels like an early 2010s teaser trailer. Which means I don’t like it it.
1:25 – Satellites give sense of scope and importance and money. That CGI won’t be looking so good later on though.
2:07 – Awful CGI elevator shaft.
2:25 – Contrasting that, the frame is split with lots of poles and people. There’s layers and a sense of depth here that we didn’t see earlier.
2:30 – Awesome shot of staircase. Shadows, windows, light. 10/10 staircases in The Avengers so far.
2:40 – “There might not be a minimum safe distance.” That’s a great line, I’m surprised I haven’t heard it before.
2:55 – “Until such time as the world ends, we will act as though it intends to spin on.” Good attitude for your day to day life.
2:56 – So many constant low angles of Samuel L. Jackson. Is it to give character more power?
3:33 – “Nothing harmful, low levels of gamma radiation.” “That can be harmful.” That deadpan read is the first Whedon-y moment/delivery.
5:05 – Ice blue, and flaming orange! More wacky angles! I don’t read comic books, so are these emulating some classic panels? Should I just get used to this?
5:12 – Kubrick Loki.
5:30 – 5:45 – Excellent burst of action. Quick and brutal, but bloodless and family friendly.
6:16 – Did Game of Thrones borrow from Avengers vis a vis the Night King taking control of people who now flash blue eyes?
7:27 – I mean, not to victim blame but Stellan Skarsgard kind of deserved that. Loki was roaming about and brainwashing left and right and he could have moved any time.
7:55 – Did anyone think that Nick Fury had been killed, even for a second? Would it have impacted the MCU if he had? Not as much as I initially thought.
10:00 – That collapsing base doesn’t hold up. Give me miniatures of satellite dishes being destroyed or GTFO.
10:37 – Dust, lights on helicopter shining through fog a great shot. Skyfall did it better later on this year though.
11:40 – You can’t do a superhero show on TV now without the music swelling as we go from a teaser sequence into a single title card. Avengers is a trendsetter and don’t you forget it!
Behind the Scenes
-Joss Whedon is our solo commentator (with prompts from an unheard interviewer). Spends first part of commentary being sarcastic and dry if you’re into that.
-The room in which Loki appears is 120 feet tall. Maybe the low angles are meant to show off the set.
-Whedon talks about Serenity being his only other big screen credit. That clues me in for the first time that he actually was a great choice for this movie beyond his own nerd cred. He’s already done a movie about established characters who have been through many adventures that also has to play as a standalone.
-Hawkeye has a backstory but it was left aside in favour of him being mind controlled. Was it reused in Avengers 2? Am I asking annoying questions that any Marvel fan worth their salt already knows?
-I don’t like 3D as a rule but thought it worked great for Avengers, and Whedon mentions he shot specifically with the conversion in mind. There are lots of wide shots, a fluid camera, very few close-ups.
-Cobie Smulders actually does that tuck and roll stunt. If my math is right she’s only a couple years out from the HIMYM season where she was pregnant so good on ‘er.
Chapter 3. “Natasha’s Interrogation” (11:49 – 15:19)
Logline: Natasha Romanoff aka the Black Widow is in the middle of a mission when she’s called into action by S.H.I.E.L.D.
The Sequence. This is the most Joss Whedon scene of the movie by far. A powerful woman seemingly in the power of a group of men, but secretly in control of the situation from the very beginning. She’s also tied to a chair and her cleavage is visible from orbit. There’s probably a conversation to be had about whether or not Joss Whedon’s work celebrates powerful women or fetishizes them, and if there’s any harm in that even if it’s the latter, but maybe that’s beyond the scope of this article. The movie as a whole is otherwise pretty sexless.
This is so nearly a Jackie Chan level fight scene. The choreography is incredible, Widow utilizing the environment and finding about five different ways to beat people up with one chair is so much fun. It’s done in a lot of quick edits though, and it’d have more impact if the fight was done in fewer shots. But that kind of thing takes a lot of time, and there’s about a half dozen bigger setpieces to film, they probably only had so much time to shoot this. But I still love the scene, this is just me explaining why it’s not my absolute favourite fight scene of the movie.
The Big Picture. This is the first of several effective reintroductions. We’ve met Black Widow in another film (and I totally remember which one, but don’t need to prove anything to you). Now she’s shown doing something that tells you everything about her character even if this is the first time you’re seeing her. Whedon pulls this off with every reintroduction except (arguably) Thor’s.
12:06 – I like this shot, you don’t often see an establishing shot turn into an interior in one camera move.
12:13 – Avengers is the movie of high ceilings.
12:17 – There’s inexplicably a candlelit chandelier resting on a trolley. I don’t know why but it adds something to the look of the scene.
12:36 – It’s subtle here (on both Natasha and Scarlett’s part) that she’s projecting toughness but shows just the tiniest bit of fear as she hangs over the edge of the pit, which in itself is just an act.
12:48 – It’s always gone right by me that Black Widow is on the trail of people who steal paintings and guns.
13:30 – Despite her annoyance, Black Widow has already committed to helping Coulson by openly talking about her secret mission in front of the guys she’s secret missioning.
Behind the Scenes
-The floor in the warehouse is gentle padding made to look like concrete.
Chapter 4. “The Big Guy (1)” (15:19 – 19:22)
Logline: Bruce Banner aka the Hulk faces a reluctant call to action when Black Widow tracks him down.
The Sequence. I didn’t notice much about the actual filmmaking of this scene. And that may be by design. It may be meant to lull us a bit with a leisurely dialogue scene, then “STOP LYING TO ME!!!!!!!” It’s one of the jumpier of jump scares that I’ve ever seen, and it’s a rare jump scare that has a story purpose.
Mark Ruffalo immediately makes Bruce Banner his own character. He’s a mellow guy, even seems a little glazed over. Then he shows a sudden, frightening burst of anger. He does it to see where he really stands with Natasha, but for the audience, it tells us the dichotomy of Bruce Banner. He’s a relaxed, seemingly friendly guy who you wouldn’t like when he’s angry, and it’s accomplished without any special effects.
The Big Picture. There’s a sense of a team building. We met Black Widow alone, and now she recruits Banner. You kind of expect both characters to appear in the next scene, but better to pace the various introductions throughout the movie.
15:20 – One of the few memorable shots in this one scene, the child level view of a Calcutta marketplace. Apparently it’s Albuquerque, so nice work from the production designers.
16:00 – Is Banner immune to disease?
18:41 – There are websites that are dedicated to providing timestamps for jump scares and I want a piece, so this is the exact moment Banner get angry and slammy.
Behind the Scenes
-Whedon praising the director of photography for making the city at night look like an actual city at night, and not just throwing a big blue moon filter over everything. Going to interpret that as some James Cameron shade.
Chapter 4.5 “The Big Guy (2)” (19:22 – 20:34)
Logline: Nick Fury deals with his skeptical SHIELD superiors.
The Sequence. The big fancy TVs spruce things up. And it’s always good to see the late Powers Boothe in even a small role.
The Big Picture. Ok, this is just a little piece. There’s nothing wrong with it, and it goes past quick enough, but it’s pretty much here just for a bit of reorientation. We get a mention of Thor and how he’s unlikely to come to the rescue, just as a way to keep that character alive in the story before his late entrance. And it keeps Nick Fury involved too, Coulson and Widow have really doing all the legwork for him, this scene keeps you feeling like he’s involved. And of course, at the end of the scene he mentions soldiers, which segues us over to Captain America.
Behind the Scenes
In lieu of anything interesting happening in the scene, lets re-litigate this bit of drama. Why not?
“We have made the decision to not bring Ed Norton back to portray the title role of Bruce Banner in the Avengers. Our decision is definitely not one based on monetary factors, but instead rooted in the need for an actor who embodies the creativity and collaborative spirit of our other talented cast members. The Avengers demands players who thrive working as part of an ensemble, as evidenced by Robert, Chris H, Chris E, Sam, Scarlett, and all of our talented casts. We are looking to announce a name actor who fulfills these requirements, and is passionate about the iconic role in the coming weeks.”
This is such a breach of unspoken Hollywood decorum. When do you ever get anything but corporate happy talk in these press releases? There’s no “amicable partings” or “best of luck in his career” or any kind of spin. No, in case you thought this was about money let me just correct you right now, we wanted to get this fucker gone.
There’s a real lack of public displays of ego in the MCU, despite all the rising and well established stars. So is Marvel sitting these people down and being like “Be good, or we’ll name names like we did with Edward Norton.” Or did they get a team that happened to have a real sense of camaraderie, and Norton was just THAT big an asshole?
Chapter 5. “Man Out of Time” (20:34 – 23:05)
Logline: Steve Rogers, aka Captain America is recruited to the Avengers initiative by Fury.
The Sequence. Punchy, in every sense of the word. First, all the credit in the world to Joss Whedon for this image. A man and a punching bag. Punching, punching, harder and harder, until the bag breaks open and goes flying. Then he simply picks up another in a long line, and starts over again. It’s both funny and sad. It tells you how physically strong this character is, and where his mind is at.
The Big Picture. This introduction is quite a bit briefer than Widow’s and Hulk’s. She didn’t have her own movie and Hulk had a new actor so they deserved some extra time, but we’re just coming off of Captain America. And if you can give him an introduction this forceful and this fast, why not?
22:27 – Neat shot through the bleachers. Don’t know if it says anything or if it’s just to add a bit of visual variety to the moment.
Behind the Scenes
-They had filmed many more scenes of Captain America out readjusting to his world, which arguably has a place in his arc across many Marvel movies, but would have gotten in the way for this ensemble film. I don’t remember Winter Solider well enough to know if they got repurposed.
Chapter 6. “Tony and Pepper” (23:05 – 27:52)
Logline: Tony Stark’s date with Pepper Potts is derailed by the arrival of Agent Coulson.
The Sequence. You know how around this time, every Doctor Who episode was just two or maybe three characters talking very fast and very wittily and being very pleased about how they were able to talk very fast and very wittily? This sequence is like “Hey lets do that, but squished down to about five minutes of screen time.” That sounds like it’ll be fun for four and a half minutes…
“Sorry. That was mean.”
Really though, Robert Downey Jr. as directed by Joss Whedon is two tastes that go great together. At this point in the MCU the idea of Tony Stark being in the movie and not being a lead character is crazy, but Iron Man 3 aside he’s been doing that basically annually since 2012. But he’s so crazy charismatic compared to everyone else in the cast that this winds up feeling like Iron Man 2.5.
The Big Picture. This is our last chance to see Tony Stark as we once knew him. After the events of this movie he’s still plenty acerbic, but haunted. It’s nice to go back and see him as close to carefree as a guy like him is capable of.
23:32 – It does seem as though that yacht is there for Tony to land on, but then he veers towards the city instead. New York City belong to him.
Chapter 6.5. “Tony and Pepper (2)” (27:52 – 29:20)
Logline: Rogers and Coulson, en route to SHIELD Headquarters, discuss the dangers ahead.
The Sequence. Goddammit, these ensemble films! Once the characters are in place the sequences get long, I basically only have two or three to cover per section the rest of the week. But right now they’re all in these little separate pieces that don’t even tenuously connect to each other. Girl, how am I supposed to get a rhythm going if you’re only giving me 90 seconds?
Ok fine, Captain America and Agent Coulson are chatting, they’re in a small little plane. Scene ends. You know what though, Coulson is a treasure. This is a one man comedy show because Captain America is giving him nothing.
The Big Picture. I couldn’t figure out anything to talk about in this scene, but luckily Joss Whedon came through on the commentary track. Seamlessly integrating the Behind the Scenes section into The Big Picture section… not calling attention to it…… and done.
Joss Whedon talks about how he realized his movie is full of people with dry wits all bantering together. Which he’s built a career on, but again it’s always good to recognize your own tricks and try to develop beyond them. So to introduce another color into the film he decided to make Agent Coulson into a fanboy trying to keep it together in Captain America’s presence. Which led to the cards he carries around, which of course gain all the more significance later in the movie. If you keep yourself from stagnating some great things can happen in your story.
Chapter 7. “Loki’s Bargain (1)” 29:20 – 31:38
Logline: Loki, with the assistance of an enslaved Hawkeye and Dr. Selvig, gets his marching orders from his mysterious benefactor.
The Big Picture. This is the first scene to allude to Thanos’ presence, and that Loki is just acting on his behalf. So we really are talking the big picture this time. Considering the sheer number of films set in this Marvel series, this is sowing the seeds for a story that won’t pay off for six years and maybe about fifteen films.
In terms of this movie though, the first act is brought full circle. We met the villain, we met the heroes who he’s spurned into action, and now we return to the villain again as he’s about to set his plan in motion. And I’ve always found it interesting, the choice to reveal that Loki’s just a pawn this early in the movie, that he’s in the thrall of someone much more powerful.
But maybe you don’t want a villain to dominate in an ensemble hero film. The threat he or she poses needs to be huge, but maybe the villain should only be sufficient enough to pull the heroes together. The six Avengers being in one place is the real draw of the film. Tomorrow, we finally see them get together.
29:34 – Oh shit, I hated that season of Buffy with the Initiative.
29:54 – Doesn’t it look like they only half finished digitally inserting the alien Loki talks to in this establishing shot? We’ll see in a second he’s standing behind a rock.
30:14 – This is the place that looks most like a set, but I kind of like it.
Behind the Scenes
It is of course Alexis Denisof playing the alien. Nice for Joss to give him a cameo, but what a waste of a talented actor.