Wednesday, May 23, 2012


(This piece was originally published on

I should preface this by saying I don’t know anything about the new showrunners/writers of Community.  They could be lovely, brilliant people, but it won’t change that they are being set up to fail.

Fans of Community, still high on the news that the low-rated cult hit would be getting a (shortened) 4th season, had their hopes for its future cruelly dashed by the news that Dan Harmon would not be returning as showrunner next year.  I am going to skip past the part about whether the show is good or brilliant or whether it was better in the first half of season 2 or how big of an asshole Harmon is relative to Chevy Chase, and just enumerate some of the reasons why this is a monumentally stupid decision on a business and creative level.

Replacing a showrunner is always a risk, but it is frequently worth taking from a network perspective (the AV Club’s Todd VanDerWerff details some of the times it has worked out here).  Seinfeld was such a phenomenon that NBC would’ve been foolish to give up on it when Larry David left.  But Community is not that kind of hit, and never will be. It’s had 3 years to develop a huge following, and instead it has stubbornly maintained a modestly sized but insanely dedicated one.  If Chuck Lorre was causing problems with the brass, it would make sense to bring in some new, easier-to-work with blood to run Two And A Half Men.  That show is popular enough that it could retain a bunch of its audience via simple brand recognition (and it could afford to lose the entirety of Community’s rating share and still be a hit).

But Community isn’t Two And A Half Men.  It was only renewed for a 4th season by the skin of its teeth, and not because it had impressive numbers.   What made it (barely) worth picking up another half season was that it had cache with critics and that rabid fanbase, which are exactly the kind of people who will revolt over a change in off-screen talent, whereas CSI’s fans probably wouldn’t notice.  It was, despite its goofiness, essentially a prestige show.  NBC got some nebulous value out of being seen as a network that would support a low rated but unique, intensely loved series, but this move has lit that image on fire and whacked it with an axe several times before murdering its wife and burning down their house to cover their tracks.

And this isn’t even argument for keeping Harmon in charge.  What I’m saying is if he is really just impossible to work with, then cancel the damn thing.  That would be a blow to fans like me, but no one could seriously blame NBC or Sony (who owns the show in some capacity that it would only sadden me further to research right now) for the decision.  If a show still isn’t paying its rent on time after 3 seasons you can give it the axe and no one with an ounce of brain in their head could say you didn’t give it a fair shake.  Hell, some of us may eventually gain enough perspective to be glad that we have a good-looking corpse with no wrinkles or stretch marks; there are some who say Arrested Development was cancelled just as it was starting to lose a step.

So the question becomes, if they are going to keep it on without Harmon, to what end?  You’ve taken the good press you get from treating sensitive artistes well and turned it into bad press for doing the opposite.  And having lost that bit of snob cred, the show really needs to gain viewers to justify itself in the 4th season.  This could potentially happen under a new regime, but as I said the show has had time to develop an audience as it is.  If the new version succeeds, it would be because the show had become something so different from what initially drew its fanatical audience that they might as well have had the new showrunners start a new show with Joel McHale.

Harmon, for whatever character flaws he has (I’ve never met or even tweeted with the guy, for what that’s worth), is the very definition of “irreplaceable” when it comes to Community.  And not just because a new showrunner won’t be as insanely committed to tweaking every single thing in every single episode to their precise specifications.  Even if they were (which they won’t be, as they are being brought in expressly to be less obsessive and insane), they could not fully match his exact, exacting vision for that show.  And Community is a show that absolutely requires that consistent, uncompromising vision be brought to bear on every single episode.  It needs this precisely because every episode is so wildly different.

Community’s popularity was largely built on it’s steady stream of high concept parody episodes.  In its 3 years on the air, it has morphed for an episode at a time into loving, dead on send-ups of mockumentaries, stop-motion Christmas specials, convoluted heist films, gangster movies, zombie flicks, even Ken Burns documentaries and freaking 8-bit video games.  So the new guys can either ditch this fundamental element of the show’s identity, or try to do their own versions.  And that is where I predict their ultimate failure will lie.

Because it’s not going to be easy to replicate the demented audacity it takes to sneak a My Dinner With Andre homage onto primetime network TV by dressing it up in Pulp Fiction’s clothes.  But even if they can come up with ideas that bizarre and make them work, they will also need to match the hilarious specificity with which the show nails the tropes of its genres, like the succession of cat scares in the zombie episode or the way the fake repairmen in the heist convince the security guards that they’re better off just letting them have the run of the place than bothering their boss with a security issue during his big celebration.  Then they’d have to match the level of intangible detail that really makes the parodies sing; little, completely inessential bits like the hot dog cart in the Law and Order episode, Shirley reciting scripture while she blasts fools in paintball, or 8-bit Troy jumping around needlessly whenever the group stops to talk.

If the new guys can do all of that, they will have succeeded in maintaining Community’s standard as the best source of cinematic parody since the heyday of the Zuckers and Abrahams.  And it will still fail to live up to the first 3 seasons.

Because, and here’s where Harmon’s borderline pathology becomes irreplaceable, Community’s parody episodes were never just parodies.  Harmon not only took great pains to justify these bizarre tangents within the show’s continuity, but to include some of the biggest plot points of the series (Jeff and Britta hooking up, Chang knocking up Shirley) in them.  All of them reached for something lasting, on either a plot or character level, something beyond merely sending up convention, even if they did not quite get there (I’m looking at that video game episode in particular).  Harmon knows these characters, he knows this setting, and he knows the message that this show needs to reinforce in even it weirdest, most conceptual outings.  He knows this not just because he created them, but because he is obsessive in the way that makes him difficult to work with.  But that obsessiveness is what made it possible to depict a campus-wide pillow fight as a Civil War documentary and still have it feel like an episode of Community.

It might be tempting, particularly if you are an executive at Sony, to look at the way that an episode of Community can be absolutely anything and think that it means there are no lines to color inside of, and anyone can play around with it without alienating the existing audience.  But the show’s chameleon nature is exactly why that strong, unique, consistent voice (with all the headaches and budget overruns and chapped Chevy-ass it entails) is so essential.  It provides the tether that allows it to run so completely amok with its formal experiments without betraying who the study group are or losing sight of what Greendale is to them.

I want to be clear that this is not just about my not wanting anything to change on a show I like, but things that are unique to this particular one that make the switch a particularly bad idea.  I love Parks and Rec, sometimes more than Community, and I think Mike Schur is an excellent showrunner.  But while anyone would be a step down from him, if he had to leave that show it would stand a better chance of maintaining its quality.  Both casts are strong enough to do a lot to smooth over a bumpy transitional period, but the difference is that a new showrunner on Parks and Rec will have a clear goal: produce good episodes of Parks and Rec.  And while that is by no means easy, there’s a pretty clear blueprint.  Give Nick Offerman some funny talking heads, make sure Jerry gets shit on at least once a week, have Tom act out the cheesiest aspects of male culture and end with Leslie bringing out the best in everyone.  Once a year, Megan Mullaly shows up to wreak sexual havoc.  If you can pull that off once, you’ve got a decent chance of doing it again and again.

By contrast, what does a good episode of Community look like?  You’re going to have certain elements in play:  Britta screws up something simple, Troy fights back tears, Abed says something meta, the dean dresses ka-razy, Jeff wraps it up with a speech.  But if you want to match what Harmon and his writers did, you’re going to need to fit all of that into a perfect recreation of a PIXAR film, without breaking from established continuity.  And do the same for a superhero team movie the next week.  And a J-Horror film the next.  And a snobs vs. slobs sports comedy the next, and Game of Thrones the next, and an Oscar-bait biopic the next.  And each of those had better double as an incisive critique of the genre they are imitating at the same time.  And they need to flow into each other to create a coherent overarching plot.  And above all, do it while delivering consistent, organic character development without losing the acidic edge that covers the essential warmth and optimism at the core of the show.

Without Harmon’s deathgrip on the helm, I see two possible futures for Community.  In the darker of the possible timelines, it will go blander, and produce amusing, reasonable facsimiles of the more grounded, less memorable episodes that padded out the daring formalistic exercises that defined the original incarnation.  I do not want this to happen because I would end up rooting against a show that I once loved above all others, and pulling for a blow to the careers of a cast I want to see succeed.  But I will be forced to, because the alternative would be that the homogenized version thrives and network suits take home the lesson that the only mistake they made was hiring a brilliant but difficult creator like Harmon in the first place.  That would not bode well for the prospects of the types of shows I want to see developed in the future.

The other possibility is that they will make a noble effort at matching the show’s previous inventiveness, but without the insane devotion the creator had for maintaining the integrity of this world while testing its limits, it loses the consistency of characterization that previously anchored all the madness. It devolves into a sketch show.  And it might be funny at that, but it will not be what so many of us Human Beings fell in love with.  It will be something less.
To Sony/NBC/whoever it was who made this decision, as much as it pains me, I can see the reasons why you would kill Community.  But we’d pretty much all be better off if you had just killed Community.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012


(This piece was originally published on

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.

 If you did miss it, don't worry, it was pretty 
much exactly what you expeced

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).

Wait, you mean each chapter of this epic saga of American
 crime and punishment as dispensed by senior citizens 
was NOT meticulously mapped out in 1986?

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.

 "Hey, I tried giving you people exactly what you 
wanted, and we ended up with Attack Of The 
Clones. You can eat all my shit forever."

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.

Everyone raves, but if you ask me, Othello 
could've been  more accessible to people 
who walked in during Act 4

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.
I'd point out how this directly mirrors the way a certain 
real life supergroup came together, but does
 anyone really need to hear that story AGAIN?

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.

 Hollywood is still not ready, sweet prince. 
 But someday...someday...

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.

Friday, May 11, 2012


(This piece originally ran on

Possibly the most important decision to be made in bringing The Avengers to the screen was choosing a villain. It needed to be somebody BIG.  Someone powerful enough that the Hulk and Iron Man together couldn’t hope to take them out.  Imposing enough to demand that all these characters set aside their differences just to have a chance at surviving.  But if there’s one thing Marvel comics has in spades, it’s colorful, cosmically over-powered villains.  So of course they chose Loki.  Loki!

Also, he's got burgers, brats, and the piece of salmon is 
for Lauren, because I think she's like a vegetarian now,?

Here’s a few reasons why Loki is a terrible choice.  And no, I don’t care a lick that he was the first enemy the team fought in the comcs.  His powers are ill-defined, physically, mostly bounded as “sort of like Thor, only not quite as good at any of it.”  He has magic, but mostly illusions rather than anything of the high-firepower variety.  He’s also already been defeated by 1/6 of the team in a solo movie, which compounds the threat level issue and relates to the worst bit, that as an enemy he “belongs” squarely to Thor in a way that Ultron or Klaw or Molecule Man would not be specific to anyone.  He brings a fundamental imbalance to the villain side of things, and I don’t know if I mentioned it yet, but balance is sort of key to making this film work.

So let’s look at why he works anyway.  Point one is Tom Hiddleston, who gives what is in my opinion the standout performance amongst a cast of standouts.  Between this and Thor, he gives the best supervillain performance this side of Heath Ledger’s virtuosic, objectivity-destroying turn as the Joker.  It can’t be overstated how much he brings to this table, providing a believable emotional core to his scheming that manages not to undercut the character’s sadistic elements and legitimate villainy.  You understand where his anger comes from, particularly if you’ve seen Thor, but you never approve, and still take glee in his getting slapped around.

 Slappability has been key to the appeal of 
many classic characters in comics history

But I was talking about writing, not acting, so let’s look at what Whedon did on that front to make Loki work.  On the most superficial level, he gets a magic stick that boosts his firepower, and an army of alien drones for the good guys to shoot/smash.  This is a bland but serviceable as far as raising his threat level.

Where the script excels (besides threading the line between empathy and moustache-twirling mentioned about above) is taking this intensely personal adversary of Thor’s and turning him into an antagonist for the entire team.  Killing Coulson is a part of this, and that might have been enough on its own if this were The Avengers 2 and the team had already been established as a cohesive unit.  But Whedon knows that them coming together is the climax of this film, and the villain needs to help them come together, not rely on that unity to establish his own bonafides.

To that end, Whedon makes sure to devote time in this already overstuffed script to ensuring each character* can develop a personal beef with Loki.  Thor obviously brings existing history with his (adopted) brother to the film, and they get a couple of scenes to rehash it in their overwrought, Shakespearean way.  Cap gets a face-off in Germany that feels a bit perfunctory, but mostly because he uses his first breath to Godwin the fuck out of the trickster.  In screenwriting, much as on the internet, once you call the other guy Hitler there’s really nowhere else to go.

No need to waste your time campaigning, Mein President, 
this here pretty well wraps things up

Regardless, it succinctly sets up the sort of “gospel of totalitarianism” that Loki preaches throughout the film as the thematic antithesis of everything Cap’s about.  It would be horribly slight if Cap were one of only two or three good guys feuding with baddie, but as one of a larger group it’s a nice, brisk bit of shading.

Iron Man gets a wonderfully Downey-y bout of antagonism with Loki fairly late, fueled by his taking Coulson’s death the most personally.  Now, that isn’t really logical if you think about it, because the guy’s co-workers at SHIELD should have been closest to him. But Whedon has always been a guy who values emotional logic over logic-logic, and Tony is the guy who “seems” to have known him longest and best in terms of shared screentime  (which is not just shared between the characters, but also with us as the audience).

On the flip side, the SHIELD people don’t just get mad that Coulson is dead, because while that would make sense, it would feel hollow. No matter how much time they may have spent together, we didn’t get to share in it as screentime.  Also, they are significantly less well-developed than Thor/Cap/IM coming into this, so we can’t draw the same sort of conclusions about their relationships from brief moments.  So Fury gets to face off with Loki twice, and Black Widow…holy hell, did he just call her a “quim”?  Seriously?  I wonder what kind of havoc broke out at the MPAA once a dictionary finally got cracked.

 ...well, I'm fucking fired.

Anyway, Black Widow’s verbal sparring with Loki is a highlight of the film, an incredible character moment for both of them that is also a payoff of her introductory scene while revealing everything and nothing about her actual backstory.  It gives BW her personal motivation to stop the bad guy, but the real genius at work is that rather than going the obvious route and tying it to Coulson, it instead ties it to Hawkeye.

Hawkeye is the most underserved of the heroes, clocking only 1/3 of the screentime of Iron Man or Captain America, and spending half of that as a brainwashed lackey.  It’s a testament to Renner’s performance and Whedon’s writing that he doesn’t feel like a total afterthought given how little time we spend with Barton as himself.  And also to Johannson’s performance, because we only glimpse behind her steely professional facade when their relationship comes up.  Some of Barton’s most crucial development comes when he isn’t even on screen and she speaks about him.  And even when we find out she was play-acting, it still feels like she exposed something real and raw that changes how we view both characters going forward.  I don’t know that I really buy Johannson’s tough-as-nails bits (her delivery is a bit too laconic to be as commanding as the character should be capable of), but she nonetheless creates an effective contrast between that and the moments when something really hits home.

Who kills Dumbledore??? Wh-why would you..
you know I'm only on Goblet of Fire!

That rapport between Widow and Hawkeye, established in the course of a few lines of exposition from her and a single shared scene, has me more intrigued for a potential SHIELD spin-off than for Thor or Captain America 2.  It doesn’t seem to be romantic, but they exhibit a disarming level of intimacy together for people who are so stone cold in every other respect we’ve seen.  I don’t care that they can’t smash giant alien snakecarriers, I just want to know more about their interpersonal relationship.  That’s what Joss Whedon brings to the superhero table, in case anyone is still doubting what he actually contributes.

Anyway, for the most underserved character, Hawkeye actually has, next to Thor, the most personal reason for wanting to take out Loki, as (in what I presume was a nice but unnecessary nod to his briefly-bad origin in the comics) he gets puppeteered into killing an undisclosed amount of his fellow agents by the bastard.  And Black Widow wants revenge on his behalf, and also presumably for the outdated misogynist slur.

 "That's what that means? Really? Man, I bet 
someone at the MPAA got fired over that one."

Sure, stopping the aliens is the primary objective in the final battle, but the cumulative effect of all these moments is that all the heroes go into it with their own reasons for wanting to get their licks in on the Bad Guy.  Maybe most of them would be too slight to hang a conventional action movie’s central conflict on, but The Avengers is not a conventional action movie.  It’s a strange new chimera of franchise filmmaking with dozens of masters to serve, one where balancing the demands of all those masters is the key to success.  And in that respect, I find it incredibly goddamn impressive that in the end it didn’t feel like any of the heroes were just tagging along for Thor’s fight.  Whedon took a single character’s archnemesis and found a way to balance his antagonism across the entire group.
And just to say it again, Tom Hiddleston.  Dude’s incredible.  Just one more thing to consider: he has these little clashes with each character throughout, and for the most part they all succeed in outsmarting him or slapping him around in rather short order.  This is great to build up our team of badasses, but to have him never stop feeling dangerous, never simply become a joke or a rag doll to be tossed around (until that final moment when, hilariously, he becomes precisely that)?  That’s where you need charisma, people.

Now, maybe none of these particular bits I’ve been examining seems particularly brilliant or groundbreaking on their own.  Laid out like this, it sounds a bit paint-by-numbers, like anyone with half a brain could have just gone down this list of characters and check off boxes to make sure they all got their quota of moments.  And maybe they could have, maybe you could have, hell, maybe I could have.  But that doesn’t mean that you or I could’ve written The Avengers.  Because despite the 3000 words I just wrote about them, the two particular aspects I’ve addressed only scratch the surface of what went into this script.

Because here’s something else.  I’ve read a lot of criticisms of this movie, and some of them are valid.  I think there are areas of weakness: the score was horribly anemic, Samuel L. Jackson still can’t seem to bring the Samuel L. Jackson energy to a character that might as well be named Samuel L. Jackson, plus the Chitauri should’ve had a) another variant of troop between stormtrooper and snakecarrier, and b) a recognizable lieutenant to be taken out for an added fist-pumping moment, and c) most importantly, a stronger color scheme so they didn’t look like they were made out of the same concrete as the streets/buildings they were fighting on.  But one thing I never thought about it, and that I haven’t seen any critic accuse the film of, is that it felt like it was just checking off boxes.  Nothing about this film feels dutiful, or tacked on, or like it’s ever doing anything but gleefully charging directly to where it wants to go at any given moment.

That’s what makes this script so goddamn good.  Most action movies, even the superhero movies that directly led into this one, don’t take on a tenth of the narrative responsibilities that The Avengers carries, and they still manage to be twice as plodding as they move a fifth of the cast to a resolution that is half as satisfying.

I’m excited to see what Whedon makes look easy next.

*Everyone but the Hulk, who is also absent from the rundown of how Coulson’s death affects the team.  This is a whole different can of beans, but he is exempt from this stuff because the Hulk is not actually a superhero, despite being on a team of them.  He’s essentially a werewolf, and thus does not need to be motivated in the same manner as the rest of the heroes.


(This piece was originally published on

The Avengers is out, and by now everyone knows it’s awesome.  Writer/director Joss Whedon has been getting a lot of credit for that, but he’s also such a divisive figure among movie geeks that I think some people who are not fans of his prior work are already starting to underestimate his contribution, and that is something that, for the purposes of this blog, I cannot abide.

Don’t get me wrong, I get why this movie could look like a gimme, particularly in retrospect.  The guy was handed THE most well established superhero property in the world, with several other films having done the heavy lifting of establishing all the main players, so how much is there to do?  On the directing side, provide some serviceable action scenes and stay out of the actors way, because it cannot be overstated how top-to-bottom impeccable the casting of every role in these movies has been.  And that cast, most glaringly Robert Downey Jr, make it seem like there’s not a ton of writing to be done either.  Plug in characters XYZ, give them some aliens to punch, call it a day.  And I guess layer in a bunch of pop culture references while you’re at it, since you are Joss Whedon after all.

 "You know, this really reminds me of that time 

And I can see how folks could walk out thinking that’s all he did. But it’s not.  So much of what is perfect about The Avengers script seems natural and obvious on screen, because that’s how most great writing works.  And that’s what I want to draw Whedon fans’ and especially detractors’ attention to, because the fundamental criticism of his style is that it feels transparently written in a way that turns off many people (see also: Smith, Kevin and Cody, Diablo, neither of whom is half the writer Whedon is imo).  Hell, maybe some people still felt that way about the dialogue in this movie, though I felt the superfluously stacked cast delivered even the more writerly quips with charm and ease.  But I’m not talking about that, I’m talking about what’s going on under the hood that makes this movie hum along smoothly and naturally as it serves a dozen masters simultaneously.  The stuff that is easy to take for granted but far from easy.

The most obvious example of the many masters is that there are either 6 (or 7, depending on whether you count den mother Nick Fury) heroes to service, with no clear lead.  The simplest way to deal with this would be to promote one, probably team leader Captain America or breakout character Iron Man, to de facto protagonist and make it their movie.  Whedon doesn’t do this, because he really gets ensembles the way few writers do.

Lots of reviews have rightly praised the film for balancing things between the heroes so well, but I’m not just talking about giving every one roughly the same amount of screentime, or Hawkeye action beats that don’t seem totally insignificant next to Thor’s.  The script does that, which is great, but it also gives everyone a personal investment in the conflict.  And this is important, because there simply isn’t time for everyone to have a full character arc (I’d say only Iron Man and Banner even approximate one), not to mention how the nature of this as a team-up film necessitates that the really significant bits of character development be reserved for the various solo franchises (otherwise why even keep them going after this?).  There are 2 things in particular that the script does that give each hero a distinct reason to really care about thrashing the mob of faceless aliens at the end.

 After all, Whedon is an old hat when it 
comes  to making people hate Aliens

The first is the death of Agent Coulson – or more accurately, the handling of Coulson prior to his death.  One of the most baffling criticisms of Whedon’s writing is that he routinely kills off likeable characters in “shocking” fashion.  I don’t see this as a negative, particularly in the context of a Marvel superhero film where business and tradition dictate that no one of consequence will ever die, at least not permanently.  But some people seem to regard it as a crutch, a “cheap” way of generating pathos and surprise.  I see it as anything but, since a crutch is supposed to make things easier on you, and losing a character you have spent time and effort building up investment in strikes me as a steep price to pay for something as fleeting as shock value.

Not that Coulson’s death was a total shock.  It received gasps throughout the theater at my screening, but it was also being called out as inevitable by people familiar with Whedon’s work months in advance.  It should be noted that this was easy to foresee less because his plotting is so rote than because the strictures Marvel put in place were so broad and obvious.  When people talk about the typical “Whedon death,” they generally reserve the label for characters less ancillary than Coulson, but since this was not an original property, the top 7 main characters were clearly going to be off-limits to protect any shred of spin-off potential.  There is exactly one sympathetic, original character that the audience has any investment in, so there is exactly one person who could possibly draw the short straw.

 Plus, the guy just has one of those
 "tragically kill-able" faces, y'know?

But even disregarding the writer’s history or the studio’s enormous interest in franchise protection and all other information about matters outside of the film itself, Coulson has to be the one to die.  Fury practically breaks the 4th wall in explaining how the death galvanizes the team to finally work together, so I’m assuming everyone gets the basic idea there.  But what other death would have an impact on everyone, including the audience?  Let’s run down the characters and see how each would function as a sacrificial figure in a hypothetical world where Marvel was eager to off its biggest brand names:

Hawkeye – most of the characters don’t know him and audience has only really seen him as a bad guy.  Who cares?

Black Widow – Thor has barely met her, Banner and Iron Man don’t really like her at this point in the 2nd act.

Fury – none of the non-SHIELD personnel really like or trust him anyway.

Maria Hill – no one but Fury seems to even know her name.

Thor – his relationship with these guys has so far been limited to trading a few punches with Iron Man and Cap.

Banner – you’d need a completely different take on this character to pull this off, as the fact that he CAN’T be killed is integral to this one, and killing him off before we even get a Hulk-out would cause riots.

Iron Man – this would devastate the audience, but his relationship with everyone but Banner has been contentious enough that it’s hard to imagine them all being moved to set aside their differences to avenge him (plus he doesn’t even know Thor or Hawkeye).

Captain America – This could almost work.  He’s only just met most of these people, but they mostly seem to like him.  Except Tony, who could still be shamed enough by his death to make it work, and Thor, who is essentially indifferent to everyone at this point but already has a personal stake in taking out Loki.  The main problem is that you lose an action hero for the finale and no one else is as suited to take charge of the team at that point.

So, none of these works to motivate everyone.  Even if they were feasible options from an off-screen perspective, no one of them provides the same balance of impact across all the Avengers.  Coulson has a built-in connection to all his SHIELD colleagues (not that the movie relies much on this for their motivation).  He also has history with both Iron Man and Thor from their solo movies, and Whedon is careful to give him scenes with each of them to remind us of that, as well as the wonderful bit of business where he is reduced to a sweaty-palmed fanboy in the presence of his hero, Captain America.

I bet even he threw out this card, though

That these scenes exist at all is a sign that a capable screenwriter is at the helm, that they are so funny and economical without feeling forced or inorganic is where it borders on genius.  Because each of these scenes balances the building of Coulson’s rapport with each character with other duties, which is what great writing does.  The scene with Tony at the beginning provides us with exposition on the Avenger Initiative and why Tony was disqualified, which will be the basis of his character journey, and demonstrates through Pepper (representative of his better, less self-obsessed judgment) that while Tony treats Coulson much as a middle schooler would a hall monitor, it’s in a generally affectionate way.  And of course it’s funny.  The scene with Thor serves to reiterate his character development from his own movie, learning to care about the damage to the little people more than his personal glory, which is good for the character who drops the most gracelessly into these proceedings.  And of course it’s funny.  And the scene with Captain America underlines Cap’s man-out-of-time status as well as building up the “living legend” status that makes his taking charge of the final battle more believable.  And, yeah, funny.

Balance is what makes this movie work, and Coulson’s position within it and across its predecessors allows his death to up the emotional stakes for the entire team and the audience simultaneously.
Some similar strategy is at work in the handling of Loki, which I’ll get into next time.