I vividly remember a conversation I had with a family friend back in November of 2005. It was Thanksgiving weekend, and my soon-to-be-wife and I had just come from a screening of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. For those who have only seen the movie, or who’ve neither seen the films or read the book series, Goblet of Fire was somewhat unique when it was released because it was a far longer book than any of its predecessors. For context, it’s nearly twice as long as each of the three books that came before it. The decision to split up the final book in the series into two films may have surprised some, but considering how much more material is in the last four books, it’s not too shocking. Splitting one book into two films ostensibly means far less of the source material is left out. But that wasn’t the case with Goblet of Fire.
And the family friend I was speaking to wasn’t happy about this, at all. She wasn’t red-faced and furious, but she’d also seen the film and was angry that the filmmakers had cut through the book willy-nilly. Many extraneous storylines had been jettisoned or revamped to tie into the film’s overall arc. Now that the series is over, I might rank Goblet of Fire (the film) as my least favorite, right after the first two movies. But it’s still mostly solid entertainment as a movie. The problem I found in this discussion—one where I tried and failed to bring sanity to the proceedings—is that our family friend was angry that the book she loved hadn’t been brought to life exactly as she envisioned it. As I pointed out to her, if she was looking for an accurate replication of the book, it would have to be roughly 12 hours long. Not too feasible, even if you split those 12 hours into two shorter films.
But the basic problem is that some people—even those involved in the movies—couldn’t see that to make a creatively successful film series of the Harry Potter novels, extreme faithfulness isn’t the answer. On the one hand, many millions of people have read the J.K. Rowling books. But on the other hand, not every person has. A good friend and co-worker of mine has seen all of the films in the series, and didn’t start reading the books until after the movies came to a close. Though he enjoyed Warner Bros.’ adaptation, I imagine they didn’t become fully successful or engaging until after he picked up the books. I like the films well enough, but this is a sign, to me, of a creative failure. A movie has to stand on its own two feet as a movie, whether it’s based on a preexisting source or not. Not everyone seeing the movie knows the source material, so it’s important to not engage fully in fan service.
I’ve taken us all on this tangent to make a roundabout point about the Marvel Cinematic Universe, as it’s called. I have never read a single Marvel comic book (unless you count randomly skimming an X-Men comic a few times at the grocery store as a kid reading). I’ve seen all of the movies leading up to The Avengers, or Marvel’s The Avengers, or Disney’s Marvel’s The Avengers, or whatever the hell it’s called. I did so specifically because I love movies, especially action/adventure stories. I don’t need to have read the source to enjoy the adaptation, and at their best (mostly in the first Iron Man film), these movies cater very well to the non-comic-book fan as well as they do to the avid reader. (I say that mostly because I haven’t heard a lot of pushback from Marvel fans about the adaptations.) But they occasionally indulge in fan service, which is sometimes disappointing and often alienating.
The Avengers, written and directed by pop-culture cult icon Joss Whedon, rarely stumbles into the pit of fan service. Frankly, it only does so during the end-credits scene that introduces, I think (I’m not sure), a potential threat to our heroes down the line. But what can sometimes be troubling, even in this film, is how not reading the comic books may set you at a disadvantage. (And, quick aside: I enjoyed The Avengers, as you heard on the podcast. I liked it a lot. I did not unconditionally love it, hence my various quibbles.) Take, for example, two of the people who work for SHIELD, the militaristic group run by Nick Fury that oversees the Avengers, a group of superheroes—Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Thor, and Captain America—who team up to fight massive evil. The people I’m thinking of are Clint Barton, better known as Hawkeye, and Maria Hill. I know the character names mostly because I went to IMDb to confirm they’re accurate. Both are relatively minor supporting characters here but thanks to the buzz surrounding the film, I assumed they were far more important to the overall story.
On the one hand, sure, this is a case of a person paying too much attention to pre-release buzz. I’m at fault on that level. However, when you cast an Oscar-nominated actor to play—based on the ads—one of the Avengers and give him little to do, it throws me off. (Don’t forget, the 360-degree spinning shot of the Avengers that concludes almost every trailer features Hawkeye with his bow and arrow at the ready.) Had the character not been played by someone so recognizable, maybe it’s not a problem. But Maria Hill is played by Cobie Smulders, who’s not nearly as well-known as Renner. And yet, there was so much intense buzz over who would play this supposedly key character who’s relegated to being this movie’s version of Sigourney Weaver in Galaxy Quest, reading off a computer half the time. The quibbles I have—and these are, I realize, not terribly important problems to have with a movie—speak to that minor alienation I have from fan-service moments.
According to some folks on Twitter, Hawkeye unknowingly working with the head bad guy, Loki, makes sense because of his sordid past as described in the comic books. And Maria Hill, well, she’s a hell of a lot more important down the road if the comics are any indication. But I haven’t read the comic books, and I shouldn’t have to if I want to enjoy the movie. I love reading, and I have no problems with comic books as a genre. But a movie is a movie, and a comic book is a comic book. They aren’t the same, and I don’t need to read one to enjoy the other. Maybe the reason these nitpicks stick out so much—they’re not the only ones I have, but most pressing—is because so much of The Avengers works so well, mostly thanks to charming and enjoyable performances as well as perfectly comic dialogue courtesy of Joss Whedon.
I’m not sure which is stronger—the dialogue or the acting. On the one hand, when you place quirky performers like Robert Downey, Jr., Tom Hiddleston, and Mark Ruffalo in your movie, it’s your fault if they don’t do well. But on the other hand, the dialogue here—further proof of Whedon’s massive talent for banter that never gets tiresome—is so well-timed, so funny, and so much fun. I was, I admit, a bit concerned that Whedon’s unique style—my generation’s David Mamet in terms of singularly stylish talking, for good or ill—might not translate with actors like Downey, Jr. or Chris Evans. And I’m happy to say I was wrong. There’s never a dull moment when the characters are careening off each other, volleying off dialogue left and right. The roughly 30-minute stretch of the movie after the four heroes come together and join the SHIELD staff on their so-called floating fortress is the best part of the film. There’s very little action, but listening to Tony Stark playfully jibe with Bruce Banner, Steve Rogers, and Thor is giddily exciting.
The action, though, as well as the global conflict is less involving. It’s not poorly executed, but it’s not nearly as fun as listening to these characters talk. The baddie, Loki, has plans to subjugate the world and have an army of aliens at his side in exchange for a powerful cube called the MacGuffin—I mean, Tesseract. Thor wants to bring Loki and the Tesseract back to his world, Asgard. The others just want to stop Loki and retrieve the Tesseract for nobler purposes. I didn’t get as invested in this conflict or in the massive action battle that makes up the third act of the film. Whedon’s direction is, at best, unremarkable outside of a few fun shots here and there. (And frankly, the other Marvel movies are directed in an unremarkable, journeyman-like fashion.) I was more invested in the performances than I was in the very thought that the world would perish at Loki’s hands.
Is the action original? Not particularly, but the people within that action are what got me engaged. The summer movie season is typically known for having intense action sequences, but those sequences only work if you care about who the action is happening to, or who’s making the action happen. Here, we get both. It’s not entirely successful, but it’s compelling. As a fan of great entertainment in film, I was mostly pleased with The Avengers. There are better summer movies—and hopefully some such movies in the next few months—but I am a) enormously happy that Joss Whedon has made something so wildly successful, and b) entertained enough by the movie he made. While I wish The Avengers had been perfect, slambang entertainment, it remains solidly enjoyable. Marvel films haven’t, for me, gone beyond that threshold, but I won’t argue with pleasantly exciting stuff like this.