What I Learned From "The Avengers"

If you have suffered through dealing with me in person this summer, then I will let you know up front that this entire article is a rerun. I'm going to reiterate everything I've been passionately preaching since "Marvel Studios' The Avengers" ("The Avengers," for short) irreversibly changed the course of comic book storytelling on the big screen. Regardless of whether or not you saw the film, whether or not you were the kind of hardcore fan that caught that K'un-L'un reference, I talked your face off about "The Avengers" at rapid-fire speed the instant you squeaked out the syllable "Av-."

I would give a spoiler warning since I'm going to talk extensively about the contents of the film, but literally everyone saw "The Avengers." Everyone. Even animals. Some animals have seen "The Avengers."

Yesterday, "The Avengers" became officially available for viewing on all of my various personal screens, now at my beck and call any time I'm feeling the urge to assemble (or, as it so happens, any time I feel the urge to cry on the subway). I saw the film eight times in the theater, the most recent being on Labor Day, so it's not like I've gone a significant length of time without having "The Avengers" in my life since it debuted. But now, I have the film any time I want it and, from a writing perspective, this makes me incredibly happy.

Before I get to the climactic New York City war portion of this piece, I must first get us through the Helicarrier battle portion of it (the opening paragraph was Black Widow tied to a chair and Captain America's row of punching bags; if there's one thing I know about myself, it's that I can keep awful metaphors going). The thing is, "The Avengers" holds up. And sure, that's crazy to say for a movie that is still an infant. To claim that a new movie holds up, which is a phrase usually reserved for films from our youth (as in "Batman" holds up, "Batman Returns" does not hold up), seems premature. But in the age of the internet, where opinions get nasty at the speed of a grimace, a movie holding up five months after its release could be considered a feat.

So yeah, "The Avengers" holds up. It holds up to repeated viewings. It holds up to intense scrutiny. It is a seven-layer dip of thematic richness and character development, begging you to keep cramming chips in it. And you will, because it's delicious. Every time I saw the film, I came away with new understanding of different character arcs and a better sense of its overall structure. I also, after the fifth or sixth viewing, finally heard the Hulk say "puny god" after smashing Loki around. I do not tolerate minor quibbles with the film. I legitimately think there are none and any that could be found are so miniscule, the overwhelming awesomeness of the film trounces them. If you disagree with that statement, know that I could straight-up-debate you. But also know that I really don't want to do that because Twitter should be a happy place.

However, the real reason I am so stoked about "The Avengers" being in my pocket at all times is that I believe it is an invaluable tool for anyone seriously contemplating writing as a thing they have to do to appease the Ambition Monster that lurks inside their ribcage. I have taken away many lessons from my repeated viewings of it. In fact, I'd like to retcon the intent behind my eight theater viewings as "academic research." The New York City war portion of this piece consists of everything my repeated viewings of "The Avengers" has taught me about writing. "In Your Face Jam...smash."

  • Every character has an arc. Prior to seeing "The Avengers," this seemed absolutely impossible. How could anyone cram a minimum of six arcs into one film? It cannot be done! But it was, and it was achieved through giving each character's arc a different weight, prominence and level of subtlety. So while it may still be impossible to give every character a full-on, in-depth, in your face character arc, it is possible to get a few of those on the page while making sure that every other principle character gets at least a change. Bruce Banner and Tony Stark get the most up front character arcs. Banner learns to embrace his Hulk side and Stark learns the meaning of teamwork and sacrifice. Captain America's is a little subtler, but he goes from frustration at his situation, to half-heartedly accepting S.H.I.E.L.D.'s offer, to fully embracing his new role and finding purpose in his life again as Captain America. Both Black Widow and Hawkeye have similar arcs to each other, going from spies to superheroes in reaction to being confronted with their past misdeeds (Black Widow) and manipulation (Hawkeye). Thor goes through the slightest arc only because his solo film was the only one of the lead-ups to actually have a full-on character transformation in it. This is made up for by character arc that was cut from the film: Maria Hiill's. With the deleted scenes in mind, we see her go from a staunch supporter of authority (the mysterious Council) and critic of Nick Fury, to a supporter of the Avengers who acknowledges "authority" doesn't equal "right."

  • Characters interact with each other. This seems like a no-brainer, but all too often it feels like the stories I read feature characters that fight alongside each other but don't know each other. Joss Whedon took numerous odd couples and forced them together, thus showing us sides of each character we previously hadn't seen and showing us how real human beings interact with each other. The similarity between Banner and Stark never dawned on me until their scene together, nor did I ever expect the Hulk to bring out what he did in Black Widow. Captain America's faith in his teammates from the get-go, especially his faith in Hawkeye after Loki's thrall was konked out of him, gave us a more concrete glimpse of Cap's character than all of his solo film.
  • Every character has a purpose. This was a huge problem in the X-Men films, and I love both of them dearly. In those films, it seemed like a lot of characters were there to use their power once and peace out. (what did Rogue do in "X2"?) In "The Avengers," Captain America literally spells out the role that every Avenger is going to play in the final battle. He makes them a team and then they act like on. I feel like a lot of criticism was placed on Hawkeye and Black Widow's role in the film, but they both played essential parts. It was Hawkeye's keen eye and marksmanship, fueled by his inner desire to make things right in his soul/the world, that kept the entire team abreast of the invasion. And it was Black Widow's superspy brain that kept her thinking about solving the invasion problem, not content to contain alien invaders like the rest of the team.
  • Fighting is best used as a means of character development. Sure, punching things is awesome, and sure, exploding a giant, flying, space whale-snake from the inside out is super rad, but it's only worthwhile if it means something. During the final fight we saw the fragmented Banner become one with the Hulk and the self-indulgent Iron Man be pushed far enough to sacrifice himself. Cap's first skirmish with Loki in Germany advanced his character from timelost moper into full-on Super Soldier. Hawkeye and Black Widow's fight on the Helicarrier did the plot-thing of clearing Hawkeye's head, but it also motivated Black Widow to pull herself back together after her harrowing Hulk experience.
  • Loki was enough. There is always an urge to pile on the junk when writing. I mean, I'm probably doing it now, but ha ha ha who can stop me?! But seriously, "The Avengers" knew what its story was (disparate, dysfunctional individuals put aside their differences and come together to form a more powerful entity for the greater good) and left it there. That was enough. There wasn't a romance subplot (unless you are on Tumblr, in which case Loki + Anyone was a romance subplot) and there weren't multiple villains with conflicting motives. The film clearly knew what its story was and cut away all the excess.

  • Everyone acted to the top of their intelligence. If "The Avengers" was a horror movie, then Jason Voorhies would have murdered no one. The Avengers don't run upstairs when the bad guy comes in through the front door. Throughout the film, every character reacted in ways so believable that it surprised me. Media has trained us to expect characters to withhold information, not ask questions, struggle where they shouldn't and just generally behave like a dumdum. In "The Avengers," we had Stark and Banner suspecting S.H.I.E.L.D.'s true plan for the Hydra weapons before I even considered it and Captain America busting down doors for answers. And in a lesser movie, when the Hulk confronted Loki there would have been a small skirmish, or Loki would have been a match for the Hulk. But no, "The Avengers" showed exactly what would happen: Hulk smash Loki because Hulk is Hulk.
  • And this is the overall thing I learned: Just do the thing. Write what you want to write. If a scene doesn't feel right, either make it feel right or take it out. If you can distill your idea into one or two basic principles or themes, make sure that everything in your piece serves those. An Avengers film, since the team was formed nearly 50 years ago, should include clashing personalities and big action. And that's exactly what every scene in this film leads up to or features. It delivers on the basic foundation of what it was meant to be, and doesn't waste our time with needless character tweaks ("lets give Hawkeye a girlfriend!") or limit its potential ("No, ten minutes should be enough for the epic climax!"). Instead we got every character boiled down to their essence, juxtaposed for maximum conflict, and then the catharsis of an over 30 minute epic battle that acted as the resolution for all of those character conflicts. "The Avengers" just did the thing.

It's obvious that I have thought about this film way too much, but I think it's equally obvious that "The Avengers" merits and stands up to this level of analysis. I'm surprised I haven't been In Your Face about this film yet, but now I am. I plan on keeping all of these lessons close as I write, and I also plan on doing a lot more "academic research" on the subway.

But seriously, a dude crying over the raw awesomeness of "The Avengers" on his iPad is the least shocking thing you'll see on a New York City subway.

Brett White is a comedian living in New York City. He co-hosts the podcast Matt & Brett Love Comics and is a writer for the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre sketch team Everything Rabbits. His opinions can be consumed in bite-sized morsels on Twitter (@brettwhite).

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