Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The crowded circle

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Earlier this week, Thrillist posted a massive oral history devoted entirely to the climactic battle scene in The Avengers. It’s well over twelve thousand words, or fifty percent longer than Ronan Farrow’s Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation of Harvey Weinstein, and you can occasionally feel it straining to justify its length. In its introduction, it doesn’t shy away from the hard sell:

Scholars swore that comic-book moviemaking peaked with Christopher Nolan’s lauded vision for The Dark Knight, yet here was an alternative, propulsive, prismatic, and thoughtful…The Battle of New York wasn’t just a third-act magic trick; it was a terraforming of the blockbuster business Hollywood believed it understood.

To put it mildly, this slightly overstates the case. Yet the article is still worth reading, both for its emphasis on the contributions of such artists as storyboard artist Jane Wu and for the presence of director Joss Whedon, who casually throws shade in all directions, including at himself. For instance, at one point, Ryan Meinerding, the visual effects department supervisor, recalls of the design of the alien guns: “We tried to find something that, if Black Widow got ahold of one of their weapons, she could use it in an interesting way. Which is how we ended up with that sort of long Civil War weapons.” Whedon’s perspective is somewhat different: “I look back, and I’m like, So my idea for making the weapons look different was to give them muskets? Did I really do that? Was that the sexiest choice? Muskets? Okay. But you know, hit or miss.”

These days, I can’t listen to Whedon’s studiously candid, self-deprecating voice in quite the way that I once did, but he’s been consistently interesting—if not always convincing—on points of craft, and his insights here are as memorable as usual. My favorite moment comes when he discusses the structure of the sequence itself, which grew from an idea for what he hoped would be an iconic image:

We’re going to want to see the group together. We’re going to want to do a shot of everyone back to back. Now we are a team. This is “The Avengers.” We’d get them in a circle and all facing up. Ryan Meinerding painted the team back to back, and that’s basically what I shot. They’re so kinetic and gorgeous, and he has a way of taking comic books and really bringing them to life, even beyond Alex Ross in a way that I’ve never seen…But then it was like, okay, why are they in a circle? That’s where they’re standing, but why? Let’s assume that there are aliens all over the walls, they’re surrounding them, they’re going to shoot at them, but they haven’t started yet. Why haven’t they started yet? And I was like Oh, let’s give the aliens a war cry… Then one of the aliens takes off his mask because we need to see their faces and hear that cry. The Avengers are surrounded by guys going, “We are going to fuck you up.” But not by guys who are shooting yet.

He concludes: “So there is a very specific reason that sort of evolved more and more right before we shot it. And then it’s like, okay, we got them here, and then once they’re there, you’re like, okay, how do we get them to the next thing?”

On some level, this is the kind of thing I should love. As I’ve discussed here before, the big beats of a story can emerge from figuring out what comes before and after a single moment, and I always enjoy watching a writer work through such problems in the most pragmatic way possible. In this case, though, I’m not sure about the result. The third act of The Avengers has always suffered a little, at least for me, from its geographic constraints. A handful of heroes have to credibly fend off an attack from an alien army, which naturally limits how big or dispersed the threat can be, and it seems strange that an invasion of the entire planet could be contained within a few blocks, even if they happen to include the photogenic Park Avenue Viaduct. The entire conception is undermined by the need to keep most of the characters in one place. You could imagine other possible climaxes—a chase, an assault on the enemy stronghold, a battle raging simultaneously at different locations around the world—that would have involved all the major players while still preserving a sense of plausibility and scale. But then you wouldn’t have gotten that circle shot. (Elsewhere in the article, Whedon offers a weirdly condescending aside about Zak Penn’s original draft of the script: “I read it one time, and I’ve never seen it since. I was like, ‘Nope. There’s nothing here.’ There was no character connection. There was a line in the stage directions that said, apropos of nothing, ‘And then they all walk towards the camera in slow motion because you have to have that.’ Yeah, well, no: You have to earn that.” Which sounds more to me like Whedon defensively dismissing the kind of joke that he might have made himself. And you could make much the same criticism of the circle shot that he had in mind.)

And the whole anecdote sums up my mixed feelings toward the Marvel Universe in general and The Avengers in particular. On its initial release, I wrote that “a lot of the film, probably too much, is spent slotting all the components into place.” That certainly seems to have been true of the climax, which also set a dangerous precedent in which otherwise good movies, like The Winter Soldier, felt obliged to end in a blur of computer effects. And it’s even more clear now that Whedon’s tastes and personality were only occasionally allowed to shine through, often in the face of active opposition from the studio. (Of the one of the few moments from the entire movie that I still recall fondly, Whedon remembers: “There were objections to Hulk tossing Loki. I mean, strong objections. But they were not from Kevin [Feige] and Jeremy [Latcham], so I didn’t have to worry.”) Marvel has since moved on to movies like Captain America: Civil War, Thor: Ragnarok, and Black Panther, much of which are authentically idiosyncratic, fun, and powerful in a way that the studio’s defining effort managed to only intermittently pull off. But it’s revealing that the last two films were mostly allowed to stand on their own, which is starting to seem like a luxury. Marvel is always trying to get to that circle shot, and now the numbers have been multiplied by five. It reflects what I’ve described as the poster problem, which turns graphic design—or storytelling—into an exercise in crowd control. I’m looking forward to Avengers: Infinity War, but my expectations have been tempered in ways for which The Avengers itself, and specifically its climactic battle, was largely responsible. As Whedon concedes: “Sometimes you have to do the shorthand version, and again, that’s sort of against how I like to view people, but it’s necessary when you already have twenty major characters.”

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