Thursday, August 1, 2013

The Avengers Take Two

I watched The Avengers last night for the first time since I saw in in theaters, what, a year ago? And realized that when I saw it in theaters I like basically didn't get it. I don't think I'd seen any of Joss Whedon's work then—and (The Cabin in the Woods, Firefly, Much Ado) haven't seen much since—because the more I (think I'm going to) love something the less likely I am to (start/)finish it, which is why I stopped watching Star Trek TOS 2/3 of the way through the 1st season and may never start again—but before seeing the Avengers again I wouldn't have said being unfamiliar with his work mattered.

Which apparently it did. The first time I saw it, all the lines—lines that this time I found delightfully funny—lines like "There's only one God, ma'am, and I'm pretty sure he doesn't dress like that" which just. Last summer, I think I heard what (I thought) they were trying to be—clever, funny, self-aware—and didn't experience them as those things. This is exactly the problem I had with Anansi Boys, which I basically hate-read this past weekend: all I could see was either Neil Gaiman trying to make me believe something, and the thing I was supposed to believe (Spider is cool, for example), but I never actually believed it. Never felt it. And feeling it is what brings something to life, makes it more than itself—basically creates the effect Vladimir Nabokov's theory about which got Edward Jay Epstein a job as his assistant. Um. As described in Epstein's "An A From Nabokov" in the NYRB Nabokov gave his 1954 Cornell "European Literature of the 19th Century" class—in which Epstein was enrolled—a pop quiz consisting of a single essay question: "Describe the train station in which Anna met Vronsky." At first, Epstein was
stymied by this question because, having not yet read the book, I did not know how Tolstoy had portrayed the station. But I did recall the station shown in the 1948 movie starring Vivien Leigh. Having something of an eidetic memory, I was able to visualize a vulnerable-looking Leigh in her black dress wandering through the station, and, to fill the exam book, I described in great detail everything shown in the movie, from a bearded vendor hawking tea in a potbellied copper samovar to two white doves practically nesting overhead. Only after the exam did I learn that many of the details I described from the movie were not in the book. Evidently, the director Julien Duvivier had had ideas of his own. Consequently, when Nabokov asked “seat 121” to report to his office after class, I fully expected to be failed, or even thrown out of Dirty Lit.
What I had not taken into account was Nabokov’s theory that great novelists create pictures in the minds of their readers that go far beyond what they describe in the words in their books. In any case, since I was presumably the only one taking the exam to confirm his theory by describing what was not in the book, and since he apparently had no idea of Duvivier’s film, he not only gave me the numerical equivalent of an A, but offered me a one-day-a-week job as an “auxiliary course assistant.”
Which means he was paid $10 a week to see every new movie shown at Ithaca's four theaters and summarize them for Nabokov, who only had time for one a week, so he could decide what to see, but anyway! I've noticed this "far beyond" effect several times lately: in Lloyd Alexander's The Black Cauldron, for example, which Loren Wynn Dad and I are reading at bedtime, all of us probably for the 5th or 6th time. Alexander introduces two... okay. Two characters—Adaon son of Taliesin and Prince Ellidyr son of Pen-Llarcau—each of whom are given what amounts to like thirty? Forty sentences tops—and who are nonetheless fully, flawlessly realized. They're so alive that rereading the book I'm amazed how little time each is given: Ellidyr disappears for about a third of the book, and Adaon dies on page 81. In my mind/memory they become more than themselves.

I noticed this re-watching The Avengers last night—replace Adaon with Loki and sentences with scenes—but that isn't what I quoted Epstein's essay to say. It's not just that Alexander's characters come alive—it's that they do so despite—well, surely because of—his masterful brevity. And my point about the Avengers wasn't that the same happens with Loki, if it even does—and I'm perfectly willing to believe this is just about Tom Hiddleston/Tom Hiddleston's hair/Tom Hiddleston's hair in the Thor 2 trailer because help me Jesus. My point...



...what was my point...




My POINT was. That, on re-watching, the lines... were still funny, still clever, still self-aware, but this time they worked. They came alive. They made me laugh. They even made me almost cry. Twice.

*

About the self-awareness. I know this is Joss Whedon's thing—to question/deconstruct/"pull apart" everything he does as he does it—as he says Shakespeare was doing with the romantic comedy as he was writing the first one ever in Much Ado About Nothing—but what amazes me about the Avengers is how he structures the entire plot around this.

As they assemble, the characters are constantly pulling each other apart. Steve and Tony's back-and-forths—"Big man in a suit of armor. Take that away and what are you?"/"Everything special about you came out of a bottle"—get at the heart of not just who they are but who they're afraid they are. Loki's "play" aboard the Helicarrier is, basically, what they're all too busy doing to notice he's doing it, which is analyzing their weaknesses—Banner's anger, Natasha's guilt about her past—in order to turn them against each other, which of course culminates in the Hulk and Thor pummeling each other in an airplane hangar as Loki makes his escape. And, of course, all this pulling apart...


...is what makes it so thoroughly satisfying when they finally come together. (That's one of the times I almost cried.)

It's not just the Avengers' acute perceptions of each other that helps them succeed, though—in fact, that's why they almost fail. They succeed when they become self-aware. As in Loki is a full-tilt diva. He wants flowers, he wants parades, he wants a monument built in the skies with his name plastered...

(Son of a bitch.)
But also as in they succeed because Banner becomes self-aware. I didn't realize until this viewing just how important he is. The Avengers are all kind of loners and egomaniacs and really messed up, but he's the freak even the freaks are afraid of, and he's kind of an enigma, and they turn all their analytical—or experimental, in Tony's case!—energy into trying to figure him out. (Tony: "You really have got a lid on it, haven't you? What's your secret?") The Avengers analyze each other, and Loki analyzes them, but Banner is kind of a mystery: the most unpredictable, the hardest to pin down.

In the end, though, it all comes down to Banner's understanding of himself. Tony may ask what his secret is, but—in a moment that I watched like over and over last night—it's Banner himself who reveals it. ("Dr. Banner, now might be a really good time for you to get angry." / "That's my secret, Captain. I'm always angry." / AHHHHH) With the help of the Avengers, he harnesses this self-knowledge to control "the other guy," which is absolutely crucial: if the rest of the Avengers had to fight him and Loki, they wouldn't have had a chance. The most isolated member of the team becomes the most essential—due in part to the very quality Joss Whedon's been honing for his entire career and that is on such... rich display in this movie. That is this movie.

*

I kinda started this post to simply celebrate the fact that because it's so self-aware—in dialogue, and plot, and in every other joke—Tony calling Hawkeye "Legolas," Tony calling Loki "Reindeer Games," Tony calling Thor "Shakespeare in the park"—it could end up undercutting itself, but it never does. Everyone remains majestic, or imposing, or charming, or however they like to think of themselves, while still being what they know they are, aka big monuments in the sky with their names plastered all over them. Not only that, the movie manages to pull off moments of pure sincerity—the look on Thor's face when Loki traps him in the Hulk cage; the look on Tony's face when Piper doesn't pick up the phone; Colson's death.

And luckily, on second viewing, I was able to appreciate all of it.

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