The imperatives of blockbuster action films and the composition of The Avengers’ team make for odd bedfellows

Hawkeye wouldn’t stand a chance if Hulk smash

Almost a month after everyone else, I finally got around to seeing Joss Whedon’s The Avengers this past weekend.  I was impressed.  Though I’m certainly not an Avengers super-fan and have only read a few Avengers team comics, I felt Whedon does a great job doing justice to what I know of the source material and character continuity while still creating a compelling action film.  I initially worried a bit about Loki as the villain falling flat, but Tom Hiddleston’s acting and Whedon’s writing/direction pulled it off much better than I expected.  One thing that stuck out as a weakness, however, was the make up of the team that Whedon has to work with: the pairing of superhuman heroes with exceptional humans who happen to be at the top of the mere-mortal scale of physical ability. This comes through most clearly in the final, climactic battle scenes, which are mostly thrilling but had me feeling I was actually consciously suspending my disbelief.

[spoilers follow]

To be clear, I don’t actually believe works of fantasy or science fiction or the like require suspension of disbelief in the way that Coleridge articulated it.  Coleridge, in my view, was wrong (or at least misleading) about how these modes of literature work on the reader (and now, viewer), and I am much more in Tolkien and Le Guin’s camp in believing consistency within the story-world is a quality of well-written fantastic fiction and requires no willing suspension of disbelief.  That is, so long as what happens in a narrative is plausible or realistic within that story-world, even if it breaks with realism in our world, the work can engage the audience through consistency and audience engagement with ideas and relationships that resonate as “true.”  This happens from Gilgamesh and Greek myth through Beowulf and Lord of the Rings down to modern-day weird fiction.  A narrative work where this internal consistency breaks down is where what Coleridge sets out as conscious, willing suspension of disbelief comes in, and this is usually a weakness of such a narrative.

Balancing mimetic realism with the fantastic and maintaining this consistency puts most superhero comics, of which I am a fan, in a particularly strange place.  The story-worlds of many are identical to our world with a few, specific, necessary exceptions.  These are worlds of some type of mimetic realism with elements of the fantastic/supernatural/science fictional inserted in the form of the heroes and villains.  But this is the world Superman, Wonder Woman, Spider Man, and others inhabit, and the reader/viewer accepts that juxtaposition between mimetic realism and the fantastic elements as the story-world without having to suspend anything; it is the world he or she chooses to engage with.  Obviously there are comics that move outside of this balance into a realm of what is primarily fantasy (which is, I assume, easier for the writer), but these are not the archetypal ones most of us think of.  The bulk of superhero stories are of exceptional beings in an unexceptional world.

This partially-fantastic story-world of comics is, of course, not the case with all superhero narratives.  Though he is arguably the most popular superhero of all-time, Batman does not have superpowers and most of his best exploits have little to do with things beyond a nearly-now, speculative fiction setting.  However, this lack of superpowers is something that often sidelines Batman so far as the epic set-piece battles go when he is paired with heroes possessing superpowers.  In Justice League storylines (where he is teamed with Wonder Woman, Superman, Green Lantern, and the like) Batman operates best as his resourceful, clever, detective self as opposed to the kind of superhero who goes toe-to-toe and blow-for-blow with supervillains.  It is another kind of heroism to work behind the scenes and use one’s mind instead of slugging it out. When this realism of Batman as inferior physically to his compatriots is maintained, such storylines work, and I would argue that it is Batman’s mortality and closeness to the reader’s humanness that makes him so popular.  We know he can be hurt badly and even die, and we care even more because of this.  His mortality appears to be what Nolan is working on exploiting in The Dark Knight Rises, something both Frank Miller and Grant Morrison made great use of in their work on Batman, and is the reason why the Knightfall and Death in the Family storylines are such landmarks.

From Batman: Knightfall:

Bane breaks Batman’s back. He couldn’t realistically do this to any other JLA member

Batman’s role in the Justice League seems similar to the roles of Hawkeye and Black Widow in the Avengers.  Each has a diverse and exceptional human skill set, but, unlike any member of a team like the X-Men, they cannot hope to contend directly in battle against their super-human teammates or the supervillains who oppose them.  Their roles, by necessity of internal consistency, are different than Superman, Wonder Woman, Hulk, Thor, or even Iron Man (who has no powers, but is equipped to deal with those who do). This is not to question the heroism, toughness, or coolness of any of these human, superpower-less characters. Batman remains my favorite superhero in print or on screen. Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow is absolutely awesome and the interrogation scene is one of the best moments in Whedon’s film (she mostly steals the film in every scene until that CGI Hulk starts dropping quips about a “puny god” and steals it in his own right).  Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye is well-acted and integral to the dynamics of the team (and Black Widow’s development).

So what am I complaining about?  It’s a minor thing in a way, but also a major thing in terms of how the tradition of blockbuster action films feels it must work with and use comic book characters.  The imperatives of big-budget, Hollywood action films, like The Avengers, call for epic, cathartic final battles with lots of carnage.  I can’t think of an exception to this.  To move any major character offstage in these moments would seem a betrayal to the audience even if not doing so breaks the realism and internal consistency of the story-world. So, in The Avengers, both Hawkeye and Black Widow have to stick in the fray, one that tests near-immortals like Thor and Hulk and has the audience worried even they might not make it.  But these mere mortals battle it out with hordes of invaders until Whedon can find ways to move them out of the thick of things to roles more suited to their characters’ strengths.  The ground-level fighting that Hawkeye and Black Widow have to engage in pushes the film into an implausibility that is difficult to set aside.  A falling fragment of enemy craft destroyed by Hulk or Thor or Iron Man (or even the boy scout Captain America) would quickly end either of them, and fragments are falling like rain in these sequences.

The fault here, if fault is to be assigned, is not Whedon’s. He pretty deftly handles this problem inherited from the mixed nature of the Avengers team.  Both Hawkeye and Black Widow (especially the latter) are allowed to work outside the traditional action punch-up early on and at the end of the film.  However, the need for everyone to engage in such direct physical conflict makes several minutes of the final sequence pretty far-fetched for me.  This expectation of direct participation in the epic final battle is to my mind indicative of two things (to which we may or may not assign responsibility):   1. The western heroic tradition that carries over to such films, which dictates that true heroes must engage in direct physical confrontation and put down the bad guys in a formulaic, traditionally gendered and classed fashion (The Iliad, Beowulf, Clint Eastwood films, etc.), and: 2. The  decision on the part of those writers who originally created the Avengers team to pair mortals with superpower-having superheroes, which is a problem avoided by other teams like the X-Men or Fantastic Four.

The final bit of all this is where the real culpability may be.  Do we, as audiences or readers, buy into this western tradition hero thing too much?  Would we revolt and turn away if we were not made to suspend disbelief in order for these important, sympathetic characters to remain on the front lines, if only for a brief time?  Can’t being heroic also mean choosing to be in the most logical, useful, and relatively safe place while Hulk goes about doing his Hulk-smash-thing?

I can’t definitively answer these questions, but I believe they are worth thinking about, especially since superhero films are such a major part of the film industry these days.

  1. owl says:

    Nicely done, thank you. This gives me a better and more concrete understanding of what I enjoyed about the film, and what I resisted. That tension when you become aware of consciously suspending your disbelief is a weird feeling: I spun off into all kinds of distraction especially when Black Widow jacked her alien ride, trying to weigh how totally fun that would be against how much physical and psychological abandon it would require to just go for it. Experience with psychedelics would be necessary, I think. Part of excellent spy training?

    • nightwork says:

      Thanks. As a long-time comics reader, this question of what fits and what crosses the line into implausibility in a given story-world is something I’ve probably spent way too much time thinking about. I try to tell myself to just enjoy the ride (like in the scene you mention), but I usually can’t unless a story is deliberately and obviously ridiculous.

      Your post also reminds me of how I want more Black Widow backstory (I’m mostly clueless beyond the basics), even though I’d be real worried about how they would probably mess up a film about her. There are some good precedents/things to rip-off in Luc Besson films, though. I could definitely see some sort of MK Ultra-style experiment to lower inhibitions/fear of death in dangerous situations working in such a story.