Filmic Fratricide: How ‘The Avengers’ Is Harming Marvel Movies
Having seen Thor twice now, I can confirm what I had only allowed myself to conjecture: Marvel is allowing its impatience to get to the Avengers to cannibalize and ultimately cripple the story and quality of its stand-alone properties.
The warning signs were apparent in Iron Man 2. The film, which should have served as a worthy expansion upon the small, isolated actions of the first film, instead became a kind of second origin story. Tony Stark had to once again save his own life through science and a hole in his chest, and the villain was once again someone who wanted to use his technology for evil. The point of all this, in the end, was to bring Stark to a point where he would be ready to join SHIELD’s Avengers initiative through reconciling his past, his father’s legacy, and the responsibility of being a hero.
While any of these story lines could have been executed without retreading the same plot points as the first story, the Avengers necessitated going over this same ground again. Tony needed a reason to look into his father’s work, and the easiest, most convenient way to do this involved a health threat related to his chest piece invention. His increased erratic behavior, all showy nonsense and overblown drama coupled with his failing health, allowed for Nick Fury to reappear in the story, tying back in to the Avengers narrative. His purpose was two-fold; give Stark a box that could have been marked ‘deus ex machina,’ and to use the information therein to convince Stark to join the Avengers.
All of this was completely ancillary to the main villains of the film – Stark’s rival Justin Hammer and the vengeful Russian Whiplash. These two men are sidelined in a movie where they are the ostensible villains in order to make room for exposition that would serve as a segue into the Avengers. The entire conflict of the movie was undermined in order to create the sub-narrative that would allow Tony Stark to become an Avenger. Whiplash, by far the gravest threat in the film, was literally put in a room until it was time for him to come out and fight. The hero and villain were kept apart and conflict-free for no other reason than to allow for gap-filling for a movie not even in production yet.
Thor, in the same way, shortchanges much of what could have made it special in order to accomodatemore SHIELD nonsense as a means of advancing an as-yet undefined, undisclosed plot. Thor has little to do on Earth but catch the attention of a few key people in order to draw them together. Toward the end he tells a SHIELD agent that they stand for the same ideals and he will be their ally, but there is no point at which this relationship or understanding is established, let alone explained. The line sounds like a real-world adaptation of the scene from Thank You For Smoking in which the producer says a plot hole can be fixed with one line of dialogue. We need Thor to be part of SHIELD, so let’s just have him say it and move on quickly. Anything to get to the Avengers more quickly.
Strangely enough, Thor and Iron Man 2 also somehow manage to undercut the pleasure of the original Iron Man. The first film took a straight-laced and realistic approach, much the same as the current Batman films, but injected a more lighthearted sense of humor and action. This struck a perfect chord that reverberated pleasingly with audiences. Now, however, this play at realism as been destroyed, and Iron Man feels anachronistic and ill-fitting as a result. Thor effectively redefined the reality of the universe Iron Man had been set in, and undercut one of Iron Man’s greatest strengths as a result.
Elsewhere, these two films both had goals to accomplish, and both were sabotaged and demeaned by the spectre of the Avengers. It is necessary for Marvel to create, in the space of three films, a fully explained reason for these charatcers to come together as a team. To this end, each part in this family of films has turned from a standalone picture into a feature length prequel. These are flashbacks writ large. Characters have no motivation beyond that which gets them to the Avengers. Actions have no consequences but those that are needed to set up the plot of the Avengers film. This hurts these films in a way that is as hard to describe as it is to ignore.
By allowing the necessities of a future story to dictate the paths of current films, Marvel is creating an environment that doesn’t let a movie create its own destiny or set its own story. Nothing that occurs in these movies occurs because it should, but because it has to. These films have a kind of predestination that robs them of agency or life. They are boxes on rails that move inexorably forward through weight of destiny, not because of any real narrative passion. The Dark Knight had a story to tell, it had a moral and objective and a clearcut goal for its character that could be acheived and resolved within the frameset of the movie itself. At the end of The Dark Knight there was a thread left for a continuation, but the main thrust of that narrative had been driven home.
Thor and Iron Man 2 had a set villain who created a situation that needed to be resolved, but the core narrative objective was simply for the main character to step up to the post in anticipation of The Avengers. Even the villain’s plot only served to create the necessary tension and drama needed to make The Avengers possible. Predestination, then, serves as the motivating factor for these films, and even the Avengers could suffer as a result. When the audience feels that a narrative has been constructed with too much presumption, too much artifice, they become alienated because the fabrication becomes just too obvious to ignore. Immersion is killed, and ultimately the deeper enjoyment of the experience is cut.
When a movie takes many elements and ties them together in an organic and unexpected way, it can feel fulfilling and fresh. There is an unfortunate trend in Hollywood now, though, that seems to dictate that sequels are a forgone conclusion. They have a number in mind, and every film before that number only lives to serve that end. The Pirates movies suffered from this, as the entire second film was nothing but a run-up to the third. Such is the unhappy place of an assumed franchise’s younger siblings.
Filmic fratricide. I used that term to describe what happened to Thor in my review of that film. So long as commercialism runs the world of film rather than actual artistic desire and storytelling passion, this issue will continue to plague what should otherwise be great films. The need to make it to the end of the franchise will make stand alone narratives a thing of the past. With the release of Captain America in less than two months, we will see whether this issue is just a passing obstacle, or a full-blown plague. Though with the subtitle of “The First Avenger,” I don’t hold out much hope.