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How The Avengers Movie is like a Musical

Like a lot of people, last weekend I went to see The Avengers movie (and if you haven’t, don’t worry, I’m not going to spoil any surprises here.) Anyway, I saw the movie and had a revelatory moment while watching it. Before the movie, I always thought that I was part of this big community of adults who all enjoy reading the same superhero comic books. I had assumed that all of us were basically in the same boat, enjoying the same things about them. In fact, it never really occurred to me to question what it was that I was enjoying in contrast to what other adults got out of it.

Because movies are completely different from comic books, something became very clear to me in The Avengers movie; there is a hell of a lot of fighting in superhero comic books. Yes, this is obvious, but when we read comic books, we read them at our own pace, with our own area of focus. There were parts which I focused on and paid more attention to and those parts weren’t the fight scenes. I didn’t even notice what I was doing, but I wasn’t spending as much time reading the fight scenes as I was reading the story. When reading an Avengers comic book, I was concentrating on the messed up marriages, mental breakdowns, confusion, fear, tragedy, loss, and the joy… all sorts of things, but I was not focusing on the battles. It isn’t that I don’t like a bit of action, violence is part and parcel of all superhero comic books I think, but I just don’t spend a lot of time reading those parts. I unconsciously sped up and The Avengers movie revealed to me that this isn’t how most other fans of the book read it.

When I first came out of the movie, the amount of time spent on the fighting and the action (while beautifully done), left me confused about why more time and energy wasn’t spent on the dialogue. And more importantly, why no one else was bothered by this, (because I can tell you that everyone I know has absolutely loved the movie without qualification.) As we left, I asked my friend Whitney about it and she laughed at my consternation, pointing out that “It isn’t that you don’t like the movie, it’s just that you expected a different movie.” and she’s right. As soon as she said that, things began to gradually slip into place and I figured out that I have been reading The Avengers with a different focus which (until now) I had no way of knowing.

Funnily enough, as I examine this, I realize that the way I feel about this kind of movie is similar to how I feel about musicals. I like musicals okay, but I don’t love the singing. It sounds impossible, but actually, once I accepted that fact, I was able to just not pay as much attention when people started the musical numbers. I can get into watching classic films like Singing in the Rain, because I don’t focus on those bits of the film. Similarly, once I understood that about The Avengers, I went back to see it a couple of days later, this time being careful to pay more attention to the dialogue and character development parts and less attention to the action, and it did work, I liked it more. Realistically, I have to admit that predominantly CGI action movies aren’t really my favorite kind of movie, but at least now I can see how well this related to someone else’s interpretation of The Avengers.

One day, I would still like to see a superhero movie that unashamedly targets a different audience, with more weight and importance given to the intimate, complex, human interactions of a superhero team dynamic. Maybe Game of Thrones is this kind of thing, (although I’m not sure if it fits exactly in the superhero genre), it definitely strikes a perfect balance between drama, suspense, action, and effects. Whedon begins to touch on it quite nicely and I could really go for a lot more of that talking thing the team just starts to do. I often find that non-comic book readers are most surprised and excited by the ways that superhero team dynamics can offer an entertaining metaphor to look at life through. We all have to work with people who we may not always see eye-to-eye with, but if we had to save the world (all the time) we’d find a way to make it work, just like The Avengers always do. Thankfully, no matter how awkward the office politics we have to deal with, most of us aren’t depending on our coworkers to help us save the world.

20 Comments

For all my love of superhero movies, action scenes are not the thing I enjoy most. I have a tendency to zone out during car chases and massive gunfights in your standard action movie. But actually, my reaction to The Avengers was almost the opposite of yours, Sonia. I was surprised by how much of the movie was spent with the heroes just waiting around for something to happen. I think part of that was just that while the helicarrier is a cool thing, its interior isn’t the most dynamic setting, so the squabbling scenes in which the heroes were neither leaping into action nor discernibly doing anything to solve the central puzzle (except Natasha, who seemed to be the only one getting anything done) seemed a bit slow to me. In a way I appreciated it, though, because it helped us get to know the characters a little more than we might have otherwise in an action movie with so darn many of them. That’s not to say that we got to know them well, but it made it seem a little more well rounded than just your standard big dumb action flick.

Kevin Madison

May 9, 2012 at 10:44 am

Very interesting read Sonia. I think you’ve helped me put my finger on why I wasn’t as thrilled with the film as my non-comic reading friends were. I guess I was expecting a little more “talky talky” and not quite as much “fighty fighty”.

I was finally able to watch The Avengers this past Monday, and yes it was a fun movie. Do I believe it’s the best superhero movie ever, no. After the movie my major qualm was with the massive action. I also wanted more conversations between characters, and maybe a love triangle thrown in for good measure. But do not take my opinion for golden rule, the movie was great, the interactions between characters was flawless, but I wish there was more of that interaction brought to the forefront. As an avid comic book fan and reader of modern literature, I believe the movie lacked in exposition. The beginning was not a drawing factor for me. The climax and resolution tied all loose ends, as well as the first extra clip. The movie could have been better, but it was made as a fail-safe plan, and it was intended it to be. As a beginning film to join and start the franchise, the creators knowingly made it average so they could out-do themselves; as a singular movie it was balanced and as entertaining as a mainstream commercial movie could be; and finally as an ambitious undertaking of making the first cross-over movie, the movie, the actors and actresses, the producer, and the director have done something no other film maker has done yet, and I think they should be commended for that.

This is a ridiculous conversation. This movie was exactly how I think this kind of movie should be. You are an idiot

James has distilled everything that i want to say to everyone i meet.

Thanks James!

PS. James is an idiot.

Very good article. I agree, I enjoyed The Avengers as well, and while the Whedon-banter was very well written and acted, I was hoping for more depth overall. Sonia, what’s your take on Nolan’s Dark Knight franchise?

Well argued, James. Since this movie is what you thought it should be, anybody else who thinks differently must be an idiot. Unassailable logic.

After watching The Avengers, I took another look at Millar’s The Ultimates. Millar is generally derided for making stupid blockbuster-type comics, so it was a bit jarring to see just how much more plot, characterization and gravitas there was in The Ultimates compared to The Avengers, which was mostly pure action and banter. Not that The Avengers wasn’t fun, and a lot better than it could have been, but in many ways it was less sophisticated than the best Avengers comics.

Very interesting take on this especially comparing fight scenes with the song/dance routines. I prefer the latter, most of the time, anyway.

I’m glad to read that you went back to view the movie with new insight. It can be very helpful. Sort of the way I felt after watching The Shining many years ago — once I was clued in that it was not a faithful treatment of the novel, it made a lot more sense to me.

George: I loved them.

Tony V: You’ve got to watch this: http://youtu.be/nMEq6IjgR04 It’s wild.

Haven’t seen Avengers, but that’s a comparison I have made before, there are films where action scenes serve a function similar as the song-and-dance numbers in musicals. And if it is a good film, the action scenes are not superfluous but are replacing dialogue and have a dramatic function in the film, just like good musical numbers, as well as doing it in visually pleasing manner.

Me, I like films which dare to look bigger than life and employ spectacular choreography and cinematography to move the drama. Doesn’t really matter if that involves dancing and singing, beating the crap out of the other guy or both (lately I have noticed I should really watch more wuxia films, they are good at this sort of thing and sometimes even go for that “both” option).

sandwich eater

May 9, 2012 at 3:10 pm

I love fight scenes. I do like the drama, but if something was all character conflict and drama then I’d get bored. Superhero comics strike a good mix of action and soap opera. The thing is that Hollywood is not very good at fight scenes compared to Asian cinema, so I’m not surprised that you tune them out. As great as the Nolan Batman movies are, they have yet to give us a good fight scene.

And, then you have musicals like “West Side Story”, where the song & dance routines ARE Fight scenes….

See Sonia, to me this Avengers version felt more like the Busiek type team than either Millar’s Ultimates or Bendis’ current team, where the action and tension were cut by moments of humor and emotion.

If you just came into Avengers with Bendis and his speak… or preferred the more “adult action” Ultimates version, I can see how you might a bit disappointed….

…but to me, the movie was almost a perfect balance of humor and action without being campy…. (outside of the Independence Day Deus Ex Machina Ending that is..)

The main thing is that 99% of comic fans that went in got some to a lot moments of fun and enjoyment. Hopefully, this is a great building block onto even better comic movies in the future…

Thank you, Sonia. At last somebody shares my opinion.

We all have our own perspective on the film. For me, what I enjoyed most was the fighting between the heroes. You see, back before I could even read, I remember my Dad buying me a couple of comic books at a local convenience store. I loved the fight scenes. By the time I established who my favorite hero was I naturally wanted to brag about how he was stronger than my friend’s favorite hero. Whedon nailed it. Thor fought Iron man as well as the Hulk. Neither fight had a true champion. Thus fans can always have something to argue about. Sure, my boy Thor (there it is, fav hero) got tossed around a bit by the Hulk. But when he nailed that upper cut with Mjolnir I haveta say, best scene in the film. The Avengers had a good mix of action, humour and drama. Is it better than the Dark Knight? No. Is it the purest adaptation of a comic to film? In my opinion yes. It achieved for me what was intended. It entertained me. I’m 41 yrs old and left the theater talking about super heroes like I
was eight. It took me back to a place in time when car notes, rent and groceries were for grown ups. I can’t imagine the film being any better and I cannot wait to see what’s in store for the sequel.

I dont think some of you see the bigger picture here. Alot of the character build was already started in the single films they all came from. The biggest grin and amazement from me is how well Whedon mixed sooooo many plplayers, built what he could of each individual equally, added the tension that each superhero had being all alpha males, added the banter and jokes, pulled off amazing battle scenes, and in my opinion made the greatest super hero movie I have ever watched. Its just an amazing movie, and he fit all of that in 2 hours and 25 min. I couldnt have asked for anything more…Its the best super hero movie ever…and this is coming from a HUGE Dark Knight fan. After seeing the Avengers, in my opinion it made the Dark Knight look less comic book super hero, and just more like Nolens Batman being more crime drama, than super hero.

I was thinking that some of the non-action scenes went on a bit long. The middle of the movie milks the melodrama pretty freaking hard. But then there was the end which was action action action. It’s hard to ask more from a team superhero movie.

I very much agree about musicals, though. I do my best to zone out while people are singing so that I can get through to the acting. Rarely do songs from musicals really make me pay attention. This is why I tend to avoid them.

I really like your analogy to musicals, because I realise that I watch them in similar ways. Being the youngest in my family I ended up watching what my sisters were watching – musicals, and the ones I loved the most were the ones with great dance scenes. I guess I really liked the athleticism and grace. It carried over to wuxia films in the choreographed, almost elegant, fight scenes. And now to superhero movies.

Nice insight Sonia!

I think the truth of it all, is that a big Hollywood movie.. just ins’t the place for compelling comicbook stories.

Television is much more suited for the week to week experience that keeps us coming back in the same way comics do, and they have the ability to build relationships with characters over a long period of time without losing the audience. ‘Heroes,’ made a valiant effort at this, and while it fell apart post-writers strike, it was an exciting experiment seeing a comic-like narrative across years of episodes.

I’ve just accepted that the Film Industry isn’t looking for this kind of relationship to their audience.. and then a show like Walking dead comes along and puts everything into perspective. It can be done! It can be great! It just can’t be done great on the big screen. Too much money involved, Too many big name actors, and not enough time to tell the tale.

~N

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