I got into an interesting conversation with a couple friends of mine about the successes and failures of Man of Steel. For those who don’t know, I’ve gone into a full 180 on that movie from previously loving it to now thinking that it’s one of worst movies of the summer and biggest disappointments of the whole year. We watched it again, and I brought up a bunch of points about drama and characterization, all of which in the film are tactless, half-baked, and utterly without commitment.
Which caused one of my friends to raise an interesting debatable point: So does The Avengers! It (according to my friend) is a similarly lazy story that just meanders its way into a giant all or nothing battle and that’s where all the fun was. It doesn’t have character development, proper drama, or any of the things I was criticizing Man of Steel for not having. It’s just an explosive action blockbuster that you should turn your brain off to enjoy. Heck, they’re basically the same movie.
I didn’t respond to that, wishing to keep the focus on Man of Steel at the time, but that’s essentially why you’re getting this massive essay. Putting aside the smarter and wittier dialogue, the more varied action choreography, the Joss Whedon affectation, the intricate simplicity, the tone, and the less schizophrenic script, The Avengers is a completely different movie than Man of Steel (and a tremendously better one) because of its character functions and drama.
During the debate, I brought up some criterion for how to measure a movie’s success/failure at its attempts at making a character piece that effectively dramatizes. It’s called The Big Seven.
I read it in an essay written by Film Crit Hulk about Man of Steel itself. In what is easily one of the best critiques I’ve ever read (and one of the longest), Hulk uses this list to analyze the main character. The reason this essay is not about the former is because there’s nothing I can say about Man of Steel that Hulk hasn’t said already. I’m just going to use that specific talking point as a launching pad for my own. So without further ado, it goes like this.
1. What does the character want?
2. What does the character need?
3. How do #1 and #2 conflict within the character?
4. How do #1 and #2 conflict with the outside world?
5. How do #1 and #2 conflict with other characters?
6. How do conflicts #3, #4, and #5 change the character and what is the resolution?
7. How does that change and resolution in #6 affect others?
To be sure, not every movie needs to completely iron out an exact answer to every single one of these in order to be considered effective. It all depends on what a movie is trying to do. Some great characters have little inner conflict – straightforward and identifiable protagonists in a story against everyone else (Jack Bauer). Some characters have themselves as their own worst enemies (Will Hunting).
Not every character also needs a clear motivation either, and sometimes that’s precisely the point. Breaking Bad for example makes it perfectly clear exactly what Walter White needs. It’s what he wants, his real motivation and true underlying intent that become the bigger questions. With such a simple understanding of storytelling, the show created one of the most complex and sophisticated characters in the history of television and dramatized his conflict evolution – as well as the metamorphosis of those around him – perfectly.
Not every character needs some kind of transformation, but every story has something changing. So please understand that this list is not the Bible of good drama – merely a loose set of guidelines. Stories are about problem solving organically and one doesn’t automatically fall apart if it can’t hold itself up in the purview of that list.
Why then, you might ask, am I bothering to describe and use this list to critique The Avengers? The reason is, because in the majority of cases, it works. I’ll prove it. Take another movie from 2012 that was an instant year-favorite for almost everyone who saw it (including me): Django Unchained. Let’s test Django Freeman with the Big Seven.
What does he want? To find his wife, free her, and take her North. What does he need? Same thing. How do they conflict within him? They don’t. Django is pretty straightforward, but he is a character whose ambitions are immediately empathetic because the film has shown us by his actions, even if it’s to a minimal degree, that he deeply loves his wife. And his struggle is framed in the beginning in a way that makes him like the hero of a famous German fantasy tale.
How does Django’s interest conflict with the outside world? There’s an entire barbaric institution of slavery in his way and nearly every benefactor of that institution would extend no sympathy for his plight even when they have the power to help him. And his journey takes him to Mississippi, which is arguably the worst of them all. How does Django’s interest conflict with other characters? Dr. King Schultz first needs Django as his own slave for his bounty hunting and then to convince Django to hold off on his quest for a season so they can partner up. That might have been a conflict, had the two not struck up a friendship. With Calvin Candie and Steven, that conflict is the entire third and fourth act of the movie. Both of them have a vested interest in seeing that Django not be allowed to sneakily run away with one of their house slaves.
How do those conflicts change the character? Django becomes a bounty hunter and sharpens his pistol skills. He learns how to read, articulate himself, defend himself, and how to put on an act. The closer he gets to attaining what he wants, the angrier and more cunning he gets in the face every new obstacle. The resolution is that he eventually wins. And how does that resolution affect others? Do I even need to say it?
For all of its ostensible bloat and wordy stillness, Django Unchained dramatizes its narrative like no other movie Quentin Tarantino has ever made, which is why it, second only to Pulp Fiction, is his masterpiece. Nearly every word spoken by someone tells you something interesting and meaningful about that character. And their actions speak even louder. The difference between the overzealous & reckless Django who whips and shoots two of his former overseers to death on a stranger’s plantation and the polished & more mature Django who takes down Candyland all by himself at the end couldn’t be clearer.
Stories can survive plenty of shortcomings, but no film whose story is riding on the back of a character we’re supposed to connect with can survive that character being poorly constructed and lazily dramatized. That’s where Man of Steel fails and (as I will argue from here on out) where The Avengers succeeds.
Our story is simple: Loki arrives on Earth and steals the Tesseract from S.H.I.E.L.D. with the intention to use it to summon an alien army called the Chitauri that will help him take over all of Earth. To find and stop him, Nick Fury recruits Iron Man, Captain America, Bruce Banner, and later Thor.
The secret to the story of The Avengers is the fact that the main character isn’t any of the actual superheroes. It’s Nick Fury himself.
What does Nick Fury want? Stop Loki from being the boot to the world’s ant. What does Nick Fury need? He needs to keep that shady council off his back so he can do just that. How do they conflict? They don’t; okay moving on.
How do they conflict with the outside world? S.H.I.E.L.D. operates in the shadows mostly but it’s a fairly safe assumption that the council represents that outside world, because it’s a force somehow powerful enough to reverse a military decision Nick Fury makes and he’s clearly reporting to them like an employee. The Council wants Phase II to be implemented immediately but Nick Fury doesn’t think it’ll work and is adamant about needing a response team (hence the Avengers).
How do they conflict with other characters? Tony Stark isn’t a team player. Bruce Banner wants to be as far away from any global calamity as possible. Captain America will cooperate but he’s possibly in the wrong century and his old fashioned morality makes him a flight risk. Thor will cooperate, but Fury knows that the problematic nature of Thor’s very existence is the reason that Phase II exists in the first place, even if we don’t find that out till later.
And in general, when you get all of these “special individuals” together in one room, they will not see eye to eye very often. Which just so happens to play straight into Loki’s plan to mess with him.
How does Nick Fury change in the course of these conflicts? Okay, he doesn’t really. Nobody is surprised to see him flat-out lie to the Avengers about those Cap cards. How does that change affect others? Well…
This is pretty much the rest of the movie, nearly all of which, Fury takes a back seat. The Avengers operates a little differently. The story doesn’t progress beat by beat with fluid transitions that give the impression of time and rising action the way most do. It progresses through the supporting characters with the moments they have personally, interpersonally, and the moments where their resolve is tested by the actions of the villain (more on this later). If you were to judge the story strictly by its sequence of actual events, you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s basically just like Iron Man 2 all over again. It’s a long movie, but what the movie is doing with its screen time is building each character with every little moment slowly adding up to something bigger. Nick Fury brings the Avengers together so that they can steal the rest of the show. You might think that a lot of it is just comedy playing out, but just because you’re humored by something on screen doesn’t mean there isn’t something real happening right then and there.
For example, Iron Man is fidgeting around with everything and messing with people for the whole middle sequence, but his heart-to-heart with Bruce Banner along with their introductory thermonuclear techno babble is the beginning of an epic friendship between them. And despite being the main reason the Heli-Carrier didn’t fall, Stark can’t help but feel a bruising to his ego after Phil Coulson’s death, and he’s even more rattled upon learning that an odd connective personality quirk of valuing showmanship and panache is something he shares with the Loki…which that’s exactly what brings about his epiphany on Loki’s whereabouts and puts him first on the scene. It’s not the kind of character arc where Tony learns the value of teamwork over going solo. It’s the kind where Tony decides that his sacrifices are worth it and can contribute more than just his mechanical expertise.
Captain America’s antiquity is hilariously shown through his conceding to Fury on that $10 bet and his moment of excitation when he understood a reference from The Wizard of Oz. How does a man like that, especially one who quite belligerently stands up to Tony Stark and his ego, end up leading the entire team of superheroes, at least two of whom could trounce him in a fight? It’s because his character moments all amount to something stronger and wholesome, whether they be his solo investigation of Phase II or the time he uses his Vibranium shield to block Thor’s incoming swing (notice how it instantly earns him Thor’s respect despite it never being mentioned again). As Nick Fury says, wars are won by soldiers, and the very first thing we see from Cap is him unleashing his aggression and frustration on a heavyweight bag while flashing back to the war, instantly telling us nearly everything we need to know about who he is. Take note, Man of Steel – that’s how you use flashbacks to tell a story.
Bruce Banner appears as the anomaly. He’s there to help even if it’s the last place he wants to be, but a giant question looms over his being. How does he manage to stay so calm and measured? His conversation with Stark doesn’t reveal that, but it does serve to put his “other guy” in perspective to Stark’s armor. It’s a subtle similarity between them that fosters their chemistry. There’s just one difference that we learn: Banner attempted suicide and the other guy stopped him. As he takes an interest to S.H.I.E.L.D.’s shady dealings and as we find out about Loki’s manipulation specifically targeting him, nearly everyone starts panicking, but Banner acts like he’s just completely normal – a purposeful paradox since we know that he is in truth the most abnormal of them all. Despite him becoming noticeably uneasy as the conflicts of personality on the ship get more heated, he’s sure that all is well with himself and that the real time bomb is the team. Being in the situation he finds himself in was exactly what he was worried about – yet he is sure that everyone has nothing to fear…only for their fears to become realized once the ship takes a hit.
Talk about perfect dramatic characterization. What makes Banner compelling is that he’s so human. He’s always angry. He learned to live with it, and then he learned to use it. You can almost call it a metaphor for maturity in general.
I could talk about the others (like Phil Coulson finally coming into his own before death or Black Widow’s cleverly earnest deception), but there’s one more character whose function is critical to the entire movie: the bad guy.
What does Loki want? To rule Earth as a king. What does Loki need? To not be killed by the Chitauri.
How do they conflict? The aliens he’s pretending to command are playing with his head and he knows it. Yet he can’t do anything about it besides hope he wins. How do they conflict with the outside world? No one respects or wants him. He has to use force. How do they conflict with other characters?
Loki’s actions are all about trying to undo the Avengers before they can become the Avengers. He seeks to use his wits and even his sadistic charms to emotionally break his antagonists. He’s obsessed with power, but unaware of how little he actually has. Yet his impact is still felt in all of the characters he interacts with (which are all of them).
He mocks Captain America and thrashes him in a fight. He deliberately angers Thor and plays on his naive hopes of bringing his brother back to the good side. He uses fear against Natasha Romanov and calls her a mewling quim. He taunts Nick Fury. He turns Clint Barton and Erik Selvig. And he nearly does the same to Tony Stark. He doesn’t just raise the stakes for the overall conflict by being the bad guy with the mcguffin. He creates the very conflicts that dramatically build the characters we love. Without him, none of it works.
How do the conflicts change the character and what is the resolution? Okay no change for him, just that he has to surrender for real the second time and has a change of heart about that drink. How do the conflicts affect everyone else? The greatest superhero team in the entire Marvel Universe is created, with the promise of their return if they are needed. Boy is that a great payoff.
Still not convinced of The Avengers‘ effectiveness as a story with sincere success at characterization? I’ve got one more – the action.
Contrary to what you might think, the movie doesn’t actually do it mindlessly. Notice how sparing Whedon is with the cinematic handheld close-ups. He uses them briefly for two fights; Black Widow vs. Hawkeye, and Thor vs. Loki. Both times, they achieve their intimate effect. After Romanov informs of her relationship with Hawkeye, the fight they have is extremely personal for her, and thus also terrifying. Thor feels the pain of the entire film’s conflict more closely than anyone else because of him being forced to fight his brother. Watch how much fun he has fighting Iron Man and even the Hulk. But with Loki, it’s different – a closer and more hard-hitting fight where he bleeds from his wounds and wreathes in anger. Yet all of them do their action differently in other places. They get to branch out the same way all the others do.
The biggest difference between the action in The Avengers and the action in Man of Steel, is that the latter is an ongoing series of nonstop punching that gets less and less exciting as time passes. The former has…well this.
When it comes to the subject of action blockbusterdom, many people have a false idea of what they inherently are and how best to watch them. Turning your brain off – silencing that voice in your head screaming at you of how little sense anything makes so that you can enjoy the movie – is an inherently self-mutilating idea. And it’s one that makes no sense when you think about it. Why should you, a viewer, be forced to alter your mental state in order to enjoy a movie you’re already paying $x to see? Why shouldn’t you expect films to at least somewhat speak to your intellect? In other words, why can’t your brain have fun too? A movie should get you to enjoy it by being a good movie first. It’s not impossible to subconsciously veer away from your left-brained sensibilities while still keeping it functioning. If a movie is good on that level, you’ll have even more fun with it.
Yet the opposite is precisely so many demand of you, particularly if you’re a critic. The lack of a real character drama or poor execution thereof is immensely problematic in so many action movies. What’s ironic is, The Avengers does it so well, a lot of people probably didn’t even notice beyond their subconscious. Turning your brain off became easier without you even realizing it because it was dramatizing itself correctly so it could cut loose on all the explosive awesome. Crowds cheered when the team came together for that circular panorama, even though they had already seen that a thousand times in the trailers.
So many action blockbusters echo the faulty assumptions of moviegoers. They get lazy with their stories and their characters and their movie suffers for it. All play and no work makes for a dull action movie. Man of Steel had some of the most thrilling and best looking action sequences all year, but without a well-crafted character who is simple enough to be authentic yet complex enough to be real, it’s all for naught.
Towering above so many others as a grand exception to that troublesome trend, here stands The Avengers. It’s one of the best of its kind because it effectively dramatizes every single character. It doesn’t create a fighting team of cool looking superheroes. It creates a super heroic team of people we know and care for. To borrow more from Film Crit Hulk, it doesn’t assume empathy. It functions.
Man of Steel couldn’t even be bothered to do that with one. The Avengers did it with seven.
The Avengers: 9.6
Django Unchained: 9.7
Man of Steel: 5.5