Sunday, May 6, 2012

The Avengers and the Writer's Curse

I spent large chunks of "The Avengers" geeking out over scenes I've waited my whole life to see on the big screen. A partial list (including mild spoilers): The SHIELD Heli-carrier, Thor and Hulk going toe-to-toe, Hawkeye using his grappling-hook arrows, and, of course, the Black Widow constantly kicking all kinds of ass.

I also spent large chunks of the movie admiring Joss Whedon's abilities as a screenwriter -- including the way he managed to (1) include the old Marvel trope of heroes constantly getting into fights with each other while (2) avoiding the film super-hero trope of people being needlessly stupid to advance the plot. The characters sometimes react (or over-react) impulsively based on their emotions, but whenever they're given time to think, they use their brains effectively. The dialogue was razor sharp in virtually every scene, and also included moments of genuine emotion and character development that came across as fresh and new, in spite of the fact that these characters have appeared in thousands of comic-book issues over the last 50 years. Whedon understands the fundamental pathos of Bruce Banner, the absolute conviction of Steve Rogers, the constant tension between Tony Stark's self-absorption, personal drive, and sense of conscience. He also gets the fact that (another spoiler) Natasha Romanov is such a good spy that she can allow herself to be manipulated in a way that manipulates the person who is manipulating her. And he knows that the relationship between Loki and Thor is an archetype of familial love too strong to be broken regardless of the depths of betrayal to which one of the brothers might sink.

But here is where the writer's curse arrives for me. What Joss Whedon understands about Hawkeye is ... that Hawkeye can shoot arrows really well.

You know, it's not every super-hero movie that manages to present a compelling version of even a single super-hero. In "The Avengers," Joss Whedon pulls off five out of six -- or six out of seven if you count Nick Fury. Or maybe even 9 out of 10 if you count various SHIELD agents and Pepper Potts.

But I still end up stuck on the fact that I wasn't satisfied with Hawkeye.

And what is it that dissatisfies me?

Hawkeye didn't get the chance to be The Hero.

The fact of the matter is, for me, Hawkeye IS the Avengers. In the stretch of the comic that I read from the late '70s into the '80s, Hawkeye was pretty much the only Avenger who stayed in the roster the whole time. At various points, he was the leader of the team, if only because his dogged insistence on sticking to the group gave him seniority. Here was a guy who really was just a guy. No super-soldier serum, no suit of invincible armor, no magical hammer, no gamma-ray-induced strength. He had a few gizmo arrows, his brains, a whole lot of skill, and an absolute, never-quit determination.

Hawkeye was the ultimate Avenger.

So what happens to him in this movie? (FYI: here come the biggest spoilers of the post.) He gets zapped into being Loki's puppet for most of the film, and then in the final action he gets to play about the least important role of any team member. He's not unimportant -- he just doesn't get to shine as brightly as most of the others.

And that's a shame, because if he'd been given a chance to redeem himself from Loki's puppeteering, the climax of the film could have had a lot more emotional resonance.

Imagine if, instead of Hulk being the one to take Loki down, Hawkeye appears on the balcony of Stark Tower, an arrow pointed straight at Loki's heart. Loki just laughs and says, "We've already seen how pitifully inadequate your little arrows are against me." He sends a bolt of energy to blast Hawkeye -- but it goes right through the archer, revealing him to be a hologram projected by a gizmo arrow lodged in the balcony railing. At the same moment, the real Hawkeye shoots Loki from behind, badly injuring him and making him drop his scepter. Now the Hulk can show up and prevent Loki from retrieving the scepter, and with Loki out of the way, Hawkeye (not the Black Widow) can be the one to close the portal. For good measure, you could have the energy shield around the Tesseract send nasty tendrils of energy up Hawkeye's arms while he's shutting it down, giving us a very clear understanding of how much grit it takes to pull the action off.

That ending redeems Hawkeye and also gives Loki an ironic comeuppance for his earlier bragging about always being able to trick Thor with illusions. It does require you to find something else for the Black Widow to do during the finale, but come on. She's the Black Widow, and she's already run away with the movie at several points earlier on, so that shouldn't be too big a deal.

Because I'm a writer, I can't help but see these things and think about them and then be frustrated at the fact that the actual screenwriter didn't think of them. It's all the more frustrating because I think of Joss Whedon as a much better writer than I am, and if I could come up with this stuff, why couldn't he?

The writer's curse.

Even so, "The Avengers" was a pretty damn fine film. Go see it, if you haven't already!


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  2. I would venture that he's not a better writer than you; maybe he has just been lucky to be surrounded by a lot of good people like you that have given him good feedback and support during the highlights of his career.

    I like Joss, don't get me wrong. It's just that things aren't always what they appear in a business where illusion is the name of the game.

  3. An interesting psychological point: When I wrote, "I think of Joss Whedon as a much better writer than I am," I chose those words deliberately. For some reason, they rang true to me, while the alternate wording that I considered, "I think that Joss Whedon is a much better writer than I am," didn't quite come across as true. Why the one felt genuine while the other felt forced, I don't know, but there you have it.