The Avengers (2012) – The 6th Marvel Cinematic Universe Film – Directed by Joss Whedon – Starring Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, Clark Gregg, Cobie Smulders, Stellan Skarsgård, Gwyneth Paltrow, Paul Bettany, Alexis Denisof, Stan Lee, Powers Boothe, Lou Ferrigno, and Harry Dean Stanton.
Welcome to the sixth character-specific reaction to Joss Whedon’s THE AVENGERS. I’ve already written a 4,200+ word review of the film, but that wasn’t nearly enough to cover everything I wanted to talk about, so I’m going to write character-specific reactions to delve a bit deeper into the film. You can find all of the relevant AVENGERS links at the bottom of this post.
Let me be clear about what’s coming: SPOILERS. Lots and lots of SPOILERS. Read ahead only if you’re cool with that. If you haven’t seen the movie and don’t want things ruined, come on back when you do.
Also, please note that these reactions are evolving as we go. If you see some line I got wrong or a detail I overlooked, by all means let me know. I’ve seen the movie twice, but it’s a long movie and the audience reacts wildly in parts, so some things get lost or forgotten or misinterpreted. And I’m sure some of the quotes are wrong, but I will correct the mistakes as I become aware of them. This Cap reaction clocks in at over 4,700 words for a first draft and I still haven’t said absolutely everything I want to say, so don’t be surprised if this reaction grows a bit in the coming days.
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“The uniform? Aren’t the stars and stripes a little old fashioned?”
“Everything that’s happening, the things that are about to come to light, people might just need a little old fashioned.”
Chris Evans has now risen to the occasion twice. While not dissatisfied, I was not completely sold on the decision to hire him as Captain America before THE FIRST AVENGER, because he’s a bit limited as an actor, but he turned out to be a perfect choice for the idealistic Steve Rogers. He gave Steve and Cap a kind of obstinate earnestness, and in the context of a throwback war-slash-superhero film, it worked really well.
Coming into AVENGERS, however, I was still a bit concerned about how Evans would stand up to Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark. To be blunt, I thought Downey would bury him through the sheer power of his personality, and that we’d end up with a lopsided Avengers roster where it wasn’t a Big Two, let alone a Big Three, but Iron Man and his Five Sidekicks. I thought they needed an older actor than Evans, or at least someone with a little more gravitas to their screen presence, but I was wrong. Downey is still the most charismatic actor in AVENGERS, but Evans’ obstinate earnestness serves him well, and he does an excellent job of transferring Captain America into the modern age simply by refusing to change who he is or what he stands for.
Co-writer and director Joss Whedon and Evans combine to make the “man out of time” angle work. What they don’t do – and thank all the gods for this – is go the whole, “What?!?!?! You can get music out of your phone? And you can carry your phone with you? But where’s the rotary dial?” angle, because that’s played out and stupid. Instead, Whedon does two things to remind you that Rogers is a man out of time: he gives us a flashback sequence from THE FIRST AVENGER to remind us he was in the middle of World War II just a few days ago, and he subtly coats Rogers with slightly anachronistic air.
Whedon doesn’t have Steve crank up his old phonograph or wonder what happened to Benny Goodman, either, but rather, he makes a consistent point to have Steve look “old fashioned,” and he builds this anachronistic vibe by contrasting Rogers to Tony Stark.
Stark is introduced in the film underwater, in his Iron Man armor, connecting up his high-tech arc reactor to make his brand new Stark Tower self-sufficient. He flies to the tower, lands, and goes through this awesome de-armor process, with machines pulling off pieces of the armor as Stark slowly walks into the main floor, where Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) waits for him with good news and happy smiles. Everything about the sequence enforces the idea that Stark is a man ahead of his time, but at peace in the bubble he’s created from the contemporary world. He stands on top of it.
In contrast, Captain America’s story also starts underwater. In his solo movie, he crashed into the Arctic, got frozen, then fished out and brought into our contemporary world. We only get a brief glimpse of Captain America all frozen-like, strapped to a table where scientists or doctors tell us they can’t believe he’s still alive, but it’s in the water where his story starts, as far as AVENGERS is concerned. It was Howard Stark’s search for Captain America that allowed him to find the Tesseract, and it’s Steve’s time in the drink that Stark focuses on when he wants to make a dig about him being a man out of time, referencing Steve’s time as a “Capsicle.”
Where Stark was in the water as a conqueror, then, Steve was in it as a prisoner.
Both Stark and Steve are men out of time, but where Star’s position as a man ahead of time gives him comfort, Steve’s position as a man behind it gives him unsteady footing. Compare the recruitment visits. Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) visits Stark at the top of his tower while Nick Fury visits Steve in a musty old boxing gym. The old fashioned gym provides a bit of the “old fashioned” for Steve, and it’s to Whedon and Evans’ credit that they don’t oversell this. There’s no, “Hey, Cap, you’re in a boxing gym because boxing gyms used to be popular in the 1940s, and even though you’ll get a better workout in the new SHIELD Helicarrier state-of-the-art facility, you feel more comfortable here.”
As I keep mentioning in these reactions, this is a very smart script, one that condenses all you need to know down to its purest essence and doesn’t feel the need to make every little thing obvious. But just because it’s not obvious doesn’t mean it’s not there. Everything is included for a reason, right down to Cap using battered old Everlast bags. SHIELD could certainly spring for some new heavy bags, but Steve feels more comfortable among older things, which just proves that SHIELD’s unseen shrinks were right, in their misguided way, to have the unfrozen Steve Rogers wake up in a 1940s-style room. They just should have let him come to that conclusion on his own.
Steve Rogers heads to SHIELD’s HQ in a jet with Agent Phil Coulson, who reveals himself to be a huge Captain America fan (which you can read about on the other end of this link in the AGENT COULSON Reaction. Steve is a bit unnerved and even a little confused by this, as he clearly doesn’t like or understand Coulson’s hero worship, even beyond Coulson’s awkward (and funny), “I watched you while you were sleeping” comment.
Probably because it’s funny, that’s the line that’s been getting the bulk of the attention from this scene, but it’s what comes next that has a greater importance to the film. Coulson mentions that Cap’s got a new uniform and that they’ve made improvements, sheepishly adding that he had some input into the redesign. Steve wonders, “Aren’t the stars and stripes a little old fashioned?” Coulson assures him he thinks not: “Everything that’s happening, the things that are about to come to light, people might just need a little old fashioned.”
It’s an important idea because Captain America’s costume does make him look out of place. Hawkeye and Black Widow’s (Jeremy Renner and Scarlett Johansson) costume get the eternally cool black look, Iron Man is cutting edge tech coolness, and Thor’s traditional, Asgardian garb somehow seems more in tune with the contemporary world than does Cap’s classic star-spangled number. (This might be because it jibes better with the Chitauri and Loki.) Honestly, Cap is the only Avenger who looks like an old fashioned, traditional superhero, and this, too, marks his look as anachronistic.
I would really have preferred to see his final costume from THE FIRST AVENGER back.
The World War II costume felt more real, and the new costume, though designed to make Cap look more contemporary, actually makes him look more anachronistic to me, as if by trying to make the costume look modern it simply reinforces the idea that “superheroes” are a relic of past. Maybe that was the idea, I don’t know. It’s a really nice costume to look at, but I’m not sold on it the way I was with the WWII outfit.
I’ve long hated, too, the hoops superhero films jump through to get a hero’s mask to come off for the big, important, final fight scene. I don’t know if it’s actor’s ego, or Hollywood misunderstanding of the genre, but I don’t know too many comic books fans who say things like, “Yeah, that final battle was really enhanced by having Batman’s mask get torn off, because I really paid my money to see Michael Keaton fight the Penguin, not Batman.” And yet, here, I think Cap’s costume works better without a mask, in large part because the mask just looks too big, too clunky, too awkward, too rubbery. I’m all for future movies just leaving the mask out of the films entirely, if they can’t get a cleaner design. It’s not like we really need to worry about secret identities in the Marvel Cinematic Universe because they don’t really serve a point here, do they? There’s no real effort to make Steve Rogers be a separate person from Captain America.
Steve arrives on the Helicarrier (which is in battleship mode) and meets Black Widow and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo). Like Widow before him, Cap assures Banner that he’s only interested in what Banner can do, and not in the Hulk. There’s a really nice scene between Banner and Steve, where Bruce tries to some empathy for the man out of time by offering that all of this must be really confusing to the guy from the ’40s. Steve corrects Banner, though, as he looks around at all the military hardware, and lets him know that this actually feels familiar to him. It’s a nice idea; however anachronistic Steve Rogers and Captain America are, there’s still wars to be fought and while the actors, the theater, and the equipment has changed, the sentiment is still the same.
Shortly after the battleship turns into the Helicarrier, they locate Loki in Stuttgart, and Cap and Widow are off to bring him in.
The scene in Stuttgart reveals the strongest aspects of Chris Evans’ performance; unlike Downey, who provides the hip, fast-talking, pop-reference dropping, coolness of AVENGERS, Evans provides the measured foundation of the film. When I watched AVENGERS the first time, I ended up talking about a lot of other stuff before I got to the Captain America parts of the film, but Cap doesn’t have a lot of great, catchy lines like Stark has, and while he doesn’t have a lot of great, flashy action scenes like the Hulk has, he does have a lot of really great smaller lines and quieter moments that really stood out the second time around. Films need balance and Evans and Downey provide it; for all that I was concerned that Evans couldn’t hang with Downey, the truth of AVENGERS is that he more than holds his own, but he does it on his own terms, by staying true to the character and not trying to outshine the film’s brightest light.
We see this right away in Stuttgart. Loki is in town doing devilish things (getting the brainwashed Clint Barton the “distraction and eyeball” he needs to steal some iridium for Erik Selvig), and he steps outside to force everyone in the crowd to kneel before him. One old man rises to his feet and tells Loki he will not kneel to a man like him.
“There are no men like me,” Loki grins.
“There are always men like you,” the old man says defiantly.
Loki chuckles and gets ready to blast the man to atoms when Cap shows up at the last second for a rescue. (This “appears out of nowhere from the edge of the screen” technique is used by Whedon quite frequently in the film.) Cap and Loki have a bit of a verbal sparring session, with Cap referencing his time in Germany in World War II and Loki calling Cap a “man out of time,” to which Cap replies that Loki is the one out of time. Compared to the much better verbal battles between Loki and Stark later in the film, and the more emotional Loki v. Thor confrontations, the singularly great interrogation between the Widow and a vicious Loki, and the hilarious showdown between Loki and the Hulk, this scene in Stuttgart falls way short in terms of its memorability.
Let’s not overlook it, though. It’s still a great scene, but not because of what Cap says (the old German dude’s line is not only better than anything Cap says, but it’s perhaps the single best line in the film), but rather what it reveals about Cap. Sure, he’s willing to stand toe-to-toe with a powerhouse like Loki and take a beating (the Widow even remarks at one point that Cap’s fighting technique is “all over the place”), but when Iron Man arrives and Loki surrenders, Cap’s strategic mind kicks in and he realizes that Loki surrendered far too easily.
That this scene takes place in Stuttgart, Germany is, of course, not coincidental, and it shows that Cap might be a man out of time, but he’s not still living in the past. (It shouldn’t be overlooked, either, that Norse mythology was very popular among some Germanic Pagans in the early days of the Nazi party.) Cap makes mention of “the last time I was in Germany,” which in actual story time was, what, a few days ago? A week? Captain America has the ability to focus on the threat at hand and leave the geopolitical discussions to others. He might be cloaked in the imagery of the United States, but he’s less the embodiment of the nation as he is the protector of innocents.
Back on board the SHIELD jet, we begin to see Whedon explore the Rogers/Stark relationship. On the ground, Cap had expressed surprise that Fury had called Iron Man in, too, and Stark lets Steve know that he’d better get used to that because, “there’s a lot Fury doesn’t tell you.” In the jet, Stark is happy to have Loki in custody and his mind is already on to the next stage, while Steve can’t get past how easy it was to capture Loki. The master strategist can smell the trap that Loki is setting but before he can let that thought fully develop, bad weather kicks up.
“Afraid of a little lightning?” he asks Loki when he sees the Asgardian is looking nervously out the window.
“I’m not overly fond of what follows,” Loki admits, and we cut outside to see Thor land on top of the jet, then enter the back door when Stark opens it to check out the problem. With little thought for the people in the jet, Thor grabs Loki and takes off, leaving Stark, Cap, and Widow behind. Tony immediately wants to take off after them, but Cap insists, “Tony, we need a plan of attack!”
“I have a plan … attack!” Tony says just before jumping into the stormy night.
Cap’s response is to grab a parachute, and when Widow tells him he should sit this round out because they’re gods, Cap replies, “There’s only one God, ma’am, and I’m pretty sure He doesn’t look like that.”
There’s two character traits revealed here that I really admire. The first is that Cap has no qualms about jumping into that stormy night after them. He knows Loki is powerful, he can clearly see that Thor is powerful, and he knows Iron Man is best equipped to handle this situation purely from a power standpoint, but he’s not willing to trust Stark to deliver the outcome that he wants. The second trait is that Cap believes in God. It’s such a small thing, but a powerful admission, too. During Cap’s history in the comics there has, on occasion, been a desire for certain writers and editors to keep Cap neutral in order to appeal to every single American. The thinking is that because Cap is the symbol of America, he needs to represent every American. Or, for other writers, that religion is just something that shouldn’t be brought into the world of superheroes in any kind of significant manner.
I’m not a religious person myself (I consider myself a agnostically spiritual), but I have no problem with anyone expressing their faith, and I like that Whedon and Marvel Studios put this line into the movie. Spoken where it is in the film, Cap’s “there’s only one God” line adds to his anachronistic aura, given that everyone else in the film seems perfectly comfortable referring to Thor and Loki as “demi-gods.” (And maybe “aliens.”)
Thor and Iron Man’s exits from the SHIELD jet are much more visually cool than Cap’s, but I really love Cap’s jump from the ship. There’s just something so … so … so Captain America about that jump out of a jet and into a storm, landing site both unseen and unknown. It’s just such a great moment for the character.
On the ground, Cap arrives after Iron Man and Thor have knocked each other around a forest (and I’ll cover their battle more in their individual reactions). He asks them if they’re finished, then challenges Thor to “put the hammer down” as a sign of good faith if he’s really here as a friendly instead of a hostile. Thor decides to put the hammer down right onto Cap’s shield and the subsequent explosion knocks the Big 3 to the ground and calms their emotions. In the wake of the explosion, we get the money shot of the Big 3 standing together in the forest, and this is the first moment that all of Fury’s planning starts moving beyond his control. It’s the moment the Avengers Initiative takes its first self-motivated baby steps to become the Avengers.
Back aboard the Helicarrier, Steve and Tony continue to get on each other’s nerves. Steve doesn’t like that Tony is spying on SHIELD and Tony doesn’t like that Cap is naive about what Fury is capable of doing. Curiously, it’s Bruce Banner who plays the third wheel in these scenes instead of Thor, but with Banner serving as intermediary, Steve becomes convinced that Tony’s suspicions are worth investigating. Breaking into a SHIELD storage area, Steve discovers that SHIELD has Hydra-looking weapons, which means that Fury and SHIELD were planning to weaponize the Tesseract. When everything reaches a boil on board the ship, Steve challenges Tony by asking, “Taking away the suit and what are you?”
“Billionaire genius playboy philanthropist,” Stark replies.
“I know men without a tenth of that that are more than you,” Steve shoots back.
The core issue between them is how they conduct themselves. Steve is irritated that Tony always looks for a way out instead of making the sacrifice while Tony sees Cap as a loyalist soldier. Tony is now interested in pushing his company to create clean energy instead of military weapons, so he sees Cap as a piece of his own past (he even says to Banner at one point, “This is the guy my father would never shut up about?”), and he recoils at that thought.
What’s really interesting to me is that during the scene where emotions begin to boil over (thanks, in part, to Loki’s influence), it’s Steve who’s itching for the fight with Tony more than the other way around. “Put on the suit and let’s go a few rounds,” he says at one point, and then repeats the first part. “Put on the suit,” he challenges, getting in Tony’s face. It’s at that moment that Hawkeye’s assault hits the Helicarrier and Steve and Tony instantly put aside their differences to team up. Cap repeats himself yet again, except this time when he says, “Put on the suit,” it’s not to challenge Tony but to acknowledge they need Iron Man’s help. The two of them spend the bulk of the assault working together to get one of the Helicarrier’s big engines up and running again.
Critically, when the battle is over, Coulson has died, and Loki has escaped, it’s only Steve and Tony left to talk with Fury. Thor and Hulk have been jettisoned and Widow is with Hawkeye in the infirmary, so it’s Tony and Steve that are present when Fury drops Coulson’s now blood-soaked Captain America trading cards on the table, and it’s Steve and Tony who figure out what Loki is up to, and Steve and Tony who decide to steal a jet to go after Loki on their own.
Before they go, however, comes one of my favorite scenes in the movie. Clint and Tasha are in the infirmary having a moment when Cap comes in. “Can you fly a jet?” he asks Tasha.
“I can,” says Clint, and all it takes for Cap to agree to let Hawkeye come with them is a single nod from Tasha. I just flat-out love this moment. Cap has zero history with Hawkeye, but Tasha has already earned his respect, so even though Clint was a Loki drone who led the assault that caused all the damage to the Helicarrier, all Tasha has to do is nod her approval of him for Cap to agree to let him come, too. “Do you have a suit?” he asks Clint, who affirms that he does. “Then suit up,” Cap says.
“Just don’t,” Cap says, and the tech doesn’t, allowing them to steal the jet and get to the big battle scene with the Chitauri.
What’s noteworthy about this massive battle sequence is that Cap’s role is largely relegated to saving all the humans caught in the middle of the Chitauri vs. Avengers epicness. Evans is great in the battle scenes, and Cap is unofficially sanctioned as the team leader by Stark, but moments that the comics would probably give to Captain America are given to others in the film. For instance, it’s Natasha that collects Loki’s staff that will allow them to shut down the interstellar doorway that’s opened up over Manhattan, and it’s Iron Man that gets to play the ultimate hero and ride the nuclear missile up through the big opening in the sky and aim it towards the Chitauri mothership.
Both decisions interest me. I’m not really sure why Tasha got to be the one to jump up, steal a Chitauri sky-cycle, and then shut the machine down instead of Cap, and while Iron Man riding the rocket makes narrative sense (Steve had chided him earlier about how sometimes there isn’t a way out), it also would have also made narrative sense for Cap to make that ride. One, it’s the ultimate sacrifice, and two, it would have been eerily similar to the end of THE FIRST AVENGER. It would have been a really strong character moment if the guy who’s last ride ended up with him frozen in ice for 70 years did not hesitate to do it again. For whatever reason, Whedon went the Iron Man route, which is a moment that defines Tony Stark, instead of the Captain America moment which would have been more of an Avengers-defining moment because of the differences in their personalities.
Now, I’m not complaining about the decision. I think it makes a lot of sense and it’s a great scene. It also, in its way, serves as an Avengers-defining moment, but based on how this film’s narrative played out, the emphasis here is more revelation than inspiration. In the comics, I think this moment would have gone to Cap – the quintessential Avenger making the quintessential sacrifice – but perhaps because of Iron Man’s cinematic popularity, the moment is Stark’s. So, again, I’m not complaining about it, I’m simply interested in how the moment plays.
Throughout AVENGERS, though, there is a bit of “prove it, flag man” in how people deal with Captain America. Coulson is a fan, obviously, and Fury is on Cap’s side, but there is a definite streak of people underestimating Cap in the film. Loki is dismissive of him, but Loki is dismissive of anyone not named Thor. Widow is clearly skeptical of his abilities during the sequence where Thor steals Loki from their custody, Thor drops the hammer on him, Stark is constantly needling him, and even the NYC cops don’t want to listen to him.
During the battle against the Chitauri, Cap orders two cops to rescue survivors and set up a perimeter. In the comics, of course, the cops would have immediately jumped to follow his orders, but here, one of the cop looks at Cap like he’s nuts and asks, “Why should we listen to you?” In response, Cap takes down several attacking Chitauri, which immediately causes the cops to jump into action and fulfill every single one of Cap’s orders.
I think was a smart move on Whedon’s part. If the world simply accepted and embraced the return of Captain America, it would have taken away something from Cap’s story arc. I really like that the film makes Cap a bit of an underdog, that it forces him to prove himself to nearly everyone, and that by the end, he’s earned their respect.
During the film’s signature shot (the 360-circle around the assembled Avengers in the middle of the Chitauri battle), Stark crowns Capt their leader. “Call it, Captain,” he says, and Cap instantly takes to his leadership role. If everyone had pulled a Coulson and walked on eggs around Cap, the narrative would have been weaker, but the way the film has progressed, this moment has a real weight to it in the narrative and a real celebratory quality to it for me. This is the moment this team finally recognized themselves as the Avengers and their roles in that group. This is the moment that egos were put aside for the greater good.
“All right, listen up,” Cap orders. “Until we can close that portal up there, we need containment. Barton, I want you on that roof, eyes on everything. Call out patterns and strays. Stark, you’ve got the perimeter. Anything gets more than three blocks out, you turn it back or you turn it to ash. Thor, you’ve gotta try and bottleneck that portal, slow them down. You’ve got the lightning – light the bastards up! You and me,” he says to Tasha, “we stay here on the ground, keep the fighting here. And Hulk … smash!”
What a moment. The team instantly responds and Cap’s plan proves successful at keeping the battle contained while they figure out how to win the day. Cap has a whole handful of great moments during the Chitauri conflict, including one brief, quiet exchange with Thor that clearly shows the respect the two men have gained for each other. In exchange for not getting either Widow or Iron Man’s big moments, Cap saves a group of trapped humans and as a consequence of that, seems to become the public face of the team, as a waitress he saves uses his rescue as an example to the press of the Avengers being a good thing.
Chris Evans turns in a fantastic acting performance in AVENGERS, but it’s not a flashy performance. Instead, he takes the role of Captain America to heart, delivering a largely understated, solid performance that succeeds because it delivers what the film needs. Like Captain America himself, Evans seems happy to let others take the spotlight, but is more than willing to step to the fore when he needs to take control. It’s the scenes with Downey that really win me over, though. Instead of being buried under all that charisma and star power, Evans holds his ground. It’s often said that Captain America is the heart of the Avengers, but that’s not really the role Whedon asks the character to play in the film. Instead of being the heart of the team, Chris Evans proves himself to be the backbone of an absolutely fantastic film.
THE AVENGERS REVIEW INDEX
THE AVENGERS: THE MOVIE REVIEW
THE AVENGERS: THE HAWKEYE REACTION
THE AVENGERS: THE AGENT COULSON REACTION
THE AVENGERS: THE BLACK WIDOW REACTION
THE AVENGERS: THE NICK FURY REACTION
THE AVENGERS: THE MARIA HILL REACTION
THE AVENGERS: THE CAPTAIN AMERICA REACTION
THE AVENGERS: THE CHITAURI/THANOS REACTION
THE AVENGERS: THE HULK REACTION
THE AVENGERS: THE THOR REACTION
THE AVENGERS: THE LOKI REACTION
THE AVENGERS: THE IRON MAN REACTION
THE MARVEL CINEMATIC UNIVERSE REVIEW INDEX