Thinking about Superhero team ups and movies for no particular reason, here are my over long thoughts on Avengers Assemble. Unfortunately there's some background to get through first.
One of the classic superhero team up plots goes like this: One hero tracks a villain to the city of another hero. Learning that a terrifying masked apparition is beating people up, the second hero confronts them. They fight, then work out their differences and get together to defeat the villain. In shorthand it's known as Meet, Fight, Team-Up, for obvious reasons.
(The most common conflict is territorial with another hero coming to, say, Gotham City which Batman considers entirely his, but other disagreements are possible such as thinking Spider-man is a menace or not wanting anything to do with those dang mutant X-Men.)
This works because we get the fun of seeing the two heroes facing off (that's why we're here) coming to a grudging respect/friendship, and the even-more-fun of seeing them use their separate strategies and abilities to take down the villain.
Three Act Structure
The three act structure for stories works like this: In the first act we are introduced to our characters and situation. A change or problem occurs in the second act, forcing our characters to respond. In the third act they work out what they need to do and resolve things to the satisfaction of, if no one else, the audience. In brief, Introduction, Complication, Resolution.
As well as progressing the plot, most stories will also seek to change (or reveal) the characters as well. For example in Act One of Die Hard, John Mclane arrives in Los Angeles seeking to reconcile with his wife. In Act Two the building they are in is taken over by terrorists and Mclane must use his cop skills to survive. By Act Three he has transformed into a ruthless killing machine who does not spare anyone, even himself (or his feet) in order to defeat the bad guys.
There's a plot twist in there too.
Pre-Credits Action Sequence
Action films often open with an action sequence. (Notably Die Hard doesn't). It serves as part of the introduction; telling us that this film contains excitement and violence; we may be about to spend a bit of time explaining plot and presenting character, but don't worry, there will be some fighting and chasing to come. It's also like those silver age comic covers where something outrageous and wacky is there. Hey kids, we're going to spend some time (about four panels usually) setting the scene, but don't get bored. Lois Lane is totally going to punch a gorilla!
That's the end of the boring theory stuff.
I have no particular knowledge of how Avengers Assemble was made, so this has all been put together from watching the film and reading a few interviews. Still, here's some of the things the film does that I think must have been part of the plan from the start:
- Cram as many Character vs Character fights and confrontations in as possible.
- Give each of the main characters* an arc (either a change or a reveal), even (especially) the villain
- Give EVERY character a moment to shine (this is a particular Joss Whedon flourish)
- Mix this up a bit - have character beats in action sequences and reveal important plot points in talky character scenes
That last might be making a virtue of necessity as we've got a whole bunch of characters to (re-)introduce, give action and character scenes to and on top of that put a plot together.
* The main characters: The six Avengers, Nick Fury, and Loki (and arguably Coulson)
The Fights and Confrontations:
Loki vs Fury (more of a confrontation)
Maria Hill vs Hawkeye and Loki (and a bunch of mind-controlled SHIELD agents)
Black Widow vs Russian Arms and Antiquities Dealers
(Black Widow vs Bruce Banner) (Confrontation)
Captain America Vs Loki in Stuttgart ending with...
Iron Man vs Loki
Iron Man vs Thor; and
Thor vs Captain America (this scene with the three of them is the purest Meet-Fight-Team-up of the film)
Act Two (I like to consider Act 2 to take place entirely on the Heli-Carrier for unity of place. If you're not into that and prefer you can have the complication begin in Stuttgart. This means that we don't introduce the Thor/Loki relationship until Act 2 though that doesn't really matter)
(Black Widow vs Loki) Confrontation
Hawkeye vs the Heli-Carrier and SHIELD
Black Widow vs Hulk
Thor vs Hulk
Coulson vs Loki
Thor vs Loki
Black Widow vs Hawkeye
Hulk vs a fighter jet
Iron Man vs Loki
Thor vs Loki
Fighter Jet vs Loki
Giant Complex Battle including
Hulk vs Loki
And Now The Character Beats
The most obvious one is Tony Stark. He is all about himself. He wants to skive off from working with SHIELD and make time with his girlfriend. When he turns up in Stuttgart he upstages everyone, introducing his own soundtrack. Loki's influence turns both his best and worst traits against the rest of the team, making him the catalyst for everyone's doubts and fears.
Then he has the conversation with Steve Rogers after Coulson's death. Rogers shows some sympathy, realising that this is the first time Stark has lost someone. And in that moment Stark realises that Rogers has lost everyone and is still carrying on.
This finally plays out when Rogers' earlier speeches about sacrifice pay off and Iron Man carries the nuke through the portal.
Steve Rogers is adrift. Loki spots this when he refers to him as "The Man Out Of Time". (Loki is good at weaknesses). When he turns up in Stuttgart he begins by mentioning the war, never really a good introduction in Germany. When he spars verbally with Stark he continually comes off second best.
He finds his role. First in the scenes where he helps Stark fix the engine, then when he talks him down, gives him focus, and probably more important than it looks, the moment when Clint offers to fly the plane, Natasha vouches for him and he accepts it without question. So he's all there when they get on board the jet and he tells the guard "Son. Just don't."
Natasha has just one moment and it goes by quickly. What she says to Loki when she interrogates him is not made up of whole cloth. She really does owe Clint. She gets the call during the attack on the heli-carrier, and she hesitates for just one half moment, and then she goes out to fight and possibly kill him. If she has to. And in the moment she stops being an assassin and becomes a superhero by taking the risk of knocking him out rather than trying to kill him.
Clint Barton's arc is almost all external. He's mind-controlled by Loki and becomes even more ruthless. Then he's un-mind-controlled and seeks revenge.
Banner doesn't want to be the Hulk. (One classic template for a Hulk story is that of a were-wolf story). He's right to fear it as the Hulk goes bonkers under Loki's influence. But (inevitably) he picks himself up and goes back to confront Loki again. And it turns out he's always angry, so that's a thing.
Thor's is quite straightforward. He confronts Loki on Somewhere-in-the-Atlantic Island, but their conversation is interrupted. He confronts him again when Loki escapes his cell. And he does it a third time on Stark Tower. Each time he says, give it up. Give it up and come home. And each time Loki says no.
Loki, of course, has the mirror image of Thor's arc. He's offered a way out three times. And every time he rejects it. But there's more; every action of Loki's either has two objectives (in Stuttgart he both gets the iridium and fights the Avengers) or has two possible outcomes that benefit him (if he beats Fury's response team in Stuttgart then game over, no one on Earth can beat him; if he's taken prisoner he gets into the SHIELD base and tears the team apart from within). In fact his whole plan works that way, right up to the end. Either he ends up king of Earth or he's captured by Thor and taken back to Asgard, both of which are superior to being left to Thanos. (In fact even being dead or in a super-secret SHIELD torture-laboratory are probably better results than failing Thanos).
So What? Or My Conclusions.
There are a LOT of intra-team fights jammed in this film. Yet they work and don't feel forced because the entire film is about the team trying to form, despite 1. their different approaches and problems; 2. Nick Fury's morally compromised position while putting them together; and 3. Loki's mystical and other efforts to lever them apart. Thor and Iron Man fight because Thor acts like the protagonist and grabs Loki, and Iron Man is pissed off that his prisoner has been stolen. Thor and Hulk; Widow and Hawkeye fight because one member is mind controlled in one way or another.
Meanwhile everyone gets their character arc (and a lot of them get to put a cap on it during that enormously long final sequence). But with so many characters they mostly don't have a three stage arc, but a two stage one. It's still satisfying and everyone gets one because Joss Whedon's team have figured out where they can cut corners on this without losing impact.
So why have I spent 1500 words on this? Because this is my benchmark for Superhero team up films. This works in ways that Fantastic Four(s) didn't, and is a step forward from the X-Men films. It's better than Age of Ultron and I intend to go into why I think so at some point.
So anyway. Meet, Fight, Team-up. Introduction, Complication, Resolution. Avengers Assemble!