Avengers Analyzed: Fury and Coulson

Now I could be criticized for including these two in my analysis of Avengers characters because at first glance it seems that neither Fury nor Coulson have distinct character arcs in this story. That’s not entirely true. Rather, these two erstwhile leaders of SHIELD share a conflict and a goal but it’s not one that works out like they expect.

You see, Fury and Coulson both fail in what they set out to do and that, in turn, cuts their character arc much shorter than we’re used to seeing. With that said, let’s just dig into it shall we?

Fury and Coulson’s Background

These characters share a single purpose, namely to create a superteam under the aegis of SHIELD. Coulson is the first of these two that we see, showing up pretty much as soon as Tony Stark stepped out of the shadows in his first shiny red Iron Man suit. Fury took a little longer to show up, poking his head in after the credits of Iron Man, and he was also more skeptical of Stark’s suitability for membership on the Avengers. Up until this point we haven’t really paid these two a whole lot of attention but after four movies we do know a few things.

Coulson is very enthusiastic at the idea of the Avengers and tries his best to reach out to potential members and interest them in the team, Fury is cautious and does his best to control risks that will undercut his agenda. There is a slight tension between the two in that Coulson hopes to see heroes doing their thing in a coordinated fashion that will protect and inspire others while Fury wants to be the head of his team and ensure that it is used in the best possible fashion. The balance between the two viewpoints is probably the fact that Coulson views Fury as a hero in and of his own right.

The Conflict 

Both Phil and Nick embody character vs. the world. Unlike Captain Rogers, their conflict doesn’t arise from changes in the world around them but from fundamental differences between the way Coulson and Fury think the way the world should progress and the way the world itself wants to be.

Basically, Fury and Coulson want the Avengers to be heroes. They want them to set an example for other people and be on the front line of what’s about to unfold. The world at large, on the other hand, sees all these exceptional people and the threats inbound and just wants them to go away as quickly and with as little fuss as possible. The world would prefer to just press a button or drop a bomb and have this sticky situation sorted out when, in truth, sticky situations are rarely sorted out that easily and will require brave men and women risking life and limb in very direct and personal ways to get things done.

In short, the world Fury and Coulson live in is exactly like ours.

Each of these two characters is going to face down the problem in their own way, if The Avengers is a war movie then Fury is the general who will command the troops and deal with government while Coulson is the trusted captain who will actually lead them into battle. One handles the strategic level, the other the tactical. Naturally, this leads to the basic conflict at work bearing out in different ways.

Fury is concerned with world leaders, the World Security Council, the people who’s backing he will need to make his idea work, he has to fight against the ideas permeating his world. Coulson, on the other hand, is going to face narcissism, a lack of self esteem, feelings of impotence and distraction by personal matters as he tries to keep the Avengers on task. His struggle is against the feelings permeating his world.

We Meet Fury and Coulson 

“This doesn’t have to get any messier.” – Colonel Nick Fury, to Loki 

This pair of erstwhile leaders are introduced pretty much at the same time, at the very beginning of the film as Fury comes to check on the Tesseract at a secure SHIELD facility at the back end of nowhere. This setting serves to quickly establish both characters as high ranking members of a government organization and that Fury outranks Coulson and establishes some other basic dynamics like introducing Agent Barton. Then, just to keep us on our toes, the movie drops Loki into the mix and lets us see what happens.

Fury vs. Loki 

“Yeah, you say ‘peace’, I kind of think you mean the other thing.” – Colonel Nick Fury, still talking to Loki 

Fury’s confrontation with Loki is our first demonstration of Loki’s power and it’s very impressive. He wipes out dozens of trained SHIELD agents and subverts two very valuable people, providing the impetus for Fury to go ahead and try the Avengers Initiative even though it had theoretically already been scrapped.

This confrontation is short but meaningful. In addition to providing the driving force behind the entire story and reinforcing the idea that SHIELD alone will not be enough to stop Loki’s invasion it also highlights a stubbornness that will ultimately be Fury’s undoing in his efforts to unite the world against the threats it faces.

Gathering the Avengers – And Hiding them Away

“With everything that’s happening, the things that are about to come to light, people might just need a little old fashioned.” – Phil Coulson, to Captain America 

Nothing evokes the attitudes of the SHIELD leadership more than their interactions with Steve Rogers, which is fitting because when the attention of SHIELD wavers it’s ultimately Captain America who will step into the gap and takes up the mantle of leadership. But that doesn’t happen in this film so I’m going to ignore it for the moment.

Let’s focus instead on what Fury and Coulson are telling Steve. If you look at the dialog they’re constantly talking about using SHIELD resources for the good of humanity. Fury tells about the potential the Tesseract has as a power source, showing a wide-reaching civic good that SHIELD wants to advance. Phil talks about how the Avengers can inspire and unite people in dangerous times. These are worthy goals, goals fitting for a group of people who want to call themselves heroes.

In contrast, the very first thing that Fury does with his group of individuals once they agree to work with him is gather them on a flying fortress and turn them invisible, far from the people the Avengers are intended to serve and protect. Now no problem is going to have a perfect solution but SHIELD’s actions and its claims don’t exactly add up. We’re never shown how much of these actions were Fury’s idea and how much they belong to the World Security Council but at the very least concealing the existence of a highly recognizable fugitive from the public isn’t the best way to find a person and Fury has to have known that.

Not working with the public to find Loki is an odd choice, but one that makes sense in the light of the Security Council’s statement that the Avengers are dangerous. The problem with assessing things in terms of security is that everything is dangerous. The Council is, to paraphrase Gandalf, beset by dangers for they themselves are dangerous. The problem is, they fail to recognize that and therefore regard anything dangerous as bad. Fury isn’t doing a good job wining them over to his side.

Coulson’s problem is much more personal. Heroes come with a lot of baggage and the Avengers are no exception. Making things worse, baggage frequently multiplies when you cram a bunch of it into one place, witness the constant bickering between Steve and Tony. Coulson’s conflict plays out as he tries to smooth over everyone’s conflicting feelings and forge the Avengers into a single team that can work together like his own agents do. The problem is, the Avengers are not SHIELD agents by any stretch of the imagination and, while Coulson has the kind of personality and insight to put each of these heroes at ease individually, he is not the person to lead them collectively.

Coulson vs. Loki

“You lack conviction.” – Phil Coulson, to Loki 

Coulson’s confrontation with Loki is also brief but even more effective than Fury’s. While Loki technically defeats Coulson the concept of a moral victory definitely applies here. At no point does Coulson’s resolve waver or his spirit flag. No, the reason Coulson can’t stop Loki is that he’s come alone. While Coulson’s goal was to help bring together and support the Avengers as a team he unfortunately didn’t actually consider himself a part of that team and because of this, at a critical moment when the presence of just one or two other members of the Avengers could have made a significant difference, Coulson doesn’t ask them for help.

Yes, some of them were busy with other things. Some of them were mind controlled. But honestly, Phil didn’t have to come alone, did he? Well, yes he did. You see, from a story standpoint, conviction was what the Avengers as a whole were lacking, just as much as Loki.

The Avengers lacked conviction in the cause Phil believed in, the idea that a simple, old fashioned crew could take a stand on something incredibly simple, like having the freedom to make your own decisions, and fight for it, inspiring other people to do the same. Banner and Romanoff think they’re monsters. Steve’s uncertain of his place in the world. Stark can’t see beyond his own narcissism. Barton’s perspective is so farsighted sometimes it leaves him alienated. Thor can’t parse his conflicting love for his brother and his adopted planet. And Nick Fury… well, he couldn’t do without a backup plan.

Only Phil Coulson had the unshakeable belief that the Avengers could become the heroes to inspire a generation. It was that conviction, in turn, that would inspire the Avengers themselves.

Things Fall Apart

“Director Fury, the Council has made a decision.” – The World Security Council 

While Coulson wins the battle for the Avengers, the war for the world falls through. Coulson’s part of the struggle was to win the Avengers over to Fury’s vision to defend the world and bring them to place that goal above personal goals. While Phil succeeded Fury can’t get the Security Council to buy in. They remain skeptical of Fury’s goals – a unified force offering Earth long term security – and instead pursue their own goal of immediate safety regardless of the cost in the future.

It’s important to understand what a setback for Fury this is. Not only has he lost his best agent, by deciding to destroy the Chitauri invasion along with the island of Manhattan via nuclear warhead the World Security Council has completely rejected Fury’s single greatest hope for saving Earth. Yes, Fury ignores their orders and tries to stop the nuclear strike but the fact is that he wanted the Avengers to be a symbol of mankind united, a testament to the way noble ideas can unite people in spite of pettymindedness. While it’s hard to blame the Security Council for their decision – the entire world was at stake after all and that kind of responsibility has got to be heavy – without Council backing the Avengers can’t really represent humanity united. It’s hard to represent a united front when you’re a rogue element, after all.

Ultimately, at the end of The Avengers Fury is not in the greatest position. The Avengers have gone their separate ways, the World Security Council is on his back and he’s lost his best agent. Fury is on the ropes and will probably need to take drastic measures to reestablish his credibility. Something like allying with a questionable politician to build an armada and dispatch threats before they materialize. But again, not the scope of this analysis.

Fury and Coulson serve the larger story of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, to be certain, but they also have their own conflict to resolve and that conflict comes from the differences between their idea of the world and the world’s own ideas. The small part of the world that they need to join them directly, the six members of the Avengers other than Fury himself, does come over to their side but the world as a whole does not. Fury is vindicated when the Avengers win but the Security Council still will not back his decisions or trust that the Avengers will function for the good of the world, both questioning whether they will be on task when needed again and whether they are up to the task.

This outcome to Fury and Coulson’s story may seem depressing, and to be fair it is. But at the same time, it does two very important things. First, it adds verisimilitude. As I said before, the World Security Council has a very real, significant burden on their shoulders and it’s not crafting a strong, heroic society it’s making sure that there’s any society left at all. It’s natural for them to want failsafes and be very skeptical of making seven people Earth’s first line of defense against things like the Chitauri invasion.

Secondly, Fury’s leadership style is secretive, controlling and frankly a little Machiavellian. These tendencies make him a poor leader for the kind of group he wants to build. The Avengers don’t naturally trust him and follow his lead. Fury explains his goals several times but the Avengers, and Tony and Steve in particular, are skeptical because his actions don’t really match with his stated ends. The other Avengers defer to Coulson because their previous experiences with him have convinced them of his good intentions but Fury never lets the Avengers get that close. Perhaps it’s not surprising that Fury’s efforts fail.

So what kind of further character growth can we expect from Age of Ultron? Honestly, I can’t say. With three villains to focus on this time around – Ultron himself plus Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch – plus all seven Avengers apparently returning in the second film I’m not sure how much character growth we can expect from them this time around. The individual films Iron Man 3, Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Thor: The Dark World made a wholehearted attempt to further the work done of Marvel’s The Avengers. They succeeded to some extent but what made The Avengers so great was it’s success in characterizing it’s cast without needing the background from the first phase of Marvel movies.

But we can still hope, since it is Joss Whedon at the helm. And there’s still a good chance of a great story and fun action.

Advertisements

Avengers Analyzed: Barton and Romanoff

It’s time to talk about Marvel’s The Avengers once again. We finished with all the superheroes so what’s left to look at? Why, the regular human characters of course!

With four incredibly larger than life characters eating up screen time how are we supposed to relate to anything in this film? Are they even relevant in this story? On the other hand, why do normal people even need superheroes anyways? To help us examine these questions The Avengers gives us Agents Natasha Romanoff and Clint Barton, AKA The Black Widow and Hawkeye.

Now before I get into an analysis of these two characters, a quick aside to address the elephants in the room. First, I’m tackling these two characters together because their stories kind of go together and Barton… doesn’t get that much development. The second is the tendency of the fanbase to pair Hawkeye and Widow romantically. I don’t really understand this pairing, I suppose it may have a basis in the comic books but for the most part, in terms of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), I don’t see it. These two characters seem to share more the brother and sister relationship of Romanoff and Captain America in The Winter Soldier than serious romantic leanings and I don’t think they would be a good fit. Sure, they share skills and a history but these two things do not a romance make.

Honestly I think the two characters in the MCU that would make a good romantic fit for Romanoff would be Cap or Banner, as their strong moral centers and stable personalities would make a good balance for her shrewd disposition and apparent lack of a strong direction for herself. Barton looks to need someone very assertive and fun, things Nat plays at but don’t appear to be a part of her core personality. I can’t think of an MCU person who fits that mold so I’m not really sure who would make for a good match for him at the moment.

Basically, what I’m trying to say is that this is not an analysis of these two characters together in that sense.

Background 

Natasha Romanoff and Clint Barton are Agents of SHIELD, one of Marvel’s many, many organizations with somewhat forced acronyms for names. Neither one has been the central character of a movie, in fact both have been peripheral characters in previous appearances. Romanoff was assigned to help SHIELD keep an eye on Tony Stark after his first outing as Iron Man, Barton helped Phil Coulson sort out what was going on with Thor during his first trip to earth. Unfortunately, both characters got little development beyond highly trained spy characters.

Conflict 

Here’s why I think Romanoff and Barton belong together for analysis. I think they share the same conflict – characters vs. god. The personal conflict these two have is against a force utterly beyond their ability to oppose. Even with all their incredible training, equipment and personal willpower neither Barton or Romanoff score a clear win over Loki before joining up with the rest of the Avengers. In this way, these two characters show Earth’s need for the superhero team and at the same time affirm that regular people have a place on that team.

Barton’s Introduction 

Clint Barton is an expert marksman. He specializes in dealing with problems from far away and he frequently does so in a very lethal fashion. He has a distant personality that matches his skills and we see this by the way he distances himself from those around him at the beginning of the movie. We first see him standing on top of a catwalk far away from the rest of the people at the facility he’s tasked with guarding.

Barton doesn’t really fit in with other people but that may be appropriate given rather ghastly nature of what snipers are capable of with modern weaponry. The fact that he says he’s more comfortable watching things from far off only adds to the image of a man who would rather stay at a distance than get too involved in what’s going on. A simple introduction for a pretty simple character. But simple doesn’t mean ineffective.

Barton vs. Loki 

Barton is one of the first characters to confront Loki in The Avengers and he looses. Badly. This creates what is known as the Worf Effect, Hawkeye’s defeat and subsequent loss of free will establishes Loki’s menace in two ways – first, he defeats a highly trained SHIELD agent handily and second he robs that agent of free will as a consequence. In the first five minutes of the movie Clint Barton goes from one of SHIELD’s trump cards to a pawn in the service of the enemy. Not fun times.

Romanoff’s Introduction 

Where Barton is introduced as a loner, distant from all those around him, Natasha is introduced as the center of attention. It’s just not good attention.

Black Widow’s projecting weakness to manipulate those she meets and subsequent defeat of several large men via hand to hand combat skill establish that she is also a formidable individual. She’s also the opposite of Barton, working best up close and indirectly, rather than at a distance and in violent opposition.

I’ve already talked about her first encounter with Bruce Banner at length in Banner’s post, there are a few things we learn about her through this exchange. First, she has great personal courage. She goes to meet the Hulk even though he clearly scares her. Second, she can’t seem to set aside her lies and tricks. Even when Banner proves he sees through her by saying why she’s there – SHIELD does want the Hulk and Romanoff did bring a full team with her – she sticks to her story until Banner forces her hand. Third, while Romanoff is good at lying she’s not always so good at seeing through them.

After all, Banner’s a rank amateur in comparison and she fell for one of his bluffs.

First Bridge 

Most of what Barton and Romanoff do in the first half of the movie, besides playing of the four superheroes at the center of things, is show their skills by taking care of things the superhumans can’t. Romanoff flies Captain America to the confrontation in Stuttgart, Barton finds stuff for Loki and plans how to steal it.

These demonstrations serve to reinforce both how skilled these characters are and how little they seem able to accomplish against Loki. For all his skills Barton didn’t even make him break stride and Romanoff relies on the superior firepower of the Quinnjet during the Stuttgart battle. Things don’t really get much better once Loki is captured.

Romanoff vs Loki 

Much like Tony, Romanoff confronts Loki in a way that’s not directly adversarial. When he’s locked up in the Helicarrier she goes to try and get information out of him and she does so in her usual way. She plays him, pretending to want to know where Hawkeye is, pretending to be guilt ridden, pretending to be weak and vulnerable, all to find out what, exactly, it is he wants on the Helicarrier.

Most people assume that Romanoff wins this confrontation because Loki mentions the Hulk, Romanoff seizes on this fact and then the Hulk proceeds to go wild in the Helicarrier. This assessment is a little weird. Loki is so good at deception that he’s considered an embodiment of it and we never get any indications that he was on the Helicarrier for the Hulk. In point of fact, Loki’s play wasn’t the Hulk at all. His entire purpose on the Helicarrier was to keep the Avenger’s attention focused on him while his mind controlled minions seized control of Stark Tower and prepared to summon the Chituari.

In other words, while Romanoff is a good liar she’s not very good at picking them out and this, combined with the fact that Loki hits three nerves all in one conversation (Barton, Widow’s past and the Hulk), keeps Natasha from noticing she’s being played even as she tries to play Loki herself. Of course, Loki’s intent was not to focus Romanoff’s attention on the Hulk or anything else, but rather to keep her attention squarely on him and not on what others were doing. That’s fitting, since he is a master trickster, and his success in doing so only serves to reinforce how regular humans, even those who are very good at what they do, are ill suited to fight Loki and his minions.

Second Bridge

We enter the third act of the film with the Helicarrier brawl and it’s at this point that Barton is finally broken free of Loki’s mind control. Romanoff helps him get his bearings again and the two agree that they’ll make up for the slip-ups they’ve caused by going out and pounding Loki like the red-headed stepchild he is (metaphorically speaking, of course). Don’t miss the significance of it being Captain America who shows up at the end of the scene and calls them to action, however. These two are going to action again but this time not just as a pair of SHIELD agents but as members of the Avengers.

Conflict Resolution – The Battle of New York 

Some might argue that the reason Barton and Romanoff failed against Loki because they acted against him alone. Not so. Barton was a part of a group during his confrontation. Some might point out that the agents of SHIELD could have figured out what Loki was up to if they had more time to unpack it. Maybe so, but the problem was they had to work faster than Loki’s timetable. Most people can overcome a given problem if they have unlimited time and resources to work with the key to a good story, particularly an action or adventure story, is to limit both.

The point of these two characters is not that they need help overcoming Loki. If that was all it took then SHIELD was in place already. The world didn’t need just any team, it needed the Avengers.

Thus it’s fitting that the two of them are at the heart of wrapping up the battle of New York. While Tony saved New York from over zealous human intervention it was Widow who actually shut down the portal the Chituari were using to invade. Barton was the one who tracked each threat as it came through and made sure it was contained before it could cause too much damage. The Avengers could not have won without them. Yes, the “super” heroes (except for Hulk, who was special) were each able to draw with Loki in their own encounters with him, none of them were able to win alone and Loki backed by an army is even worse.

The point of Barton and Romanoff in this movie is to show that the existing methods for fighting threats to Earth were not up to the task of stopping Loki. Their inability to fight him personally reflects the depth of his power and the limits of their abilities, serving as a microcosm of the problem at large. Once the Avengers existed as a coherent team the conflict is resolved – superspies alone are not equal to the task but all of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes are.

So that’s the end of the analysis, right? All the main characters and conflicts are covered, aren’t they? Well, no. See, even with the Avengers all assembled there has to be someone to lead. Next month, in our final installment, we’ll take a look at the leaders of the Avengers. See you then!

Avengers Analyzed: Thor

It’s time to finish up our look at the superhumans of Marvel’s The Avengers with a look at Thor. While Bruce Banner was our starting point mostly because I found him to be the least understood character, and Tony Stark and Steve Rogers followed him because their stories felt related, but Thor is the logical place to wrap up our superhero overview because he’s the final superhero in the film to show up.

Thor presents us with an interesting one because, while he’s probably the most powerful of the Avengers in absolute terms, he’s actually the most normal of them emotionally and relationally.

Yes, Thor doesn’t age, wields a weapon that easily puts out four times the power of Tony’s arc reactor and takes hits from The Hulk without appreciable harm, but he’s also got affectionate parents, friends who share his life and goals and a brother.

That last bit is the sticky part.

Point is, if you ignore the scale of his life, Thor is actually the most well adjusted, emotionally grounded and mentally stable of the four superheroes on the team. He has no suppressed anger, overactive ego or severe trauma. His greatest personal problem is a lack of familiarity with Earth culture. This both lets the audience see Loki from another angle and sets up his personal conflict.

Thor’s Background

Basically, Loki got jealous of his adoptive brother and arranged for him to be exiled to Earth, where Thor learned to be less of a Jerk. The material point is that Thor had to stop Loki’s scheming to take the throne of Asgard but in the process discovered his brother was adopted and full of discontent. Although Thor ended the matter by foiling Loki and accidentally sending him into the unknown depths of space he regrets the way they parted and clearly wants to make things right.

The Conflict 

Thor’s personal conflict is character vs. characters. Yes, as in multiple characters. For the majority of his time in the film Thor is not personally in conflict with Loki per se, rather he’s in conflict with the rest of the Avengers over what should be done about Loki. Thor still sees his brother as someone to be reformed and brought back into the fold. The rest of the Avengers see him as a threat to be dealt with via any means necessary. Thor wants to reconcile with his brother. The Avengers want Loki gone any way they can get it.

These goals aren’t necessarily contradictory but they will keep Thor and the Avengers working at crosspurposes even as Loki approaches his endgame.

We Meet Thor 

“What’s the matter, scared of a little lightning?” – Captain Steve Rogers 

For all his self-satisfied preening and condescension towards the other Avengers, when Thor arrives Loki gets nervous. We never see him show any trepidation towards anything else, he never flinches from his brother in person, but Thor beat Loki once and he doesn’t seem to have been in Loki’s calculations this time around – their dialog on first meeting suggests Loki expected his father to keep Thor at home. Thor is a weakness in Loki’s plans and a figure with enough personal power to shake Loki’s seemingly boundless self-confidence.

And then he steals Loki out from the noses of the Black Widow, Iron Man and Captain America.

Points for intimidation factor. Points for style. Nothing more to see here. Move along.

Loki – First Confrontation

“I’m not overly fond of what follows…” – Loki 

As Loki’s brother, Thor is given the unique privilege of confronting Loki multiple times through the film. Each of these confrontations marks a distinct point in Thor’s character progression and so the very first thing Thor has to do is drag Loki out for a little chat.

This initial conversation is not very long, courtesy of Tony Stark, but it clearly shows Thor’s priorities. Yes, Earth is under Thor’s protection and yes, he’s very concerned about what’s happening to it. But he’s really hurting because his brother has turned into something he doesn’t recognize and Thor can’t grasp why. Now this is in no small part because Thor is not particularly bright, he mostly gets by on being very earnest and normally this is one of his strengths. But the same forthrightness that makes Thor trustworthy and keeps his life simple also keeps him from ever fully grasping Loki’s ambition and need for validation.

When Loki mentions how much energy it must have taken Odin to send Thor to Earth we have to understand that Loki is seeing an expression of how much Odin is willing to do to keep him from happiness. All Thor sees is how much his father loves Loki and wants him to come home.

This scene is a perfect illustration of how Thor’s perspective is different from everyone else’s. The fact that it ends with Iron Man tackling him and throwing him into a pitched melee with two of the other Avengers only serves to show the logical outcome of Thor’s skewed perspective – it leaves him at odds with everyone else in the group.

A Battle of Worldviews

“This is beyond you, metal man. Loki will face Asgardian justice.” – Thor

Just about everything that happens with Thor from the end of his first brief conversation with Loki until Loki’s bid for freedom on the Helicarrier serves to illustrate the tension between him and the rest of the Avengers over what Loki is and what he’s there for. Most telling is when Thor tells Fury Loki isn’t out for power but vengeance. And not just any revenge, revenge against Thor specifically. Thor is still thinking of this as a personal problem between himself and his brother and he winds up fighting all three other superheroes in the Avengers before he starts coming to terms with things.

That’s right, as the most forthright of the Avengers Thor winds up physically fighting with Iron Man, Captain America and even the Hulk as an outward expression of his inward resistance to seeing Loki as they do. He just can’t accept Loki as an enemy to be defeated. He still wants Loki to be the brother he can save.

Loki – Second Confrontation 

“Are you never not going to fall for that?” – Loki

The moment Loki locks Thor into the Hulk cage is short, sweet and revealing… for Thor. Loki has never directly played his hand against his adoptive brother, mainly because the trickster knows he can’t overpower thunder. But the prison that used to hold him gives Loki a new card to play against Thor and for the first time there’s no masks between the two. Loki doesn’t just try and keep Thor out of the fight, he tries to kill him. It’s the same as burning the bridges between them.

While Thor escapes the death trap he’s also reached a turning point. After crash-landing in a field somewhere on the East Coast Thor brushes himself off and turns to reach for the hammer. This is an interesting moment. Although no dialog is said the image is reminiscent of the moment in Thor’s first stand-alone film, when he reached for Mjolnir and was found unworthy.

Now Thor finds he’s misjudged his brother, seen only a personal problem when Loki was all too willing to ignore Thor to pursue his bigger plans. Maybe he’s wondering if that lapse of judgment makes him unworthy to wield the hammer again. More likely he realizes the moment he takes up that hammer again he’ll have to turn it against his brother. But he takes it anyways, and it marks the turning point of his character.

Loki – Third Confrontation and Character Resolution

“Loki, turn off the tesseract or I will destroy it!” – Thor

Thor is too much of an earnest guy not to give Loki a chance at formal surrender before pounding him but this time around he’s not pleading with Loki, he’s offering an ultimatum. When Loki turns him down Thor stops playing nice and fights for real. While Thor doesn’t have the insight of Banner, capable of seeing through Loki’s illusions and immune to his semantics, once Thor turns his hand against his brother Loki’s no match for him.

People have said that Thor’s sudden reconciliation with the rest of the team is very abrupt but really, when you realize that his conflict with them was rooted in the different ways they saw Loki, it begins to make a great deal more sense. As soon as that difference of opinion is gone there’s nothing more to fight about.

There’s not as much of an arc to Thor’s character as the other three characters we’ve examined so far and perhaps that’s not surprising. After all, he is the best adjusted of them already and maybe his character didn’t need as much growth as some of the others. And to be fair, Thor is the first character to score a clean win over Loki, sending him running into the arms of the Chitauri after their confrontation at Stark Tower. That’s no small feat considering the only other character with a clear win over Loki is the Hulk – the other characters in the film never do more than stall Loki and frequently play into his hands.

Sadly, no one does that more than the core human members of the cast – so we’ll examine them next. Coming up in March, we look at Agents Romanoff and Barton. See you then!

Avengers Analyzed: Steve Rogers

Time for the third entry in this ongoing series! We’re examining the character writing of Marvel’s The Avengers, one of the best elements of a movie with a lot going for it. We started with Bruce Banner and continued with Tony Stark. To continue with the logical progression, this month we talk about the man who was Stark’s foil for most of the movie – Captain Steve Rogers.

Steve’s Background

The greatest soldier in the world began life in New York during the Great Depression and volunteered to fight in the Second World War. He was turned down for being too small and weak – many times. So great was his desire to serve that he hit every recruiting station he could find and eventually drew the attention of the supersoldier program that would make him superhuman.

Rogers would eventually see service in Europe fighting the rogue Nazi superscience group HYDRA, defeating their leader Red Skull in a battle that left Steve trapped under a glacier until he was discovered by SHIELD and revived in the modern era.

Oh, he also possesses an indestructible shield that he throws at people. It’s pretty cool.

Steve’s Conflict 

Steve Rogers embodies character vs. the world, a dramatic shift from the last two characters who were both at odds with themselves.

Seventy years ago, American society at least paid lipservice to the ideals of courtesy, integrity, duty and honor. While the number of people who actually lived by those virtues were probably no higher than the number of people who live by their personal principles today, what matters for the purposes of this story was that the Captain was one of those people who not only believed in those things but put everything he had into practicing them. Unfortunately, those ideals are not particularly valued today.

But Steve’s conflict runs even deeper than just a difference between his ideals and those of the world around him.

Defeating HYDRA was not the literal the death of Steve Rogers but it came close enough. When his life stopped the world kept marching and it hasn’t looked back. It seems almost impossible for him to have any relevance in the world he finds himself in. The skills he honed as a young man are obsolete, the enemy he fought has been defeated and the friends he knew are gone. What’s a hero to do?

We Meet Captain America 

“I’ve been asleep for seventy years. I think I’ve had enough rest.” – Captain Steve Rogers 

Cap’s introduction is every bit as well thought out as Stark’s. We see him in a boxing gym. An oldschool boxing gym, it looks like it’s been dragged straight out of the Depression era and it immediately tells us a few things about Steve.

First, it immediately gives us the impression that we’re looking at an old fashioned place with an old fashioned guy. There’s no modern exercise equipment in there. Just a ring, a punching bag and some room for warmups. The man there fits in seamlessly, feels entirely at home. He’s just as old as this place, perhaps.

Second, the gym is empty. Gyms are communal places, social centers as much as places to refine and train yourself. Most people don’t go there alone, those that do usually meet with some sort of trainer. But this man is alone.

Third, this guy is good. He hits fast, hard and continuously. And he tears his target to pieces. But never for a moment does he look happy about it.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Steve Rogers.

Steve Starts Off

“There’s a lot we’ll have to bring you up to speed on if you’re in. The world has gotten even stranger than you know.” – Nick Fury 

It may sound weird for Nick Fury to try and  tempt Captain America out of seclusion by promising him weirdness, given that most of his woes have come about thanks in no small part to weirdness, but that’s exactly what Nick does. Their meeting, although brief, tells us a great deal about Steve and for the most part it does so without using words. I admire that.

First, we notice that Cap respects authority. He never takes Fury to task for the way SHIELD tried to hide the era he’d woken up in. He doesn’t baselessly question whether Fury and SHIELD deserve the position they hold as the world’s defenders. He assumes Fury has earned his position.

At the same time, he expects Fury to act like the things he claims to be. Steve’s questions about what Fury is telling him are exactly what we would expect from a fairly average guy who’s life experiences are seen almost entirely through the lens of global warfare. He has natural doubts about using the power source Red Skull did but seems to acknowledge it’s potential as well.

Most of all, the Captain is curious. He asks questions constantly, trying to drive into the heart of the matter. He clearly isn’t comfortable with anything around him, nor with the role he’s being asked to take or even with the guy who’s asking him to do it. But his sense of responsibility won’t let him turn away and it does sound kind of interesting…

But the real moment that starts Cap on his journey is his conversation with Phil Coulson, when he asks if his old uniform isn’t a little old fashioned. Phil replies that may be exactly what people need.

Confrontation With Loki

“You know, the last time I was in Germany and saw a man standing above everybody else, we ended up disagreeing.” – Captain Steve Rogers 

Steve’s story moves pretty quickly. After paying off a bet with Fury, Steve is dispatched to Stuttgart, Germany where Loki has turned up. This makes Steve the first of the superhuman lineup to confront Loki and the first character in the movie to deal him a setback.

The first, most interesting thing to notice about Cap’s confrontation with Loki is that it happens in Germany, the country where Steve made his reputation and found his greatest enemy.

The second actually happens before Steve shows up. When Loki calls for the people of Earth to kneel before him they all do. But one man, old and looking a little weary with life, thinks about it and pulls himself back to his feet. He challenges Loki by telling him that, no matter how powerful or special the so-called god thinks he is, there have always been people like him.

This man, nameless though he is, has every reason to know. Old as he is, there can be little doubt that he knew the German who made such boasts – not personally, but still. Whether this man was a child or a soldier (and some were certainly both), a member of the resistance or complicit in his silence (and some were one and then the other), this is one man who has seen the horrors of another man who thinks he is a god and come to accept that nothing short of total opposition can be the right answer. This man of Stuttgart defies Loki, even though there is nothing he can conceivably do to stop him.

This man, quite possibly the only man in Stuttgart who could understand Steve Rogers, who has seen the things Steve has and the only one who might be able to argue that men like Captain America are now irrelevant in the world that is, chose to show the exact same spirit and the exact same resolve that Steve himself carries. The man of Stuttgart is not strong enough to do more than defy Loki – but Steve is there to fight for them both.

When Captain America fights Loki it’s a powerful statement about the relevance of heroes in the modern world. Perhaps the most amazing thing about Steve is that he doesn’t realize he’s made it but in many ways, it’s one of the most important moments in the movie, if not in the development of Steve’s character.

For all his skill, strength and courage, Captain America is not able to defeat Loki himself. In fact, he doesn’t even really get him to sweat. While it looks like both fighters could go for several dozen more rounds, Iron Man arrives and tips the odds in Steve’s favor, prompting Loki to surrender. It may not look like Steve’s win and Tony certainly doesn’t seem to think so but it’s an important first step towards Captain America’s ultimate goal.

Battles Within and Without

“Everything special about you came out of a bottle!” – Tony Stark 

Ironically, Steve’s personal conflict is against the world he’s in and Loki is a thing of another world. We can’t really see Cap’s personal conflict in battles with Loki but rather in battles with the people who are helping him fight the larger fight. Add to this the fact that Steve is essentially the leader of the team and we wind up with him playing a part in many of the minor conflicts that build the individual characters into a single team.

But after his inconclusive encounter with Loki Steve’s rep isn’t quite what it could be. In fact, the very next thing that happens is a three way brawl between Cap, Thor and Iron Man. It opens with Stark’s impetuous nature clashing with Steve’s more reserved style and doesn’t come to a stop until Steve steps between the two and takes everything they can throw out. But while the fight is over that doesn’t mean the other two are behind Steve yet. In fact, in Tony’s case in particular it seems to be very much the opposite.

The struggle between the two is kind of a microcosm of Steve’s struggle as a whole. Tony values his own opinion, doesn’t want to give up anything and doesn’t take other people seriously at all. At the same time he provides Cap a push to look into what SHIELD has been doing with its borrowed technology.

It’s interesting the degree to which Steve rejects the paradigm of SHIELD. He doesn’t show much warmth to anyone but Coulson and, while the regimented behavior clearly puts him in mind of his army days, the deep secrets SHIELD hides behind doesn’t sit well with him.

Steve values the members of his team, something that puts him at odds with Fury’s seemingly colder disposition, which seems content to sacrifice the few for the many. Romanov embodies SHIELD’s philosophy and seems to be trying to handle Steve, a man who gave up being handled and set his own course long before she was born. Getting a read on her and how to best work with her is a task that will occupy an entire different movie but for now he just needs her to follow and she’s sticking with Fury.

Thor wants his brother punished, hopefully leading to his reform. That’s not something Steve disagrees with, in fact it’s very much in line with the moral code Rogers espouses, but Thor’s loyalties are elsewhere and this may be why Cap keeps him at arm’s length for most of the film. Of all the people on the team, Banner is probably the most like the Captain but the scientist’s volatility puts a layer of caution between the two that neither one really wants to cross.

In all, Steve’s biggest problem is that everyone has an agenda and none of them are his. But as a man who spent most of his life (his conscious life, anyway) as a little guy who wanted to fight for the other little guys, Steve is the one with the closest connection both to what a hero needs to do and what it will cost them.

Steve’s Tipping Point

“Phase 2 is SHIELD uses the Cube to make weapons.” – Captain Steve Rogers 

Captain America is the only hero who’s entire character development basically comes in a single lump and if any one character was going to get that kind of concentrated character development it should be him. Steve is the heart of the team, it’s moral core and driving force. Yes, the Avengers were gathered by SHIELD and Fury obviously intended to be their leader. But only Steve has the integrity and the single-minded purpose to keep all the personalities around him focused on a single task. That was why he lead the team in the comics and it’s why he leads them in this film, he’s a hero that even other heroes must respect. After all, he’s lost almost his entire life to heroism once and doesn’t even hesitate to risk it again.

But even as the rest of the team slowly falls into orbit around him Steve is remaining passive, letting Fury call the shots and take the lead. Right up until Stark, Rogers’ gadfly, implies that SHIELD may be up to something underhanded. When Steve finds the weapons project they’ve been running he’s upset.

Not so much at the fact that SHIELD is building weapons. Steve was and is a soldier, he understands the necessities of war. But he also knows that the power weapons give their wielders demands accountability, just as he needs to be accountable to his superiors in his function as a living weapon. And building weapons in secret? That’s not accountability. It smacks of HYDRA.

Funny that.

Captain Rogers is not above setting his own goals and working towards them when his superiors are obviously neglecting what’s important – he did it during WWII and he’s up to the challenge now. SHIELD is not handling this crisis with integrity and if they won’t, then Steve Rogers will. The world may not always want his kind of heroism but it’s going to get it anyway.

Steve’s Resolution 

“You need men in these buildings. There are people inside and they’re going to be running right into the line of fire. You take them to the basements, or through the subway. You keep them off the streets. I need a perimeter as far back as 39th.” – Captain Steve Rogers 

After the attack on the Helicarrier Steve is the one to shake Tony out of his stupor and he immediately brings Barton back into the fold, no questions asked. This may seem naïve but it’s all he needs to do to get both Barton and Romanov on his side. The same pragmatic attitude was shown earlier with Bruce, when Steve showed no interest in his Hulk problem and only cared about Banner’s ability to find the Tesseract. As an accomplished soldier and leader of men, Rogers knows that sometimes it’s what a person can contribute right now that matters more than history, ideology or attitude.

The unification of the team around Steve is the end of the character’s conflict – he’s proved his own relevance in the world at large and is now free to act in it and join the battle. The growing ease with which he handles first his own team and then the emergency responders during the Battle of New York cements his place as a hero of the modern age and set the stage for him to entirely leave the shadow of Fury and SHIELD in Winter Soldier – all in all, a very satisfying character arc, if not as dramatic as Tony’s or as deft as Banners.

That only leaves one superhero left in the movie’s line up and I’d like to say I saved the best for last… but the fact is Thor is a bit of an enigma in this film. It’s not to say he doesn’t show character development, it’s just not as pronounced as any of the other characters – come back next month and we’ll take a look at what I mean.

Avengers Analyzed: Tony Stark

The Avengers – most people in America can tell you at least a little bit about who they are, at least in their most well known incarnations that have been around in theaters for nearly ten years(!), and that’s really pretty amazing. Writers can always benefit from analyzing writing that’s successful and the most successful part of the franchise is undoubtedly its ability to craft memorable characters. So, as the Marvel Cinematic Universe builds towards the second touchstone movie in the franchise, The Avengers: Age of Ultron, we’re taking a look back at the first movie, Marvel’s The Avengers, to see what makes its characters so well defined. Today, we’re tackling Tony Stark.

Because it’s important to state biases I should note, before I begin, that I pretty much like Stark the least of the Avengers presented in this movie. That’s not to say that I don’t like him. I smile at his banter and I find him entertaining. But when I first watched the movie I suspected that he would begin to grate on me if I had to watch him solo and found that I was correct when I watched some of his stand-alone movies. I do like his character arc in this film but I don’t really love the character like a lot of people do. That said, his character arc in this film is really good.

Stark’s Background

Stark, as portrayed in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (the only portrayal that matters for the purposes of this analysis by the by) is a genius weapons inventor turned general industrialist. His change of heart came after he was kidnapped by terrorists in Afghanistan and forced to escape by inventing the Iron Man power armor that he now uses to fight injustice. He claims to have privatized world peace. His ego is larger than the Hulk’s enraged form.

The Conflict

Like his friend Bruce Banner, Tony Stark’s conflict in The Avengers is character against himself. (And yes, one day soon I will be talking about what all the basic conflicts at the heart of writing are.) In Stark’s case it’s a conflict between his expectations for himself, rather than his actual personality. One half wants to continue to be the high-rolling, easy-street-walking, devil-may-care egotist he’s always been. The other half wants to be a superhero. Tony thinks he can be both but the fact is, the two halves are at odds.

We Meet Tony Stark

“Like Christmas, but with more me.” – Tony Stark 

We are introduced to Tony when he’s completing Stark Tower, a massive testament to three things – Stark’s genius, as the whole thing runs of one of his arc reactors, his ego, in his comparing himself to a major religious icon, and his wealth and influence. These are the underpinnings of his character and we get them in less than fifteen seconds. Well done, Avengers. Well done.

As a side note, the choice of Christmas as the point of reference for Stark Tower is interesting. Why not the Fourth of July or, for something more in line with Stark’s character, a rock concert? Hang on to that thought for a bit.

Stark’s Starting Point

“Phil? Uh, his first name is Agent.” –  Tony Stark 

Stark’s biggest problem is that he’s lived an essentially selfish life up to the point he became Iron Man and, really, for a little while after he first donned the suit. He’s set himself a goal of being a hero but he doesn’t really understand what that means and his behavior towards most of the people around him is unbalanced.

We see this fairly clearly in the way he can’t seem to pay a straight compliment to Pepper and the way he spends most of the time he’s around Phil treating him like an annoyance at best and a nonperson at worst. And these are the people that Tony Stark really likes, the people who have done their best to help him become the hero he wishes to be. Our Anthony clearly still has a long way to go.

First Bridge

“Genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist.” – Tony Stark 

In a choice that is at once odd and probably inspired, Tony actually drops out of The Avengers for a good tenish minutes to give other characters a chance to breath. He’s had two films to the one the other superheroes have and it lets us get a good idea who the more restrained characters – Bruce Banner and Steve Rogers – are before they have to deal with the louder and more bombastic characters of Tony Stark and Thor.

But almost as soon as Stark comes back his conflict is at the forefront. He starts a pointless fight with Thor that Captain America has to diffuse but then he turns around and leads the charge to find the Tesseract while also privately offering Phil Coulson the use of his private jet to visit an offscreen love interest. Both modes of Tony are at full blast and causing problems.

Ever the perceptive leader, Steve Rogers spots the hypocrisy in Tony’s claim to heroism and calls him on it, precipitating another conflict of a much different type. As a soldier and a veteran of actual war, Captain America knows that you can’t win the fights that mean something without suffering casualties. Steve recognizes that Tony’s in denial about what being Iron Man will cost him and tries to confront him about it but Stark weasels out by trying to make it Steve’s problem, not his.

After all, Tony Stark has always been smart enough, rich enough and, thanks to Iron Man, strong enough to solve his problems without ever having to give something up. What possible need could there be for him to consider giving something up for the greater good?

Ultimately, though, not all choices are in his hands.

When the brainwashed Agent Clint Barton and his squad attacks the Helicarrier Tony has to play hero again and keep the ship in the air. And he does save lives. Lots of them. But in the process Bruce Banner goes missing, Loki escapes… and Tony looses a friend.

Stark Changes

“He was out of his league. He should have waited. He should have…” – Tony Stark 

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan introduced the term Kobayashi Maru to the geek lexicon. For those not familiar, the Kobayashi Maru is a training scenario for Starfleet cadets and officers in the command branch of the fleet, in other words those seeking to eventually command ships of their own.

The set-up is thus: The cadet being tested is placed in command of a mission to patrol a demilitarized zone between the Federation and their bitter enemies, the Klingon Empire. On patrol they receive a distress call from a freighter called the Kobayashi Maru that has broken down in the neutral space between galactic superpowers. The cadet must decide if they will go and rescue the freighter, thus risking a breach of the peace, or leave the crew of the freighter there to die. If the cadet does send his ship in to rescue the Kobayashi Maru Klingons attack and destroy the trainee’s ship.

In the course of the movie we learn that the point of the scenario is to see how cadets react to a no-win scenario and to help them mentally prepare to face such a possibility in the future. We also learn that Kirk cheated, adjusting the programming in the scenario to make it possible to succeed, and Spock went through the Academy in the science branch and thus did not take the test. Neither one had really faced death. Ultimately both characters will face a real, life or death no-win scenario of their own and the outcome will mark them for the rest of their lives and become a touchstone of scifi literature.

I mention all this because out of all the Avengers in this film, there’s one who’s never faced a Kobayashi Maru before. Just like Kirk, Tony Stark didn’t believe in no win scenarios. Sure, Yinsen died when Stark first made his escape in Afghanistan but Tony hadn’t really been friends with him and he hadn’t really been Iron Man either. Tony thought being a hero meant never having to loose something again.

He was wrong.

Phil Coulson was Tony’s Kobayashi Maru. A wake up call to seriously consider the cost of the heroism Iron Man was supposed to embody. A reminder that Tony Stark could do everything right and still loose.

And Tony is still so very, very far from doing everything right. But at least he’s thinking about it. And Tony Stark thinks a lot faster than most.

Confrontation With Loki

“His name is Phil.” – Tony Stark

Stark begins his character’s transformation and the change in course almost immediately throws him in the face of Loki. Almost.

In the larger context of the Iron Man movies Tony has a habit of dropping into funks whenever things don’t go his way. And things didn’t go his way in a big way. So he goes off to brood after Nick Fury gives the team a little push. It takes Steve Rogers to snap him out of it and get him back on track. By example and by his own involvement Cap is making himself something of a thorn in Stark’s side, reminding Tony of his own failings in a way that makes him distinctly uncomfortable.

Steve also pushes him to get in Loki’s head and deduce his next move. Romanov and Loki may have the most similar skill-set but in terms of personality Stark and Loki are the most alike. That makes Stark Tower a fitting location for their showdown.

The confrontation between Tony Stark and Loki is interesting for any number of reasons but I’m just going to discuss two of them. First, Stark confronts Loki when he’s not in his heroic element, at least most of the time. All the other Avengers do.

Why? Well, I suspect it’s to emphasize the transformation going on inside of him. Stark’s never been a coward but, unlike Bruce Banner, he fully accepts the tools he has for the job. When he needs to put the hurt on baddies he does it with the Iron Man suit. But his current suit is busted and he needs time to get the new one ready and that means confronting Loki under conditions that aren’t optimal.

Stark’s never done this before. (As an aside, I like the fact that a major part of Iron Man 3 is Stark hacking it as a hero even without the armor.)

So in Stark’s willingness to confront Loki without his greatest resource at his disposal and without waiting for the rest of the Avengers to show up and make life a little easier we see a growing maturity in Stark’s behavior. He’s accepting risk as part of the job.

And why? Well, that brings me to the second thing that’s interesting. Tony’s trying to intimidate Loki, he actually uses the word “threaten” a couple of times. He plays up the overwhelming nature of the forces arrayed against Loki. As a former arms merchant, Stark knows a lot about the value of displaying overwhelming force against an opponent and he’s a natural salesman. He does everything he can to sell Loki on the overwhelming nature of the weapons at Earth’s disposal. And what are they?

Two of the best trained spies in the world, a man with breathtaking anger management issues, a demigod and the greatest soldier the world has ever known. Plus one more.

Phil Coulson.

Tony Stark is nowhere on that list. Why? Is it because Stark was ashamed of himself for not protecting a friend and didn’t think he had anything to contribute? Possibly, but if so why bother going to Stark Tower at all? Did he feel his presence there was all the mention he needed to make? I don’t think so, he’s never passed on the opportunity to talk himself up before.

Instead, I’d suggest that Stark’s incredible high opinion of himself has been shaken. Oh, it will recover to be sure but, for the moment, he doesn’t really feel like a hero. His illusions of power and efficacy have been shattered and Phil Coulson, who’s actions objectively did little to directly hinder Loki, has risen to a place of prominence in his mind not through something he did but through the attitude he demonstrated. That’s fitting given Phil’s role in the story. More on Phil later, for now it’s important that during Tony’s confrontation with Loki he replaces himself with Coulson.

There’s a lot of other interesting things going on in the confrontation between Stark and Loki, not the least of which is Loki’s failure to dominate Stark’s mind, but from the perspective of Tony’s character arc the fact that he stuck his own neck out and did so in part because of the example of Phil Coulson are the salient points. The confrontation ends when Loki throws Stark out a window and the new generation of Iron Man armor goes after him, allowing Stark to take to the skies and grapple with the incoming alien menace.

Second Bridge

“JARVIS, have you heard the tale of Jonah?” – Tony Stark

Once again the focus swings off of Stark as the Chitauri army fills the skies over Manhattan and a huge brawl breaks out. Stark is first on the scene and throws himself headfirst into holding the gap, a purpose he fills admirably.

Of note is the fact that from this point onwards Stark stops pushing back against the leadership of Steve Rogers. The two characters have grown to the point where they can no longer really serve for foils to each other and, to the movies credit, it doesn’t try and keep them in this role. Tony follows Steve’s orders both because he has a new understanding of what Captain America, who has lost many friends in past battles, has gone through and because Cap is clearly the man for the job. The only thing of note that happens regarding Stark’s character is when he and his electronic co-pilot JARVIS are trying to figure out how to take down the heavily armored Chituari sky creatures.

Taking Jonah as an inspiration is an interesting choice. The obvious reason would be the most famous part of that prophet’s story, his time in the belly of a great fish. But more interesting as a part of Stark’s character development is the fact that Jonah wound up in the water because he volunteered to be thrown overboard. Why?

Because he knew that the storm threatening to sink the ship he was on was caused by his presence. He knew that by leaving the ship he could save everyone else on board even though it might cost him his own life. Again, why is this important?

Well, I’ve asked you to hold on to a few thoughts during this analysis, I guess it’s time we tied them all together.

Character Resolution

“I know just where to put it.” – Tony Stark 

Over the course of the story Tony has compared himself to two religious figures, Jonah and Jesus, both of whom have self sacrifice as a component of their story. He’s also outright replaced himself with Phil Coulson when confronting Loki, and Phil is also a character who made a sacrificial stand during the course of events.

Now if only one of those comparisons had taken place we could say it was a coincidence. Christmas fits the theme of a tower of blazing lights. Stark was mad about Phil’s death. Jonah did go into the belly of a great fish and the leviathan Stark was fighting looked a lot like one as well. But all three together? That’s too much to be coincidence. Three is a number human beings like, three is the number of acts in the typical story, three is the number of times the comparison is made. Not accidentally. Deliberately.

Joss Whedon wrote this script and he’s an incredibly literate, articulate and artistic man. He knew the significance of the words he was putting in Tony’s mouth and he knew the picture they would paint. Tony isn’t serious when he compares lighting up Stark Tower to Christmas. He doesn’t want a religion built around Iron Man, although he probably wouldn’t mind being seen as a more conventional savior.

But when Phil dies it exposes something that Stark lacks and he’s trying to figure out what it is. He thinks Phil had it and as a result the humble Agent Coulson becomes the biggest thing in Stark’s mind. Thus for a moment Phil takes Stark’s place in the Avengers, at least in Stark’s opinion.

Finally, when JARVIS suggests Jonah isn’t a good role model Stark ignores it and treats the prophet as just that. He’s gone from not believing in heroes to recklessly following in their footsteps.

When world leaders deploy a nuke against the Chituari and threaten all of New York Tony Stark is a different man than he was at the beginning of the movie. He’s prepared to, as Steve Rogers put it, make the sacrifice play and lay down on the wire. Rarely do those who fail the Kobayashi Maru get a chance to redeem themselves. When Stark finds his he’s more than ready.

For a man pretty much defined by his ego and selfishness, it’s an incredible journey.

Of course a big part of what defines Stark’s journey is the constant presence of a man who has faced everything Stark hasn’t, and more than once. It’s ironic that Tony Stark spends most of the movie clearly of the opinion that Steve Rogers is naïve and out of touch but, when things go south, we find that it was really the other way around. While Iron Man is the most charismatic and charming of the Avengers, clearly it’s Captain America who is fit to lead them.

So next month let’s take a look at the man who’s struggle is one of the most relevant to the Avengers as a whole and the other characters individually. Come back in January and we’ll look at Captain Steve Rogers and the question of purpose.

Avengers Analyzed: Bruce Banner

The Avengers: Age of Ultron is coming next year and I’m kind of excited. Not sell-my-soul-for-an-early-screening excited, but I’m looking forward to it. One of the reasons I’m excited is that the first Avengers film did a truly exemplary job of drawing its large cast of characters and making them dynamic, relatable and fun. Even if you’d never seen a movie from the Marvel cinematic universe you could enjoy the film – I’d only seen Captain America: The First Avenger before I sat down to watch Marvel’s The Avengers and I still managed to follow everything quite well.

The Avengers was a masterpiece of tight writing and character conflict and, in preparation for Age of Ultron, I’m going to take the next several months to unpack the great writing in the first film one story arc at a time.

The best way to understand The Avengers is to view it not as one story but seven and to analyze those seven stories by their basic conflicts. The largest story is the story of Earth, represented by SHIELD and the Avengers, against Loki and the Chituari. The conflict is character(s) against character(s). But within that story there are six other stories taking place, each of which makes the larger story richer and helps us understand each of the individual characters in the story much better.

For today we’re going to start with the character who I think people who watched The Avengers understood the least: Bruce Banner and The Hulk.

Banner’s Background

Bruce Banner was an omnidisciplinarian scientist who was trying to replicate the supersoldier serum that gave Captain America his abilities. Instead he created a formula that made him invincible and unbelievably strong when enraged. It also takes a lot of his conscious thought process away and replaces it with instinct.

The Conflict

Bruce Banner’s conflict is character against himself. Bruce sees the Hulk as a horror that he must suppress and control or the people around him will be threatened.

We Meet Bruce Banner

“I’m going to talk to Stark. You’re going to talk to the big guy.” – Phil Coleson

We’re first given an idea of what the Hulk is when we see Agent Phil Coleson sending Agent Natasha Romanov out to retrieve him. Phil says she’s off to see “the big guy,” a statement she initially misunderstands. When she realizes what Coleson means we see the first sign of genuine intimidation from her in the film. Remember that, before this, she’s performed a reverse interrogation on a bunch of bloodthirsty Russians who she then beat up and showed no reverence at all when talking about one of the most intelligent and wealthy men on the planet (hint: Tony Stark). Clearly, the big guy is someone special.

We finally meet Bruce as he’s washing up after a medical procedure in India. He’s helping the poor there, probably the “untouchables” who are the lowest rung of Hindu society. He follows a girl who begs for his help with no question and as fast as he can. From this we see both deep compassion and intelligence in Banner’s willingness and ability to solve medical problems amidst extreme poverty… as well as a tendency to plunge into situations without thinking that Romanov exploits to cause their meeting.

Banner’s Starting Point 

“The other guy spat it back out.” – Bruce Banner 

On meeting Banner, Romanov congratulates Bruce on not having an “incident” in over a year. The she asks, “What’s your secret?”

“No secret,” Bruce replies. This moment is important for two reasons – first, the idea that Banner has a secret is going to be tied back to his character progression at each significant point and second, this is the first sign of Banner’s problem, his unwillingness to admit The Hulk is a part of him. To Banner, the Hulk is literally another person, as if he’s Dr. Jekyll and The Hulk is his Mr. Hyde.

Now this is be a legitimate angle on Banner/Hulk taken with The Hulk in the comics but for the purposes of this analysis the comics have no bearing on this movie and I don’t think that’s the angle the script writers actually envision when thinking about Banner/Hulk so we have to understand Banner’s development as a conflict between one personality facet – The Hulk – and the rest of Bruce Banner.

Banner has concluded The Hulk is to be avoided and, if he does show up, fought back down until Banner is again in control. Banner is at war with himself, although he won’t admit to it.

Romanov and Bruce continue their verbal sparring, Natasha trying to manipulate him and Banner seeing through the game. Finally Bruce decides to give in but reminds Natasha that he’s dangerous and she’d better be ready for that and, at the same time, lets the audience know that ultimately lies and trickery are meaningless against The Hulk’s rage.

Remember that, because it will be important later.

First Bridge

“Oh no, this is much worse.” – Bruce Banner 

Since no one character can get anything like center stage in The Avengers, Banner fades into the background a bit while other things happen. But in this period of time we continue to see his genius for science applied and a total avoidance of things that might bring out The Hulk.

And again, Bruce does his best to ignore the elephant in the room. Aside from the occasional comment about air-tight, pressurized containers he steadfastly refuses to acknowledge that he’s unusual in any way other than maybe a bit smarter than normal. By the end of this quiet period Loki has been captured and brought aboard the Helicarrier, Banner has met Tony Stark and the two are tasked with finding the Tesseract.

Banner Begins to Change

“I’m a huge fan of the way you loose control and turn into an enormous green rage monster.” – Tony Stark 

Most characters in The Avengers evolve in three steps – where they are when they start out, their pivot point and where they end up. Banner’s pivot point comes as Tony jabs him in the side and then congratulates him on maintaining control. Once again the question gets asked. “What’s your secret?”

Again, Banner answers, “No secret.”

Banner is still in denial but Stark has a perspective on Bruce’s situation that Natasha does not. Romanov is an expert manipulator but has no insight into the difficulties that come with suddenly have power thrust upon you – she’s fought her whole life to get what power she has – while Tony went through a similar experience to Bruce’s when he became Iron Man. Even Stark, with his enormous ego, struggled with what to do with himself after his time as a prisoner in Afghanistan. In some ways Stark had a harder time of it but ultimately Banner had to face a part of himself he found truly horrific which makes their experiences a bit different.

Fortunately Stark has enough people sense to see what’s holding Banner back and he suggests that the bizarre set of circumstances that has changed his life happened for a purpose and that, in point of fact, becoming The Hulk might actually have been a good thing. Banner can’t see what that purpose is but the thought has been planted in his mind and it changes the direction of his character from there on out.

Second Bridge

“Target is angry!” – Anonymous Pilot 

Most of the Hulk’s second bridge between characterization points is an action set piece but it’s bookended by some important events. First is the moment he hulks out for the first time. The Helicarrier is under attack, Romanov and Banner wind up getting hurt in the carnage and Romanov is trying to keep Banner calm by promising that he’ll be fine and he’ll get out of this. Then she says something she shouldn’t have. “I swear on my life.”

If you watch closely you might notice Banner was starting to shrink back down to a more normal size just before she says this. Now he surges back and forth a bit before finally Hulking up after Romanov says this so it may have just been him still in the midst of his transformation. It might be nothing. But the fact that he latches onto the phrase and repeats it suggests something interesting.

I don’t think Banner ultimately hulks out because he’s hurting, although his frank recounting of his suicide attempt at the beginning of his character arc tells us that could happen. Bruce becomes enraged because someone who’s already hurt and in a bad situation is offering to endure even worse problems in order to help others and Banner feels powerless to do anything about it. So he transforms into the Hulk, who does.

Not that the Hulk actually helps things, but that’s because Bruce is fighting the Hulk every step of the way. He still sees “the other guy” as a problem to be avoided rather than another talent, like his genius, which is helpful at some times and useless at other times.

Fast forward several minutes. Bruce is picking himself up off the ground in the rubble of a warehouse and a janitor is telling him he came down where he did, in a place no one was around, not by coincidence or luck but by design. The Hulk was consciously trying to land someplace no one would get hurt.

And for the first time the idea that The Hulk wants to help people just as much as the rest of Bruce Banner does enters the mind of our hero.

Banner’s Conflict Resolved

“That’s my secret, Captain. I’m always angry.” – Bruce Banner/The Hulk

When Bruce rides into Manhattan on the sweetest hero ride ever, the Chituari have already made a mess of it. New York needs help and the brilliant mind of Bruce Banner is not the best tool for the job. Captain America suggests it might be time for him to try something else. “It might be a good time to get angry.”

Banner isn’t in denial any more. The Hulk isn’t another person in his mind anymore. He has made peace with himself. Bruce wants to help the people of Manhattan and so does the Hulk. It’s he did it.

Bruce Banner is a man of compassion. Seeing people suffering at the hands of aliens they’ve never heard of and did nothing to provoke makes him angry. And so does seeing people sick and dying in poverty in India. And so does being lied to about the things SHIELD was doing with the Tesseract. In fact, he’s a smart enough man to realize that every second of every day something horrible is happening to someone, somewhere and he’s empathetic enough that the fact enrages him, even if it’s just the smallest bit. He’s never acted on that rage because he didn’t think it could make a difference.

That was before the Hulk.

And on the streets of New York it was time to finally admit his secret. It wasn’t that he didn’t get angry. The secret, of course, is that he always is. But now he accepts that he can use it for good, and he proceeds to do so.

Unless you’re the Chituari, of course.

Confrontation with Loki

“Puny god.” – Bruce Banner/The Hulk

Every Avenger in the story confronts Loki at some point during the story but the Hulk is special because he is the only one to confront the Norse god of Trickery after his character’s arc is complete. All the others confront Loki during their arc or at it’s the completion. So it’s fitting that The Hulk is the Avenger who ends Loki’s ability to directly influence the larger conflict – The Hulk is the only one who confronts Loki when he is fully invested in the greater conflict and not distracted by his own personal conflict. Thus The Hulk has the entire breadth of his terrifying strength to bring to bear on Loki and Loki alone.

Also, as I mentioned at the beginning of Banner’s arc, Bruce/Hulk is not stopped or even slowed by deception. He cannot have his conviction shaken, his confidence moved or his attention distracted. The Hulk is far too simple to be confused by fine speeches or deterred by illusions. In The Hulk Loki met his one natural enemy and was defeated in one of the shortest and most brutal curb stomp battles a supervillain has ever faced.

On the whole I feel that Bruce has a great, dynamic character arc that hints at his character progression without having to spell it out. Unfortunately with six other stories going on around him that subtle, understated characterization doesn’t play as well as it might if his was the only character arc going on. This caused a lot of people to miss it in spite of each major point along the arc being highlighted by the word “secret.” Banner is very secretive about his being the Hulk, in fact he’s the only one of the four “super” heroes in the movie that has a secret identity. Tony Stark is a prominent industrialist who announced his identity at a press conference, Captain Steve Rogers was a prominent war hero and now has an exhibit in the Smithsonian and Thor is a literal legend in his own time.

Banner starts out ashamed of who he is and fears what might become of others if his power is allowed to go unchecked. Note that Banner doesn’t want the formula that made him duplicated or improved upon which is a major reason he’s in hiding. He also doesn’t believe The Hulk can think about the good of others or cooperate with other people, at least at first. This is a possibility that, for all his intelligence, other people have to explain to him. He’s a flawed character and doesn’t understand himself that well sometimes, but these are things that make him more realistic and actually help what could have been an over the top, one note character fit into a realistically portrayed character progression.

So, for having a well thought out character arc that’s told deftly and with every step in his growth well demonstrated (and mostly by action or reaction and not words), I consider Bruce Banner/The Hulk to be the best written character in The Avengers. But I don’t think he’s the one who went through the biggest change. So next month I hope you’ll join me as we take a look at Banner’s fellow genius Tony Stark to get an eye full of one of the biggest character shifts I’ve ever seen from a superhero in a single movie.