Michael Lee is a writer, script consultant, script reader and judge. He’s worked as a creative executive for a few production companies and as reader and judge for some of the most prestigious screenwriting contests in the country including PAGE and Final Draft Big Break. He’s recently optioned his latest project: a science-fiction comedy entitled How to Conquer the Earth. Follow Michael on Facebook and Twitter: @GoldenAgeofGeek.
After the success of Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor, and Captain America: First Avenger the Marvel Cinematic Universe Phase One reached its climax with The Avengers. Nothing like this had ever been tried before in movies. Five separate high-budget films had served as the prelude to this one film. So to say a lot was riding on this film was an understatement. The film surpassed expectations, breaking records both here and abroad. It garnered near universal acclaim. Its effects on the movie industry are still being felt.
But as we’ve seen, sometimes Marvel movies work in spite of their villains not because of them. And for the first time the movie would feature a villain who had already made his big screen debut. As in the original 1963 comic, Loki would be the villain. How did Marvel handle the second go around for the God of Mischief.
As last time a warning; SPOILERS AHEAD.
The Movie : The Avengers
The Supervillain: Loki
We already covered Loki when he made his first appearance in Thor, do we really need to take a second look at him as an antagonist? Yes, we do, for a variety of reasons. First and foremost, this time Loki is the antagonist not to a single hero but to a whole team of heroes. How does that make a difference?
To answer that I’m going to go off the Marvel reservation a bit and take a look at what is widely regarded as the best cinematic supervillain ever; Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight. The Youtube channel Lessons From the Screenplay has an excellent video on what makes the Joker such a fantastic antagonist in that film. To paraphrase, the Joker doesn’t just oppose Batman, he challenges him. He presents the Caped Crusader with a problem that his normal approach can’t solve. That’s what makes the film so enjoyable and genuinely tense.
But how does a single villain effectively challenge a whole group of superheroes?
In terms of “power level” the movie solves that pretty quickly. Loki is given a powerful weapon and command of his own alien army. But that’s not how he challenges the Avengers. His strategy isn’t to overwhelm them but to tear them apart. That’s what makes his role in this movie different from his role in Thor. Here he’s opposing a group by attacking the bonds that keep them together in the first place.
That’s the key part of any superhero team; why are they together in the first place. To step away from Marvel Studios again, Magneto has been the antagonist in all of the X-Men franchise (save for the Wolverine and Deadpool entries) because he attacks the glue that holds them together as a team. The X-Men are basically a social/political movement. Magneto shares their ultimate goals but advocates violence to achieve them. Whenever Magneto and the X-Men clash there’s always a dual threat at play. Not only might he beat them in battle, he might tempt one of their members over to his side. X-Men 2 made great use of this dynamic.
As a side note, with so many other superhero teams slated it’s important that screenwriters and producers pay attention to the key dynamic; what keeps these characters together? The Fantastic Four have yet to be featured in a satisfactory adaptation which is a shame because they are held together by the bonds of family, a potential dramatic goldmine for the right author. The Guardians of the Galaxy are a band of pirates. One of the keys to the upcoming Justice League movie will be if the creators can come up with a compelling group dynamic.
Going back to The Avengers they were formed by Nick Fury with the backing of SHIELD. As such they are more of a military unit. The problem is that not everyone is cut out to be a “good soldier.” As it turns out not even Captain America is the kind to just blindly follow orders. Loki is keenly aware of this throughout much of the second act as he subtly sows seeds of doubt in the Avengers.
Director and Screenwriter Joss Whedon also commits to Loki and turns the Asgardian into the film’s true main character. The story begins when Loki appears and it ends only after he’s taken back to Asgard by Thor. And the movie uses Loki the way X-Men 2 used Wolverine. When a script has a large ensemble cast it is helpful if the cast is “funneled” through one character. In The Avengers every member of the team has a moment of one-on-one time with Loki and they are some of the best and most memorable moments of the movie. There’s Captain America’s public confrontation, Black Widow’s fake out, Iron Man’s stall for time/ duel of words, and of course Hulk and his “puny god” smackdown.
On top of all that the movie also marks an important step in the development of Loki as a character. The word “anti hero” is thrown around a lot but not everyone has the courage to continue a character’s push down a dark path. More often than not when a villain reappears it’s the same character as last time with maybe cosmetic changes. Here the character has “grown,” if you want to call getting worse growth. Loki is in a very different place than he was in Thor. This is someone who is now whole heartedly embracing the role he has chosen. In Thor, there were small moments that looked like doubt or regret. But he’s using the bitterness of his previous defeat to drive away those feelings here. In his mind, there is no going back, only forward. And in his mind, taking his dreams of conquest and glory to Earth is actually a good act. He views the people of Earth as brutal and self destructive. He should be in charge because we’re too stupid and violent to rule ourselves.
The Avengers stands out not just as a fine piece of entertainment but also an excellent example of writing. Writer/director Joss Whedon had a lot on his plate when he took up the challenge of the first Avengers movie. And he passed all of them with flying colors in large part due to the way he utilized and treated the movie’s main villain.
The biggest drawback to The Avengers was that it could only happen once. Much like Lord of the Rings, it was a massive gamble and a risky experiment. It paid off. But having set the bar, Marvel once again had to find some way to match or even top it.
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