1.5 Reviews: The Cabin in the Woods and The Avengers

23:54 Sun 20 May 2012
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I’ll start with the half-review first: I enjoyed The Cabin in the Woods more than any other movie I’ve seen this year. It was clever, well-written, amusing, and delivered a very satisfying combination of genre-tweaking and genre-fulfilling elements.

It’s a half-review because I don’t want to spoil any of it. It’s not a gore-fest, and should be reasonably fun for non-horror fans—many of the horror tropes it plays with are well-known outside the genre, so you don’t have to be an expert on horror movies to enjoy those aspects of it.

It respects the genre, while not taking it or itself too seriously, and creates an internally-consistent cosmology that embraces more or less the rest of the horror genre and allows the movie to play with almost any horror elements it wants. It’s definitely funny, and occasionally descends into silliness (my suspicion is that this is Joss Whedon’s influence, but I could be wrong), but not to the extent that it undermines the film overall.

I particularly love that the premise of the film could well have come from a prolonged questioning of the genre, of other movies in the genre, of putting those other movies together and asking “what might explain these?”

Onto The Avengers, another genre film with Joss Whedon involvement. It’s been racking up the box office records, but has also received a lot of critical acclaim, particularly among critics friendly to comics. Alyssa Rosenberg went so far as to suggest that The Avengers is such an exemplar of the form that it’s time to move on to comic book movies about relationships, as the “save the world” plot has been done so well.

While I think the character-driven plotlines she suggests are fine ideas, and would also like to see them used in future movies, The Avengers had some serious problems, certainly problems that need to be fixed before the genre—or formula—can be considered “solved”.

It did an excellent job at presenting the members of the team, all of whom except Hawkeye felt like individual with plausible personalities. Hawkeye’s character suffered because he spent most of the movie as a mind-controlled servant of Loki, so a lack of development there is understandable. All the rest were done extremely well while remaining thoroughly true to their origins. Tony Stark got the bulk of the best lines without always coming out on top of the exchanges, Mark Ruffalo did excellent work with Bruce Banner, Scarlett Johansson did well with Natalia Romanova, and the others were also strong. The heroes’ characters, the relationships between them, and the resulting dialogue, were the biggest strengths of the movie.

The biggest weaknesses were the villains, the threat, and the finale, all of which are intertwined, and each of which served to undermine the others.

The villains were represented primarily by Loki, who wasn’t bad. He was better earlier on, but the more he spoke the less convincing he seemed, and while part of that was probably deliberate (Loki’s not supposed to be the most coherent of characters), part of it was also due to forays into predictable delusions of grandeur which were met with equally-predictable successful resistance. More importantly, early in the film it was possible to believe that his scheme to take over the world made some kind of sense—but as more was revealed, the more apparent the holes in the plot became. His allies were an alien race called the Chitauri, whose depiction in The Avengers was incredibly generic, as if the writers had distilled the most bland and uninteresting characteristics from every other blockbuster alien-invasion movie.

These Chitauri were the threat, as the plot centered on Loki’s attempts to open a portal through which they could invade. They are supposedly an unstoppable super-army, and the plot relies on the notion that if they were to gain a foothold on Earth, they could conquer it with relative ease. Such a plot is forgivable—but not if it later undermines itself by revealing the “unstoppable super-army” threat to actually be a clueless bunch of incompetents with no discernible plan and no grasp of strategy or tactics.

That’s what the final third of The Avengers does to itself, taking a sharp turn into Michael Bay territory and opting for a rehash of the “let’s have a big fight in New York City” scenes that have been done countless times before. It’s certainly fun to see the various characters get to use their abilities in that environment, and the movie’s strengths are still on display to some extent, but it’s all dragged down by an apparent requirement to paint by the numbers laid out in the summer blockbuster formula.

Fantastical genres take liberties with many things, and that’s fine, because otherwise they wouldn’t be fantastical. The laws of physics can be entirely reconfigured (S.H.I.E.L.D. Helicarrier, anyone?), and individuals imbued with mysterious and incredible powers—but this does not obviate the requirements for internal consistency and for other kinds of realism, particularly psychological and political (the two are intertwined). The superhero genre even gets something of a pass on the former, since internal consistency gets tricky when so many apparently god-like beings are wandering around, but the latter is still necessary. Not everything has to be on the level of Watchmen[1], but if the opposition turn out to be a collection of idiots, that renders the struggles of the heroes rather less compelling—and those struggles are the core of the story.

In the finale, we’re asked to believe that:

  • The Chitauri have made no preparation for, and further have no defense against, nuclear weapons, despite clearly having a lot of information about Earth.
  • S.H.I.E.L.D. and the shadowy S.H.I.E.L.D. council, despite having plenty of advance warning that the Chitauri would be coming through a portal at some point, made no preparation for and in fact never even considered sending nuclear weapons through that portal to deal with the invasion force.
  • Further, without coming up with that obvious idea, the council instead ordered the use of nuclear weapons to destroy New York (and the portal, in fairness, but still).
  • The Chitauri, despite having been waiting around to invade through this portal, don’t appear to have any coherent plan—instead they just send troops and some vehicles through the portal to rampage around New York scaring civilians and causing property damage, neither of which fulfill any tactical or strategic objectives.
  • Similarly, despite their entire invasion being reliant on the portal, they make no effort whatsoever to secure the device that’s keeping it open.

The idiocy of the Chitauri, and the lack of any goals on their part other than “drive down Manhattan property prices”, undermine Loki’s character—he’s presented as being quite reliant on them, and while it’s pointed out that the whole thing doesn’t seem to have any possible good ending for him, he also doesn’t seem to have any real plan, which is completely unlike a trickster god.

Compounding all of this is the fact that a small band of superheroes are just not really suited to fighting off an invasion by themselves; that’s simply not a good fit. The plot backed itself into a corner with that threat and then dumbed-down the threat to allow the heroes to defeat it, which is just lazy writing.

What really gets me about this is that the first two-thirds of the movie present some clear possibilities for a decent ending, even one that keeps the “rampage in New York” trope. Here’s how they should have done it:

  • Loki is planning to double-cross the Chitauri, and opens the portal for a moment in order to get it under his control, then proceeds to do something else with it, denying the Chitauri (who he doesn’t really trust) the chance to move many forces through.
  • The Chitauri are able to only send a small group through—this is an advance force of their elite troops.
  • Loki uses the power of the Tesseract to enslave a subset of this advance force.
  • This sets up a three-way fight: Loki, who has the Tesseract and a small group that includes some Chitauri; the rest of the Chitauri; and the Avengers.
  • All three are fighting over the portal/Tesseract, with competing (but discrete, rational, and realistic!) objectives.
  • Since the portal is still located in the middle of Manhattan, property damage requirements can still be fulfilled by this plot.
  • Since the Chitauri will be fighting the Avengers with some purpose, the “threaten and then save some civilians” plot requirement can also be fulfilled, as the Chitauri will see civilians as a way to distract the Avengers from trying to control the portal/Tesseract.
  • This setup gives Loki a chance to switch sides numerous times, as befitting a trickster god.
  • You could still throw in the “nuclear threat from the council” development, this time without the obvious “shouldn’t they try nuking the enemy first?” question applying.
  • With smaller numbers of higher-powered antagonists, it’s a fight that superheroes are actually suited for, thus providing more opportunities to show that the teamwork the Avengers are developing is a significant advantage (which is one of the themes of the movie).
  • The fact that the Avengers struggle to defeat a small group of Chitauri establishes that the original threat—of full-blown Chitauri invasion—was a serious one, rather than undermining it by revealing the alien army to be commanded by, and composed of, idiots.
  • (By requiring the defeat of only the advance forces, there’s no chance to use the old “blow up the mothership and they all die” canard, which I still can’t believe they actually employed in the movie.)
[1] Although that would be great.

One Response to “1.5 Reviews: The Cabin in the Woods and The Avengers

  1. jeffliveshere Says:

    I don’t disagree with much of what you say here, and yet none of it bothered me. Yes, we’ve seen big fights in NYC before (a lot, I think), but this one was done so well, I didn’t even think about the others. I don’t love Loki in the comics (maybe because I never had a brother?), but I think he’s a great villain in this movie. Maybe my standards have dropped too low, but I was just fine with a generic army of (idiot?) enemies–that’s a time-honored comic book trope in itself, I think.

    That said, I like all of your changes…

    Cabin in the Woods was really solid. I wanted a few more layers/surprises, but that’s not a criticism at all, just a desire.

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