For our Marvel Monday column for the next two months, we will be reviewing all of the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies to prepare for our big review of The Avengers: Age of Ultron on May 1. (This Marvel Monday is particularly special, because it falls on a Friday. Don’t get confused. It’s just a preview of what to expect on Friday May 1.)
Of all the Marvel movies of recent years, The Avengers (2012) is DEFINITELY my favorite. First of all, it was written and directed by Joss Whedon. What can you expect but a well-paced, deeply character-driven plotline from the king of Buffy, Angel and Firefly? Ensemble cast movies can go incredibly, horribly wrong in a variety of ways, especially big-budget super hero action flicks. It’s so easy to lose one or multiple members of the cast to formulaic or missing plot points in these types of film, but everyone has a believable (but succinct) plot device to drive themselves into the group. It’s a beautifully nuanced work of art. (Remember when I said that ultimately Thor was setting everything up for something else? Well, this is it!)
I was recently at a leadership workshop through my volunteer work, and we were in a training session on Tuckman’s Stages of Group Development. He describes four stages of group development: Forming, Storming, Norming and Performing. The training leader at this workshop asked us to pick a real-life or fictional example to exemplified these principles of group development. I laughed to myself, turned to my group of six and said, “Let’s use The Avengers. It’s exactly all of these stages.” (Which is what really makes this movie so human and beautiful of a story.) We did, to some laughs of our adult peers, but also to a lot of head nodding and some surprising members who had never actually see The Avengers. (Go watch it, friends; go watch it!)
Forming: When we start out the movie, S.H.I.E.L.D., along their front man Ironman, knows that there is a big bad coming down the pike. Loki and his mind-control minions have taken the tesseract and threatened unknown ills down upon the head of all humanity. At the end of Thor, S.H.I.E.L.D. remains in control of the tesseract under the supervision of Dr. Selvig, which is an unfortunate turn of events for humanity, considering the Chitauri want it and might as well destroy humanity in the process. To quote Captain America, they should have left it in the ocean. Of course, Loki is not exactly displeased to wreak havoc on his brother’s favorite planet in the process. Given he manages to kill dozens, maybe hundreds of S.H.I.E.L.D. agents on the way out the door, it’s obvious to all that it’s time to call in the big guns.
Agent Coulson and Natasha Romanoff get to work forming a team that can handle this threat. Having seen the EXCELLENT arch of Agent Carter that involves the training of young Russian agents, it’s again a wonderful continuity to see Natasha’s skills both in combat (the interrogation scene) and in diplomacy (her persuasion of Dr. Banner). Ever move she makes is calculated, controlled, and yet in the very last instance of her negotiation with Bruce, when she wonders if he is going to Hulk-out, you see the barest touch of fear. It so perfectly encapsulates the dainty dance everyone weaves around people with super human powers.
Secondly, Mark Ruffalo, has now taken his rightful place as the Hulk. You can recall my deep obsession from such previous posts as “You Don’t Want to See Me When I’m Not Mark Ruffalo.” His performance of the Hulk is so believable, so moving that you both fear his monster and pity his soul. EXACTLY as you should! In rewatching it, I’m reminded what beautiful chemistry he has with Scarlett Johannsen.One can argue there are incredibly similar qualities between the character of Angel/Angelus and Bruce Banner/Hulk. The moral, controlled individual has to live with the memories and reality of the immoral, uncontrolled entity. It’s not wonder Joss Whedon can write him so well.
The rest of the group comes together and does this same dance of courtesy around each other, testing only slightly each other’s points of strength and weakness. The Forming Stage is characterized by team members being on their best behavior but very focused on themselves. Mature team members begin to model appropriate behavior even at this early phase, and you see this immediately in Captain America, who wants to focus on the task at hand, but begins to be baited by Ironman for his do-gooder ways. The forming stage takes up approximately 45 minutes of the movie as we are reminded of the background of all these characters and we get all the players of the story set into their places.
Nick Fury: I’m not leaving anything to anyone. We need a response team. These people may be isolated, unbalanced even, but I believe with the right push they can be exactly what we need.
Storming: The storming of the Avengers group comes quickly, as it often does when you have high quality, individually strong leaders. Ironman is egotistical (or, “volatile, self-obsessed”); Hulk is on edge; Thor is cocky and unaffected. Only Black Widow, who has lost a friend, and Captain America realize the gravity of the task at hand. (Seriously, how can you not just swoon at Captain America!) To be fair, the storming literally starts when Thor arrives and lightening-shocks the heck out of Ironman in their epic battle in the forest. (I do love a good pun!)
They sit around a table, debating what action to take. How to track the tesseract. How to stop Loki’s plan. (Best line of the movie from Dr. Banner: “I don’t think we should be focusing on Loki. That guy’s brain is a bag full of cats. You can smell crazy on him.”)
Thor: You speak of control, yet you court chaos.
Bruce Banner: It’s his M.O., isn’t it? I mean, what are we, a team? No, no, no. We’re a chemical mixture that makes chaos. We’re… we’re a time-bomb.
Norming: This stage is defined by the team managing to have one goal and come to a mutual plan for the project at this stage, but that things aren’t totally aligned. The movie weaves between these two stages, as the brains of the outfit (Banner and Stark) track the tesseract and the brawn (Rogers and Romanoff) get to the bottom of Loki’s (and S.H.I.E.L.D.’s) schemes. They don’t always come to the same conclusions either, and devolve easily back into conflict. Ultimately, the group can’t agree and things get heated, to the point that Bruce loses control, which of course, is what our villain Loki wanted all along. Nothing can tear a group apart like conflict from within. Loki doesn’t need to fight them; he just sets up the dominoes and lets them fall, as is wont his status as a trickster god.
Thor: Loki is a prisoner.
Nick Fury: Then why do I feel like he’s the only person on this boat that wants to be here?
The team vacillates between these for another 45-60 minutes of the movie as they find the way that their team can work together.
Performing: By this stage of group formation, the team is knowledgeable and competent to take actions independently of external leadership. For The Avengers, this is not an easy step to come by until they are given a reason: Coulson’s murder by Loki. (I don’t consider this a spoiler, considering he’s back alive and the main character of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. now.) His death though; ugh, still hurts me in my heart.
Tony Stark: The Avengers. That’s what we call ourselves; we’re sort of like a team. “Earth’s Mightiest Heroes” type thing.
Loki: Yes, I’ve met them.
Tony Stark: Yeah, takes us a while to get any traction, I’ll give you that one. But let’s do a head count here: your brother the demi-god; a super soldier, a living legend who kind of lives up to the legend; a man with breath-taking anger management issues; a couple of master assassins, and YOU, big fella, you’ve managed to piss off every single one of them.
Loki: That was the plan.
Tony Stark: Not a great plan. When they come, and they WILL, they’ll come for you.
Loki: I have an army.
Tony Stark: We have a Hulk.
And boy, do they perform. When they are working united against a common cause, there is nothing they cannot do! Their in-the-moment chemistry in battle more than adequately defies their previous storming. For the purposes of my workshop, this is the ultimate example of a task-focused group formation.
What do you think of The Avengers? Which film has been your favorite?
Or are you, like me, just generally left craving Shwarma?