Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The Hero's Journey in The Avengers (2012)

The Avengers has shattered box office records, and it's understandable why. The film is fast-paced, action-packed, and fun. The characters draw the audience into their lives, and we experience all of the conflict and confrontation among them.

As I viewed the film, I wondered how the Hero's Journey fits into the story. After all, each of them has pretty much undergone their own journey. So how was this film different? Did they still undergo a journey? Or was it just a great story?

I've only seen the film once, but I believe that the Hero's Journey was indeed present in the story, not only for one character, but for all of them, and in different layers. Overall, I think that if you look closely, you can see the journey take place in all of their lives, but you can also see it in the team as a whole. Their overall journey is focused on their ability to function as a team and to accept themselves as a part of the greater whole. However, we can look at it through the eyes of individual characters as well. For this blog entry, I've chosen to focus on the journey Tony Stark undergoes. He's a key member of The Avengers, and his life is a major focus of the film, although one could argue who the central story arc truly belongs to.

Of course, some may differ on the stages of the Hero's Journey, and that is understandable. This is simply my take on it, through the experience of one key character as he interacts with the others. Be warned: there are major spoilers ahead, so if you haven't seen the film, stop here.

1. Ordinary World: At the beginning of the film, we see Tony's "normal" life. He's working to make the world a better place, not only as Iron Man, but also as Tony Stark, focusing on creating green energy with his Arc Reactor power. Stark Tower is his home in New York, and this is where the Hero's Journey will start and will end. We get a sense of what his life is like: he is continually developing new technology, and he is in a relationship with Pepper Potts. Overall, things are going well for him.
2. Call To Adventure: Although various threads of the storyline are happening without Tony's knowledge, for him the Call To Adventure occurs with a visit from S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Phil Coulson. He tries to convince Tony that he is needed, that Nick Fury requests his assistance in something related to the Avengers Initiative.
3. Refusal of the Call:  Tony, having been spurned by Fury earlier, declines. He's happy with his life right now and doesn't want to get involved. He rejects Coulson's proposal, but Pepper takes the information from him anyway.

4. Meeting with the Mentor: In a sense, Tony has already met with his mentor, Nick Fury. Fury is the man who pushed Tony along through the difficulties of becoming and of being Iron Man. Only it takes Tony a lot of thought to consider what Fury is asking him to do.
5. Crossing the Threshold: Finally deciding to get involved, Tony shows up at an event where Captain America is already engaged in fighting the story's villain, Loki. As Iron Man, Tony assists S.H.I.E.L.D. in capturing Loki and bringing him back with them. Tony has officially crossed over into the "Special World" of the beginning of The Avengers and is now a part of this battle for the survival of humanity. His life will never be the same.

6. Tests, Allies, Enemies: Tony does battle with the Norse God Thor during their first meeting until Captain America intervenes and gets them to trust each other. Other heroes emerge, including Black Widow and Dr. Bruce Banner, the man with the anger management issues. Tony gravitates toward Banner, who is also a brilliant scientist.

7. Approach: The heroes try to figure out Loki's plan.They begin to form a bond, but the evil Loki something else up his sleeve. He begins manipulating those in the group, and Captain America discovers that S.H.I.E.L.D. might have a bit more planned than they've disclosed. The group begins to argue, and Loki is able to escape with the help of some outside individuals.

8. Ordeal:  Tony risks his life to try and save the helicarrier they are on, and ultimately succeeds, but not without loss. Hulk and Thor are gone, and Loki has killed Agent Coulson. Loki is gone, and the team is split up. It seems that defeat is inevitable. They have failed to learn how to function as a team, and it seems that there is nothing else that they can do.

9. Reward:  The Reward is that Stark survived, but it is bittersweet. Nick Fury gives them a talk, and relates to them how Agent Coulson was a true believer in The Avengers Initiative. It is this talk that pushes Tony Stark over the Edge. He and Captain America are more committed than ever, even though the rest of the team may be gone. They realize where Loki is opening the portal from, Stark Tower.

10. The Road Back: Tony goes back to the tower to confront Loki, and narrowly escapes falling to his death. Tony has his new Iron Man suit equipped, but the invasion has begun. The alien race of the Chitauri overwhelms the heroes, and Iron Man is the only one who is able to take to the air battle. The team begins to come together and works to defeat the Chitauri, but more keep coming from the portal. Dr. Banner comes back and, as Hulk, provides some much-needed support during the fight. He even subdues Loki while Black Widow reaches the top of Stark Tower. There she speaks with Dr. Selvig, who reveals that all is not lost.Tony learns from Black Widow that Loki's staff can close the portal. Humanity can be saved. They have confronted the enemy and will have victory... but there's a problem. Tony Stark learns that the directors of S.H.I.E.L.D. have decided to override Nick Fury and have send a nuclear weapon to level Manhattan.

11. Resurrection: Tony realizes what he must do, and as Iron Man, takes hold of the missile, steering it back toward Stark Tower, where the journey began. He can send it through the portal before they close it. It will result in the salvation of the human race. But it will also be a one-way ticket for Stark. Still, Tony Stark decides to go through with it. He is, after all, different from the Tony Stark at the beginning of this journey. The audience can sense a difference. At the beginning, he was self-centered and egotistical, caring only for himself. Now, he's part of a greater cause, and will sacrifice himself for this cause. He takes the weapon through the portal, and though it detonates as it strikes the Chitauri ship, The Avengers know they must close the portal. But all is not lost, after all. The blast propels Tony back into our world just before the portal closes, and he is saved. He experiences not only a personal resurrection moment as the old Tony dies and a new one is born in his decision, but a physical resurrection as well. He has shown us that the story has been worth our time; something of value has been gained.

12. Return with the Elixir: As Loki awakes, we learn what the elixir is that the team has brought from the journey. They are now a force to be reckoned with, and they will defend the Earth. As we see Tony with Pepper again, back in the Ordinary World yet changed, we know that the journey has been worth it. The Avengers have assembled.

Note: this post was revised and updated on 8/28/12.  

Sunday, May 6, 2012

The Avengers (2012): Reviewing the Journey

Normally, I prefer movies that focus on character development and plot rather than special effects and over-the-top action sequences. Luckily, The Avengers (2012) gives us both.

I'll admit, I was a bit weary when I heard that all of the Marvel superhero films were building toward an Avengers film. With so many characters, how could the film possible do them all justice while maintaining a tightly-written and engaging plot? Would the movie be too "crowded" with characters? After all, superhero films that have tried to have too many subplots and villains have always registered on the weaker side. Would The Avengers meet the same fate?

I'm happy to say that it did not. Not only was the film fast and fun to watch, but it remained true to its core characters and their individual storylines while opening up a brand new one. I think the movie works so well due to a few key components: an intriguing story, captivating heroes and villains, and conflict. If you haven't seen the movie, there are spoilers ahead, so read on at your own risk.

First, the story was well-told. It tied in the characters from the Iron Man films, Thor, The Incredible Hulk, and Captain America. However, if you haven't seen any or all of these films, the information you need to know is provided to you seamlessly through the film as the story progresses. The plot deals with a primal need: survival. In this case, survival from an impending alien invasion led by Loki, brother of Thor. The heroes slowly come together and meet each other, each drawn into the struggle for a specific purpose. Things fall apart quickly, though, and they must learn to set aside their differences and work as a team.

Even though they form as a team, by themselves they are dynamic and multi-layered. Of course, there is Dr. Bruce Banner, the scientist with anger issues. We can sense his frustration as he struggles with his identity and how others see him. Black Widow wants to escape her blood-filled past, hoping to find redemption. Tony Stark thinks that he can handle things alone as Iron Man, a fact that irks Captain America. Thor desperately wants to reach out to his brother Loki, trying to find the good in him and call him back home. We feel sympathy for him, as we do for Loki, knowing that if Thor cares this much about him, there might be a reason for us to care for him, too. In Loki, we see a struggling villain, one who desires power and adoration.

Overall, conflict drives the film. Not just the conflict between the good guys and bad guys, but also among the good guys. Midway through the film, the heroes began fighting among themselves. Tony Stark calls Steve Rogers nothing but a glorified science experiment, prompting Steve to challenge Tony to "put on the suit!" At their first meeting, Iron Man and Thor fight, and both Thor and Black Widow have run-ins with The Hulk. No one can seem to get along, and yet they must if they're to be able to save the world. We know they'll come together and assemble, and so the conflict is what keeps us watching. We know they'll save the day; we want to see what happens to them as they try to save themselves.

As I watched this film, I wondered who it follows most. Whose Hero's Journey story does it tell? After all, in each character's previous movie, their own Hero's Journey story was told. But I think that in this film, each character can be seen as having their own Hero's Journey unfold. Whereas their previous films told the beginning journeys of their lives as heroes, this film tells their journeys as they become a team.

The Avengers is a great movie to look at from a writer's perspective. It has a well-structured story, one that is easy to follow and yet full of characters who are individually dynamic. But best of all, it has plenty of conflict, both from within and from without. And it's the conflict among the characters that makes this story a fun experience.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The Ideas Continue to Attack

In between teaching and taking care of my family, I try to find time to write and to plan for other projects. Lately, there seems to be just too many ideas that are attacking me.

Right now, I have several projects I am trying to balance:
  • Writing for this blog on a regular basis, which I admittedly do not do enough.
  • A companion novel for my novel Redemption. This one would take the mystical character from the first novel and introduce him into the life of a different character. Whereas the first novel was told from first-person POV, this one would be third person.
  • A novel about an alien invasion, one in which the plot would be told through the eyes of the protagonist, yet done in a unique way.
  • My "superhero" novel. I've always wanted to write a book about a superhero, but to do so on page is more difficult than I had thought. Finally, I realized I had a way to do this when an idea popped into my head for a science fiction/fantasy story. Although the main character will not be a traditional superhero, I think the story fits best into the "Superhero" story type as described by Blake Snyder in his wonderful book Save the Cat! I like to think of the story as "Indiana Jones-meets-John Carter-meets-TRON Legacy."
  • I look back at my first attempt at a YA novel, Chupacabra, and while the story wasn't too bad, I've learned a lot about structure and character development since then. I remember how one agent said that your first novel is sort of like your "practice" novel, and I agree. Since the chupacabra phenomenon has died down, I have planned to abandon this storyline. However, I still like the concept of cryptozoolgy, and I have found a way to use the concept in its most basic, bare-bones form, and plan to develop it. Watching the television show Fringe is certainly inspiring for this.
  • I am still planning on developing the nonfiction book about faith issues in LOST, and have mapped out the topics for each chapter. I just need time to sit down and to write it.
  • I have also always wanted to do a book on spiritual lessons found in Hollywood films. I hate hearing how movies are full of trash today, as I think that they have great redeeming value. I remember going to see the M. Night Shyamalan movie Signs expecting a great science fiction tale, and left with a wonderful, unanticipated message about faith. I see this in so many films that I would like to bring all of these ideas together into one source.
I definitely have a lot of work ahead of me. That, plus my normal teaching job and taking several postgraduate courses over the summer will make life busy. I'm lucky to have a supportive wife who pushes me to pursue this. It may be tiring, but as long as the ideas keep attacking, I'll keep managing.