The Empty Balcony: The Avengers, or, the War of the MacGuffin

Dictionary.com defines MacGuffin as “an object or event in a book or film that serves as the impetus for the plot.” Wikipedia goes further, defining it as “a plot device in the form of some goal, desired object, or other motivator that the protagonist (and sometimes the antagonist) is willing to do and sacrifice almost anything to pursue, often with little or no narrative explanation as to why it is considered so desirable (emphasis added).” Alfred Hitchcock is credited with popularizing the term in the movie industry, employing it himself, even turning Cary Grant into a MacGuffin in North by Northwest.

The Avengers falls somewhere between the two definitions. There is a MacGuffin, in the form of the Tesseract, a powerful object that can provide all the energy the planet needs for the foreseeable future. Or it can be used to develop new forms of weapons of mass destruction. Or it can be used to open a portal to other dimensions or places in space. In short, it is the singularly most desirable object in the universe, and Samuel L. Jackson has it. So, its importance is not all that mysterious. Its possessor becomes immensely powerful, and there’s nothing vague about the desire to acquire power. But, it’s not so simple. Why this MacGuffin does have a narrative explanation attached to it comes after the fact. That is, the filmmakers (director and credited screenwriter Joss Whedon, Zak Penn, the folks at Marvel, the Committee on Acceptable Popular Culture, etc.) had a team of superheroes, a team of villains, a location to blow up, and plenty of budget, so they needed something to drive the plot. Enter the MacGuffin. I would argue that instead of the ambiguous between state, a third variable could be added to the definition of the MacGuffin.

MacGuffin, noun
  1. an object or event in a book or film that serves as the impetus for the plot
  2. a plot device in the form of some goal, desired object, or other motivator that the protagonist (and sometimes the antagonist) is willing to do and sacrifice almost anything to pursue, often with little or no narrative explanation as to why it is considered so desirable
  3. an object, plot device, or event in a book or film added to a story by its creators after initial plot development in order to explain why things have gone so hairy

It’s a subtle difference, to be sure. But it’s there. In the first and second instances, characters and plot follow MacGuffin. In the third, the MacGuffin is added to justify the characters’ existences.

And there’s The Avengers in a nutshell. Marvel and Disney have a hot commodity they’ve been building in theaters for the last few years, ever since the first Iron Man film, and that fruit is ripe for the picking. The characters just needed something worth fighting over. And it had to be big. After all these films — Iron Man, Iron Man 2, The Incredible Hulk (but not The Hulk, weirdly), Thor, and Captain America: The First Avenger — the worldwide audience couldn’t be let down with subtleties or nuance or anything like that. It’s brilliant, actually. So many action movies waste precious onscreen time with character development. This new Marvel cinematic franchise got that out of the way years ago, and took in huge paydays doing so. It’s in The Avengers where all this preparation pays off. Considering the film has taken in over a billion bucks worldwide in only weeks of release…mission accomplished, suits.

I had a professor in college in a film class once who told us that every movie ever made could be broken down into three paragraphs. First paragraph: general factual information about the film — director, writer, year produced, etc. Second paragraph: plot — what happened in the film. Third paragraph: what paradigm the film fits into. My professor would say a film is either biblical, humanist, or a reasonable combination of both. All this, in three paragraphs.

To illustrate his point, he showed us his doctoral thesis. One of his professors way back in his day, rather than read the weighty, academic tome our professor had turned in, had demanded a summary totaling no more than 12 pages. My professor had taken his pretentious, big-worded, thoroughly researched scholarly work and had gutted it of everything that meant nothing, and presented his professor with the summary. My professor, feeling none of us were doctoral candidates, would demand nothing on the order of 12 pages, but would demand we use the same spirit of brevity in analyzing the films we viewed in class. I bring this up, not because this review follows the three-paragraph rule, but because it’s time to get to the nitty-gritty of this film — the part where I really break it down. And I’m a bit lost. For fifteen years I’ve known how to get at a film’s essence in three paragraphs, although I rarely do so. But when I do apply the formula, I have little trouble. But The Avengers. My goodness. There’s just so much going on. Belatedly, let’s give it a shot.

From this year, The Avengers, directed by Joss Whedon, stars Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, and Samuel L. Jackson, reprising their roles from earlier films. Mark Ruffalo has been added to the cast as the Hulk. Clark Gregg and Gwyneth Paltrow return for supporting roles, portraying Phil Coulson and Pepper Potts, respectively. The film is the latest entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and was distributed by Disney using a post-production 3D conversion. The running time is 143 minutes.

The evil Loki, loosely based on the Norse god of the same name and played by Tom Hiddleston, attacks a secret base run by the organization S.H.I.E.L.D., and makes off with the Tesseract, a powerful device that can unlock the secrets of the universe for the benefit of, or the detriment to, humanity. Nick Fury (Jackson), the leader of S.H.I.E.L.D., enlists the help of scattered superheroes to retrieve the Tesseract. Known as the Avenger Initiative, the diverse group consists of Iron Man (Downey), Captain America (Evans), the Hulk (Ruffalo), Thor (Hemsworth), and Black Widow (Johansson). After capturing Loki, the Helicarrier, S.H.I.E.L.D.’s floating aircraft carrier of immense proportions, is attacked by Loki’s men in an attempt not only to free their leader, but also to sow discord among the Avengers. Defeated but not broken, and having rescued their captured comrade Hawkeye (Renner), the Avengers instead rally. The film climaxes with a full-blown alien invasion, made possible by the Tesseract, in the streets of Manhattan, which the Avengers must counter if the earth is to be saved.

While there are supernatural beings in The Avengers, in the forms of Loki and Thor, Judeo-Christian tendencies are lacking in plot and execution. Indeed, one of the central themes of the film is that humanity can depend on no help from the outside, be if allies from another world or from the realm of the supernatural. About midway through, Fury explains that the Tesseract is not only a means to bring to humanity a source of unlimited clean energy, but also the means to develop dreadful weapons of mass destruction, whose first intent is to act as a deterrent against alien invasion. Despite the paradox of the very presence of the Tesseract being excuse enough for invasion, the practicality of Fury’s and S.H.I.E.L.D.’s preparations display a purely Humanist perspective on the possibility of said invasion. The Avengers themselves, while engaged in battle, call upon no higher power nor invoke any mysterious methods in pursuing victory. They fight bloodily and alone, six diverse people standing against an alien horde. Had there been any intention to fit the film into a biblical paradigm, then would have been the time.

And that, ladies and gentleman, is how you get an ‘A’ in film analysis at Kent State University in 1998.

But is it any good? No, it wasn’t. Half of my brain was entertained by all the action. The other half was agitating, louder than usual, arguing for me to walk out of the theater. That’s peculiar. I don’t quit a lot of movies before they’re done. Normally, it takes quite a lot of boredom for me to check out. But, despite all the action going on up on the screen, I can say there was a fair amount of boredom attached to it. There was nothing new or unexpected happening up there (apart from some welcome moments of slapstick from Whedon), and all the noise seemed to bleed together into a kind of action static. It was snow on a television screen.

What I saw on that screen was a 2-liter bottle of Coca-Cola, a box of Kraft mac and cheese. It took no chances, broke no new ground, and was designed to make money on the worldwide audience, which is even more notoriously accepting of formulaic crap than American audiences.