Wally Pfister, Oscar-winnning cinematographer of Inception and the Dark Knight trilogy, has referred to The Avengers as “appalling.” The soon-to-be director and longtime associate of Christopher Nolan recently blasted Marvel’s most successful film, stating, “they’d shoot from some odd angle and I’d think, why is the camera there? Oh, I see, because they spent half a million on the set and they have to show it off.”
Before I delve into the depth of his argument, my initial reaction is that Pfister is right. Sure, I was incredibly ticked off as soon as I read the word “appalling” attached to my favorite superhero team but I immediately remembered that weird scene at 1:09:26 where the audience saw everything upside down through Loki’s staff in the lab. I personally can’t think of any more shots that were confusing or “took me completely out of the movie” as they did Pfister, but I can kind of see where he’s coming from. The movie did indeed become quite chaotic towards the end and that understandably put off a few viewers.
But Pfister’s argument doesn’t end there. The cinematographer then goes on to state, “what’s really important is storytelling. None of it matters if it doesn’t support the story.” That is the point where I start to disagree.
Joss Whedon’s masterpiece isn’t an Oscar movie; it’s just a big, expensive excuse to watch a lot of superheroes smash stuff and it works wonderfully for that reason. The Avengers knows that its only depth is how far Loki’s face can get bashed in and that is what the action reflects. The movie’s has all the subtlety of a parade and prides itself in that insanity. Therefore, it logically follows that the action be loud and frenetic with a focus on flash and flair rather than refinement or delicacy; that is very contextual and in line with the story, so Pfister’s claim is quite unfounded.
And it is a little strange that Pfister doesn’t understand that the style of the story dictates the style of the action, seeing as how he combines the two so well in his own movies. In Inception, the action sequences were serene, which did well to reflect the Elysian state of dreaming. Obviously, it can be pointed out that the camera always lacked the kinetic energy of The Avengers but that wouldn’t be a fair criticism because Inception wasn’t trying to be as crazy as Marvel’s stalwart and a reasonable person would see that; Pfister, however, doesn’t.
In the Batman series, the action revolved around military-styled campaigns with a superhero coat of paint, as was appropriate for the realistic and gritty script. If someone were to start criticizing why Batman was not leaping off buildings with a lot of movement and fast-paced camera angles a la Hulk, that would clearly be unfair because the two stories are written in completely different styles. I am also certain Pfister would not enjoy it if someone made this criticism because it simply doesn’t gel with the story; why, then, is he insulting something different even though it is made for a completely different story?
I am not saying that there is something inherently wrong with Pfister’s argument about Marvel showing off the money they spent on the movie; The Avengers is very much a show-off film. However, that is what both the script and action are about: the ostentatious alternative to the realism of the Dark Knight. It’s one thing to say Marvel’s movie is dumb; I’ve heard that a lot and I agree. However, to say that its cinematography and action are not appropriate to the script is inaccurate and unfair. I certainty hope Pfister is above the concept of jealousy, because that really is a sign of pettiness. However, if he is going to make such an unsubstantiated claim, it will raise a few eyebrows about why he is attacking Batman’s biggest rival at the box office.