At last year’s Comic-Con, one of the highlights was clearly The Avengers panel. As each of the actors was paraded out on the stage, it was our first glimpse of the team; the culmination of the studio’s four preceding years of work. This iconic assemblage in San Diego is of course tantamount to the appeal of The Avengers in the first place; bringing together a cadre of popular superheroes and housing them in one cinematic adventure. However, The Avengers was not the first film in recent years to attempt to capitalize on this concept.
In 2010, The Expendables was dropped upon nationwide multiplexes like a bomb. But instead of gunpowder and nitroglycerine, this bomb was loaded with as many classic action stars the studio could squeeze into one violent package. For weeks beforehand, the avid action cinema consumers were salivating in anticipation for the raucous throwback to the glory days of beef-headed, cheese-soaked destruction. Unfortunately for these fans, among whom I firmly count myself, The Expendables failed to deliver upon the promises of the advertising. It turned out to be a muddled, frustrating mess that couldn’t satisfy even our basest, and most basic expectations. The film is currently available on Netflix’s Watch Instantly service should you need a reminder of these shortcomings.
At this year’s Comic-Con, The Expendables 2 will be prominently featured as part of the exhibition. That’s right, later this year we’re getting a follow-up with even more action heroes of yesteryear dusted off and, in some cases, shoved out of retirement. The uphill battle for The Expendables 2, apart from the lingering sour taste the first one left in our mouths, is that it is being released in a post-Avengers theatrical climate. Joss Whedon was able to take a handful of epic heroes and deliver a film that was both impossibly entertaining and remarkably smart. So our bar for these heroic hodgepodges is now set much, much higher than it was in 2010. Though we may be comparing apples and gamma-ray-infected oranges, the good news is that there are a few lessons The Expendables 2 can take away from The Avengers to ensure it avoids the landmines that shredded the first.
The easy advice to throw out here would be to make sure to balance the screen time between all the characters. This seems like a no-brainer, right? It is a fact that, despite the overloaded cast of The Expendables, each familiar actor’s time on screen was not created equal. However, I would argue it’s not about creating a perfect balance of time for each actor as much as it is about adequately managing the resources. In The Avengers, Hawkeye does not get the exact same amount of spotlight as does Iron Man. This is because Iron Man is more central to this particular story arc and has the more interesting powers. Hawkeye shouldn’t have equal billing; he didn’t even have his own movie, and Whedon understood this.
What this does is give the audience what they really want while simultaneously forcing Jeremy Renner to make the most of every moment he’s on screen; something he accomplished beautifully. In The Expendables, Stallone and Statham became the central focus of the film with criminally little Jet Li, Dolph Lundgren, and mere cameos from Schwarzenegger and Willis. I’m not saying we need to level the scales completely and see exactly as much Lundgren as we see Stallone, but for the love of crap, let’s use the characters more efficiently. I mean, did we really need to see so much of Mickey Rourke, a character who doesn’t even participate in the combat, and so little of Li?
Developing this efficiency of character usage will be doubly important for the sequel. The cast list has increased by at least two martial arts titans: Chuck Norris and Jean-Claude Van Damme. The latter of these additions also brings up another lesson The Expendables 2 could learn from The Avengers. You must develop your villain to a level of evil that would necessitate an entire team of badasses to offer opposition. The villain in the first Expendables has a great deal of bark, but his bite barely breaks the skin. You get the feeling that just one of the members of the team could put him down, and that lack of stakes could account for the underwhelming final act of The Expendables.
Hopefully JCVD will give us a villain whose schemes put the entirety of the planet in jeopardy, and that will require a little more strategy and delegation of skills from our team. Instead of just throwing everyone at the mansion like the end of The Expendables, give us a wide-open final showdown that will have our heroes fighting on several different fronts catered to their various skills. Can you image, a la The Avengers, an uncut shot moving around a desert town showing each member of the crew fighting their individual battle with machine guns, roundhouse kicks, and blades? That’s another thing: they need to do a better job of establishing each soldier’s skill set. Allow us to sit in the epic strength and presence of these guys individually before we lose them all in a chaotic battle scene.
Obviously, The Avengers has the advantage of years and years of beloved canon from which to draw. But in many ways, so does The Expendables 2… and no, I’m not referring to the first movie. These actors, these captains of action industry, have decades of films, miles and miles of celluloid that lead them to the genre prominence at the heart of this franchise’s inception. I would urge The Expendables 2 to use its characters more effectively, more efficiently, and more distinctly than they did in the first film. If it worked for Captain America, The Hulk, Thor, and Iron Man, it can work for Rocky, Walker, John McClane, and Time Cop.