I took a lot of flak for liking The Avengers - apparently I didn’t like it enough. It seems odd to me. I gave it a positive review, even a vague recommendation; but for some reason my inability to overcome the logic flaws, character lapses, and general structure/plot problems of the film has made me a pariah. Part of this, I’m sure, had to do with my final grade – I only gave the film three-out-of-five hearts.
A treason, I know.
The greater treason, I’m sure, is probably something I didn’t even do consciously. I gave Lockout three-and-a-half-stars. I never think of ratings for other films when making a rating for a new film – I just look at the metric, read over my review, and then pick an appropriate rating.
So did I change my mind? Did the sudden revelation of my unconscious choice make me realize that I had to alter my rating for one film or the other? Oddly…. no. Rather, this moment of introspection made me realize that I liked Lockout more than The Avengers.
Don’t believe me? Well here are my ten reasons Lockout is better than The Avengers. (And remember, I’m not saying The Avengers is bad – just that Lockout is better.)
One thing that even hardcore Avengers fans have been fairly quiet in trying to defend is the beginning of the movie. We are treated to a hackneyed voiceover of pure exposition followed by and out-of-nowhere action scene that lacks any context or pretense. Loki appears, wrecks some stuff, and the Plot Convenient Omnipowerful Cube is lost. All in all, this scene sets up the movie to come in a blunt, stumbling way, and does little in the way of elevating of informing the rest of the movie.
Meanwhile, Lockout begins with an interrogation scene that finds Snow – our winning protagonist – on the wrong end of his former teammate’s wrath. We immediately get a sense of his wit, his stolid attitude, and his sense of calm under pressure. Not only that, but this character- and plot-building interrogation is intercut with more backstory that informs not only Snow’s prowess as an operative, but the labyrinthine plot to come. In maybe five minutes, Lockout builds character, relationships, and backstory with verve, humor, and wit. Snow is immediately set in our minds as a more gruff, subversive version of Tony Stark, without all the shoe-horned morality to make him cloyingly sympathetic.
9. The Villains
To be clear, I’m only talking about the primary villainous figurehead at the center of each of these stories here.
Loki is a pretty good villain, I’ll be honest. I think Tom Hiddleston did a tremendous job in this role, and fleshed out a complicated, conflicted villain who had all the means and motivation to really pose a threat. Of course, this all happened in Thor. By the time we see him in The Avengers Loki is something of a lame duck villain. His arc is seemingly completed, and yet here he is again, hanging around for no real reason other than to go through the same arc, and end in the same place. He went from a Shakespearian tragic foil for Thor’s emergence as a true god to a slighted whiner looking for petty revenge.
Meanwhile, the primary villains in Lockout contain a much more complex and engaging dichotomy. Alex is a calculating and pragmatic killer. His younger brother, Hydell, is an impulsive sociopath. Alex knows that killing Hydell would make his task – ransoming the president’s daughter and other hostages for his freedom – a lot easier. However, the bond of their brotherhood holds him tight, and he decides to risk his success in the name of keeping his brother safe. So these two men, unrepentant killers both, are working toward the same simple and elemental goal, but having to battle both one another and their own nature to reach that end. In this way, we get a better sense of their reasons for action, their passion for the task, and the conflicted heart of their mission. Compelling stuff.
For anyone unfamiliar, this is a film term that means, essentially, the item that drives the plot.
In The Avengers, the McGuffin is the Tesseract, the cosmic cube of ultimate power. The Avengers need to get this cube in order to stop Loki from bringing an army into our world to vanquish and enslave us. Loki needs the cube in order to get his alien army to earth. The aliens need the cube to power their war machine for ultimate cosmic victory. As a do-everything plot-key, the Tesseract is serviceable but weightless. It could be literally anything – it’s a symbol at the center of a game of capture the flag. The best part is that at some point it becomes apparent that The Avengers aren’t even looking for the cube anymore – they are just willing to wait for something to happen so they know where to go to avenge, rather than prevent.
Lockout, however, provides a more compelling and personally relevant McGuffin for our hero. Snow has to go to the orbiting space prison (still such a cool term to use) in order to save the president’s daughter, but also to look for a friend of his who knows the location of a brief case. The contents of this case are unknown, but will exonerate Snow of his supposed treason. It will also expose a mole in the US government who has been selling secrets to the highest bidder. While the Tesseract stands in for an idea of a plot device, the case really is a necessary piece of the plot. It has a reason to exist that is compelling not only to the story, but to the character, and is an item being actively sought, rather than simply spoken about.
7. The Threat
The aliens in the Avengers offer a vague but readily spoken threat. Alien invasion is a pretty broad threat, one that remains nebulous and un-evolved throughout The Avengers. There is no real stake to the coming invasion that moves beyond a purely theoretical state. We never get a sense of the alien’s power, their plan, or the things they will do if they succeed. This remoteness keeps any sense of dread or anticipation from infiltrating their existence in the plot. They are a threat devoid of weight or personality.
The threat in Lockout is much more clear, and much more immediate and visceral. This isn’t some big scale, soul-deadening assault for the world from a faceless enemy. This is a battle for the lives of a group of innocents caught in the crossfire of a group of thugs and murderers. There are lives here, real human stakes that makes every single motion of an enemy frightening. These men are killers and rapists and deviants of the highest order, and you feel sorry for anyone unlucky enough to be left with them unchecked.
6. The Odds
A man with a ridiculously invulnerable suit of armor. A super soldier. A hulk. A god. What on earth can you really do to harm these people? What foe can actually pose a real physical threat to them? They are even incapable of harming one another. We see scene after scene of these men beating the piss out of one another, never taking any real damage. When the time comes for the battle, they basically resemble an avatar in a videogame – invulnerable and given challenge only by superior numbers. Their battles are set pieces without weight or impact. How can you feel anything approaching tension in that fight?
Snow, on the other hand, is just a man. Is he tough? Yes. Capable? Yes. Smart? Deceptively so. And yet, when you cut him, he bleeds. When he has to pull himself up from the ground, you get a sense of his weariness and pain. He is a person who you can empathize with because you can imagine the pain, the exertion, the struggle. Add to that physical vulnerability the fact that he too is hopelessly outnumbered, and suddenly you have a character who we have already established (in a superior opening) as witty and charismatic, yet also deserving of our active support because he is an underdog in the purest sense.
5. A Sense of Agency
One of my main problems with The Avengers as a team and movie was that they were purely reactionary. There is no moment in their film where they engage an enemy on their own terms. Rather, they wait for smoke and then gear up to fight the fire. Had Loki acted with the subterfuge and sneakiness befitting a trickster god, their movie would have been a collection of shots of the team looking bored and hopeless and directionless.
Meanwhile, back in the orbital space prison, Snow is figuring things out. He is looking at a situation and working it out in his mind. He is setting traps, subverting authority, and taking on scores of people with no direction but his own. Even his supposed ward – the “helpless” president’s daughter – has more of a sense of purpose and forward momentum than the Avengers. She won’t let her fellow hostages be forgotten. She’d rather sacrifice herself than let the villains get off scott free. She bucks the influence of even Snow in her righteous pursuit of the truth, the safety of the hostages, and finally, nobly, her own wellbeing.
4. Escalating Stakes
Pacing in an action film is pretty basic. You start with a problem, and you keep turning the screw until the tension mounts to a breaking point. Then you break out the climax to given resolution and an end to the tension. The Avengers doesn’t live by this rule. The plot is set from the outset, and once status quo is established, it stays set until the end. Nothing ever changes, the stakes never get raised, and so we as an audience have a chance to adjust our expectations to the nebulous, nearly-theoretical threat.
Compare this to Lockout. We begin with an agent falsely accused of murder and treason – both things that directly affect and threaten someone we care about on a singular, personal level. Then, the presiden’t daughter is taken hostage… but the inmates don’t know who she is. So when Snow goes to the space prison, he has to try to clear his name, save the girl while she tries to keep her identity hidden, and then the prison begins crashing toward earth! It’s all very ridiculous, and the complications are fairly out of left field, but the fact is that this movie knows to hook us, set us, reel us in and keep us on our toes. Constantly raising the stakes means we never get comfortable, never get bored.
3. The Evil Done By Good Men
This is a weird one. In each film, the supposedly benign overlords are secretly working on something vaguely amoral that causes the hero to turn against them. Obviously, as you could guess by now, Lockout does this best. But first, let’s talk about The Avengers.
On the one hand, SHIELD is building so-called “weapons of mass destruction.” On the other hand… we have no idea how far they have gotten, if the weapons are at all effective, and what scale these weapons will take. Add to that the ill-defined parameters of SHIELD’s place in the world, and suddenly the supposed evil turn that enrages The Avengers becomes really pointless. Not only that, but after being brought up for one scene, the supposed weapons are never brought up again, and in truth the entire climax proves the need for the weapons in the first place. If we are really this ineffective against cosmic threats, why wouldn’t we want a scaled-up weapons program to aid in the coming struggle?
Meanwhile, half of the plot of Lockout is predicated on the idea of prisoners being used as guinea pigs for deep space cryo-sleep. This is the reason the presiden’t daughter is on the space prison, this is the reason many of the prisoners are psychotic, this is the reason that Snow can’t just ask his friend where the briefcase is. This betrayal of social trust by the government is therefore tied more deeply to the characters, the plot, and our fears of governmental tampering in human lives. We all know the government is making weapons, but we don’t want to believe they are toying with human test subjets. We all distrust the way institutionalized people are treated, and this movie gets that. Not only that, but when the suspicion is proven, it’s driven home by the sight of a corpse with its skull opened and its brain removed. This is real harm and evil, people. This is genuine. This makes me hate the world and side even more with Snow.
2. The Ending
I’m not here to suggest that The Avengers doesn’t have a thrilling climax. That massive fight scene really does get the heart racing and the endorphines humming. But after that… well things fall apart. The world is safe, and suddenly everything is wrapped up with a montage of TV clips. Loki is still around, but in custody (because he’s never slipped out of that before). The whole thing is just a set up for the next film. There’s no sense of closure, because the threat is merely delayed. It’s not even a new threat – it’s just a greater volume of the same problem.
A better ending would be one where relationships are provably forged and strengthen, the threat is ended but with the promise of new and greater adventures yet unknown over the horizon. Maybe we could learn one final thing about the protagonist which is both informative of their character, and makes us realize that while we know them well, we don’t know them wholly. The ending I’ve described – which is an actual ending, mind you – is precisely what happens in Lockout. I want to see a sequel to this movie based solely on the quality of this film, not simply because one was promised to me.
I could talk about budget here. I could. The Avengers was made for $220 million. Lockout was made for $20 million. But that’s not the point. The point is that The Avengers was led up to by five other films, and somehow failed to develop characters with any more depth or heart than Snow and Emilie from Lockout. There was the same level of character evolution in all one hour and fifty minutes of Lockout as there was in six films’ worth of Avengers. This is funny, considering that just The Avengers was two hours and twenty minutes. You would think that the characters in a movie that is half an hour longer would go on a more stirring or meaningful emotional journey – yet they do not. Each gets a single moment of “oh hey, look, I’m a bit different now” without feeling organic or permanent. Lockout goes for a more meaningful shift in both of its main characters, and if it is only just slightly more pronounced and natural than those of The Avengers, the difference is made all the more dramatic by the fact that Lockout just needed a single move to introduce, establish, develop, and offer closure for it’s characters.
Lockout is one-half-star better than The Avengers. Deal with it.