Marvel’s The Avengers is awesomeness squared. It’s the apotheosis of the modern age of comic-book movies, the epitome of everything that the Iron Man, Hulk, Captain America and Thor movies were and were trying to be. It is grand and geeky and rollicking good fun on an epic scale, and it gets practically everything right and very little wrong.
It is, in a word, about the best Avengers movie that anyone could reasonably have hoped for or expected, which is all the more extraordinary when you think about how easily, almost inevitably, it could have been a failure, if not a disaster.
There is nothing transcendent or revolutionary about it. It is not a new kind of superhero movie — not the Star Wars or Fellowship of the Ring or even the Avatar of its genre. Some of the moves are overly familiar, including a climactic gambit telegraphed halfway through the film, followed by a plot convenience that was tired when George Lucas trotted it out at the end of one of the Star Wars prequels.
If The Avengers isn’t necessarily the best superhero movie ever made, it is unquestionably the most superhero movie ever made — and, in that capacity, it is more than well-made enough to take comic-book entertainment to unprecedented levels. We might possibly see a better film later this summer, but if there’s a more enjoyable popcorn action movie this year than The Avengers, I’ll eat my hat.
Historically, movie superheroes have been sealed off from one another, as if they each lived in their own world, one hero per world. In the comics, popular heroes have always inhabited their own monthly titles, but they’ve also gotten together with one another (and with less heavy hitters) in group books for larger-scaled adventures: Justice League on the DC side, with Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and so forth, and Avengers on the Marvel side, with Captain America, Thor, Iron Man and so forth. Even Spider-Man and Daredevil have occasionally been drawn into the Avengers’ orbit, though they haven't been joiners.
There is logic to this. When the entire city — or the nation, or even the world — faces an existential crisis, how likely is it that Green Lantern or Iron Man will take a day off, leaving it to Superman or Thor to save the day? But these group efforts are easier to coordinate in the comics than on the big screen.
What’s unprecedented about The Avengers is not only that Marvel managed to put all these heroes together on the screen, but that they pulled it off in continuity with existing franchises: this Iron Man/Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.); this Captain America/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans); this Thor (Chris Hemsworth). Through six coordinated films, Marvel Studios has crafted a cinematic universe of overlapping franchises, much like the comic books.
Along with the familiar costumed heroes, Marvel’s big-screen universe is held together by Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury and Clark Gregg’s Phil Coulson — the men behind S.H.I.E.L.D., the homeland security and espionage agency that worries about existential crises on a national and global scale, and has been working on leveraging the logic of a superhero team for the past several films.
There’s also the treacherous Norse god Loki (Tom Hiddleston), previously seen in Thor, and a cosmic MacGuffin called the Tesseract (known to comic fans as the Cosmic Cube), which powered the Nazis’ supertechnology in Captain America, and in the hands of someone like Loki could easily power a global existential crisis. Even the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) have been established, in Iron Man 2 and (just barely) Thor, respectively.
Only Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) is new to us: This is now the Hulk’s third big-screen appearance in the last decade, always played by a different actor. All of them have done a good job: Eric Bana in the 2003 Ang Lee film and Edward Norton in the 2008 film directed by Louis Leterrier. But Ruffalo makes the most of his wild-card status, combining self-deprecating wit and intimidating self-confidence in an unpredictable package. (The one element of Hulk continuity is small-screen Hulk star Lou Ferrigno, who voices the computer-animated Hulk in the 2008 film and The Avengers.)
This is a lot — an awful lot — for any filmmaker to juggle. So many characters, so many tones — Tony Stark’s quicksilver screwball banter; Thor’s pseudo-Shakespearean grandeur; Steve Rogers’ old-school uprightness, etc. Joss Whedon, best known as the creative force behind “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Firefly,” as well as the big-screen “Firefly” spin-off Serenity, is probably as qualified as anyone to write and direct an ensemble like this, and he manages to capture the essences of each of the previous franchises in short bursts, then blends them together into something new.
Gwyneth Paltrow is as delightful and down-to-earth as ever in her brief appearances as Pepper Potts opposite Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark. An elderly gentleman in a crowd in Stuttgart, Germany, with only two lines of dialogue, provides a stirring example of Greatest Generation-era dignity and courage in the face of tyrannical evil, providing the best possible context for Cap’s persona and worldview.
Agent Coulson’s sweetly comic fanboy adoration of Cap also helps establish the supersoldier’s legendary historical milieu — as well as sending up the Comic-Con crowd thronging the theaters. I am not, need it be said, holding myself above it all. When Thor brings his hammer crashing down on Cap’s shield, I am sharing the pure geek bliss.
Yes, the heroes square off against each other as well as against the bad guys. That’s a staple of Marvel storytelling going back to Marvel’s team-up titles, which seemingly invariably pitted the heroes against each other, often due to some forced misunderstanding, before joining forces to save the day. Of course, the heroes have to save the day. But, for devotees, the far more important question is the one of ranking: Who would win? Thor or Iron Man? Iron Man or the Hulk? Hulk or Thor?
All of those scenarios play out in The Avengers, as the characters jostle against one another not only physically, but verbally and personally. In any verbal exchange, Tony obviously has an edge, and the movie has a lot of fun with his quick wit as he pegs nearly every other character with an apropos movie-reference nickname, and even goes toe-to-toe, sans armor, with Loki.
Every character that matters gets a chance to shine, and if the movie doesn’t dig deeply into any of its characters the way one might hope for from Whedon, it points to the vagaries of politics and power in ways that few superhero films outside the Nolan Batman films seem interested in doing.
When I first saw the film, I suspected the tension between Iron Man’s jadedness and Cap’s idealism might be unbalanced in favor of the former. Subsequent viewings, though, have confirmed for me that while the world may be a more cynical place than Cap is comfortable with, the story is as much about Tony’s ongoing redemption as Cap’s ongoing education.
Tony’s smug Me Generation egocentrism and Cap’s Greatest Generation sense of duty and rectitude each get under each other’s skin — and while Tony almost always gets in the best licks, it’s Cap who cuts deepest: “The only thing you really fight for is yourself. You’re not the guy to make the sacrifice play, to lay down on a wire and let the other guy crawl over you.“
Tony bats this aside with a glib quip, but clearly the rebuke tells — and when a moment of truth comes when a sacrifice play may be necessary, Cap’s words give Tony the push he needs to be more than he is normally wont to be.
On the other hand, Whedon — an unbeliever — allows Cap a throwaway one-liner about God that’s kind of wonderful, and that resonates nicely with that elderly gentleman’s response to Loki. Loki’s pitch is that human beings are cattle who are most comfortable simply submitting to someone who will offer them some semblance of peace. “In the end,” he says, “you will always kneel.”
The answer he gets is not a repudiation of kneeling, but a repudiation of kneeling to the likes of Loki. In the annals of anonymous citizens confronting supervillains in comic-book movies, this brief, quiet moment in a noisily frenetic film is my new favorite.
The Avengers in 60 seconds: my “Reel Faith” review.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.