The Avengers is a much better superhero film than, say, Green Lantern (2011) or Thor (2011) not particularly because it collects all our favourite characters in one screenplay and treats them like an MLB all-star game, but because it is orchestrated by a maestro of the Big Cast, who knows, almost instinctively, how to organise and reorganise multiple main characters into a sleek, coherent, sophisticated plot.
The plot, mind you, is not sophisticated in the way The Dark Knight (2008) was sophisticated. It is about a mythological god hiring a bunch of aliens to wreak havoc on Earth (New York City), and the humans, led by the one-eyed Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), must call upon their greatest heroes to battle the invasion and restore sanity. There is none of the scheming and double-scheming, and the issues of morality and justice found in Christopher Nolan’s Batman film. But the movie is sophisticated in the way it handles the enormity of its characters, one of whom is a billionaire who dresses in indestructible iron suits, another a manifestation of a Norse god, another who’s the PG version of Jekyll and Hyde, another who is Uncle Sam incarnate, and two auxiliary supporters who are not exactly superheroes but find themselves in the same crowd.
Sure, not all these characters are interesting — Thor (Chris Hemsworth) remains a blonde hammer-wielding gorilla — but they are treated to equal rights. They all have a lot of screen time and a lot to say, and say it gravely, as if truly believing they are superheroes meant to save the world. Even the two supporting players, Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), are rounded off by the screenplay to seem deep and sympathetic (while the four other champions each have had their own movies, Widow and Hawkeye have been cobbled together as leftover parts).
It’s this sort of balancing act that makes The Avengers such an enjoyable movie. The visual effects are stupendous (I liked how the aircraft carrier, helpfully called the Helicarrier, rises off the ocean surface and becomes one with the clouds) and the action is fulfilling, but I get the feeling that if the screenplay had failed to make the heroes heroes we can care about, it’d have been rather vacuous.
Consider Captain America (Chris Evans), who I believe has evolved into one of the more complex Marvel characters. As a gung-ho experiment in the 1940s he was nothing but a tool used by America to fight her wars and rally despondent soldiers to the cause, but after spending 70 years frozen in time, he has become a complicated wanderer, bound by traditions and oaths of the past, twisted by disorientation and confusion. He hates evil, but in The Avengers he doesn’t seem quite so sure how to tackle it until the very end, when he remembers he’s supposed to be the leader of the group.
Comic book movies depend on the quality of their villains. The Avengers gives us a weak one in Loki (Tom Hiddleston), who is a mischievous deity but resembles a whinging brat who just wants to look cool commanding an army of reptilian aliens. He doesn’t seem to have put much thought into his plan. How did he liaise with the leader of these reptiles? How did he gain their trust? Okay, so he leads them to Manhattan and blows up buildings real good. Maybe he even wipes out The Avengers. Then what? Adjourn to Starbucks for a latte and smirk at his triumph on the front page of the New York Times while his minions set up shop?
The problem I think (and I mentioned this in my review of Thor) can be traced back to the fact that Norse gods, and indeed any god of classical theology, make for lacklustre action heroes. They are all recognised by traits and gestures instead of personalities. Aphrodite, for example, can be no other except Aphrodite because she is the goddess of love, not because she loves. Loki and Thor, therefore, are who they are because that’s the way they’ve always been. If Thor showed weakness, or lost his hammer, he’d cease to be Thor.
The Avengers, nevertheless, is a step in the right direction for Marvel because they’ve made clever marketing and strategic choices. They’ve hired Joss Whedon to write and direct, and that’s been their bravest, most fruitful decision. Whedon, whose credits include the cult TV shows Firefly and Buffy The Vampire Slayer, is surefooted in his vision, which stretches out across and beyond his visual canvas. He knows these characters and feels for them. He has written them into a movie that does not betray their abilities. On the surface The Avengers is a superhero action movie, and it is a good one, but within there are people’s lives and hopes at stake. Notice that I said people, not gods.
Best Moment | When The Avengers assemble. Or pretty much anything The Hulk does, or smashes.
Worst Moment | Nah, can’t think of one.