Marvel keeps getting it right. Or, more accurately, they keep hiring talents so unnaturally able to blend action with clever jokiness that nobody walking out of a Marvel movie can deny that they’ve just had a damn good time, despite the nagging sense that everything that could be great about the Marvel universe on film has just been traded for profit.
It’s a fine line. Nobody’s expecting something “artful” from a summer blockbuster nor is anyone in their right mind going to ask Marvel and the hordes of filmmakers they wield to stay true to the letter of every page of their comic books. Of course, The Avengers needs to make money, and of course it needs to be pleasing in as many ways as possible to make a whole lot of money. What would a summer action movie be without the crass commercialism? Not as much fun is what. The trick that makers of truly memorable blockbusters pull off is hiding the fact that money is the only goal while making a film based on comic book emotions that feels genuinely human.
To that end, Marvel has recruited Joss Whedon. A veteran creator of successful TV shows (The Avengers, like a good television pilot, is laying the ground work for long-term serial storytelling) as well as his own comic-books (Joss Whedon’s Fray), he’s also a well-known aficionado of the comic books of others. Whedon is as safe a bet for writer/director of this forms-like-Voltron franchise as Marvel could have recruited, seeing as how Peter Jackson and Steven Spielberg don’t do superheroes. He’s a competent director, — not flashy, not particularly interested in what makes us tick — and a gifted recycler: his screenwriting comes down to a simple mixture of deceptively simple plot, bigger-and-bigger action, and well-placed references. With The Avengers, he’s determined to let nothing feel serious, least of all what the plot ultimately hinges on: the potential destruction of all of Manhattan by a weapon at the top of its most prominent skyscraper. This is Whedon’s movie, undoubtedly, but he has such a commercial sensibility that it would make absolutely zero sense to call him an auteur.
Before a plot description (oh, fuck it, let’s just knock one out: Loki [Tom Hiddleston], the Asgardian god of mischief, threatens Earth with an army of alien robots, and six of our planet’s most volatile warriors learn to put aside their differences in order to stop him), perhaps I should give a head-count to get all of these commingling franchises straight:
First, there’s Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Loki’s brother and the Asgardian god of thunder. Thor was most recently seen last summer getting a husband-bulge over Natalie Portman while fighting a giant robot in the desert; he is by far the most underused superhero in this new movie, which is a shame, because his conflicted nature is interesting.
Next comes Iron Man, an insouciant billionaire who fights evil wearing a red-and-gold armored war suit of his own design. Iron Man is played by Robert Downey Jr., who is good at one-liners and so shoulders much of the burden of keeping The Avengers light.
Then comes Captain America (Chris Evans), who became the greatest hero of the Second World War after the US government gave him an injection of some stuff that made him fight good; he was frozen for awhile but was awakened to be in this movie and fight Loki (often hand-to-hand.) As his rank suggests, the Captain is the strategist who organizes The Avengers’ battle plans. The movie does not shirk him for screen time.
Rounding out the super among the heroes is Dr. Bruce Banner/The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo/a bunch of computer code), a scientist whose experiments with radiation resulted in his frequent, uncontrollable transformation into a giant green Mr. Hyde. The Hulk is the wild card of The Avengers team, though, oddly, his unpredictable rages are used for almost as much comedy as RDJ.
The other two Avengers, government killers Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), have neither super powers nor, as of yet, their own movies, so they end up relegated to as precious little screen time as poor undervalued Thor.
That takes care of the fanboy aspect; now on to the call to arms. When The Avengers are called to save the Earth from the rascally, power-mad Loki, they must do so, of course, through force: lots of it — force involving muscles, heavy weaponry, exploding arrows, guns, flying aircraft carriers, and even an atom bomb. There is a whole lot more force involved in what The Avengers do than there is teamwork. Rah-rah Americanism and the analogous argument that great force can and must be applied to an imminent threat is the only real subtext that can be read into this swift, superficial, and resolutely jokey movie. The general idea seems to be that no matter the odds, Americans overcome their differences if they have some ass to kick. But the argument that America is the country best suited to defend the world is given perverse justification in The Avengers. Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), the super-spy responsible for spearheading the team, states his opinion early on that the world is changing in a way similar to the type of hero who is emerging to defend it. In other words, as terrorists (in this case Loki, but you get the idea) get more and more creative, so do the good guys who rise up to stop them. In The Avengers, all of these good guys are deeply conflicted hard cases, cursed with the imperative to use their immense strength for something, so it might as well be good. And save for Thor, who isn’t even from this planet, each of them represents some icon of wounded Americana: the conscience-stricken industrialist, the war-hero, the burnout, the rugged individualist, the duplicitous spy, the brainwashed soldier.
On one level (the level where you appreciate a movie studio’s marketing savvy), the film’s neutered take on heroism, coupled with its bald attempt to play to all age levels, makes for an impressive balancing act. But as it hedges its bets, it loses the promise that anything in it might mean something greater. That’s the trade you make when a movie is both a mega-event and high-concept (that concept being the single-movie combination of many bankable icons). The film feels a bit like the experience of reading comic books and truly believing in their fantasy because you haven’t yet experienced any part of the real world. That is the quality Marvel has sussed out of its razor-sharp campaign to ensure competence. But it’s a hollow accomplishment — all that’s required is the right combination of a whole lot of money and comparatively little ingenuity. What The Avengers does not feel like is a movie with an appreciation for patriotism, loyalty, insanity, anger, freedom, death, regret, terrorism, egotism, drug recovery, or the threat of total annihilation (which amounts to laughably little by the movie’s climax). Every one of these issues is ostensibly featured in the movie, and every one is exactly much less important than the inevitable (implicitly encouraged) discussions about the relative strengths of the superheroes and their powers. Captain America’s shield or Thor’s hammer? Iron Man’s suit or Hulk’s muscle? Arm yourself against evil or remain a silly pacifist? If you set aside how well or poorly Marvel markets its franchises, then these are the only important questions in The Avengers.