The Culmination of a Franchise, by Tyler Smith
“The sum of its parts.” This is a pretty common phrase, usually referenced in film criticism in regards to whether or not a film manages to transcend its individual components and become something that can’t be easily broken down; something complete. It is rare for a film to be more than the sum of its parts, while it is far too common for it to be less. Joss Whedon’s The Avengers is that rare film that is more. Much more.
I don’t mean this as a function of the film’s technical and artistic elements, though they are pretty great. Instead, Whedon’s film has caused me to reflect on the last several years and reexamine the Marvel films that came before. The Iron Man films, The Incredible Hulk, Thor, and Captain America; they were all perfectly good movies. A couple of them I even thought were great. But now I see them differently. Somehow I feel as though I won’t be able to watch them the same way. They would feel somehow incomplete. Because, now that these characters have all come together in one film, it seems strange to think of them as individuals.
It is rare for a superhero movie to so perfectly capture the spirit of its source material. The Avengers comics were always about teamwork and personal sacrifice. It was not about any one member, but about the crucial role that each member played in the larger entity. And while each hero was amazing on their own, only when they were part of a larger whole did they seem to realize their full potential.
Joss Whedon, no stranger to ensemble films, has managed to not only bring the characters themselves together, but the films, as well. We enter into The Avengers with a previous relationship with the characters, each so very distinct, wondering how they will be able to work together. At first, it seems like it won’t happen. There is too much ego, too much distrust. But then, out of necessity and a unified vision, it all comes together. And the result is as exciting and joyful a filmgoing experience as I’ve had in a long time.
The story is pretty simple. Loki, the villain in Thor, is working with an intergalactic army to recover an object of incredible power. This object- called a tesseract- is currently in the possession of S.H.I.E.L.D. So, Loki and his army invade the earth. Frankly, the story is fairly perfunctory. It’s really just an excuse to get our heroes together to fight a large, mostly faceless mob. But, before they can do that, they must deal with each other first.
Watching these heroes butt heads with each other is a pleasure, handled with the give-and-take of an ensemble play. Whedon’s script, along with a cast of committed actors, makes these scenes of dialogue and personal conflict just as interesting as any battle sequence. We already know what to expect from Chris Hemsworth, Chris Evans, and Robert Downey, Jr. They’ve shown their ability in the previous films to take iconic characters and imbue them with actual humanity. My concern was for Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, and Mark Ruffalo. Johansson and Renner do not have the benefit of having their own films, so we have to get to know them in the midst of much more colorful, established characters. It would have been easy for these two actors and their characters to get swallowed up, but Johansen and Renner are up to the challenge, aided considerably by Whedon’s commitment to giving them just as much time as the others.
Mark Ruffalo also had his work cut out for him. He is the third actor to play Bruce Banner in nine years. It could be tempting to compare him with Eric Bana and Edward Norton, imagining what they would have done with the role, but that temptation dissolves almost immediately upon seeing Ruffalo’s refreshing take on the character. He plays Banner as humble and sheepish, but with a cheeky sense of humor. He hates what he is, but no longer hides it. Everybody involved knows about his alter ego, and he knows they know. As such, he can speak openly about it, quite possibly for the first time ever. And he uses that opportunity to almost taunt them a little bit. Finally, the whole “You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry” attitude is able to come forth. It’s interesting to watch Banner’s intense desire to simply fade into the background combined with his knowledge that, because of who he is, he never can. Banner might be the most interesting character in the film, chiefly because he so badly doesn’t want to be a part of it.
Tim Hiddleston as Loki also deserves singling out. Not since Andy Garcia in Ocean’s Eleven has an actor had such pressure on him to seem like a genuine threat. Think about it; he is going up against heroes whose powers we are already well aware of. There are several of them against one man. Yes, that man does have an army behind him, but they are fairly anonymous. He has to be the sneering, preening, threatening face of villainy, more than able to take anything the heroes can dish out. Hiddleston rises to the occasion and creates a villain that is wry and clever, but also unspeakably cruel. There is one scene in particular in which Loki rips into Johansson’s Black Widow, spitting out promises of physical and emotional torture. It is riveting.
The last act of the film is really all about action and Joss Whedon proves himself to be not only up to the task, but establishes himself as one of the better action directors working today. He brings the same wit to his fight sequences as to his one liners. His instinct for suspense and payoff serves him well here. For example, there is a short fight between the Hulk and Thor. Thor, as he has done so many times already, reaches out his hand, awaiting his trusty hammer to fly to him. And he waits. And waits. As Hulk gets closer, ready to absolutely destroy him, his hand remains empty. We start to wonder just how far away the hammer is and if it will get there in time. It is little moments like this that take place in the midst of chaos that makes these scenes so much more human, rather than just another collection of CGI characters pounding away at each other, with almost no physical consequence.
Joss Whedon has really done something wonderful with The Avengers. Yes, he made a good movie (not a perfect one, please note), but he also fulfills a promise. A promise that was made four years ago, after the credits of Iron Man, when Samuel L. Jackson shows up to talk about something called “The Avenger Initiative.” With each film that followed, Whedon’s job got just a little harder. His film couldn’t merely be the equal of those movies. And it couldn’t be merely better. It had to be different. This was not just about one character or one movie, but all of them coming together to make something wholly new; familiar, yet original. Whedon has succeeded in ways that I was not at all expecting, and I cannot recommend this film highly enough.