The Beginning of a New Franchise, by David Bax
Fundamentally, I have some disagreements with Marvel Studios and the choices they’ve made in producing their movies. There’s one school of thought – the one Marvel would probably like you to believe – that their overlapping, single continuity world is a revolutionary attempt to translate the established form of expansive, serialized comic book universes into cinema. There’s a geeky appeal to that concept to which I am far from immune. Yet the cynic in me (whom I am even less able to suppress than Bruce Banner is The Hulk) tends to see it rather as a “collect ‘em all” marketing ploy designed to compel you to see shitty movies in order to experience the completeness of the good ones. Of the five films produced prior to Joss Whedon’s The Avengers (Iron Man, Iron Man 2, The Incredible Hulk, Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger, I’ve seen two. I saw one because I heard it was very good (Iron Man) and I saw one because I was reviewing it (Thor). I liked them both about the same, which is to say I thought they were decent. All this is to say that I have no investment in the Marvel movie universe because I find that to do so would be to buy into it as a product more than as art.
For these reasons, I decided to go into The Avengers treating it not as the culmination of other franchises but as the beginning of a new one. It could still have ended up being more a commodity than a vision but at least it would be its own, to be judged on its own merits.
In the beginning, those merits are few. Well, let me take that back. The very beginning – a prologue in which the big bad guy, Loki (Tom Hiddleston), attacks the headquarters of secret government agency S.H.I.E.L.D. and steals the MacGuffin that will drive the next two hours and twenty minutes – is fantastic. It’s tense, funny, moody and full of some damned impressive action sequences and visual effects. The 30-40 minutes that follow, however, are the film’s only true weak point. Most of the scenes involving the introduction and assembly of the team that will become known as The Avengers are never quite full of life or part of the whole. Whedon’s jocular dialogue and kinetic finesse help a bit but most of these episodes feel like web content or advertisements for action figures. Once they’re finally introduced aboard a flying aircraft carrier, it’s as if we’ve purchased the entire play-set. Then, however, something happens. They all sit down and begin talking and the action truly starts.
In the story department, The Avengers is deceptively straightforward. Loki has the will and the means to take over the world and so a diverse group of people with extraordinary powers are corralled to stop him. They didn’t ask to be together and they don’t all have the same agenda (one of them is a god, for God’s sake) but they’ll have to learn to work together – to even trust and like each other – before they can defeat the growing threat.
Such a feat won’t be easy, though, as we see in a scene that involves nothing more than our main characters sitting around a conference table. The most acrimonious duel of words takes place between the selfless Captain America (Chris Evans) and the selfish Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.). Yet the team must also contend with well-intentioned members who either lack human perspective, like Thor (Chris Hemsworth) or lack the ability to maintain their humanity, like The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo). Finally, there is the supposed leader whose goals are pure but who may be slightly too comfortable with moral grays, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and the woman whose long bonds to Fury are a little too strong for anyone else to trust her, Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson). Rounding out the cast are the taciturn Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and the two most purely virtuous characters in the film, Fury’s right hand, Agent Hill (Cobie Smulders) and the delightfully ubiquitous Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg). Simply describing this many people with this many personalities was a complicated task. Getting them together is the story’s main obstacle. Lucky for us, we get to watch it happen.
Like other recent major superhero films, such as Christopher Nolan’s Batman series, there are some weighty ideas explored. Terrorism is, as always, lying just beneath the surface, especially when the film discusses the danger of a man waging war without a definable country or governing body supporting him. Conversely, the things done in the name of government and country in response to such attacks are difficult to reconcile as well. Still, those aren’t the driving themes of The Avengers. This film is interested in uncovering and delving into the ways in which a group of people thrown together by circumstance will form a sort of de facto family. In some way or another, this is the theme of almost every good television show you’ve ever seen so it’s no surprise that Whedon, one of the most talented television auteurs in the medium’s history, is such a deft hand at it.
Unlike a band of thieves, these characters are united by more than a common goal. They also have their ideals but, most importantly, they develop a sentimental attachment. This commitment to one another, despite their abundance of dissonant tones, is the mortar that allows them to stand tall and strong as a unit.
Whedon may have borrowed his story’s skeleton from television but, when it comes to action, The Avengers is pure cinema. It’s not just that it’s big, loud, fast and destructive. It’s that Whedon displays such elegance in his violence. He describes spatial relations and movements coherently without being instructive. He maintains the leaning-ever-forward thrills of the fights but always remains just on this side of assaulting the audience itself. Through constant acceleration and digital choreography – not to mention never losing track of his characters’ natures – he makes us forget how much of what we’re seeing is happening inside a computer. You may as well be riding on the back of a flying, giant, scaly, alien worm, watching the mayhem right in front of you.
This movie contains more flaws, especially in its first act, than the other great superhero films of the last decade (The Dark Knight, Spider-Man 2, X2). So do most of the people in your family, I’d bet. I love my family more than any of those movies. I think I might love The Avengers more too. I’m looking forward to the second film in the franchise.