If I had anything genuinely novel to say about The Avengers, I would’ve come up with a more original title. But it seems wrong somehow to have a nerdblog and not write something about it, especially since I’ve seen it twice now in two days. It’s pretty much the perfect super-hero team movie, and just might be the perfect super-hero movie, period.
Which is pretty amazing when you stop and think about the billion opportunities it had to go horribly wrong. It should’ve collapsed under the weight of its own hype — this is a movie that hasn’t just been getting buzz since a Comic-Con trailer; it’s been building up across post-credit sequences for years. But while I’ve never been a fan of The Avengers in any incarnation, I have seen and really enjoyed almost all of the lead-up movies (I passed on both attempts to make The Hulk interesting on his own), so I wasn’t able to sufficiently lower my expectations. And still, I loved it. I’m considering myself lucky that I wasn’t a fan of the comics, because I’m not sure how I would’ve handled it otherwise.
It could’ve fallen victim to Spider-Man 3 syndrome, desperately trying to cram so many characters into one summer blockbuster that they all get lost in the noise, and the whole thing falls apart. I was already concerned about that going in, so it was alarming to see them come right out of the gate with Robin Sherbatsky as another character I’m supposed to get semi-attached to. And yet, it’s near-perfectly balanced: it’s not just that characters aren’t overlooked; each character actually gets the chance to steal a scene. The most obvious danger was having the two “underpowered” characters become completely overwhelmed by everything else, but Black Widow and Hawkeye each get multiple opportunities for bad-assery. The movie hits exactly the right tone there: acknowledging that they’re humans fighting alongside super-humans, but not dwelling on it.
At almost two and a half hours, it could’ve very well turned into either tedium or numbing spectacle. But as I was watching it, it seemed like the perfect length. In fact, there were several points during the movie (Black Widow’s initial interrogation scene, and the assembled group arguing on board the S.H.I.E.L.D. aircraft carrier) where I found myself wanting it to be an ongoing television series, immediately. “I don’t want to stop watching this. I want it to last at least another 20 hours.”
And of course, it’s written and directed by Joss Whedon, which means that it could’ve easily ended up teetering on the knife’s edge between brilliant and insufferable. The dialogue could’ve been self-consciously clever; instead, the script seems to transition effortlessly between the romantic comedy banter of Iron Man, the ostentatious monologuing of Thor, the naive pulp comic conversations of Captain America, and (what I imagine to be) the tortured-and-haunted-genius dialogue of The Incredible Hulk. Then it seamlessly blends them all together.
It’s even got several of the what-have-now-come-to-be-expected Whedonisms, but they don’t feel like gimmicks or directorial tics. There’s one line of dialogue that sums that up perfectly: “They needed something to avenge.” We never hear the last word, because we don’t need to; we already know how it goes. The line has to be in there, because that’s just how these things work. But finishing it would’ve been too over-the-top. It’s exactly the right level of restraint. In all the breathless reviews and comments I’ve read online, I’ve seen multiple people say, “This is the movie that Joss Whedon’s entire career has been building up to.” I don’t think it’s that much of an exaggeration.
In fact, I think that the aspects of Whedon’s other projects that had me so skeptical — the self-conscious dialogue and the self-satisfied “look how much I just subverted that stereotype” — are what made him perfect for this movie. You can’t build a career out of subverting expectations without first understanding how traditional stories work and how audiences interpret them. When Whedon turns off the irony and lets the earnest Marvel comics fan take over, the result is an innate understanding of how to bring together movie fans, comic book fans, and fans of these characters in particular.
The perfect example of that is the way The Hulk is handled. Everybody in the audience knows the character; there’s nothing to be gained by pretending that it’s a mystery, or that there’s the need for an origin story. Most attempts at handling the character have either been too shallow — he’s just a big, stupid, unstoppable force — or way, way, way too maudlin — a tragic figure desperately looking for a cure for the beast he can’t control and also he’s psychologically damaged by child abuse. Whedon understands that neither of those are going to work, and the most clever bit of all is that he actually winds up getting both.
For the entire first half of the movie, he builds up this aura of foreboding around the Hulk. We see Black Widow, immediately after establishing herself as a bad-ass super spy, react with dread at the thought of having to run up against him. People, including Banner himself, are reluctant to mention him by name. We see brief flashes of his attacks on video screens. He’s established as the one thing powerful enough to tear apart the entire group. The movie doesn’t take it too far — Tony Stark’s there to make it clear that we all know who and what The Hulk is, it’s not like we’re supposed to be genuinely surprised. And then The Hulk’s first appearance turns out to be as horribly destructive as we’d been led to expect; it’s not Hulk as super-hero but Hulk as super-werewolf. But after giving us all of that build-up and the requisite pay-off, then the movie can deliver one final twist on the character: characters have been asking Banner repeatedly how he maintains control, and he’s been reluctant to answer. It’s not just a case of Dr. Jekyll desperately suppressing his Mr. Hyde; it’s not a completely separate personality, but something he has some degree of control over. Hulk as super-werewolf and super-hero.
The nearest I can come to a complaint: there is one gag that’s used repeatedly — one character gets interrupted as another suddenly comes in and knocks him off-screen. And yet somehow, it never stopped working.
Ever since Iron Man took me completely by surprise, I’ve been trying to figure out exactly why Marvel’s had so much more success translating super-heroes to film than DC has. Sure, Daredevil and Elektra were abominations, and I’m still waiting for them to make a third X-Men movie (hopefully it’ll come out before they make a sequel to Aliens). But it’s not just that they’ve avoided a string of disasters like Tim Burton’s and Joel Schumacher’s desecration of the Batman franchise. (If you still think that Tim Burton’s first Batman movie wasn’t that bad, then I suggest you haven’t seen it recently enough). They’ve actually managed to produce a string of good-to-outstanding movies. I’ve never been interested in Marvel comics but have loved DC, while with the movies, it’s the opposite. I even liked Thor.
I’ve speculated on why that is, exactly: for one thing, pairing directors with the franchises they’re ideally suited to handle, and letting them put their unique mark on each one. But watching The Avengers finally made it clear. It comes down to the oldest and most obvious observation you can make about the comics: it’s New York City vs. Metropolis and Gotham City. DC’s characters have always been inherently fantastic and larger than life, and their adventures are in fictional cities. Marvel deliberately made its characters human and flawed and placed them in real-world settings, so they’d be more relatable to angst-ridden teens. DC heroes are the ones you aspire to be, Marvel heroes are the ones you identify with.
That’s why Christopher Nolan’s interpretations of Batman are fine as movies but simply don’t work for me as Batman stories, and why The Avengers is the perfect capstone to Marvel’s string of successes. (It’s also why DC works better in animated formats than Marvel tends to). It’s because translating Batman (or Superman) to the real world inevitably drains them of something. Translating Marvel’s characters to film makes them come alive. They’re already designed to be real humans placed into fantastic situations. No matter how bizarre their stories get — and Marvel’s had some of the most bizarre and convoluted continuity imaginable — there’s still something tethering them to the real world. Even Thor’s got family issues and an annoying kid brother.
So you can have a moment like a $10 bet between Nick Fury, one-eyed commander of the paramilitary spy organization S.H.I.E.L.D., and Captain America, the super soldier who fought Nazis and the Red Skull in WWII before being frozen under the ocean for 70 years, that he’s about to see something he’s never seen before. And it’s a moment that actually works.