By now, I've seen The Avengers twice. I saw it first at its midnight release with my Speech Bubble co-host, Adam Dello Buono, Inclusive Fearless Leader Mike Anton, and a gaggle of other assorted nerd friends. We screamed (Adam and I especially). We cried (Anton especially). We dressed up. We were shushed a number of times. I went again this past weekend and saw it a second time, in IMAX 3D, and it was still more fun than a barrel of Hulks.
First of all, all due credit must be paid to Joss Whedon, for stepping up to the plate so hugely and completely, and knocking this sucker out of the park so spectacularly. By every external measure, this movie has been every kind of commercial and critical success. Audiences – both mainstream and nerd – love it, critics love it, and the studios love it. A cousin recently told me she wasn't aware The Avengers was supposed to be a comedy, but was pleasantly surprised to find herself laughing throughout. Internally, that is the brilliance of Joss Whedon. The far-out, ensemble piece concept movie played with humor and mass appeal. We saw the story from every character's viewpoint. There was no "main character" as each was fully and totally realized, a feat few mainstream summer blockbusters pull off. We got to see inside each Avenger’s head without sacrificing time or focus from the other main players.
The actors in turn deserve fair praise, as well. Robert Downey, Jr. disappointed no one as the unflappable Tony Stark, played with a precision like he just stepped off the Iron Man 2 set. And we got to see a side of Tony Stark that has been hinted at in his two previous on screen adventures, but never fully brought out: the sacrificing hero. His Stark has always been obsessed with himself, and obsessed with being obsessed with himself. It’s why he brings a combat-ready portable bar to his weapons demonstration in Iraq in Iron Man, and why he flies into the Stark Expo in full Iron Man armor in Iron Man 2. He loves that people expect him to love himself, and never think of him as the hero. He’s the cool kid at the party doing keg stands as the crowds cheer him on, not the one that drives them all home.
Even with all his outward self-love, the hero has always existed in him, bubbling just below the surface. The Avengers finally gave that hero the chance to make himself known. Yet even in his moment of glory, Tony Stark couldn’t even admit to himself that that person is part of him as well. As he rockets full throttle toward the point of no apparent return, he is adamant in his steadfast refusal to outwardly acknowledge his vulnerability. He has to guide the nuclear warhead to the Tesseract portal and through it, to the other end of the universe, in order to ensure it hits his intended target, and knows that there is no guarantee return.
As he barrels towards it, he is prompted to call his girlfriend, Pepper Potts. His response is, “Yeah... might as well.” In this moment of sacrifice, he still doesn’t accept that he’s a hero, a good person. Calling his girlfriend, allowing himself a moment to tell the woman he loves that he loves her one last time, is an afterthought. In a weird way, his image of self-obsession prevents him from truly giving himself one last moment of wish fulfillment. When he does make it back, his first reaction upon realizing that he saved the day is immediately changing the topic. He will not let people make a hero out of him.
Chris Evans’ Captain America was, in my opinion, one of the most astounding performances in the film, and has been criminally under-discussed. I say this because he accomplished something incredible, made even more so by the fact that no one has apparently noticed. He had to play one character in two very different movies – one a World War II period piece, the other a modern day superhero summer blockbuster. His character had to fit seamlessly within the environment and surrounding characters of the first, while sticking out like a sore thumb in the second, without changing whatsoever between the two. And he did it. The fact that no has seemingly noticed speaks to that point. I would have liked to see more of Steve Rogers coming to terms with this strange new world he lives in now, but that would have brought the movie close to an individual piece, rather than a team one, making it better saved for Captain America 2.
Much has been made of Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner, from esteemed critics to The Hulk himself so I’ll keep my words brief, as there’s little I can say that hasn’t already been said. The one thing I took away from this version of The Hulk is its new approach to Banner’s relationship with The Hulk. Every other Banner/Hulk relationship I’ve seen has to do with Banner fighting against this side of him. He overpowers it, he succumbs to it, he struggles against it. He fights it with varying degrees of success. This is the first interpretation of Bruce Banner and The Hulk’s relationship that I’ve seen where Bruce Banner simply accepts the anger within him that drives the monster lurking inside. Film Critic Hulk (linked above) makes this point. Our anger is as much a part of our souls as our joy, our sorrow, and our jealousy. When we fight or struggle to repress any part of ourselves, we damage ourselves in the process. When we accept who we are and live with that realization, we find ourselves more at peace with our lives. Ruffalo’s Banner has found a way to live with his anger and accept it, and as such, he is more in control of his life and all its aspects, including The Hulk.
While Chris Hemsworth did a great job as Thor, I have to say I didn’t see as much of him as I would have liked to. His entrance into the events of the movie was sudden and hastily explained. I’ll give credit to Whedon for just getting him into the game without spending too much time distracting from the main plot, but an extra two or three minutes of screen time devoted to him would have put some concerns to rest without slowing down the movie. He was used mainly as a heavy hitter and a justification for putting Loki in the movie, but there’s much more to a god who has chosen to walk among the mortals than a mean swing and an evil brother.
Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye and Scarlett Johanssen’s Black Widow are best received as a duo. That’s not to say they don’t hold their own in the movie: in drama as well as action, both stand their ground and contribute heavily in the movie. However, their motivations are based with each other. Their relationship isn’t romantic (insofar as the movie lets us see), but they watch each others’ backs and look out for each other like hawks (I’m sorry). Black Widow is pulled into the action when she’s made aware that Hawkeye has been compromised. Hawkeye stays in the fight after being rescued to exact his revenge, but is also worried for Black Widow and wonders why she, a spy, wants any place in a soldier’s war. I’d love to see this duo dynamic explored more in a movie focused more on them than The Avengers was able to allow. I’ve been saying it for a while, and I’ll put it in writing here: I want to see a S.H.I.E.L.D. movie, and it’d be brilliant to center it on them and tell it from their perspective as a covert ops team.
On the topic of S.H.I.E.L.D., Sam Jackson played desperate with more compelling force than the emotion has any right to have, and played it well. His was a Nick Fury more humanized than its comic book counterpart. Comics’ Fury has always been the master chess player, ten steps ahead of you, your friend, and the four snipers in the windows he wasn’t supposed to know were there. He is always in complete control of any situation, however outmatched or outgunned he is. Jackson’s Fury was far removed from that unshakable tactician. While certainly a man with his secrets, and never found without a back up plan, this Fury was also a man pushed to the edge and running out of options. But where lesser men would panic, Fury only dug his heels in harder and called wild bets. He faced down gods with nothing but a plate of glass to protect him, knowing full well what they intended and were capable of. And in the end, when his gambles paid off, he didn’t celebrate or boast. He stood relieved, and looked to the next disaster to fell.
Finally, Tom Hiddleston’s Loki was deliciously menacing, delightfully mischievous, and sickeningly pompous. Getting him there was a bit sudden, however. When we last saw Loki, he was falling away into the bottomless void of the cosmos. At the beginning of this movie, we see him with an army behind him and an inexhaustible power source in his possession. We don’t know who this army is or how they got behind him. While the post-credits scene shed some light on this, it’s still unclear why Loki and his benefactor got hooked up to begin with, but this could be cleared up in the sequel. Once he got rolling as the unquestionable bad guy, however, he was untouchable, the snide, spiteful menace he is made to be. Hiddleston nailed his pomposity to the wall. He knew he was above these pathetic mortals. He didn’t think it, he didn’t believe it, he just knew it. It wasn’t ever clearer than his discussion with Tony Stark at the top of Stark Tower, which made it all the more rewarding when he finally received his crowd-pleasing, gamma-powered comeuppance later.
If you haven’t seen The Avengers yet, just go do it. Take this as one of those times in your life where you just let someone else do the thinking for you and let me make this decision on your behalf. I’m not a film buff, though I’ve tried to pretend to be in the past. I can’t recommend you the best in character studies, or stunning examples of noir in cinema, or classic femme fatales. But I do know stories, and I love comics. This movie is the top tier of superhero storytelling; everything great about capes and tights. It’s human, it’s insightful and inspiring, it’s bombastic and loud and over the top and colorful. And most of all, it’s FUN. If you don’t cheer out loud at least once during The Avengers, then check your ticket stub, because you’re probably in the wrong theater.
Image courtesy of ADB Designs