Joss Whedon's fun, smart and brawny superhero flick can't be beaten.
April 30, 2012
Superheroes, like so much of the most populist of pop culture, are a secret vessel for our collective anxieties. That's why Captain America, the purest of patriots, appeared when the US felt overwhelmed by foreign wars. It's why tech-conquers-all capitalist/playboy Iron Man strut onto the scene to show up communism in 1963. And it's why, starting in the 1980s with The Watchmen, superheroes became a big, yielding study in meta. Superheroes no longer struggle against evil alone; they struggle with what their existence means.
But the main thing superheroes are, of course, is vacuum-packed action with a narrative developed for so long as to have become a universe. For years, film studios bought the rights to these readymade stories and then systematically proceeded to screw them up. When Marvel Comics set up its own in-house studio and started releasing independent productions in 2008, it was with the intention of reclaiming and doing (vigilante) justice to the genre. They'd please the fans first, and the critics and audiences would follow.
Marvel has been successfully building to its supers team-up, The Avengers, ever since, planting a seed in Iron Man's end credits and increasing momentum through the subsequent Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor and Captain America. They then gave the ensemble film to Buffy maker and comics writer Joss Whedon to write and direct. It's a good move because he doesn't have to work to please the fans first; he is a fan first. He knows the medium, knows the genre, and with The Avengers, he proves he can show off its best bits to a broad audience with a slick, totally gripping and committed action-adventure.
To call for the might of several heroes, The Avengers first needs a formidable foe, and it finds it in Loki (Tom Hiddleston), Thor's jealous trickster of a brother, who's ability to suddenly disapparate makes him near invincible and who's alliance with the alien Chitauri race brings an army. When he arrives on Earth to steal the Tesseract, an extraterrestrial energy source under the SHIELD agency's watch, agency head Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) puts into action the Avengers initiative, uniting Iron Man (Robert Downey Jnr), the reluctant scientist harbouring the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), anachronistic Captain America (Chris Evans), extreme spy Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), pro archer Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), and, riding into this world on Loki's tail, the truly godly Thor (Chris Hemsworth). It's not a foolproof plan. Fury's higher-ups think nuclear attack would be safer; Loki thinks calling on "such lost creatures to defend you" smacks of desperation.
The Avengers succeeds because it balances the required elements of classic fantasy adventure, contemporary theming (renewable energy, you say?), self-referential ego clash, and measures of action and comedy. More than anything else, Whedon's strong suit is character, and here he's working with some great, and very different, ones. While that obviously comes to the fore in great exposition and narrative build, it's most impressive in action sequences that use the heroes' individual idiosyncrasies to keep up tension and lead to a meaningful resolution.
The Avengers heralds a new age of Joss — where his mastery finally extends to the mainstream and not just the cult. As a fun, smart and brawny superhero flick, it can't be beaten.