At last a bigger-than-Ben Hur blockbuster bristling with intelligence, wit and humanity.
I have to admit I was sceptical going in that it would be. For one thing, the movie had the malodorous stench of hype laying heavily across it. Secondly, snug within the giddy chaos of all that hype was the oft-repeated assertion that this movie was an Event – a grand end point to a succession of movies including Ironman 1 and Ironman 2, Captain America, Hulk and Thor, and I wondered if it would be that, or just a victim of its creators’ over reaching creative hubris? Would they get so caught up in making it a fitting finishing point to this unprecedented run of interlocking superhero movies that they would give birth to a movie so bloated and unwieldy that it would topple over like Easter Island statues in a gale? Or rather be so memorable for all the wrong reasons that you would be wishing you could forget it?
As it turns out, I was wrong on every count. In retrospect, I probably shouldn’t have worried so much since helping this bold enterprise was Joss Whedon, creative wunderkind behind Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the shirt lived but much loved Firefly (yes I am a big fan), and Dollhouse. He is one of those rare talents, along side J J Abrams, who has the ability the capture the zeitgeist’s undivided attention time and again with compelling characters, griping story lines, imaginative visuals, and an instinctive sense of the perfect package to wrap them all up in.
All of these prodigious talents were on show in The Avengers, which was that rare beast – a superhero movie with wit, wisdom and an appealing balance between character development and the inevitable action scenes that in lesser hands end up dominating these sorts of movies to the detriment of all else.
It also managed to pull a feat of superhuman feat all of its own – it took seven major and minor superhero characters from The Marvel universe and gave them all equal screen alone and with each other. I am not sure if Joss Whedon used some sort of complex computer algorithm or he just has the sort of mind that can keep a myriad of details lined up like perfectly ordered, non-sqawking ducks, but there was never any sense that any of the characters were being neglected or overlooked. When the team finally stood as one in the climactic battles scenes in New York City – epicentre of alien invasions it seems -they felt like a real team that had had the rough edges of ego and raw ambition rubbed off, and that they had been united with a common sense of purpose for the task at hand and a fierce loyalty to each other.
It helped immensely that this juggernaut of a movie had a whole slew of movies leading up to it that had established almost every character in their own right which meant that the need for massive slabs of exposition in the movie was removed. We knew for instance who Ironman was, what motivated him, that he was a wise-crackin’ maverick and that he wasn’t good at playing with the other kids in the playground, something he admits to in this film. We also knew that the Hulk’s backstory, why anger was an issue, and how perpetually conflicted he was. We could also appreciate the nobleness and old-fashioned values of Captain America thanks to Chris Evans’s awesome portrayal of this superhero in the 2011 movie.
And most importantly we had the backstory that underpinned The Avengers perfectly in place. The story of the brothers from Asgard, Thor and the resentful Loki, who cast out from the almost heavenly realms of his home, chooses to assuage his endless lust for ambition and power with an alliance with the murderous Chitauri who seize on Loki’s need for vengeance as a way to further cement their quest for merciless domination of the universe.
But therein lies Joss Whedon’s genius with this movie. If you knew all the backstory there was an added layer of richness to experiencing this engagingly complex story. But if you had shown no interest in any of the movies, and were only dragged along to the movie by your geeky friends or were seduced by all the hype, of which as I said there were drowning-at-sea quantities, you could still enjoy The Avengers as a stand alone tale of good vs galactic evil. The exposition needed to ensure that any superhero newbies could not just understand but enjoy the film was subtlety threaded through various conversations and peppered throughout the film, so skilfully in fact that you barely noticed the exposition was there at all.
Now that is genius. As was the use of humour in the movie. With wisecrackers like Ironman in play, the risk was that the movie would descend into parody, the jokes sinking the Good Ship Event till it was nothing more than the butt of many late show hosts’ routines. But a remarkable thing happened. The quips and wisecracks were placed just so, meaning that while we were laughing our heads off, we were learning more about the characters and why they were motivated to act they way they did.
My favourite line? When Thor storms in to confront Black Widow and the others about Loki’s imprisonment onboard S.H.I.E.D.’s giant armoured flying fortress – S.H.I.E.L.D. is the super secret organisation military unit headed by agent Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) which brings together and oversees the work of The Avengers – declaring:
“He [Loki] is of Asgard and he is my brother!”
Barely batting an eyelid, Black Widow responds:
“He killed 80 people in two days.”
Thor: “He is adopted.”
That one small exchange alone, while demonstrating that Chris Hemsworth has blissfully good comic timing, gave us insight into what drove Black Widow, and Thor, and how conflicted Thor was at the point. Not about whether what Loki was doing was acceptable – Thor made it quite clear from the beginning that Loki’s actions were utterly reprehensible – but that he had to fight his own brother in such a theatre and at such great cost. A few lines of dialogue accomplished so much and underlined how perfectly written the whole story was.
It is a rare skill to write so tightly and impactfully, and it is testament to a taut, well-paced script that seamlessly melded an engrossing narrative, a sense of the mythic and the profound with the gee-whiz and the golly-gee, ensuring that every last facet counterbalanced all the others perfectly.
But nothing is perfect. There are a few minor flaws such as the implication repeatedly woven into the movie that America is the bastion of all that is good and right in the world, but in a way that makes sense the Marvel universe came to be during America’s golden age of power. It reflected the sense among the more idealistic Americans of this time that America could use its great economic and military power as a force for good in the deadly aftermath of World War Two.
This terrible war also forms the basis of what is a minor wobble in the overall smooth running of The Avengers. A noble attempt to underline the foolhardiness in Loki’s assertion that mankind prefers subjugation to freedom by having a Holocaust survivor defy him during a pivotal scene in Stuttgart, Germany failed to bring forth the necessary gravitas, and ended up a lame attempt to combat the inherent evil in Loki’s philosophy of rule. I think this is largely because it was a moment of great truth and profundity sandwiched between two massively over the top (and I don’t mean this as a criticism) action sequences which muted its effectiveness as a statement against the evils of dictatorship and the misuse of power. I applaud Joss Whedon for inserting it, and it needed to be said in some form but it lost impact because the rest of the movie, as beautifully constructed as it is, didn’t match this sudden change in tone.
But those are minor quibbles in a movie that by and large was a bright, enthusiastic telling of The Avengers story. It kept the action moving along well (save for a few slow patches in the first half when the characters were kept apart for perhaps a little too long), it brought these disparate characters together well into a believably well-functioning team, and told a good old-fashioned story of good versus evil where good naturally wins and the world is saved and we could walk out of the cinema feeling a little bit better about life as we know it.
That’s exactly what a good larger-than-life blockbuster should do and if that’s what Joss Whedon was aiming for, and that looks to be the case, then I can think we can safely say mission accomplished.