Screening Log #61: The Avengers (2012)

Written by Joss Whedon and Zak Penn, based on characters by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby
Directed by Joss Whedon
Starring Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Scarlet Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Samuel L. Jackson, and Tom Hiddleston




Having written before, perhaps loosely, about the allegorical readings that may be applied to Iron Man and Captain America – the connections between the fantastic comic characters and the various elements of American ideology – it should prove fruitful for this line of inquiry to be extended in the posture I adopt in coming to The Avengers. The culmination of Marvel’s five-year plan, The Avengers is a proposition equally as potentially problematic as it is ambitious and unprecedented: an event film towards which five other summer blockbusters have been building, crammed with all the stars and special effects that a film of this scale, and its audience, demands. It is in its relationship to scale that The Avengers is both most surprisingly refreshing and also most underwhelming.

I have long believed that the thing which Marvel has done best since taking their Avengers initiative in-house is their canny sense for talent. The studio’s personnel decisions, be it casting certain actors or directors or technical people, have largely worked – to varying degrees of success – to support and enhance their projects with interesting qualities; casting Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark, for instance, was perfect casting and, to my mind, Kenneth Branagh’s Shakespearean sensibilities worked to ground the fantastic world of Asgard in Thor in a way that made the film both more engaging and relatable than it could have been in other hands. The decision to enlist Joss Whedon to write and direct The Avengers strikes a similarly practical and inspired chord. Whedon’s particular voice has long been one concerned with character building, sharp dialogue, and strong plotting, extending even to his run on another of Marvel’s comic properties, The Astonishing X-Men. As such, his scripting of The Avengers again signaled an awareness of the necessity of balance and substance on the part of the studio. While the film’s status called for the usually humongous set action pieces, its success would largely hinge on its script’s ability to emotionally engage the audience in the relatively limited amount of time that was not dedicated to explosions and destruction-averting heroics.

Loki, Thor’s brother and antagonist of that film, Tom Hiddleston, returns to retrieve the tesseract, the power source at the heart of Red Skull’s machinations in Captain America, for an alien race from across the galaxy, enslaving members of S.H.I.E.L.D. and destroying their base of operations along the way. Nick Fury, Samuel L. Jackson, is then forced to enlist various super heroes as a response team to a threat to humanity of a sort of cosmic scale, heretofore unseen. So begins a typically reluctant coming together of the group, including Captain America, Iron Man, Black Widow, Thor, The Hulk, and, eventually, Hawkeye. These characters are, for the most part, known quantities, having for received their own films, or appeared in at least one other Marvel film in some capacity. Coming to The Avengers having seen Marvel’s previous films certainly enriches the experience from a characterization standpoint, but Whedon’s scripting is deft enough to quickly establish character types and motivations for the uninitiated. Whedon’s Bruce Banner, alter-ego of the Hulk, Mark Ruffalo, is perhaps the largest deviation from the standard of the character established on film thus far. This Banner is bemused, seemingly, by his plight, his character lighter and less serious than previous versions – in both Ang Lee’s Hulk (2003) and Louis Leterrier’s The Incredible Hulk (2008) – and is immediately more affable and interesting.

Naturally, the coming together process of the group is reluctant at best, each character’s motivation and perspective coming into conflict with some element of the team or the approaches of its members. Loki is captured by S.H.I.E.L.D. and sprung according to his plan, in a manner that is most conducive to his fracturing of the still-embryonic super group. The super heroes square off for skirmishes of fanboy dreams: Thor faces Iron Man, Hulk fights both Black Widow and Thor, Iron Man and Captain America work together to restart a propeller on S.H.I.E.L.D.’s flying helicarrier. It is the quiet moments of conflict, however, when the film truly sings. Whedon’s sense of each character is so defined, his ear for banter so well-developed, that the conversations between each of these large personalities is where the film transcends spectacle. The ideological and interpersonal conflicts of the film, the connections and dialogue between its numerous protagonists, imbue what could very easily have been a two-hour special effects bonanza with a genuine sense of heart and interest.

It stands to reason that the heroes overcome their disparate views and work together in the end to thwart Loki’s plans and the invasion that he brings to earth during the film’s last third. Here action takes precedence and, as such, the film falls into the trap of spectacle. Where the film’s resistance to its large-scale genealogy resulted in its most interesting and charming moments, so its necessary destruction of a large chunk of New York feels somewhat wrote. While Loki’s plot bears a strong resemblance to that of the antagonist of Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011), Whedon’s more classical sense of direction loans this film a more coherent, if less viscerally chaotic, sense to the unfolding of this conflict.

Through this final conflict, and the heroes’ triumph over the invading force, the film’s attachment to the American ideology becomes more visible. If Iron Man and Captain America equally represent the material and ethical pinnacles of the American Dream, respectively, then The Avengers in itself is structured to demonstrate a model of America itself as democracy enacted in the world. The group contains disparate characters of differing backgrounds: Iron Man and Captain America represent the ideological spine of American life, Thor represents the foreign element, the outsider who comes to love America and operate within its borders, Banner and his Hulk represent the struggle of its constituents with their often negative emotions, and Black Widow and Hawkeye function as the empirical proof that, with dedication, the individual can achieve a level of skill that places them among Gods and men who have been heightened by technology. The value of teamwork that is implicit in The Avengers is as fundamentally American as it is juvenile. Through their transcending of their disparate backgrounds and skill sets, the team is able to empirically demonstrate the power of democracy to enable individuals to achieve greater works together than they could alone… even if alone they are something as formidable as The Incredible Hulk.

Tasked with the unenviably impossible job of making The Avengers live up to its billing as a blockbuster to culminate several other blockbusters while still giving it an emotionally viable core, Whedon succeeds as well as anyone could hope to given the circumstances, delivering as strong a film as one could craft, given the material and its context. Armed with a uniformly likable cast, his script allows each of the actors a small moment to shine and pieces of wit encrust the surface of what could have easily been a financial success without the amount of care evident in Whedon’s handling of the material. A clever demonstration of the universality of humanness and how team work allows the individual to transcend themselves, The Avengers stands as a subtle attestation to the merits of democracy even when subsumed into spectacle.

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  1. […] made mention in my Avengers post of the varying takes on The Hulk – and alluded to their correspondingly varying levels of […]

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