I suspect that The Avengers is pretty much the best movie about The Avengers that it’s possible to make. Consider this:
· There are several Avengers, all of whom we should care about.
· They need something to avenge, something that we in the audience feel needs avenging. The audience needs to cry. Then, it needs to get mad.
· People liked Iron Man more than they liked The Hulk. Message: make ‘em laugh; don’t make ‘em think.
· Lots of stuff had better blow up real good.
· Joss Whedon is really, really good at screenwriting and directing. His resume demonstrates an ablity to craft fully realized worlds, populate them with diverse and engaging characters, and give those characters interesting (and funny) things to say.
· He’s not afraid to blow stuff up real good.
So, Item One: so many Avengers, so little time. Whedon addresses this by taking characters who had been in bad movies (Captain America, Thor, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2) and cutting those film’s weaknesses. Consequently, he capitalizes on their strengths. Here’s a rundown:
Robert Downey, Jr.’s comic timing is Iron Man’s whole appeal. Too much of it, however, and you want him to just shut up already. The Avengers uses him enough to satisfy the audience’s thirst for its favorite player, but not so much that they hope for Sam Rockwell to show up and give ‘em a break.
Thor’s problem was that the whole movie was about two things: Thor’s magical transformation from dick to hero through the power of Natalie Portman’s smile, and Loki’s descent from someone who, reasonably enough, doesn’t like the dickish Thor to full-blown villain. Here, Chris Hemsworth’s Thor begins the film understanding justice and humility while Tom Hiddleston’s Loki radiates gleeful malevolence. Now, I’ve got a good guy I can root for and a bad guy I can boo.
Edward Norton is a brilliant actor, no doubt about it. But his Bruce Banner was just plain boring. Eric Bana’s version, on the other hand, was masterful; but everybody (except for me) hated that movie. Whedon’s solution? Assume his audience already knows Banner’s back story and give us a whole new guy to play the character. Mark Ruffalo plays Banner not as a rope about to snap, but as a decent guy with issues – a guy who can tell a joke. We sympathized with Norton and Bana, but we like Ruffalo.
Captain America suffered from being just another origin story. Its villains, extra-evil Nazis calling themselves Hydra, were an insult to every self-respecting actual evil Nazi still hiding out in Argentina. I mean, c’mon! How do you top real, historic Nazis for evil? And Illinois Nazis don’t count. Further, if you’re Captain America and you’ve already beaten the Nazis, where are you going to go next? That’s why Loki’s the perfect foil: he’s the villain of Norse mythology, one of the touchstones of German National Socialism. Further, Whedon leverages the fact that Chris Evans’s Captain America is an actual Army captain, schooled in small unit tactics and experienced in leading capable people under stressful conditions. Throw in some fish-out-water material (he had to get the character to 2012 somehow), and you are maximizing the potential of this character.
There are other Avengers, like Scarlett Johansson, whom we like because she’s Scarlett Johansson, and Jeremy Renner, whom we like because we remember The Hurt Locker. And you know what? It all works. Whedon takes the best, most entertaining aspects of his characters, cuts the fat, and gives us concurrent arcs in which we can believe. Success!
Item Two: Whedon does give them something to avenge, and it works on a personal level. This isn’t, “Hey, you wiped out a Dunkin’ Donuts, and now we’re really mad.” It’s, “You have gone too far, and this shall not stand.” Going in to the details would spoil the film, I think. But I’m comfortable telling you that Whedon surprised me, saddened me, angered me, and made me hungry for revenge.
Item Three: The Avengers is funny. I laughed out loud more often than I did at Bridesmaids.
Item Four: Lots of stuff does, in fact, blow up real good.
So, there’s all that. There’s plenty that didn’t work for me, as well. The “Let’s fight before we team up” stage went on a little long. I’m convinced that Tony Stark’s true nature is that of an amusingly selfish jerk, sentencing us to film after film in which he learns to not be such a jerk, only so that he can forget those lessons in time for the next outing. I never have been able to get past the fact that a hovering aircraft carrier is a profoundly stupid idea. But that’s ok. By taking the best of the films that preceded it, The Avengers crafts an exciting, spectacular, fun time at the movies.
Movies like this are what popcorn is made for. Or shawarma. Whatever.