The Avengers

This review of The Avengers will include a SPOILER, but before the SPOILER, there will be a huge picture of the Hulk. After the SPOILER there will be another huge picture of the Hulk. On each side of the Hulk, there will be no SPOILERS.

Over the past four years, Marvel Studios has proven that it is a studio uniquely capable of producing high quality, summer blockbuster superhero movies. Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor, and Captain America: The First Avenger each surprised me with their humor, charm, engaging action, high production quality (with the exception of Thor‘s CGI overload), and believable characters in unbelievable situations. None of them are “great” movies, like Pixar’s The Incredibles or Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, movies which embrace the superhero genre and yet manage to transcend it, but taken together, these Avengers prequels deserve to be included among the best popcorn movies ever made.

The Avengers, the sixth movie in this series and a spectacle pic if ever there was one, is a worthy addition to the series. It is as charming, exciting, funny, visually stunning, and involving as its predecessors, but no more so. The Avengers is equal to its antecedents, but it is not greater than them. It is a product of its prequels (1X1X1X1X1=1) not the combined sum. I enjoyed it as much as I enjoyed the others, and that’s quite a lot considering their relative shallowness.

I’ve long faulted these Avengers movies for their lack of substance. I most enjoy movies that try to get at something more profound about humanity, the world, or God. There are glimpses of weightier matters in each of these stories – Bruce Banner dealing with the beast within, Tony Stark’s egomania, or Thor and Loki’s quality of divinity and responsibilities as gods – but none of these matters are dealt with in depth. They are simply skipped across like a stone lightly touching on the surface of a deep sea, present just enough to create narrative ripples, but largely inconsequential. These Marvel Studios movies are the situation comedies of superhero flicks. Their characters deal with the same issues again and again and again, never really seeming to learn anything, and tickling our funny bones all the while.

The Avengers are one-note characters, but the genius of Joss Whedon’s writing and direction in this movie is that he sticks to those notes and plays them well. Iron Man still has to learn selflessness. The Hulk still has to learn to control his rage. Thor still has to learn to fight for someone other than himself. Captain America still has to stay true to himself and his cause. Whedon’s skill, as demonstrated in his many ensemble TV shows, is his ability to play one-note characters together harmoniously. He was the right director for this movie, though he might not have the been the right director for any of its forerunners. (And this is certainly Whedon’s movie. Even the dialog has a Firefly-like cadence to it.)

Hulk say, “SPOILER!”

My favorite of his touches was the humanization of Agent Phil Coulson. In The Avengers’ antecedents, Agent Coulson is amiable if automatic. He reminds me of the assumed identity of Matt Damon’s character in one of the con scenes of Ocean’s 11 – he’s “specific but not memorable… funny, but [he doesn’t] make [the audience] laugh.” The audience “likes [him] but then forgets [him] the moment [he’s] left [our] side.” In The Avengers, in almost its first scene, we learn Agent Coulson’s first name – Phil. A short time later, we find Phil fawning over Captain America, in awe of his hero and asking for his autograph. Suddenly, Agent Coulson is no longer the government automaton of the earlier movies. He’s a person with a fan-boy’s appreciation of these super humans.

Agent Phil Coulson is us. Whedon makes Phil Coulson the avatar of the audience within the narrative structure of the movie. Later in the movie, after Loki stabs Coulson, with his dying breath Coulson tells Nick Fury that he had to die so that the superheroes would have something around which to assemble. They needed something to make the fight personal, and shortly thereafter, when Fury throws a bloody batch of Coulson’s trading cards on the table, the Avengers reconcile and join forces to defeat Loki on behalf of Agent Phil Coulson.

But if Coulson is us, then The Avengers are rallying around the audience. They are fighting on behalf of the people in the theater seats watching them on the silver screen. The Avengers assemble for us. And this, I think, is this series’ greatest strength.

Hulk say, “SPOILER OVER!”

Marvel has made these movies specifically for the audience or at least with the audience definitely in mind. Movies are the most collaborative of art forms, and Marvel Studios has remembered that the audience is part of that collaboration. These are not multi-million dollar passion projects of formerly financially successful directors. These are not blatant cash grabs that appeal to our basest instincts. They are fun movies made for people who enjoy having fun at the movies. Should we spend $250 million dollars to make a movie? Probably not, but if we are going to do that (and it looks like we are time and time again), we might as well make a movie for everyone that respects everyone and expects the best from everyone. The Avengers is that kind of movie. This franchise is that kind of franchise.

Individually, these movies – Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor, Captain America: The First Avenger, and now, The Avengers – are fine. They are each fun but, ultimately, unremarkable. Together though, they prove greater than the product of their parts. Together, these movies represent the best that a blockbuster franchise is capable of being. The Marvel name is well deserved.

(And to those who worry about the success this thematically light series might have on further, more substantial studio developments, the most exciting moment of my midnight screening of The Avengers was during the previews when the newest trailer for The Dark Knight Rises began. My packed auditorium fell to a hushed silence during the two minute trailer and cheered when it ended. Just because an audience enjoys relatively shallow but harmless movies like The Avengers does not mean it is incapable of appreciating a deeper work like Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy.)