Monday, May 07, 2012

The Avengers In Review

I remember the moment, oddly enough. I walked into the QuikTrip (it was either before or, more likely, just after our weekly Boy Scout meeting) and meandered over to the rack of comic books on the western wall. There among the various titles was Avengers #221, showing a grid of potential new members and inviting me to "PICK TWO!" I didn't know most of them, but I thought the depiction of the Invisible Girl was clever, and I thought it might be cool to have Spider-Man and Spider-Woman join the Avengers in the same issue. So I opted out of the Slurpee and Watchamacallit and instead bought myself a comic book. And then I bought, oh, about two hundred more. And then about twenty years later I asked for and was given the entire Avengers archives on CD-ROM. Oh, and my favorite chapter in my geeky homage to superheroes, Comic Book Character, is about the Avengers. So perhaps you can understand my enthusiasm over the past four years as Marvel Entertainment Group built slowly up to last weekend's release of The Avengers: The Motion Picture.

I don't recall a time when I wasn't a fan of the Avengers. They are called "Earth's Mightiest Heroes," mostly in keeping with the hubris one generally associates with comic books; they have been, in reality, a monthly showcase for any number of human frailties and faults: from alcoholism to spousal abuse, from racism to chronic despair, from petty jealousies to ultimate betrayals. I learned a lot about myself, what I ought to aspire to and what temptations I ought to actively resist, by reading their exploits. The Avengers are many things, but at their core The Avengers is the human experience writ large.

The film is, I suppose, not much different. We've been introduced to each of the key characters over the course of five prior movies: Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man II, Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger. We knew their backstories coming in, but we didn't know how they were going to get along; and we certainly didn't know if one film could manage so many big personalities.

By that I don't simply mean the characters; I mean the actors as well. Some, like Samuel L. Jackson, are legendary; some, like Robert Downey Jr., are infamous. Each has played the lead in the past, so would they--let alone the characters they were taking on--play well with others?

That's why I think the superstar of The Avengers is not any of the actors themselves but the director, Joss Whedon. Whedon has built his reputation, in television and even in comics, as a master of the ensemble. He not only meshes characters well, he tells communal stories well. We saw a lot of that here: Whedon doesn't shy away from the tensions that should be expected in an assembly of flawed personalities who see the need to work together but don't yet know quite what to make of each other. Nobody owes anyone anything at the outset of The Avengers, and they go to great lengths to prove that fact to one another--and, I suppose, to themselves. Tony Stark shows off and declares himself above it all both in and out of his Iron Man armor; Thor barely deigns to interact with puny humans; Captain America rejects the obvious power differential between him and the others when a special agent advises against taking them on: "They're basically gods." "There's only one God, and I'm pretty sure he doesn't dress like that."

It takes patience and cool, benevolent manipulation on the part of the all-seeing, one-eyed Nick Fury (director of SHIELD) to gradually shape these six heroes into a true team--that and the tragic death of a beloved supporting player, a death Fury is all too willing to exploit for the greater good. Nobody's conscience is entirely clean in this film, which is as it should be: none of us makes it successfully through complex relationships without some regret and some self-justification."We could be heroes," David Bowie sings, but he also sings "You, you would be mean; and I--I'd drink all the time." We're all flawed and frail, and part of each person's heroic journey is to push through our flaws and frailties in pursuit of the good.

The latter half of the film gets a little Transformersey for my taste. I sort of wish I hadn't shelled out the extra bucks for 3D. I should really see it again to find out what I missed while I was dodging alien laser shots aimed at my head. I also find myself wanting a little more time to sort through the various relationships and figure out the individual characters a little better. The Black Widow said more than once, "I've got a lot of red on my ledger." I should really see it again to get a better sense of the debt she's carrying, and how it affects her interactions with the others. And Hawkeye--he was under Loki's spell for a good chunk of the film; I should probably see it again to parse out what's really Hawkeye and what's the influence of the film's villain. Oh, and speaking of Loki, I should probably catch it again to focus on how the brotherly relationship between Loki and Thor is carried over here from last year's film Thor. Oh, and while I'm at it, I'd love to focus in on Mark Ruffalo's portrayal not just of the Hulk but of Bruce Banner, whom he describes (in one of my favorite moments from the film) as "always angry." And then I might as well catch it one more time to see how Cap has adjusted to being awoken seventy years into the future--how he handles being the same age as his peers but from an entirely different era. Oh, and Iron Man has a really funky relationshp with SHIELD, and Fury in particular. I'd like to spend a little more time on that.

So yeah, six more times ought to do it.

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