To say that their is no shortage of awful summer action films being spit out of studios and onto the silver screen seems a tired thing to do at this point. We’re all aware, aren’t we? If you haven’t expressed the sentiment directly, you’ve heard someone who has. Whether it be from a close friend, a random date you had a one night stand with, or even an through an extended family member who always has to have his opinions heard during the family reunions, you’ve heard the complaint. And because of this needlessly over-expressed fact–needlessly expressed again, by me–the mediocre world-on-a-wire action flick has become a delight. It’s something that the moviegoer is no longer bored by. Instead, we’re relieved; “At least it wasn’t another Transformers,” we sigh, walking away from the theater in a fine, but certainly not inspired mood.
Bearing the current circumstance in mind, I think it fair to say that I shouldn’t be judged harshly for entering the theater to see Joss Whedon’s The Avengers, being extremely skeptical. Don’t get me wrong. I’m a big a nerd as they come. I don’t need to count the ways, (Magic: The Gathering, Modern Warfare, League of Legends, Dungeons & Dragons, Game of Thrones) but just believe it when I say that, undeniably, I am not a cool person. I am a cynic though, apparently, and being such a person, found it difficult to get excited over this latest loud and bright superhero romp.
Oh I, of little faith. Whedon’s rap sheet alone should have been enough to settle my anxiety. The man has been putting out tight, well constructed narratives since before I knew what a narrative was. At this point, he clearly knows what he wants. Avengers is Whedon at his peak as an auteur. (Listen up Michael Bay. This man knows how to make explosions mean something other than “boom.”)
The film is paced spectacularly, and it knows it. Moving from scene to scene with a swaggering confidence, the stakes are raised at precise moments; revelations occur, and they shock us, but they are not contrived; relationships are brought to light and then played out with a cartoonish sincerity that never seems forced. We’re not so much asked to suspend disbelief, as we are tricked into it. It is the Whedon spell: the plot can be outlandish and the characters, equally so. Whedon can have gods/demons/vampires/evil geniuses/frozen soldiers from WWII, it doesn’t matter. We end up truly believing in them.
Whedon knows what makes a comic book good and he knows what makes a comic book bad. When we’re talking about film, this point might seem irrelevant. It isn’t. Not in the case of a comic book movie; or, rather, a movie that is trying to capture the voice and essence of the Western superhero. This is where Ang Lee’s The Hulk and every X-Men related movie after X2 failed. Those films weren’t just about conflict, they were conflict. That was all they were. You can have countries at risk, the world at risk, even multiple worlds’, it doesn’t matter. There is no sentiment the audience can feel other than a light awe at your pricey CGI, if they don’t care about who is in the middle of it all. Whedon makes us care. He didn’t have to though. It would have been very easy to just make this movie about vengeance and violence: Bad guy does bad thing. Good guy makes him pay. People cheer. The end. We get something much more interesting instead.
The actual physical enemy in the story is fairly boring as far as motivations go. Loki, the Norse god of trickery, wants power and subjugation. The creatures working for Loki want the same thing, in essence. It’s power. Power, power, power. The bad guys want power. The real conflict in the film though, the foremost interesting fight, is that which the Avenges have with themselves. Every hero on the team has a chip on their shoulder. They’re all egotistical, wrapped up in their own problems while simultaneously being asked to save the world. This is where the entertainment comes from: the change in character, the personal reveal.
Of course this is all done though the comic-book-tinted lenses. Dialogue is sharp and quick, the jokes are often cheap, but self-aware. There are scenes that look like they could have been lifted straight from an Avengers comic, punchline and all. (Yes, comic books can be quite funny.) But you have to stylize the film in a way like this. When you deal with time travel, alien technology, Norse Mythology, secret government agencies, you can’t take yourself too seriously. Whedon doesn’t. The movie contains real emotion and engaging narrative not spite of the total committal to an insane comic book universe; it contains these things because of that committal. It is in the honesty that Whedon, and everyone who works on his projects with him, infuse into the film that creates such a satisfying movie going experience. The Avengers is a chaotic, colorful, Hollywood action flick. Whedon knows it, the actors know it, and we know it. In that knowing, that awareness, it damn nearly transcends the genre.