The idea of bringing together a group of widely different superhero characters from what on the surface appears to be different fictional universes with their own sets of internal logic is ambitious to say the least. When it is done in comic books the multi-layered narratives, near infinite storylines and ever-evolving characterisations facilitate such a complex and potentially confusing experiment. Even with the benefit of having established the principal characters and their diverse origins in five preceding films – Iron Man (Jon Favreau, 2008), The Incredible Hulk (Louis Leterrier, 2008), Iron Man 2 (Jon Favreau, 2010), Thor (Kenneth Branagh, 2010) and Captain America: The First Avenger (Joe Johnston, 2011) – The Avengers film could have been a disastrous combination of fan-fiction, over hype and intense silliness. In fact, it does feel a bit like fan-fiction, but when the writer and director is a fan of the calibre of Joss Whedon that works in its favour. Who better to make something that is not only coherent, but exhilarating and fun from the teaming up of a loveably arrogant billionaire, a super soldier from World War II, a god from Viking mythology, a modern day Dr Jekyll/Mr Hyde and a pair of elite spies?
When Whedon spoke at the Melbourne Writers Festival in 2010 he mentioned his admiration yet frustration at films such as The Dark Knight, Watchmen and Kick-Ass for deconstructing and subverting superhero mythology. He felt that this post-modern approach to superheros was premature and in modern cinema the superhero hadn’t had a chance to be ‘constructed’ yet. So The Avengers is his attempt at making a film that more traditionally reflects superheros and their values, and throughout The Avengers the various characters express that sometimes there is a need to be a little old-fashioned. This translates into a film that may not contain the complexity of other superhero films in terms of ideas and characterisation, but is cynicism free.
Old-fashioned doesn’t mean simplistic and the six characters are distinctive individuals who need to resolve their personal turmoils in order to work together collectively as a group for the common good. For good reason they don’t fully trust the covert organisation SHIELD, which has recruited them, and yet they are united by their opposition to the villainous Loki (Tom Hiddleston), who originally appeared in Thor. Politically The Avengers is a story of social cohesion where the extraordinary individuals work together for the good of society, or in this case to save the world. There is also an idea running throughout the film perpetrated by Loki who believes that humans prefer submission and that desiring freedom is a myth. His status as a god from another world and being compared to Adolf Hitler in one scene, presents these attitudes as belonging to organised religion and political oppression at their worst. The refusal to accept the subservient demands of a god is expressed in the film as a triumph for humanity to rise above such rhetoric, which is bluntly yet effectively expressed by a brilliantly computer-animated Hulk in a spin on his trademark ‘puny human’ line.
While Whedon does an admirable job at giving every character equal screen time to demonstrate how crucial they all are, he does seem to refreshingly favour the characters who contribute with brains rather than brawn. Indeed, the more cheesy and pompous characters such as Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) are far more enjoyable in The Avengers than they were in their original films as this time they have Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) to ridicule them. Many of the film’s classic Whedon moments come in the form of witticism from Stark towards the others, although Captain America gets a great line about cultural references and a sight gag involving Thor and Hulk is the comedic highlight of the film. Whedon also favours tormented characters or characters with a shady past so Dr Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) gets the most sympathy throughout the subplot concerning his battle to reconcile that he harbours the Hulk deep inside him. The best individual action scenes are given to Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), who has a shady past not to mention being the Smurfette of the film since the only other female characters are minor roles. Romanoff is also a classic Whedon strong-female character who uses the expectation that she is vulnerable to her advantage.
Visually The Avengers adopts the same glossy look as the previous films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, with the exception of The Incredible Hulk, which had a grittier and far more interesting aesthetic. Whedon works well within the limited visual style and while the first half of The Avengers cruises along with the same level of good-but-not-remarkable level of competency that the previous films had, the final prolonged battle sequence at the end is extremely impressive. Spectacle and action cinema that involves mass destruction has too recently been characterised by an over-reliance on disorientating rapid editing and random scenes of carnage to create the illusion of excitement. In The Avengers Whedon delivers a large-scale battle sequence in a metropolitan environment, but makes it genuinely engaging. There is a continual effort to present the effect that the over-the-top destruction has on the characters and the innocents caught up in it all, giving the spectacle a much-needed human element. Whedon also includes moments where the characters plan their strategy so that the scope of the spectacle is defined and the action the audience sees then played out has a context. Michael Bay and those who attempt to mimic his soulless approach to spectacle cinema could learn a lot from The Avengers.
The Avengers is a good Joss Whedon film and an excellent Marvel film. It tonally fits into the previous films and plausibly integrates all the various characters and plotlines. It is another example of how much more enjoyable superhero narratives are once the origin story has been dispensed with so that the characters can properly start being explored. Whedon’s influence cannot be overstated, as without his flair for dialogue and ability to manage a diverse ensemble of characters, the film could have been a disaster. Instead The Avengers gets the combination of humour and sincerity right, pulls off a sensational sequence of spectacle as its finale and manages to keep the serious and not so serious fans more than entertained.