Director: Joss Whedon
Writers: Zak Penn (story) and Joss Whedon (story & screenplay)
Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddlestone, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, and Samuel L. Jackson
Franchise & Film-maker
The Avengers is a triumph! It’s about as much shallow-minded mental fun as is possible to achieve at the movies. This is not to say that you have to turn off your brain to enjoy it; you don’t. In fact, if the human brain is all about sensory input and engagement, then this movie requires your brain to be switched on and, if so, it then rewards you with the pleasurable release of natural joy inducing chemicals into your bloodstream. Your heart beats faster, you smile, you puzzle, you smile, you laugh, you say, “Wow!” The Avengers is a far better movie than Iron Man (2008) and even better than Spider-man 2 (2004), which I had considered to be the best Marvel adaptation.
In Joss Whedon, Marvel found the perfect film-maker to handle what was increasingly looking like a burdensome ambition and a movie-going chore; a trip to the theatre done out of obligation rather than desire. Somehow, with Iron Man 2 (2010), Thor (2011), and Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), the set up was becoming boring and in no way did it seem as if the end product was going to justify the efforts and dollars expended. Then, something amazing seems to have happened: the project was handed over to Mr. Whedon and they trusted him and they let his traits come to bear and the fruit on display in this movie is sweet and juicy.
Now, I haven’t been a fan of everything Mr. Whedon has been involved with. I did go through a pretty heavy Buffy The Vampire Slayer (1997-2003) phase in the late ’90s, but I never got into Angel (1999-2004) or Dollhouse (2009-2010). On the other hand, Firefly (2002) was clearly terrific, but I went into that well after its cancellation and after being underwhelmed by its movie follow-up Serenity (2005). Of course, after binging on Firefly I went back to Serenity and found it to be really pretty great. All of these previous projects now seem to have been perfect preparation for The Avengers. All of them have traits that are present in Mr. Whedon’s film (only his second feature film): revolving and involving a large cast of principal characters, stories progressing along multiple threads, a script teeming with cleverness and zingy lines, actors having fun with their characters and with each other, action sequences that are well-paced and make sense (no Transformers style aesthetic and logical vomit here), and a villain in Loki who is just slightly conflicted, but as charming as he is evil.
I think the film’s success is not entirely due to the efforts and input of Mr. Whedon (and here I’m assuming that it’s North American release will be as tremendous as it’s international — myself, I saw the film last week here in South Korea in a packed theatre). A large part of what makes this film work, i.e. what enables it to be understandable, is the immense marketing effort that Marvel/Disney has put behind it. It really has been, I believe, unprecedented and tremendously ambitious. From the post-credit tag scene at the end of Iron Man to the Tony Stark cameo in The Incredible Hulk (2008) to the all out blitz over the past two years from Iron Man 2 through Thor and Captain America. It’s been risky because those movies, to varying degrees, suffered from the weight of laying the groundwork for The Avengers. In fact, it could possibly be argued that Marvel first planned this assault way back in 2002 when Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch re-imagined the Nick Fury character in the image of Samuel L. Jackson for The Ultimates comic book (this being The Avengers equivalent in the Ultimate Marvel Universe. I am hoping more of the style of this comic universe will be on display in the new The Amazing Spider-Man movie later this summer becuase Ultimate Spider-Man is one of my favorite comcis ever). So, if any true comic book aficionado can enlighten me on Marvel’s possible prescience or grand plan, please chime in. My point is that Marvel has put in a lot of effort to make sure awareness for The Avengers project was extremely high and it looks as if they were willing to take some losses and bad reviews along the way. While since Iron Man in 2008, box office and reviews for these movies have been moving lower and lower, the awareness of the characters and The Avengers as a group has been increasing. Marvel knows that not everyone has seen all of these movies, but what everyone has seen over the past 18 months is a trailer or TV spot or an interview or guest appearance or tweet from one of the principal cast members. The tiresomeness of the releases of Thor and Captain America in particular last summer stemmed in part from the knowledge that the audience was purchasing a ticket to watch an advertisement for the main product: The Avengers. But, even this is not the end product. What Marvel/Disney has set up is far more enduring; they have designed a self-perpetuating content property. This is not just a tent pole franchise; it’s an entire camping park. Whereas Harry Potter and Twilight have had to resort the heavy-handed tactic of splitting the last novel to lengthen their film series (it seems inevitable that The Hunger Games will resort to this also), Marvel and its Hollywood studio partners have been able to draw on the culture and history of comic book narrative and publishing. No other form of popular literature is as malleable and re-visionable as the comic book, yet readers still accept the convoluted mythologies and the shifting appearances and histories of the characters. Marvel has applied those qualities to both its marketing and the production of The Avengers and hired, in Mr. Whedon, the person to translate that into something that makes sense.
The Avengers is not a perfect movie even if you put away all the cynical corporatization of the narrative and the idea that the whole thing or more about marketing than story or entertainment (content = property = profit). The film is probably too long, the SHIELD secret agenda subplot is too easily dismissed, and Agent Hill is a non-starter. But still, it’s amazingly fun and most amazing of all is that the studio overlords let their storytellers tell the story. I have to tip my hat, because I am now re-excited about marvel’s upcoming projects. My favourite thing about The Avengers was Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner/Hulk. I’ve been in awe of him ever since You Can Count On Me (2000), and the prospect of a Hulk movie that actually works because of its lead actor has me smashing things in childish excitement. Also, Iron Man 3 has a great chance of being pretty fantastic; it’s being written and directed by Shane Black. Mr. Black wrote the second best action movie of the ’80s* Lethal Weapon (1987) and is the guy who saved Robert Downey Jr.’s career with the wonderful but woefully under-seen postmodern L.A. neo-noir Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005). If Mr. Black is afforded the same trust and he delivers like Mr, Whedon has delivered, then the way way for Marvel properties will be a pleasure to watch.
* The best action movie of the ’80s (and of all time) is Die Hard (1988).