Robert Downey, Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson
(Walt Disney Pictures; US theatrical: 4 May 2012; 2012)
Let’s just go ahead and begin with the obvious: I loved The Avengers. I found it smartly written, well acted, and just plain…awesome. But I’ll also admit I’m a self-avowed Joss Whedon fan, and when I heard he was directing, I knew there was no way it could suck. It seems like with Whedon there’s a fine line: you either love him or hate him. And while I’ll go to the grave claiming that all one has to do to make the crossover from skeptic to disciple is hold a marathon viewing of Firefly and Serenity, I’ll leave that argument for another day.
It’s curious to me that The Avengers, to the extent that has come under fire, is being criticized for having a lot of CGI effects and a predictable ending, as well as an “ill-defined threat from an unknown race.” As if this isn’t a superhero movie, and Disney was going to allow their beloved characters to walk off into the sunset while all of mankind is enslaved saying, “Well, hey, at least we tried?” As if nowadays having a ton of CGI effects is automatically a sign that a film is sub-par. (I don’t hear anyone complaining about Pixar!) And besides, Thor mentions halfway through Avengers that those baddies are Chitauris, a shape-shifting alien race that depend on high-tech cybernetic Ski-Doos to get around and are not to be confused with another shape-shifting alien race, the Skrulls. Try to keep up, people!
Okay, so I had to look that up. But still.
Look, I’ll be the first to admit that the superhero genre suffers from a lack of creativity in the conflict department. In fact, I felt that every Marvel movie from The Incredible Hulk on ended pretty much the exact same way: title hero trying to stop unstoppable force, be it a Hulk-like monster, an army of Iron Man drones, Frost Giants, or Nazis with laser guns. But for some reason, I didn’t care so much that The Avengers ended in a similar climax of epic proportions. Maybe it was because I’m so used to the genre by now that I know to depend on it. Maybe it was because I expected something epic from Marvel’s five-year build-up. But I think the real credit this time around goes to the build-up of the film as a whole. In each of the previous Marvel outings we got one superhero telling essentially the same story over and over, but in The Avengers we get to see them all telling the same story together. The film works because it isn’t so much about the external conflict of whoever threatens Earth this time around; it’s about the internal conflict between the members of this newly formed and slightly dysfunctional team. Rather than asking, “Will they be able to stop the invading forces in time?” We can ask, “How the heck are they going to get Tony Stark to see past his own interests?” or “How are they going to control the Hulk long enough to win?”
I think that’s why The Avengers is such a triumph in modern superhero storytelling. Whedon made a brilliant play when he made the conflict within rather than without. Because when we do finally reach the CGI-infused Last Stand in the breathtaking third act, we are cheering for those heroes in ways that we never quite have before. Will it win any Oscars? Probably not. Do we care? No. It’s the summer movie season, after all, and in a market barraged with effects-laden atrocities, it’s nice to be able to have at least one offering that uses CGI as a complement to, rather than exception for, its storytelling.