'The Avengers': The First Superhero Chick Flick?

The Avengers is the first full blown superhero movie that honestly speaks to women. Not only has Whedon done the impossible cinematically, he's done something unheard of demographically.

The Avengers

Director: Joss Whedon
Cast: Robert Downey, Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson
Studio: Walt Disney Pictures
Year: 2012
US Release Date: 2012-05-04

It's already got geek boy nation in a frothy uproar. In fact, outside of the announcement (and then eventual cancellation) of George Miller's Justice League film, few in the comic book nerd universe have thought of little except the final teaming of The Avengers... and it's just about here. Now, granted, this isn't the most complete of pictures -- there is no Ant-Man, Wasp, or a number of noted names -- and has been carefully constructed on a foundation of (sometimes flawed) origin films, but with the Summer season about to start in full swing, Marvel's mammoth undertaking is the first picture pimping for the almighty popcorn dollar. And it appears destined to make a mint. Already earning heavy praise and heated buzz, it looks to be one of the leaders once 31 August rolls around.

Even better, writer/director Joss Whedon has done something remarkable, something unheard of in the echelons of superhero movies - he's managed to make something that just might capture the female demographic. For the most part, the genre is considered the domain of male members of AA -- no, not Alcoholics Anonymous -- a far more lethal organization, the arrested adolescent. Symbolizing the subjugation of cinema to the whims of trolls and comment page obsessives, the kowtowing by and to Marvel and DC has routinely been blamed on "the guys", while gals get to share the blame for making Nicholas Sparks, Stephanie Meyer, and any number of Cupie of the Moment actresses box office gold.

But with The Avengers, Whedon does what he did so brilliantly in his seminal work of any medium, Buffy the Vampire Slayer.There, he took a female protagonist and kept the gender bias, working in male interest by investing the genre necessities with some broad bravado. Approach and angle were always about the lack of a Y chromosome. By being so inclusive, by never forgetting that women sometimes accompany men to the movies (or make the decisions while seated on the living room couch), Whedon works The Avengers into a creative communal experience. Gents will get the mandatory bang for their buck. The ladies, on the other hand, get all the emotion and male eye candy they can handle.

First off, the film is made up of five fascinating and attractive male leads. They run the gamut from pure stud muffin-ry (Thor) to a more recognizable, and ripped, human ideal (Captain America). There's the brainy dude with a dark secret (Hulk), a jet setting entrepreneur with wealth, power, looks, and a way with the smarmy small talk (Iron Man) and pumped up military marvel with deadly aim (Hawkeye). All of these men and their various superpower permutations are viewed through the prism of our presumptive guide, Natasha Romanoff, also known as the assassin/spy Black Widow. She begins the assembly of The Avengers by answering S.H.I.E.L.D.'s call, kicking some Russian butt, and then recruiting Bruce Banner to bring his big green ogre option to the mix.

Romanoff also has a personal investment in the outcome, as the narrative immediately places one of her closest colleagues in villainous jeopardy. Indeed, throughout the entire film, Whedon makes us aware that our heroine has the hots (both metaphysically and... without the meta) for the bow-wielding Cliff Barton/Hawkeye. They have a past, a particularly powerful link based on respect, and a call that goes beyond duty or demand of country. In fact, one could argue that without Natasha, the movie wouldn't work. All we'd have are a bunch of testosterone fueled titans ready to rip each other apart without rhyme or reason. While able to kick just as much ass as the men, our stealthy government gun for hire in the skin tight leather get up is the balance between demi-god/monster outrage and civilian/soldier strength.

Similarly, the assembly of the Avengers is all about touchy feely things like discovering what makes a radioactive rage creature tick, or how to topple the gargantuan ego of a man who doesn't need combat to conquer the world. In Whedon's world, each of the members come in with some personal chink in their armor -- Captain America is a man unstuck in time, Thor is an unseated king, Banner is haunted by his Hulk alter ego, etc. -- all of which adds an aura of tragedy to their presumed winner personalities. They become complex, emotional, sentimental... the kind of stuff that resonates amongst a certain percentage of the female movie-going public. Even the bad guy, Loki, is working through issues of abandonment, disrespect, and a feeling of being unloved by his deity foster Daddy. In the past, someone like Christopher Nolan's Batman made inroads into this demo because of the character's tormented soul. Whedon has just borrowed the idea and multiplied it.

This concept permeates The Avengers. Samuel L. Jackson's Nick Fury is a steely man of decisive action -- that is, when he's not battling bumbling bureaucrats or doubting his own motives. Clark Gregg's Phil Coulson is a huge nerd for Captain America, even going so far as to fetter out a near mint condition set of the hero's old trading cards. In fact, unlike other superhero films, the flaws here are more fascinating than the derring-do. We expect Hulk to smash, to see Hawkeye peg a predator in the perfectly targeted place. When we don't expect is to see them question and kvetch. It turns the standard heroes and villains into something more complicated. While the post-modern version of the comic book movie has always embraced a bit of this, Whedon and The Avengers make it their own.

Besides, a good judge of such strategies is always via the newbie, the non-committed... or even better, the non-familiar. During the screening, yours truly had the chance to watch as someone without any knowledge of the previous installments -- that's right, someone who had never seen Iron Man, Iron Man 2, Captain America: The First Avenger, either of the two Hulks, or Thor - experienced this coming together . As a critic, my frame of reference was all over the map. I was intrigued by how well Whedon got everything to mesh and how he made sure that every character got his or her own personal moment of triumph. My partner (okay, it was my wife), simply enjoyed the movie on its own unfamiliar terms. She loved the story, could easily follow the characters and their concerns, and raved about the action scenes and the aforementioned hero tropes. Better still, she thought all the men were "hot", making sure that her female friends knew about their flashy, fetching nature in post-experience comments and phone calls.

In essence, she responded like a chick. And this was her flick. While no one is suggesting that this will be a common reaction, it is a wholly unexpected one. My wife is a huge cinephile, considered, and cannot be easily swayed by standard, static ideas. Sure, she weeps openly at An Affair to Remember and enjoyed many of the movies (The Dark Knight, Watchmen) that make up the genre's best. But her response to The Avengers was so overwhelming, so all encompassing of what makes her a passionate, empathetic spouse that it seems like Whedon actually struck a nerve. Of course, the fanboys will be driving the next few weeks at the turnstiles, but don't be surprised if there are just as many girls as guys in the crowd. The Avengers is indeed the first full blown superhero movie that honestly speaks to women. Not only has Whedon done the impossible cinematically, he's done something unheard of demographically.

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