Harry Dean Stanton Occasions a Brief Respite in ‘The Avengers’

I don’t get a suit of armor. I’m exposed.

— Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo)

“Good morning,” says the security guard played by Harry Dean Stanton. He’s looking down on Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), who has just crashed to earth as the Hulk. The security guard stands atop the rubbly hole made by the crash, unfazed: “When you fell,” he tells Banner, “You were big and green and buck ass nude. ” Banner, carefully arranged amid the rocks and dirt so as not to spoil The Avengers‘ PG-13 rating, doesn’t even try to explain. “You an alien?” essays the security guard. “‘Cause if you’re not, you’ve got a condition.”

Banner does have a condition, as you know, owing to his research with gamma rays and a lab accident and other recent efforts to bring him into the Marvel movies franchise (efforts starring Eric Banna and Edward Norton). But even if you know about all that, the sight of Banner peering up at Harry Dean Stanton highlights other aspects of his condition, his precarious relation to the rest of the world’s population, his acceptance of his utterly impossible existence, and his appreciation of someone else’s wit.

Whedon says that the casting of Harry Dean Stanton for this “weird little scene” helps the movie make a transition, however briefly, from the slamming-and-banging action of aboard the S.H.I.E.L.D. Helicarrier to the slamming-and-banging action in New York City. Banner’s literal fall to earth initiates the shift, and his encounter with the security guard underlines that what these superheroes are doing — saving the world from the Tesseract and the Norse god-villain Loki (Tom Hiddleston) and the Other (Alexis Denisof), who’s providing Loki with the Chitauri army he needs to conquer earth — frames it, so you can feel smart, like viewers of Buffy used to feel, nerdily invested but also aware of your investment.

The Harry Dean Stanton scene, in other words, shows why you’ve been thinking that Whedon is the best and only person to make The Avengers. The rest of the movie is less convincing.

That’s not to say the rest of the movie doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do. It spends the requisite moments re-introducing the Marvel gang, each by way of a clever bit. Thus, when Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) is compelled to assemble the team (and start arguing with the World Security Council, headed by Powers Boothe) when Loki steals the Tesseract, as well as the super-archer Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and a scientist named Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård), an event involving a vehicular chase and explosions. Subsequent re-intros include Banner’s new best friend Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), with girlfriend Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow, so captivating in cutoff jeans), as well as Captain America (Chris Evans), still catching up, and Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), interrogating some evil spies, even if she’s the one tied to a chair. (To be fair, Tasha’s kicking and flipping her way to freedom is another Buffy-ish bit, characterization by violent choreography, fun and fast and wry.)

Such business sets up for the gathering of Avengers aboard the Helicarrier, some banter between competitive boys, including jokes at the expense of Captain America’s appearance on vintage trading cards, and an observation by Thor the Thunder God and Loki’s Brother (Chris Hemsworth), on breaking up a whomp-whomp filler fight between Iron Man and Captain America: “You people are so petty! And so tiny.” Other banter touches on the potentially dire consequences of the lost Tesseract (it opens a portal to Asgard), in case you’re wondering) and also of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s deceptive and exploitative tactics — despite and because of Nick Fury’s frankly lame attempts to persuade his team otherwise.

This last sets up something of a theme in the film, which is to say it sets up the Avengers against the powers that be, so they can be, like every all comic book superheroes, both inside and outside, representatives of the nation (or the world) and rebels too. They can’t be the Scoobies, of course. They’re too old and too CGIed. But they can’t be odd or fresh or even very under-the-radar in their meta-text-ness in their own right either, whether or not you know the comic books or the mythology or the other movies in the current Avengers cycle.

Most obviously, this problem is function of the sequel, designed to redeliver what you already know. It’s also a result of the franchise’s crushing success, not to mention the crushing success of comic book movies and merchandise more generally. You know what’s coming because you’ve been here before, in various forms. You’ve been subjected to the buzzy campaigns, the interviews, and the rumors. You’ve heard about the money, the effects, and the contracts. Really, is there anything you don’t know about The Avengers, even if you’re just a casual consumer, not particularly invested in either the Marvel conglomerate or the Whedonverse?

It’s impossible to imagine, in other words, how Harry Dean Stanton’s security guard looks at the world — which is why the brief pause he occasions is so welcome. Amid the hubbub and the repetition and the raucous predictability of the franchise, this “weird little scene” raises the possibility of something else. It reminds you why the superheroes might have once seemed so appealing, as they walked (or flew over) an earth that looked like yours, and not a New York remade to be destroyed by alien wormy things and decimated by super-bodies crashing into it. The scene reminds you of what makes superheroes familiar rather than so utterly strange, their vulnerability and their awkwardness, their fundamental alienation and their inclination to community. You expect all that. You might not expect Harry Dean Stanton.

RATING 5 / 10