At one point in the new Marvel film The Avengers, ubiquitous Agent Coulson tells Steve Rogers, aka Captain America, that they have updated his suit with a few modifications. Rogers asks, “Isn’t the stars and stripes a little old fashioned?” at which point Coulson, an avowed fanboy of Cap, tells him that, just maybe, old fashioned is what the world needs right now. And herein lies the magic of writer/director Joss Whedon’s approach to the record smashing live action superhero mash-up: old-fashioned-saving-the-world-from-extraterrestrial-subjugation-fun!
Whedon knows who the Avengers are, what they have been, and where they need to go. As such, he avoids the mistake of reinterpreting the mega-team through a postmodern, nihilistic lens, a trap too often ensnaring other contemporary superhero projects. (I’m looking at you, Man of Steel.) Neither does Whedon devolve into camp (*cough* Green Lantern). Rather, he allows the characters to play in a world and respond to a threat that Marvel has brilliantly pieced together since the release of Iron Man in 2008.
Ultimately, Whedon is somehow able to achieve this while giving every character involved their rightful due, and not allowing the considerable presence of Robert Downey, Jr. to overshadow the fact that this is a team film (a super-powered feat in its own right). And it works. At the start of the film, these characters are at cross-purposes, with their own agendas and egos blinding them to the larger developing threat. Steve Rogers is seemingly adrift in contemporary society; Tony Stark is focused on, well, Tony Stark; Thor is unable to see past his Asgardian responsibilities; and Bruce Banner just wants to be left alone in exile. As the gamma-ray filled doctor describes them, the Avengers are an unbalanced chemical mixture ready to explode…and the results may not be what Samuel L. Jackson’s manipulative and heroically amoral Nick Fury was hoping for.
Some reviewers have complained that the first half of the film is too slow, that Whedon seems to get wrapped up in his own whip smart dialogue and fanboy glee at seeing these characters on screen for the first time in history. Unfortunately, this might be the Michael Bay effect so prevalent in modern action cinema that demands a giant explosion destroying a major national landmark every two-and-a-half minutes. Yes, The Avengers ultimately gets to the “explosiony” goodness, and satisfyingly so. However, Whedon presciently lays the groundwork for something far more important in the film and the Marvel universe writ large: community.
Make no mistake, Joss Whedon’s fingerprints may be all over the aforementioned dialogue. However, it is his focus on the building of community that truly lies at the heart of The Avengers. Disparate ideologies coming together to serve a singular purpose is a staple motif of the Whedonverse (e.g., Firefly, and which also seems to have influenced the look of SHIELD’s flying tech), and is the narrative engine that powers The Avengers. Why would an avowed capitalist, a jingoistic patriot, an introvert with anger management issues, and a demi-god who is literally quite above it all, decide to work together or even be in the same room with one another? To say much more would be to venture into spoiler territory, but rest assured, the enmeshing of these considerable egos and powers feels organic and rather awe-inspiring (note: to witness the culmination of this new community, stick around to the very end of the credits for bonus clip deux).
None of it would ultimately be possible, however, without the presence of Tom Hiddleston and his maniacal return as Loki. A dark, more twisted God of Mischief than we previously saw in Thor, Hiddleston brings to the “big bad” of the film a demonic glee and palpable excitement as he schemes, murders, and manipulates the Avengers on his way to becoming the ruler of all Midgard. His interactions with each hero reveal a mind that is truly lost and so desperate to be a king, a king of anything, that he unable to see that he is himself a puppet in a larger cosmic scheme revealed in a truly nerdtastic post-credits denouement. (Are you really going there, Marvel?)
Aside from a somewhat generic score, The Avengers is a perfect superhero film in every way. While box-office receipts are no indication of the quality of a movie, the Hulk-smashing $200 million domestic weekend and $600 million twelve-day worldwide haul is an indicator that moviegoers will respond to smart scripts that treat the fan and the property with respect. Marvel’s multi-year plan, building to what was previously an unthinkable cinematic scenario, is now playing out before the eyes of the world, and the overwhelming response is a testament to the vision, focus, and yes, love of these heroes and gods of the new age brought to life by Marvel and the true hero of the day, Joss Whedon.