Monsters and Magic and Mayhem
How many superheroes spoil the broth? More than six, apparently, at least when Joss Whedon is wrangling them. Because there’s an awful lot of stuff crammed into Marvel’s The Avengers. Not just six superheroes — and that’s being conservative in the counting of who deserves to be called a superhero, and there could be even more than that, to my mind, because the title change in the U.K. to Avengers Assemble was done under the seeming belief that British audiences would expect to see secret agent John Steed here otherwise… and that makes me think, you know, why not? (Not that John Steed had superpowers, but that’s a debate for another geekout.) That could only make this supercool, superfun movie all the more entertaining. But anyway, not just six superheroes but a real geek’s brew — that’s like a witch’s brew, but more awesome — of premises and possibilities. All of which somehow work together, don’t feel underdone, and leave us feeling like, for all its absurdity, everything we see is happening in a real space to real people.
It’s damn near the sort of science fiction I was complaining only recently we don’t see much of, ever, at the movies: one crammed with big ideas, not necessarily the answers to life, the universe, and everything but at a minimum something that get us off this planet. For the bad guy here is Loki (Tom Hiddleston [Midnight in Paris, Thor], who just might steal the film), who looks like a god to us, though that’s just because of his sufficiently advanced science, and maybe he’s not even the real bad guy, cuz he’s working with some Skeletor-looking aliens from who-knows-where, and in Loki’s brief interactions with them (I think Whedon is saving more about them for the sequel), it doesn’t really look like Loki is the boss of them — more the other way around. And even before Loki Brings It to Earth with the Skeletor-aliens’ weapons, Nick Fury is already whipping up his Avengers’ enthusiasm for the fight by pointing out that our little planet is “hilariously outgunned.”
That’s something I long to see more of in science fiction, too: Earth not being the biggest swinging dick in the galaxy. Cuz if and when we meet aliens, we probably won’t be. Sure, the typical alien invasion movie usually does feature more technologically advanced ETs… and then they get defeated by a nerd with computer virus or a naval officer who doesn’t even know The Art of War, which is preposterous. (You’d think the aliens, being not only more technologically but more culturally advanced than us would have their own Art of War, which would be more insightful and more applicable, certainly against a puny human who doesn’t even understand our pathetic excuse for the height of military philosophy.) Here, at least, extraordinary mutant humans — plus one of Loki’s godlike fellows — are required to even begin to think about Earth taking on aliens. So that’s something.
But Avengers doesn’t stop there: it has barely even begun. This is a movie that is fantasy, science fantasy, and science fiction all at the same time. There’s ancient gods and magic-seeming technology and stuff that feels like science fiction but is probably more like fantasy (I’m thinking of a thing I won’t spoil, but I saw it on Doctor Who before it was here!) and stuff that feels like science fantasy but is probably closer to reality than we expect (I’m thinking of the Iron Man armor). It’s crammed with the sweet earnestness of Chris Evans’ (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, The Losers) man-out-of-time Steve Rogers/Captain America, and of he’s-not-human-so-he-doesn’t-get-our-jokes Thor (Chris Hemsworth: The Cabin in the Woods, A Perfect Getaway) — and that’s countered by the steely black humor of Samuel L. Jackson’s (The Samaritan (aka Fury), The Other Guys) Nick Fury and the snark of Robert Downey Jr.’s (Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, Due Date) Tony Stark/Iron Man; honestly, whenever the movie is verging close to taking itself too seriously, Stark is ready with a snide comment about the ridiculousness of it all.
It’s not all silly, though. One quietly spectacular scene has Stark and Mark Ruffalo’s (Date Night, The Kids Are All Right) Bruce Banner — when he’s not being the Hulk — comparing the nightmares of their lives as their own scientific guinea pigs; it’s riveting moment in which two fascinating actors make authentically human what could easily be no more than cartoon characters. Whedon (The Cabin in the Woods, Serenity) and fellow screenwriter Zak Penn (The Incredible Hulk, X-Men: The Last Stand) have created an expansive sense that all of these people have lives apart from what we see here… and they’re not all dark moments, either. It goes beyond just showing us from where all these superheroes must be gathered — as when Scarlett Johansson’s (We Bought a Zoo, Iron Man 2) Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow goes to India to collect Bruce Banner, where he’s been hiding from himself by doctoring to poor people — or filling in their backgrounds, as when Natasha reveals, to Loki, her past (in an amazing moment of sly drama) with Jeremy Renner’s (Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, The Town) Clint Barton/Hawkeye. That’s standard narrative stuff, if done well here. It comes, too, in small moments that could easily have been cut, if action were all the movie was concerned about, as in one brief exchange between Stark’s nonsuperpowered assistant/lover Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow: Contagion, Country Strong) and S.H.I.E.L.D.’s nonsuperpowered Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg), which is just delightful in all that it hints about what happens offscreen when everyone isn’t saving the world.
I haven’t read the Stan Lee/Jack Kirby comics this is all drawn from. I have no idea how faithful it is to anything. All I know is what I see here: when you pull in a terrifyingly talented cast of serious actors to play superheroes in spandex and capes and powered armor and green skin, something magical happens, and it becomes so exciting and so involving that you never want it to end. When you put it all in the hands of someone like Joss Whedon, who respects the material but not so much that he can’t have fun with it, it becomes something witty and wonderful and uniquely itself. This is pure nonsense in the best sense, in that it feels no need to be “topical” or “relevant” in order to render itself “important.” (Whedon stages the final climactic battle in New York City, and manages to evoke not one single hint of 9/11. I cannot tell you what a relief that is.) The Avengers knows that it is significant enough merely as its own comfortable, amusing, engaging self.