On My Shelves: The Avengers


Marvel's recent push into the systematic production of high-quality superhero movies – Captain America, Iron Man, the Incredible Hulk, Thor – was clearly moving towards one of the most ambitious movies ever made: The Avengers. Anyone who was a comic fan could see that this was a likely goal… and anyone who had watched the history of comic-book movies could see how that could be an incredible train-wreck.


On the positive side, Marvel had taken the time to do one of the most important things first: establish the key characters of the Avengers before trying to put them into a single movie. That's a hell of an advantage; you eliminate the need to spend time explaining the origin of your major heroes, or getting us to understand what kind of heroes they are or what the potential advantages, or conflicts, might be in putting them together. Marvel had also put other little pieces into the other movies that seemed to be connected, in a way that might provide a good "hook" to build this mega-movie on. But even with that, there was a huge potential for disaster.


Marvel came through.


The Avengers delivers on every promise made by the prior movies, assembling Thor, Iron Man, the Hulk, and Captain America into a single team along with previously briefly-seen side characters such as the Black Widow and Hawkeye, under the direction of the indomitable Nick Fury as played by Samuel L. Jackson. Wisely leveraging their prior movies, they create a threat that draws on background connected to everyone but the Hulk (and the Hulk has been shown to connect in a sideways fashion to Captain America): Loki, using the "tesseract", which looks much like a Cosmic Cube and was the source of Hydra's power in WWII, is prepared to bring through some sort of invasion force, and has found a way to use the tesseract's power both as a mind-control device and as a gateway.


From the introduction of Loki, the movie takes off on an almost nonstop roller-coaster of dramatic action scenes interspersed with surprisingly intense character drama. The nascent Avengers are all driven people with their own motives and secrets, not easily brought together when they range from a pretty self-centered and egotistical (if at least somewhat humbled) super-gadgeteer to a millennia-old god or godlike being, a living incarnation of rage, and a super-soldier out of his own time and place.


As with most Joss Whedon productions, one of the key attractions of the movie, beyond the sheer spectacle (of which there is, admittedly, a great deal), is the dialogue. Whedon is a master of both the witty quip, and the quick shift to soul-searchingly intense conversation. The quiet discussion between Dr. Banner and Tony Stark is truly brilliant – it sows the seeds of an actual friendship while establishing the personalities of both men, and introducing us to pieces of information that are vital to the plot.


Timing is everything in a movie this complex, and The Avengers moves on a perfectly oiled clockwork mechanism that never misses a beat – whether it's time for drama, combat, or humor – or even, sometimes, combining these. Whedon has the same general "touch" that Spielberg does for presenting dramatic or heart-wrenching scenes and making us feel the emotion he is trying to project but – at least in this film – I don't get the manipulated feeling that I often do in Spielberg's. The scenes are, in their way, honest, and so I can feel the expected emotion fully.


Robert Downey Jr.'s Tony Stark is, once more, the center, the catalyst, both the weak and strong point of the potential team. Seeing him finally choose to reach out and be the hero, to believe in the possibility of such a team – this is one of the great scenes of the movie, done in a typically Tony Stark banter and yet with deadly, deadly seriousness that leaves Loki impotently furious.


Secondarily, this is actually more Black Widow's story than anyone else's, and we follow her through a sequence of terror that is the more potent because we have seen how competent and fearless she is in most situations; but her reaction, confronted by an out-of-control Hulk, reminds us of what even the best ordinary mortal would see when facing one of the powerful supers: a rampaging force of horrific power, made the more terrifying because it has a face, but is no more able to be fought than a tornado or avalanche. The Widow has to overcome this trauma, and help another old comrade recover his own self, before then facing invaders from another world.


This has become one of my favorite movies, and I've watched it at least three times. It has details and depth enough to survive rewatchings – things jump out at you in the third viewing that you didn't really notice in the first.


Marvel's later movies have continued in this vein; I now look forward – with some trepidation – to the second Avengers movie. Can they pull it off again? I don't know; but I do know that just pulling it off once – as they did, magnificently – is an achievement to be proud of.



  1. Ashley R Pollard says:

    I love all the recent MCU movies, and being a bit of a superhero buff I’ve watched a lot of super hero movies over the years. What people tend to forget is that apart from a couple of exception super hero movies have been seen as rather cheesy affairs, which is differentiates the MCU franchise from what came before.

Your comments or questions welcomed!