As a film, The Avengers has much in common with its team of heroes. It has to bring together disparate characters, many who have led their own franchises: genius billionaire Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), who becomes Iron Man with his high-tech armor suit; patriotic super soldier Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) as Captain America; Norse god of thunder Thor (Chris Hemsworth); and Dr. Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo here, in the best casting of the character yet), the brilliant gamma radiation scientist who turns into the enormous rage-fueled monster Hulk if he’s not careful. The team is rounded out by master spy Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and expert archer Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner): they don’t have superpowers, but they become incredibly useful and integral members. The film has to have a reason for these heroes to assemble, given their different methods and ideologies, and it has to provide each member with a purpose, even though their capabilities lie across a broad spectrum. In short, the team the Avengers and their new film have a lot of complex heavy lifting to do – and both ultimately succeed like gangbusters.
Much of the credit for The Avengers’ story-telling success (and most likely its repeat business) goes to its writer and director, Joss Whedon. Whedon is an avowed comicbook fan and writer, and no stranger to bringing together characters that for all intents and purposes shouldn’t be teaming up; he created the “cult favorite” television shows Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly (and its feature spin-off Serenity), and Dollhouse. Among his other film screenplays is Toy Story, and he’s been a “script doctor” for years – he understands structure and character dynamics really well. Basically, he gets the Avengers at a fundamental level, and he’s able to play with that. Whereas most tent-pole franchise movies are exercises in advancing from action set-piece to action set-piece, Whedon has structured The Avengers so that it still delivers the goods – the climactic battle is some of the most exciting and rewarding action I’ve seen – but while actually developing the previously established characters and addressing why the concept itself seems more than a little absurd but has remarkable potential.
In many comicbook movies, or just heroic movies in general, the villain often defines the hero. This has become standard protocol in the franchise department: the antagonist has a certain agenda or set of beliefs that we learn of, and then we see how the protagonist’s beliefs clash with this. The hero usually doesn’t have an agenda beyond defeating the villain; there’s no agency beyond being good until the villain is established and then whatever dialogue there is between the two is about this essential disagreement. While there is definitely a “Big Bad” in The Avengers – the Norse trickster demigod Loki (Tom Hiddleston, reprising his role from Thor) – and the heroes have to band together to defeat him and the cosmic army he gathers, it’s in the banding together of the Avengers that we really see the ideologies come into play, against themselves. This is a rather basic but brilliant choice: have the heroes fight each other before they take on the evildoer. When Loki comes to Earth and attacks a research facility to steal the Tesseract, a cosmic object with unlimited energy potential, this presents a greater threat than any one superhero can handle. (The X-Men and Fantastic Four, also created by Marvel Comics legends Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, must be busy.) Tasked with forming the Avengers is Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), director of S.H.I.E.L.D. (a sort of FBI/CIA/NSA for this superhero realm), who first approached Tony Stark after the credits of Iron Man; this film has long been in the making, as these tags have been featured in every related film since. This “getting the band together” portion of the story is necessarily slower than the rest, but Whedon uses it to establish with minimal exposition where each of the heroes are at this point in their lives, and why they might be reluctant to cooperate with S.H.I.E.L.D.’s agenda. For those who haven’t seen the previous movies, this is an entertaining, rather subtle and quick way to familiarize the audience: there is a real sense of these characters in what is basically an expanded montage. For those who have seen the previous movies (and are likely familiar with the 50-year-old comicbook property), it’s the early payoff – this is really happening – and an opportunity to learn a little more about these now-familiar characters.
When the heroes are finally collected, the real fireworks begin, and we see just how tenuous their different relationships might be. (I’m being purposefully vague here, I don’t want to divulge the plot machinations that make this make sense.) They of course do battle Loki and his army, but only after the audience has reason to care for them more than them all just being there. The film would have made just as much money in its opening weekend if it were a glorified version of “Look, it’s that guy! And that guy! And him too! Wow, ‘splosions!” but it wouldn’t have been very good, and it probably wouldn’t foster any repeat business or hopes for a sequel. Whedon addresses the problems of this unlikely group, both logistically and emotionally, and then puts them to work. So when the Avengers do assemble against their common threat, the audience has more to cheer for. The climactic battle showcases each hero well, but also the dynamics of the team in play. Even during this non-stop action sequence, Whedon’s groundwork of character brings a lot of heart, and his sense of humor brings a lot of laughs. (Robert Downey Jr. speaking Whedon dialogue was something that needed to happen.)
The Avengers come together to fight something greater than any of them, and in the process become greater than they could have imagined. The movie does the same – it delivers on the promise of five different movies, while advancing those characters and others, and escalating the scope and depth of the story. It raises the bar for what can be accomplished in a “summer movie,” superhero or otherwise. If you’re unfamiliar with the previous movies, you’ll be able to catch up easily, and become invested in these characters, and you’ll most likely want to go back and see their origin stories. As with those earlier films, be sure to stay through the credits for The Avengers.