The Avengers, reviewed.Essays, Film — By Mike Radcliffe on June 28, 2012 at 7:25 am
In the late nineties, Warner Bros. began airing episodes of Batman and Superman cartoons together as part of a single show entitled The New Batman/Superman Adventures. I loved Batman, and had been reared on the gently gothic / art deco animated series which surfaced in the wake of the Tim Burton films. He was rich, but he was human–the stories had a toll, a drama that proceeded from a recognizably human world that didn’t have to get too crazy in order to endanger Bruce Wayne’s life. Superman, however, was a different story. I quickly grew tired of the ridiculous and outlandish contrivances the show came up with in order to give Superman something to do. Something interesting to test his limits, to make him sweat. Cause seriously, besides Kryptonite, what does Superman sweat over–Mr. Mxyzptlk?
This highlights the fundamental challenge of an Avengers movie: now that you’ve put all these supermen in a flying aircraft carrier together, how do you make them sweat? Fortunately, Joss Whedon’s The Avengers answers that challenge with ridiculous and outlandish contrivances that nonetheless give weight and urgency to this bloated pop art mosaic.
The main villain here is Loki, who is apparently (along with his adopted brother Thor) from a world of alien superbeings who served as the inspiration for Norse mythology. He combines his herculean powers with that of a mercenary off-world army in order to put the screws to planet Earth. You know, just because. Actually, Loki’s motivations are spelled out early via typical Whedonesque villainy: people cannot rule themselves, so he will rule them instead. Its the antithesis of the self-actualized existential agent, an archetype often lionized by Whedon in Firefly and Buffy.
The other main challenge of such a film (which has been talked about by some as THE challenge of the film), is how do you have six main characters in your action movie and not have it turn out to be an incoherent mess? This is where the writer/director’s talents as a character writer come in, which mostly involve a knack for identifying the essence of a character and letting the dialogue come from putting her in a room with other people. The Avengers is nothing but rooms with other people, so character-driven dialogue comes bursting through the seams, often with multiple characters playing off each other while the looming greater conflict continues to pull the their threads together. What’s impressive is the multiple character arcs coexisting and having their own climaxes and resolutions. It’s especially interesting to watch the self-involved Stark play off the self-negating Steve Rogers (Captain America). I liked that Iron Man gets his own grenade to throw himself on for the sake of others.
The Avengers is a great film, if far from a perfect one. For all its thrilling fireworks, it lacks a distinguishable visual style. Also, some of the fisticuffs and other close combat situations suffer from the shaky-cam freneticism which is supposed to pass for exciting action these days. But these are nitpicks given that the film delivers on its fundamental promise of superbeings beating the crap out of each other. And boy-oh-boy does Mr. Whedon like to smash these guys together. He sets up and executes brilliant conflicts recalling those old crossover comic book covers: Thor vs. Hulk! Captain America vs. Loki! Iron Man vs. Everyone! He’s clearly had fun tossing around and pulling the strings of his flesh-and-blood action figure set, and he invites us all in to play. Joss Whedon has once-for-all demonstrated that in his hands–and in those of the paying customer–even the gods are just rag dolls to be tossed around for fun.