It’s the culmination of five intertwined movies across four franchises, and it still seems like it’s just getting started. The Avengers manages to take the best elements of the Iron Man, Hulk, Captain America, and Thor titles and combine them in a way that is not only cohesive but that allows us to consider the characters from a new perspective. In the former films, we watch straightforward confrontations between the title hero and an enemy. In this one, we watch them interact with relative equals. In the process, the appeal of the most loved heroes is tested, and the redeeming qualities of those less developed become apparent. For their 2012 blockbuster, Marvel Studios has managed to take its characters in perhaps the most interesting and exciting direction possible.
Now that the groundwork for Marvel’s core superheroes has been laid, it’s time to see what happens when they team up, and what better impetus for them to do so than the threat of an alien race invading Earth? Loki (from Thor) is back, and he wants to rule our planet. In order to do so, he has promised to bring an extremely powerful energy cube to an alien race called the Chitauri, in return for which they will grant him an army powerful enough to dominate the Earth. Naturally, it’s going to take a lot to stop this from happening, so Nick Fury, head of elite espionage agency S.H.I.E.L.D., has brought together our superheroes to fend off the threat. Not all of them are happy about it, and they certainly have differing opinions on how best to handle the matter, but it doesn’t take much to convince them that this is a necessary effort. In many cases it is boring to use a “world may come to an end” plot to drive a film. It’s simply been used too many times. However, in The Avengers, that plot is a way to let us watch what happens when extremely powerful forces join together.
Following the heroes as they assemble into the team known as the Avengers, we begin to realize just how little influence Fury has over them. While stationed together on the S.H.I.E.L.D. flagship, though they’re generally working together to put an end to the threat of Loki, the characters largely do whatever they want, including hacking into S.H.I.E.L.D.’s computers out of suspicion, rummaging around for clues of wrongdoing on the part of the agency, and undertaking tasks with little regard for permission or protocol. In their interactions with each other, they also exhibit turmoil. Though Tony Stark (Iron Man) and Bruce Banner (the Hulk) get along well, others do not. Nearly everyone seems to get in a brawl with Thor at one point or another, and we see the Hulk go into one of his trademark rampages, nearly killing Black Widow. In a number of ways, the situation is outright chaotic. Fortunately, the heroes seem to have just enough patience and commonality of goals (a potential apocalypse will do that) to keep them tied together for the duration of this affair.
As Nick Fury attempts to wield this chaos, he becomes both the audience’s point of relation with the film and a symbol of hope. He knows that these heroes could do essentially whatever they want, whenever they want. However, he also knows that the use of such a team presents the best possible means of fighting off Loki and his army. Therefore, he chooses to hope. While it may seem like there is little to commend in Fury’s decision to hope--as it is basically necessary that he does so--an alternative that the government officials above him present late in the film shows that Fury’s optimism is indeed laudable and perhaps even difficult--not simply the acceptance of his only option.
The final act, in which the Avengers engage in an all-out battle with Loki’s Chitauri army, is pure feel-good action. We watch the characters perform the types of feats for which they are famous while defending the Earth against an alien invasion (which happens, of course, in New York). At the same time, despite the fact that we cannot expect the heroes to maintain such harmony over a prolonged period of time, our joy in watching them do so reveals our desire for the world to make sense. We’ve seen their dysfunctional interaction, and we have no reason to believe that the team will ever perfectly mesh in the long-term, but the spectacle alone makes us wish, and hope, that such a permanent solution could be possible. In fact, as Fury demonstrated, this hope could even be considered an honorable one, as that character’s own ability to allow himself such a hope is what afforded us the absolute best opportunity to fight off the invasion.
If the characters were not developed and fully realized, none of this would work. Thankfully, all the main characters have the depth and consistency necessary to make their interactions with one another meaningful and enjoyable. The cocky, charming genius of Stark, the rage-haunted duality of Banner, and even the occasionally dark utilitarianism of Fury not only add inherently interesting and fun elements to the experience; they facilitate the film’s portrayal of the difficulty of establishing a reliable leadership. We may love all of these characters, and we may wish that they could be our planet’s police force, but as powerful and ethical as they are, none of them will always agree with those around them. Even the characters who were one-dimensional in their original Marvel film appearances are made full by contrasting their personalities with the others. This is seen perhaps most prominently in Captain America, who is defined by the very moral simplicity that made him a bland character when he was the star of his own film. It would have been extremely easy for writer/director Joss Whedon to fall into the trap of using all of these superheroes only as a means of displaying action, but that was a trap he did not fall into. The result is a film that is emotionally, intellectually, and superficially rewarding at once.
I feel few other writer/directors would have had the patience to do what Whedon has done with The Avengers. He takes some of the best superhero properties in the world, combines them in what happens to be another one of the best superhero properties in the world, and still treats the film as if it didn’t have an enormous fan base pre-committed to viewing it. The Avengers seems to get everything right, and it probably didn’t even have to. There are those who feel the world has enough superhero movies already. This one should single-handedly quash that sentiment.