“Ohmygodohmygodohmygodohmygod!” After seeing “The Avengers” last weekend, I promised my friend Eric I’d start the post this way. This sentiment is currently echoed by audiences all over the United States as they watch the action-fueled, surprisingly funny film by writer/director Joss Whedon. By now you probably know how it’s smashed box-office expectations. However, the film’s success or failure shouldn’t be judged based on box office alone. As I said before, “The Avengers” is the culmination of an experiment four years and six movies in the making. “The Avengers” must be a thematic climax for five films and five characters (Tony Stark, Bruce Banner, Thor, Captain America, Steve Rogers aka Captain America, and Nick Fury), the story of the creation of a team, as well as a jumping-off point for further development. This is a heavy burden to bear, which is why it’s so surprising that “The Avenger” bears it well. If the film spreads itself thin doing so, it is nonetheless an impressive accomplishment. (If you haven’t seen the movie and don’t want spoilers, stop reading here. Unfortunately, there was no way for me to analyze the movie without giving large parts of the plot away.)
The Avengers do not form easily. Five movies have been used to set up these characters as unique individuals, and when they’re thrown together they don’t play nicely. Tony Stark is an egomaniac. Bruce Banner is distrustful of himself and others. Thor is an alien, and being in love with a human does not make him human. Captain America, once a leader, is now a “man out of time” frustrated by the complexities of his new world. In fact, it takes a lie to bring them together. Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson) brings each character into S.H.I.E.L.D. as a “consultant.” (Thor stumbles into this arrangement, but stays in order to bring down Loki.) Fury’s real goal is to form them into the Avengers, an elite squad designed to stop threats against the Earth like Loki and his invading army.
However, under the dueling egos, the comic book dialog, the explosions and the supersuits is a story about the nature of power and the shady things we’ll do for it. The tesseract, power personified, is at the heart of this narrative. (I incorrectly called this “infinity cube” during my review of “Captain America”) Both “good” and “evil” want it, and as it changes hands motivations become clear and right and wrong become murky. Loki strikes a Faustian bargain with a malevolent alien army to get his hands on it. His goal is to conquer Earth and get his revenge against Thor (and possibly steal the tesseract from the aliens). As it happens, this is the most straight-forward motivation in the film. Before Loki stole the tesseract, S.H.I.E.L.D. (the good guys) were in possession of it, and they were attempting to weaponize it.
While to a certain degree it would make sense for a cube of unlimited power to be used as a weapon in an action movie, it is important to reflect on the lessons the previous five movies have taught us about power. In “Iron Man” and “Iron Man 2”, Tony Stark inadvertently starts an arms race by creating a man-made source of power. While it could have been put to good use (like the tesseract was supposed to be), instead most villains (and Tony himself) used it to push their own agenda in a mad dash of “might makes right.” In “The Incredible Hulk,” the US Army destroyed two lives in its effort to recreate the Super Soldier Serum with the objective of designing The Perfect Soldier. In “Thor,” Thor starts a war with the Frost Giants that nearly destroys Asgard because he is so convinced of his power and moral right. Steve Rogers in “Captain America: The First Avenger” is the only one of this group who has seen firsthand the horrors of the tesseract, in fact he sees Red Skull literally consumed by its power. The underlying message of these films is that moral fanaticism and the quest for power are more likely to destroy than to protect. “The Avengers” is the conclusion of this argument: S.H.I.E.L.D., no matter what their intentions, brought the full power of Loki and his army down on Earth when they tried to weaponize the tesseract. (Unfortunately, the potential impact of this is lost because the supposedly character-shattering revelation of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s ulterior motives is extremely obvious. The film rushes to the final fight, and any larger conclusions must be drawn by the audience later.)
Without learning their lesson, Nick Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D. continue to manipulate events. Fury may or may not be a good guy – time and his own spin off will tell – but there is no doubt that he uses Agent Colson’s death to redirect the Avengers’ anger away from him and towards Loki. S.H.I.E.L.D. itself is a shady organization at best. They are theoretically part of the US Government, however Fury reports directly to three or four unidentified individuals who order a nuclear strike on New York at one point. This is supposed to be an executive power only – who are these people? Fury may argue that what he does is for the greater good, but what happens when the easily defined enemy disappears? What becomes the greater good then?
To a certain extent, questions like these cannot be answered in comic book movies such as “The Avengers.” In order for the movie’s formula to work, there must be a defined evil for our heroes to face; the audience came for explosions, not existential crises. However. the larger-than-life world of heroes and villains can be a parable for contemporary questions. Whedon understands this, and between the large explosions and flashy CGI, he attempts to tell the story of corrupting power. He doesn’t entirely succeed – “The Avengers” is not the character-driven epic of “The Dark Knight.” But after four years and five movies, “The Avengers” is a solid summation.
In conclusion, here’s a 2-year-old video I’ve been waiting to post for 4 weeks from ItsJustSomeRandomGuy on YouTube:
And with that, we have finished Countdown To The Avengers! I’m going to take a week off to relax, but get ready! With “Prometheus” opening in just a month, I have an “Alien” Quadrilogy to watch!