The Avengers: Very Human Superheroes
I've been scarred for life regarding sequels. I grew up watching and re-watching the Star Wars trilogy, and the prequels were a painful experience in disappointment. Likewise, just when it seemed that The Matrix would give us all a new trilogy to love, The Matrix Reloaded delivered two and a half hours of high-tech mediocrity (cameo of Cornell West excluded).
So when word of The Avengers began to emerge, it seemed to me like a recipe for disaster. It's an uber-sequel, tying together the Thor, Hulk, Captain America, and Iron Man franchises. Most of those movies were well-received by fans, and carrying on the stories of beloved heroes would be difficult under any circumstances. Such an effort ups the ante, burdening the film with trying to emotionally satisfy the fans of each individual character while simultaneously telling another story. I thought it would inevitably fail. I was wrong. Instead, it was a breathless adventure, faithful to the comic book world it emerged from in most of the ways that matter, and striking the right balance between funny, tense, and adventurous.
The Avengers follows the story arc of most comic book crossovers. Superheroes are forced together because of an impending disaster that none can conquer alone. At first, they resist the idea of joining forces, battling one another and exposing their own outsized egos. Eventually they unite and go to war against evil, earth-destroying forces.
What Holds Our Attention
But it's not the eye-popping special effects, mutant powers, super-technology, or demi-god supernaturalism that holds the audience's attention. It's the movie's humanity. It was a stroke of genius for Marvel Comics to tap Joss Whedon to write and direct the film. Whedon has a fiercely loyal set of fans for his work in developing the Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV series, as well as Angel, Firefly, and Dollhouse. Whedon's shows use fairly stock plotlines the way most great storytellers do---as backdrop for much more interesting character development and personal dramas. Watching Buffy, you never really feared whether one of the evil vampires would eventually sink his teeth into her. But you tuned in wondering if she'd ever find a way to feel normal again, or if she and Angel could overcome the odds of their bitterly star-crossed love.
Whedon's approach with The Avengers is similar, telling a human story against the backdrop of an impending intergalactic assault on Earth. Typical of Whedon, dialogue drives the movie, with snappy and witty conversations that reveal the characters' rough edges and make the superhumans profoundly human.
The movie is anchored in the story of Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), the billionaire genius with a mechanical heart and penchant for saving the world with his Iron Man suit. Early on, we see Stark Tower looming over the Manhattan skyline with "STARK" in massive letters near the top of the ultra-modern design.
Stark is pulled into the headquarters of S.H.I.E.L.D., an ultra-secretive agency tasked with protecting the world from dangers that lurk beyond or out-of-view. A mysterious object called the tesseract has been stolen by Loki (Tom Hiddleston), an exiled Asgard demi-god, who means to use it to teleport an army from another dimension to the Earth and take over. Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) suggests they launch the Avengers Initiative, an abandoned plan once sketched out to bring together Earth's superheroes in the event of intergalactic invasion or assault by a demi-god.
One by one, the cast assembles, including Black Widow (Scarlet Johannson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), neither of whom arrives with superpowers beyond uncanny instincts and shooting skills. Bruce Banner, a.k.a. The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), is retrieved against his will, and Captain America (Chris Evans), ever the dutiful soldier, needs only be asked once.
Thor's (Chris Hemsworth) arrival leads to one of the film's better action sequences as he dukes it out with Iron Man in wooded hills somewhere in Northern Europe. Eventually, they stop punching each other through trees long enough to realize they're on the same side.
Together at last, the team gathers aboard an invisible aircraft carrier in the clouds and starts trying to unravel Loki's plat and mount a counter-attack. Loki, the Norse god of chaos, leers from inside a prison onboard the ship, playing against the fragile psyches of each hero, manipulating their weaknesses.
Beating the Team
Their unraveling frailty makes the movie interesting. Loki knows that to beat this team, he has to get them to beat themselves. He equivocates himself with the Black Widow, reminding her of her own murderous past:
Your ledger is dripping, it's gushing red, and you think saving a man no less virtuous than yourself will change anything? This is the basest sentimentality. This is a child at prayer---pathetic. You lie and kill in the service of liars and killers. You pretend to be separate, to have your own code, something that makes up for the horrors; but they are a part of you, and they will never go away.
He works to create fear and instability on the team, trying to force Banner to unleash the Hulk, knowing how destructive that would be for the whole ship.
The plot intentionally hinges on these weaknesses. Writer/director Whedon said:
I'm the guy who hated Emma the first time he read it, because I didn't get the idea of having someone who has everything and needs to be torn down. I was like, But I don't like her! And it took a while to realize, Oh, that was the intent. For me, I had a harder time writing Angel than I did writing Buffy because he looked like a stalwart, manly hero, and even though he was a massively messed-up fella, it was hard for me to figure out the structure of the show. You need that in, you need the weakness. Somebody wrote, early on, on the Internet, "I can't believe they hired Joss Whedon. This should be a Dean Martin, Rat Pack-y movie with lots of testosterone. Joss Whedon's just going to have them all cry and talk about their feelings." And I was like, You know what, buddy? You're probably right. I probably am. And they kind of do.
It's funny to me that in a world of flying aircraft carriers, lightning bolts, and rage monsters, we nonetheless tell stories about frail and broken people. Yet that's the core of The Avengers, and of the whole superhero genre generally: Superman is an orphan displaced. Batman, too, is an orphan, a mere human with an obsession with justice lost. Spiderman is haunted by his failure to save Uncle Ben. The heroes we invent all have a flaw weaved into their fabric, which makes their lives more believable and their victories more spectacular.
Their superpowers allow our heroes to present a veneer to the world. The Black Widow's cold exterior belies an obsessed interior world, keeping tabs on her debts and trying to reconcile with her past. Tony Stark's ego and fearlessness mask his guilt. Captain America is a man displaced, plagued with the loss of his entire world.
At one point in the movie, Stark nags Bruce Banner about his secret, how he works to keep the monster under control, and Banner eventually admits, "I'm always angry." It turns out The Hulk always lurks, a powerful reminder of powerlessness inside the controlled mind of the scientist.
Stark has his own moment of clarity when they're struggling to discern where Loki intends to strike. Knowing Loki's ego, Stark insists it will be somewhere big. Somewhere public. On top of a tower with his name written across the top. He trails off, realizing that he's just described himself, and he knows just where Loki will strike: Stark Tower.
Weakness Before Strength
In the strange world of the Bible, we know that weakness comes before strength. The mustard seed becomes the mighty tree. The shepherd becomes the king. God himself becomes a baby, suffers in every way like us, and dies a criminal's death, yet that death becomes the catalyst to the liberation of countless captives of sin.
Strangely enough, the broader world seems to know it, too. As we tell stories that make sense of our world, we can't help but reveal that for which our hearts ultimately hunger. Our heroes are weaved with weakness and flaws, and this measure of humanity is the source of their strength. In The Avengers, it's only as the heroes see themselves reflected in the power-hungry and insecure eyes of Loki that they find the strength to win their battles. We discover that his plan of destruction is a catalyst for his own defeat.
Inevitably, a satisfying hero story will always involve a great, gospel-like reversal, where the odds seem insurmountable and the heroes seem overcome. But the tide turns, the heroes rebound, and evil retreats a universe away. Somehow, that story never gets old.