A note on The Avengers
You know, it’s quite good.
And it appears the entire world wants to see this movie about a scrappy band of misfits who put their differences aside and refuse to bow down to an individual who would oppress them.
Many years ago I went with my friend R. Sikoryak to see the first Sam Raimi Spider-Man movie. R. had been waiting all his life for that movie, and it did not disappoint him — it all felt right to him. I wasn’t well-read in Spider-Man comics at the time, so I assumed he was right.
Looking back on it now, Spider-Man is a wonderful movie, but does it capture the tone of the comics? My reading of Spider-Man was that he wasn’t so tortured, that he wore his heroism lightly, that he was always there with a quip, that nothing really bothered him that much — as long as he had his Spider-Man suit on, anyway. The act of putting a teenager in a Spider-Man suit on film, I think, meant that the character and his world needed to become — here’s the dreaded word — “grounded.” And the Raimi movies got that down well. When you take a character in spandex and put him on screen, he’s bound to look ridiculous. Because of that, everyone in the movie must take this all very seriously, or else there is no dramatic tension.
Look at where we’ve come in this genre from the Batman TV show to The Avengers. The Batman creators saw that a man dressed like a bat punching people was ridiculous, and so everyone played it for laughs. The Superman movie creators saw that a little weight could add resonance to this pulp material, but they had no real faith in the source material. Deep down, they thought it was all kind of silly and gave Superman a buffoonish Lex Luthor to fight. Look at a project like Justice League of America: The Movie and you can see how disastrous a too-light approach can be to this kind of material. How can we care about anything onscreen if everyone is an idiot?
The Avengers, I think, gets it all right, more so even than X-Men: First Class, up ’til now my favorite Marvel movie. The characters are well drawn, well played, taken seriously and grounded, but it all plays very lightly, the way I remember Avengers comics being. Disaster always looms, the world is always on the brink of collapse, but everyone in the movie manages to bear the burden with a grin. I mean, we’re talking about a world where a thawed-out super-soldier, a Norse god and a Jekyll-and-Hyde monster all live in the same space, where an aircraft-carrier can fly, where the multi-billionaire arms dealer with the flying super-suit is the most “grounded” character of the bunch.
Add to this the fact that the movie has to juggle the concerns and arcs of no fewer than ten main characters, and does so with grace, humor and panache. There is never a moment where you’re thinking “Come on, where’s the Hulk already?” or “Ugh, Captain America, I’m gonna go get some popcorn,” but neither does the movie get so bogged down in any one character’s struggles that the narrative slows.
And we remember, we read superhero comics as children because they were fun. The adventures were huge, the mayhem panoramic, the tests of will and strength arduous, but above all, they were fun. The Avengers remembers that.