The Avengers part 17

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The battle sequence that concludes The Avengers is broken into three acts.  The first act, roughly, unleashes the horde of Chitauri on Manhattan.  The second act simultaneously ups the stakes and lets the Avengers find their footing to fight them.  At the end of the second act, Loki, our primary antagonist, has monologued one too many times and has been subsequently smashed by the Hulk.  No fancy hologram-Lokis this time, pure, literal brute force is enough to put Loki away for good.  “Puny god,” snarls the Hulk, reminding us, with good humor, that the US is, theoretically anyway, a democracy, not a theocracy.  But there are still bigger, albeit less resonant, fish to fry.

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While Loki lies dazed and wheezing in Tony Stark’s living room, the newly-awakened Dr. Selvig confabs with Black Widow on the porch.  He explains that, conveniently, he has programmed a fail-safe in the unstoppable Tesseract-powered portal-making machine, which can be operated with Loki’s scepter.  Why this should be so is beyond me, but it is supported thematically: Dr. Selvig, remember, was in love with power itself in the form of the Tesseract, which is an artifact that can apparently do anything a narrative needs it to do, which is a very powerful artifact indeed.  If Dr. Selvig, even in the midst of his hypnosis, can remember to program a back door into his doomsday device, then he, too, is redeemable.

Meanwhile, Thor hammers and Iron Man, running low on his technological, billions-bought power, takes advantage of his weakness, his relative size, to bring down a Chitauri beast from the inside, Men in Black style.  Hawkeye, meanwhile, runs out of arrows and uses his last one to escape into a nearby building.  Hulk draws the fire from a dozen Chitauri airships, and, somewhere within Nick Fury’s helicarrier, a jet sets out to bomb Manhattan.

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So: Iron Man is low on power, Hawkeye is out of arrows, Hulk is pinned down, and Fury has lost the only power he had: power over his machines and people.  Fury takes a low-tech approach: shoot the jet off the runway with a rocket-launcher, the man of “intelligence” (in the espionage sense) temporarily turned into the man of action.  If this is a movie about the desperation of Nick Fury, this is his low-point.  How desperate is Nick Fury?  Nick Fury is so desperate he will risk the death of one of his own agents, at his own hand, to prevent the bombing of Manhattan.  Perhaps because it is born of such desperation, Fury’s action is fruitless: he shoots the wrong airplane and the real bomb-carrier takes off unharmed.

And so we are granted what no screenplay can live without: a ticking clock.  “Two minutes and thirty seconds” recites the anonymous pilot, releasing the missile that will destroy Manhattan, because the threat of an alien menace wasn’t quite enough to keep our attention.  On Park Avenue, Thor and Capt America, wearying, hold down the fort while, atop Stark Tower, Black Widow does to the Tesseract what SHIELD’s top scientists were doing to it two hours earlier: she pokes it with a stick.  This time, the stick is Loki’s scepter, but still, here again, the tiniest plot detail in The Avengers comes back around, first time as a joke, second time as a vital plot element.

Tony, in his failing super-suit, grabs the nuke and, again, turning a weakness into a strength (his defining characteristic, really) heads for the portal.  The ultimate egomaniac is about to commit the ultimate selfless act.  Loki demanded that the world bow to him and glorify his name, but Tony, in his last moments, can’t even get his girlfriend on the phone: she’s too busy watching the destruction on TV.  He flies into the portal, travels to the other end of the universe (his calling plan apparently doesn’t cover Chitauri airspace) and delivers the bomb to the Chitauri command ship (which, as luck would have it, is a thing).

The Chitauri command ship explodes, which causes all the Chitauri beasts and soldiers to collapse, dead, which raises a question in my mind of what exactly the Chitauri are.  I thought they were aliens in suits, but apparently there is a technological component to their makeup if they all keel over when their command ship crumples.  Even the aliens of Independence Day had more autonomy.

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Iron Man skates through the giant space-anus just as it clenches and falls like lead through the skies over Manhattan.  Hulk, Tony Stark’s frenemy in this narrative, dives in to catch him.  The movie teases us for a moment, pretending Tony is dead, but that would make The Avengers something other than what it is, which is a comedy-spectacle.  Coulson is enough to give the narrative weight, the real comedy lets everyone off the hook.  If it were any more a comedy it would end with a wedding.  Instead, it ends with a feast — a casual feast.

Speaking of which, Tony, back from the dead, announces he would like to try shawarma.  What is shawarma, the viewer may ask?  It is a common Arab lunch dish.  Why does Tony suddenly crave shawarma instead of, say, gyros, or even, ahem, a hero sandwich?  My guess is, shawarma is a conscious, if joking, nod to the Arab-American world, if not the Arab world itself, that The Avengers does not consider them the enemy, that they are not the metaphor-removed Chitauri.  In the US, says The Avengers, everyone contributes to heroism: egotistical plutocrats, Norse gods, hotheaded scientists, duplicitous spies and everyday Arabs.  Our heroes retire not to Valhalla for their feast but to the shawarma place a couple of blocks from Grand Central.  As I say, this is a joke, but it is a serious-intended one: it’s my guess that, outside of cities, The Avengers is the first place most Americans have heard of shawarma.  If you don’t believe me, Google “shawarma.”

In the end, Nick Fury, our protagonist, beats his antagonists, The Council, by demonstrating that his faith in an argumentative family is more sound than the decisions of a shadowy cabal (even though he, by definition, leads a shadowy cabal).  Thor takes Loki and the Tesseract back where they belong and the family members go their separate ways, some back to work, some into obscurity, according to their wonts.

In the closing montage, we see the Avengers adventures turned into what all world-shaking events turn into: fodder for cheap, throwaway American popular culture.  We see people get Tony Stark goatees and Capt America tattoos, we see candlelight vigils and street artists, skateboarders and Halloween masks, grouches, suspicious naysayers and Chitauri-deniers.  It is the movie’s wisest, most knowing and most generous gesture, to show that American culture, stupid and shallow as it is, encompasses everything and allows every voice to be heard.  The Avengers, above all, celebrates, and exemplifies, everything best about American culture.  Our culture, lest we forget, is our most popular export, and, in that sense, the Avengers really are our soldiers and heroes.

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5 Responses to “The Avengers part 17”
  1. Glenn Peters says:

    Apparently the Shawarma line came from Nicholas Brendon’s (Xander on Buffy) audition.

    Also, that shot of Tony really drives home how oddly open the apparently space around his head is in the movie, which lets him act, add it far better than Iron Man continually opening his faceplate for that reason, but it’s still strange to realize.

  2. Jon Wood says:

    It’s also noticeable that Fury didn’t trust anyone else to wield the metaphorical “big stick” against his own men. It’s also theorized that both planes had nukes, which might, conceivably, survive the plane they’re on being blown up, if done carefully.

  3. Curt Holman says:

    My friend and fellow critic Dave White suggested that THE AVENGERS, metaphorically, offers a vision of characters uniting in common purpose in the face of a Sept. 11 style attack, which has a poignancy viewed from the present-day perspective, when politics seem more partisan and divisive than ever. It’s like the real world’s post-9/11 unity “stuck,” instead of split apart.

    I love the idea that the “shawarma” line (and post-credits scene) works to gently defuse the implication that the Chitauri are analogous to Al-Qaeda, if the attack = Sept. 11. Genius.

    I also love the timeless quality of the post-credits scene itself, with the Avenger simply eating in silence and apparent stunned exhaustion. The way the scene’s off-set from the rest of the movie, and nothing happens in it, makes me feel like the actual meal could have gone on for hours with nobody really doing or saying anything.

    Not to buzz-market a certain internet judge, but I recall John Hodgman tweeting how much he appreciated THE AVENGERS as an action/fantasy film that depicted a group of adults who discover the value of collaboration, and how they’re capable of accomplishing more as a group than they would as individuals. I believe he contrasted them with most other hero/fantasy epics, which amount to coming-of-age stories/hero’s journeys of the Joseph Campbell model. The “group shot” of the camera whipping around the Avengers, standing back-to-back, sort of expresses this, but the idea totally pays off in that amazing, unbroken shot of the Avengers all doing different things but helping each other out: Widow rides Chitauri flyer, Iron Man shoots ray off of Captain America’s shield, Thor and Hulk bring down the giant metal sky-whale, etc.

    At least, they’re helping each other out until the Hulk punches Thor out the frame.

  4. David Hofer says:

    The shawarma joint shows up in the background slightly earlier, when Stark crashes to the ground after his “Jonah and the Whale” maneuver.