|A scene from The Avengers.|
By Don Simpson
The Avengers may not be a great film, but it is probably the best superhero film ever made -- which is not necessarily saying a lot.
Sure, there are a few exceptions, but even the best superhero films (X-Men, X2, Spider-Man, Spider-Man 2, The Dark Night) have had their fatal flaws. First and foremost, no superhero film to date has been able to maintain a strong and coherent narrative for the duration of the film. The significance of the story always plays second-fiddle to special effects, action sequences and costumes. That is just the nature of the beast. As film history informs us, superhero films are supposed to be straightforward stories of good versus evil. Sure, sometimes the definitions of good and bad are a little blurred, and good does not always prevail (at least not in the short term), but there is always a superhero (or team of superheroes) and a villain (or a group of villains), and battle they must. The villains are never all that complex; in most cases they just want to control the world or destroy it, other times they are just good old fashioned nut jobs.
The Avengers plot is not much better. If anything, the plots of X-Men and X2 are stronger. Oh, no! Thor’s (Chris Hemsworth) brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston), wants to bring the world to its knees with an alien army! Who can save the world? The Avengers! So, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) rallies his team of misfits together...and the rest is history. Luckily for writer-director Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly, Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog, Dollhouse), several of The Avengers origins stories have already been theatrically released so no backstory is necessary for the superheroes. Even the two Avengers who were deemed not worthy of origins stories -- Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) -- only get a couple lines of expository dialogue to explain their pasts.
So with a half-assed plot, and no character development, Whedon, one of the true masters of witty, snarky, self-referential dialogue, plays to his strengths and saturates the script with smart ass dialogue. In turn, there is no point in The Avengers where the film takes itself seriously -- which is not such a bad thing. Working with superheroes like Thor, who protects the world with his giant hammer (to quote Captain Hammer from Joss Whedon’s Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog: “the hammer is my penis”), or Captain America (Chris Evans), who protects the world with a shield (okay, I admit it, I’m lacking a sexual metaphor for this guy), what is to be taken seriously? Then, there is Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) who is as cocksure as superheroes come and the not-so-jolly green giant with severe anger management issues, The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo). Essentially, Whedon uses The Avengers as a playground to allow the Avengers free reign to mock each other, and he does this in such a way to be humorous but not piss off loyal fans of the source material.
Speaking of fans, if you are a fan of Whedon’s television work, the Avengers are culled directly from the Whedonverse. Whedon has made a career of developing characters who must come to terms with their superhuman powers. Then they are matched up against other superhuman characters. Then Whedon lets them fight (physically or verbally) out their differences until they begrudgingly join forces in an apocalyptic battle against a seemingly undefeatable enemy. In most cases, there is a higher power who is revealed to be playing puppet master, controlling the fate of the world (usually unbeknown to the protagonists).
On a side note, there is a much stronger Whedon screenplay currently in multiplexes that is far more worthy of your attention: Cabin in the Woods. Unlike The Avengers’ watered-down plot (which we can probably chalk up to Disney keeping Whedon on a short leash), the narrative complexities of Cabin in the Woods’ plot reaches nearly inexplicable levels. Cabin in the Woods proves that genre filmmaking can push the intellectual limits of the audience, whereas The Avengers is just another Hollywood joyride.