Now predicted to break the $1 billion mark after just nineteen days, The Avengers has proved a joy to audiences, critics, and Disney executives alike. If there’s one thing that the film’s across-the-board success has made clear, it’s that the wonder and spectacle of the comic book page appeals to audiences everywhere. The film’s charms, and its inadequacies, arise from writer-director Joss Whedon’s enthusiastic, faithful, and direct translation of his print heroes to the silver screen. The familiar form of the new blockbuster, it’s beginning to appear, is better suited to old comic book heroes than it is to new film characters.
Were they to put a little bit of time in, I suspect any member of The Avengers’ target demographic could accurately predict the major beats of its plot. This can be achieved quickly by imagining the plot of any of the previous Avenger’s solo films and multiplying by six. The bad guy strikes first. With some trepidation, the heroes take up the challenge. Character problems ensue (in which beautiful people in generous portrait shots speak hushed exposition of murky pasts). The first major action sequence occurs, at the end of which all seems lost. Further character problems ensue. The second major action sequence occurs, during which there are loud noises and our heroes show us how they have grown.
After all, humans haven’t huddled around campfires for centuries to hear original stories; they’ve braved the dark and cold for original storytelling. The question of whether The Avengers is overly familiar or formulaic in a way that impedes enjoyment is one best left up to the individual viewer. As a whole, the world seems to have loudly proclaimed that this is exactly the blockbuster that they want. I’m uncertain, however, if it’s the blockbuster they should get.
If one were forced to choose a singular element of the film as the primary reason for its success – besides the incredible four-year marketing ploy of what one might deem five feature-length trailers leading up to its release – there would be many to consider. An argument could be made for Whedon’s writing, which is pitch-perfect for the material, balancing humour and action with sublimely vapid character flaws – these are superheroes, after all, and our relation to movie archetypes is through a learned understanding of archetypal flaws, not through the sense of personal connection that we might have with more intimate, or more human, character portraits. Each character is given her or his imperative moments in the limelight, as the script marches through an effortlessly textbook approach to audience manipulation.
Closer focus might go to Downey Jr’s Tony Stark, who eventually emerges as the protagonist. The film correctly identifies Stark as the natural conflict for the group, a character diametrically opposed to cooperation in the story of people emerging as a team. From an executive’s point of view, too, Stark/Iron Man is the ideal choice, and it’s interesting to hear that the 3-hour plus rough cut of the film focused much more heavily on Captain America; Stark is the perfectly inoffensive, demographic-appeasing centerpiece to a monumentally safe cast of franchises. Bruce Banner, even taken over from the edgy Edward Norton by the perennially laid-back Mark Ruffalo, is impenetrably intellectual, as entertaining a curio as an embittered, removed academic as he is as the all-smashing Hulk. Thor and Steve Rogers, both unfamiliar to modern-day North America, are perhaps unfamiliar with our film history – the infallible, shining-armoured, all-American (or, Asgardian) hero was eclipsed by the anti-hero at the popular forefront of film over a half-century ago. Tony Stark is the marketer’s response to these considerations, a perfect mix of contrasts to the others, an ideal. His intelligence is swaggering and plainspoken, his flaws incorrigibly attractive, his charming arrogance slyly permissive. Unfortunately for Steve Rogers, The Avengers makes it obvious that America moved past Captain America a few years after he was frozen.
Stark occasionally sees Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts, booty shorts-clad in a cameo-length performance devised solely in terms of her male counterpart; although we’re not party to the particulars of a whispered assurance in Stark’s ear at the beginning of the film, the two present male characters’ gentlemanly embarrassment lets even the youngest viewers in on the joke, that to the manly victor goes the womanly reward (the subtler joke, perhaps, being on the female gender in general). But it’s Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff who is intended to appeal to, and model for, the young female demographic. Whedon is probably one of the progenitors of the modern conception of the female action hero, and his buzzword-laden heroines (tough, sassy, intelligent, spunky, ass-kicking, choose a couple) have delighted for years with their role-bending assaults on mainstream media gender stereotypes. Romanoff therefore treads well-worn but perhaps not unwelcome territory – in skintight clothes and low necklines, that is, but then the film at large is nothing if not eye candy. When antagonists in these stories stop being sorely redressed on their assumption of weakness and fallibility in female characters, and start considering them equivalent threats from the beginning, perhaps we’ll be doing even better.
The Avengers is a loud, fun, comic-book adventure on the theatre screen. The film’s appeal is easy to discover in its quick pace, the humourous interplay of its characters, and its sprawling and energetic action sequences. One can’t help but wonder, however, if this is what the movies were meant for. Are blockbusters in their ideal form a product of amusement-park ride spectacle, recognizable franchises, and socially-affirming TV tropes – the best of the familiar? I don’t know. But The Avengers exists because kids everywhere once opened a comic book and saw Thor, or Iron Man, or Hulk for the first time, and fell in love with something unfamiliar. Maybe the medium of film owes its supporters that same experience.