So a couple of weeks ago, the latest in a series of events that had been percolating for about six years took place. An aggregation of people, ordinary and extraordinary, stood up to oppressors and purveyors of injustice in a public place despite being told they could not do it. And the world watched, rapt.
I am speaking, of course, about The Avengers.
It’s hard to remember the last time I enjoyed myself this much in a cinema. I cheered when (spoiler, for the 2 per cent of the planet who hasn’t seen it yet) Thanos broke out his trademark evil grin, and then spun off a long and impossibly complicated description of his motives – seriously, this is a guy who wants to destroy half the life in the universe because he is in love with the anthropomorphic representation of Death. My colleague, sitting next to me, provided a more concise alternative to the others assembled in the cinema, along with a sense of perspective.
“Hari explained it to me,” said my friend. “Apparently he’s a bad man.”
I had originally been asked to write a piece approaching The Avengers from the eyes of someone who had not spent their life steeped in this particular batch of cultural ephemera – and, quite frankly, I don’t know how to do it. These characters are old friends, and they are old, but in their youth they were progressive in the mighty Marvel way*.
Seldom has there been a better combination of plucky patriotism and pure propaganda than Captain America; the cover of his very first issue, published a year before the USA joined World War II, features Cap socking Hitler on the jaw. The Black Widow was a Russian spy on an American team in the middle of the Cold War. Hawkeye was a villain recruited when most of the regular Avengers were out of commission; he took his shot, shall we say, at redemption. Iron Man and Thor are studies in change; the first adds altruism to a long and fun list of addictions, the latter learns that hammers can be used to build as well as destroy. And oh, the Hulk.
Originally a ’60s parable about the dangers of radiation, the Hulk soon grew into a favourite of pop psychologists everywhere by contrasting an instinctual, emerald Id with the cold, keen intellect of scientist Bruce Banner. But then you had the old Incredible Hulk TV series starring Bill Bixby, in which the conflict that powered the drama was less about how Banner could control the Hulk and more about how he could best use both sides of his personality.
In The Avengers, Mark Ruffalo is practically channeling Bixby. Sure, he can still lose control, but he no longer has to; and having a Banner that understands the implications of the Other Guy but doesn’t let it eat away at him – he has learned to embrace the anger, and accept the guilt – is the reason why The Avengers has not just the best Hulk on film, but also the best Banner.
Not all updates are as subtle, though. Before this (American) summer, there was an argument to be made that superhero films had reached their saturation point, that a slow downward spiral had begun, and evidence of this was in the slew of films that had begun to deconstruct the genre. Think of Kick-Ass, Super, even the Christopher Nolan-directed Batman films, all of which are grounded in reality, and all of which (to varying levels, Super being the most overt) discuss the specifics of a psyche that allows itself to believe that vigilantism (and tight tights) are healthy ways of dealing with problems.
In short, it looked like superhero movies were heading in the same direction that superhero comics did after 1986. That’s the year Frank Miller wrote The Dark Knight Returns, and Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons came up with Watchmen. They are both exceptional works, but their success spawned a fetish for realism, which manifested itself in three words that became first a genre, then a cliché – grim and gritty.
The Avengers stands apart from those works for one simple reason – it is unabashed fun. It is also remarkably and consistently funny, and this is the best part about hiring Joss Whedon; there is no writer better suited to sculpting the barbs that can only be delivered by the members of a family to each other. You know, the kind that get under skins or high-tech armour, that strike with such unerring accuracy that the only response is to grin and respond or hide and weep.
After all, when I’m watching a comic-book movie, I don’t need a realistic explanation for powers, or for something on screen to have enough money thrown at it to look realistic, even if both are grand if done well. I want it to feel real. And the best thing about The Avengers is that while it is hard for these gods and monsters to be injured, it is easy for them to be hurt. When they feel something, you feel it too – whether it’s Hawkeye and the Black Widow recognising that they are scared and underpowered, Iron Man masking insecurity with glib bravado, or Loki, unhappy and unwelcome.
Loki’s hurt feelings, in fact, are the canvas of jangly nerves upon which most of the movie is painted. He has lost both the home he was stolen from and the one he was brought into, and he sees Thor grow strong from the love of Asgard and a newfound appreciation of Earth – it’s such a deliciously specific betrayal. And it all means that the cast’s sniping and bickering are as satisfying as the obligatory third-act fisticuffs.
So while the characters have been given minor revisions, the genius of The Avengers is that they mostly remain true to their four-colour roots – it is the humour liberally mixed throughout that provides the sheen of modernity. If there’s anything resembling a message in the film, it is that there is a place for traditional superheroics, for nostalgia. And while there have been interesting interpretations of its politics, it is easier for the audience and Iron Man to accept values that could easily come across as stodgy when you also have Robert Downey Jr cracking wise about Cap’s spangly suit.
Captain America is The Avengers’ and the Avengers’ secret weapon. He’s a man out of his time, a fish not so much of out water but thrust, gasping for air, into the space age, and he is a wonderful audience surrogate. His awe and wonder at the events unfolding around him show us that is fine to be dazzled as well, to marvel and adapt in turn. It’s no coincidence that he gets the most visibly battered in the finale – if Cap is taking it this seriously, then you get the feeling that it must be serious, and that is a hard trick to pull off.
None of this should make it immune to criticism, however. The opening scenes crawl, and towards the end there are plot holes so big you could launch an invading alien army through them, but these are easy to forgive – not so much the nuclear-missile plotline. We know the horror of nuclear weapons, which is why everyone in the film works so hard to make sure it doesn’t happen, including Nick Fury standing up to The Screens With Big Talking Heads. But then you have a whole coda about how there is now a superteam, that it is a warning, and that it carries the promise of retaliation; it leaves a bad taste when you consider how close it rings to the rationale of dropping the bombs in the first place, all those years ago.
Still, even that attempt at outrage wilts like a Norse trickster god. There are times in the past few years when I have felt that every single book or game or song I liked as a child of various ages has become an aggressively strip-mined commodity, and I am hardly alone in this. But the films that preceded this one were a gamble; think about how the technological wizardry of Iron Man and the mythology and magic of Thor exist in the same universe as the overt patriotism of Captain America. Any misstep, any stumble at the box office over the past five years, and The Avengers would have fizzled.
Indeed, it is easy to forget that Robert Downey Jr was an unusual choice for Iron Man, that the Hulk kept getting re-cast, that Whedon had such a reputation for getting his shows cancelled that you almost expected The Avengers to apologetically stop about half-way through. But we know differently. The Marvel universe did well, the foundation was firm and rich enough that The Avengers was going to make money almost despite itself. It did not have to have been made with this much love and care and attention, and I am very grateful that it was. It is a gift, for True Believers or recent converts, and I am hardly alone in wanting to unwrap it over and over again.
*The mighty Marvel way, alas, does not extend to looking after the creators of these characters. I was filled with righteous irritation about the way DC had treated Alan Moore, before and after Watchmen; but Slate reminded me that Marvel’s track record was hardly exemplary. And this happened over and over – it is, in fact, the 20th anniversary of Image Comics, founded when various superstar creators decided that they simply wanted the rights to their own hard work.
P.S. The Hulk comments (and most of this piece) came from a particularly ranty email I sent to friends last week, but the brilliant Film Crit Hulk wrote a Hulk-sized piece for the New Yorker, no less, that articulates and explores them far better than I ever could. It’s well worth your time. And don’t gripe about the caps. He’s the Hulk.
P.P.S. Jackson is doing real-life important things like finishing an MBA, getting married and writing villanelles in honour of Jurgen Klinsmann, so he is taking a break for a while. This means that I am doing illustrations in MS Paint so they are going to be shit.
P.P.P.S I signed it because it took me FOREVER to draw. You have no idea.