There’s a post from Joss on Whedonesque where he refers to his latest, box-office-record-breaking movie variously as “The Scavengers”, “The Availers”, “The Ravagers”, “The Lavenders” and “The Avoiders”. I could wax lyrical on the way in which every single tongue-in-cheek substitution is perfectly accurate for a particular facet of the movie (my slashy-subtextual defense of “The Lavenders” is a particularly fine piece of justificatory acababble), but mostly I’m just happy at the way in which Joss’s characteristic self-deprecation also perfectly encapsulates the mood of the film. The Avengers managed to construct itself as that chimeric and mythical entity which is at once a big-budget summer-tentpole blockbuster, with all its attendant boom and glitz, and a character-driven movie with an actual plot. It has heart and swash and its slightly angsty superhero tongue firmly in its cheek at crucial junctures, and consequently works as only something by Joss can work when it’s working well.
You may be noticing a slight subtextual hint that I enjoyed this movie. I loved this movie. I mean, I’m the world’s easiest sell on superheroes, you flap a cape at me and my inner “Whee!” takes over, but I also love the archetypes enough that, while bouncing happily in my seat, I am also supercritical about how they’re depicted. Joss, of course, gets it. While not quite descending to the levels of grit and angst promulgated by Nolan’s Batman, Avengers is simultaneously an ensemble film, a comic book movie, and one about real, live individuals. It partially rides, of course, on the success of its predecessors - both Thor and Captain America were amiable, character-driven pieces, and Iron Man was rather more than that - but its strength is in its ability to synthesise those individual backstories, simultaneously recognising the angsts and drives of the individuals while subjugating them to the needs of the group. And I am, as always, absolutely about the superhero ensemble. Joss himself acknowledges that the common trait of all these superheroes is their isolation, to a greater or lesser extent, into a world of their own - super-wealthy playboy, man out of time, alien god, assassin, sniper, Jekyll-and-Hyde entity afraid to be among people. In spite of that, he pulls them together into a whole that is coherent, functional and, by the end of it, even joyous, without ever losing sight of individual motivations and abilities, or stretching our credulity too far. (Inserts such as revelations of Nick Fury's manipulation of them contribute materially to this). It's quite an achievement.
The action in this film is pretty much non-stop, so it's interesting to look back on it and realise quite how character-driven it is. There's a particular skill with which the wildly varying power levels of the different superheroes have been integrated and balanced: Black Widow's martial arts training isn't even faintly in the same class as the powers of a Hulk or a god, but the script manages to assert her value nonetheless. (It's a particularly lovely bit of footwork which affirms the part-superhero, part-normal powers of Captain America, who resolutely remains my favourite character in the ensemble). Primarily, though, the explosions and what have you never feel gratuitous; they feel consequential, integrated, and in addition, they're also fun. This is absolutely not Batman. There are moments which epitomise the sense of superheroes as the sheer pleasure of agency, Hulk bounding around the show slapping aliens out of the sky in a sort of joyous abandon, or Iron Man "bringing the party to you". I also love the film's sense of play with the geeky stereotypes which speak both to comic book fans and to Joss's own following - one of my favourite moments in the film is Coulson geeking out over Captain America and wittering on about the pristine set of trading cards he wants signed. (Also, slashy subtext ftw).
No rhapsody about this film would be complete without noting that Joss seems to have pulled off the impossible, particularly, with the Hulk: the Avengers Hulk restores my faith both in the myth and in superhero film-making as a whole. It's possibly a bit odd to talk about the Hulk being humanised, but that's precisely what happens - certainly in the special effects, which neatly avoid Plastic!Hulk and integrate Hulk and Bruce Banner essentially and credibly via the motion capture, but above all in Mark Ruffalo, and in the script. Actor and writing work perfectly together to create not only a credible, world-weary man who retains something resembling a sense of humour about his situation, but also a rather endearing monster who stands not just for unrestrained violence, but for an unrestrained, childlike joy. If Hulk embodies a lack of sophistication, a stripping down to essentials, then the film demonstrates, vitally, that this does not only apply to the "smash" aspect of the character. Hulk is an important component in the film's address to a swashbuckling essence of superheroes: not the angst and conflict, but the simple coolness of magical, unlikely power. Hulk vs Loki is one of the great vignettes of the contemporary superhero story, both an assertion of evil's inevitable destruction within the superhero paradigm, and an amused and knowing nod to stereotype, comic-book power, and the villain's rueful subjugation to narrative expectation.
There was a terrible fear in watching this film, that a geek icon like Joss wouldn't have been able to pull it off. His experiences with Fox (hiss, spit) demonstrate all too clearly the extent to which a confident creative integrity is subject to the whims and warps of marketing. Marvel has generally a much more sane and coherent approach to their mythos films, but the fact remains, if Joss couldn't make something of this movie, it would have suggested, inescapably, that the giant blockbuster superhero ensemble simply couldn't be done. Thank the cosmic wossnames that it can, and the Marvel write-in campaign to put Joss behind the sequel starts here. I'm in.