Culture Warrior

Crowding a movie with talent often seems like a good idea only in the abstract sense. In practice, such films can easily feel overstuffed. For example, the basic conceits for both The Expendables and Grown Ups sound like products of wishful thinking held during a drunk conversation between a group of 19-year-olds at 3am. Yes, in theory a movie featuring all of the action stars of the 80s or the most successful SNL cast since the late-70s would be great – however, a bunch of famous people do not a seminal action film or great comedy make.

What’s most surprising about Joss Whedon’s The Avengers is that the whole somehow proved greater than its parts. A movie with this quantity of iconic superheroes runs the incredible risk of being overstuffed and only half-cooked. The standards created by previous Hollywood films indicate that studios would be happy enough allowing the conflagration of bankable characters stand in for (or, more accurately, distract from the lack of) actual entertainment value; mammoth opening weekends, after all, are always more a sign of effective marketing than good filmmaking.

But The Avengers not only stands as an equal to some of the stronger entries in Marvel’s 4-year, 5-film multiverse-building, but is arguably superior. Some of these characters came across more fully-fleshed and three-dimensional as part of an ensemble than in their respective standalone films.

How exactly did this happen? Is the very existence of previous films enough for audiences to bring characterization and depth into a…whatever-the-hell type of franchise follow-up The Avengers is? To an extent, this is definitely the case; Tony Stark’s personality has basically been inseparable from Robert Downey, Jr.’s persona for nearly a half-decade. But this doesn’t explain why Mark Ruffalo’s Columbo-esque Bruce Banner is just as magnetic and appealing.

The answer probably lies not so much in the individual characterization of each Avenger, but in the fact that the juxtaposition of these characters together fleshes them out far more effectively than their respective presence(s) alone – primarily through each character’s particular iteration of masculinity.

While many a comic book fan has debated and daydreamed over who would win in a fight between a group of iconic male heroes, such a fantasy scenario typically doesn’t involve the hubristic bickering that a crowd of competing more-than-human personalities would inevitably surmise. After all, being a demigod, an eccentric billionaire, and the emblem for American exceptionalism doesn’t run cheap; it comes at the cost of an inflated ego.

Iron Man and Captain America

The fact that the first glimpse of seeing The Avengers work together leads to a catastrophic, epic failure of teamwork is perhaps the only honest response to such a scenario (and the electric bickering between the Avengers is no doubt Whedon’s most wonderfully Whedonesque contribution). What struck me in this scene was the surprising affinity between Iron Man and Captain America. Not only are Stark and Steve Rogers the most “human” of the film’s four major heroes, the supremacy of each is only made possible by the assistance of factors outside their own originary flesh and blood.

Both Iron Man and Captain America are emblems of American exceptionalism. In the first hour of the first Iron Man film, Stark basically breezily wins the war in Afghanistan in a triumphant moment of oh-so-2008 wish fulfillment, and in the second film he takes his place atop the throne of a Blackwateresque private defense industry. But at his core (and as Rogers sort-of points out during the bickering scene), Stark’s “talent” is his trust-find enabled access to gadgetry. His only superhuman traits are his overabundance of confidence and engineering prowess.

Meanwhile, this scene provides a take on Captain America that was overwhelmingly present but ran largely unquestioned in last year’s Joe Johnston-helmed film. Where Iron Man is a private pioneer/profiteer of patriotism, Captain America is a product of the public sector – an American experiment gone right in an era in which the American experiment at large (and, perhaps, for the first time) seemed to be going right. Captain America literalizes the narrative of America’s singlehanded win over WWII (a narrative Hollywood has made quite an industry out of), and this point is made abundantly clear early in The Avengers when the Cap’n saves an elderly man (coded as Eastern European-Jewish) from the fate of Loki’s evil dictator.

(Side note: between this WWII reference, the much-discussed “red” in Black Widow’s ledger, and images of NYC falling to pieces, The Avengers seems to want to fight every foreign enemy America has had in the past seventy years.)

Stark’s own quip to Loki comes later in the film, when he applies a double entendre suggesting the villain has erectile dysfunction, which sums up The Avengers as the most entertaining movie about dick-measuring since The Godfather. That The Avengers towered over the previous box-office champ Think Like a Man is worthy of notice.

But as Stark rejoinders in the bickering scene, Rogers’s heroism is no more naturally “real” than Stark’s. As Nick Fury evidences when he uses a blood-stained trading card of Captain America to manipulate The Avengers into action, Captain America as an enduring propaganda symbol can be even more powerful than the chemically-enhanced Rogers himself.

Thor and The Hulk

Where the insecure-yet-egotistical masculinity of Stark and Rogers are connected by the fact that their heroism is “assisted,” Thor and Bruce Banner’s masculine traits are more organic and genuine to their person. Thor, after all, is the only character here with no alternative name or alter ego. Thor is continuously, humorlessly Thor. Yes, his power is assisted by a giant extraterrestrial mallet, but he still is (as the framing of Kenneth Branagh’s film demonstrated exhaustively) the most physically imposing of the non-green Avengers. But the fact that Thor’s overt masculinity is literally otherwordly and timelessly mythicized says a great deal – he embodies a masculinity that literally doesn’t exist anywhere on Earth.

And that brings us to the film’s much-ballyhooed shining star, The Hu—er, the “other guy.” The announcement of Ruffalo as the third actor in nine years to play the big green one came around the same time as The Kids Are All Right was released, a film where Ruffalo probably “played Ruffalo” more thoroughly than any other time we’ve seen him (and he got an Oscar nomination for it).

It’s that classic Ruffalo character: easygoing, unimposing and (at least, on the surface) perfectly secure. While I was initially skeptical of Ruffalo’s casting, attaching that giant green id to the turmoil underpinning the Ruffalo persona was a gesture of surprising perfection. Not only was The Hulk the most fun, but also the most psychologically compelling after two previous different films only got the character sort-of right. Ruffalo reveals that, under the visage of coolness and modesty, there is a being that is, in his own words, “always angry.”

If The Hulk is the most powerful, then does that mean he’s the ideal masculine hero? And if that’s the case, what do we make of the fact that such a hero is a relentless force of Neanderthal-like juvenile rage?

Final Thoughts

With The Expendables 2, The Dark Knight Rises, and The Amazing Spider-Man awaiting, we’re not only in for a summer crowded (but hopefully not overstuffed) with old-fashioned heroes, but for some more tortured and exaggerated masculinity as well, which provides an interesting juxtaposition to two archery-laden female empowerment narratives: The Hunger Games and Pixar’s upcoming Brave. What exactly will become of masculinity and femininity (or where Black Widow stands in all this) as represented by the studio filmmaking of Summer 2012 is not something I’m yet certain of. I imagine that, as rightfully anticipated of a film that it is, we might get a bit tired of the tortured superhero by the time Christopher Nolan’s Batman film comes around (though probably not), but I’m glad that Whedon at least got as much fun out of the trope as one could.

It’s difficult to see how the Marvelverse ultra-franchise will play out from now on. The success of The Avengers may prove detrimental to their corresponding individual franchises – not in terms of box office, which doesn’t look like it’ll slow anytime soon, but in terms of storytelling. When one can get more out of the juxtaposition of these characters together than with separate films, these films will look smaller by comparison (perhaps that’s why the Captain America and Thor sequels have been relegated to dates outside the summer in 2013 and 2014). When you get to know these characters better when they’re together than when they’re apart, then for Marvel’s inter-film experiment, The Avengers may literally prove too much of a good thing.

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