‘The Avengers’ is Burdened with Glorious Purpose

Six Weeks into our epic MCU rewatch, Phase One concludes with Joss Whedon’s methodically geeky assemblage of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes.

“We have a Hulk.” And a demigod. And a super solider. And a couple of master assassins. And, oh yeah, a genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist encased in a suit of armor. The Avengers assemble four years after Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury snuck forth from Iron Man’s end credits to invite Tony (and Marvel zombies everywhere) into his super-secret boy band. What was once imagined as an impossible copyright wet dream finally manifested itself into an unstoppable blockbuster franchise.

The five films that preceded Joss Whedon had their ups and downs, but The Avengers retroactively increased their worth by relishing in its heroes’ unique personalities and putting their petty squabbles on equal footing with the inevitably pesky, world-ending beam of blue light firing upon New York City. Its burden would be that no follow-up film would ever live up to the initial glee of seeing your favorite heroes busting each other’s chops on one shared silver screen.

Has the shine worn off? In five/ten/twenty years will anyone look back fondly on Whedon’s superhero answer to Damn Yankees with anything more than a yawn? Maybe a few of you already dismiss The Avengers as just another head on the Disney hydra (pun intended). For comic book geeks of a certain age, who had to live and love their way through Howard The Duck and Dolph Lundgren as The Punisher, the miraculous collection of spandex stuffed into The Avengers will undoubtedly forever delight that inner child who never dreamed their beloved heroes would steal mainstream hearts.

Since the year began, I’ve been ranting and raving weekly about the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Am I exhausted yet? Are you? We still have another 11 films (make that 12, since Black Panther is just around the corner) to slog through before Avengers: Infinity War assaults the box office on May 4th. If you’ve been following along with me, and you’re still anticipating future entries on Guardians of the Galaxy and Doctor Strange, obviously, I’m preaching to the choir…or better yet, Stan Lee’s Merry Marvel Marching Society.

When it comes to the MCU, I don’t have a single cynical bone in my body. I love these characters. Seeing geeks of yesteryear, as well as the newly baptized, scream out at Iron Man and Thor’s Shakespeare in the Park rumble is a validation of a youth well spent. Attending Thursday night screenings packed with Ant-Man and The Wasp cosplay is the emotional equivalent of a great big societal hug. That feeling may have started with 2008’s Iron Man, but it absolutely solidified with The Avengers.Joss Whedon seemed to be the first genuine geek to take the reins of a Marvel movie. He had spent over a decade cultivating a fandom out of Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Angel. He took a few of his television concepts into the future with Dark Horse Comics’ “Fray” and even found himself following in the footsteps of comic book royalty, Grant Morrison, in an epic run on “The Astonishing X-Men.” He reveled in the niche with Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog and refused to believe in the commercial failure of his western sci-fi round-up, Firefly, and asserted the crew of the Serenity into theaters. Superhero theatrics were simply his bag.

I am sure that Jon Favreau, Louis Leterrier, Kenneth Branagh, and Joe Johnston all found ways to passionately obsess over their characters, and they had Kevin Feige’s total confidence in the Marvel source material to steer their contributions. “If you build it, they will come.” We did. Not to mention the inexplicable magic of casting. Robert Downey Jr.’s performance as Tony Stark even reformed how that character would behave in the comics themselves. Chris Hemsworth’s beefcake bravado epitomized a god descended from on high. Chris Evans extraordinarily pulled off the righteousness of an outdated American spirit without inciting an onslaught of eye-rolls. Edward Norton…uh…Scarlet Johansson…uh…Jeremy Renner…uh…ok, The Avengers would need to recast and re-conceptualize its roster. They’d smooth out a few of those bumps along the road through Phase One.

Whedon is one of us. He understood that if you put Tony Stark and Steve Rogers in a room together, they were going to grate on each other’s nerves. Their reluctant partnership resulted in unabashed, dweeby fist-pumping from the crowd as Iron Man bounced his repulsor blasts off Cap’s vibranium shield. Whedon had spent a lifetime absorbing comic book panels and was determined to find a way to insert a splash page into the cinematic language. He knew that Black Widow had more to offer than the object of Stark’s leering. He had the secret to Bruce Banner’s anger and couldn’t wait to reveal the Hulk as his own separate entity. And yeah, he discerned that all Hawkeye had going for him was a bushel of nifty trick arrows.

The gift Whedon was given was that the eat-your-veggies cramming of origin stories was already completed. The Avengers could be all dessert, no nutritional value. Loki went full-tilt diva because we already comprehended his Shakespearean tragedy, living under the shadow of Thor. His pathetic grasp to rule over Midgard was nothing more than a child’s tantrum to steal his All-Father’s attention. Here, Tom Hiddleston could merely channel the chewiest depths of big baddie British acting and deliver a performance that would have Christopher Lee howling. The Avengers is meant to be the ultimate riot.That strikes at the very core of why we love these Dirty Dozen-like gatherings. We fall for Tony and Steve in their own adventures, and then we dare to dream how they’d interact back-to-back against the horde. It’s the childlike notion of grabbing your G.I. Joes and your Transformers and setting them loose against those nefarious Care Bears. You sit in your bed fantasizing on how John Rambo and John Matrix would share a sandwich, but those Expendables never materialized. These fanciful whims did not exist outside of your own toy box…except that’s where comic books lived and breathed. Marvel Studios won this past decade because they had the unshakable faith in their IP and their means of distribution.

The Avengers was the first film to properly replicate the joys and frustrations of serialized comic book storytelling. Monthly solo titles revolving around The Invincible Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk were all well and good, but a single issue of The Avengers had the advantage of championing every one of your favorites under one banner. To decipher a threat grand enough to gain all our heroes’ attention, you had to dip into various periphery titles, or, you could shrug your shoulders and simply enjoy the smashing. Homework could be assigned to discover empathy for Loki, but maybe the mustache twirling is all you need to satisfy your blockbuster desires. Even the agonizing wait from month to month is reproduced in the MCU. Instead of a 30-day wait period, you’ve got at least two years before the next global crisis gets their attention. It’s a junkie’s nightmare. Gotta catch ‘em all.Joss Whedon and Kevin Feige painstakingly scrutinized 49 years of Avengers comic book continuity to serve up a film worthy of these cherished icons. They capture Tony Stark’s cocksure know-it-all intelligence, Steve Rogers’ naïve adherence to truth, justice, and the American Way, Bruce Banner’s terrified respect towards his anger, Natasha Romanoff’s guilt-riddled assassination skillset, Thor’s self-indulgent big brother act, and Clint Barton’s really cool arrows. Then we watch them bicker, squabble, and fight amongst themselves before coming together to fight some space dragons.

The glorious purpose of The Avengers is to keep that youthful passion for these characters thriving up to, and beyond, Infinity War. Now that we’ve finally seen Earth’s Mightiest Heroes chow down on shawarma together, will a second, a third, and a fourth meal satisfy your hunger? Or are you stuffed to the gizzards? (Pssst! My stomach is a bottomless pit for the MCU, and when we get to Avengers: Age of Ultron in five weeks, I’m going to convince you of its supremacy to the original, dammit!). Whether you’re full or not, there’s no end in sight to the MCU smorgasbord. It’s a feast that has been cooking for over 10 years, but it’s one I’ve been craving for nearly 30. There’s no killing this glutton.What The Avengers Contributes to the MCU:

  • Mark Ruffalo – Going into The Avengers, the character I was the least excited to see again was Bruce Banner. I am not an anti-Incredible Hulk fanboy, but it’s easily the film of the MCU that I re-watch the least. I was a little frustrated that Edward Norton couldn’t play nice with Marvel Studios and a recasting became necessary. Man, I am now so thankful that Ruffalo could swing in to the rescue. Ruffalo excels in trapping Banner’s anguish over his condition on his face. He wears his curse like a suit. Combine that emotional understanding with Whedon’s “I’m always angry” revelation and we have the highlight of the film.
  • Thanos – The big purple, bumpy chin guy who appreciates a good sit. We still don’t know what’s really motivating this cosmic menace, but you’ll have to trust the fandom when they lost their minds during this mid-credit sequence. He’s a death obsessed mad Titan hell-bent on universal domination. Infinity War will ultimately have to fill out his motivation, but if you’ve been scratching your head these past six years trying to understand what the big deal is, then I suggest picking up Jim Starlin’s “Thanos: The Infinity Revelation.”
  • Maria Hill – Nick Fury’s right-hand woman. She’s not allowed much to do in The Avengers other than to look at a few screens and shoot at some faceless Loki-drones, but Cobie Smulders makes the best of what she’s given. She’ll kick a little more butt in The Winter Soldier, and hopefully the MCU will offer her character some serious room to breathe later on down the line.
  • S.H.I.E.L.D. Helicarrier – Have you ever seen anything more comic booky awesome!? Straight out of “Strange Tales” #135, the Helicarrier is a floating aircraft carrier designed to trot S.H.I.E.L.D.’s might across the globe. When I first saw this bad boy on screen, I knew that Whedon was a nerd like me. You simply can’t have Nick Fury without this beautiful behemoth.
  • Stark Tower – Tony finally gets his butt out of Malibu and moves into New York City where he belongs. The Chitauri Invasion does a serious number on his “warm light for all mankind to share” and it eventually becomes the Avengers HQ in Age of Ultron…which Ultron totally devastates. If this 20th Century Fox/Disney deal ever goes through, I wonder if Tony will eventually sell his tower to the Fantastic Four, and it can be rechristened the Baxter Building. Nerd dreams!

What The Avengers Withholds from the MCU:

  • Agent Coulson – I do not care what you say, Coulson is dead and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is not a real television show. His death at the hands of Loki is the critical moment in the film that unites these squabblers into the response team Fury has been concocting since Iron Man. Resurrecting him for some primetime MCU pretend show betrays any sense of drama and would spark an endless cry from the fan community for genuine stakes. Clark Gregg delivers an appropriately sorrowful death scene that practically begs Nick Fury to dip his vintage Captain America trading cards into his blood to rally the troops. He’s a calculating super-spy till the very end.
  • Harry Dean Stanton – “Well then son, you’ve got a condition.” It’s a nothing character that only serves to get Bruce Banner from his Hulk crash landing to the Battle of New York, but Stanton can’t help but inject a dose of humor and humanity. What happened to that unnamed security guard? What stories did he tell around at the pub that night? I sure would have loved a Marvel One-Shot detailing that Zen barfly banter.

Further Reading:

The Ultimates” by Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch – Often cheaply described as “Not your daddy’s Avengers,” The Ultimates was Marvel’s attempt to reinvent its flagship title for the modern era (aka 2002). Millar inserted a more aggressive edge to the characters and was quick to engage in the science-fiction of comic book theatricality. Hitch was this widescreen influenced artist who cast Sam Jackson in the role of Nick Fury six years before Iron Man. Captain America is a little less gee-whiz, a lot more militaristic, and he has no love for the French. Iron Man is still the ladies’ man, a bit of a boozehound, but he embraces his demons as a means of ignoring the cancerous tumor decimating his brain. Thor may be a god, or he may be a crazy Norwegian. The Incredible Hulk eats Freddie Prinze Jr. So, yeah. That happens. “The Ultimates” is an action epic beautifully illustrated that’s never too precious with its characters and challenges your very concepts of The Avengers.

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Brad Gullickson :Trekkie, Not Trekker. Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects, co-host of the In The Mouth of Dorkness Podcast.