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The Avengers

by Yoda
posted on 5/14/12
In Aaron Sorkin's 1998 television series Sports Night, during a conversation about workplace dynamics, one of the employees says to his boss "Not fitting in is how qualified people get fired." "Yeah," his boss replies, "but a lot of the time it's how they end up working here." The Avengers exist not because they fit together, but precisely because they don't; the guys who fit in weren't available.

This is co-writer, director, and Geek Pontiff Joss Whedon's take on the group: that they're less a team than they are the Island of Misfit Superheroes. To a one, all of them have suffered some kind of shaming or disgrace, and most of them should be dead. They are not the rules, they are the exceptions. In this sense they're almost a counterpoint to Marvel's other team of superheroes, the X-Men, who are a united group fighting for a common cause, whereas the Avengers are called together out of reluctant necessity and circumstance. They are not the next step in human evolution; they're the freak mutations that won't be passed on to the next generation.

Whedon's version of the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) has been singled out for hewing closer to the comics and standing in starkly entertaining contrast to the two disappointing iterations over the last decade. This is neither Louis Lettier's unstoppable force or Ang Lee's immovable object. It wisely forgoes any labored attempt to extract emotional solemnity from its "giant green rage monster," and treats Banner more like an addict than an archetype. And it works. A lot.

Whedon also gets a good deal of mileage out of Captain America's (Chris Evans) displacement in time, and the contrast he has with the zingier, zeitgeistier Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.). The two serve as a useful illustration of how heroic characters have changed over time, with duty gradually ceding ground to pith and instruction turned into deconstruction. But Whedon's reputation is one of upsetting convention, and in a media environment where more protagonists are self-aware the only way to go forward is to double back, with heroes so self-aware that they're aware of how tired self-awareness is. The result is a pre-postmodern masterpiece of mayhem.

The film is modestly good, witty fun at first, but becomes seizure-inducingly jubilant over the last 45 minutes, which covers...let me check my notes...one battle. Whedon makes music out of the fight's sprawling cacophony by hitching the camera to its participants. First, to Iron Man, who flies by Captain America in mid-punching-everything-mode, and then flies by Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), who can also shoot arrows at the things he punches, at which point the camera attaches itself to one of those arrows as it flies by the Hulk, also in mid-punching-everything-mode, and this happens in one continuous sugar rush of a shot that causes the 8-year-old inside me to black out. And when he comes to, they're all still punching things. Except for Hawkeye, who's still occasionally shooting them.

The Avengers exhausts every permutation of conflict available to it, both meta and municipal. Characters are at war with themselves, then with each other, and then with the bad guys. And all throughout, Whedon's publicly proclaimed secular humanism is at war with his innate grasp of storytelling. This conflict is inevitable when cultural icons are put under the control of a cultural iconoclast. Whedon is a third-generation TV writer, which means the basic blocks of drama are in his blood. And most of them, like the notions of sacrifice, duty, and the higher good, are difficult to reconcile with pure rationalism. But he also knows that you can't tell a good story--particularly a good story about superheroes--without them, and he splits the difference by acknowledging the utility of believing in such things, true or not.

It's easy to look at the Avengers as a stand-in for America; spread out, occasionally wildly at odds with its individual parts, but ultimately bound together. Stark lives in Malibu; he is glitz and glamour. Steve Rogers is from Brooklyn; he is duty and modesty. They have as much in common as California and New York, or Connecticut and Kansas. But when a common threat emerges, the pluribus' waste no time unum-ing. Modern hero stories, at their best, reflect this higher cultural truce; they are an expression of the things we still agree on.

I saw The Avengers at the tail end of one of the Marvel Movie Marathons across the country, an exhaustilirating (a word I just made up) event which saw each post-credits tease followed by new opening credits, each film easter-egged on in an inexorable march towards midnight.

Over those fourteen hours, I saw Iron Man assemble his suit inside a cave in Afghanistan. I saw Captain America assemble a covert team to penetrate a Nazi fortress. I saw Thor and his team assemble on Earth. And I saw the Hulk disassemble pretty much everything. And over four real years and seventy fictional ones, the Avengers assembled, each member not just an addition, but a multiplication of the whole.