The appeal of the superhero is that we can live vicariously through that hero. For as long as it takes to watch the movie or read a comic book, we can imagine what it would be like to have the power to change the world for the better. We have the chance to feel what it would be like to be more than what we are.
But one of the pitfalls of the superhero story is when the hero becomes too super – when he loses the humanity that makes us identify with him. I confess that I’ve always found it hard to relate to Superman, because you never once doubt that he’s on our side. He seems above the foibles of ordinary humans. (Of course, it can be easy to go in the opposite direction and give the hero so many flaws that he teeters on the edge of becoming unheroic.)
Luckily for us, The Avengers comes to us courtesy of Joss Whedon, who as the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, and Firefly, knows very well how to bring to life characters who are heroic yet recognizably human and flawed. Part of the appeal of the film is that it understands how difficult it would be for such volatile personalities as Thor, Iron Man, Captain America, Hulk, Black Widow, and Hawkeye to get along for an extended period of time.
What brings the heroes together is a threat from demigod Loki (Tom Hiddleston), who’s looking to take over the Earth. Loki’s motivation is refreshingly simple – he doesn’t have power, and wants it badly (there also seem to be lots of family issues going on, but since I haven’t seen Thor I’m not up on those). Loki’s captured in fairly short order by Captain America (Chris Evans) and Iron Man (scene-stealing Robert Downey Jr.), but things are complicated by the arrival of Loki’s brother Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and one-man time bomb Hulk (an excellent Mark Ruffalo).
The Avengers takes its time setting things up, and that’s all to the good. Not only does it make things comprehensible to those of us with limited familiarity with the characters (I’ve never read the comics, and have only seen the two Iron Man films and the Edward Norton Hulk movie), but it makes the conflicts, both of the Avengers vs. Loki and the quarrels within the Avengers team, organic and believable. The Avengers is that rarest of things these days – a major summer blockbuster that tells a story, rather showing us a series of set pieces.
Which is not to say the film is low on spectacle. There’s plenty of that, both on a small scale (Black Widow’s fight with some interrogators) and large (the climactic battle in New York City. The spectacle is always entertaining, never overwhelming or incoherent, and it’s refreshing to see our heroes, even the demigods, actually getting roughed up. I especially liked it when one character runs out of ammunition – you usually don’t see that happen. The effects are convincing, particularly the Hulk. In the previous Hulk movie the big green guy looked too bouncy and light, like Gumby but much less creepy. Here Hulk’s got substance to him, and once he’s on the scene it’s clear why the other characters were so afraid of him.
What also works is Whedon’s trademark humor, always added in just enough quantities to give the film some spice, but never so much that the film becomes a flat-out comedy (though there are very funny moments). There’s also another trademark of Whedon’s – if you’re a fan, you can guess what it is – that reminds me of why I sometimes hate the man.
Bringing the fun as well are the actors. They’re uniformly excellent, providing nice touches of characterization and always finding the right tone. Of particular note are Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye and Mark Ruffalo as Banner, both of whom are essentially in the roles for the first time and don’t have previous movies’ characterization to fall back on.
Really, it’s the most perfect summer entertainment I’ve seen in many a year. The ideal blend of humor and seriousness, spectacle and intelligence, pleasing for the eye and the mind. Will it change the world? No. But it will make your day a whole lot brighter.