My first impulse in writing about Joss Whedon‘s The Avengers for Crushable readers — some of whom may know the Marvel superheroes only by name but never have read their comics — was to joke that it’s the New Year’s Eve of superhero movies. But this satirical piece from Moviefone about marketing the movie to women made it clear that that’s an entirely unproductive way to discuss the film, as it falsely accuses it of being a moneygrubbing experiment of cramming as many famous faces on the screen at once. However, discussing The Avengers as an ensemble movie is still a valid line of inquiry, because it’s that prickly dynamic that characterizes most of the film and displays Whedon’s ability to execute a smart reversal of expectations.
See, in ensemble romantic comedies like New Year’s Eve and Valentine’s Day, the characters all end up helping each other as if by fate. (Of course Zac Efron is Sarah Jessica Parker‘s younger brother, so he can find Abigail Breslin when she runs off!) These intersecting plotlines are contrived and undercut any emotional foundation the movie might have had. With The Avengers, we don’t get that sugarcoating: The superheroes actually spend most of the film fighting each other. (Don’t worry, I’m going to keep this review as spoiler-free as possible.)
Consider the story you have going here: In order to stop Loki (Tom Hiddleston), S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) rounds up the various superheroes that he’s been interacting with in isolated incidents over the past few years. It’s half a decade worth of payoff, starting from 2008′s Iron Man, but instead of banding together in a montage with pump-you-up music, these superpowered crimefighters warily pace around each other, sizing up the competition.
Consider that these folks have been living behind secret identities and often received abuse for their powers and success in saving the world, and now suddenly they have to share their sandbox with others? It’s not even as if they share the same abilities: You have the godlike Thor (Chris Hemsworth) with power greater than any Earthlings and yet unable to understand this strange culture; sardonic, lonely, on-death’s-door Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.); Captain America (Chris Evans), having just been thawed out and thrown into a war in 2012; Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), a pariah now that every human interaction with him is laced with the fear that he’ll become “the other guy”; the list goes on. It mirrors the series finale of Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer, when suddenly thousands of Potentials became full-fledged Slayers, and Buffy Summers was no longer special.