By Richard von Busack
Joss Whedon’s simply colossal The Avengers (The Avengers tickets and showtimes here) applauds the beauty of cooperation. Not such a stupid idea, considering what the lack of it is doing to our Republic.
At a remote S.H.I.E.L.D. laboratory, scientists try to harness the “tesseract”: the glowing blue cosmic cube that fell from far Asgard to Earth. Problem: “We don’t have a harness.”
Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) escapes the implosion of the lab; there’s a tear in his one good eye as the megafacility disintegrates below his helicopter. The cube draws in the horned god Loki (Tom Hiddleston), ready to rule the puny humans. They used to have a disease called “green sickness,” and Loki seems to thrive on it. The force of envy is dyeing his too-moist skin.
Fury’s fallback is an invisible flying aircraft carrier vaster than Japan’s much-vaunted space battleship Yamato. The spymaster assembles a team to protect Earth from Loki’s army of space orcs and half-mile-long flying mechanicals dragons.
As in the Marvel comics, these heroes are type-A personalities. They don’t mix. Robert Downey, Jr.’s Tony Stark devilishly jabs Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner/Hulk hard in the side; he wants to see what Banner calls “my party trick.” Ruffalo responds with that “Oh-no-you-don’t” face that a movie star flashes when he’s asked an improper question on a talk show.
Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow is a commando who depends on being underestimated. Here is noble Captain America (Chris Evans), who has the sadness that comes from being frozen in an iceberg for 65 years. We watch his face light up at the one piece of slang he recognizes from the old days.
Of Asgardians: “They’re basically gods.” And Chris Hemsworth’s Thor possesses that Valhalla heartiness—the pleasure in testing his strength against something as huge as the Hulk. Fairytale deliciousness abides in the moment where the green monster learns he can’t budge the hammer Mjolnir. Banner’s slightly artificial too-niceness is the other side of the creature. He’s been to India, presumably to learn to control himself. He’s third-worldly. You expect him to make the palms-together wai gesture when he’s recognized as a celebrity.
Lastly, our own age’s Errol Flynn, Stark, the famous Iron Man—his helmet an art-deco abstraction from a Clint Eastwood death mask. Only mad action can calm Stark’s twitchy nerves. Downey’s register of a final dropped cell-phone call to Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow) is more affecting than those missed messages in Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. Why are these crap superhero movies Paltrow’s best work?
Films like The Avengers give us the smooth pleasure of the calibrated machines, stripping the armor from Stark as he walks into his living room. This would be mechanical boredom without the quaver of fright in Stark’s voice as he faces the evil demigod.
Similar gallantry exists in the film’s puniest human: the joke bureaucrat Coulson (Clark Gregg). His fanboy-nervous encounter with Captain America becomes a moment of defiance of Loki: “You’ll lose. It’s your nature. You lack conviction.”
This scene, showing the good you get out of being a geek, is what Whedon does best. Unlike many of Stan Lee’s gags, Whedon’s are fast and witty: the bow-carrying Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) being called “Legolas,” or the word “cellist” as a putdown-free euphemism for “gay.”
Whedon is a celebrator, not a debunker. Like the comic-book writer Alan Moore, he is interested in the way such unusual beings would put on their costumes one leg at a time.
The quantity of action in The Avengers starts to dilute the quality. The finale is a gamer-fest of alien upon alien upon alien emerging from the space vortex. Of course, you don’t use the Avengers just to foil a bank robbery ... but still.
However, it was the first time since Sept. 11 that I saw Manhattan attacked in a movie and didn’t necessarily think of Sept. 11. The terrific animation kept the fantasy at a high scale. Skyscrapers seem to fulfill their architectural destiny to explode into glass fireworks. It’s weirdly less decadent than it sounds, since our primary-colored champions are there, trying to prevent it all.