Three days ago The Avengers scrambled my brain and doused it in ketchup. Pretty harrowing stuff- I’m still a little short of breath, actually, and aftershocks of awesome continue to sweep through my nervous system… it’s kinda beyond my control. If there’s a superhero movie equivalent of post-traumatic stress disorder, I think I’ve contracted it.
Anyway, let’s try to pretend things are normal as ever here (however normal that is) and get down to the task of studying some of its epic awesomeness. For anyone who hasn’t yet seen the film, I’ll spare you a full-fledged review and allow your minds to be better blown with your first viewing. Instead we’ll look at three things in particular that contributed mightily to The Avenger’s feast of mad pwnage. The first two focus more upon the craft of storytelling while the third focuses more on content. Let’s roll!
I. Plunging Into the Story’s Slipstream
The moment the film begins, we are embroiled within the drama. It effortlessly continues the Marvel metanarrative we’ve seen thus far, and wastes no time in establishing everything for noobs who wandered into the wrong theater and stumbled into this universe. It assumes familiarity on the viewer’s part with where the story has been going and is able to immediately launch into the crisis the previous films have been stealthily surging towards, sustaining a momentum that lengthy introductions would deflate. We’ve experienced the patient build-up in five films already- now it explodes with a vengeance. (Vengeance. Ha! I slay myself.)
In lesser hands The Avengers would have began with an hour and half narrative equivalent of the following:
“Ok, who’s the eyepatch guy again?”
“That’s Nick Fury. He’s the director of S.H.I.E.L.D.-”
“Wait, what’s S.H.I.E.L.D.?”
“Um, basically like a covert agency that protects the U.S.- and the world, really- from bad guys.”
“Yeah, but we’re talkin’ like, mondo bad guys.”
“Like, uh… Loki, for instance.”
“Wait, you didn’t see Thor yet?”
“No, I thought it looked kinda cheesy.”
“Yeah, I did too at first, but seriously, you gotta see that one or else this makes zero sense. You know Kenneth Branagh directed it? Kenneth Branagh!”
“Okay, yeah. So, does Thor also have that huge, green guy?”
“….you’re kidding, right?”
Thankfully we’re spared all of this and instead treated to pacing that is true to the character of the crisis and forces the viewer to feel the same countdown to annihilation dread that our heroes experience. Rather than being told that they were caught off guard, the viewer experiences it along with them and is tugged into the heart of the story.
Hats off to the creative forces behind the new Marvel movie franchise- they’ve done a commendable job of carefully constructing a massive and consistent story arc that encompasses the stories of the individual characters we’ve met so far in Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Captain America, and Thor. Iron Man began the saga quietly enough, seeming upon its surface to be nothing more than a brilliantly sardonic genius/playboy/dirtbag-with-a-metal-heart-of-heroism origins story, but it set into motion something so much more than that. Moreover, this saga has succeeded beautifully in putting its characters and their issues front and center and not erecting enormous, magic-deflating billboards to draw your attention to the connective threads that tie them together and move the overall story into the crisis of The Avengers. Too many films and novels build their stories’ worlds with encyclopedia entry brute force and try to hammer home everything there is to know about this world right here, right now.
There is a comprehensiveness that comes from being inundated with a flood of data, and there is a comprehensiveness that comes from many visits into a world. Tolkien’s Middle-Earth is about as fully fleshed out a fictional universe as you can imagine because Tolkien goes to great pains to populate it with a host of fantastic beings and to imbue it with a complex, multilayered history. To his credit, however, he opens your eyes to this world by immersing you within it in an organic manner. You discover the depth and the complexity of Middle-Earth through the characters’ experiences, not by blasting with a firehose of discourse, lecturing you on all the whos, wheres, whence and whithers. The Marvel films have operated on the same principle of slow immersion into its world and of informing the audience through a patient peeling back of layers through character experience as information becomes relevant.
II. Authorial Care
Joss Whedon is the perfect writer for The Avengers– there are few who are able to wholeheartedly embrace the outré elements of superhero comics while simultaneously pouring compassionate consideration upon these characters as persons. They are complex personalities, a jumble of different drives and idiosyncrasies that often they themselves don’t understand. These textured, nuanced characterizations make the viewer identify with these heroes who seem so far removed from our experience. Our heroes are just as broken by sin and messed up as we are, if not more so. Gone are the days of the superhero who is imperturbable in body and spirit- these heroes brood, and seethe, and snipe at one another because while they are more than what we are, they are no less than what we are.
Unabashedly glorying in their larger than life elements while preserving the characters’ and the world’s essential dignity usually can’t be done (Batman & Robin, anyone?), but this is traceable to a lack of care on the part of most who make the attempt- they don’t have the patient, authorial concern to attend to their creations and invest them with life. Moreover, there are writers who try to mix intense action with both wit and soulful character study but sadly it usually remains nothing more than a mixture; a lump of implausible stunts, imperishable ammo and ludicrous explosions in a rancid soup of inconsistencies, cliches and bad jokes. The Avengers offers us an authentic compound because Whedon is attentive to his characters, to the direction and the momentum of his plot, and he never allows the quality of either the action or the acting to fizzle out. The Avengers never degenerates into a disjointed assortment of visual effects because Whedon sees to it that everything in the film serves the story. Action is integral to a story, not a substitute for it. Under his attentive care, all of its elements fuse together in a brilliant burst of Tessaract power that raises the bar even more unfairly high for future comic book movies.
Ferocious action is a virtue in its own right in any film when it isn’t simply filler trying to pad a lack of substance in other departments. The Avengers has enough blistering intensity to fill up three or four movies, but what is especially compelling in The Avengers is that the action actually takes a toll upon its characters. There is something supremely heart wrenching about heroes who appear to have met their match but fight on all the more furiously. They are stretched to the very limits but their foes pound away relentlessly, their numbers infinitely replenishable it seems.
There’s something very Norse about it, but it has a vulnerability that the Vikings never saw fit to champion in their songs. Defeat does not disprove what is right, the ancient Northmen believed, and we, the children of monopolistic capitalism and factory-set consumer mass conformity desperately need this conviction modeled for us once more. Our culture, which has settled for the breadline of social media, network syndication, and i-everything, starstruck by our civilization’s technological might of and high on its promises of instant gratification and moral relativism, thinks that ideals are outdated. We, the junkies who ache without the fix of our twenty four hour a day connectivity, dare to tell our ancestors their model of courage is irrelevant and unrealistic. We in the 21st Century cannot fathom something worth fighting for without a comfortable assurance of victory because we sold our hope and our convictions alike long ago.
I’m infuriated by the realism of the voices who hold the Avengers responsible for the havoc the world just witnessed in the film’s climax- these are the people who refuse to recognize the valor of heroes because their lives were derailed by a twenty minute disconnect from facebook or iTunes. We who are starved for significance pour contempt upon it when it arrives and doesn’t look like the offal we settle to center our diets around.
I am moved by the portrayal of courage that is more than the smiling, undaunted confidence Hollywood and American culture tried to sell to us in the past. That isn’t courage; that’s brainless bravado, a mirage airbrushed onto impossibly ideal hard bodies and shoved down our culture’s throat. Courage isn’t a commodity. There are heroes because it can’t be bought or downloaded.
Courage isn’t a form of potential energy one taps into by digging down deep inside. It isn’t conjured up. Courage is what suddenly shows itself when the merely human has been exhausted. Most of the time it’s depicted this way: A person fights and fights and empties himself of all the strength and endurance and resolve they have. He staggers for a moment, weary, and then reaches down just a little bit deeper inside himself and- lo and behold!- discovers a hidden cache of fortitude and might tucked away.
Horse hockey. Courage is what happens when human ability is extinguished and worst fears are confirmed. Courage denies denial by acknowledging the inevitable fading of strength and the stark reality of defeat. It stands on the brink of cataclysm and refuses to submit, spitting in defeat’s face, not out of some arrogant, schoolboy bluster, but out of a defiance that is rooted in conviction. There is no basis for hope within this mangled, bloody mess you see lying on the ground. But suddenly- inexplicably- you witness this broken man get back up, clench his fists, look his enemies in the face, and wade back into battle, carried along by a momentum that is not his own, superhuman might pouring out of him. An honest portrayal of courage makes it obvious that it doesn’t come from within. It begins with conviction- that’s the non-negotiable efficient cause of heroism. The sufficient cause, however, is God’s empowerment. A hero is one who embraces truth and is granted the might to do what is right when powerful forces threaten.
In the book of Esther, God is not mentioned by name, but when we see His people miraculously being saved from annihilation in spite of the odds stacked against them, we see Him at work fulfilling His promises. Similarly, in The Avengers we don’t hear God mentioned as the source of our heroes’ abilities, but when we see strength, intellect, and stamina being marshaled in this way, we know precisely where it flows from; His power is evident in the courage displayed by each of them to do what must be done.
We need fictional heroes because there is such a dearth of real heroes in our culture. They shock us out of the complacency the industrialized West has marketed so attractively by reminding us that our worship is wasted, that conviction and courage are never passé, and that great things can still be done.
You know what? Enough from me. Just go rent it and get pumped ASAP as possible!