Thor, Iron Man, and Captain America square off in The Avengers in accordance with the rule that no superheroes can meet for the first time without getting into a fight so that fans have more fuel for their endless debates over who would win in a matchup.
This is what you get when you let a former English professor write movie reviews.
Within the cycle of movies of which The Avengers is the latest installment, Tony Stark---Iron Man---fills the role Lancelot fills in the King Arthur stories.
I warned you.
The Avengers isn’t a retelling of the Knights of the Round Table. For one thing, there’s no King Arthur. (If anyone wants to make the case that Nick Fury plays that role, feel free. I think it’s a reach. Try Merlin instead.) And I'm not making a direct comparison of their personalities. Stark is no Lancelot. If he has a counterpart among any of the Knights of the Roundtable, it's Gawain. Gawain is vain, boastful, selfish, self-indulgent, a showoff and happy to think he can do it all on his own. He's also the second best of Arthur's knights. He was the best until Lancelot showed up. Fans can argue the actual ranking of the Avengers vis-a-vis each other. What matters is that Gawain wasn't inclined to admit to his demotion and Stark would disagree with you if you didn't rank Iron Man first. A lot of his best lines in the movie are cheap shots at the other heroes' expenses meant to let them know he's not impressed by them or their powers.
(The only other Avenger who even roughly has an Arthurian double is Captain America. He's like Galahad whose strength was as the strength of ten because his heart was pure. The super-soldier serum worked as it did on Steve Rogers because he had a good heart.)
Still, the comparison to Lancelot holds in that like Lancelot Iron Man is the hero around whose story the other heroes' stories are centered.
“I am Iron Man,” Stark declares at the end of his first movie. But as we learn in Iron Man 2, he’s not. Iron Man is just a robot Stark pilots from within. And for the robot to do its job it almost doesn’t matter who’s wearing the metal suit. What matters is if Stark can make the suit into a skin, that is, into an extension of himself. And a lot has to change for that to happen. Every one of Lancelot’s adventures is crucial to the overall story of the Knights of the Round Table because the fate of Camelot depends on Lancelot remaining the exemplary knight he is while constantly confronted with the temptation to be just a man. Every one of Iron Man’s adventures is crucial to the ongoing story of the Avengers because the fates of the Avengers and the world depend on Stark becoming a knight in shining armor, and he’s having a hard time with that.
Ok. Before taking this analogy any further…
I liked it. It’s fun. I had a good time. The Avengers is a good superhero movie.
It’s not a good movie the way Spider-Man 2 and Batman Begins are good movies. Rio Bravo is a good movie. Rio Lobo is a good Western. The Dirty Dozen is a good war movie. The Guns of Navarone is a good movie. The Avengers is a good superhero movie. The best in this particular series of superhero movies after the first Iron Man.
Part of what makes it good is that it is very much a piece of that series. Director Joss Whedon, who also wrote the screenplay, has clearly studied and liked and taken to heart the previous movies in the series and he deftly weaves together narrative and thematic threads from Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor, and Captain America: The First Avenger into one taut strand, pulls that strand smoothly through the movie, then quickly unravels it and spools the threads out towards the next movies in the series. The Avengers sets up Captain America 2, Thor 2, and Iron Man 3. (It doesn’t directly set up The Avengers 2. That’s coming but it will have to pick up the threads from those sequels and do its part in continuing the series.) As Whedon has apparently learned from his long career in television and as a writer of comic books, everything doesn’t depend on single episode or issue. The job of any particular episode or issue, in fact, is to get the audience excited about what’s coming next so they’ll tune in next week or buy next month’s issue. For all the spectacle and mayhem that goes with bringing together Earth’s Mightiest Heroes and setting them up to fight off an invading alien army in the streets of New York City while landmarks like Grand Central Station are destroyed around them, The Avengers is a movie with an admirably modest ambition.
Moving the story along.
There’s a kick in watching the Avengers assemble for the first time and in listening to our favorites banter and argue. The dialog is sharp and snappy. The jokes are funny. The suspense level is high. Whedon makes us worry about every character. But the main reason for seeing The Avengers is the same reason why when you’re reading a book and you finish Chapter 10 you move on to Chapter 11 instead of skipping ahead to Chapter 12. It’s a fun and exciting chapter and, if you’re all caught up with your reading, a gratifying one that will have you nodding in appreciation and saying to yourself, “So that’s where they were going with that!” and “Of course! I should have seen that coming!” and even “Wow, I wasn’t expecting that at all!” But that’s the thing. All those reactions depend on your having done the homework.
You don’t need to be a fan of the comic books to enjoy The Avengers, but I don’t see how anyone who hasn’t seen the other movies in the series will be able to follow this one or find a reason to care about many of the characters or the story. Whedon is used to playing to an audience that includes lots of people who missed last week’s episode, so maybe I missed all the ways he slipped in to help viewers just tuning in catch up. But it seems to me that if you haven’t seen Iron Man 2, you won’t know why Tony Stark is a problem for the other heroes and himself. If you haven’t seen Iron Man, Iron Man 2, and Thor you won’t know why Agent Coulson matters or appreciate Clark Gregg’s performance in the part. If you haven’t seen Thor, you may think Tom Hiddleston is a bad actor instead of a great one. If you haven’t seen Captain America you won’t know why Cap is so forlorn or appreciate the subtext in his and Stark’s instant dislike of each other. And if you haven’t seen The Incredible Hulk, you might not get Bruce Banner’s best joke.
Note: I’m not warning anybody away from The Avengers. I’m just saying if you’re thinking of going and really want to get the most of it, watch at least a couple of the other movies. They’re good and good for you.
I’m also saying that The Avengers isn’t a good movie in and of itself because it depends so much on those other movies. Which is not a bad thing, just something to keep in mind when you’re telling friends how AWESOME it is.
And it is AWESOME. With the above caveats.
Of course the star attractions are the stars, both the real life ones and the ones from the comic books they play. Robert Downey Jr, Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, and Mark Ruffalo, Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, and the Hulk.
Evans does what he had to do going in, hold his own against Downey and Hemsworth while playing a much duller character and then make that dullness as compelling as Stark's naughty boy charm and Thor's swashbuckling sex appeal. Evans doesn't have Cap fight for his authority - if anything he has him doubting it. Cap's sense of himself is tied to what he sees as his place in the world, but his world is seventy years in the past. When the time is right, he assumes it, without fuss but with confidence. Events conspire to re-create a need and therefore a place for Captain America and Cap steps right in and suddenly Iron Man, Thor, Hulk, and the entire New York City police force are gladly taking orders from him. Evans is a modest enough and secure enough actor to let the movie come to him.
If you haven't seen Thor, you might not feel as I did that Chris Hemsworth is underused. Whatever those of you who did see it might have thought of Thor the movie, I think you have to admit Hemsworth was terrific as Thor the god of thunder. He established himself as a star and swashbuckling leading man in the tradition of not just Douglas Fairbanks and Errol Flynn but Gene Kelly---how else would you describe Kelly's dancing style besides swashbuckling? What is his D'Artagnan doing while dueling if not dancing?---and Harrison Ford. In fact, if Steven Spielberg and George Lucas are truly intent on continuing with another Indiana Jones movie, they should consider doing a total reboot starring Hemsworth.
Thor's main job as part of the Avengers---and I mean the team as portrayed in the movie, not the whole movie itself---is to bring the mighty when the mighty's most needed. But the movie takes his mightiness as a given and his role in the story is to provide kindly approval of Cap, of Stark, and of human beings in general and show sympathetic disapproval of Loki. Tom Hiddleston's Loki isn't dismissible as another cackling movie super villain because Hemsworth's Thor doesn't see him that way.
I would have liked to have seen a little more of this side of Thor in scenes with Evans and Downey. I'm also disappointed that Whedon didn't put him together with either Cobie Smulders or Scarlett Johansson. It would have been fun watching him charm them nearly out of their catsuits. And a scene between Hemsworth, Downey, and Paltrow in which Pepper Potts swoons for Thor while Stark drives himself nuts trying not to show how jealous he is would have been a real hoot.
Can't have everything, and one thing The Avengers has that I didn't expect was Mark Ruffalo's brilliantly understated take on Bruce Banner and the Hulk.
The Incredible Hulk is the weakest in the series, but it’s still a pretty good superhero movie. I thought its major flaw was the coldness and detachment of Edward Norton’s Bruce Banner. Norton overemphasized Banner’s efforts to remain calm in order to keep himself from Hulking out. Ruffalo’s Banner isn’t calm. He’s ferociously, strenuously, and exhaustingly repressed. He’s in the habit of referring to the Hulk as “the other guy,” but Ruffalo says the words with an ironic sneer in his voice and a look of fear in his eyes that let us know Banner is terrified and, even more wrenching, growing resigned to the fact that it’s Banner who’s the other guy and that the Hulk is the real him and the moment is closing in when the Hulk will assert himself for good.
When he reveals his “secret” to Cap in one of the movie’s most rousing lines, it’s one of those satisfying “I knew it!” moments.
The breakout character, however, is Black Widow. Can't say Scarlett Johansson brings anything special to the role besides an impressive deadpanning of her dominatrix persona and the ability to wear her catsuit with insouciance. But Natasha Romanoff---as far as I recall, she's only referred to as Black Widow once and then by an enemy spymaster who's using the code name that's the only name he has for her---turns out to have a superpower.
She thinks faster than a speeding bullet.
Johansson doesn’t bring anything special to the part, but that’s not to say she brings nothing. Intense and concentrated intelligence blazes out of her eyes as hot and almost as visibly as Superman’s heat vision. She makes us realize that all Black Widow’s backflips, spin and scissor kicks, headbutts, karate chops, throat punches, and two-gun pistol shooting on the slide aren’t reflexive. They’re plotted. If The Avengers was a Guy Ritchie movie we’d see her in slow-motion set-ups, carefully assessing each opponent and planning her particular lines of attack. The bad guys aren’t being out-fought as much as out-thought. And this holds true when she’s not in a physical fight.
In mental duels, she out-thinks two of the smartest characters in the movie.
Still, I felt a little as though she was being forced into a leading role and forced at me. Black Widow is a sidekick---my son thinks “sidekick” is a disparagement of her awesomeness. I should say she’s a first lieutenant to the hero-kings---and there is no other female character of note. I'm not counting Gwyneth Paltrow's extended cameo. As SHIELD agent Maria Hill, Smulders seems to be only on hand to wear the catsuit in case Johansson decides not to sign up for The Avengers 2.
At first glance it might seem that as Nick Fury Samuel L. Jackson hasn't been given much more to do but glower and growl and wear his black leather trench coat with a coolness that will make you desperate to own one yourself even though you know in your heart you will never be anywhere near that cool. But as Stark warns, Fury is the spy's spy. He serves his country by lying and manipulation. Jackson makes us see the sinister side of Fury's nature. He's not just Mace Windu with an eye patch. He has more than a touch of Darth Sidious and Darth Vader to make you want to rethink that black trench coat. You never worry about which side of the Force he's on. You just wonder if there's anyone he doesn't think of as a tool or a weapon to be used.
Like I said, you don't have to be a fan of the comic books to enjoy the movie, but if you're not I can't see how you won't be thoroughly baffled by the apparently wasted presence of Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye (or even know he's called Hawkeye) for about two thirds the way through. Then he starts bringing the archery awesome and you'll be too busy thinking to yourself “I need to get a bow and arrow!” to care about his backstory.
But, getting down to it, I still see The Avengers as Robert Downey’s movie and the story being moved along as Iron Man’s story.
Of the big three, Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor, Iron Man is the unfinished character. Captain America just needed to get his chance and in his movie he got it. Thor has learned his most important lesson. But when last we left Tony Stark at the end of Iron Man 2, he was still not a hero. Iron Man and Tony Stark were separate entities and Nick Fury had decided he could go without the former if the former could only be had with the latter.
He’s still an open question and I’m not giving anything away by telling you that The Avengers leaves that question open.
Downey and Ruffalo have a couple of wonderful and funny scenes together in which Stark and Banner play dueling geniuses on their virtual drawing boards. Hemsworth’s not the only one of the stars who can dance, so to speak. In the exuberant physicality of what is essentially a comic song and dance act, Downey and Ruffalo reminded me of Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor or, maybe more aptly, Hugh Jackman and Neal Patrick Harris at last year’s Tony Awards. What we’re watching is a partnership and a rivalry.
Stark has been drawn to Banner in an openly admiring and affectionate way we’ve never seen him drawn to any other character including Pepper Potts---mostly we’ve seen him deliberately annoying people in order to push them away. In Banner he finds a potential soulmate capable of playing with him on his level, someone who shares his passion for science and can keep up.
But as they work together to solve a problem, Stark can’t resist turning it into a competition.
At first it seems as though he’s only trying to distract Banner by teasing him and peppering him with one-liners. But then what he’s doing becomes more sinister and dangerous. He’s trying to provoke him. If Banner has to concentrate on keeping his cool, he won’t be able to focus on the problem. But it gets worse.
He wants to see Banner Hulk out.
It’s the pure scientist in him getting the better of him. He can’t help seeing another human being as a potential science experiment.
Which is insane. Never mind for the moment that the fate of the earth is at stake. Trapping himself in a small room with the Hulk when he’s not wearing his armor is a really, really, really bad idea.
But that’s Stark. He’s rash. He’s impulsive. He’s reckless. He’s thoughtless. He’s immature. And he’s selfish.
And this is why I say that the whole series (so far) has been basically The Romance of Tony Stark and that’s likely going to be a main theme as the series moves forward.
Whatever the ostensible plots and whoever the villains, Thor 2 is going to be about Thor being awesome while searching for his lost love and Captain America 2 will be about Steve Rogers trying to find a place for himself in the 21st century besides being Captain America. But Iron Man 3 will be about whether or not Stark’s going to screw up again and how and how bad and how much of the result of that will carry over into The Avengers 2.
To get back to the Knights of the Round Table analogy, the one way Stark is most like Lancelot is that in both their romances everything depends on how the hero responds to his chief temptation which for Lancelot and Tony Stark is the temptation to put self before duty. For Lancelot that temptation comes in the form of his love for Guinevere. For Stark it's straightforwardly his ego.
Every tale of Lancelot foreshadows Lancelot’s ultimate failure and the breaking of the Round Table and the destruction of Camelot. Every one of Iron Man’s adventures (so far) foreshadows Stark’s potential failure to be the hero he and the world need him to be.
Again, I don’t think I’m giving anything away by telling you that in The Avengers we learn that if he has to Stark can overcome the temptation and be Iron Man and not just Iron Man's pilot, a billionaire, genius, playboy, philanthropist in a metal suit. It doesn't tell us that he is past temptation.
It’s a hilarious moment and a key one when Stark recognizes similarities between himself and Loki. But we’re left to wonder what he’s going to do with this newfound self-awareness.
The romance is unfinished. The comedy or the tragedy is still to be played out. The story continues.
Important note to moviegoers: Stay through the credits. All the credits. Sit tight in your seat until you think the lights are about to come on.
Readers beware: I’ve been trying not to give too much away in the posts, but I’m not enforcing a no spoiler zone in the comments. The discussion down there is wide-open so don’t venture in unless you’ve seen the movie or don’t mind. On the other hand, if you’re commenting, try to keep in mind that some people might wander in on the conversation by mistake. Be as indirect and circumspect as you can. And for gods’ sake, whatever you do, don’t give away the final scene!
If you don’t have time to watch the other movies in the series first, maybe you’ll find this post of mine comparing the Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America movies helpful.
If you do have time to do some catching up, Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor, and Captain America: The First Avengerare available to watch instantly at Amazon. Iron Man 2 is also streaming on Netflix.
The Avengers, written and directed by Josh Whedon, starring Robert Downey Jr, Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Tom Hiddleston, Clark Gregg, Stellan Skarsgard, Cobie Smulders, and Samuel L. Jackson, now available on DVD and to watch instantly from Amazon.