I have to be careful not to overstate things. Just like everyone else, in the summer of 2012, I was hooked by The Avengers. Prior to this, I was not all that attuned to the MCU, so this movie came at me like a sucker punch. Over time, my ability to be objective faded as my watch count and resulting emotional attachment grew. This is a movie that I really love. And it takes a real effort to parse out its technical merits from my emotional attachments. So let’s see if, after more viewings than I can count, I can find some fresh eyes here.
The Avengers is a victory lap of a movie. The 5 previous entries in the MCU did the heavy lifting of establishing the characters while making sure not to deviate from their shared reality. There is practically no character development in this movie; each of our heroes become slightly exaggerated as their complexities are hidden behind their more prominent traits in order to make sure there is enough room for everyone. This normalizes the characters with each other so we can actually believe they could all inhabit the same world, and also takes the opportunity to correct some past missteps like the design of the Hulk. The personalities of the characters has been smoothed out, making them bright and shiny to match the visual aesthetic and general tone the movie is going for. It signals to the audience that it’s time to relax and let ourselves be taken for a ride.
It’s this movie that really establishes Loki as the high water mark of Marvel Villains. When we saw him in Thor, he was more mischievous, less reckless, and had smaller goals. He shows up here with a crazed nervousness reminiscent of Mel Gibson from Lethal Weapon: a man with nothing left to lose. Loki’s trip through the black hole at the end of Thor has imparted him a sweaty instability and dark circles under his eyes as deep as his destructive ambitions. He means to conquer Earth and is willing to kill as many people as he needs to, as he tricks and connives his way through most of this movie, playing heroes against each other and sowing perpetual confusion. Despite this, Thor still loves his brother and wants to rescue him from his foolhardy plan, not to mention the danger from Loki’s many new enemies. Captain America and Iron Man are among those new enemies, each one fighting to stop Loki and keep the world safe, but each on their own terms exclusively. This conflict begins to establish these two as the twin pillars of the Marvel Universe, cooperating but idealistically opposed. This movie throws all the heroes at each other and let’s us bask in the ensuing chaos. This is the grand spectacle every superhero obsessed kid has been waiting for, from the way they give each hero their own iconographic moment, to the surprising way their powers interact when they clash.
Each aspect of this movie seems carefully composed to serve a grand purpose. The tone is established clearly with plenty of character and plot driven humor keeping things light and our heroes consistent. The plot is populated almost entirely with exciting set pieces, each of them intricately crafted to accomplish multiple narrative goals and steadily build excitement before gently pulling it back before the next set piece, and in the process formulating the promise of a tremendous finale. I wager that if that promise was unfulfilled, the audience’s disappointment would have kept this movie from being enshrined as the cultural touchstone it’s become. The movie is so controlled in this build we don’t even notice the finale has started until we are already in the middle of it, and it’s here where the grand purpose of this movie is revealed. We have been hypnotized into turning off our intellectual cynicism so the movie can tap directly into our emotions. Grown-ass adults are transformed into children full of wonder and imagination as we watch these superpowered beings fight together against swarms of alien soldiers intent on destroying New York City. Moments of redundancy in the brawl do not feel self indulgent, but instead expand the scale of the battle and indulge the audience in the sweet brain candy we long for. Even the score was leveraged for this purpose, holding back its biggest fanfare for one of cinema’s most iconic moments.
I have to be careful not to overstate things. When the structure of this movie is examined and the underlying mechanism becomes apparent, it actually becomes more impressive. The humor, action, and zeal of this movie all combine to gently overwhelm the audience into submitting to its awesomeness. It’s possible that this movie was just perfectly tuned to my sensibilities. But it’s more likely that this is a feat of blockbuster filmmaking that has not been seen before or since. The movie is so popular that even contrarian attempts to dislike it fall on their face for the transparent grasps at superiority that they are. The previous entries in the series have all been enjoyable, save for The Incredible Hulk, but their biggest accomplishment is setting the stage for this. The Avengers is a crystalline perfection of a blockbuster movie. A masterpiece of entertainment. 5/5
Coming up next: Iron Man 3 (2013)