After watching Cabin in the Woods, someone on tumblr commented “if this is what happens when we give Joss Whedon money, then we need to give him all the money.”
Random person on tumblr: I see your Cabin in the Woods and I raise you The Avengers. Because that was one of the most flawless superhero movies I’ve ever seen.
Several weeks ago a friend asked me which I was looking forward to more: The Avengers or The Dark Knight Rises. I told him that I was looking forward to both for very different reasons, because (despite both being superhero movies) they’re very different films. Dark Knight Rises is the gritty conclusion to the Batman film reboot and The Avengers is a fun-but-serious, campy installation in a series of canonically linked films. And while I love me some gritty films (Hard Candy and The Town were both on my list of ten movies that define my character, after all), I have started to prefer the campy remakes over the gritty, for one very simple reason:
Comics are ridiculous.
Think about it. Look at the costumes, the code names, the villains. I love comics (though it should be said: not as much as my friend Caro), but they’re silly. And while Nolan’s Batman trilogy wants us to look at everything with a serious eye and quake with terror (something he does very well: have you SEEN Bane?), The Avengers (and, in fact, most of the Avenger-character films that preceded it) does everything with a wink and a nod. It asks us to laugh, because it’s funny. It acknowledges the ridiculousness of the characters. And then three seconds later it reminds us that just because it’s a funny superhero film doesn’t mean it can’t be heart-wrenching. It is, after all, written and directed by Joss Whedon, who is second only to George R. R. Martin in his skills at ripping out your still-beating heart and shredding it in a wood-chipper. And that is all I’m going to say about that because trust me: that is one plot point I will refuse to spoil.
Aside from the tone, the genius nature of The Avengers is that it’s not a stand-alone movie. It’s not even the conclusion to a series. It’s the second act. The characters (especially Ironman, Thor, Captain America and the Hulk) don’t even get along until halfway through the movie. Instead they’re consumed with in-fighting and distrust: for each other, for Nick Fury, and for S.H.E.I.L.D. They’re super-human humans–relatable in their anger and their doubt and their shame. Unlike Superman (who is by far my least favorite superhero of all time), they’re not perfect–far from it. And when they finally get their heads out of their asses and stop trying to beat each other up, they don’t actually fight as a cohesive unit (hell, they aren’t even officially formed as “The Avengers”) until act three.
In a (quote-un-quote) normal movie, that would be bad pacing, but The Avengers isn’t a normal movie: it’s part of an epically connected franchise that subscribes to a single, sustainable canon. Which brings me to my next point: it has a single, sustainable canon. My number one issue with comic books is that there’s very little canon. Not in the books, not in the films. When a new director is introduced (like in the Batman film franchise), the entire story is often re-written. Nolan’s Batman trilogy rebooted the entire franchise. Are they masterful films? Yes. Do they ascribe to the canon that people expect from Batman? Not always. And it’s not just DC: the new Spider-Man film, to be released this summer, was produced by the same production company that produced the Tobey Maguire trilogy… but it has a new actor, a new origin story, a new catalyst.
What The Avengers did was unheard of. With the exception of the 2003 Hulk film, every film preceding Avengers is connected, in some way, to the other. The common thread is often Agent Coulson, who works for SHEILD and pops up in every movie (except the 2008 Hulk). My favorite Coulson moment is in Iron Man 2, when he tells Tony Stark that he’s been reassigned… to New Mexico. He doesn’t say “a Norse demi-god and his crazy-ass brother are wrecking havoc in the desert,” because Iron Man 2 was released in 2010 and Thor in 2011. It was more than an Easter Egg–it was a purposeful connection to the next film in the saga.
And the saga isn’t over. The Avengers, as a film, is simply the next step (the second act, as I said before). Caro described it as all the characters “stepping away from their lives to save the world” and when it’s over they went their separate ways. Iron Man 3 and Thor 2 are already in pre-production, Captain America 2 has been announced and Marvel is cautiously exploring the idea of Hulk 2 (even though he’s been an unsuccessful solo character in the past). Maybe there will even be an Avengers 2 someday.
My point is: never, in the history of film (let alone in the history of superhero films), has there been such a cohesive, critically acclaimed, commercially successful, ridiculously awesome series of films. It’s proof that not all adaptations are bad, that superheroes don’t need to be gritty, that just because a film makes us laugh doesn’t mean it can’t make us cry. In short: Joss Whedon and Marvel have raised the bar on superhero films as an entire genre–gritty or campy, funny or serious. All I can say is, I’m sorry Dark Knight Rises, but Avengers is gonna be a hard act to follow.