So, holy shit. The Avengers is the best superhero movie ever. As my friend Victor said as we walked out of the movie (my third viewing of four so far – still gotta see it in IMAX), "Whatever the debate was before, this crushed it. It was just so epic." Of course, this doesn't diminish The Dark Knight in any way – as another friend said, it's apples and oranges to compare the two, while others claim The Avengers is the "anti-Dark Knight" as a positive. The two films, taken together, show the world two parts of the wide spectrum of possibilities that comic books are capable of (and adding Scott Pilgrim vs. The World into that mix broadens it so much further), and they do so not by putting nipples and rubber ears on costumes, but by honoring the sensibilities of the actual source material without being slavishly devoted to it.
The Avengers certainly took some liberties with the established canonical history of Earth's Mightiest Heroes, but it was never wholesale change for the sake of change. Part of it was having to incorporate the characters as they were portrayed in each of their individual movies – also changed, but not inorganically so – and part of it was because there hasn't been an Ant-Man or Wasp movie yet, as much as we were all hoping Joss Whedon might sneak in a Nathan Fillion cameo as Hank Pym. However, Loki is still the villain that brings them all together, Nick Fury is still a manipulative spy with a heart of tarnished gold, and Whedon had enough cred in both the comics and live-action worlds to know when to go balls-out and when to show restraint. The alien-invasion has been done so often in comics that it's become rote, but Whedon made it come alive in a vibrant and intense new way on screen – and he knew damn well to make sure the dialog was the strongest part of the movie, because it's extremely rare that a comic is anything without its word balloons.
So let's take a look at five big comic book beats that The Avengers got right in its film translation.
In case you need the warning – HERE THERE BE SPOYLERS.
THE SHIELD HELICARRIER IS BREATHTAKINGLY COOL AND IS ALWAYS IN DANGER OF CRASHING.
It's a fantastic visual and a cool idea that has been a staple of Marvel Comics for decades – the fact that the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement & Logistics Division is so badass that it has an aircraft carrier that can fly. It's a mobile fortress in the clouds,and it allows them to get places like Stuttgart, Germany, relatively quickly so Captain America can try to make sure Loki doesn't cut anyone else's eyeballs out (and seemingly get off on doing it). It's a breathtakingly stunning piece of equipment as conceived by Jack "King" Kirby back in 1965, and it's always the Supreme Headquarters for the global peacekeeping force of soldiers and spies. Whedon gave it the right amount of respect as a marvel of modern science by having Steve Rogers fork over a ten-spot to Nick Fury as validation.
And for almost as long as it's been around, the logical notion that follows is "damn, that thing would crash big." And comics is nothing if not a celebration of big ideas – even big, destructive ones like that. Villains often find a way to severely damage the Helicarrier and threaten to bring it down, but Whedon managed an amazing feat by making engine repair a highly-charged action sequence. Sure, it helps that it was woven into a high-octane tapestry including a mini-horror movie between the Hulk and Black Widow, then the Hulk/Thor fight, then the Hawkeye/Widow fight and lots of gunplay, but Iron Man and Captain America scrambling to figure out how to fix a massive turbine in mid-flight while in constant danger of being ground up into spare parts or getting sucked out into the open sky was pulse-pounding excitement. And yes, it does appear to run on some form of electricity.
WHEN HEROES FIRST MEET, THEY ALWAYS FIGHT EACH OTHER OVER A MISUNDERSTANDING.
Thor meets Iron Man and has no idea who the armored man is, but considering he's just impulsively thrown a hammer at the guy and stolen his prisoner, there's going to be a fight even though they're both on the same side. That kind of thing happens all the time in comics – so much so that it's begun to feel contrived, much in the way the Justice League of the New 52 does. Comic fans tend to love their superhero slap fights, though – hence the popularity of Civil War and the current punch-fest Avengers vs. X-Men, and trumpeting "Thor vs. Iron Man vs. Captain America" on the cover was a tried and true trick for garnering reader interest.
Incidentally, how do they make a Justice League movie now? The go-to plot for any 'superheroes unite' story is always an alien invasion – again, the New 52 just did that as the new definitive origin, and now if they translate that to film, they'll be seen as ripping off The Avengers. Guess they'll have to go Legion of Doom.
Anyway, the fight between Iron Man and Thor is pretty cool, and it doesn't feel contrived in the least. Thor is only there for Loki and he doesn't care about anything else, because when Thor gets mad, he tends to get single-minded. Iron Man doesn't like it when people take his stuff (see Armor Wars) which is kind of an interesting counterpoint to his not liking being handed stuff, either – seems he doesn't like taking anyone else's stuff, either. Then, of course, Captain America enters the fray to cool tensions and let Thor blow off the rest of his steam by slamming that hammer onto the shield, allowing for reason to take hold at last. Because Cap is good at that.
EVEN WHEN THEY ARE DONE FIGHTING, THE HEROES STILL BICKER WITH EACH OTHER ALL THE TIME.
While this clip is only one quip from Tony Stark, the entire scene that barb is taken from is a complete nerd-boner moment for most longtime comic fans, as it focuses entirely on character clashes that run deeper than the 'oops' fistfights that usually accompany first meetings. Here, they all know they're on the same side, but they STILL have conflicts and points of view that don't mesh well. "Excuse me, Fury, what were you lying?" "I know guys with none of that worth ten of you." "Captain America is on the potential threat watch list?" "You people are so petty… and tiny." "Remind me again how you built your fortune, Stark."
In comics, half the fun of superhero team-ups are character clashes, be it minor things like everyone being annoyed that Spider-Man won't shut up with his wisecracks or major things like whether or not everybody with a superpower should register with the government. It gets harder and harder to make things things not feel forced in comics these days, since characters have these long-standing relationships of respect and friendship, and thus wouldn't believably resort to massive warfare if it wasn't for sales purposes. However, in the first movie of its kind, it's a hell of a lot of fun to watch the sparks fly, and it never for a moment feels shoehorned in. This is how a rebellious genius playboy billionaire inventor would respond to being brought into this paramilitary outfit run by a cryptic spymaster, and how a career super soldier would respond to having a self-obsessed, disrespectful, seditious wild card threatening to undermine the squad's effectiveness.
These are the real characters at their core – even if Robert Downey Jr. made Tony Stark his own and not exactly the guy from the comics (and incidentally leaving Hawkeye in the lurch a bit, taking the archer's anti-authoritarian snark from him), we love what he's done with Iron Man so much that the comics can recognize that and try to work with it. With Movie Iron Man, that can work. With Movie Nick Fury, it's a bit trickier.
WHEN THE CHIPS ARE DOWN, CAPTAIN AMERICA WILL KNOW WHAT TO DO.
The main thing they had to include in The Avengers to do justice to Captain America was a scene in which he assumed command of the team, and they all respectfully deferred to his plan of action in a way that had to feel earned. Steve Rogers is the guy without the amazing super powers. He's "peak human" at every physical challenge, but he can't fly, he can't shoot lightning, and he needs a special shield to wade into the thick of things. However, he's such a natural leader and a legend in the Marvel Universe that all these powerhouses and geniuses still look to him for guidance, inspiration and tactics. He's the go-to guy in comics, but he's not there yet as this movie starts.
For most of the film, he seems to be out of his element, in a world of references he doesn't get, technology that's way beyond him, and surrounded by volatile personalities, some of whom openly disrespect him. Yet, he takes on Loki alone, he listens to people's opinions even though they annoy him, once on the scent, he sniffs out the truth of Fury's deceptions at the same speed as Stark's bug does, and he knows when to be a hardass to cut through the bullshit right to the core of a guy and when to put it all aside to get the job done. He pulls off incredible acrobatics (and badass grenade-swatting) in a supporting role to Tony Stark's technical genius – proving he's got no NEED to be in control all the time and knows when it's smart to defer – and yet he even manages to whither Stark with a look after he desperately blurts "we're not soldiers!" Because Steve Rogers IS and he's proud of it.
So, by the time the shit hits the fan and they have to hit the ground running in the face of massive alien chaos, even genius billionaire playboy philanthropist Tony Stark touches down long enough to ask Cap what the plan is… and even in the midst of being overwhelmed by odds he never could've imagined possible before doing time as a Capsicle, Steve Rogers has a plan. And it's a damn good plan, making great use of everybody's unique talents – Hawkeye on a rooftop calling out patterns and strays, Iron Man sweeping around to try and establish a perimeter to keep the Chitauri hordes from spreading, Thor using crazy lightning powers to bottleneck the portal, himself and Black Widow fighting in the thick of it to keep attention focused on them and away from civilians as much as possible and, of course, "Hulk! Smash!"
The movie lets him earn it and illustrate how good he is with it after he's earned it – and in case you missed all that, when the cops question his authority, he gets to prove it one more time in impressive fashion. That's Captain America.
HULK IS THE LIVING EMBODIMENT OF "FUCK YOU."
The third time is the charm for the Hulk on the big screen.
Ang Lee's Hulk was poorly received thanks to a snail's pace, gamma poodles and the Absorbing Dad, even though it did a very interesting job of getting into Bruce Banner's tragic childhood and repression issues and had awesome Sam Elliott as Thunderbolt Ross. Louis Leterrier's Incredible Hulk had more excitement, Edward Norton really looking the Banner part and more for Betty Ross to do, but didn't galvanize fandom either since the CG ending didn't feel well-rendered enough to not make them look like two green jelly monsters fighting, not to mention trading down severely in the Thunderbolt department. The Avengers, however, finally gave us a Hulk that showcases the crucial aspect of him – he's not just an explosion of anger, he's also an explosion of fuck you.
A little Hulk history for the uninitiated – when he first came into being, his skin was gray, he transformed by the light of the moon and he talked like more of a surly thug than a monster. Over time, he turned green and started being an outright manifestation of childlike anger, speaking without articles in the third person along the lines of "Hulk smash puny humans!" Decades later, the gray version of the Hulk was reintroduced as a separate aspect of Bruce Banner's personality as a Freudian triumverate. The 'smash' Hulk was the id unleashed, while Bruce was the moral and critical super-ego, leaving the gray guy as the pragmatic realist ego – and a nasty, cunning one at that. Not as strong as the green Hulk, not as smart as Bruce, but streetwise and absolutely spiteful. That led to some problems and struggles between the three aspects of his mind that tended to make messes, until he was merged through psychotherapy and become a smart, powerful and rebellious green Hulk without a fractured psyche for quite some time. It's devolved a bit since then, and there are still times when Bruce and the Hulk consider themselves separate people and kind of hate each other, but it's not always a 'must… control… anger!' situation anymore. Bruce often shifts to the Hulk and back nearly at will – and we saw that for the first time in this movie.
This film allows us to move past the old '70's series interpretation and into a more complex Hulk dynamic, but it's also the first one to really capture the truly spiteful aspect of that gray Hulk attitude. Why attack Natasha? She's the one who pulled him back into this mess, so it's all her fault – and that mini-horror movie really sold how scary the monster can be, as that moment where she was almost crushed by the beast is the ONLY thing that really rattled her even though she won a verbal sparring match with a god. Thor attacks him and tries to 'talk sense' to him, but the Hulk is so anti-everyone that even if he wants to do what you tell him, he won't because you told him to, and so 'fuck you.' The pilot in the jet starts shooting at him, so he defies logic and LEAPS OUT at the jet and starts tearing it apart, regardless of how little sense it makes to destroy the thing that's keeping you airborne, because fuck you. The pilot tries to eject, and the Hulk catches the seat before it can escape just to SPIKE the guy, because fuck you. He teams up with Thor long enough to bring down a flying space lizard-fish, but then cheap-shot decks him afterwards because fuck you. And in the ultimate expression of that spite, he rudely interrupts Loki's villain monologue to smash him around like a goddamned rag doll because FUCK YOU.
It's absolutely hilarious and cathartic and so exactly Hulk. It might be hard to capture this magic in his own movie when he's not just a fun supporting character, but it can and hopefully will be done.
In the meantime, we've got The Avengers movie to cherish and re-watch a million times before it leaves theaters. For pete's sake, even the 3D is stellar.
What a good goddamned movie. Enjoy it, my fellow nerds. We've reached the promised land.