(A few spoilers, so don’t say I didn’t warn you.)
A few hours ago, a friend asked me what I thought of The Avengers. I said it was an awesome movie, a statement which he challenged by asking whether it was better than The Dark Knight, an admittedly good comic hero movie if there was one. I answered him with a line that surprised even me after I read what I wrote:
“This one’s multiplicity of meaning is a bit more subtle and fan-oriented.”
I wondered if I was obliged to elaborate on the statement, but my friend simply answered with an “I see”, which either meant that he understood me perfectly, or that he wanted to brush off my being an intellectual asshat when doing any communication in written form.
I began thinking about what I blurted out as well. One of the things I like about the recent crop of comic hero movies is that they go deeper than simply trying to recreate the outdated cliches which are the origin stories of these characters. I mean, one can only take so much gamma radiation (back when nuclear threats were scary), Nazi-pummeling soldiers (back when Nazis were scary) and converted KGB operatives (back when the Russians were scary) before they start talking about alien invasions. (OH WAIT… WHEE CHITAURI!)
Rather than stay at that superficiality, these recent films try to communicate to non-comic readers the intricate psyches of their heroes. These sometimes take several comic arcs worth of material to establish, which makes the fact that they can be compressed in around three hours nothing less than miraculous. These heroes fit their archetype, but the fun is at seeing how their psychology influences their choice of quests: Steve Rogers is the idealist who will die before giving up what he believes in, making his character a symbol on so many different levels. Tony Stark hides his heart behind his superior intelligence and his financial and social nonchalance, not to mention behind a suit of armor, the brainchild of his, well, brain. Thor is a god who, as is the trend in recent literature, is fascinated by humanity, which gives him a very human sympathy himself. The Hulk is a radioactive Hyde hidden inside Bruce Banner’s Jekyll who has found the key to his transformation, which turns out to be one of the most primal emotions known to man. Clint Barton and Natasha Romanov are former killers who trust each other because they both know the feeling of having blood on their hands. Nick Fury is a good man at heart, but paranoid to the very core, and for good reason. It is the interplay of these individuals, whose flaws are shown in so many ways (not to mention so many prior movies), that makes The Avengers nothing less than entertaining.
It doesn’t stop there; in fact, it gets deeper (and geekier). The actual interplay of these personalities is aggravated by the scheme of Loki, who happens to actually be the Norse god of mischief, cunningly manipulating the situations into a chaotic environment and preying on Banner’s weakness to stress: Rogers’ semi-naive idealism against Stark’s semi-arrogant nonchalance, god against green monster. (“Retconned”) Agent Phil Coulson, the person tasked to speak with each of the Avengers individually in their past movies, is eventually the device that literally brings them all together.
Then there are the even more geeky footnotes, the ones that will resonate most with comic fans and geeks in general: only the “A” being left in the “STARK” letters displayed outside the tower, the Helicarrier, Maria Hill always walking around and shouting at people, Fury’s rebellious streak towards his superiors, Captain America trading cards, Loki’s Kage-Bunshin no Jutsu (sorry, “illusions” was a bit bland), Cap throwing his shield like a boomerang, and so on.
And, of course, there will forever be Cap’s order of: “Hulk, smash.”
It goes all the way into the final line, where one of the Chitauri say that to war against Earth “would be to court Death”. And who responds to the line with a wide grin? Why, it’s Thanos the Mad Titan, who, if you’ve read up, is literally in love with Lady Death herself (“courting Death”? Get it?).
An epic, multi-layered, poetic ending to an epic geekiness of a movie, if you ask me.