Chris Evans stars as Steve Rogers / Captain America in Walt Disney Pictures' The Avengers

By William Frasca.

It’s no surprise that Marvel’s Avengers would be a success, but after its opening weekend in the US taking in over $200 million, and shattering the top box office record of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, the new question is what can these superhero films not do!  Superhero franchises have been box office guarantees because of their firm roots in American pop culture. Their appeal to baby-boomers and all generations since makes it accessible to a mass market that can drive people into theater seats. The success of the Avengers came from a risky and expensive strategy of building “buzz” by making franchises for each superhero, and then connecting them by alluding to the inevitable Avengers film. Comic book fans know that the Avengers series is the ultimate superhero story, because it assembles the most popular superheroes that fight together as a team.

Everyone knows that six superheroes are better than one, but there needed some time to set up exposition for the origins of Ironman, Captain America, and Thor. These films were essential to set up the main plot devices of the super cube called the Tesseract that has infinite energy and can open portals between universes, the SHEILD agency who is in possession of it, and Loki, the super villain from Thor’s universe who wants to use the power to enslave the earth.

Scarlett Johansson stars as Natasha Romanoff in Walt Disney Pictures' The Avengers

The film starts with the reintroduction of these devices at the SHEILD libratory, but the film treats the audience as if they have seen these other Marvel films prior to viewing this film, so it does not go into detail about the plot devices, but only provides context by the characters. With so many stars and superheroes to feature in this film, Joss Whedon did an incredible job sharing their screen time so that the action did not overshadow the witty or dramatic dialogue that gave these characters a new level of depth. By putting the heroes all together, the audience is able to see how their personalities can be so diverse from each other. Their egotistical banter also reveals personal storylines that pay off by the end of the film’s final fight scene.

The two characters that you would think would be overshadowed the most, SHEILD agents Black Widow and Hawkeye, are surprisingly featured consistently throughout. I thought it was a fascinating approach to introduce the newest hero, Hawkeye, to audiences by turning him into a villain under the control of Loki. This was smart because instead of going through another longwinded story of explaining Hawkeye’s powers and how he came to be in SHIELD, he immediately becomes a foe and develops his character arc as we see him transform back to the good side. Black Widow on the other hand is the main female presence in the film, and Scarlett Johansson’s sexuality and intelligence are what makes her a real asset to the team of masculine superheroes. Whedon was able to make Black Widow a sympathetic character who wants to “clear the red in the ledger,” by using her assassin spy skills to fight for SHIELD. We get to know that she was once a Russian spy and that Hawkeye spared her life so she is devoted to repaying the debt. Black Widow’s star entrance is also very funny and exciting, as she sits tied up to a chair being interrogated by Russian thugs. While on the phone with her SHIELD boss who orders her to stop what she is doing and return to headquarters, she dismisses the threatening situation and begins to fight off the thugs in a chair. Black Widow’s best skill, manipulation, is discovered in the scene where she is talking to the imprisoned Loki. She comes to him begging to let Hawkeye free from his control, and when Loki tries to crush her spirits by threatening to destroy her friends, he slips up and exposes his plan to unleash the “monster” who is the Hulk. Black Widow goes from sobbing over her friend to a cheery bright-eyed girl who just outsmarted the super villain. This is just one example of how comic relief was used to balance out this intense scene and develop the character because it starts out like a scene from Silence of the Lambs but it ends with a huge laugh.

Jeremy Renner stars as Clint Barton / Hawkeye in Walt Disney Pictures' The Avengers

Mark Ruffalo’s character as Bruce Banner was reserved and underplayed for the big moment when he does turn into the Hulk. Mark Ruffalo is great at playing insightful men with a nervous edge, and in this film he is able to redefine the Bruce Banner character, which has been recast now for the third time, and give him a sensitive but slightly disturbed side that is a major foil compared to the ultra egos of Ironman, Thor, and Captain America.  He even mentions an attempted suicide that killed the person behind him when the bullet did not affect him. Ruffalo is able to bring the dark side of Bruce Banner in the forefront and when he does finally turn into the Hulk, it is a deeply terrifying moment to everyone onboard the SHIELD battleship plane.  One of the greatest moments is when Bruce finally shows up to the finale battle on a small motorcycle, amidst the destruction and chaos of the city. He then discloses his secret about controlling the Hulk, telling them that he is “always angry,” and as the flying whale space monster heads right for them, he instantaneously transforms into the Hulk and slams his fist into the monster’s head.  Again Joss Whedon is able to balance suspense and drama with a moment of comic relief giving the audience a sense of satisfaction and pleasure.

One of the things that I liked most about the Avengers team is that they know that only they can defeat Loki, but their instincts tell them that SHIELD is hiding something from them. Tony Stark is able to hack SHIELD‘s computer system while Captain America searches and finds the Red Skull’s guns that use the power of the Tesseract cube. When they confront Nick Fury about SHIELD’s development of secret weapons that use the Tesseract’s power, they find out that because of Thor’s alien universe, SHIELD was forced to make a doomsday A-bomb. SHIELD’s doomsday bomb controlled by a shadow government council has now emerged as a new threat that is just as dangerous as Loki and his army. Samuel Jackson’s most heroic moment of the film is when he tells the SHIELD shadow government that their order to exercise “Plan B” is a stupid idea and that he is going to override their command to drop a nuke on Manhattan. And when a rogue jet tries to leave, he gets a rocket launcher and shoots it down. It restores confidence in the viewer that the Avengers team is “good” and has the best intentions, despite the difference of opinion about how to use the Tesseract cube’s energy.

Ironman, Thor and Captain America are by far the most popular and recognizable of the team since they all had their own feature films that set them up for joining the Avengers. What is great about the film is watching them compete at everything from who is the most normal, to who is the strongest, to who is the best leader.  When Thor takes Loki from the plane after SHEILD just captured him, Ironman and Captain America go after Thor and they have an awesome fight sequence. I think that this is important to developing the characters of the superheroes because it lets the audience and the characters know where their limits are compared to each other. For example, Thor’s hammer allows him to harness electricity from lightening, but when used against Ironman it gives him more energy. Also Captain America’s shield is indestructible and is able to deflect the power of Thor’s hammer. The same kind of delight is displayed when Thor and the Hulk duke it out on the plan, and when Hulk throws a cheap shot at Thor during the final battle sequence, even though they are fighting together on the same side. Their fight is fun to watch for fans because these battles existed in comics and had spinoffs where the issue would be about these kinds of “good vs. good” superhero clashes.

Robert Downey Jr. stars as Tony Stark in Walt Disney Pictures' The Avengers

While Thor and Captain America try to adjust to a modern Earth, Ironman’s personal conflict comes from his self-centeredness that Captain America points out to him. Captain America tells him that he doesn’t have the guts to sacrifice himself for others, like he and other soldiers did in World War II.  Their leadership styles differ greatly and it is not until the death of SHIELD agent Phil Coulson at the hands of Loki, that this group of misfit superheroes is able to join forces to avenge his death.  Robert Downey, Jr.’s star persona is continued in Avengers from the successful Ironman franchise, and his witty remarks steal the scene from any character that goes up against him. A great scene is when he offers Loki a liquor drink and keeps reminding him that he is “threatening” him and not going to give up the fight. It is a great moment because Downey’s suave confident persona comes out as he takes off his armor and pours himself a drink from the bar. It shows that despite the high risk of being in the room with Loki, he is so confident that the Avengers will triumph, that he is willing to expose himself to the villain. This high stakes scene provides for a thrilling moment when Tony Stark is thrown from the window of the skyscraper and his armor flies out and suits him up mid fall. The other exhilarating moment for Ironman is when he put his life on the line by grabbing the SHIELD doomsday missile and then flying up into the portal that Loki opened to unleash his alien army, so that it will not explode on Earth, thus destroying his friends and all of Manhattan. Luckily for him he is able to get back through the portal in just enough time, and the Hulk rescues him from his unconscious free fall. When they lay him down and open his mask to see if he is alive, it seems that he had given his life to save them. Then the Hulk roars and awakens Downey as he spits out another hilarious line of “No one kissed me did they?” which resulted in a huge laugh. Joss Whedon knows that the best humor comes from the darkest moments, so his combination of suspense and action is usually followed by some sort of comic relief. He knows that the Marvel universe can be more cartoonish and impractical with the physics, compared to other superhero films that strive for a realistic gritty feeling like the recent Dark Knight Batman films. Its reality comes from the personality, behavior, and the dialogue of the characters; not the action and technology.

Samuel L. Jackson stars as Nick Fury in Walt Disney Pictures' The Avengers

The Avengers film is a fun, star-studded, action-packed, comical, blockbuster hit that the whole family can enjoy. Disney has recently acquired Marvel for $4 billion in 2009 and it was a smart gamble. The Avengers has already in its opening week made close to $700 million and that is rising worldwide. Hollywood blockbuster films have continued to develop over the years to target audiences to increase their bottom lines. In recent years some would say the key to a successful movie franchise would be to make sequels to adaptations from popular young adult novels, like Lord of the Rings, Twilight, Harry Potter, Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Hunger Games; but now that the Avengers has smashed those films’ box office records, a new strategy has emerged that is going to pay off for Disney. The strategy now is to build up anticipation for a mega-blockbuster film like the Avengers, by investing in a few sub- franchises that tie directly into it. Now we can expect big audiences and box office results from Ironman 3, Captain America 2, and Thor 2 that are expected to be produced in the next few years. So the success of those superhero franchises will lead up to the next great mega-blockbuster film, Avengers 2!

William Frasca is a Film International ‘In the Field’ writer.

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