The secret to The Avengers' success? It's all in the geek appeal
OK, it’s official: After scoring more than $700 million in worldwide grosses during the first 13 days of its global release, The Avengers — which under no circumstances should be confused with a 1998 disaster of the same title — is nothing short of a genuine phenomenon, the sort of record-setting, crowd-stampeding megahit that raises the bar and elevates expectations for any picture aspiring to the status of summer blockbuster.
It has, to paraphrase P.J. O’Rourke, grabbed more money than you can shake a stick at — plus the stick. And it seems unlikely that any other movie on the near horizon (and yes, I’m fully aware The Dark Knight Rises is coming soon to a theater or drive-in near me) will wring so much cash so quickly from so many customers.
The question remains for those who have so far remained immune to the ubiquitous advertising, rave reviewing and abundant Tweeting: Is the movie really worth the price of a first-run admission ticket?
And yet, the question remains for those who have so far remained immune to the ubiquitous advertising, rave reviewing and abundant Tweeting: Is the movie really worth the price of a first-run admission ticket?
To which I would reply: Hell, yes.
In the interest of full disclosure, I should note that this is the response of someone with fond memories of purchasing the very first issue of the Avengers comic book back in the day — but who stopped buying comics on a regular basis before Richard Nixon was re-elected. In other words, the judgment of a guy with at least some working knowledge of, and appreciation for, the Avengers mythos begun by Stan Lee, but who hardly qualifies as overzealous fanboy.
I’ll grant you that my pleasure might not have been so great if, say, I couldn’t tell Captain American from Captain Marvel, or if I thought an Iron Man was someone with an affinity for Triathlons. On the other hand, I can promise you that my enthusiasm has not been overinflated by unremitting immersion in the arcana of the Marvel Comics universe.
Actually, I think potential ticketbuyers unfamiliar with comic book heroes (and heroines) of any sort might find The Avengers to be an absolute gas.
Indeed, I’ll even go so far as to wager that even if you missed any or all of the several recent stand-alone movies — Thor, The Incredible Hulk, Captain America: The First Avenger, Iron Man (and, of course Iron Man 2) — that, considered collectively, have constituted the longest coming-attractions trailer in the history of cinema, you’ll nonetheless be able to effortlessly enjoy the various and sundry delights of this unreasonably exhilarating smash-‘em-up mash-up.
After all, we’re not talking about a plotline of taxing complexity. A government-sanctioned badass named Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson, atypically subdued here in his badassery) corrals some previously selected heavy-hitters to put the kibosh on an invasion by otherworldly invaders. The heavy-hitters initially don’t play well with each other. (In fact, one — Hawkeye, a formidably accurate archer fleetingly introduced in Thor and played by Hurt Locker star Jeremy Renner — is briefly brainwashed into attacking his once and future allies.)
But they wind up banding together for the greater good, and the even greater box-office potential, while opening up several canisters of industrial strength whup-ass during a battle royale with multitudes of computer-generated adversaries in downtown Manhattan.
If it were any simpler, it could be a Michael Bay movie. Most of the time, these dudes don’t even wear masks.
If it were any simpler, it could be a Michael Bay movie. Most of the time, these dudes don’t even wear masks. As early as the end of first Iron Man flick, there appears to have been a clear choice on the part of the producers: We don’t need no stinkin’ secret identities…
Still, The Avengers evidently wasn’t simple enough for some critics, who have carped about the amount of time devoted to internecine squabbling as the heroes verbally (and, in one scene, physically) bitchslap each other during the movie’s extended second act.
Prickly is good
But I must admit: The periodic prickliness of larger-than-life characters in close quarters greatly amused me, in no small part because it reminded me why, back in the 1960s, the quirky (if not downright neurotic) superheroes of Marvel Comics seemed a lot more well-rounded and three-dimensional than the bland do-gooders at DC Comics.
Like, I don’t recall Green Lantern or J’onn J’onzz getting into pissing matches with fellow members of the Justice League of America between battles with super-villains. And I definitely don’t remember Batman and Superman ever dissing each other after The Caped Crusader got a sitter for Robin and joined the Man of Steel for misadventures in World’s Finest Comics.
(All right, super-geeks, don’t get your tights in a twist: I’m just making up that part about Robin needing a sitter.)
But over at Marvel Comics during the ’60s — geez louise, those dudes were always snapping at each other. There were times when I half-expected The Fantastic Four to be reduced to The Terrific Three. And as for The Avengers – well, let me out it like this: In the second freakin’ issue of the comic book, The Hulk left in a huff.
So it didn’t surprise me at all — rather, it richly amused me — when writer-director Joss Whedon (the mastermind behind TV’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer) opted to devote so much time to a woodland smackdown between the preeningly powerful Thor (robustly played by Chris Hemsworth) and the insouciantly snarky Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr. at his at sub-zero coolest) that ended only when the authoritatively grown-up Captain America (an effortlessly earnest Chris Evans) stepped in to more or less enforce a time out.
And I couldn’t help chuckling each time the other Avengers warily cast sidelong glances at the determinedly mild-mannered and soft-spoken Dr. Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo in, no kidding, Oscar-worthy form), as though fully expecting him at any moment to angrily evolve into the not-so-jolly green giant known as The Hulk. (A nice touch: Banner, pleasantly but pointedly, consistently refers to his ferocious alter ego as “the other guy.”)
Thanks to the modern miracle of state-of-the-art special effects, The Avengers boldly evokes the splendiferously overstated visual tropes that artist Jack Kirby offered on a regular basis during his heyday as a comic book illustrator. Whether the focus is a ginormous flying aircraft carrier that serves as a roving substation for S.H.I.E.L.D., the super-secret outfit that employs Nick Fury to assemble The Avengers, or the tighter-than-static-cling attire favored by matter-of-factly supersexy S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Maria Hill (played with awesomely casual aplomb by Cobie Smulders), this movie has, for a variety of reasons, enormous appeal to the 15-year-old geek in all of us.
(And speaking of sexy: As the barefoot and short-shorted Pepper Potts — the close confidant of Tony Stark, the fabulously rich and successful playboy/industrialist also known as Iron Man — Gwyneth Paltow is more delectably yummy than she’s ever before appeared on screen. And yes, before you ask, I did see her in Flesh and Bone.)
But never mind: The Avengers is that rare breed of blockbuster, a colossally entertaining and surprisingly sophisticated comic-book epic that can make you feel like a kid again without ever seeming childish.
On the other hand: I do wish that über-villain Loki — the nefarious half-brother of Thor who really was the bad guy in the first Avengers comic book, and who’s played here with sneeringly up-yours hauteur by Tom Hiddleston — had rounded up an invading army more impressive than the throngs of anonymous (and easily destructible) cyborgs (or whatever the hell they are) on display here.
And with all due respect to Hawkeye (who actually joined The Avengers — in the world according to the comic books, anyway — after a brief career as an arch-villain) and Black Widow (a va-va-voom Scarlett Johansson) — well, they really aren’t what you’d call super heroes, are they? Hawkeye — who, truth to tell, always struck me as a knock-off of DC Comics’ Green Arrow — isn’t super-powerful at all. And as for Black Widow — well, maybe I missed something, but can she do anything more than kick ass, shoot guns and look really, really nice in her skintight costume?
Are these really the most potent world-savers an outfit like S.H.I.E.L.D. could muster? Couldn’t the producers have borrowed a page or two from the original Marvel Comics and had S.H.I.E.L.D. draft Ant-Man and The Wasp instead?
And while we’re on that subject: Why did the folks who plotted the multi-movie lead-up to The Avengers decide a government agency had to figure into the assembling of these heroes in the first place? Back in the day, The Avengers decided to work together as a team because… because… well, because they thought it might be a pretty doggone neat thing to do. But now…
Hey, I can just imagine the RNC campaign ad: “Before Barack Obama, superheroes didn’t need government handouts to join forces…”
But never mind: The Avengers is that rare breed of blockbuster, a colossally entertaining and surprisingly sophisticated comic-book epic that can make you feel like a kid again without ever seeming childish. And when you do break down and finally go to see it, make sure you remain in your seat during the interminable closing credits: The wink-wink post-credits epilogue is guaranteed to send you out the door with a humungous smile on your face.
It is, to put it simply and gratefully, fully worth the price of admission all by itself.