Twenty years? Really? People are usually startled and/or a bit suspicious when I tell them that. But their disbelief always makes me wonder, “What do you think has been happening in cinema the last two decades?”
After I saw the Princess Bride (the best film ever made), I was sure I would never see another movie that even came close to it. I waited, year after disappointing year, for something remarkable to come out of the theaters. Don’t get me wrong, there were some great movies in the last two decades. One thinks of Land Before Time, Gettysburg, and Midnight in Paris. All very fine movies. But they weren’t movies that left me with the same sense of awe and marvel that Princess Bride had done.
In college, I had to read the French critic René Girard. He said of his day that there was no great public suspicion of theater. There could be no great art unless there was great suspicion of art. The people would see anything. They had no discernment. With their expectations so low, the artists didn’t have to churn out a high quality product to survive.
The times have not changed.
At the risk of sounding downright shnobbish, I think superhero movies have sort of numbed our culture with a white noise blanket of “meh”. After that last Spider-Man movie, I think I curled into a ball for a week and whimpered. So when something as marvelous as the Avengers comes out in the genre of the superhero movie, it tends to get overlooked or muddied over by the public’s presuppositions. It smells like a rock. It’s feels like a rock. How could it be anything but a rock? Fair point, but it’s actually a diamond. Look.
Alright. So why? Why is the Avengers the best movie I’ve seen in twenty years?
1.) Script. Joss Whedon directed and wrote this movie and it shows. The quick, rapid fire wit he’s known for (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Dollhouse, Firefly, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, Cabin in the Woods) is everywhere in the movie. Iron Man is as self-absorbed and sarcastic as Tony Stark is supposed to be. Captain America sounds like an idealist from the 1940s, old fashioned and values-driven. In terms of dialogue, Whedon stays very close to the characters’ tone in the comics. If you like intelligent, snarky, funny dialogue, go see the Avengers.
2.) Character development. If all you want out of a movie is “excitement”, that’s fine. Go see the Expendables 2. You’ll get all the guns and knives you can handle. But if you want a movie with actual people in it, see the Avengers. Iron Man digs his heels in the entire movie, not wanting to fight Nick Fury’s war. In the end, he tries to make the ultimate sacrifice to save an entire city. Bruce Banner is the eccentric, soft-spoken scientist he should be, purposefully trying to hide in a lab for most of the movie. At the climax, he’s the Hulk, smashing everything and just being awesome. You have a couple characters (Hawkeye for one) who are actually on the wrong side for half the film. Basically, just about every major character goes from unstable, distrusting, and egotistic to being focused, cooperative, and sacrificial. That is development.
3.) Good story. This isn’t your standard world-in-danger type of movie. The aliens don’t even come until the very end. Yes, there is a major bad guy but he’s not the main antagonist. He’s an antagonist. The main source of conflict is actually within the team of protagonists. Authority butts heads with authority all over the place. Division keeps the Avengers from fighting as a team for most of the movie. They actually fight each other in a couple of places. The whole story is about how a group of broken, unstable rogues can come together to achieve something marvelous.
4.) The hint of a grand scope. Elie Wiesel’s editor once wrote to him and said, “Your story shouldn’t tell everything. Never tell everything. But your story should hint that there is an everything.” That is exactly what this movie accomplishes. In this area, I would say it even surpasses the Princess Bride. That’s because this movie operates within the Marvel universe. Everything has a history. Everything has an origin. And you only get little hints of it (Black Widow’s past, her and Hawkeye’s relationship, the origin of S.H.I.E.L.D., Thanos showing up at the end, to name a few). It’s a very Tolkienesque way of not showing your full hand.
5.) Fun. This movie is just a lot of fun. Superhero fist fights (what would a fight between Iron Man and Thor look like?), explosions, an alien invasion, clever dialogue, an engaging plot: this is just a good flick. “Fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, True Love, miracles.” It doesn’t sound too bad.
It’s hard for me to obsess about things. I’m not a Marvel geek. It really is just a movie. A movie isn’t life. A movie isn’t a substitute for reality. But wow, the Avengers sure is a great movie. Best I’ve seen in twenty years.
Oh, and if you haven’t seen it, stay until after all the credits are over. You’ll smile.
Did YOU like it? Why? Did you not like it? Who hurt you? Why do you hate happiness? I’m interested.