Why 'The Avengers' Worked So Well

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Joss Whedon's superhero smash, out today on DVD, is a big movie made up of small, delightful moments.

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I have a weakness for mainstream movies that demonstrate a faith in their audiences' intelligence, and a still-more-particular weakness (the term "fetish" might be applicable) for ones that do so in a specific way: by withholding a crucial bit of dialogue or narrative information and trusting viewers to fill it in for themselves. Casino Royale, for instance, used the former gimmick early on to advertise just how much higher it was aiming than, say, Die Another Day. (The missing word that completed the familiar trope in that instance was "easier.")

In The Avengers, writer-director Joss Whedon executes a similar maneuver, though more subtly and more centrally. (Spoiler alert: Any who haven't yet seen the movie and don't want a significant plot development revealed, please skip to the next paragraph.) Agent Phil Coulson, the closest thing that The Avengers and its associated Marvel flicks have to a mascot, has been stabbed by Loki and lies bleeding his life away on the floor as the super-types he's helped to assemble bicker uselessly among themselves. "It's okay," he tells his boss, Nick Fury. "It never would have worked, unless they had something to..." He expires before completing his sentence with the verb that, ultimately, animates the whole movie: "avenge."

A small moment? Absolutely. But Whedon's film is full of such small moments: the exchange between Tony Stark and Pepper Potts regarding Coulson ("'Phil?' His first name is 'Agent'") that sets up Iron Man's ultimatum to Loki later in the film; the understated punch line of Captain America's $10 bet with Fury; the repetition of Black Widow's inverse-interrogation routine; Stark's litany of mocking nicknames; Cap's backup supply of heavy bags—the list goes on and on. And that's before we even get to the culminating tete a tete (or should that be main a pied?) between Hulk and Loki.

When The Avengers hit theaters, Times critic A.O. Scott bemoaned that such delightful grace notes were offered in service of the "grinding, hectic emptiness, the bloated cynicism" that he believes has come to define the superhero genre. But honestly, if you're that tired of an entire class of movies, might it not be better to keep your powder dry? I, too, would have been perfectly happy with The Avengers as a little drawing-room number, without the Sturm und Drang und Chitauri Invasion. And Whedon, by all accounts, would have been happy to make such a film. (Indeed, he has, minus the spandex.) But I think we can all see why Marvel and Disney were disinclined to go this route with The Avengers. It hardly seems fair to penalize a film for its failure to be not only a different film, but a different type of film altogether.

All of which is a long way of saying that if you belong to the dwindling universe of human beings who a) have not yet seen The Avengers, and b) are not chronically averse to superhero movies, don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good—because Whedon's movie is awfully good. As I described it in my review:

The Avengers were first assembled by Marvel Comics in Avengers #1, back in September 1963, with the gang deciding to unite following some spirited scrapping between Iron Man and the Hulk. In Whedon's re-telling, the geometry of discord is considerably more complex: Captain America bickers with Iron Man, who bickers with Thor, who bickers with the Hulk, who bickers with Black Widow. It's like an episode of Desperate Housewives with repulsor rays. The only one not to join in the squabbling is Hawkeye (who goes by his street name of Clint Barton), and that's because he's genuinely trying to kill them all, having been psychically enthralled by the villainous Loki....

The film unfolds largely as a series of collisions between these characters, as a group or in pairs, prodding, testing, taking one another's measure. Yes, it all ends, as it must, with a massive alien assault upon New York City, and there are the requisite battles and blow-ups along the way. But silly as it may sound, The Avengers is, to a surprising degree, an experiment in social chemistry.

You can read the full review here.

Next week: The horrors, intentional and not-so, of Dark Shadows.

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Christopher Orr is a senior editor and the principal film critic at The Atlantic. He has written on movies for The New Republic, LA Weekly, Salon, and The New York Sun, and has worked as an editor for numerous publications.

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