in Retrospecticus, Review

Marvel’s The Avengers (2012)

Original Review: Avengers Assembled (four and a half stars)

In their “The Marvel Symphonic Universe” video essay, Every Frame a Painting explains how movies in the MCU tend to play it safe (and to an extent, obvious) with their scores. While this approach has plenty of upsides, it does have the major problem of making the music forgettable. I don’t totally agree with them – I would argue Captain America and The Avengers both have great themes – but I think they were right that phase one of the MCU was such a gamble in and of itself that Marvel avoided risk where they could. This issue goes deeper than the scores, and it’s the reason why seven years later I still can’t give The Avengers, probably my favorite MCU movie, the full five stars… Also star ratings are bullshit.

Why do I love super hero movies? I tried thinking of my favorite movies, and then my favorite scenes in them, to try to answer that question. In the end, I came up with three examples that epitomize the genre for me: Superman catching Lois (and the reimagining of that scene in Returns), Spider-Man stopping the train, and Wonder Woman charging into no man’s land. Those scenes resonate with me because they show these characters acting heroically; that is to say, courageously saving people when everyone else was helpless. So that’s the ticket: Anyone can relate to the frustration of feeling powerless, the magic of super hero movies is getting to experience something amazing happening that averts the inevitable.

The Avengers has one of my favorite super hero scenes too, this one, where we finally see the whole team working together. But they’re fighting a threat that only Earth’s Mightiest Heroes could possibly match, an alien invasion. They’re working together to find clever and over-the-top ways to slaughter monsters from space. I don’t mean to suggest that’s not heroic, these aliens are clearly bad and a lot of New Yorkers are directly in danger because of them, but it’s just not relatable, you know? I don’t worry about a massive, faceless horde of aliens pouring out of the sky in the same way that I do my train coming off the tracks. Which finally leads me to my thesis about The Avengers‘ biggest shortcoming: the Avengers are shown more as badasses than heroes.

What’s the difference? Let’s take Independence Day as an example. It ends with the good guys blowing up a bunch of aliens in space, just like The Avengers, and it is also very exciting. But if that movie moved you at all, and it might not have, it was probably the part when the crazy dad sacrificed himself because his missile jammed. Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum learned to fly a spaceship, killed thousands, and walked away badasses. Randy Quaid gave his life so his kids could have a future, and died a hero. He wasn’t a hotshot fighter pilot or the only scientist to figure out the alien threat or the president, he was a loser who was desperate for validation. But when the chips were down, he stepped up and gave his life and… I’m spending too much time trying to make Randy Quaid sound heroic.

During the battle of New York, we do see the Avengers, especially Captain America, go out of their way to save people. And beyond that, there are two other big heroic scenes in the movie: Coulson’s death and Iron Man steering the nuke into the wormhole. But Coulson’s death is unexpected and sad, it feels more like a noble sacrifice than inspiring heroics. And no one for a second thought that either New York would get nuked or Iron Man would get killed off when he had a sequel coming out next summer. Marvel wasn’t go to take any huge risks like that, so they did the safe thing, a much, much better version of the ending of Transformers: Dark of the Moon. The Avengers has everything except that sublime moment that elevates it beyond top-notch sci fi action. Oh well, I guess it will just have to settle for being really fun.

The Avengers feels more like a comic book than anything else in the MCU, so of course there’s a ton of canon stuff to worry about. The movie finally shows the scope of SHIELD’s operations, revealing their unbelievable helicarrier and that they were working on recreating Hydra’s weapons. Along the way, we meet the World Council, led by Powers Booth, and all of this will have consequences later. There are plenty of important beats for all the Avengers, especially Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America, so please don’t make me write them all out. Mostly, just remember there are two infinity gems – the Tesseract and Loki’s staff – that Thanos let Loki have instead of keeping them for himself. You idiot, you could have had one third of the stones way back in 2012!

MCU Power Rankings: It’s my favorite one. What can I say, it’s badass.