Superheroes are mythology. They stand above us, their concerns otherworldly, epic. The fate of worlds rests on their shoulders. They have little time for us, the people they pledge to protect. We get in the way. We’re cannon fodder. However much they claim to care, superheroes pledge their fealty to larger concepts than we can embody. They owe allegiance (and often claim ownership) to flags, cities, whole worlds. The people that give life to those ideals are messy little details, and boy does it ever get annoying just when you’re about to deliver the coup de grace to Dr. Villain and all of a sudden there’s a bus full of schoolkids that’s about to drop off a cliff.
And heaven help any mortal that a superhero chooses as a companion. A life of peril and an early, messy death awaits. The flimsy protection of a secret identity is no help once the mask inevitably comes off. I could reel off a loooong list of companions, wives and lovers that have lost their lives while their super-powered paramours have wept a single, perfect tear and moved on to the next battle.
And goddamit, Avengers Assemble does nothing to break that poisonous cycle.
(Are there spoilers after the cut? Are there EVER, True Believer!)
It’s inevitable, I suppose, that when Joss Whedon gets involved a character that you care about will die. It’s part of his stock in trade. Snappy dialogue, big bads, killing off people that he’s made you care about. Frankly, I’m getting a bit sick of it. Buffy was full of heartbreaking moments, and that one time, in the Serenity movie, I still find it hard to say “I’m a leaf on the wind, look how I soar” without feeling a bit emotional. We don’t even talk about Dr. Terrible. We just… don’t, OK?
Whedon uses death as a rallying cry. He kills people to give the rest of his cast, the important ones, that emotional push to get them through the end of the second act and into the third. Avengers Assemble is no different. He has to kill someone we like. It’s how his scripts operate. At the same time, we know he can’t kill any of the franchises. Sending Tony Stark out into the nether darkness never would have flown with the suits at Disney. You don’t mess with the merchandising.
So, the only character that he could murder with impunity was the one guy that didn’t have a comics line to his name. The one guy that I had come to care about through his appearances in the Iron Man, Thor and Captain America movies.
Goddamit, Whedon, you had to go and kill Phil Coulson.
In a way, it’s a clever move. We first saw Agent Coulson in Iron Man as a flack, a suit, a stuffed, shirt. But even then there was that hint of something more. When it was needed, he could blast open a locked door and knew how to use a gun. Over time, we came to see him as Nick Fury’s trusted right hand man, a capable and intelligent field agent. And we found out his first name.
In the Avengers movie, Phil Coulson is a Captain America fanboy, showing off his goofy side. He’s ADORKABLE. And, when the time comes, an absolute bad-ass. He dies fighting, and nobly. But he still dies. And it sucks, because it’s a gimme into a revenge narrative that should be beneath an experienced screenwriter like Whedon. The Avengers don’t need Phil Coulson’s death as a banner. There’s the imminent threat of alien invasion and a psychotic trickster god to worry about.
There’s nothing particularly original about the idea of a group of rugged, almost sociopathic individuals uniting against a common threat. Most superhero team-ups are grounded in that idea. Outside of the Fantastic Four, the groupings are major-league dysfunctional. Even the Richards family blow up at each other on a regular basis. The fun of team-ups is that superheroes do not play nice together, and in franchises like the Avengers, or long-standing guest-star titles like Marvel Team-Up or The Brave And The Bold, all parties will fight before they see the error of their ways. Bickering is essential. The smart thing about getting Josh on board for the Avengers is that he understands this kind of dynamic. The Buffyverse is an argumentative place, and he was the one modern writer that genuinely got the tensions and jealousies at the heart of the X-Men. This shines through in Avengers Assemble, and he’s smart enough to play to each characters strengths in showing how Fury’s Initiative really shouldn’t work. The arrogant billionaire, the tortured assassin, the man out of time, the kind-hearted scientist with the monster inside. By themselves, they’re a handful. Together, it’s like putting all the ingredients for nitroglycerine in a jar, and shaking vigourously to see what happens. The comics have been doing this for the best part of forty years. It’s only now that we’ve seen a successful cinematic version of the form.
For me, that’s the delight at the core of Avengers Assemble. The writing and characterisation are fresh out of the best that Marvel have offered over the past forty years, finally translating the epic and the intimate into something that works on screen. Spot-on casting is a major help in making this a success. We already know how good Robert Downey Jr. is as Tony Stark, but the cast as a unit brings their A-game to the film, bringing believability to a bunch of guys in silly suits. Special kudos here to Mark Ruffalo, who helps us understand what comics fans have known for years – Bruce Banner is tougher than he looks, and the Hulk has a sense of humour. “Puny god”, indeed. Speaking of whom, Tom Huddleston is tricksy as ever as Loki. He gives the horned god the look of a man that’s always planning ahead, always two steps faster than his foes.
Ultimately, Avengers Assemble works because it treats the source material with respect, while understanding at the same time how silly that material can be. It allows us to see iconic figures grow, change and learn something, which doesn’t happen enough in a comics industry where a reset button is baked in at the base level. Although it never hits the bizarre heights of the 70s team, which featured a witch married to a robot, there’s still plenty of bugnuts craziness to enjoy. It’s a genuine treat for comics fans and muggles alike, and a very different film to DC’s offering later in the year.
And the campaign to resurrect Phil Coulson starts here. Who’s with me?