Review of Avengers Assemble: a superhero product launch

I am lucky enough to have a great brother, and he invited me to a corporate screening of Avengers Assemble on Wednesday night.

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This review doesn’t have any explicit plot spoilers, but it is a review, so feel free to stop reading if you feel you are getting too much information / analysis.

It’s a thrilling film. If you have enjoyed the previous Marvel tie ins (Iron Man, Thor etc) then you will really like this. During the film’s finale I felt a joyful exhilaration and heroic identification rare in action movies, a pure pleasure in seeing enormous odds taken on. Childish? Maybe. I left the cinema with my blood roaring. I experienced it as a “post-CGI” movie, one where I barely noticed the unreality of the computer images, where the Hulk felt almost as likeable as his human double. Avengers was also the first Hollywood superhero movie I know of that attempted the epic-scale superheroics seen in graphic novels like The Authority.

If you have read Joss Wheadon’s run of Astonishing X-Men, then you will know how skilled he is at managing the different threads of a team superhero tale. Somehow the different characters all have different story lines within the plot, occupying different places in the audience’s emotions. And yet the overall plot moves expertly forward at the same time.

“Avengers” contains a plot device that I think is vital to the success of all films in its genre, what I call a “second act expansion”: the villain must become more powerful and capable as the film progresses. The arc of such stories is simple: when the story kicks off, the heroes are divided within themselves and against each other. They face opposing forces who possesses a mechanical, unthinking unity, and as a result their own disunity is exposed and overwhelmed. But, through the challenges and losses of the second act, the heroes learn to get past their own egos, and to put their individualities in service of something greater—the team, and the values it stands for. But they remain individuals, and so their organic, higher unity is far more potent than their adversaries’ mechanical imitation of it. We know that if the heroes of act three return to face the villains of act one, it will be no conflict. And so the villain needs to be gaining power at the same time as the heroes are gelling into a team, or the final act will feel flat. Avengers Assemble does that so well that there are moments in the final battle where one pauses, unsure how the team can cope.

It also helps that the main villain, Loki, is played brilliantly by Tom Hiddlestone, resuming the role from Thor.

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It is something awkward about the Avengers universe, I think, that Loki is far and away the most complex character in any of the films, and you can see that franchise’s creators know this, and are worried about it, as the script continually invents reasons to mock Loki and make him look ineffectual, British, and wimpy. There are moments where this is genuinely funny, and moments where it feels unnecessary and crass, an invitation to double-down one’s heroic identification with the muscle-bound heroes. Loki’s set speeches are a little silly, unworthy of the character’s complexities. And yet whenever he explains his mixed loyalties and origins, he again becomes the most compelling presence on the screen. All the other characters are nature’s first born–they have been given enormous powers as a gift. Only Loki is like the rest of us, forever feeling not good enough. One suspects that if Avengers makes it to three films, Loki’s final change of heart will decide the finale: Avengers is his story.

Loki can be mocked by the film he is supposed to threaten because, ultimately, Avengers is not really about him. His motives are hazy, and the aliens he works with are even more opaque. The true focus of the film is the design, assembly, maintenance, and marketing of a product, the team called the Avengers. The film opens with Nick Fury attempting to assembly the team, and ends with him succeeding. The film, as a result, feels very self-aware in a corporate sense, very much about itself and its own functioning. The suggestion throughout is that Nick Fury and his helpers are really behind, in some way, every event in the film, and they are at all times aware of how each new event fits into their product launch. Whenever something beyond their control occurs, they discuss how to subsume it back into their strategy. We are watching Nick Fury, CEO, manage his start-up, first getting his product to work and then presenting it to skeptical investors and customers. Loki and his army are simply a rival product, and as such, are never central to the film’s concerns.

What do you think?

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