Avengers is a great comic book movie, but nothing more.
That is no insult from me, because I enjoy comic books movies the way I enjoy Edgar Rice Burroughs novels: quickly, but without remembering much about them.
There are moments of Avengers that makes me laugh out loud, shout, and shudder and for Whedon fans the news is good: it is more television Firefly than Serenity Whedon. The self-indulgent Whedon of Dollhouse, working out his hangups is mostly gone, and the Whedon of Buffy, willing to listen to writers, is on full display.
This is, I repeat, a great comic book movie and it will have its monetary reward.
But it could have been more, almost was, and is not.
At moments, Avengers echoes Lord of the Rings. I do not mean the “Legolas” reference, though that proves it was on the mind, but the start which reminds one of Peter Jackson in Fellowship and the all but Elvish council of super heroes in the film.
Avengers was great fun, but it lacked a moral center. When Americans bowed to Loki, I wondered, “Where are the Christians?” Millions of Russians died rather than bow to false gods, but Whedon has all but one New Yorker bow to Loki. I loved the New Yorker who stood up, but evidently is was only memory of heroism and evil in World War II Germany that provoked this old man to stand.
World War II haunts the film. It is as if it is the one moral certainty in a better time: Nazis are bad. Why are they bad? It is not certain in the film, but it has to do with control, boasting, and posturing. What is missing . . . in every character but Captain America is a compelling moral vision. We know New York is in danger and don’t like it, but don’t know why other than prejudice against monsters that we should dislike our fate.
What is at risk? Liberty? Truth? Justice? The American Way?
That would be old-fashioned and despite bows in that direction, there is no defense of the old comic book platitudes.
It is, perhaps, very sad that old Stan Lee comics from decades ago have a stronger moral center than a blockbuster film.
There is nothing to offend in Avengers, but nothing to cheer beyond “winning.” The alternate ending, where the heroes all eat together, battered, silent, is perfect Whedon: funny and a bit morally impotent. Avengers is not immoral, but it lacks a coherent morality.
And that is where a film that might have been great, as great as Lord of the Rings, does not transcend the genre. There simply is not a cause greater than the war. The corruption of all sides stinks through the film . . . Loki is not much less likable than the shadowy global government . . . and average New Yorkers are more fodder than folk.
One ends up caring more for the survival of the Empire State Building than any given citizen.
Go see Avengers, I will twice, but I cannot help but mourn the missing moral vision. I am a Christian, but it need not have been a Christian vision to have been a coherent movie or one with more depth. The heroes needed something beneath their suits.
It is for that reason that I wonder if Captain America will not endure longer . . . even if it made less money.
Joss Whedon has made a beautiful, paper mache movie, but the moment I left the film life began to batter at it and it fell apart, but no candy was inside . . . only an advertisement for a sequel.
(HT: Jerod Begg clarified a point about the “man who stood.”)