The Avengers, or why are good superhero movies so hard to come by?

I went to see The Avengers Friday night. My first reaction coming out of it was it was that it was one of the best movies I’ve ever seen. Certainly the best superhero movie. It looked awesome, the actors did a great job, there were lots of little things that made me go “yup, that’s Joss Whedon’s writing,” and it was free of a lot of the things that I’ve found annoying about other recent superhero movies. Even now, I think it may at least be the best superhero movie I’ve seen. But it suffers a bit on reflection.

First, I agree with Russell Blackford when he says:

The villains, other than Loki himself, who was shown as powerful and dangerous, scheming and mad, were incompetent to the point of absurdity – it seemed that they were just there to be smashed up by the heroes. Honestly, these guys (they all seemed coded as male) made the Star Wars Imperial Stormtroopers look like badass tactical geniuses…

Most of the time… the heroes never really seemed in any danger.

It didn’t feel that way in the theater–the “other villains” (I don’t think I spoil to much if I say they were alien invaders) look intimidating and are treated by all the characters as a major threat–but afterwards it’s clear that Whedon wasn’t treating them as a major threat. To borrow a Buffy analogy, there’s no logical reason why fighting Angelus should be a harder fight than fighting six unnamed vampires, but the story treats unnamed vampires as a trivial threat, so that’s what they are.

But I think it’s even worse than Blackford says. Loki’s supposed to be a freakin’ god, but remember Thor beat him last time. While Thor was stranded in Asgard by the destruction of the Bifrost at the end of the Thor movie, his re-appearance is handwaved. On top of that, it seems that Iron Man would have been able to take Loki in a fight alone anyways. And on top of that, the main power upgrade Loki seems to get is mind-control powers, but after zapping a couple major characters early on, he doesn’t get much use out of them. Oh yeah, and while early on it’s treated as very important for Banner not to go Hulk, at the climax he shows up, turns into the Hulk, and has no trouble smashing only the bad guys.

So my perspective is more like Jason Rosenhouse’s, except that I think he’s wrong to say the Avengers are so powerful it’s hard to challenge them. The problems I listed above were avoidable: make Loki strong enough that Iron Man + all of SHIELD aren’t enough to defeat him. Make “getting Thor back from Asgard” a challenge. Ditto “getting Hulk to smash only bad guys.” Heck, delete a couple Bond-villain-esque moments on Loki’s part and our heroes would have had a much harder time of it.

The Avengers movie we actually got does manage to have one very good dramatic sequence, but it’s the result of the nebulous council that runs SHIELD failing to realize that they are in a superhero movie, and therefore failing to realize that if they just sit back and let the heroes do their thing everything will be fine.Which probably says something, but I’m not sure what.

In spite of all that, I still think Avengers does pretty well compared to other superhero movies. It’s a load of fun, and avoids a lot of other movies’ pitfalls. For example, unlike a hell of a lot of recent superhero movies, it doesn’t spend so much time on the origin story that the conflict with the villain comes out half-assed. Also, the climax doesn’t involve a contrived moral dilemma which is then averted by the hero being really badass (unlike Spider-Man, The Dark Knight, and Batman Forever).

This, though, raises the question of why we don’t have better superhero movies. I don’t think the problem is superheroes. It certainly isn’t the problem I have with the movies, since I think there are some great superhero comics out there. I tend to blame the fact that Hollywood is now stuck in the trap of always trying to copy last year’s summer blockbuster (contrast Star Wars, which copied from many different sources spread out over several decades, plus Joseph Campbell.)

I could speculate more, but I’m not sure that would be much use. For one thing, my ideas about which superhero movies are good seem to be rather idiosyncratic. So tell me: if you’ve seen Avengers along with a number of other recent superhero movies, which did you like best and why? Was Iron Man better? Was The Dark Knight? Etc.

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