Not your average assembly line heroes

As a nerd/geek since childhood, I’m a bit of an odd duck. I never read superhero comics as a kid. Asterix, yes, as well as Tintin, and for a while there I also read some of the Disney stuff, but never very avidly. The caped crusaders, men of steel, the uncanny mutants and amazing arachnid-boys, though? Nope. I was never particularly interested. Yes, I watched the occasional superhero movie and am still a fan of Burton’s Batman Returns and Nolan’s takes on the dark’n’depressed knight, I did catch most of the X-Men, Spiderman and Iron Man films at the cinema, but I never felt all that engaged. At their best they were a fun way of spending two hours, at their worst they were forgettable but had some cool special effects, but I didn’t get what would make people go and buy regular instalments of their favourite heroes’ comic series.

My first superhero comics were the more revisionist ones, Moore’s Watchmen, Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns (which I can safely say I didn’t like), later Mark Millar’s Superman: Red Son, all of which riffing to some extent on the comics that had gone before, and that I was aware of in a second-hand, “I’ve read about these…” way. The traditional superheroics, though? I wasn’t interested – unless they were written by someone whose writing I really liked. When Joss Whedon did his run on Astonishing X-Men, I bought the trade paperbacks and greatly enjoyed them, but I always put that down to Whedon doing his thing, not to anything intrinsic to comic book heroes. Same with Brian K. Vaughan’s Runaways, which reminded me a lot of Whedon’s TV work. (Ironically, I’m not a big fan of Whedon’s run on Runaways, which should have been a perfect fit but the writing was unengaging.)

What I liked about these especially – Whedon’s X-Men and Vaughan’s Runaways – was that they had characters who weren’t defined by their powers or gadgets. These were characters I’d want to spend time with even if they weren’t saving the world, beating up baddies or fighting their nemeses. And, more than that, they were about dysfunctional (surrogate) families, that old old Tolstoyan chestnut… Families that brought out the best and the worst in each other. Just like those other families in Whedon’s work, the Scoobie Gang, the crew of Serenity, even the team of Angel Investigations.

I didn’t realise that at their best, the superhero comics (at least Marvel – I have to say, I don’t know DC particularly well, although Vertigo’s Sandman is also about a dysfunctional family, of course) are exactly about that. They’re not about the BIFFs, the ZINGs and the POWs, they’re not about being able to punch someone through a mountain, climbing up vertical surfaces like a human spider or running at supersonic speed. And that’s exactly where Joss Whedon’s The Avengers took me completely by surprise. I went in thinking, “Well, I liked Iron Man, I like Mark Ruffalo and Jeremy Renner, and Scarlett Johansson is relatively easy on the eye. Perhaps Whedon will make this work.” I thought I’d probably not give a toss about Captain America (how can I, as a European pinko liberal commie of the worst kind?) or Thor (seriously, that outfit? the hammer?) or the Hulk (green, grotesque, always angry – Mr Hyde’s boring descendant, right?).

And yet, I sat in that cinema giggling with glee, whooping with joy, cheering at the heroic poses, applauding as an enormous motherfucking space serpent thing was punched in the face and went down! For the first time I realised what a joyous, potent blend these superheroics could be, and it was because Whedon made me care. I still don’t particularly need to go and watch Captain America or Thor (probably I will if it’s on TV, but I won’t go out and buy the DVDs), but watching the film’s heroes become a family, warts and all, overcoming their flaws and dysfunctions, and kicking some intergalactic ass? I get a big, goofy grin just remembering the film.

Some of my favourite bits:

  • Colour me green with surprise, but I loved the Hulk in this. More than that, I loved Ruffalo’s Banner and his Hulk. Poignant one moment, laugh-out-funny the next. “Puny god”, indeed!
  • Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury wasn’t a showy role, it didn’t go for the SLJ effect (which by now has become as much of a cliché as Al Pacino’s “Hooah!” persona), but I loved the ambivalence. Yes, he’s a good guy, but he’s primarily a master manipulator. Usually these films reserve the manipulativeness for the bad guys.
  • Captain America’s joy when he finally got a cultural reference!
  • The confrontation between Loki and Black Widow. In so many ways.
  • Naked Bruce Banner and Harry Dean Stanton’s caretaker, accepting that this guy just happens to turn into a huge green monster occasionally. No big thing.
  • The moment when the Avengers finally, well, assemble. The moment is cheesy, glorious and 100% earned.

I came out of that cinema thinking, “I want to watch that film again. And again. And again. And possibly send Joss Whedon, his cast and his crew all the Swiss chocolate I can get my hands on.” I’d be lying if I said the film was perfect – it suffers from a beginning that is somewhat generic and unengaging – but I’ll say it again: The Avengers made me whoop with joy. It made me cheer at the heroic poses. This is no “good enough for its genre” flick, it’s no “well, there’ll be explosions, right?” In some ways it’s the polar opposite of Nolan’s Batman films – as good (or even better?), but doing something entirely different. I’ve seen and read the reinventions of the super hero genre. I’ve seen the revisionist takes. Only now have I seen what these stories can be, in their original form.

And I like it.

P.S.: I also like Film Crit Hulk’s take on The Avengers. The guy’s all-caps Hulk spiel takes some getting used to, and I understand that some people give up, but the guy writes well and makes intelligent points, and he cares about this stuff. Well worth checking out.

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