The Avengers

Review by
William H. Stoddard

Director: Joss Whedon
Writers: Stan Lee & Jack Kirby (comic books); Zak Penn & Joss Whedon (story); Joss Whedon (screenplay)


  • Tina Benko — NASA Scientist
  • Paul Bettany — Edwin Jarvis (voice)
  • Alexis Denisof — The Other
  • Robert Downey Jr. — Tony Stark / Iron Man
  • Chris Evans — Steve Rogers / Captain America
  • Clark Gregg — Phil Coulson, agent
  • Chris Hemsworth — Thor
  • Maximiliano Hernandez — Jasper Sitwell, agent
  • Tom Hiddleston — Loki
  • Samuel L. Jackson — Nick Fury
  • Scarlett Johansson — Natasha Romanoff / Black Widow
  • Pat Kiernan — TV news anchor (himself)
  • Stan Lee — old man in TV report
  • Gwyneth Paltrow — Virginia "Pepper" Potts
  • Damion Poitier — man / Thanos
  • Jeremy Renner — Clint Barton / Hawkeye
  • Mark Ruffalo — Bruce Banner / The Hulk
  • Stellan Skarsgard — Selvig
  • Jerzy Skolimowski — Georgi Luchkov
  • Cobie Smulders — Maria Hill, agent
  • Kenneth Tigar — German old man

Marvel Studios / Paramount Pictures: 2012

143 minutes May 2012

Heroes for old times, and new

Superhero teamups are a long-established trope in comic books. The Justice Society of America brought together eight separately published heroes from two different companies as early as 1940, only two years after Action Comics #1 introduced Superman and created the superhero genre. The same publisher, DC Comics, revived the concept in 1960 with the Justice League of America, which brought together nearly all its most successful heroes, and many other teams have appeared since then. Some of these, such as Marvel Comics' X-men, have been made up of characters who always worked together and often gained their unusual abilities from a common source; but others, such as the Justice Society, the Justice League, and the Avengers, could better be described as "eight impossible things before breakfast" — they unite characters who each gain special abilities from a different fantastic source, such as the scientists, sorcerers, and highly trained athletes who made up the Justice Society.

Feature films about superheroes have been appearing since Richard Donner's Superman in 1978. Films about heroes with a common power source have included X-men (2000) and Fantastic Four (2005) and their sequels. But filmmakers have avoided team-ups of diverse heroes, or even the suggestion that extraordinary abilities might have more than one source. This can't be a matter of the cost of special effects, which have grown cheaper with every decade; the X-men films, for example, found it perfectly possible to portray the sustained use of a dozen or more different sets of abilities. The challenge probably lies more in gaining suspension of disbelief for several entirely different fantastic premises in a single story. That may be the greatest difference between superhero films and superhero comics, whose imaginary worlds are created by the unrestrained invention of new fantastic premises. (Prose fiction treatments of superheroes, such as George R. R. Martin's Wild Cards "shared world" anthologies, have tended to single-premise treatments, like films.)

Joss Whedon, the director and a writer of The Avengers, looks in retrospect like an almost inevitable choice to make this work. He truly is a fan of superhero comics and other fantastic genres, who has written two series for Marvel Comics (Astonishing X-men and Runaways). His first widely recognized work, the Buffy the Vampire Slayer television series, confronted its title character (sometimes actually referred to as a "superhero") with a long series of foes whose powers came from varied sources, both supernatural and scientific; that is, it succeeded in selling its audience on a world with many fantastic premises. And one of Whedon's particular skills has always been handling ensemble casts and making characters with diverse personalities and goals fit together. Whedon in fact said, in 2010, that "these people shouldn't be in the same room let alone on the same team — and that is the definition of family" (Comic-Con: Joss Whedon Talks 'Avengers' At EW Visionaries Panel).

In thinking over the portrayals of superheroes I've seen, and especially of Captain America in the 2011 film (one of this film's precursors), I've come to believe that important though the special abilities are, they aren't sufficient to define a superhero, and especially not a memorable or even classic superhero. There's another equally essential quality: A superhero is the human embodiment of a moral abstraction. To look at some characters from DC Comics, for example, Batman represents the concept of vengeance; the Spectre is the related concept of retributive justice; Wonder Woman represents idealism in general and the idealism of early feminism in particular; Green Lantern represents will. One of the things that makes superhero team-ups interesting — though it's seldom as fully developed as it might be — is their presentation of dialogue between different moral values.

Whedon's portrayal of the Avengers at least suggests such a significance for each of its characters. Captain America is the most obvious, as an embodiment of American patriotism — but patriotism founded on something more principled than tribal loyalty, as his solo film made clear; above all, he embodies the spirit of independence and the refusal to surrender to superior force. Thor, in contrast, embodies the idea of noblesse oblige — which actually is a good reflection of Scandinavian myth, in which Thor, more than any other god, was the protector of mortal men. The Hulk embodies the split between "rational" and "animal" in human nature, in the same manner as his literary precursor, Edward Hyde; his other side, Dr. Bruce Banner, is almost inhumanly intelligent, whereas the Hulk is all but inarticulate. Iron Man is about confrontation with one's own mortality, and about technology as a tool of human survival. Even the two characters with only human abilities take on moral imagery from their roles: Hawkeye projects the singleness of aim of a sniper (or a legendary archer such as Arjuna), the Black Widow the persuasiveness and roleplaying skill of a master spy.

Whedon's script gives ample room for development of these qualities. Roughly its middle third is about character interaction, with the different characters debating how to deal with the story's potential threat and questioning each other's motives. These characters don't simply fall into a team right away, not even when attacks from their enemies force them to cooperate — though in one of the film's neatest reversals, Captain America, who has been angrily challenging Tony Stark to put on his Iron Man armor and fight him, is interrupted by an attack on their base, and without hesitation turns to Stark and says, in a different tone, "Put on the suit!" The Avengers does have several scenes of the traditional trope of "superheroes meet and fight each other", but Whedon takes the trouble to have them grow out of actual conflicts rather than hasty misunderstandings.

The script evokes the story of Avengers #1 (published in 1963) with its primary adversary: Loki, Thor's foster brother and rival. Loki, too, embodies a moral abstraction, or an anti-moral one: deception and manipulation, and pride in the ability to use them. Again, this reflects Scandinavian legends remarkably accurately. And it makes it quite fitting that the film's dramatic center is the Black Widow's questioning of Loki, which follows a pattern foreshadowed in her initial appearance in this film. Loki is willing to make use of force as well as fraud — he manages to engineer an alien invasion of Earth, which is the occasion for the final battle — but his real strength is always in deceit.

The alien invasion is the film's climax, finally getting all of the characters to fight as allies. It's a classic superhero battle ... which means that as a war it's actually implausible or even silly: The invaders appear to have no coherent military strategy, the American armed forces have very little and make only the briefest appearance, and much of the battle comes down to scenes of hand-to-hand combat, in which the superheroes are battered but not taken out of action. Of course, the same could be said of many heroic portrayals of war as a series of single combats, going back at least to Homer. On the other hand, though there are none of the organized forces of modern warfare, the various heroes symbolize the different aspects of military force — and in fact are assigned those roles by Captain America, the team member with actual military experience:

  • Thor acts as artillery, wielding lightning to interdict the invaders' dimensional portal above New York
  • The Hulk acts as armor, using massive strength and near-indestructibility in direct assaults on the aliens (Captain America's order to him is a simple "Hulk — smash!")
  • Iron Man uses his flying ability to patrol the perimeter of the conflict and outmaneuver alien attackers
  • Hawkeye snipes from a rooftop and gives tactical advice (in particular, he's the one who points out to Iron Man that the alien flying vehicles don't maneuver well)
  • The Black Widow engages in ground combat and later infiltrates Loki's command post to sabotage it
  • Captain America also engages in ground combat and provides overall tactical command

An appealing feature of The Avengers is that it doesn't limit heroic roles to its superheroes. It's not only that Hawkeye and the Black Widow, with no special powers, are effective members of the team. We also see agents of the fictional espionage agency SHIELD in action: Maria Hill (apparently its second in command) pursuing Loki as he steals the mysterious artifact that later makes the invasion possible, or Phil Coulson threatening Loki with an experimental weapon. There's also a memorable scene in Stuttgart where an elderly German man, in a crowd commanded by Loki to kneel, rises to his feet in defiance.

Loki is shown as contemptuous of human beings, seeing them as no more than ants under a descending boot; but even Thor, another god, finds human beings admirable rather than contemptible. Loki's major speech, early on in the film, tells a crowd that what human beings really want is to be freed of freedom, and that as ruler of earth he will take the burden of freedom away. And it appears that his greatest weapon, a kind of sceptre, really does have the ability to do that, turning the people he uses it on into his servants. It's fitting that the struggle against him is led by Captain America, shown as an embodiment of older American values. In fact, this film is, in its own way, a re-creation of the classic style of war movie in which a group of soldiers from incompatible backgrounds learn to work and fight together for a common cause. It was dramatically effective when it was invented, and it remains effective when it's turned into a story about virtual demigods.


© 2012 William H. Stoddard

Related essays & reviews by W.H. Stoddard:

Horatius at Khazad-dum

Why Superheroes Wear Capes

The Mark of Zorro (1919)
by Johnston McCulley

Men of Tomorrow:
Geeks, Gangsters, and the
Birth of the Comic Book
by Gerald Jones

More by William H. Stoddard

Marvel's The Avengers
official site (slow)


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