Avengers Movies: Assembled!
Marvel Comics, under Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, was the first comic book company to include a sense of continuity between issues and titles. Its heroes all lived in the same universe, and often in the same city, New York City, which wasn't named Metropolis or Gotham but was named, you know, New York City. It was peopled by folks like you and me. Stan and Jack even made guest appearances.
Marvel Studios is now the first studio to include a sense of continuity between movies and franchises, and “The Avengers,” out in the U.S. on Friday, and already out in more than 39 countries abroad, is the culmination of this experiment. It's been hinted at for four years, since May 2008, when, after the credits of “Iron Man,” Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), showed up at Tony Stark's beachfront mansion to tell him, “We're putting together a team.” Nick, along with Phil Coulson, agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. (Clark Gregg), made subsequent appearances in: “The Incredible Hulk” (2008), “Iron Man 2” (2010), “Thor” (2011), and “Captain America: The First Avenger” (2011). Black Widow showed up in “Iron Man 2,” Hawkeye in “Thor.” Hulks, or Bruce Banners, have been swapped for a third time in a decade. We're good to go.
Caveat: Thus far, only one of the Avengers movies, “Iron Man,” has been a first-tier superhero film. “Captain America” is good but has a weak ending and nothing like Robert Downey Jr.'s driving force. It feels like careful prologue, which it is, to this. “The Incredible Hulk” is like its hero: starts smart and small, ends big and dumb. “Iron Man 2” suffers in comparison to the first but it's better than fanboys remember, while “Thor” is saddled with the dull lumps of Odin and Asgard.
Supposedly “The Avengers” rocks. It's certainly rocking the international box office. In the meantime—before Friday, that is—here are the individual Avengers movies, assembled and ranked:
- “Iron Man” (2008): In “Iron Man,” we learn that one man can make a difference. No, not Iron Man. I’m talking Robert Downey, Jr., who turns one of the most boring Marvel superheroes into one of its most engaging. That frenetic, super-intelligent quality Downey had way back in 1987’s “The Pick-Up Artist”—mouth unable to keep up with mind—has, by this film, been disciplined and tempered. He’s less wild-eyed. There’s a stillness to him as he talks to and over people. His lines are free of bullshit and niceties. “Give me a scotch,” he tells a bartender, “I’m starving.” Iron Man flies rings around people but it’s not nearly as fun as watching Tony Stark talk rings around people. “Iron Man” is a superhero movie, and thus wish fulfillment, but, for me, the wish fulfillment is less the power of Iron Man than the quick wit of Tony Stark. What I wouldn’t give.
- “Captain America” (2011) Who is Steve Rogers and why did they choose him for this all-important experiment? Why him? The question that Joe Simon and Jack Kirby didn’t care about in 1941 is the question that’s central to “Captain America.” Dr. Erskine is a German scientist, Jewish one assumes, who developed a prototype of the super-soldier serum back in Germany but was forced to use it on a bully, Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), who is turned into the Red Skull. Erskine realizes that the serum not only makes a man stronger but amplifies what’s inside him. A bully becomes a megalomaniac. A weak man like Steve Rogers? “A weak man,” he tells Steve,” knows the value of strength, the value of power.” I could raise an objection here, and did so, silently, in the theater. I thought of a line from college: “The worst taskmasters are former slaves.” I thought of myself, a skinny Steve Rogers-type most of my childhood, and of my many subsequent resentments. Did Steve have none? Was he that good? Let’s face it: the real reason Steve Rogers is a small, skinny kid is because that was the comic-book-buying demographic in 1941, and those kids wished to thrill—a la Shazam—at the magical transformation from meek to masterful.
- “Iron Man 2” (2010): Can I pause here to thank Darren Aronofsky? Without Aronofsky’s “The Wrestler,” Mickey Rourke’s career wouldn’t have been resurrected enough for studio execs to allow him to play an A-list role in an A-list movie, and he’s a perfect counterpoint to the star. Stark/Downey, Jr. is a babbler, whose mouth, working overtime, still can’t keep up with his mind. Rourke/Vanko is the opposite. Everything he does is slow. He walks slowly, talks slowly, shifts his toothpick from one side of his mouth to the other slowly. He serves his revenge cold. If Stark’s pace is the result of frenetic intelligence—one thought pushing out another—Vanko’s leisurely pace almost feels like wisdom. When Stark visits Vanko in his Monte Carlo jail cell, he talks shop, “Pretty decent tech,” etc., but Vanko has the bigger picture in mind. “You come from a family of thieves and butchers,” he says, with that deliciously thick Russian accent. “And like all guilty men, you try to rewrite your history, to forget all the lives the Stark family has destroyed.” This is exactly what you want in a villain. Not someone to boo and hiss, but somebody almost more admirable than the hero. Someone to make you consider switching sides.
- “The Incredible Hulk” (2008): Its trajectory is its hero’s trajectory. It starts out very, very smart, like Bruce Banner, and winds up kinda dumb, like the Hulk. The origin of the Hulk is rebooted in the credit sequence. This allows the movie proper to start in the same place the last one left off: with Bruce on the lam in Latin America. That’s smart. Smarter? Our protagonist. He’s a scientist, and, for the first half of the movie, he never stops being a scientist. He’s stopped running in Rochina Favela, the largest shantytown of Rio de Janeiro, where he’s gotten a job at a bottling plant and is tackling his rather unique problem by pursuing both temporary solutions and permanent cures. The latter involves rare flowers and blood samples and microscope slides. The former involves heart-rate monitors and yoga and martial arts lessons. “The best way to control your anger is to control your body,” his teacher tells him before slapping him. We’ve just seen a TV re-run of “The Courtship of Eddie’s Father” in which Bill Bixby, who played David Bruce Banner in the 1970s “Hulk” TV series, gets slapped, so nice echo. Days without incident? 158.
- “Thor” (2011): Thor, easily manipulated by the ear-whisperings of Loki, takes four friends to Yodenheim to battle the Frost Giants. Odin may counsel against war but it’s what we in the audience want. It’s actually a helluva battle, and the filmmakers make good imaginative 3-D use of Thor and his hammer, Mjöllnir, as the throws it, whirls it, creates shock waves around the planet with it. But the incident sets Odin off, and he strips his son of his powers and banishes him to Earth ... where he runs into Jane Foster, or she into him. (Side thoughts: Early on, Asgard is described as “a beacon of hope” ... but to whom? Themselves? And if they’re so enlightened, why rule by royalty? Are we doing it wrong here in America? Finally, how exactly does a father strip his son of powers? Is it an Asgardian thing? A Scandinavian thing? As a Lundegaard, should I be worried?)
To be honest, #s 2, 3 and 4 are pretty close, and if you made a good argument to move up one or the other I'd probably buy it. In fact, I'm leaning towards putting the two “Iron Man” movies at the top. “Thor” can't get past Asgard. (Plus we lose Natalie.) “Iron Man” is easily the best of the bunch: smart, surprising and energetic.
Here's hoping for smart, surprising and energetic on Friday. Excelsior.
It's 2012, they can create the Hulk out of thin air, but they still can't get Captain America's mask right.