The word “epic” has become as devalued as the dollar lately, leaving behind its recent status as a word bros overuse to describe anything they genuinely enjoy and strutting buck naked right down Madison Avenue as a way to get young folks to eat or watch the same mediocre non-epic shit it used to peddle to your mom. The landing at Normandy was epic. Your sliced turkey and apple sandwich, while no doubt somewhat healthful and delicious, is not.
Well, Joss Whedon, fresh off of eviscerating horror convention with The Cabin in the Woods, has just re-redefined epic with the release of The Avengers. I of course have not seen it yet, since it doesn’t open in America until Friday. But my future self, not to mention my European self, thinks you should actually camp out for this one. As part of Marvel’s continuing series of recent reparations for their nerd crimes of the previous decade (Hey, remember Ben Affleck as Daredevil? No?), this popcornucopia can actually be said to embody the true, original, Webster’s Dictionary meaning of the word “epic” (“a long narrative poem in elevated style recounting the deeds of a legendary or historical hero”) as well as its slightly older brother “awesome” (“expressive of an emotion variously combining dread, veneration, and wonder that is inspired by authority or by the sacred or sublime”).
The setup, for you non-comic dorks: a super-secret international organization dedicated to preserving freedom, etc, has brought together some various assassins, genetic freaks, tech wizards, and minor gods to help save the world from yet another minor god gone rogue. His name is Loki, and if you know your mythology, you know he’s all about chaos. A really big-picture terrorist. Kneel before Zod, that kind of thing. Ass-kicking begins before you can say “Avengers assemble!”
Marvel’s been doing a pretty good job with its re-reboots lately, mainly because they’ve actually spent real money on them — not just the CGI stuff, which even kids are used to now thanks to Pixar, but on actual screenwriting and acting ability. You know, characters. This lesson has not been lost on Joss: Avengers is the first superhero movie thus far to star five Oscar nominees (and don’t talk to me about Iron Man 2, because Samuel L. Jackson was a cameo). Scarlett Johansson speaks Russian credibly. Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man actually looks like he’s grappling to control his ego. The guy playing Loki, Tom Hiddleston, was trained in Shakespeare and Chekhov. Not officer Chekov. Anton Chekhov. The X-Men series was a fun ride, but it was a beauty pageant by comparison. These superheroes have acting muscles.
This all works towards Whedon’s big vision, which gives those expected jaw-dropping Manhattan action scenes their real heft. In this universe, which brings together several of Marvel’s new franchise supers, the good guys are idolized by the public, but those in power consider them silly or maybe even dangerous. Shades of X-Men muties, yes, but Whedon sees them more as celebrities, and when they join together, they function as one big celeb hive mind. Leader Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) is the head, the leader; Black Widow (Scarlett) is the ruthless manipulator, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is the inner strength, Captain America (Chris Evans) the sense of duty, Downey’s Iron Man the massive ego, Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) the raw talent, and you can probably guess what the Big Green Guy is standing in for. (Ed Norton, who didn’t get paid enough to reprise his Bruce Banner role from the ’08 reboot, is missed, but Mark Ruffalo fills his shoes admirably, keeping it exceedingly low-key then erupting at the right moment by using technology to move the Hulk around by himself. This Hulk is not a cartoon, he’s a live-action power suit.) In a world where people have more or less stopped believing in distant personifications of good and evil and started believing only in their own right to evolve, this in itself is a significant evolution.
Creating this dynamic allows Whedon to bypass the hoary old cliches about clashing allegiances and origins and focus totally on clashing personalities — this many badasses in a room is never a good idea, and yet to save the world, it’s obviously necessary. Once these guys learn to play nice, well… I could describe the last half hour of the movie, but not only would it spoil the effect, it would come off sounding like Patton Oswalt describing the menu at Black Angus. Hype, at a certain point, becomes redundant. So even if you’ve already seen Avengers, um, somewhere else, I’m betting the early leak is the best thing that could have happened to this movie — it’s so finely and perfectly calibrated, it demands you worship it in a proper temple. This is no turkey and apple sandwich, or the Gauntlet of Angry Food the movie industry usually shoves down your throat; it’s more like a nine-course tasting menu from a world-class chef. You know, the kind of thing they serve to celebrities. Enjoy.