The Avengers is not really a superhero movie.
You’d be forgiven for being confused. You must have been focused on the costumes, powers, special effects, and, um, I guess the superheroes. And OK, a plot summary makes it sound a lot like a superhero movie: a godlike megalomaniac in a ridiculous helmet obtains a magical object with an awesome name (the Tesseract! Because the hexadecachoron must have been busy), teams up with illegal aliens from another dimension, and tries to Take Over the World, or at least trash Manhattan by means of enormous metallic fantail shrimp, which I think I made the mistake of ordering once. Only The Avengers can stop him! But will they be able to set aside their differences in time?
This last question is the one that occupies most of the film’s nearly two and a half hour running time, before the final act devolves into the humdrum Epic Battle for the Fate of the World that has served as the resolution to every sci fi and fantasy movie for decades. And it’s the one that makes The Avengers less of a superhero movie than a story of People from Diverse Categories Thrown into an Unlikely Situation who then Realize that they have A Lot in Common, or “PDCTUSRALC.” You know what, let’s skip the acronym on this one.
The genre has a great literary pedigree, going at least back to Boccaccio’s Decameron (if the Tesseract weren’t available, then Loki could have stolen The Decameron!) in the 14th century, before getting its English makeover in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales a few decades later. The Decameron featured ten assorted people stuck with each other after trying to escape the Black Death; Canterbury Tales involved a long pilgrimage to the shrine in Canterbury. But Chaucer really invented the notion that circumstances could bring together a set of unlikely travel companions as characters—a knight and squire; a merchant, miller, reeve, and cook; a prioress, friar, pardoner, and summoner; the uncategorizable Wife of Bath, and many others, including, it seems, a fictionalized version of Chaucer himself. The brilliance comes from the schisms and frictions created when people from different social types are forced into confines and conversation with one another.
The genre then takes off in different directions as we move to America in the 20th century. Characters telling their own stories in their own styles gets lost, but pilgrimages or enclosed spaces making strange companions flourished. On the one hand, you’ve got John Ford’s 1939 masterpiece Stagecoach, which finds the 1880s version of the pilgrimage in its title, throwing together a framed outlaw (John Wayne!), a prostitute (with a heart of gold, natch), an ambivalent sheriff, a drunk doctor, an uppercrust wife of an officer (with a secret!), a banker (with a secret!), a Confederate gambler (with a… ah, you know), and a few others. That they’re being menaced with massacre by Geronimo is less of a problem than their own internal conflicts within the coach. On the other hand, you have The Lord of the Rings, another quest that brings together unlikely travel companions and proves that hobbits and men, and even elves and dwarves, could learn to get along. Star Wars and the many other adventure stories pitting knights (Jedi or not), hotheads, princesses, mentors, and aliens against one another seem indebted equally to Chaucer, Ford, and Tolkien.
There’s of course Gilligan’s Island, with its assorted cast, although why the Howells are on the boat is one of the island’s many mysteries, considering that they could have bought and sold a fleet of Minnows.
And there’s that other island replete with mysteries, from Lost, where, in our modern version of the pilgrimage or the stagecoach, an airplane crash brings together the straight man, the hothead, the druggie, and the bad girl, along with novel additions: a pregnant woman, a prepubescent boy, a paraplegic (as we would discover), a couple that speaks no English (or so we thought), an older (interracial) couple, semi-incestuous step-siblings, an ex-Republican Guard Iraqi torturer, an obese bilingual schizophrenic (although supernatural explanations would supersede psychological ones), and many more.
Yet even Lost seemed modeled on another updated version of the Canterbury Tales: reality television, with its cast-to-clash archetypes. And even then, shows like The Real World—for me, the original reality premise from which all the others borrowed–seems less real than a copy of a movie that was supposed to be based on real life: The Breakfast Club.
Here’s the poster’s tagline:
They were five total strangers, with nothing in common, meeting for the first time. A brain, a beauty, a jock, a rebel and a recluse. Before the day was over, they broke the rules. Bared their souls. And touched each other in a way they never dreamed possible.
So think of Avengers as the Canterbury Tales, with awesome weapons. Or Stagecoach, but on that awesome SHIELD flying aircraft carrier. Or The Breakfast Superheroes:
They were six strangers, with nothing in common. A billionaire genius philanthropist. A recluse with anger management problems. A gorgeous spy with a secret. An exchange student who excels at the hammer throw. An ROTC supersoldier who still knows what it’s like to be picked on. And Samuel L Jackson with an eyepatch.[i] Before it was over, they broke the rules. Bared their souls.
And saved the world.
Time: 65 minutes.
Also, for no reason, Baby Seal Avengers!
[i] Although I deeply regret that Jackson/Fury never gets to say, “Avengers assemble, motherfuckers!”