We all get the popular culture we deserve. I’ve been invited into the Avengers’ Alliance, a role playing game on Facebook, several times in the last month. This is probably because I’ve achieved minor infamy as a Joss Whedon nerd. I didn’t join the FB game, but I have spent considerable energy speculating on which Avenger I would want to be.
The Hulk? Giant green rage-monster? Pass. I get angry about once a century. Iron Man? Genius millionaire playboy philanthropist? Pass. I couldn’t endure a lifetime with Gwyneth Paltrow. Captain America? Blond upright super-athlete? Pass. I don’t have a stick lodged anywhere in my anatomy. Nick Fury? How will I lust after Samuel L. Jackson if I am Samuel L. Jackson? Even my abundance of solipsism wouldn’t allow it. Thor? Demigods are passé; besides, he’s the dullest god in the Norse canon, for all the lightning and shiver-me thundering. (Now Loki… there’s a possibility, but we’ll get to him later.)
This process of elimination left me with Black Widow and Hawkeye. Whedon’s sidekicks are his greatest resource, as anyone who has watched his television knows: Willow on Buffy; Wesley on Angel;Wash on Firefly; Adele on Dollhouse. These were the people that always stole the show. So I went for The Avengers certain my choice of Black Widow – simple, really, what with her being the only woman in sight – would prove entertaining.
Black Widow is indeed amazing. She gets the best scene and the best quips; her wit bookmarks the entire enterprise. Whedon makes the best of her human abilities. In the beginning she’s Buffy on speed, towards the intermission she manipulates the Big Bad (villain) into a confession, at the end she deadpans “I have a ride”. There’s the movie in three clauses.
Yet my heart was Hawkeye’s as soon as he corkscrewed onto the screen. If there’s anything in Whedonverse better than the sidekick, it’s the redeemed sidekick. The archery, the flinty grin and the best stunt in the movie were mere accessories.
And then there’s the villain, Loki of Asgard, burdened with the gloriously anti-syntactical purpose of freeing humanity from freedom. Whedon’s Big Bads are usually of the nebulous Forces at Play variety, but he retires into tested tropes for this movie. In doing so, he taps into a long tradition within comics of harnessing the Norse gods. The Loki of comics culture is nothing like the Loki of myth or folktales, and purists will wince each time Thor calls out Brother!* like someone out of a post-irony Henry V revival.
This deviance makes Tom Hiddleston’s Loki purely his own creature, and what a divine creature it is: funny, vicious, conniving, vulnerable, beautiful. His Loki is a parody of other Whedon gods — Buffy’s swaggering Glorificus meets Angel’s supercilious Jasmine — reminding the audience that Joss Whedon’s true genius lies in his perennial willingness to laugh at himself.
Whedon’s biggest concession to Marvel moviemaking is that The Avengers has no plot. There simply isn’t any; not a sliver, not a hint, not even a foreshadowing. This capitulation has its benefits — the flying surfboards! the undulating shipworms! the invisible fortress! Apart from Whedon’s great geeky love of violent technology, the other reason to see The Avengers is the temperamental camaraderie between its characters. We see the simmering rivalries and the sudden betrayals; Tony Stark nerdbonding with Bruce Banner and trading insults with Captain Rogers.
These people, the movie tells us over and over, have no business being on same planet, let alone the same floating fortress. How they finally come together is as heart-wrenching as it is predictable.
*In folktales, Loki’s a benign fire spirit dispensing wit and herbal remedies. In myth, he’s a shapeshifting half-breed, and his ‘bloodbrother’ is Odin, Thor’s father. For most of human existence, the disembowelled Loki is pinned to a rock beneath a poisonous snake and thus unlikely to wander Earth armed with the blowstick of destiny.