I am a big fan of Joss Whedon, the head writer and director of the “Firefly” TV series (damn you Fox for cancelling it!), the “Buffy” franchise, another TV series called “Doll House” (again, Fox be damned for cancelling – have you heard the joke “What do you call a good show on Fox? Cancelled”), and several movies including “Serenity” and now “The Avengers.” He also wrote the screenplay for the first “Toy Story” movie. He’s good.
Joss loves to write stories for an ensemble cast instead of “star vehicles” where one person gets all the glory. This is how the Brits tend to approach TV shows and movies too – everyone in the cast, no matter how small the part, is excellent and memorable. And the whole cast works together. There just doesn’t seem to be a lot of ego involved, but rather a real intent to entertain. Same with Joss’s stuff.
So he was the perfect person for “The Avengers,” which assembles a large cast of characters and builds on a series of movies in which several of those characters were the central figure: “The Hulk,” “Iron Man,” and “Thor.” Now these larger-than-life (literally) characters have to stop hogging center stage and work as a group. And Joss builds that problem right into the movie itself. How do you get a bunch of superheroes who are used to doing everything their way to work as a team instead? It’s a process, and there’s a lot of bickering and outright duelling that goes on for a while, until two things happen: everyone realizes that they are not stronger/faster/better than anyone else in the room, so the one person who is able to command not because he is bigger or stronger, but because he has moral strength and knows the right thing to do, steps in and pulls the group together.
But first they all, individually, have to commit to it, and the process by which they all come to want to be part of the team is also beautifully done. At first, other people try to manipulate them into it, which backfires entirely. They have to come to it for their own reasons, and in time they do.
Which is what Agent Coulson, who started out as a minor character in the earlier films, tells the chief manipulator (who happens to be his boss) must happen. I love Agent Coulson, whom Thor calls “Son of Coul” and I spell “Son of Cool.” He is totally cool. In their great wisdom the earlier directors of the other movies (including Kenneth Branagh, who helmed “Thor”) have let this character develop into an important figure. Whedon did something even better: he turned Coulson into the guy who sees into the heart of the issue and so has the power to get people to rethink what they are doing. He even explains to the villain why he will lose; not because of lack of firepower, but because of the hitch in the villain’s own psyche.
Whedon also gives us a glimpse into Coulson’s psyche when we see him interact with Captain America – the guy who becomes the group’s center and leader. Unlike the other superheroes, the Cap is not morally ambiguous. There’s no shades of grey with him; he is a pure soul without ego or secrets. You don’t see a lot of heroes like him in movies these days, and there’s a reason. Cap is from the “greatest generation” that stopped Hitler, but was entombed in ice during WWII and only recently found and thawed out. He stands for all the virtues that we associate with that generation – strength, sureness of purpose, and selfless heroism – without any of the vices we also know they had: he doesn’t drink or smoke, and the farthest he’s gotten with women is a couple of kisses. He is Coulson’s ideal, and there’s a very funny scene where Coulson asks for his autograph and reveals that he has a full set of Captain America trading cards “slightly foxed around the edges” – obviously his most treasured possession.
I’m in awe that Whedon takes the time for this moment in a film where so much is going on and there are so many characters who need to have their turn onscreen. But it isn’t a tangent; it becomes a very important factor in the overall momentum of the film. It is, in a word, brilliant: a shining act of genius. I love this movie because of this one scene. Oh, I was thoroughly entertained by the rest of it, and yes, Whedon does give all the players an “arc” whereby they mature and change into the heroes they have to be. Not to mention lots of fun CGI and explosions and chase scenes and moments where you are sure the hero must have died, but of course he or she hasn’t (Whedon, bless him, loves women who kick ass, and there are two in this movie), and a most satisfying final showdown with the villain after the team finally coalesces. It would have been a good summer blockbuster movie for that alone. Because of Son of Cool, it’s a great one.