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From the Wire: The Appeal of the Avengers' Assembly

Criticwire By Matt Singer | Criticwire May 7, 2012 at 6:33PM

How much of "The Avengers" success is thanks to its status as an ensemble film?
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"The Avengers."
"The Avengers."

Now that "The Avengers" is the first movie in history to gross more than $200 million dollars at the domestic box office on its opening weekend, it's time for critics to break it down and try to find the reasons for its success. True, the film has been the subject of a massive marketing campaign, but massive marketing campaigns don't always work. The same studio that made "The Avengers," the Walt Disney Company, just sank hundreds of millions of dollars into "John Carter" and walked away with a massive flop. All of the previous Marvel movies from "Iron Man" to "Captain America" were successful, but none were this successful. So what accounts for this record-breaking juggernaut?

At ScreenCrush, Christopher Campbell puts forward the theory that the film's appeal stems from its status as a story about an ensemble, rather than a single hero. The financial ramifications of this theory are pretty obvious: with four different films feeding into one sequel, you have four different fanbases to draw customers from. But Campbell argues that the idea behind this team is just as appealing as the business behind it:

"The individual heroes band together in a crisis and work as a team to save the world. But it’s actually more than that. They unite as an organization of equals. At one point in battle, Captain America seems like the boss, but really he’s just an instinctive leader in the barest sense, someone offering direction rather than commanding an authoritative hand. In this film, the Avengers and the actors who play them are always peers and distinct in their status as both movie stars and 'Earth’s Mightiest Heroes.' 

A main theme of ‘The Avengers’ involves an anti-authority attitude. The superheroes tend not to obey or even trust Nick Fury, while Fury himself goes against the council above him and his S.H.I.E.L.D. agency. On the other side of good and evil, the bad guys have a definite rank of superiors, with the ultimate manipulating hand remaining hidden until the credits."

Let me say first of all that I'm not sure I completely agree that the actors who play the Avengers are peers, at least in a financial sense. Robert Downey Jr. certainly has more star power than Chris Hemsworth, and Scarlett Johansson draws bigger name recognition than Mark Ruffalo. But Campbell's point about the way the team's dynamics function within the film is a good one. Much is made of whether the Avengers, this assortment of motley individuals, can work together as a team, and in fact Loki's plan -- SPOILER ALERT -- hinges on the idea that putting all these volatile personalities together should result in them destroying each other before they can and destroy him. Accordingly, Joss Whedon spends a lot of time giving each of the characters their due. As the team comes together, he sets aside a few moments for a fight sequence between Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America which ultimately ends in a stalemate. The scene is comic book nerd pandering at its most shameless, but it also serves a thematic function within the story: it proves these heroes are on equal footing. And even Johansson's Black Widow, a spy with no super powers, plays a key role, if not the key role, in defeating Loki.

Campbell is right, too, that the Avengers have an interestingly suspicious relationship with authority. They have no true leader, and they actively distrust the man who brings them together, Nick Fury. At the end of the film -- ANOTHER SPOILER ALERT -- they save the world not on the orders of Fury, but as an act of defiance against him. And Fury, in turn, has his own rebellious activities. What exactly this suggests about our attitudes toward our government and its application of military power in 2012, I'll have to leave for future "Avengers" thinkpieces which, given the film's smashing success, should be readily forthcoming in the days ahead.

Read more of Christopher Campbell's "What Can 'The Avengers' Teach Us About Family and Teamwork?"

This article is related to: Christopher Campbell, From the Wire, The Avengers


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