The Avengers: We have a Hulk.
No one needs to be told now that The Avengers is unbelievably good, that its in its cinematography, characters, and its sheer awesomeness it has permanently raised the bar for movies, maybe even a la Star Wars. As any geek worth her stake knows, Joss Whedon was the mastermind behind the movie. Whedon is known for all of the aforementioned strengths, but he is also known for his unapologetic feminist stance and his careful attention to gender.
The Avengers has only one serious woman character, that of Black Widow. She is everything that makes a female action star an actual star, without turning into a Lara Croft caricature. She is utterly in control of any situation, both emotionally and physically. She can manipulate gods and look unbelievably hot in a dress, while showing bad guys where they can shove it and clearly maintaining a serious emotional connection with Hawkeye. To all future directors, I beg you to use Black Widow’s character in this movie as a model for every future woman action lead.
But Avengers is really a movie about masculinity. The traditional masculine hero is Brad Pitt or Mel Gibson, a gorgeous, strong man who listens to no one’s authority but his own and travels through the world without letting it touch him or harm him. Yes, James Bond has his ladies, and most other heroes have some sort of emotional connection with a woman to humanize them, but as a whole they do not let their feelings get in the way. A true man is an island.
Whedon uses Avengers to blow this idea apart. The only people who stand alone are Fury and Loki. Loki’s inability to relate to people leads him to choose defeat over surrendering to his brother, and Fury’s manipulative character, his emotionally mercenary character, permanently sunders him from any real attachment. He’s the person who can dip a friend’s prized possessions in blood to use as emotional blackmail.
The heroes of the Avengers were usually protagonists in their own movies, fought the good fight and got the girl. Now they are all thrown together and told to work as a team, and immediately begin to rub each other wrong. They argue constantly, and it’s easy for Loki to begin a crisis which separates them. Having been unable to deal with each other on a personal level, they are literally separated and forced to fight smaller battles. The team comes out as decided losers.
And that’s where Phil comes in. It’s not heroic need or egotism (I’m looking at you Stark) or battle fury that makes the team come together. No female love interest or family member is threatened or killed, triggering an assertion of masculinity and vengeance. It is Phil, who was a good man, who believed in them, who brings them together. They mourn him together, and it is through this emotional bond that they are able to find unity.
And the film makes clear that unity, community, is the only way to victory. Each of the Avengers brings his or her own individual skills to the table; Hawkeye keeps an eye on the big picture and directs the stage, Captain America gives the orders and makes the plans, Black Widow spots the weak spot, Tony empathizes with Loki enough to figure out his plan and makes the sacrifice no one else can make (and also found the gang a good schwarma place—it’s after the last credits end), Thor deals with the long-term plan and throws lightning around—a useful skill—and Hulk smashes. Without all these abilities working in tandem, nothing would have worked. It is a tribute to Whedon’s skill as a writer and director that this dynamic can be felt in every frame of the climactic battle, that amidst all the CGI we never lose track of the characters and they never lose track of each other. It’s a bit hard to see with all the effects, but if you watch a second time around you can see that even though the Avengers are often separated, they are fighting as a seamless team. Without needing to talk, they fall into each other’s rhythms—Tony reflects missiles off Captain America’s shield, The Hulk stabs a scale into the monster and Thor smashes it deeper.
That is the ultimate message of The Avengers—that there is nothing unheroic in working as a team, that there is nothing emasculating about love or community. And to join a whole does not mean to lose your identity—each of the characters maintains their own identities, their own strengths. All Loki has is himself, all he will ever have is himself and his own pain, but scattered as the Avengers are at the end of the film, they will always be able to count on each other.