Freedom is a precarious thing, especially if it depends on a "handful of freaks" with serious ego problems. When villainous god, Loki, arrives through a mysterious power source known as the Tesseract, S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) calls on a team of superhero misfits known as The Avengers to defend the earth from his nefarious plans. (Insert comic bubble: "Avengers Assemble!")
Back in the real world, that means director Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Cabin in the Woods) had to juggle seven main characters without giving any of them short shrift. After all, many of these characters recently starred in their own prequels to The Avengers-i.e. Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), and the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo). And in perhaps the greatest superhuman feat of the film, Whedon actually pulls it off. (Shazam!) He has crafted a compelling storyline, characters with depth, and a PG-13 action thrill-ride that will satisfy fanboys and general audiences alike. (Beyond violence, one drug reference and mild cursing contribute to the rating.)
Each of the characters has some personal challenge to overcome: Thor wrestles with concern for his brother, the villain Loki. The Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) flirt with a romantic subplot and struggle to undo the mistakes they've made. The Hulk has to learn to smash people on the other team instead of his own. And Nick Fury maneuvers the minefield of politics, while keeping the Avengers focused on the task at hand.
Perhaps the strongest conflict is between Captain America and Iron Man. (Egads!) Theirs isn't just a clash of personalities but generations. Captain America is a golden boy of the World War II era. Despite having been frozen for 70 years, he was brought back to consciousness by Fury and his gang, and now appears little worse for the wear. Clean-cut and patriotic, Captain America represents the self-effacing, hard-working ideal of the Greatest Generation. When his no-tech, stars-and-stripes costume is called old-fashioned, an agent assures him, "In a time like this, people might just need a little old-fashioned."
In stark contrast (Boo, hiss!), Iron Man Tony Stark is about as far from a patriotic dreamboat as you can get. He's a bad boy from the computer age in a Black Sabbath T-shirt, spouting put-downs and techno jargon like he's still in junior high. And what is he really, apart from his fancy metal suit? In his own words, "genius, millionaire, playboy philanthropist." He is today's American ideal-witty, wealthy, and worldly wise; unafraid to question anyone or anything. And really funny.
Their tension takes shape early when Iron Man upstages Captain America in an early fight with Loki. Thor intervenes, and Stark's volatile personality leads to an all out brawl with Thor, whom Stark calls "Shakespeare in the Park." Captain America-seemingly the only adult in the group-eventually manages to rein them both in. But it's that kind of petty, dishonorable conduct that leaves Captain America with a bad taste in his mouth for Stark.
As the battles play out, Stark has to prove whether he's worth his mettle. Does he have a moral compass as strong as Captain America's? Can freedom survive this new kind of hero?
Here's a hint: Back in battle scene one, Loki tells a group of innocent civilians, "In the end, you [humans] will always kneel." An older gentleman, presumably a survivor of the Holocaust, slowly stands, and says, "Not to men like you." Loki indignantly replies, "There are no men like me." To which the older man quips, "There are always men like you."
Attacking freedom may be a timeless pursuit, but The Avengers offers hope that the current generation isn't ready to kneel just yet. (Take that!)