The Avengers is a big, colorful film about big, colorful characters with big, colorful personalities. “Big” and “colorful” sum up the cycle of Marvel franchise kick starters that preceded Avengers. The two Iron Man movies, Thor, Captain America, and The Incredible Hulk vary in quality, but they all bear the same stamp. It’s a style that dates to the days of when Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created the important superheroes of the second half of the 20th century. The Lee-Kirby dynamic is rife with controversy, but the simplest version goes like this: Kirby was the medium-reinventing artiste who drew magnetic visions of near-cosmic melodrama; Lee was the self-mocking writer who filled Kirby’s blank spaces with witty banter and human-scale characters.
At their best, the Marvel movies work in both registers: Iron Man is at once the story of redemption and a hero making fun of his own redemption. At their worst, the Marvel movies are mulch: Think Thor shuttling between world-destroying gods and Kat Dennings making Facebook jokes.
But that schizo vibe — over-the-top melodrama and self-deprecating comedy — is key to every aspect of the movies. Everything except for S.H.I.E.L.D., the semi-omniscient, hyper-dull government agency run by Nick Fury, the frowning Fairy Godmother and deus ex machina of the Avengers franchise.
Samuel L. Jackson first appeared in Iron Man in a throwaway post-credits sequence. Not much happened: Jackson talked, showed off his eye patch, and said the word “Avenger.” Fans squealed, the average citizens scratched their heads. It was fun, and the implication was that future Marvel movies would feature similar Easter eggs. I may be a cynical, but I’m a comic book fan, and I appreciate when major corporations go out of their way to please me.
But Nick Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D. became bigger parts of the Marvel movies as the studio played out its long-game to connect every spin-off. Fury popped up in Iron Man 2 for a pointless scene with the jist of, “Hey, Iron Man! You’re having trouble solving the plot of your movie? Here’s the solution. Cue a montage!” Jackson was mostly absent from Thor — at least in the part of the movie which film academics might term “the sequence before the post-credits sequence” — but that curiously structured film pushed Fury’s underlings at S.H.I.E.L.D. to the forefront for the majority of the second act. (Thor feels like two movies — Thor and Something Something Hawkeye Cameo.)
Avengers is the most S.H.I.E.L.D.-y movie yet, and like all supersecret mega-organizations with a limitless budget, S.H.I.E.L.D. is flavorless — attractive people in matching jumpsuits typing on computers and uselessly firing guns at supervillains. (By comparison, imagine if the original Enterprise was staffed by clones of Uhura and Chekhov, except the Uhura clones weren’t hot and the Chekhov clones didn’t have a Russian accent.)
This isn’t just a problem with the movies — S.H.I.E.L.D. has been a dull plot-delivery mechanism in the comic books for decades. Rule of thumb: If Nick Fury appears, it’s time for the big summer crossover!*
It wasn’t always like this. For a brief but memorable moment in the ’60s, Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D. were the coolest part of the Marvel universe. Artist Jim Steranko had a run with Fury that conceived of him as a superspy in a madcap world, with visuals influenced by psychedelia. It was a surrealist James Bond. It was Roger Sterling taking LSD. Ever since then, on the page and on the screen, S.H.I.E.L.D. has been a drama killer.
Having seen Avengers and enjoyed it, I think Joss Whedon is as skeptical of S.H.I.E.L.D. as I am. Whedon’s work shows an anti-authoritarian suspicion of mega-powerful agencies — think of the men with blue gloves in Firefly, or the mysterious company at the center of Dollhouse. Or, for that matter — minor Cabin in the Woods spoiler ahead — think about Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins in the plot-twist control room.
In a sense, Nick Fury serves as a meta-self-portrait for Marvel itself. The heroes don’t come together because of any dramatic or character arc. They are passive actors in their own storyline, slowly guided together by Nick Fury. Because plot demands it. Praise plot!
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*The current Big Summer Crossover Avengers vs. X-Men was not kick started by a Nick Fury cameo, which might explain why it’s so much fun.