Way back in 1992, the great saxophonist Branford Marsalis was trying to explain to an interviewer how jazz improvisation always works within constraints. "There's only freedom in structure, my man," he said. "There's no freedom in freedom." Now it might seem like a stretch to some of you, but I think Marsalis' point holds just as true for the great new Avengers movie as it does to Bebop.
Beyond the explosions, sky-cycle-riding aliens and enormous green anti-hero, The Avengers (and the movies which led up to it) achieved a kind of greatness exactly because of its constraints. Like all grand (science) fiction they forced themselves to live within a self-consistent universe of self-consistent rules. Why does that matter? Here is why, take away the superheroes and that's exactly how our universe works: self-consistently and with self-consistent rules.
The Avengers is the culmination of five separate films, beginning with Iron Man in 2008. At the end of that movie, Samuel L. Jackson, playing Nick Fury, the director of S.H.I.E.L.D., appears uninvited at Tony Stark's home and tells him: "I'm here to talk with you about the Avengers Initiative".
True comic fans worldwide swooned a swoon of collective joy. Audiences soon learned to wait through the credits to catch a glimpse of the next step on the road to a final adventure. There was the Incredible Hulk, then Iron Man 2, then Thor and finally Captain America: The First Avenger. Each film introduced essential new story elements and new characters to the Avengers cosmos.
But the creators of this Marvel cinematic universe went beyond characters and shared histories. It's the meta-physics (literally) shaping that universe that makes The Avengers so damn good and so enjoyable. It's a shared sense of rules dictating what can, and can not, happen.
While Gods and their magic play an essential role in the film, the writers were careful to link that magic to a science we have yet to understand. This is a point made explicitly in Thor via Arthur C. Clarke's 3rd Law: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."
Thus the mysterious "Tesseract" driving The Avengers plot is either a divine artifact of great power or a cube containing that most scientific of entities — Dark Energy. Likewise the portals between distant parts of this fictional universe are either the "Rainbow Bridges" of ancient myth or wormholes of modern general relativity. While excellent science advising is one reason these story elements are so engaging, it's the willingness of the series creators to stay within the lines they've drawn for themselves that is just as important. The reason why these lines matter is simple. We already live in a universe with rules.
Once we entered the age of science, magical thinking on a grand cultural scale disappeared. That's what makes politically sponsored prayer vigils to end something like a drought seem like such anachronisms. As a whole, we've come to accept that the universe has rules and our lives play out within their dictates.
When science fiction (or any fiction for that matter) remains true to the contours of its own rules it echoes the reality we inhabit. Star Trek was so successful because it kept both its political and technological universe coherent and consistent.
Bad science fiction (like the original Battlestar Galactica) can't make up its mind about the limits of its own technology, or the socio-political landscape it inhabits. In one episode ships can travel faster than light, in the next they can't, in the one after that they are making hyperspace jumps. The rules change so much that it becomes apparent that there are no rules and it stops being interesting.
And that is where The Avengers shines. Ever since the onslaught of CGI, we denizens of the summertime blockbuster have seen lots of superhero flics. From the flaccid Fantastic Four to the dismal Green Lantern, most of these efforts have been very forgettable. But the Avengers reminds us of something important even as we happily forget ourselves in watching the Hulk batter poor Loki like a ragdoll.
Only by acknowledging how science and technological boundaries limit our stories do we gain the freedom to transcend them and, in the process, invent new narratives of wonderfully heroic proportions.
You can keep up with more of what Adam Frank is thinking on Facebook and Twitter. His latest book is About Time: Cosmology and Culture at the Twilight of the Big Bang.