Monday, May 07, 2012

Chocolate-covered Avengers (or, why i decided to stop worrying and love the Avengers)

One of the first things I did when I got home from seeing The Avengers on Friday was tweet about how it was both awesome fun and entirely superficial.

And that's still true. The film is utterly unrelenting in its action - most of the movie is one extended, real-time, multi-site battle - but absolutely lacking in subtext.

The battle direction is superb, and one continuous shot where the Avengers work together to kill the invading alien horde is surely the single greatest teamwork sequence that I've ever seen. The storytelling is sharp and every seemingly arbitrary storytelling choice - is there any particular reason that Loki's staff must pierce them through the heart? why yes, yes there is - has some sort of satisfying purpose behind it. And the dialogue is written by Joss Whedon, so it's hilarious and wonderful.

But, yeah, it still has all the substance of a marshmallow. There's a shadowy global security organization that wants to nuke New York, but that's what passes meaningful political dialogue. Certainly, there's nothing that approaches the thoughtful engagements with international terrorism, American neocolonialism, and realpolitik that made the source material, Mark Millar's The Ultimates, so compelling. There's no character-work here, either, save for Cap's intro (which they never build on in any meaningful way - that's for his solo sequel, I guess) and a few throwaway lines from Bruce Banner and the Black Widow. In fact, as my friend Noa noted, there's nothing relatable about any of the heroes, and they're all larger-than-life demigods. (I think, again, that Whedon recognized this and tried to make the Black Widow more accessible. But it totally didn't work.)

All that said... I'm starting to think that I missed the forest for the trees. To quote some guy who I saw re-Tweeted on the internets:


Over on the facebook, Geoff Klock said that he "loved the Avengers as a tonic to the dread seriousness of Nolan's Batman". And he's right, because we do need movies like this - and that's especially clear when you see the trailers that precede the Avengers, which are for the next Dark Knight film and the new Spider-man movie. (Unfortunately, it looks like the new Spidey is taking its cues from the Nolan films rather than the Raimi Spider-man series. And I'm gonna make the call right now: that's a big mistake.) 

If every other super-hero film is aiming for overwrought, despair-inducing gravitas, then we should applaud Joss Whedon for going in the total opposite direction. It might "only" be "chocolate covered orgasms rolled in happiness", but if you're going to eat anyway, you can do a whole lot worse than chocolate covered orgasms.


Geoff Klock said...

and don't forget the new Superman:

neilshyminsky said...

Right. Even the choice to go with Henry Cavill - a more chiseled, angular face, even if it still resembles Christopher Reeves' - is surely indicative some plan to put a harder edge on Supes.

One has to wonder, though, whether the Avengers' success is going to have people wondering if this is actually the right direction to follow. Guess it'll depend a whole lot on how the Amazing Spider-man is received.

Nitz the Bloody said...

To be fair, there's quite a bit of discussion from the Avengers about the validity of Fury's mission. Fury's keeping secrets about making WMDs out of Hydra stuff, Cap wants to follow orders but has to follow his conscience when faced with evidence, Tony Stark is insulting Cap for his blind obedience (while blindly following his own faith that every problem has a technical solution), Banner's got a world-weary perspective about SHIELD's hubris, and Coulson goes from an everyman goof to a Christ figure, sacrificing himself for the Avengers' and Fury's sins. When you consider that the Avengers wouldn't have been needed had Fury not fucked with the Cosmic Cube, there's more subversive content here than you might at first think.

Also, both series of the Ultimates ended in an orgy of action scenes, killing faceless enemies, and big budget set pieces (or at least Bryan Hitch's approximation of that). In the end Millar wasn't interested enough in discussing American imperialism when he could just have Hitch draw splash pages of metahuman terrorists being slaughtered.

neilshyminsky said...

I can see your point, but there's nothing in these confrontations that tells us anything new about the characters - we already knew these things about Tony, Cap, and Banner, because they had to face these issues in their own movies. So, it's a good way to ratchet up the tension, but I don't see it doing much more than that. (And Fury's misleading them, sure, but he's still The Good Guy - it's because he doesn't want them to know how ruthless The Shadowy World Leaders are. Pretty benign stuff when compared to The Ultimates, though.)

Fair points about the end of each Ultimates volume, though - with, I guess, the exception of 2.1, which is unrelentingly bleak, even in its action. The end of Ultimates 2 is probably most guilty, in this respect, because the very valid critiques that were raised about the entire Ultimates project were just swept under the carpet.

Jen said...

there's nothing relatable about any of the heroes, and they're all larger-than-life demigods

Is this necessarily a bad thing? I've always been a big superhero fan but not because I can relate to them. I'm looking to be inspired.

Nitz the Bloody said...

The Ultimates was a brutal deconstruction of the Avengers, the superhero in general, and the way America sees itself versus the way America actually is. However, though it undercut all its big action scenes with that satirical cynicism, the series didn't really offer a valid alternative. Unfortunately, Millar never bothered to offer it, since the best Ultimates 2 could suggest is that the Ultimates be privately funded instead of funded by a government. Thus, instead of America's superhuman army, they become Tony Stark's superhuman army. (One might think that Ultimates 3 was the twisted endgame produced by the first two series, where the fate of the world is in the hands of a bunch of rich people to drugged out and sexed out to actually manage the world's problems).

Of course, this has been a general downhill trend in Millar's writing; thinking that commenting on how bad a genre cliche is is the same as defying the cliche. Ideally deconstruction requires more finesse.

As for the Avengers movie, as much as I enjoyed it, I don't think it's great enough to argue against your point...

neilshyminsky said...

Neil: You're absolutely right about Millar's inability to go beyond criticism, and his inability to close the deal and wrap up his stories in any equally provocative way. There's not much I can say to those points, because they're right.

Jen: But aren't the most inspiring stories the ones about real people who become larger than life? There's very little about these characters that feel real or relatable - they were already super-men when the film started. And we want them to be SUPER, of course, but we also need to be reminded that they're people. We need to feel empathy for them. That got lost, somewhere.

Jen said...

Neil: I see what you're saying. However, I feel that you don't need to empathise or relate to a superhero - you can just as easily make them sympathetic in order to elicit emotional reactions in the audience. I agree that the Avengers did fail to do this or at least only skimmed very lightly over the characters motivations and emotions. But I don't think I need to be able to imagine myself in a characters shoes in order to be inspired by them.

This is probably a totally personal and subjective opinion but I think superheroes and their circumstances can be better when written larger than our lives. The problems and dilemmas of Superman, for example, aren't really relatable. Last of his kind, gifted with powers that he could probably use to rule the galaxy and the slight melancholy he has because he will never really be one of us. Superman is interesting because he's a god that wants to be a man. He loves Lois partly because she makes him feel more human. He's inspiring because he hasn't been corrupted by ultimate power.

I'm not saying that no superhero should be relatable. Captain America, the everyman, the best of us, definitely should be. But I think some, like Thor, are interesting because they exist outside anything we could experience.

I probably think about this stuff too much, to be fair!

neilshyminsky said...

Jen: I don't think you necessarily have to be able to 'be in their shoes' for it to work. I think it's that they need some very human, humble obstacle(s) to overcome. Cap, Iron Man, and Thor both get those in their solo movies, but there's nothing to be overcome in this one, except for the bad guys. (I guess that they need to overcome the urge to behave self-interestedly?)

And I think that you maybe contradict yourself with the Superman example. He's relateable precisely because of that anxiety he feels about where and how he fits. (Except, of course, in treatments like Grant Morrison's Superman, where he's operating almost entirely on that epic-level.)

Jen said...

Neil: I don't think I did contradict myself - I acknowledge Superman's anxiety but I felt that the point of it is that's it's not really relatable. But I think perhaps I am taking the idea of relatability too literally (as in thinking of situations rather than emotions) and I see what you are getting at now.

I like your blog, it's always interesting!

neilshyminsky said...

Ah, okay. Yeah, the problem with the internet will always be that we can't easily sort out a bit of confusion about vocabulary ("what do you mean by 'relatable'?") that would have been resolved in about 10 seconds if we were speaking in person. And thanks for reading the blog!

Nathan Plastic said...

It's interesting to me that you/Noah would criticize the Avengers for not being relatable, or having any "character work" (perhaps I just don't understand what you mean by either term). It seems from much of the fan-generated art/comments on Tumblr (and some other entertainment sites) that the film was hugely appealing to a younger female audience in a way that most other superhero films haven't been. Mostly these fans are talking about/drawing about the relationships between the characters. Do a Google image search for "science bros" for instance (what probably comes up first is my favourite meme, the "get in losers" picture). Sure, it's not high art, but I think that the fact that the Avengers are demonstrably friendly towards each other by the end of the film accounts for a large part of the film's appeal.

neilshyminsky said...

'Relatable' means in the sense that their problems, their conflicts, are on such a massive scale that they don't feel very human. (Part of the problem, I think, is that there are so many characters that you *know* will not die. The Avengers aren't just super-human, they're also invincible.) There is none of that banal, everyday stuff that was the solo movies, in order to make the characters seem grounded. (Even the 'regular' humans, like Black Widow, has a tortured backstory and is clever enough to fool a trickster god.) You don't *need* these things, I suppose, but it's a jarring absence, since it this element was so very present in all the preceding films.

Relatedly, by 'character work' I mean that aside from working out their interpersonal teamwork stuff, the characters don't have internal conflicts, don't change, don't grow. (For instance, Whedon sets up Iron Man's sacrifice like it's a big deal. But of course he was willing to sacrifice himself to save New York. That's actually totally consistent with his character.) Again, not totally necessary, but it's another possible layer that simply isn't there.

But I guess I can see that I maybe discounted the appeal, and the depth, of the bromances in the film. I'll check that stuff out.