Sunday, May 6, 2012

On the Big Screen: MARVEL'S THE AVENGERS (2012)

A picture's worth a thousand words, but how much is that in dollars? Figure that out and you might also figure out why movies can never fully reproduce the experience of a comic-book "universe." I've just come back from Joss Whedon's new movie, the culmination of a five-year project requiring five previous movies as set-up and itself costing something like a quarter-billion dollars. It seems to spend every penny over nearly 150 minutes to tell a story that would have been told in how many issues of the Avengers monthly comic book? Comics writers and artists don't tell stories as efficiently (or effectively, in many cases) as they used to, so let's say three issues to match the film's three-act structure. And next month they'll be right back at it, while I'd guess that we won't see the next Avengers movie -- that is, the next one with all these heroes working as a team -- for another three years at least. More Iron Man, Captain America and Thor movies have to be made first, but at Marvel Comics all these titles are coming out at the same time, on the same monthly schedule. It seems unlikely at their pace of production that the Marvel movies could ever normalize superpowered fantasy in the way that gives a comic-book universe its particular feel. That may be a good thing, since a movie studio wants each of these expensive pictures to be a special event in a way that the regular monthly comic usually isn't, despite the compulsion of comics writers today to try to make every story a life-changing or game-changing event for their characters. Another problem is one of scale. It used to be assumed that movies could not recreate the pictorial magic of the best comics artists, but Marvel's The Avengers (so it's named in movie timetables) turns the tables on past assumptions and sets standards of spectacle that the comics must scramble to match. The major problem here is the possibility that movie audiences will be disappointed should the moviemakers attempt stories closer to the normal stuff of comics. But when you give the people an alien invasion in your first film, will they have patience when the Avengers some time battle a handful of super-powered people, as they usually do in print? It was somewhat disappointing to see Whedon resort to impersonal, virtually faceless aliens as his primary threat (albeit stewarded by comics big-bad and "adopted" Norse god Loki), but the sheer spectacle of the battle in Manhattan between the aliens and the Avengers earns the franchise a pass this one time. If they keep coming back with faceless armies for the Avengers to fight to generic Alan Silvestri music, there's going to be a problem.

As Marvel Studios prepares for the next cycle of movies the idea people need seriously to address the need for supervillains. Their record in the first cycle has been mixed -- the Iron Man films have suffered from the presumed need to put their menaces in armor,-- though they picked their best man, Tom Hiddleston, to play the villain in the big picture. However, they clearly didn't think Hiddleston could carry things himself, even with Loki's previously-unexpressed yearning for worship by mortals. That's got to change in the future. I don't mean that one person should be able to go toe-to-toe with all the Avengers, but that the Avengers need to fight people with personalities, because faceless aliens will get tired fast. Marvel has already shown its future hand in the usual mid-credits sequence, but as most viewers won't have a clue who was shown I don't know how exciting his appearance has been. I'm tempted to spoil it but I'll restrict myself to warning against anyone staying for the post-credits bit -- it's kind of a joke on us that ends the experience on a flat note. Anyway, we're not seeing the guy in the form he'll take but they need to think about casting major actors as more credible villains -- people who can fly and wreak havoc without armor -- because villains are at the heart of superhero comics. Superhero combat is Homeric. It is personal and usually involves a lot of epithets getting tossed around along with bodies, cars, buildings, etc. This is something movies should be able to do if filmmakers can resist the temptation to swamp their heroes with anonymous hordes and giant critters in pursuit of conventional spectacle. Eventually you want Avengers to be something different from Battleship, after all.

An air of inevitability has hung over this picture -- obligation almost seems like the better word. It was an arbitrary improvisation for Stan Lee to have Jack Kirby unite a number of early Marvel Age heroes in one book for no organic reason following no build-up whatsoever, though the example of DC's Justice League of America probably loomed before them. Lee has said that the JLA was his employer's inspiration to launch the Marvel Age itself, Lee and Kirby's first idea for a super-team to match it being The Fantastic Four. But if there was no reason apart from a corporate imperative to invent an Avengers comic, that's a different story from the forced nature of the team's formation in the movies. No hint of spontaneity remains, but that doesn't mean we can't salvage entertainment from the project. All eyes turned to Joss Whedon, who is credited with a super power of his own: breathing life into genre conventions. Time magazine recently ran a mildly ridiculous puff piece praising Whedon for "deconstructing" genre TV during his run on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, though he did little there that hadn't been done already on Xena, Warrior Princess. But if by "deconstruction" Time means replacing one set of cliches with another, it's a fair statement. If Whedon has had an impact on pop culture it's been to make the traditional lone hero just about obsolete. Every dramatic show these days, it seems, surrounds its protagonist(s) with a "scooby gang" of friends and helpers, and the shows become ongoing chronicles of all their relationships rather than a sequence of essentially self-contained adventures or mysteries involving an essentially unchanging hero. Buffy is where I saw that start to happen, and I suppose Whedon's influence and his love for comics made him a perfect choice to write if not direct the high-stakes Avengers movie. But he wasn't a bad choice for director, either, since writing comics (most notably Astonishing X-Men) enhanced his ability to visualize superhero action. That doesn't mean that his fight scenes are uniformly good or even clear, but he does display an eye for the heroic or epic image. I'm thinking of Clint Barton (Jeremey Renner) poised to bring down a massive airborne carrier ship with an arrow, or Loki surveying an alien attack on New York from the roof of a skyscraper, or Natasha "Black Widow" Romanov (Scarlett Johanssen) hijacking an alien attack vehicle from the ground.

If anything, Whedon stumbles more as a writer than as a director -- though one wonders how much someone like him actually directs those sustained CGI action scenes. Avengers sags in the middle, after all the characters are assembled, once Wheedon has to figure out reasons for the heroes to argue with one another. I actually had fewer problems with the already-maligned forest fight scene between Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) and Thor (Chris Helmsworth), since it was plausibly motivated by Thor's rash attempt to snatch the captive Loki (don't ask, watch the film) from the team in order to dispense Asgardian justice upon him. This is the sort of conflict of wills that leads to fights between heroes all the time in the comics. Afterward, the good guys descend to mere bickering as Whedon halfheartedly rings the changes on the old theme of untrustworthy institutions. Tony Stark and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo settles comfortably into the spaceholder role for the Hulk with an "it's your funeral" attitude toward everything) get worked up over the notion that Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson and his ludicrous coat) had been developing weapons for use against superpowered threats, thinking themselves the most likely targets, while Stark antagonizes Captain America (Chris Evans really gets the short end here amongst all the flamboyant thespians) apparently out of sheer contrariness. They can't stop arguing even after Natasha tells them that Loki wants them to fight among themselves, and she can't help joining in. This bickering is where Wheedon is supposed to shine, but it feels dutiful rather than sincere or even witty. It seems designed to illustrate that the team doesn't yet have the right attitude -- isn't yet truly a team -- but once the heroes learn their lesson you wonder whether Whedon had learned his.

"This wasn't going to work unless they had something to..." are someone's dying words, and we could probably all fill in the mortal blank with the word "avenge." Which brings up the absurdity of the team's name. "Avengers" is a peculiar name for the group -- just as "Avengers Assemble!" is a peculiar battle cry to utter when the team is already assembled -- because Iron Man, Thor, Hulk, Ant-Man and the Wasp (the original comics team; Cap isn't thawed from the ice and initiated until issue #4) don't have anything in particular to avenge. If anything, the name suggests a general settling of scores on behalf of the victims of crime or conquest -- and one presumes that the movies' Nick Fury has something like that in mind when he coins the "Avengers Initiative" at the end of Jon Favreau's Iron Man (2008). But that's not enough for Whedon. In what may have been his most personally characteristic touch in the entire picture, he made things personal for the team -- though how personally they take the provocation may seem like a stretch to some viewers. I found it a sour note in the proceedings, a touch that shouldn't have been necessary. Everything seems personal these days in heroic fiction, and it shouldn't have to be that way. Our heroes shouldn't have to have someone die on them to get their act together, just as they shouldn't need SHIELD or Nick Fury himself as managers or guidance counselors. An institutional mentality prevails at Marvel in all media these days, an ironic reversal following the comics' staging of a "Civil War" against the registration of superhumans (pitting Iron Man [pro] against Cap [con]) a few years ago. Maybe Disney's ownership of Marvel has something to do with this, though I can't imagine corporate attitudes trickling down to comic-book writers. All I know is that modern Marvel doesn't feel much like the Marvel comics I read as a kid or the older comics I read in anthologies -- the scrappier, more streetwise alternative to DC Comics. DC has lost a lot of its old identity, too, -- the classic crossover JLA-Avengers miniseries from just a decade ago with its clash of company worldviews, optimistic yet "fascist"-seeming DC against persecuted and "malcontent"-seeming Marvel, would be incomprehensible today. Marvel seems too corporate now for any big-budget movie to approximate the true Marvel Age feel, but that doesn't mean that Marvel's The Avengers is a joyless prefab product. Whedon quit often taps into the vein of fantasy that keeps superhero comics going, and has a strong sense of the pure gag that's sure to please the audience. His movie was meant to show comics fans things they'd always wanted to see rendered in moving pictures, and for the most part he's done that. But Marvel can't stop there, and why should they after the blockbuster global and domestic opening weekends for their baby? Can they top themselves? Do the moviemakers know how? Comics writers would, but this brings us back to our original questions. What will it take to top Avengers for the general movie audience -- the people who don't know who that guy is in the middle of the credits and why he smiles at the thought of courting death?  Until we know the answer, and despite the apparent smashing success of the experiment so far, whether movies can truly imitate comics, for good or ill, remains to be determined.

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