I have seen The Avengers twice so far, and both times it made me happier than any blockbuster has in quite some time.
Given the amount of money it’s made and that it enjoys a 69 on Metacritic, with 3 major reviewers giving it 100 and two more giving it scores in the 90s, it might seem churlish to spend any time criticizing its critics (like those fans of The Dark Knight who were indignant that Armond White brought down its Rotten Tomatoes rating, even though at this point White isn’t worth taking seriously enough to bother with). Of course, the Samuel L. Jackson/A.O. Scott Incident makes it worse: if responding to critics makes even SLJ seem silly, then it’s probably not going to be a very good look for anyone (though, granted, it would be worse if I had been paid millions of dollars to be in the movie).
I’m going to do it anyway, though, not so much out of fanboy dudgeon as to tease out a few issues around the film and its reception. In doing so, I’m going to bring up some points raised not just by reviewers, but also by friends I’ve spoken about the movie with, namely my friend Kyle. Kyle is not at all hostile to the film- he quite liked it overall- but he raises questions about the position of these films with relation to realism and fantasy that are worth taking a moment to think about. I am also going to tease out a few more issues based on my reactions to it as a reader of superhero comics and as an observer of contemporary Hollywood cinema.
In this first post on The Avengers, I want to address issues around fantasy and reality in the fictional mode of the superhero film, drawing on my ongoing conversations with Kyle. In the second post, I will look more closely at critical response to The Avengers, and end by pointing to a few things about it that I don’t think have received enough attention yet. So with all the usual warnings about SPOILERS being AHEAD (not very specific ones, I don’t think) out of the way, let’s start with the realist, the fantastic, and…
Fantasy/Reality/Spandex, or, Crawdads Over Manhattan!
Kyle quite liked The Avengers, as I say, but he also had some issues with it in terms of the plausibility of the way its central conflicts were played out; at least some of where he is coming from I suspect has to do with his research on videogames and the military-entertainment establishment, which has fostered an interest in military tactics- an unhealthy one, I’d argue, after seeing how distracted he got by tactics, or the lack thereof, in this case.
In Kyle’s defense, his objections aren’t quite so silly as, say, scoffing at the idea of a man who turns into an invulnerable green rage monster. They are more to do with how conflict is constructed and played out in the genre- not just superhero films, but franchise blockbusters in general; specifically, what he sees as certain weaknesses in the way the central conflict plays out. These are to do with the choice of antagonists; specifically, Kyle objects to the fact that the villains seem to be “depicted in the most idiotic way imaginable.” He’s not talking about Loki, he’s talking about the armies of interchangeable goons, the “entirely killable shock troops of apparently low intelligence” zooming about randomly shooting at people. Is this the best plan they can come up with, Kyle asks: “kill off all 7 billion humans by zapping them 3-4 at a time?” Why don’t these invaders try out some proper tactics- cutting off communication, say, or taking some minimal steps to disable any human response before it can begin, striking at some seat of power rather than zapping passersby?
In other words, Kyle asks, why are the villains so weak? Surely if the villains were stronger, so the conflict would be stronger, the threat to All of Planet Earth! scarier, the suspense more engaging. How can such idiotic invaders be truly threatening, he asks? And if they aren’t, if we don’t feel Earth is properly imperiled, how can we properly be awed by the prowess of our heroes? If the invaders are so unsophisticated in their battle plans, why do we even need Earth’s Mightiest Heroes™? Why can’t a regular old run-of-the-mill battalion or two do the trick? For him, the movie cheats its way around this by having the military be extra-ineffectual: Why is it ONLY the Black Widow’s bullets work, not those of any of the police or National Guard? In fact, Kyle says, “contemporary hardware would be able to deal a pretty hefty blow to these invaders, even the crustaceans. Mind you, Manhattan would be demolished. But Earth would probably fare just fine.” The Avengers, though, are meant to represent, and be capable of, more; they are “Earth’s last hope- the only thing standing in the way of annihilation and/or slavery. So if the enemy doesn’t pose that kind of threat, then the importance and (ultimately) awesomeness of the Avengers is diminished.”
In one way, this is a fair point: what Kyle is suggesting would at least make for an interesting variation on this sort of narrative. If the military were shown to be highly competent in their response to the invaders, and were still overwhelmed, then the case for the Avenger Initiative is made all the more persuasively. It will be interesting to see how Joss Whedon or whoever ends up writing the sequel manages to deal with what from the outset seems like a very similar kind of threat (from Thanos, Marvel’s blatant Darkseid ripoff- he’s the big scary dude smiling in the end credits). At the same time, of course, one might also respond in this way: Write yer own damn movie! This film had quite enough to accomplish in its 2.5 hours without getting into any cat and mouse thrust and parry on the part of the heroes and villains- it had to bring that team together in the first place, to draw out the conflicts among them but also give them a credible reason to work together. Indeed, as in any team narrative from The Dirty Dozen to Friday Night Lights, the central conflicts are really within and between the members of that team. That has certainly always been true in the comic: fundamental ideological conflicts between team members is what powers the Justice League (recent writers have highlighted deep divisions between the worldviews and approaches of Superman, Wonder Woman, and Batman, in particular) as well as some iterations of The Avengers (see for example the Marvel Civil War storyline of a few years back, where Captain America and Iron Man ended up on opposing sides in a conflict over the Superhuman Registration Act; one mini-series playing out this storyline was called Avengers Disassembled). This is not only the nature of these narratives, it is where their potential power lays: in allegorizing the ways that groups where the members all share basic goals must nonetheless always negotiate and renegotiate what unites and what divides them. There is room in there for nuances and complexities that narratives about conflicts between outright foes cannot incorporate. There are a lot of resonances to this premise, particularly around the ways in which it allows for an exploration of family dynamics; I’ll come back to this in part 2.
But Kyle is also touching on a larger issue here, because his argument is that live-action comic book movies are nodding to realism while continuing to operate on the most blatantly fantastic comic book logic, a logic that is never much bothered about the credibility or plausibility of the threat. For Kyle, this is having it both ways, and in the end, effective fiction has to choose one or the other. The retort that superhero fiction has never shown any inclination to do so before may not be enough; a problem is a problem, maybe, whether its in the source material or no. But I would go further: I would say that this is the power of the genre. Yes, superhero narratives, as a genre, have always had contemporary urban life as nearly central to its iconography as men in capes, and so the realism/fantasy binary has always been in its DNA. This might be a contradiction, but on the level of form it’s the central contradiction the genre negotiates, just as Structuralist critics argue that genres exist as rituals to negotiate ideological contradictions in a given culture (law and order versus individualism and the struggle for material advancement in the gangster film, for instance: both valued in the culture but hopelessly at odds).
That constant mediation between realism and fantasy is why the superhero form has established a space in which fantasy can operate in the midst of everyday life. Stories keep one foot in relatable experience, yet the fantasy components allow for broad figurative strokes that can render that experience in vivid metaphorical terms, melodramatic terms that render not just specific anxieties but the subjective, life-and-death emotional experience of them. It is far too simple to read these simply as stories about wish-fulfillment, adolescent wish-fulfillment at that, as those unfamiliar with them tend to assume. Indeed, as the genre has matured (along with the aging of its readership), whatever psychic struggles a given hero experiences has taken center-stage because exploring those is more narratively productive, more engaging to long-time readers, and more resonant with a wider range of life-experiences than wishing you were strong enough not to have to give your lunch money to the bully. In fact, the form embodies melodramatic structures that not only allow superhero comics to deal with specific thematic concerns in specific storylines, but that enables the superhero narrative itself to allegorize aspects of the experience of contemporary life: speed, technology, alienation, sociality, power, etc. This is not only what allows ambitious writers of all sorts to impart depth to their tales of the spandex-clad, but also what gives the superhero story an inherent and powerful surrealism (people like Grant Morrison really push this aspect of it). Nor is any of this specific to the comic book as opposed to the comic book movie; for one thing, given the nature and scale of the events on display in The Avengers, I would argue that Joss Whedon is quite conscious of that surrealism, and most certainly that figurative dimension. One gratifying aspect to the success of the superhero movie for a longtime geek like myself is to see how widely these narratives can resonate.
None of that is to say that the edifice would collapse if writers paid more fealty to military tactics, admittedly. But as in fantasy, it isn’t just that there is a ready alibi to any contraventions of reality the writer feels suits the narrative in any given moment- although that too- but also that the strength of the superhero genre is that it can bypass such details (for details they are) to get to the heart of whatever matter is in front of it. From a dramatic point-of-view, its true that more smart villains (as opposed to smarter villains) would be a twist. For his part, Kyle is willing to take on board the idea that the genre is built around negotiating fantasy and reality, and that therefore a certain level of verisimilitude and detail is left aside; he maintains that what is specifically being ignored in this instance depletes the potency of both the bad guys and the good guys.
For me, though, at the end of the day, if you are second-guessing the hordes of outer-space chariot-riding skull-faced goons in The Avengers, you might be paying attention to the wrong thing- even if its not the fact of them but the fine-grained specifics of what they’re up to. If you run out of subtext to think about in the battle scenes, you could pay attention to the style- the emphasis on spectacle and the interplay of the realist and fantastic components give filmmaker a tremendous amount of room to experiment with visual style. Or just look at the surrealism of the mise-en-scène, as enabled by the fantasy mode: you are watching a city where enormous crustaceans are swimming through the air. Embrace the defamiliarization.
Kyle, of course, isn’t convinced, and the question he asks is still an important one: “what is the EMOTIONAL raison d’etre of a film like [this] one? And does it accomplish this through amping up the fantastical, or by grounding it?” Neither, exactly, I say: instead by threading the needle between the fantastical and the grounded. How firmly it sutures you will vary, though, and in the next post I will talk about some critical responses to The Avengers from some awfully resistant viewers.
To be continued.