The claim that the superhero genre is not inherently moronic, implicit in my first post on The Avengers, is still a contentious one, even after not only some 35 years of modern superhero movies, but also 30 years’ worth of “Hey! Comics Aren’t Just for Kids Anymore!” headlines in the popular press. The association of superhero comics and children is one reason why comics have such a tenuous First Amendment status, and that’s just one of many gripes indie comics publishers have with men and women in tights. No matter how many ambitious writers attack the genre, the indie comics intelligentsia has refused to grant superhero comics any legitimacy. That indie comic creators and journalists resent the superhero comic is understandable, given how dominant that one genre is, but their intellectual disdain for it has always struck me as parochial and blinkered.
I congratulate those of us who think about movies for a living for having got past genre-prejudice decades ago; what is dismissing an entire genre but mere cultural politics? (Haven’t any of these people read Bourdieu?)
Yet even if any given classical Hollywood genre gets its due, that doesn’t necessarily mean a contemporary one will get the same. The superhero film gets less respect from film critics than the comics do from literary critics; worse, in fact, in that few film critics display any recognition that anyone anywhere might possibly take superhero narratives seriously. A lot of this has to do with literary bias operating on various levels. Contemporary film critics still have little regard for action films, or other sorts of predominantly visual cinematic forms. As Jack Smith put it, “Film critics are writers, and they are hostile and uneasy in the presence of a visual phenomenon.” Dialogue scenes they understand; visual style they do not; spectacle they are actively hostile towards. Then it’s on top of that we have to add in a distrust of the source material, seeing it as the most crotchety Comics Journal scribe does: puerile wish-fulfillment fantasies for acne-scarred boys of all ages. Both the indie-comics proselytizers and most movie reviewers share a bias to literary naturalism, and the sight of costumed heroes against the backdrop of the outlandish spectacle endemic to the genre preempts any notion of bringing any real critical acuity to bear. Andrew O’Hehir, in his “Will Superhero Movies Never End?,” provides an ideal example of this: “the pretense of mythic grandeur can’t stand up to the fundamental teenage-boy, men-in-tights silliness of the whole enterprise.” In one swipe, O’Hehir dismisses the movie under examination, without ever looking closely at it, simultaneously waves away literally mountains of serious work in the genre, and congratulates himself for doing so. In this context, sweeping, reductive generalizations and willful ignorance are put forth as proof of the fact that he is a mature adult and fans of the film must not be.
When they actually do talk about the film, the harshest critics of The Avengers end up falling back on clichés about blockbusters that have been circulating since the 1970s, and which have been substantially discredited in serious film scholarship. This is what I want to write about here: it’s banal and obvious to claim that film critics are out of touch with mass tastes; not necessarily wrong, but not necessarily salient, either. (Plus, O’Hehir is waiting for it, having tried to preempt anyone who would “render any and all detractors as pipe-smoking William F. Buckley squares, defending a nonexistent Establishment.”) It’s a bigger problem when critics are out of touch with scholarship on film, and because of intellectual and taste prejudices are unable to adequately engage with the film under discussion.
For some, the continued rude health of the superhero film goes beyond “professional cross to bear” into “psychological torture.” Every summer sees another film critic bemoaning the continuation of the genre, even as a) the general moviegoing public persists in ignoring Bela Tarr or Jafar Panahi, and/or b) the studios continue not to mount saturation releases for the likes of Once Upon a Time in Anatolia or The Mysteries of Lisbon. Really, this is one of those things that reminds one of the continuing relevance of Andrew Sarris: in critics at the Chicago Reader, LA Weekly, and the Village Voice, as much as in any long-forgotten curmudgeons of Sarris’ day, we see the lingering shadow of the “forest critic.” “It is the system he blames for betraying the cinema…. Somewhere on the western shores of the United States, a group of men have gathered to rob the cinema of it’s birthright. If the forest critic be politically oriented, he will describe these coastal conspirators as capitalists. If aesthetically oriented, he will describe them as philistines. Either way, an entity called the cinema has been betrayed by another entity called Hollywood…. The forest critic cannot help wondering what would happen if these buildings [movie theaters] were consecrated to what he considers to be genuine art.” The issue is not whether or not more people should see films by Tarr, Panahi, Ruiz, or Ceylan- of course they should. When Dan Kois wrote “Eating Your Cultural Vegetables” for the New York Times Magazine, his diatribe against having to watch art films, complete with sideswipes at the snobbery and/or hypocrisy of those who profess to genuinely take pleasure in them, others were quick to rush to the defense of demanding cinema, as well they should. When it comes to the reverse, though- to defending the superhero movie or other blockbusters against critics who seem as unable to come to grips with them and what they are trying to do as Kois is with Tarkovsky- we are left with shrill internet crazies who not only don’t make particularly persuasive arguments, but tend to confirm the worst stereotypes of fanboys and philistines. The problem with Kois’ piece in the first place was it seemed to reassure people that they shouldn’t have to make an effort to understand things, and that people who claimed to were probably just poseurs anyway. But understanding what’s going on, what to look for in Hollywood films, that takes a bit of work too, even if they don’t demand it of you as part of the admission price.
To understand superhero movies, to judge them on their own merits and flaws rather than to wish that they were doing something else entirely, to see what is or is not interesting in a given case, requires an openness and willingness to approach them on their own terms. To quite a few critics, though, everything about The Avengers is to be tolerated at best, bemoaned at worst, and mistrusted above all. As the culmination of a corporate strategy that has been playing out since the first Iron Man, branded as such right in the title (Marvel’s The Avengers), it got read as a corporate property but not as a film (a political economy reading rather than the poetics it deserved). With at least two more major superhero franchise entries to come in the Northern hemisphere’s summer season, the discontent of these critics has spilled over into an active resistance to eating your cultural nom-noms, with The Avengers taken in some quarters as symptomatic of larger, darker trends. For A.O. Scott, it is proof that while the superhero movie is still “in a period of commercial ascendancy, [it] has also entered a phase of imaginative decadence.” Predictably, Scott praises the dialogue scenes (at which Whedon is undeniably gifted), but doesn’t recognize that the climactic action scene completes the character drama without relying on that dialogue. The unified, coordinated actions of the team as they fight the Chitauri (and the end-credits shawarma-eating, cruelly denied to audiences in my part of the world) resolve their conflicts more elegantly and cinematically than dialogue ever could, showing a fully functioning “family” at last (it’s actually rather sweet on one level). But for Scott, the battle scene is one of “grinding, hectic emptiness,” marked not by what is in fact extraordinarily elegant staging and camerawork, notable for its clarity as well as its kinetic impact, but instead by “bloated cynicism.” In fact, the accomplished craft that has gone into such a scene would seem to indicate anything but cynicism- rather, a sincere effort to make an action scene that is satisfying on multiple levels- but the very idea of talking about an action scene in terms of “levels” would already get me laughed out of Lincoln Center.
The cynicism Scott finds, though, indicates a kind of incredulity that runs throughout a number of The Avengers’ negative notices: they can’t believe that anyone put any genuine artistic effort into this thing, and they can’t believe that any viewer could genuinely, thoroughly enjoy it. Stephanie Zacharek writes, “The idea, maybe, is that people already love Captain America, Iron Man, the Hulk and Thor so much — like, so, so much — that all a filmmaker really needs to do is put them all into a big stock pot filled with elaborate set pieces and some knowing dialogue and he’s golden. And maybe, given the heightened-lowered expectations of movie audiences, that really is all he has to do: It’s possible to have looked forward to a movie all year, to enjoy watching it, and then to have completely forgotten about it the following week.” Scott Foundas asks of the enthusiasm for The Avengers, “is that the sound of genuine excitement or merely relief?” For O’Hehir, audiences don’t enjoy the film, they “yearn to believe” it’s enjoyable. You are deluded, for you have convinced yourself you are having a good time; but, so he tells us as he continues the most condescending passage I have read in film criticism in quite some time, to him, “it’s my job — and, I guess, my inclination — to stand outside those tidal currents and view these big spectacles dispassionately.” Audiences aren’t willing to do this, he thinks, and that must be why they like this movie. “To praise the movie lavishly, as so many people have done and will continue to do, basically requires making endless allowances. It’s really good (for being a comic-book movie). It’s really good (for being almost exactly like dozens of other things). It’s really good (for being utterly inconsequential).” At one stroke, O’Hehir dismisses comic books, movies based on them and the sensibilities of the audience for them; they are fannish apologists carried away by their childish enthusiasms, whereas he is able to bring a mature, objective eye to bear upon such farragoes. O’Hehir most obviously manifests what runs just a millimeter further from the surface in Zacharek and Foundas, a version of the “No true Scotsman” fallacy: no audience of clear-eyed grown-ups could possibly enjoy The Avengers, and therefore….
For his part, at least Jim Emerson admits a personal bias: “I generally find it difficult to care about superheroes and the movies that franchise them.” His gesture of largesse to audiences who do is to quote Leonard Maltin on the Captain Marvel serials having been made for 10-12 year old boys, who naturally excused them a few of the more egregious faults. For anyone else, The Avengers doesn’t have much to offer, and certainly not for serious students of the cinema: “My own hunch is that it’s not going to be subjected to much in-depth critical analysis. Not of its aesthetics, anyway. Somebody might write about how it changed the movie business (if it does), or study the mythology of the “Marvel Cinematic Universe,” or examine the technologies used in making it, but they’re not going to study the filmmaking, which is serviceable but little more.” Foundas isn’t paying any attention to the aesthetics at all, it would seem, for him to write that hiring directors from TV, like Whedon and J.J. Abrams, “is bringing us a lot of movies that look and feel like big-screen television.” A consideration of TV’s budgetary restrictions and consequent avoidance of large-scale action scenes, the extent to which the stylistic lines between TV and film have been blurring since the 1960s, Whedon’s and Abrams’ indulgence in specifically cinematic techniques precisely in order to mark their films as distinct from their televisual work (the former’s camera mobility, and most overtly the latter’s crush on lens flare), and the sheer scale of their films, all render this the single most absurd sentence written about the film.
Even O’Hehir is willing to grant that Whedon is “one of the most experienced storytellers of our time,” not for his directing but for his writing, for the TV shows he created, produced, and in large part wrote. You would expect more attention to be paid to the writing, then- to his distinctive dialogue, to his working out here of themes to do with quasi-family groups linked by shared responsibilities- but because this is an action-oriented blockbuster, writing is presumed to be, if not irrelevant in the first place, then rendered so by the emphasis on visual spectacle. As when Scott bemoans the way the cleverness of the dialogue is slammed repeatedly into the ground much as the Hulk does to Loki (“Puny words!”), so ultimately the foundation of the harshest criticism here is that leveled at action- and spectacle-oriented cinema in general, and right from the get-go. Zacharek sees it as a film that has “has forgotten that the whole point of reading comic books is for story and character development.” For her, this isn’t any more narratively sophisticated that boys playing with dolls: it’s “a kind of G-8 summit for action figures who have finally been allowed out of their cellophane boxes. They do action stuff, then they talk a little, then they do more action stuff.” The reason the movie is so forgettable, in her estimation, is that action so dominates story that it rips the story apart: “The picture is broken down into narrative chunks that ultimately don’t tell much of a story – what you get instead is a series of mini-climaxes held together by banter between characters.” And banter is not the same as character development. (The thing is, and I know this is a tangent, I can’t help but noting how wrong she is about Black Widow; she writes that “she’s quickly relegated to the superhero back burner,” when in fact she is nearly as much a focal point as anyone else here.)
Foundas echoes Zacharek’s complaint that The Avengers is forgettable: “After two-and-a-half hours of world-threatening chaos and world-saving derring-do, you leave the theater satisfied, but without so much as a single memorable image (or idea) lingering in your mind.” It’s a diagnosis of the film’s problems by way of short-term amnesia: the action so overwhelms any sort of actual storytelling for him, he is unable to remember whether it was there in the first place. O’Hehir, too, is left unsatisfied by the barrage to which he has been subjected: “in trying to cram in enough plot and back story and increasingly incoherent action sequences for at least three summer movies, Whedon never finds a confident or relaxed narrative pace, and the results are exhausting, a picture that pushes three hours and feels like five.” The sensory overload preempts any possible coherence or unity or felicity of storytelling. Rick Gruen is perhaps most explicit in claiming that spectacle robs the film of narrative sense: “Of course, so does the budget and, like every self-respecting blockbuster, this model comes with the expected 3-D bells and CGI whistles – all the costly stuff that is guaranteed to put the lavish into the spectacle even as it seems, inexorably, to drain the sense from the plot and the interest from the characters. Expected too is the result: a kind of sterile opulence or, if you prefer, a magnificent emptiness.” These aren’t even really films anymore, says Emerson; “as we’ve been saying year in and year out about certain kinds of fantasy-action-science-fiction blockbuster attempts since the late 1970s, they’re more like amusement park rides (and they eventually become those, too) than movies.”
This formulation- the narratives fall apart, so these are not movies but rides- is one that has been leveled at blockbusters for nearly 40 years, going back at least as far as Jaws. Writing on the preceding decade for American Film, Morris Dickstein excoriated the post-Jaws blockbusters as “money machines” made with “heartlessly slick technique.” In American Film Now (1979, rev. 1984), James Monaco called it “the Bruce esthetic”: “The Bruce esthetic is visceral- mechanical rather than human. Films like Jaws that fit it are machines of entertainment, precisely calculated to achieve their effect- at the box office as well as inside the theater.” For the next 20 years, these ideas ping-ponged through both journalistic and academic writing on contemporary Hollywood. Richard Schickel complained in 1989 that “what we get… [in these films] is not narrative as it has been traditionally defined, but a succession of undifferentiated sensations… there is in fact no authentic emotional build-up, consequently no catharsis at the movie’s conclusion.” Because spectacle so dominates the aesthetic of these films, “we are left without consoling coherences of old-fashioned movie narrative, left with anarchy, picking through the rubble it leaves in its wake, wondering what hit us.” Mark Crispin Miller kvetched in 1990 that “today’s American movies work without or against the potential depth and latitude of cinema, in favor of that systematic overemphasis deployed in advertising and all other propaganda.” Peter Biskind opined in 1990 that Lucas and Spielberg had attempted to return to classical Hollywood storytelling, but that “the attempt to restore traditional narration had an unintended effect- the creation of spectacle that annihilated story. The attempt to escape television by creating outsized spectacle backfired, and led to television’s presentational aesthetic.” (Here too invoking television seems at least as much to do with television’s lower currency as with any actual resemblance between TV and blockbusters.) Of course, reviews of individual films rehearsing this old saw are numberless.
Academics took much the same line. For example, in an essay which appeared in Jon Lewis’ 1998 New American Cinema anthology, Fred Pfeil claimed that the classical model of narrative development has been “superseded…by the amnesiac succession of self-contained bits and spectacular bursts.” Timothy Corrigan wrote in 1991’s A Cinema Without Walls that the contemporary blockbuster featured an “extraordinary exaggeration of narrative incident, character-images, and technical form to the extent that the excessive quality of these elements usurps any motivational significance.” In an essay whose title, and that of the book it appeared in, speak for themselves- “Twenty-Five Reasons Why It’s All Over” in Jon Lewis’ anthology The End of Cinema As We Know It (2001)- Winston Wheeler Dixon described what’s been happening as “the collapse of narrative.” Descriptions of narrative fragmentation have featured heavily in writing by Thomas Schatz (in Film Theory Goes to the Movies, 1993), Justin Wyatt (1994), and James Schamus (in the Contemporary Hollywood Cinema anthology, 1998).
In the popular press, Blockbuster (2004) by one-time Sunday Times critic Tom Shone has been the only serious counter to critical orthodoxy (though the downside is that he doesn’t seem to care at all for art cinema; why do critics persist in thinking there is an inevitable divide on that score?). But in academic film studies, few who engage in the serious study of contemporary cinema still maintain the argument that the blockbuster is hopelessly fragmented anymore. In the same 1993 volume as Schatz, Jim Collins argued that the likes of Schickel and Miller were stuck in 19th century notions of the well-made realist narrative, and that “these technophobic denunciations of media ‘overload’ never even begin to address the distinguishing features of recent popular narratives,” namely that the semiotic excess should be seen as attempting to grapple with that of media-saturated contemporary life. In The Way Hollywood Tells It, David Bordwell showed that while contemporary Hollywood pursues variations on the formal and stylistic paradigms of the classical period, it is still a storytelling cinema, and one in which familiar narrational patterns and devices still hold. Warren Buckland (first in the same volume as Schamus, then in a 2006 monograph) has shown that Steven Spielberg, in many ways the exemplar of the modern blockbuster, nonetheless makes consistently canny use of techniques of narration. While Bordwell reminded us that blockbusters are by no means all that Hollywood makes, Geoff King gave us a sustained look at the interplay, and specifically the interpenetration, of narrative and spectacle in the blockbuster. Quoting Rick Altman, he pointed out that there is no opposition between narrative motivation and spectacle: “Decide which spectacles are needed, then make it seem like they are there for internally motivated reasons.” Hollywood has been doing that for ever. In contemporary cinema, King argued, “The ‘excessive’ quota of spectacle is a source of pleasure in its own right, and one that merits attention as a distinct component in this kind of film. It is rare, however, for spectacular audio-visual display to be unleashed more than fleetingly in Hollywood without bearing some relation to narrative dynamics.” Spectacle needs a narrative armature to have any impact; narration can be deployed alongside spectacle; and, what is an action scene but a culminating moment in a dramatic conflict between a goal-oriented protagonist and an antagonist?
Generally, academia has a reputation as lagging behind the popular press in paying attention to cultural developments. Partly that’s because it takes us a lot longer to get a piece published. When we do, though, there’s at least a chance some of us will get it right, because we’ve had the time and inclination to think about it carefully. It’s been 37 years since Jaws came out, and in that time academics have come a lot closer to the mark on the modern blockbuster than almost any critic has.
Researchable Questions, or, “Almost Exactly Like Dozens of Other Things”?
One thing that both the positive and negative coverage of The Avengers has in common is that few see much worth commenting on, at least not in the film itself (as opposed to, say, The Avengers as Industrial Phenomenon, or The Avengers as Critic-Proof Movie). To some, it does its job extraordinarily well, to others it doesn’t, to still others that job doesn’t deserve any respect to begin with. The end. But I think there is more to be said about it than that, and certainly more than I can say here. Yes, its production and marketing deserve a full-scale exegesis, but there are textual questions too.
-What about The Avengers as a Joss Whedon film? Once Marvel set it in motion, this juggernaut has been barreling towards us, fueled by truckloads of cash and seemingly unstoppable. That’s the political economy view again. But here’s another view (the auteurist view, maybe, or even just the neo-formalist view): there was no reason it had to be particularly good. It is, though, and a great deal of the credit for that has to go to Joss Whedon, the writer-director. Whedon is already a fascinating case of contemporary transmedia authorship; how does The Avengers fit into his work? Certainly family dynamics have been at the heart of all of his television work- Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly, Dollhouse– just as they are in The Avengers. He has spoken of this as his chief interest in making it: “These people shouldn’t be in the same room, let alone on the same team — and that is the definition of family.”
Nor is that the only recurring element; as Keith Phipps notes in the most perceptive review of The Avengers I’ve read (and, yes, the most enthusiastic), “other recognizable Whedonisms arrive intact, including a distrust of authority that extends to the ostensible good guys and an unfailing ability to switch between effervescent lightness and wrenching emotion.”
What is and isn’t distinctively Whedonesque in The Avengers? Besides his writing, how is he developing as a director of performers and a visual stylist? Compare this to any of Michael Bay’s Transformers films, and the clarity of the action scenes is striking- and well-suited to a team film, where the relative positions of each member are crucially important. Indeed, that clarity, firmly within what the “Intensified Continuity” style, makes The Avengers an interesting case for anyone writing on contemporary film style. It is even something even some critics recognized, like Joshua Rothkopf: “The action scenes—blissfully easy to follow—are where Whedon makes the giant leap into the big leagues.”
Ultimately, where the film is most successful, and here deserving of study, is the way it balances, sometimes toggling between and sometimes bringing together, spectacle and narrative. Richard Corliss writes of this when he says that The Avengers aims not for “transcendence,” only for “the juggler’s skill of keeping the balls smoothly airborne. At that it succeeds.” Phipps, too, singles this out: “The Avengers is big but graceful, carefully balancing small character moments with action scenes that stretch from the New York pavement to the sky and beyond.” He goes on: “Remarkably, given that sprawling cast of characters, everyone gets their due. Yet compelling as each character is in his or her own right, the real pleasure comes from the unstable chemistry of putting them together.”
-What about The Avengers and serial narration? It is nothing new for series films to carry on plot elements from one film to the next, but The Avengers is a complex piece of serial narration, the last element in a series that crosses at least four other franchises (Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Hulk; but I would happily go to a Black Widow/Hawkeye movie, too), each of which had their own stories to tell. As a first entry in a separate series cutting across the others, the elements of continuity were not so strong in The Avengers as in The Lord of the Rings, but far more so than, say, James Bond. More episodic than the former and more serialized than the latter, The Avengers felt like the series finale of a TV program balancing episodic and serial narration. Scholars of TV narrative and scholars of film series should have quite a bit to talk to each other about here.
-As when Scott speaks of “imaginative decadence,” O’Hehir sees the superhero film not just as exhausting, but exhausted: “It’s a diminished form that has become formula, that depends entirely on minor technical innovations and leaves virtually no room for drama or tragedy or anything else that might make the story actually interesting.” But I would argue the exact opposite, that the superhero film has now reached maturity, becoming a stable paradigm that can sustain films as divergent and idiosyncratic as Iron Man, The Dark Knight, Kick-Ass, Thor, Captain America, and The Avengers.
From the hyperbolized realism, ultra-violence, and black humor of Kick-Ass, to the looseness and incorporation of improvised character moments of Iron Man 1 and 2, to the combination of Shakespearean theatricality, high-fantasy world-building, and lavishly stylized production design of Thor, the superhero film has achieved as broad a range as its generic constraints (action, spectacle, costumes) will allow, and as rich a body of possibilities as any in contemporary studio cinema. There is much more to be written about how this form has developed and been varied since Superman in 1978.
O’Hehir says that “Right up to the end of The Avengers, I carried with me the faint hope that this really would mark the conclusion of this particular epoch-spanning series of hyperinflated comic-book spectacles.” For me, though, it was quite the opposite. I’m going with Phipps (who maybe I should also say was my videostore clerk when I was in Madison) on this one instead: “just as Star Wars helped bring the dreams of science-fiction fans into the world at large in the ’70s, in the years since X-Men, the distinction between fans and general audiences has gotten thinner and thinner. Maybe that’s what happens in a golden age. “ If this does continue to be a sustained Golden Age for the superhero movie, though, it’s still probably too much to hope that the line between scholars and critics will get thinner too.
Peter Biskind. Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock ‘n’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1998
David Bordwell, The Way Hollywood Tells It: Story and Style in Modern Movies (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006)
Warren Buckland, Directed by Steven Spielberg: Poetics of the Contemporary Hollywood Blockbuster, NY: Continuum, 2006.
Jim Collins, Hilary Radner, and Ava Preacher Collins, eds., Film Theory Goes to the Movies, NY: Routledge, 1993.
Timothy Corrigan, A Cinema Without Walls: Movies and Culture After Vietnam, New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1991.
Morris Dickstein. “Issues.” American Film, December 1979.
Geoff King, New Hollywood Cinema: An Introduction, NY: Columbia University Press, 2002.
Jon Lewis, ed.,The New American Cinema. Durham: Duke University Press, 1998.
Jon Lewis, ed., The End of Cinema As We Know It: American Film in the Nineties, NY: New York University Press, 2001.
Mark Crispin Miller, ed., Seeing Through Movies, NY: Pantheon, 1990.
James Monaco, American Film Now. NY: New York Zoetrope, 1984.
Steve Neale and Murray Smith, eds., Contemporary Hollywood Cinema. NY: Routledge, 1998.
Justin Wyatt, High Concept: Movies and Marketing in Hollywood, Austin: University of Texas Press, 1994.