Tag Archives: authorship

Avenging The Avengers, Part Two

Critical Disconnect

Shattering Bifrost in Thor

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.

What could anyone possibly find silly about this picture?

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.

For instance:

-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.”

Themes of family in The Avengers: from estrangement…

…to union.

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.


Iron Man


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.

Steven Soderbergh Is Better Than You Think He Is

(Even If Haywire Isn’t)

Steven Soderbergh’s latest film, Haywire, was released at a high point of media interest in the director, thanks to widespread reports on the news of his retirement from film directing at the ripe age of  49- in his prime, in fact. Even if we grant some inclination to critical generosity on account of this, a Metacritic score of 67 is pretty remarkable for an action film, and a laudable result for a director working in the genre for the first time; despite isolated action scenes in earlier films, Haywire is Soderbergh’s first extended foray into the genre. So it was newsworthy when, a few days after it opened, it received a Cinemascore audience rating of D+. Adding injury to insult, it opened in 6th place at the U.S. box office, and to date has grossed just $15 million (IMDb chart 27 January 2012), against a budget of $23 million.

This is quite a change from the norm for new releases of action films, a genre more typically characterized by disdain from critics but enthusiasm from audiences . Why have viewers been so disgruntled by the film? This reaction is not dissimilar from that of those who were upset that Drive isn’t more like The Fast and the Furious. Drive and Haywire don’t have much in common, it’s true, but there is this: neither film is fish, and neither film is fowl. These are not conventional Hollywood action films by any stretch, yet they both have far too much action to fit into the indie/arthouse category they have so much in common with otherwise. Drive, if anything, is easier to get a handle on; its violence comes in short bursts in between long, dreamy interludes studiously recreating the existentialist cool of early Michael Mann. It’s European/arthouse credentials are therefore clear, both in the tone and in the referentiality. Haywire is comparatively action-packed, without the overtly arty pacing or lingering psychological ambiguities of Drive, and without the reverence for old movies. If Drive is fundamentally an arthouse homage to straightforward action and crime films of days gone by, then Haywire is an action film first, but one in which Soderbergh draws on “indie” aesthetics to subvert expectations. The ending is not exactly ambiguous, but it is open enough to be off-putting to action devotees; the narration is legible, but the chronology is non-linear; emotions are downplayed; and the conflict is conveyed in terms that avoid the Manichean overstatement that often feels endemic to the genre. Soderbergh is not parodying or denigrating his chosen genre framework, though; this film is never condescending to the action film, and one is left with little doubt that he could pull off a more straightforwardly commercial film if it wasn’t for the probability that doing so would bore him to tears. If Drive exemplified certain recurring traits of its director, Nicolas Winding Refn- an interest in the laconic, in wide-angle lenses, in violent masculinity- then Haywire, too, is clearly the product of a director who works repeatedly with particular collaborators (here, Lem Dobbs and David Holmes), who shies away from overt, heavily-underlined emotional manipulation, and who has a distinctive, if pared-down and functional, sense of composition and rhythm. Too, Soderbergh’s abiding interest in process, especially in recent work, is clearly visible here.

Even if, like Ocean’s 11, Ocean’s 13 held back some key information for the sake of the punch-line, compared to 11 and 12 it verges on the exhaustive in its elaboration of the team’s interlocked strategies for revenge. K Street focused on the how’s of lobbying to the point of completely ignoring any intelligible ongoing story. The Girlfriend Experience, likewise, eschews linear storytelling in favor of a study of the economic, physical, psychological and emotional exchanges in sex work, a film that is more essay as narrative. Che avoided the epic romanticization of the conventional biopic (and, indeed, the scope of biography) in favor of a detailed study of two revolutions, one that triumphed and one that failed miserably, so as to examine the process of revolution in all its variables and contingencies (leading troops, jungle fighting vs. city fighting, mobilizing political discourses, etc); in that sense it, too, has an essayistic quality.

Contagion generated considerable suspense from a rigorously grounded delineation of a pandemic, its ripple effects, and the range of responses to it, but at the same time, its harshest reviews came from those who seemed to expect something far weepier and more melodramatic, an updating of the Irwin Allen aesthetic that Soderbergh studiously avoided (…like the plague! boom!).

Haywire spends far more time on how Mallory first eludes and then tracks her antagonists, escapes from Dublin, and figures out what’s happening to her and how to fight back- on the processes of espionage, and indeed of fighting, as kinds of work- than it does generating a deep empathy for her.

This need not have been quite such a stumbling block to the film as it turned out to be, but in the event a lack of feeling for Mallory renders the film curiously unengaging. Why this happens goes to the heart of why Haywire fails, but also to what makes this a Soderbergh film, and so to why Soderbergh is so important and so valuable, and why Soderbergh is so frequently misunderstood and underrated, even by critics and cinephiles: he is the most restless, rigorous, and probing experimenter in American narrative cinema today. Nothing characterizes him as a director more than that.

Contemporary action films are largely exercises in fast editing, close framing, and incessant camera movement, whether harnessed to realism (the Bourne films) or to lavish spectacle (Michael Bay). At it’s best, such films are exercises in movement and rhythm played out through editing and cinematography as much as through performance, staging, and stuntwork, and much of the fascination of these films comes from the experience of them as visual music. While audiences have evidently embraced this aesthetic, critics and scholars haven’t, and people ranging from David Bordwell to Matthias Stork have instead called up HK or “classical” cinemas to demonstrate the range of options that other action cinemas have draw upon in contrast to their contemporary-Hollywood Bad Object. In Haywire, Soderbergh attempts to marry the naturalism of the Bourne films with the performer-driven staging and stuntwork of Hong Kong, doing so by casting an actual mixed-martial-arts fighter as the hero, rather than a Matt Damon, say, an actor whose limited abilities require felicitous framing and cutting to impart the illusion of realistic yet physically impressive action. This allows him to stage fight scenes in long takes, and predominantly in long shots, and still achieve exciting results. If at first the pacing and framing seem flat, there is a steady build such that later scenes are as dynamic as anything being made in Hollywood, even as the phenomenal integrity of the profilmic action is maintained (that is to say: the filming respects the reality and continuity of the action unfolding in front of the camera). The problem with casting an athlete, though, is simply this: she can’t act. Worse, she has little or no charisma. This is why stars work so well in genres like this: the film need not develop character in detail, or even do much to make us care about the heroes, because we already know them and care about them from other films. The presence of the star is a kind of storytelling shorthand, because they bring their whole persona to the film, and we bring our knowledge of that persona from all the other films we’ve seen them in. Gina Carano has no such advantage here, and given Soderbergh’s lack of interest in building up the character psychology (which would have been another kind of departure from action film convention, and evidently not the one that interested him), given that we don’t know her, given that she brings none of the things a professional actor can… well, the film does recover from it, but only progressively. As it goes on, our sympathy for her is elicited bit by bit: by reactions to her and the situation from characters we do respond to (be they for her or against her), played by people capable of provoking an immediate viewer response (Ewan McGregor, Michael Fassbender, and Antonio Banderas are instantly repellant; Channing Tatum is likable; Michael Douglas effortlessly calls up an ambivalent response that makes us more nervous for Mallory; and maybe most critically, we care about Bill Paxton within seconds of his first appearance, and that Bill Paxton cares about her makes us care about her too); by our deepening sense of her plight as it develops; and from a direct, brute response to watching bodies in peril. If I was more and more invested in Carano’s Mallory as the film went on, the fact that I didn’t for so much of its length rendered it impossible ever to care very deeply.

Haywire may not completely work, but it does indeed serve as a reminder that there are a whole range of things action films can do beyond what Hollywood does with them now most of the time, and that there are more things to be tried. It’s a failed film for all its virtues, but a fascinating experiment, just as one might say of The Good German (an adaptation of classical Hollywood style in the service of a bleak narrative that is more ‘70s paranoia thriller than film noir) or The Informant! (a nearly unclassifiable film that wrongfoots expectations at every turn and throws any notion of tonal consistency out the window: is it a character study or a thriller parody, or both? a docudramedy, perhaps? seriously, what is it?). That in so many ways it breaks from the game as it is played today is part of why audiences don’t know what to do with it, just as people so often have trouble getting a handle on Soderbergh’s oeuvre in general. What is he? What kind of films does he make? Most directors of his caliber have a more recognizable, idiosyncratic approach (Wes Anderson, for instance, but even P.T. Anderson). Soderbergh’s idiosyncrasy, though, is his uncategorizability. This resistance to pigeonholing is such that even those who recognize the sheer range of the films he makes can’t seem to figure out who he is. For casual, mainstream spectators, Soderbergh is a name known, if at all, from Erin Brockovich and the Ocean’s films, a maker of smooth but a bit off-beat entertainments. They might have liked Contagion, but Che and The Girlfriend Experience baffled them (if they stumbled across them at all), and Haywire left them cold. Closer observers, including a lot of his fans, often like some kinds of films he makes, but not others, and thus look back to some moment in his past career as a touchstone, as a revelation of some “true” Soderbergh underneath all the restlessness. One set of fans lionizes the serious-but-entertaining social problem filmmaker of Erin Brockovich and Traffic, and for them his recent films, for some even including Contagion, are either too cold or too obscure. Another takes him as an indie director who dabbles in mainstream genres, their perception of Soderbergh rooted in Out of Sight and The Limey. Haywire makes sense to them, but Contagion, Che, and The Girlfriend Experience didn’t appeal. I would argue, though, that to understand Steven Soderbergh, you have to understand Schizopolis: you have to understand that Soderbergh is at once an experimenter and a formalist. Schizopolis is as far outside the mainstream as any contemporary A-list director has ever gotten, but it’s not a Romantic burst of free expression, it’s not an improvisation, it’s not a Godardian jazz solo of a movie. It does not, to recall Kerouac’s description of postwar jazz, follow “free deviation (association) of mind into limitless blow-on-subject seas of thought.” It is free only in that Soderbergh crosses boundaries and departs from convention. He doesn’t ignore the normative, though; rather, he violates it at every turn, systematically, rigorously exploring all the different ways restlessness, lust, and marital and professional ennui can be depicted in visuals and dialogue. If Lost Highway reeks of being a wallow in David Lynch’s post-divorce rage, bile, and confusion, Schizopolis is a very different kind of divorce movie, one made by a director who turns his emotions into fodder for a series of formalist cinematic games.

This does nothing in itself to counter those who charge that he is cold, but it could also be said that the more lightly he touches on emotions, the more powerfully one senses them coursing under the surface. Schizopolis is hilarious and playful throughout, but a deep despair is there too. For that matter, Contagion was for some of us more moving precisely because it didn’t shove emotions in our face, allowing us to find them ourselves. That said, others found parts of the ending maudlin, but frankly, letting the daughter have her prom was the least Soderbergh could give us as an emotional bone, and certainly the succeeding “Day 1” segment introduced a far more chilling note at the film’s close. Haywire’s emotions are as buried as Mallory’s, so much the cool-headed professional as she handles her predicament, but there is no sense of what’s beneath the surface because Carano is not capable of conveying the sorts of depths that made Damon so compelling in the Bourne films. Still, I could be open to the counterargument that, for procedural fans, for spy-movie fans, this makes it a purer hit of the drug. The bigger pity of it for me is that since his efforts to make The Man from U.N.C.L.E. have fallen through (since George Clooney dropped out, Soderbergh moved on and Guy Ritchie is now attached), I can’t see a project in his immediate (pre-retirement) future where he can put the lessons learned here to use in another action film (though who knows what sort of film The Bitter Pill is going to be).

One reason why Soderbergh’s experiments are so satisfying to a viewer like me, a bit of a formalist myself, is the palpable sense of setting out cinematic problems and carefully working through solutions. From this he gleans a body of methods  used to tackle different problems in subsequent films, thereby in turn generating yet more solutions. His filmography sees him systematically and progressively take up challenges, push the approaches he takes to their limits, and apply those lessons in ways to perpetuate the learning process. Schizopolis freed him from the more schematic, limited formalism of earlier films in ways that allowed him to achieve a looseness that enlivened Out of Sight; the (deceptive) sense of looseness and temporal play of that film were taken much further in The Limey, which was at once more intricately structured (reminiscent of Resnais in its non-linearity), and yet more attuned to the nuances of mood and moment. His sense of how to introduce a sense of mood and contingency into a highly structured work helped him find new, fresh notes in the much more mainstream Erin Brockovich. And so on. Consider how far he’s come as a cinematographer from the first films he shot as “Peter Andrews” to now, and how far he’s come as an editor since he started cutting his own films as “Mary Ann Bernard.” This is not to take the old auteurist line that each new film by a canonical director builds on the previous in an ever-ascending arc of greatness; like all ambitious directors, Soderbergh has stumbled along the way. But there is a sense of forward motion and steadily accumulating mastery in a career dotted with films where all the lessons seem to come together to produce genuinely sublime results. Solaris is one, an unusually lyrical film for him that is a culmination of his experimentation with subjective non-linear narration, and of his attempts to find his own particular union of genre and art cinema.

Che is another, utilizing both an understated, documentaristic realism (the depiction of revolution not as epic, heroic narrative but as a gradual, day-by-day, inch-by-inch trudge) and a systematic, highly patterned formalism (the whole series of stylistic and formal contrasts in the diptych construction) to their extremes.

Looking back to and ratcheting up the network-narrative stratagem of Traffic, combining it with a keener focus on process and a broader sense of social interconnectivity, Contagion was another high-point.

Haywire isn’t a high-point, really, but apart from the performance issues (which admittedly were fundamental to the whole design), it is a beautifully-made genre film, and one that throws up new avenues to explore, should Soderbergh wish to. He may or may not do so in the few films he has left before he steps away from directing films, but I don’t think anyone doubts that he will return to filmmaking in time, and that when he does the lessons he’s learning now will be put to good use. For someone who has moved forward with the restlessness he has demonstrated, it seems appropriate that one gets the sense that he feels exhausted. He has spoken of running out of new ways to make films, of wanting to take a break because he cannot figure out how to jump to another level; for instance, in a recent Film Comment interview, he spoke of not knowing how to do some of the things with visuals that David Fincher or Terrence Malick do. He may not feel he has the stylistic facility of Fincher or the poetry of Malick, but the elegance and precision of so much of Contagion and Haywire (especially when compared to the often-leaden overstatement of Kafka and The Underneath) suggests that he’s selling himself a little short, that in fact there are plenty of moments where he can and does approach the level of Fincher. Of course, Malick is doing another sort of thing entirely, and in finding himself wanting by comparison, Soderbergh is holding himself to an awfully lofty standard. That may not be the best thing for his peace of mind, but viewers have reaped the rewards from Soderbergh constantly moving forward, constantly raising the stakes of the game he’s playing.  Wherever he sets his sights when he does come back to directing, I don’t think I’d bet against him.