The Moviegoer: You can be "Elitist" and still really enjoy "The Avengers"

The Avengers

If you’re not familiar with some of the critical reviews that have appeared in response to Joss Whedon’s box office triumph, The Avengers, then you might assume — based on the blockbuster-nature of its success and the aggregate work of Rotten Tomatoes – that it’s an unqualified Hulk-smash hit. That’s not quite the case, though. The Avengers has become the starting point for an interesting conversation centered on genre-fatigue, inherent genre limitations, the nature of entertainment, and the battle between the critic and the fanboy. It’s a perfect discussion point to consider in relation to Christ and Pop Culture’s underlying philosophy that we engage popular culture without adopting a pop-culture sensibility.

The above-referenced discussion may have been especially ignited when film critic AO Scott posted a not-so-favorable review in The New York Times, and Samuel Jackson responded by bringing the fury on Twitter, suggesting that Scott should be fired for being an incapable film critic. Jackson, who at this point can’t possibly care too much about what critics think, essentially tweeted the signal for the fanboys to assemble.

I have some confessions to make, dear reader.

First, AO Scott is right on the whole when he refers to The Avengers as “grinding, hectic emptiness” that serves up a “conveniently vague set of principles.” And Jackson’s response to Scott — whose review, while certainly negative, did contain bits of praise — was foolish. Furthermore, I appreciate the first half of Jeffrey Overstreet’s balanced appreciation of the film over at Filmwell, where he invokes the food-culture analogy and likens The Avengers to an enjoyable “super sundae” that, if not served and eaten in proper proportions, could induce “an ice cream headache.” And Anthony Lane, too, makes a worthwhile point in The New Yorker when he comments:

One of the failings of Marvel — as of other franchises, like the “Superman” series — is the vulgarity that comes of thinking big. As a rule, be wary of any guy who dwells upon the fate of mankind, unless he can prove that he was born in Bethlehem. Superheroes who claim to be on the side of the entire planet are no more to be trusted than the baddies who seek to trash it, nor is the aesthetic timbre of the movies in which they both appear. . . . All movies thrive on the rustle of private detail — on pleasures and pains that last as long as a smoke — and there has been nothing more peculiar, in recent years, than watching one Marvel epic after the next, then sifting through the rubble of gigantism in search of dramatic life.

And even Armond White – that critic who has earned renown for against-the-grain overstatement (and his review of Avengers is no exception to that rule) — has a point when he says that to discuss Whedon’s film as a “story” or even a “thrill ride” is “delusional.” What he means by lumping these two together is that the film has “no dramatic build,” but is instead one long climactic free-fall. From this perspective, I can even understand White’s favoring under-appreciated Chronicle to Avengers.

I have one more confession to make: although I affirm what those critics said, I still enjoyed The Avengers immensely. I laughed and applauded uproariously with the midnight fanboys, and probably enjoyed the experience all the more for taking part in it with them. If you were to ask my Marvel-loving, movie-going (and quite intelligent) buddies what my initial reaction was after the film, they would tell you my first words were: “Whedon delivered.”

I have not wavered from that initial declaration, and I was not oblivious to the shortcomings referenced above. In fact, if what I did most during the film was laugh with glee, then what I did almost as much was think to myself, “yeah, whatever, gamma rays, portals, nuclear missiles and stuff.” (Think about that for a minute: inspired indifference about, you know, weapons of mass destruction.) The film’s story is positively weightless, well-worn, and at times laughable, but there’s no doubt that Whedon knows this, and rather than play the game straight-faced, he seems to take the route of ratcheting up the self-aware laughs, something that shouldn’t surprise. This represents what makes Whedon’s film work so well: the wit, banter, and punchlines somehow manage to overwhelm the film’s best Transformers impersonations (and the action is certainly big, so this is no small feat).

So I take issue with the insinuation, which is absent in Overstreet’s review but fairly explicit in White’s, that one can’t enjoy The Avengers for what it is — and, by implication, be aware of “what it is” and isn’t — and still have good reasons for thinking its form of entertainment represents a worthwhile outing to the cineplex. So let me provide a few reasons why The Avengers was a blast.

First, as I mentioned above, Whedon’s overall tonal approach indicates that he understands well the inherent limitations of what he’s serving up. While he provides an abundance of fanboy moments, he also consistently undermines the problematic tension present in being entertained by that which lacks significance. Two examples come to mind:

  1. You could make the argument that Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.) is the most beloved character of the bunch. He is a self-absorbed, ingenious, playboy billionaire — the quintessential self-made man. And while none of these heroes are supposed to be flawless (except maybe Captain America), the line is blurry at best as to whether Stark is admired for these traits or if they function as his weakness. Thus, it was a great line near the end of the film when Stark realizes for himself that, in his self-absorption, he’s not all that different from the film’s borderline-caricature enemy, Loki (Thor’s adoptive brother played with effective bombastic delusion by Tom Hiddleston).
  2. The film acknowledges its own gleeful (isn’t-that-cool!) destruction of New York City when, just before the closing credits, a montage of citizen reactions includes an invitation for the triumphant heroes to come help clean up and put the city back together. (Not to mention, in the background of the shawarma chow-down, there’s some serious clean-up going on that may add a bit of self-mockery to the humorous post-credit scene.) Moments like these — in addition to Whedon’s uncanny sense for punchline moments — are what I will most remember about The Avengers.

And, in addition to fine performances from Mark Ruffalo (my favorite portrayal of The Hulk, who has some of the best moments of the film) and the tag-team of Scarlett Johansson and Jeremy Renner (there’s some interesting chemistry between Black Widow and Hawkeye), one other element from the film made it reasonably enjoyable. I came to the film interested in the relationship between Iron Man and Captain America, who were sure to clash from an ideological perspective. And what struck me was that that ideological conflict ends with the self-absorbed Iron Man making a Captain America-esque move in which he lays down his life for others. I was pleased when it was brought to my attention that Whedon, referencing Stark’s reluctance to be a self-sacrificial soldier, had this in mind:

It was very important for me to build that concept and have Tony (Downey) reject that concept on every level, so that when he ultimately is willing to lay himself down on the line, you get where’s he’s come from, and how Steve (Evans) has affected him.

It’s a nice move that unfortunately doesn’t carry the weight that it ought to. Yet, given that it’s resultant from tension between two heroes (rather than a “good guy” and a “bad guy”), it’s a stand-out moment for me as far as the genre is concerned.

So, to some degree, I understand some of the criticisms and qualified praise that has been given to Avengers. It’s the main reason why, as far as the genre is concerned, I prefer Nolan’s Dark Knight franchise. (Though also limited to some extent, it certainly has aims that can be taken seriously, perhaps partly because Nolan’s vision crosses over into Heat-influenced crime drama territory.) Furthermore, given these criticisms, it’s understandable why some critics would be a bit wearied by Disney’s insistence on sequeling Marvel until the end of time. Keep in mind that when Iron Man 3, Hawkeye, Nick Fury, and Thor 2 drop in the coming years, we’re less and less likely to have more original visions like Inception green-lit by studios.

But, even more than warning against big-budget genre fatigue, I want to encourage my readers to not only enjoy The Avengers shamelessly, but to complement your ice cream intake with more challenging fare, i.e., films that require you to engage yourself with truly worthwhile narratives and ideas. Our pop-cultural landscape has flattened out in our over-reached democratic milieu: to distinguish between the Dardennes and Bay, or between Kiarostami and Ratner is, I suspect, a matter of “elitist” preference for many people. But part of our concern for discernment at Christ and Pop Culture is to recover a sense of the ethical and aesthetic horizon. It’s why one week I’ll review the Duplass Brothers, and the next week The Hunger Games, or why last week The Kid with a Bike and this week The Avengers. This approach is also reflected in our writers’ selections for 2011 favorites.

So while I’m excited for The Amazing Spider-Man and especially excited for The Dark Knight Rises, I’m even more excited for Paul Thomas Anderson’s first film since There Will Be Blood; for new films from Abbas Kiarostami, Andrew Dominik, and John Hillcoat; and for ambitious upcoming films from Alfonso Cuaron and Baz Luhrmann. I hope you’ll join me in anticipating these, too.

But I’ll also be at the midnight showing for The Avengers 2, eager to enjoy it for what it is.

About Nick Olson

Nick Olson (Associate Editor) loves the Triune God, his family, the arts, and culture. In 2010, he graduated with his MA in English from Liberty University. He now resides in central PA with his wife, Eliza, and their young son. When he’s not reading, watching films, grading papers, or enjoying his backyard, he’s plotting in hopes to pursue a PhD in American Literature with socio-philosophical emphases. He takes a James Hunter-approach to culture: affirmation and antithesis, but always in love. He watches the Pittsburgh Steelers and the NBA, and thinks that Colbert is often right, but always funny. Nick strives to live day-to-day in the eschatological Light that is the hope of the resurrected Christ. He’s written for Filmwell, Books & Culture, Christianity Today, Think Christian, Curator, and Literature & Belief.
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  • http://goodokbad.com/ Seth T. Hahne

    “Superheroes who claim to be on the side of the entire planet are no more to be trusted than the baddies who seek to trash it, nor is the aesthetic timbre of the movies in which they both appear.”

    That’s actually been a coming-and-going theme in superhero books since they began toying with self-awareness—and was kind of part of the point of Mark Millar’s Ultimates 2 (Ultimates was Marvel’s mostly successful attempt to revitalize the Avengers for a 3rd millennium comics-reading audience). In that story, the action of Ultimates (Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, etc) is seen as being more partisan because of their involvement in international “peace-keeping” activities. They are not the world’s heroes after all, but America’s heroes—and that causes the kinds of problems you’d expect to find. In other stories, Superman is too closely tied to his American roots. So while it may not have cropped up in the films yet, it’s been on the narrative plate for some time now.

  • http://twitter.com/#!/Nicholas_Olson Nick Olson

    That’s helpful perspective, Seth.

    Thanks for providing insight from a perspective that I’m not able to bring to the table as someone who is familiar with the movies only.

  • http://goodokbad.com/ Seth T. Hahne

    Well, it’s not much. Besides, The Ultimates, I’ve read maybe twenty Avengers comics ever :)

  • Kyle Pendergraft

    I absolutely hated Avengers. I thought it was one of the most pointless movies I’ve ever sat through and thought it would never do me the favor of ending. I have no problem enjoying things with no meaning, but the overall problem for me was that I grew up reading the “real” Avengers and the Avengers are as deep as a writer will let them be. As deep as Batman can be and, because of the collusion of such diverse character backgrounds, just as readily.

    Things like the scene in the film where Cap jumps out of the plane to go battle Thor and says, “there’s only one god, ma’am, and I’m pretty sure he doesn’t dress like that,” are common beats in the “real” Avengers. None of them believe in Thor– this is addressed differently in The Ultimates with a very nice response– as the mythological god of thunder. Even when they’ve all dealt with his people and Asgard, Iron Man is still a man of science who refuses to believe in magic or space gods.

    Quite a bit of the strength of the Avengers comes from the richness of the individual characters. It’s about what they each bring to the table and the conflicts and issues that arise from that. It’s not just, “oh, look! somebody in a flashy costume!” like the movie relies on. There’s jealousy, idolatry, pettiness, bitterness, insecurity, abuse, rage, ruin, love, and hate. All. Of. The. Time. From countless different directions for countless different motivations. There’s questions like, can a hero commit spousal abuse that emotionally and psychologically scars his wife for the rest of her life, but still be considered a hero because he’s willing to lay down his life for a stranger? That’s not something you’re going to see in any Avengers movie. Because it’s deep, mature, and “elitist.”

  • Kyle Pendergraft

    ^^^ I’ve read pretty much every Avengers comic ever.

  • http://twitter.com/#!/Nicholas_Olson Nick Olson

    That’s interesting, Kyle. So I’m coming to the movies without having read the comics and assuming, based on other superhero movies, that it is inherently going to be a form of entertainment that lacks in serious narrative significance. But then I’m saying that the movie was still enjoyable.

    And you’re saying, having read the comics, that the movie missed an opportunity for a more worthwhile narrative.

    I’m a bit surprised by this, if only because so many fans of the comics (intelligent ones at that) seem to be so pleased with the movie–such that many are adamantly displeased with any criticism of it.

    And, for the record, the reason I had “elitist” in quotes in my title was because when I use the term I am referring to the kind of person who would make qualitative distinctions about aesthetic matters–including films.

    Thanks for providing some interesting feedback to consider.

  • Charlie Ososkie

    Kyle, I think the last sentence of your post says it. You have to consider the consequences of making the movie deep, mature, and elitist. You have to consider the audience. You have to consider the movie’s goal (to make money). Though we (and I say “we” because I am a life-long fan of the Marvel Universe – one of the buddies I believe Nick may have been referring to) may want to believe this movie was tailor-made for us comic book “nerds”/”geeks”/”intellects” ;) there was also a much younger and immature audience – one that is largely uneducated about the comic book origins of their beloved superheroes – that Whedon needed to cater his movie to (this decision has paid off in the box office too). This audience has grown up on the superheroes of TV and movies, as opposed to us. I agree with you that the Marvel Universe is much more mature than the movies (including the Avengers) depict. The comics don’t always display these characters as “Super” or “Heroes”, but make note of the fact that they all have very real flaws which cause them almost as many problems as their foes. I do, however, believe Whedon (considering certain perceived limitations) incorporated much of these dynamics in the film. We as an audience were made very aware of the imperfections of the characters. No, it wasn’t just like the comics. Whedon may not have done EVERYTHING, but everything he did, I believe he did very well – especially when considering some of the Marvel movie let-downs of the past. I thoroughly enjoyed this movie. I laughed more than I have during most comedies. I actually left the theater with a feeling of satisfaction unlike any I have ever felt after having seen a film. I look forward to seeing it again actually. Would I like to see an Avengers movie like the one I believe you wanted to see? Of course, but I would like to be just as satisfied when I leave that theater, or Whedon wins.

  • http://johnkpatterson.wordpress.com John Patterson

    “Superheroes who claim to be on the side of the entire planet are no more to be trusted than the baddies who seek to trash it, nor is the aesthetic timbre of the movies in which they both appear.”

    Um…that would be generally a good thing to keep in mind. Until you face a genuine global threat. In this case, Loki and hundreds of thousands of aliens banging down mankind’s collective door, willing to kill millions and rule over the rest, while trying to acquire a source of energy they can’t control. Even Nick Fury knew putting the Avengers together was not ideal. But as he told Loki, “You have made me very desperate.”

    Oh, yeah. And there’s the fact that the Avengers aren’t seeking positions of political power or moral authority. In fact, they don’t seem interested in gaining control over very much at all. They all know they’re a strike team, essentially weapons — the biggest and best hammers to strike against an alien invasion.

    Seriously, how did anyone who see “Avengers” nod their head at this statement? Forget the whole idea that this is just a cinematic hot fudge sundae — that’s an idea to be challenged another time.

  • http://twitter.com/#!/Nicholas_Olson Nick Olson

    Hey John,

    Thanks for commenting.

    In short, I don’t think Lane was ignorant of the film’s “global threat” in making the particular comment you reference.

    If not ice cream, perhaps you’d prefer it be called a great double cheeseburger? :)

  • http://thinkchristian.net/hypocritical-humanism-in-the-avengers Josh Larsen

    Good to have some company in the middle ground department, Nick. I too found The Avengers to be enjoyable, with a few intriguing thematic hooks but nowhere near the depth or artistry of something like The Dark Knight. Why some critics used it as a referendum on the superhero genre is puzzling.

  • Andy Walsh

    Can someone elaborate on how the artistry of “The Dark Knight” surpasses that of “The Avengers”? To my eyes and ears, they both have strengths and weaknesses that make it hard to put one above the other.

    For example, “The Dark Knight” has some stunning cinematography and expertly composed shots. But those visuals are undermined during some of the action sequences, where the editing renders them nearly incomprehensible. Whereas “The Avengers” features action that is tightly choreographed, then filmed and edited for maximum effect.

    “The Avengers” is also well served by its screenplay, which is noteworthy both for its economy of storytelling and the richness of its dialogue (and I don’t just mean the one-liners).

    I also don’t quite buy the narrative that franchise films are the enemy of “original visions” like Inception. That position ignores several key points.

    First, in the specific case of Marvel films, Marvel Studios exists solely for the purpose of making movies about Marvel Comics characters. It’s not as if it would be making other kinds of movies if it weren’t making Thor 2. And its movies pay for themselves, so Disney is not subsidizing these films at the expense of other projects.

    Second, Disney continues to produce original stories through Pixar and its own in-house studios. This year alone it will bring us “Brave”, “Wreck-It Ralph” and “The Odd Life of Timothy Green”, all of which were stories originally created for the screen (as far as I can tell).

    Third, “Inception” owes its existence, at least in part, to a comic book superhero franchise sequel – “The Dark Knight”. It is unlikely that “Inception” would have been greenlit, at least at that budget and scope, if Nolan had not already produced for Warners a license to print money. And that same pattern of franchise successes providing funding for other original and/or independent films is a common one in the industry.

    Yes, sequels, remakes, and adaptations take tiime, money, and other resources – including the creativity of various artists. And yes, those resources might have otherwise been dedicated to “original visions.” But at the same time, sequels, remakes and adaptations are generally more reliable sources of income that make it possible for studios to assume the risk of original stories. And if studios never made a sequel, remake, or adaptation, we’d never have “The Wizard of Oz,” “Gone with the Wind,” “The Godfather,” “Lawrence of Arabia,” “Seven Samurai,” or “The Empire Strikes Back.” Of course, most sequels, remakes and adaptations fall far short of the standard set by those films, but then again most original visions fall far short of the level of “Inception.”

  • http://twitter.com/#!/Nicholas_Olson Nick Olson

    Andy,

    I didn’t use the phrase “artistry” because I would agree that as far as many of the technical issues go, AVENGERS may surpass DARK KNIGHT. The focus of the article, however, was on thematic/content issues and how seriously they’re delivered/can be taken. In short, yeah sure, THE AVENGERS is better at delivering action than THE DARK KNIGHT, but that wasn’t my point.

    Further, it’s not so much that franchise films themselves are enemies to original visions; it’s that the very fact that THE DARK KNIGHT green-lit INCEPTION speaks to the issue of studios and the specific content that the masses consume. It took an all-time blockbuster success, which also had some exterior factors with the issue of Ledger’s performance/death, in order for an original vision to get green-lit. How often is that going to happen? And would that change if moviegoers expanded their moviegoing interests? These were my concerns.

    Again, I enjoyed THE AVENGERS very much. The mode of my piece was mostly defense.

  • http://twitter.com/#!/Nicholas_Olson Nick Olson

    So, you’re right about the studios merely giving the people what they want and then using the profit to make the rest, but this doesn’t conflict with my point, which had more to do with the public’s desires and consumption habits.

  • http://twitter.com/#!/Nicholas_Olson Nick Olson

    And, to be clear, I was not really concerned with the adaptation (on the whole, what ISN’T adapted material?), but with the endless sequel that, for the most part, tells the same story which gives people what they want and thus reinforces lazy cultural habits.

  • http://twitter.com/#!/Nicholas_Olson Nick Olson

    On the other hand (sorry, I keep thinking this over), I also see the value in certain myths being retold again and again. Repetition is not always the devil, so to speak.

  • Andy Walsh

    Nick – Thanks for all the follow-up thoughts.

    I should have been clearer – one of the other commenters brought up the concept of “artistry” as a point of departure between “The Avengers” and “The Dark Knight.” That, along with AO Scott’s reference to “The Dark Knight” as the pinnacle of super-hero filmmaking, is mainly what I was reacting to in the first half of my comment. I should have been more explicit.

    Personally, I enjoyed both films, but I’m still struggling to understand what seems so obvious to others; namely, that “The Dark Knight” is the clearly superior film. I can see that it is a more serious drama, while “The Avengers” is an action comedy, but in my book that doesn’t necessarily make one better than the other.

    Yes, the plot of “The Avengers” is constrained by genre to travel certain paths – but doesn’t “The Dark Knight” follow the same story arc? Both films open with a theft by the villain to establish their villainy and give the hero(es) motivation to stop them. Additional acts of villainy ensue, leading up to the capture of the villain. But – surprise! – the villain wanted to be captured all along, in order to play mind games with the hero(es). Then the villain escapes and sets the endgame in motion, culminating in a showdown between the hero(es) and the villain. Now, of course, the themes explored the long the way differ, but one of the criticisms seems to be specifically that “The Avengers” plot is over-familiar.

    And of those themes – at a high level, both are good vs evil stories. The main difference is that in “The Dark Knight,” the hero is a force for order and control (illustrated by his “do as I say, not as I do” mentality) and the villain revels in chaos and anarchy (or so he says, in spite of some rather elaborately plotted schemes), whereas in “The Avengers” it is the villain who espouses order and control and the heroes who represent rebellion and touches of an anarchic spirit. Both raise some interesting questions, but it’s not clear to me which is superior.

    Again, I’m not trying to argue for “The Avengers” so much as I’m trying to explain why the two seem comparable in the hopes that someone can help me understand what I’m missing.

    But, you were also making some larger points beyond those two films. There’s the question of the merits of retelling the same story versus telling new stories. Depending on how reductive one wants to get, one can claim that there are only a dozen stories, or 5 stories, or 2 stories that get told and retold in different trappings. I’m not sure how much value there is taking that reductionism as the final word, but I think it does highlight that originality is more a matter of degree than being a quality that a story either possesses or not.

    Everyone cites “Inception” as the kind of original movie that Hollywood just doesn’t make anymore. But at its core it’s a heist movie where the world-weary crook pulls off “one last job” so that he can retire and be the family man he always knew he ought to be. It has plenty of familiar trappings of a heist film; in fact, it requires them. Part of the subtext is that movies are our shared dreams; that wouldn’t come across in a film with unfamiliar story elements.

    And “Inception” did get made, albeit with help, and lots of people saw it and liked it. Hollywood also made “The Tree of Life,” “Midnight in Paris” & something called “Avatar,” and is making “Gravity,” “Looper,” “Elysium,” “Untitled Terrence Malick Project” & plenty of other original works, none of which needed the sort of help “Inception” did (although most probably benefited in some way from money made on familiar properties). Some did/will do very well at the box office, whereas others had/will have more modest success at the box office. In the end, that probably has as much to do with the fact that people look for a visceral experience when they go to the movie theater as opposed to their appetites for original versus familiar stories.

    All that said, I think we’re mainly on the same page. “The Avengers” has merits which are best appreciated as part of a balanced diet that includes quality films of various genres. There are lots of films of all sorts in the months ahead which are worthy of similar levels of anticipation and attention (my personal list includes some of yours, the films listed above, and the sure-to-be-unique “Cloud Atlas”). But I think some of the finer points of the merits of “The Avengers” and what its existence and popularity say about us collectively are worth musing over.

  • http://twitter.com/#!/Nicholas_Olson Nick Olson

    Thanks for the substantial response, Andy. I don’t disagree

    A couple of points:

    1. Perhaps I need to be a bit more careful with being specific with my mode of thought. When I brought up INCEPTION, I had in mind the spare-no-expense blockbuster. Of course, INCEPTION belongs to its own genres and, yes, all stories could be reduced in some sense, but INCEPTION was a fresh dose of originality in that it wasn’t a sequel, a re-make, a reboot, etc. That’s all I meant by bringing it up. That, and I consider INCEPTION–like the THE DARK KNIGHT–to be an admirable balance between (as Manohla Dargis, in reference to TDK, put it): industry and art, or, between entertainment and poetry. Then, when I was referring to the other titles toward the end of the column, I was making a separate point about how moviegoers should flock to less blockbuster-intended fare. That it would be good for them.

    2. It’s my contention, then, that while THE DARK KNIGHT is certainly part of the same genre, it touches on essentially human questions in a way that is exceedingly compelling because it has a breadth and depth to it. The themes in TDK strike a chord that THE AVENGERS does not intend to strike, because THE AVENGERS is more concerned with (as Michael Leary put it) “being awesome.” And this was my point: toward that end, THE AVENGERS is an unqualified success. Sure, it has some thematic hooks, but it’s primarily about spectacle, and so, as Jeffrey Overstreet has put it, the themes are worn-on-the-sleeve superficial.

    Now, I’m all for a “roller coaster ride” a cone of “ice cream” or whatever analogy you want to use to describe spectacle film fare. These can be good and fun to enjoy. But as far as self-cultivation is concerned, I’m just more interested in that which carries more weight–no matter if it’s mode of deliverance is neo-noir or lighthearted comedy or whatever else.

    So, certainly, interesting things can and should be said about THE AVENGERS, but, ultimately, the film is about the wow factor. Leary demonstrates this well, if you haven’t read his new piece at Filmwell. http://theotherjournal.com/filmwell/2012/05/15/thou-shalt-have-no-other-god-but-captain-americas/

    Thanks for the good discussion, Andy.

  • http://twitter.com/#!/Nicholas_Olson Nick Olson

    ***I don’t disagree…with much of what you’ve said.***

    p.s.: CLOUD ATLAS looks interesting.

  • http://johnkpatterson.wordpress.com John Patterson

    Nick, given Lane’s own words, I wonder if he’s fit for evaluating this movie at all. He’s conflating prowess on the battlefield and a desire to defend non-combatants with a lust for influence and power, despite the fact that no one except Loki and his army sought to take control of anything. Try applying this logic to similar situations in other movies, and it completely falls apart. It would be like contending that the Marines in “Battlefield Los Angeles” wanted to set up a new city-nation military state in the ruins of LA, once they kicked the aliens out. We might as well call Superman a power-hungry tyrant every time he foils a villain or saves a couple of hostages. Some soldiers/warriors don’t exploit their influence selfishly, even when they have the opportunity.

    The Avengers weren’t looking for control; they were seeking to deal with a desperate situation. They knew they were essentially fighters, and dispersed once the job was done, rather than consolidate their power or bully others with their considerable might. I’m not sure how much simpler it can be stated.

    When Lane calls “Avengers” out for the alleged vulgarity of thinking big (i.e. all of mankind being at stake — as if a save-the-world story is automatically a bad one), he displays an unwillingness to do anything aside from recreating “Avengers” on his terms, a movie that falters on the themes he wants it to falter on. Lane would have been much more reasonable taking a moment to step back and ask, “How are the movie’s themes affected by the situation and context it portrays?” His mind contains a version of the “Avengers” that quite simply didn’t get released.

    “Avengers” certainly may be idealistic, and it can be rather old-fashioned in its outlook and how much it trusts its heroes to do the right thing. That’s kind of the point: that even these larger-than-life, tormented characters can act outside of self-interest when the situation truly requires their help.

    No matter how much Overstreet and Lane insist to the contrary, I sense that there is a great deal more substance underneath all of the glamour, costumes, and explosions. I want to see it at least one more time before I decide what those extra layers contain, but the movie’s humming with their presence. After all, the movie was written and directed by Joss Whedon. I thought we should have learned by now that when Whedon walks onto the stage, we’re going to get much more than a hot fudge sundae (or bacon cheeseburger, or whatever you please). I’m trusting Whedon on this, not “critics” who assume that a blockbuster must wear everything on its sleeve, and will be a lightweight when it comes to depth or nuance.

  • http://twitter.com/#!/Nicholas_Olson Nick Olson

    John,

    I’ll try to respond more fully later, but your last paragraph assumes that the “critics” I cited think that *every* blockbuster wears everything on its sleeve. They don’t, and neither do I.

    The issue is not whether or not there are issues worth discussing–there are–but whether or not there is really any intent for depth. There’s not, but that’s ok. Here’s a great example of discussing one particular issue raised, while also recognizing the film’s primary aim for spectacle. http://theotherjournal.com/filmwell/2012/05/15/thou-shalt-have-no-other-god-but-captain-americas/

    It’s not that equating THE AVENGERS with a sundae/cheeseburger means that the film is utterly brainless–it’s very smartly made and features plenty of great one-liners, allusions, and hero-specific interactions. So don’t take it too personally. I love Whedon, too. See my review of THE CABIN IN THE WOODS. He’s brilliant. It’s just not all that controversial to say that this particular film is not all that concerned with exploring human questions in a substantial way. But, again, that’s ok.

    Regarding Lane, I think you’re reading what he’s saying way too literally. If you follow the second half of the quote, his is more of an aesthetic/narrative concern than a specific content concern. So I think you’re missing his point, and then dismissing him a bit too hastily when questioning his fitness for reviewing this film.

  • http://johnkpatterson.wordpress.com John Patterson

    My apologies, Nick. I hope you can forgive me.

    For the sake of honesty, I am exhausted with comic book movies (even “The Dark Knight,” to an extent) always getting treated like kindergartners who frolic through a dinner party where all the supposed grown-ups (Cannes entries and the like*) can pat them on the head and patronize them. Speaking as an author, reader, and moviegoer who repeatedly sees the depth and merits of genre fiction going unnoticed or totally disregarded…..yeah, it’s a big deal to me.

    “The issue is not whether or not there are issues worth discussing–there are–but whether or not there is really any intent for depth. There’s not, but that’s ok.”

    Just flat-out declaring it doesn’t make it so. And in any case, I have to say you are mistaken. To wit: http://maskofreason.wordpress.com/2012/05/23/very-good-writing-why-loki-won-in-the-avengers/

    * – Not saying that movies are inferior if they were in Cannes, of course. Just talking about the attitude that Cannes is where the “superior” movies are.

  • Nick

    Hey John. I wondered where you went!

    Yeah, I saw Andrew’s post on Loki. It’s a good one, but doesn’t really discount or contradict what I’ve asserted in the posts or the comments.

    And let me be clear: no movie is good by virtue of something like “it’s at Cannes (or whatever film festival”). I’m sure there are quite a few films at Cannes that wouldn’t touch AVENGERS on my personal favorites list. Assuming that’s the case, it means that I would say that THE AVENGERS is better than those particular films because it is better at what it is trying to achieve.

    I’m trying to think of how best to say this without you feeling like it’s demeaning or something. It has to do with “weightiness.” Some films aim for a certain kind of weightiness in theme and content that others do not. They challenge us, they force us to engage ourselves, they cultivate joy, sorrow, compassion, poignant questions, etc.

    Other films have a different aim. Their aim is primarily entertainment in the sense of thrill-seeking. Sometimes these things overlap to a degree.

    Now, an “art house” film is not necessarily better than a “blockbuster” movie. AVENGERS is brilliant at what it is about. Countless “art house” flicks are positively awful at what they are about.

    All I’m saying is that by virtue of its aims and approach, something like THE AVENGERS has a lower ceiling when it comes to offering something of “great consequence.” I haven’t heard a single person leave THE AVENGERS and say that their lives were changed in significant ways. And I don’t think Whedon would be disappointed or surprised by this. It wasn’t the aim.

  • http://johnkpatterson.wordpress.com John Patterson

    Yeah, I think that helps. Thanks for clarifying. Sorry for being a jerk earlier.

  • http://goodokbad.com Seth T. Hahne

    Wait. Hold everything. There’s going to be a Cloud Atlas movie? How is that even going to work? I am goggling. It will be long. Who’s directing?

  • Nick

    John: no worries at all. I appreciated the interaction.

    Seth: Get this–Wachowski? Hanks? Could be interesting. Haven’t read it, though.

  • Andy Walsh

    Actually, not only are the Wachowskis directing, by Tom Tykwer of “Run, Lola, Run” fame is directing as well. It looks like the Wachowskis are directing some of the story segments, and Tykwer the others. It’s certainly an ambitious project, if no thing else.

  • http://goodokbad.com Seth T. Hahne

    You mean Tom Tykwer of The Princess and the Warrior ^_^

    That sounds crazy. The book struck me as pretty astonishingly unfilmmable in any commercial sense. I think it would make a great single season television series. It would be two hour-long eps per segment of the chiasm with three eps for the centerpiece of the chiasm—so 23 eps in total. Squeezing that down into a 2/3-hour film seems impossible. I suppose it could be stuffed into a quick-paced half-season television series (12 eps).

    Nick, you should read it if you can find the time. One of the better books to come out of the Aughts.

    Andy, do we know yet who’s filming which lives?

  • Andy Walsh

    Seth -

    Of course I meant Tom Tykwer of The Princess and the Warrior; I should have known this audience would be familiar with his broader oeuvre.

    I do not know, nor could I quickly find, a break down of which director(s) were responsible for which portions of the story. An interesting question will be whether it will be possible to tell just from viewing the film this December.


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