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:
- 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).
- 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.