The Incredible Sulk: The Avengers, The Death of Art and Me
Until this last year, “The Avengers” has, to British people at least, always meant Patrick McNee and Diana Rigg (and possibly Honor Blackman, and the other lass with the short hair might show up on a pub quiz from time to time). Now, due to Avengers Assembled, renamed to avoid confusion with the fantastic black-suited fascists of 60s television, it evokes images of alien invasions, Samuel L. Jackson hamming it in a trenchcoat and eyepatch, and the Hulk punching Thor in the side of the head. Even though it conjures the possibility for some particularly deviant fan-fiction—picture John Steed beating Iron Man to death with his whangee umbrella over the naming rights—it still seems a shame that our cultural semiotic library has traded debonair surrealist sleuthing for comic book shenanigans.
It didn’t have to be this way, of course: the Nick Fury comics I remember, illustrated by the wonderful Jim Sterenko, looked like a Sean Connery James Bond on LSD. Here, disappointingly, he’s Mace Windu with depth perception issues. I say disappointingly because I am one of the few people left who actually rate Jackson as an actor: nobody who can muscle an on-song Robert De Niro around, as Jackson did in Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown, should have their Thespian chops questioned as often as he. But like a lot of talented black actors, Jackson must settle for being thought of as “cool” or “awesome” by middle class white youth rather than landing challenging roles, and so it is here.
Indeed, a lot about Avengers suggests a missed opportunity. Some of the more interesting characters from the original comic books have been left out of the line-up. Wonder Man, who must balance his dual life of superhero and Hollywood movie star, certainly seems more relevant to our celebrity-preoccupied 21st century society than the flag-wearing WWII relic Captain America, whom even the script has to apologetically admit is a bit old fashioned. Likewise the Scarlet Witch, whose probability-altering powers would surely chime better with an internet era awash with Schrodinger’s Cat jokes and the latest exciting reports from CERN than Thor, a being who can control the weather. The clang of iron, the cascade of thunder, the roar of patriotism…these are things that have cowed or awed generations past in various stages of humankind’s development. What we want now is quantum physics and Brad Pitt’s lovelife.
Consider, also, the Vision, an artificial intelligence who begins a romance with the human Scarlet Witch in the pages of the comics. If we are, as some futurologists suggest, on the verge of a Nano Era that will inevitably lead to posthumanism and eventually a technological singularity, the love triangle between Wonder Man, Witch and Vision, who began life as a simulacra of Wonder Man but outgrew him, would be an interesting thing to explore, speaking as it does to our anxieties about more and more rapid advancement and the increasingly intimate relationship we have with technology as we go about leading broadband existences through our laptops and smart phones.
But, as evidenced by these omissions, Avengers Assemble was never to be about us. It was about marketing and money-making, so only the most saleable heroes were chosen (with the exception of Hawkeye, a character so obscure and dull the most interesting thing in connection to him is that he shares a nickname with someone who once gave me amphetamines at a party, and the Black Widow, who is there to offset the S.H.E.I.L.D. helicarrier’s locker room smell). It almost seems strange to assess Avengers as a film, because it represents perhaps the biggest intrusion of marketing into cinema in history. If we’re generous enough to accept Iron Man as a film in its own right on account of its undoubted quality, we cannot also do the same for its sequel, or The Incredible Hulk, or Thor, or Captain America: The First Avenger. Whatever merits or lack thereof these movies had on their own terms are irrelevant next to the fact they were conceived and intended as two-hour advertisements/brainwashing packages for Avengers Assemble.
The audience for this film has been so expertly cultivated that no conversation about it is now complete without mention of its box office gross, which has even bodyslammed the latest entry in the far more famous Batman series. Nor is any dissent to be found: the reviews of Avengers have been overwhelmingly positive, to an almost unprecedented extent for a Hollywood blockbuster.
This is in spite of it being a film characterised chiefly by formulaic laziness. Much has been made of writer/director Joss Whedon’s “unenviable task” of bringing these divergent personalities together under one vision, and yet anyone who was paying attention to Avengers‘ predecessors in the series will note everything has already been set up for him. An anti-auteur entity, the aesthetic of the franchise so far has been uniform, the scripts likewise all high in the sort of knowing irony and nerdy witticisms Whedon thrives on generating. The McGuffin was introduced in Thor and showed up again in Captain America, and Thor also gave the film its mincing, effeminate, intellectual villain for the muscle-bound protagonists to treat to a sound thrashing. Anyone who caught poor Tom Hiddleston in Terrence Davies’ The Deep Blue Sea or as Harry in BBC’s The Hollow Crown recently should be in little doubt of the range of his abilities, to the extent of not looking out of place sharing screentime with England’s finest living actor, Simon Russell Beale, but here he is merely a foil for Robert Downey Jr. to talk down to or for the Hulk to smash.
Which gives a certain visceral thrill, of course, and it must be noted that Whedon has had an ambivalent relationship with geek culture for some time. The villains in his Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Three, certainly seemed an aggressive caricature of some of the unhealthy and fetishistic facets that fandom can fall prey to, and perhaps Hiddlestone’s Loki was drafted with the same colour pen. That would be a magnanimous interpretation; more likely is that we’re being invited to being accessories to bullying, the Richard Hammonds to the Hulk’s Jeremy Clarkson.
Of course, the intelligence of Bruce Banner and Tony Stark are also stressed, so perhaps I’m being unfair by implying Avengers is overtly anti-intellectual and jockish. These characters are two rare success stories in this saga. Whilst Marvel has been for some time operating in the schizophrenic mode of venerating Jack Kirby, the artist who created many of these characters, and urinating on his grave by refusing to give his heirs even a fraction of the enormous profits now being generated from his works, a sensible person does neither, and can recognise that Banner and the Hulk have been interminably boring almost since their inception, a cheap low-culture misappropriation and misunderstanding of Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde. Similarly, though it seems unbelievable to us in a post-Warren Ellis world, the desperate attempts over the years to make Tony Stark seem anything more than a bargain-basement Bruce Wayne without the darkness in the comics even led to him being given an alcohol addiction in one lamentably cheesy storyline. But Downey’s Stark is now the star of the show, and Mark Ruffalo gives us an enigmatic Banner. Their onscreen ailments—in Stark’s case, a clear spectrum disorder (for instance, he can’t abide being handed objects) and, in Banner’s, clinical depression—are their strengths, and Whedon, whose preoccupation is chiefly with character, is in his element during their interactions.
It’s story where the film falls down again. As mentioned, it hinges on a McGuffin, nothing more exciting than a glowing blue cube, the properties of which are left deliberately vague. There’s an invasion by an alien race of poorly-designed B-movie space orcs on flying bikes that we know nothing about except that they’re all bad and must be killed without compassion. It also involves several very tired stock plots, such as the authority figure manipulating the heroes and pulling paternalistic cloak-and-dagger, carry-a-big-stick stuff behind their backs; or the villain pulling a Trojan horse move and being captured of his own volition; or the protagonists all falling out before going away, learning something about themselves and reuniting, stronger than ever. The latter template has clearly been imported over from Pixar’s office next door, which has got so much mileage out of it over the years it’s amazing they continue to escape any critical analysis whatsoever. On the evidence of Avengers, Marvel Films, like Pixar, seem poised to enjoy fawning hegemony from the professional film media.
It makes you wonder whether the aforementioned marketing machine has made nerds of us all, incapable now of examining what we love out of fear of finding any fault with it. Because Avengers doesn’t hold up under analysis. Even Whedon is bewildered by the ubiquitous praise, regarding his work as “not a great movie”. It relies heavily on its setpieces, its explosive action sequences (one of those rare things I am unable to assess objectively and find uniformly tiresome, like fireworks displays and Jim Broadbent) and its humming and hahing dialogue. This all strives to construct a tone of “We know superheroes are daft—but look how much we need them! Look how much fun you’re having!” The first assertion is inarguable, but the other two? The very fact superheroes don’t exist shows how much their presence is unnecessary, and we should always be suspicious when being sold a good time.
But sold it has been. We’re now at the point where even Agent Coulson, such a dramatic non-entity in this film series that he barely qualifies as a repeated cameo, now has his own following. In an act of shameless fan service, the heroes follow their real life audience rather than vice versa—Coulson’s death, and his blood-stained comic book memorabilia collection, are used as the motivational catalyst for the inevitably redemptive third act of the film, a piece of writing so unconvincing and inept that I’m amazed it came from the word processor of a professional writer. “It never would have worked if they didn’t have something to [avenge],” Whedon forces the unfortunate actor to say as the character, and any hope of taking the film seriously, die in Nick Fury’s arms.
The Avengers franchise has now become so ironic, so self-satirising, so meta that it’s a house built on and of sand. It’s product, not art, and gleefully revels in being so. It seems that consciousness is a zero sum game because, the more it gains in self-awareness, the more its fans lose theirs. More than anything, Avengers Assemble represents the final triumph of commercialism at the expense of aesthetics or indeed, considering the exploitation of Kirby’s work at the expense of his family, of ethics; a breaking of the Aristotelian covenant between art and its observer by an invading force far more threatening than Skrulls. It’s a situation so strange and unnerving even Steed and Peel would struggle to make sense of it.