I finally got around to seeing The Avengers over the weekend, and I was not disappointed. My wife and I both are excited about seeing it again, which rarely happens in this day of recycled Hollywood junk. It got me thinking about a couple of things that I thought I’d share – the state of the superhero movie genre and the creative genius of Avengers writer/director Joss Whedon. I’m going to try to avoid spoilers, but if you don’t want to know anything about the movie yet, you might want to stop reading.
Let’s start with Whedon, creator of cult icon Buffy the Vampire Slayer and (the best 14 episodes of TV ever produced) Firefly, screenwriter of Toy Story, and master of quirky dialogue. He’s also, apparently, a sadist, consistently finding that one, incredibly human character in each of his works (The Avengers included) and killing them off. “I’m a leaf on the wind.” (R.I.P. Wash, Penny, and – I’m still ticked about this one Joss – Fred Burkle.)
Since the 90s, Whedon has had a small but vocal following – of which I count myself one – and The Avengers is the avenue through which mainstream audiences have finally come into contact with his genius. It doesn’t have the depth of much of his previous work, but it’s an absolutely great popcorn movie. It showcases his mastery of the ensemble cast, including what we love about Robert Downey, Jr.’s Tony Stark/Iron Man and Chris Evan’s Steve Rogers/Captain America, while showing us what we’ve missed in Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow and – especially – the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo). There are just enough pauses in the frenetic movement of the plot to help us invest, more than enough excitement, and TONS of great one-liners. (Bruce Banner gets the best: “His brain is like a bag of cats!”) And the theme of teamwork provides multiple levels of conflict and more depth than you might expect in a movie with all the heroes from the Marvel movie universe.
If you haven’t seen it, get out there and do it. NOW!
Now on to the state of superhero cinema. The Avengers works in part because it both embraces and subverts (somewhat) the tropes of the genre. The best movies in the genre have done the same. Top of that list – in my opinion – is Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, which would stand on its own as a great crime film if the main characters were not Batman and the Joker. The accoutrements of the genre are there, but what makes the film great is not Heath Ledger’s fantastic performance, it’s the fact that, in the end, Batman becomes a true hero, not being beating up the bad buy, but by sacrificing himself for the good of his city. While the ending of Captain America stumbles, it’s the same kind of depiction of true heroism – rather than the typical comic book variety – that makes me love the movie.
Iron Man is one of the greats as well, but in the end it falls to what film critic Michael Mirasol calls the “predictable conventions” of the superhero movie – mainly the fight with the big baddie.
These are some of the high points, along with X2, Batman Begins, Superman, Superman II, and some I’m sure I’m forgetting. The best are not just about the spectacle, they are about ideas. (The best entertainment in any medium is usually about ideas – not via sermonizing but through deep characterization and engaging, meaningful story.)
Therein lies the problem with superhero movies – and Hollywood movies in general: they are about the spectacle. The problem is, as Mirasol points out, that movie magic “has made the incredible familiar.” The effects are infinitely better today, but nothing is going to match the first time that Star Destroyer flew over your head in Star Wars.
The success of The Dark Knight lies in that Christopher Nolan took a character with great depth and placed him in a world and a story that felt real and powerful. He then drew that story to a meaningful conclusion that can speak to all of us. Mirasol says it well: “The time has come for the genre to tantalize us not just with outlandish imagery, but new ideas.”