Although I generally find it difficult to care about superheroes and the movies that franchise them, I liked Joss Whedon's "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" series -- a lot -- so, if I go to see his Marvel Comics packaging-event "The Avengers," it will be because of him and not so much because of Iron Man, Thor, Captain America or Nick Fury. (I should also say I'm intrigued by the idea of Mark Ruffalo as the Hulk and, like everybody else, I got a kick out of Robert Downey Jr. in "Iron Man," too.)
Yes, I know I wrote a piece on taking superhero movies seriously back in 2008, but neither the movies nor their fans have shown much interest in doing that. Instead, these movies have become mere team sports (like American politics), pep-rally occasions for fans to cheer and sneer, in person or online. (There's another essay to be written on the fratty/bully co-optation of geek culture, perhaps...) So, A.O. Scott gives "The Avengers" a measured review in the New York Times ("Superheroes, Super Battles, Super Egos") and Super Ego Superhero Samuel L. Jackson strikes back with a tweet: "#Avengers fans, NY Times critic AO Scott needs a new job! Let's help him find one! One he can ACTUALLY do!"
Actually, Scott's review was far from dismissive or uniformly negative:
The secret of "The Avengers" is that it is a snappy little dialogue comedy dressed up as something else, that something else being a giant A.T.M. for Marvel and its new studio overlords, the Walt Disney Company. At times -- when various members of a game and nimble cast amble in and out of the glassy, metallic chambers of a massive flying aircraft carrier, cracking wise, rolling eyes and occasionally throwing a punch -- the movie has some of the easygoing charm of "Rio Bravo," Howard Hawks's great, late western in which John Wayne, Angie Dickinson, Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson did a lot of talking on their way to a big and not-all-that-interesting shootout.
The difference is that, in keeping with the imperatives of global franchise entertainment, the big shootout in "The Avengers" must be enormous, of a scale and duration that obliterates everything else.
By the Norse god of thunder! He compares "The Avengers" to one of the greatest, most enjoyable movies ever made! How is that a "negative" review? Because his description doesn't have enough superlatives attached?
When I say superhero movies aren't taken seriously (by critics, fans or filmmakers), I don't mean that people aren't invested in them (analytically, emotionally, financially) but that, 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. Superhero partisans do indeed take these pictures seriously, but only insofar as "seriously" can be interpreted to mean "lacking a sense of humor."
So, when a Twitter user expressed dismay that Jackson had responded "irrationally to negative review of #Avengers. People aren't entitled to their own opinion?," the actor struck down upon the tweeter with great vengeance and Nick Furious anger: "That is My Opinion! @TheFilmNest & what's irrational about it? They aren't going to fire his jaundiced ass & You & I Know It!" When another tweeter asked Scott if he'd chosen his own supervillain name yet, the critic replied: "Jaundice Maximus."
Scott concluded his review by saying:
... while "The Avengers" is hardly worth raging about, its failures are significant and dispiriting. The light, amusing bits cannot overcome the grinding, hectic emptiness, the bloated cynicism that is less a shortcoming of this particular film than a feature of the genre. Mr. Whedon's playful, democratic pop sensibility is no match for the glowering authoritarianism that now defines Hollywood's comic-book universe. Some of the rebel spirit of Mr. Whedon's early projects "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "Firefly" and "Serenity" creeps in around the edges but as detail and decoration rather than as the animating ethos.
"I aim to misbehave," Malcolm Reynolds famously said in "Serenity." But for all their maverick swagger, the Avengers are dutiful corporate citizens, serving a conveniently vague set of principles. Are they serving private interests, big government, their own vanity, or what? It hardly matters, because the true guiding spirit of their movie is Loki, who promises to set the human race free from freedom and who can be counted on for a big show wherever he goes. In Germany he compels a crowd to kneel before him in mute, terrified awe, and "The Avengers," which recently opened there to huge box office returns, expects a similarly submissive audience here at home. The price of entertainment is obedience.
That more or less sums up the way I've felt about triumphs of licensing (if nothing else) from "Speed Racer" to "The Dark Knight." (I'll take the scrappy "Darkman" or the lean, brooding "Unbreakable" over those bloated white elephants, thank you.) Reminds me of the kid (I assume from what he wrote that he was a kid) who issued a warning to anyone who failed to place "The Dark Knight" among the greatest filmed achievements of 2008:
In any year, but especially in this, a particularly weak year, there's nothing out there which compares to "The Dark Knight." It must transcend your petty big box office biases since it has already changed the way we think about movies forever. It's more than the best movie of the year, it's one of the best movies ever made. Snub it and there will be consequences. [...]
... Like "Star Wars" before it, "The Dark Knight" is fast becoming the new mold from which all future movies will be poured. Its impact, its influence on cinema will be felt for decades to come. [...]
For print critics, a vote against "The Dark Knight" is a vote for your own irrelevancy. It's a vote for the unemployment line. It's a conscious choice to ignore a cultural phenomenon in favor of pushing some undeserved indie-film agenda over a movie which people have already seen.
You know how that turned out. He makes one valid, if indirect, point, though: any critic who reviews cultural phenomena rather than movies is indeed pushing irrelevancy. There are lots of op-ed pundits, trend-piece purveyors and listicle manufacturers who can and will cash in on the publicity surrounding a pop-culture cash cow. They don't have anything to do with movie criticism, though.
At Salon, Andrew O'Hehir predicted what's happening hours before it started happening here ("Will superhero movies never end?"):
If you're new around here, this is how the script goes: I damn "The Avengers" with faint praise, observing that the (supposed) culmination of the long, laborious Marvel Comics movie franchise is a competent but pointless popcorn entertainment that's being wildly overpraised simply for existing without being incoherent and terrible. Some readers sniff from behind their digital copies of the Atlantic: Why did you even bother? Others lament that, once again, a non-fan of comic-book movies was sent to review something whose true significance, as with a sacred scroll written in Tocharian B, is yielded only to a coterie of gnostics and believers. (An enormous coterie, in this case.) Someone will invoke the ghost of Pauline Kael to instruct us that movies are meant to entertain, and someone else will suggest that the editors send me back to covering films about lesbian sheepherders made in Azerbaijan. [...]
If you belong to the significant quadrant of the population that feels a powerful, tidal impulse to belong to this pop-culture moment, and hence yearn to believe that "The Avengers" is terrific, explosive, awesome fun (or other language of your choosing), please don't let me harsh your vibe. I mean that seriously; what kind of person would I be if I begrudged others a good time at the movies? But it's my job -- and, I guess, my inclination -- to stand outside those tidal currents and view these big spectacles dispassionately, as far as I can. What I see in "The Avengers," unfortunately, is a diminished film despite its huge scale, and kind of a bore. It's a diminishment of Whedon's talents, as he squeezes himself into an ill-fitting narrative straitjacket, and 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. 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).
What O'Hehir describes is, if a critic (or frequent moviegoer) is honest, the case with the majority of time-filler movies: they are formulaic, and they are so indistinguishable from one another that they tend to evaporate in your memory. Like Howard Johnson's or McDonald's, they want to seem instantly familiar to you, to make you feel like you've been here before. Because you have. O'Hehir puts it this way:
I saw "The Avengers" less than a week ago, and already much of it's a blur; if it weren't so easy to find plot synopses widely available, I'd probably forget key details. In another month, all that will stick with me is a few striking scenes and images...
One of my most vivid memories from my years of daily newspaper reviewing is of looking around the parking lot after an "all-media" screening (a radio-station ticket giveaway ensured a large theater was filled with mostly non-critics) and felt a twinge of envy: All these people would have forgotten this movie by the time they got home, but I still had hours of thinking and writing ahead of me. Sure, that's what I was getting paid for, and if you're a beat reporter you cover the routine ("OK, it's 72 degrees and sunny in the Southland again today...") as well as the exceptional ("Hey, there's an Azerbaijani lesbian sheepherders convention in town..."). But if those sheepherders come back and do the same thing week after week, month after month, they cease to be newsworthy. Yet so many formula movies -- whether crafted by multinational-corporation-owned studio factories or churned out by film students with credit cards (or financially supportive relatives) -- are disappointingly vaporous and homogeneous, title after title.
Roger Ebert, in a mildly approving three-star review, wrote:
These films are all more or less similar, and "The Avengers" gives us much, much more of the same. There must be a threat. The heroes must be enlisted. The villain must be dramatized. Some personality defects are probed. And then the last hour or so consists of special effects in which large mechanical objects engage in combat that results in deafening crashes and explosions and great balls of fire.
Do I detect NEGATIVITY?!?! I'll be interested to see what fans (no, I refuse to employ the term "fanboys") will make of his review. Meanwhile, I also appreciate Leonard Maltin's sentiments:
If you've never seen any of these ["The Adventures of Captain Marvel"] serials, you must remember that they were made for 10-to-12-year-old boys. The writing is simplistic in the extreme, and the production values are modest at best; there was no CGI* to fall back on in those days. But at their best, these cliffhangers--which kept kids coming back to their neighborhood theaters week after week--have a momentum that is irresistible, and a good-guy-vs.-bad-guy template that never fails.
Today, the movies' momentum may falter (or, far worse, never vary), but the target audience isn't so different from what it was in the 1930s and 1940s. That's nothing to be ashamed of, but it's something critics should feel obliged to acknowledge.
* I submit that in five or ten years, most of us will look back at the hideous CGI of the '00s and '10s and recognize a cheap and preposterous cheesiness we now associate with spray-painted toilet-paper-tube "rockets" with sparklers scotch-taped to them. CGI ages much worse than old practical effects, while good matte paintings still look great.
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An afterthought (05/08/12):
Jean-Luc Godard (interview with Cahiers du Cinema, 1962):
We [the French New Wave filmmakers] have many things in common. Of course I am different from Rivette, Rohmer or Truffaut, but in general we share the same ideas about the cinema, we like more or less the same novels, paintings and films. We have more things in common than not, and the differences are big about small things, small about big things. Even if they weren't, the fact that we were all critics accustomed us to seeing affinities rather than differences.
We don't all make the same films, of course, but the more so-called 'normal' films I see, the more I am struck by the difference between them and our own. [...]
Much the same is true of criticism: Cahiers has kept a style of its own, but this hasn't prevented it from going downhill. Why? Whose fault is it? I think it is due chiefly to the fact that there is no longer any position to defend. There used to be something to say. Now that everyone is agreed, there isn't so much to say. The thing that made Cahiers was its position in the front line of battle.
There were two kinds of values: true and false. Cahiers came along saying that the true were false and the false were true. Today there is neither true nor false, and everything has become much more difficult.