Over years of watching way too many movies, I have a long list of movie cliches that annoy me. These are most definitely not things like people never saying “goodbye” before they hang up the phone. Only a much worse pedant than I would have a problem with that. What I’m talking about are offensive narrative devices — things that would never fly in a novel.
One of these showed up in all its glory in Marvel’s The Avengers. Agent Phil Coulson dies and everyone is very sad. In fact, Nick Fury uses his blood-stained Captain America cards to bind the team together to take on the Chitauri army, which they manage to do in less than an hour. And everyone is happy, apparently having had their memories of Coulson erased. But that should be easy enough to do. After all, Coulson wasn’t a character, he was a plot device.
It reminds me of a line from Laurie Anderson’s song Big Science, “I think we should put some mountains here. Otherwise, what are the characters going to fall off of?” Put mountains up so the characters can fall from them or kill a character so the characters can bind themselves together. But at least in the former case, after the characters fall off the mountain, the mountain is still there.
Marvel’s The Avergers is written (along with Zak Penn) and directed by Joss Whedon. And it is not nearly as bad as it could have been. The half of the film that is played as humor works quite well as entertainment. I suspect that this is due to Penn, who is a funny guy even if he is a mediocre screenwriter. Overall, the film holds together well enough — especially when you consider what a stupid concept The Avengers is: a Norse god, a billionaire in a high tech suit, a guy from the 1940s with a souped-up body, and a green monster who even kills his friends. Frankly, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles make more sense.
The other half of the film is superhero action. These scenes do have the advantage that the characters are, you know, superheroes instead of, say, Sherlock Holmes. But this doesn’t change the fact that they are boring. Iron Man has to fix a turbine (I think) and Captain American has to pull the red lever at just the right time or Iron Man will get cut to pieces. As you might imagine, I was not wondering if Iron Man was going to be cut to pieces. First, his suit protects him from everything. Second: right! Like Captain America—a character so earnest he shits puppies — would ever let anyone down.
The same thing happens at the end of the film when Iron Man is in the other universe. The only question was whether he would make it out in the nick of time or be caught so that he could escape in Iron Man 3. Spoiler: Iron Man 3 will not be about Tony Stark’s escape from wherever the hell that place was.
What’s most offensive in this film is its glorification of the military. I’ve written about this before (Two War Films in One Day). But the film is somewhat schizophrenic in this portrayal. This isn’t a surprise: Americans are just the same. They think that the government can’t do anything right at the same time they worship the military as God’s perfection on earth. So we get all kinds of scenes of dashing men and women in uniform with their shiny high tech weapons who are unfortunately just not up to the threat they face. So, in step the romantic (super) heroes to save the day. Joseph Goebbels would have loved this film: it tells people they are free at the same time that it shows them they must yield to their betters: the übermenschen — people like Hitler, Stalin, Bill O’Reilly. Loki is the villain, not because he enslaves the people, but because he likes it. What differentiates Loki from Thor is style, not content.
Films like Marvel’s The Avengers are pernicious. People let them wash over their minds. But the themes build up and stick. They tell people that the way to a more perfect society is not through joint action; it is through belief in superheroes who will protect us. This is exactly what every modern despot has ever told the people he controls. Many have noticed the tendency of the elite in this country to be anti-democratic. Long before we saw widespread voter suppression laws, I heard conservatives grouse that the ignorant should not be allowed to vote. (Not surprisingly, I have heard this from some of the most ignorant people around; better someone who gets news passively than someone who gets news actively from Fox and hate radio.) It is only through faith in ourselves as a group that we can bring about a more perfect future.
As entertainment, Marvel’s The Avengers works well enough, and much better than Iron Man 2. Its two-plus hours go by quickly. The 45-minute segment on the floating warship that is mostly comedy is quite good. Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner (Hulk) is a nice take on the character — at least until the third act. Robert Downey, Jr. was as good as could be hoped for in a role that had many good lines. And Samuel L. Jackson’s performance made me think that I’ve been fooled all these years to think of him as an actor.
With six “art directors” it is hard to say who is responsible for the look of the film, but ultimately it must look the way that Whedon wanted because it looks the ways all his films look: cyberpunk without the style. Some of the special effects looked good, but I noticed a lot of obvious compositing. Technically speaking, the film was what you would except for this kind of budget: professional and uninspired.
If you like these kinds of movies and can deal with the thematic problems, have at Marvel’s The Avengers. But you’d be better off supporting filmmakers who don’t have $220 million to tell a story you could get from a comic book for less money.
Update (27 September 2012 10:18 pm)
This is very funny, but it doesn’t begin to get at everything that is wrong with this film:
 When Thor first shows up and rushes away, Captain America is going to go after him. One of the two female characters warns him not to go because Thor is a god. The Captain says, “There’s only one God and I’m pretty sure he doesn’t dress like that.” Please! Even apart from the special pleading (“Those Norse and their silly myths; why didn’t they believe our myths?”), this is such pandering to a country that is 80% Christian. And from an atheist writer/director!