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Avengers Assemble – Joss Whedon. Outsourced Law and Order – the gang’s all here


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Avengers Assemble – Joss Whedon

There are things I get but don’t get; know what I mean? I get that this breathless, rampaging action romp with a profligate excess of super-heroes (6 or 7 depending on whether you count Banner/Hulk as one or two) inserts an intravenous adrenalin drip into us from the opening sequences and keeps it pumpin’ without pause for the next 142 minutes. I get that bringing in super-beings we already know from solo films, cleverly offers an opportunity for ensemble-playing which Zak Penn and Whedon skilfully exploit in an unusually witty screenplay which leaves no ironic aside or flip quip phrase unturned.

For all these reasons I therefore get why this may be the latest bust-blocker (I was wincing at the destruction being wreaked upon my beloved New York) to play the now familiar box-office leap-frog and become just the most recent ‘biggest opening weekend box-office earner’ of all time. As this techno-tour-de-force is at times almost indistinguishable from a great computer game with, as is de rigueur for such things, impossibly superb graphics – it all adds up. To millions of $$$. All that and 3D. A boys-in-the-garage, computer-geeks-in-the-bedroom, dads-hogging-the-Playstation wet dream: it doesn’t get better than this; until the sequel – with of course even better graphics. The logical outcome of the obsession with quality of images in the computer-games market is that they will soon produce graphics so impossibly perfect that players will have to have pre-play surgery on their eyes to bring them up to the standard required to appreciate the visual experience.

As one who actually experienced these super-heroes in their first, modest incarnations in garish, often poorly printed images on shoddy cheap paper; it is the fundamental shift, for the worse, in conception that I don’t reallyget.

The comic book heroes were myths for an urban, scientific, technological age. In traditional Classical Greek culture, myth was like a parable, a dramatic context within which to explore how hard it is to live honourably: a kind of ethical thought experiment which closed nothing off, offered no stock answer or ‘solution’ to the listener who was expected to make his own judgment of the rights and wrongs as portrayed. Single myths often had many different versions, each encouraging a different way of looking at things.

Phantasy heroes like Superman, offered first the delicious fantasy, especially to boy-kids of what it would be like to have super-powers that put you beyond the reach of classroom bullies and empowered you to bring about good and defeat evil. But the creators of the original comic book heroes set themselves some rules which post-modern movie directors only pay lip-service to. Your hero had to have a vulnerability: his super-powers had to have limits. Good dramatic thinking because no limit to powers would mean no suspense, no uncertainties of plot, and thus no drama. Therefore Superman had Kryptonite which could remove his powers.

The comic book super-heroes therefore first posed the question: what if you were invulnerable – how would you act? What self-imposed limits would you set on your actions? To sharpen this dilemma, the vulnerability element came in to force you to use thought, guile, intelligence when power ran out. These were rudimentary parables of good an evil, meant for young and developing, maturing minds. Most of us who developed the passion for reading moved away from purely graphical comics to those with more narrative meat: like Adventure, and Hotspur. A similar maturing graduation presumably took place in the States as the lunk-headed, dumb gangster who is still stuck reading comic books as an adult, was a stock character in US movies for years.

The trouble is, all this Kryptonite crap slows down the pace of a movie: so in the Avengers when one super-being is downed from a blow they have previously resisted with ease, we just get another one to come to the rescue. The central moral dilemma posed in the Avengers is not what are, or should be, the limits to power; but how do we get these individual super-beings to overcome their personal hang-ups and play nice together? I’m not sure the political dilemma of being dependent on one being with super-powers is much alleviated by being dependent upon a gang of 7 of them who’ve learned to act in concert.

Traditional comics stimulated the imagination and in a rudimentary way, provoked ideas and thought. The new Marvel Corporation is de-mythologising its own mythical characters, rendering them visibly and convincingly literal as long as you know nothing about, or totally ignore, rudimentary physics and the limits physical necessity imposes on the natural world.

To prevail by the better organisation and application of super-power: rather than to succeed despite losing the dominance of power – are two very different messages: one of them quasi-fascist.

The plot of Avengers is pretty routine: Loki (Tom Hiddleston), banished jealous Cain to favoured God Son of Odin,Thor (Chris Hemsworth) has teamed up with suitably reptilian aliens to nick a limitless source of energy the Tesseract, which in the wrong hands could destroy the Earth. Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson) head of Global protection agency S.H.I.E.L.D decides only the re-activation of the Avengers Initiative can save the world. So Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) is de-iced from his cryonic 50-year sleep; agents Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) hook up with Corporate technical genius Robert Downey Junior’s Tony Stark/Iron Man. Natasha ropes in a reluctant Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) ever just a minor rage away from The Incredible Hulk. To keep it all in the family, once it is realised that disgraced Norse God Loki has escaped from his galactic Poki to cause trouble, Hammer chucker Thor is summoned through a wormhole in space to Hammer in the morning, evening and supper-time. (Now if we can just keep him in town for the Olympics).

When Loki’s other-worldly chums the Chitauri hit town much noise, mayhem and to-ing and fro-ing takes place. Motion-captured Mark Ruffalo angrily awakes the Hulk; the Tin Man er…sorry wrong film; the Iron Man resolves everything technical and the others all pitch in. The literal representation of essentially irresistible quasi-military might is state of the art, not state of the science, for anything we understand as science is simply discarded rather than imaginatively transcended – technology rules KO. The narrative thread around which this immense sophistication is coiled remains resolutely adolescent, puerile.

Forgive me as I have never quoted myself before in a review but it seems apposite this once: this is what I wrote about Christopher Nolan’s treatment of the Batman myth.

“Christopher Nolan has taken a familiar fictional narrative and turned it into a myth with considerable power to challenge thought and individual judgment. To have done so while not compromising for one second, the great entertainment values of a top notch, thrilling, action movie is an exceptional achievement in popular art. It is the ethical open-endedness, so critical to Greek myth that is intuitively alien I think to the American psyche and why I don’t think an American could have made quite this Batman movie.”

Review Dark Knight: Writewords 4.8.08

When comic books and their heroes were a popular art form that made a living for their publishers and the many writers, artists etc who contributed to them – they had imagination, inventiveness and a kind of naïve integrity. Now they are relentlessly literal, corporate cash cows requiring only eyes and ears to enjoy – stripped of challenge to the imagination or even provocation to the mind. The Avengers reflects the cursed genius of popular American culture: the inexorable commoditisation of anything and everything which has an impact on a sufficiently large group of consumers. As a massive financial investment sufficient to bail out a small debt-ridden state, all risk, uncertainty, open-endedness has been rigorously stripped away. That these are the inescapable qualities essential to any form of art, even popular art, reflects the creative vacuum that rests at the centre of The Avengers and which consigns its heavily-promoted sequel(s) to the inexorable law of diminishing returns.

We should be deeply grateful to Directors like Christopher Nolan who has demonstrated that this is not the only way to go: that all the visceral pleasures of actioned-packed events do not have to be compromised to cynical, trivial formulaic narratives. One feels the universal motive force that drives The Avengers is the passion to make shedloads of money for everyone concerned. That it happens to be the best exploitation of this shallow objective for many a year is a justifiable testament to its superb technical arts and craftsmanship – not its artistic aspiration – because for me it has none.

That said: it’s the best of it’s kind yet, Whedon and other directors are beginning to get the hang of 3D – judicious use; and I did hear on leaving the cinema one appropriately youthful and inevitably male voice remark; “that’s the best film I’ve ever seen.”

Out of the mouths of babes and children….

Roll on The Dark Knight Rises.


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