The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
Avengers Dissemble: A Polemic

Written by John Bleasdale.

Photo from the article With the release of Avengers: Assemble (2012) and the imminent arrival of The Dark Knight Rises, comic book films may have reached their apotheosis, an ascendency which has shifted paradigms and rendered fanboy geekdom mainstream. From the early days of Richard Donner’s Superman (1978) to Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) - a reboot before reboots even had the name - through Sam Raimi’s Spiderman (2003-7) trilogy, to the towering titans of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight films and the burgeoning family of Marvel franchises, comic books have come to dominate popular action cinema by combining computer-generated special effects, old fashioned power fantasy, extremely familiar (to the point of moth-eaten) origin stories with screwball scripts laced with snappy irony.

There have been some bum notes along the way - see Daredevil (2003) and Superman Returns (2006) - but the machine is in such a high gear that failures only serve to provide further impetus for another reboot. You hated Ang Lee’s Hulk (2003)? Well, here’s Edward Norton in The Incredible Hulk (2008) and Mark Ruffalo in The Avengers. Was the overreach of Spiderman 3 (2007) too much? Here’s Andrew Garfield in the forthcoming Amazing Spiderman. And Bryan Singer’s lackluster take on Superman will before too long be overtaken by the dark bombast of Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel.

And all the while the idea of franchises has rendered itself invisible. No longer do we see anything similar to the scorn that Spielberg reportedly felt about the idea of doing Jaws 2 (1978) - instead directors line up to establish their own franchises. Films are made with sequels already built-in, actors contractually obliged to flesh out their cyphers and unceremoniously dumped if they ask for more money (see: what Terrence Howard faced after Iron Man [2008]). Few critics (the famously contrarian A.O. Scott aside) think of critiquing the imaginative poverty, the self-limitation, the infantilizing of the imagination, the self-congratulation, the overall adolescent paralysis of this endless glut. It’s like the Texas-sized island of rubbish that floats in the Pacific: it’s of-our-time, colourful, durable, and disgusting.


Don’t get me wrong. It isn’t that I disliked Avengers Assemble (2012), or Batman Begins (2005), nor The Dark Knight (2008), Thor (2011), Captain America (2011), Iron Man 1 and 2, Hulk, The Incredible Hulk, Spiderman 1-3, X-Men 1-3 (and First Class). Or for that matter Catwoman (2004), Elektra (2005), Ghost Rider I and II (2007, 2011), Watchmen (2009), The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003), Hellboy (2004), Blade trilogy (1998-2004), and The Crow (1994). And I’ve not even included the graphic novels 300 (2006), V for Vendetta (2005), Road to Perdition (2002), and History of Violence (2005). Or for that matter the already overcrowded subgenre of post-superhero stuff like Super (2010), Defendor (2009), Kick Ass (2010) and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (2010).

I don’t dislike them all. In fact, I quite like many of them. Most of them are entertaining. Some of them - perhaps most obviously Nolan’s Batman films - evidently do interesting stuff. But there are now so many of them, and they are so effectively dominating our cinema screens, that I think it is time to say, enough.

Of course, saying 'enough' won’t make a jot of difference. The Avengers has already broken the $500 million mark in worldwide gross and even an admitted dud like Daredevil (2003) grossed over a hundred million. And this is without considering ancillary stuff - action figures, backpacks, t-shirts, lunchboxes and toys, and comic books. You know, for kids.

So, what’s my problem? These movies are big, noisy, intelligent, often well-made fun. It’s entertainment. Am I a snob? An elitist? Am I going to start quoting Saint Paul - ‘But I am a man now and I have put away childish things'…? Am I set to get in your face about maturity, high art and the death of the novel? Again I repeat: I don’t dislike these films. I quite like some of them; but I despise them as well. George Orwell once said that, as a critic you can’t just admire a well-built wall without taking into account whether it surrounds a garden or a concentration camp. Likewise, comic books movies are well-built walls. They do what they do well, but we have to ask what they are doing - ideologically, culturally. What do they surround?


My argument would be that they are almost fundamentally bound to be mendacious and reactionary. All superheroes have big lies in their DNA. The secret identity is one such lie: Batman is actually Bruce Wayne, Spiderman Peter Parker, and Clark Kent Superman. Another lie is that humanity is helpless to stand up against problems without the super-powerful intervening, and thereby as often courting our ingratitude as our acclaim. These lies of the superhero film essentially evidence a distrust in society. In The Dark Knight, Batman conspires with Commissioner Gordon to cover up Harvey Dent’s crime, laying the blame on Batman. Why? Because the people need to be protected from the truth, we are solemnly told in the film’s final moments, via a child. But, again, why?

Society has to be passive at best, or a corrupt stew of villainy and vice at worst, in order to justify the intervention of a caped saviour. Gotham doesn’t need Batman half as much as Batman needs Gotham. The virtues of the superhero would mean nothing without the passivity or corruption of the society in which he finds himself. With The Avengers, Nick Fury is a politicization of this concept. He guides a shadowy paralegal security agency (S.H.I.E.L.D) with global reach, taking its orders from a committee of shadowy figures who can’t seem to get their web cameras to work. Throughout the film he employs a vocabulary of war and emergency, and once more the big lie comes again as he manipulates the death of the one heroic small man to motivate the Avengers. Human sacrifice becomes a convenient ingredient to a team-building exercise. The small man with his comic book geekiness is also the inscription of an ideal audience member into the film. So we (the geeks) have to die in order to be reborn as… take your pick.


Another lie is that these films are about saving the world. They are not. They are about blowing the world to smithereens. They revel in destruction, especially of urban spaces. Initially we were horrified by 9/11, but now we seem to keep wondering what it would look like if this happened to this sky scraper or to that. It is as if we want to relive 9/11, but this time to survive it. We want to be in the Twin Towers - but as Thor, or Captain America.

And what about the Nazis? The original ubermensch is a disconcertingly fascist creation, via Nietzsche, but many comic book films can’t help going back to the subject. X-Men uses the concentration camp as part of an origin story, but it’s for the baddie. Admittedly, there is more than a little ambiguity here. The mutants are seen as the Jews who need to be protected, and to protect themselves, from a similar persecution happening again. But there are two things wrong with this picture. First of all, the Jews weren’t mutants who had superpowers and were physically different from the surrounding populace - despite, it should be said, anti-Semitic propaganda. Secondly, the view of humans as a feral populace with itchy genocidal fingers surely shouldn’t go unchallenged. Professor Xavier’s relatively optimistic view of human beings is seen as more a result of his superhuman goodness than a realistic view of humanity. In Captain America the Nazis aren’t bad enough, so we get Red Skull and his ridiculous Hydra organization, with its two-fisted salute (not one hand, mind, but two fists). This little bit of fun shouldn’t be taken too seriously, we are encouraged to assume. All history is just a playground for this kind of postmodern romp. The film even includes a bit of knowingness about the propaganda origins of Captain America, so all is well.

In The Avengers, Loki takes the opportunity to have a quick stop off in Stuttgart. He mesmerizes a crowd with his magic stick, commenting on how slavish people are, just waiting for a big leader to come and tell them what to do. This is political commentary of a sort. As everyone else kneels, one old man stands up - presumably a Holocaust survivor - to make his principled stand; but isn’t it conspicuous that there’s only one? And isn’t the poignancy rather undercut by the noisy arrival of the uber-Americans, Captain America and Iron Man (the arms dealer with the heart of blue stuff)? And, by the way, why didn’t Captain America liberate Auschwitz on one of his World War II missions?


What, meanwhile, about the role of women in these films? They tend to be moms, sweethearts and victims. Gwyneth Paltrow makes coffee in Iron Man; Kirsten Dunst is slung about in Spiderman with something like contempt. There have been female superheroes, but they have historically failed at the box office, and the inclusion of Scarlett Johansson in The Avengers felt primarily like a sop to a ‘demographic’. The actress has been talking up a spin-off for her character, but the reluctance of the studio is evident in the fact that it would need campaigning for.

In the end, a saturation point might be met. Or maybe we’ll finally arrive at one last film with some talk about good and evil, and then one final big explosion in 3D. As of writing there is already talk of rebooting Batman once the dust clears on Christopher Nolan’s latest entry. Reboot is an interesting choice of word: it’s what you do when your computer crashes. It represents a restart, an attempt to get back to a default position. One that perhaps, given the crash, wasn’t that strong to begin with.

This article was published on June 10, 2012.

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