Monday, October 22, 2012

I Am Not A Pod Person!: Joss Whedon's The Avengers and Fan Boy Denial

I love comics. I am a comic book fan.

Oh, and also, I fucking hated The Avengers.


I state these points in this particular order, knowing full well that there will be many people out there who believe the two propositions to be mutually exclusive. How could I love comics and hate this movie? It was the perfect comic book movie, wasn't it? No, it wasn't, and this isn't a difference of opinion. You are wrong for thinking this.

Okay, sorry, I know, that's probably a little harsh. I tend to be sort of militant about movies, which is strange sometimes because on average it doesn't actually take a lot for me to like a movie. So why do I have such ire for The Avengers, a movie that has received almost universal acclaim and that pretty much everyone on the planet has seen and loved to varying degrees? It actually took me a while to figure it out myself, and if you'll indulge me True Believers, I'd like to talk a little bit about that journey, if only to provide some solace to those on a similar path, who like those unfortunate minorities during the reign of the Third Reich, may be unable to speak out in the face of what is rapidly becoming a tyrannical majority.

And yes, what I'm saying is, if you like this movie, you are a Nazi, or at the very least, worse than Hitler. Deal with it people, I didn't make the rules.

First, a few disclaimers. I want to dispel a few things right now, just so we're clear. I'm not just doing this to be contrary or to gain some amorphous feeling of superiority (hipster points!), like I think I'm better than all the people who liked this movie, because I'm right and they're wrong. While in fact I am right, and they are wrong, I do not see this as elevating me above anyone else, and my reasons for believing myself superior to most other people are entirely separate from our relative opinions of this film. Also, I just want to establish that I am not one of those cranky, cynical comic book fans who hates every comic book movie either by nitpicking them to death or demanding absolute faithfulness to the source material. To that point, with the exception of Thor which I felt sort of dragged, I've actually quite enjoyed every Marvel movie that has directly led up to this one. Hell, I even liked Daredevil. Anyway, just wanted to get that out of the way, so that when I get the kneejerk accusations meant to counter my argument without actually addressing it, I can just point to this.

Okay, back on point. In the recent documentary The People Vs. George Lucus, fans of the Star Wars franchise discussed, among other things, their immediate reactions to the original release of Episode 1: The Phantom Menace. Many of them talked about the incredibly high expectations for the film and posited that even if the final product had been good, that there was no way it could have possibly been as good as the ideal movie they had in their heads. Still, others reported having the almost opposite reaction; going in thinking that there was no way this movie could possibly not be great. The idea that it would fail to meet expectations just never occurred to them, to the point that when they saw the movie, they had to assume that there was something they were missing. They would see it again and again, trying to figure out what was wrong, why they weren't feeling the rapturous enthusiasm that they thought they should be feeling. And some even faked it for while, doing everything they could to ignore that little twinge of doubt in the back of their minds pointing out all the various ways that their new best movie could have been, and should have been, so much better.

I bring this up in the context of The Avengers not to cast doubt on the sincerity of those who say they genuinely like the film, but only to point out that, for about a week after seeing it, I found myself in a similar position. Admittedly, my expectations for Avengers were not nearly to the level of what I imagine Star Wars fans felt leading up to Episode 1, if only because my favorite comic book superheroes growing up were the Fantastic Four, so I had already had my childhood dreams crushed many years previously. Still, the build up for this movie was huge, and I can't say that I was immune to the wave of excitement generated by the series up to this point. This movie promised to be the thing we'd all been hoping for since we were kids, and every other movie making up this franchise pulled it off, ending up being at least good if not great, so there was no reason to think that this one, especially being helmed by one of the best writers working today in Joss Whedon, wouldn't be at least as good as everything we've seen before, if not five times better.

And then I saw it, and for a few minutes, I tried to process exactly what I had seen. It felt like I liked it, or at least I wanted to feel like I liked it, but as I heard the cheers of the audience and the gushing praise they were giving it upon leaving the theater, I immediately knew that something was wrong, and I just couldn't quite place it. For the next few days, I looked back on it and tried to figure out what was nagging at me. I thought back to all the things I told myself I liked about it, and then I realized something. I didn't have anything. Sure I had a general feeling of satisfaction, but the more I examined that feeling, the more I realized that there was nothing specific I could point to to justify it, and whenever I tried, a piece of that positive estimation was chipped away. Every scene that I originally used to defend the movie to myself or share in my friends’ enthusiasm suddenly felt hollow, as the obvious flaws finally presented themselves to me, the fog of fan boy enchantment gradually wearing off. Maybe you liked this movie. Given the odds, most likely you do, or at least say you do, and I don't know what your expectations were or what your standards are, but  I can't figure out what you are all seeing that I’m not. This isn't a question of taste or different strokes for different folks. I have tried to find a defense for this movie, and nothing I've heard or come up with so far makes any sense by any objective measure. Every review I read of it sounds like they're talking about a different movie, specifically, the kind of movie they wanted to see, or maybe even expected to see. They are the reviews I gave the movie upon walking out, before my overriding desire to like it crumbled under the weight of its obvious shittiness.

My main objection is simple. Think about the plot of this movie and tell me one part of it that surprised you, even a little bit. Name one twist that you weren't expecting, one plot point that turned out in any way other than the most obvious way it could. Name one turn of events that wasn't completely clich├ęd and entirely predictable in its conclusion. What did we learn about any of these characters? How did they change or grow throughout the narrative? Don't tell me that I shouldn't expect that from a superhero movie, because we've already seen it. Peter Parker has a recognizable character arc in each Raimi movie, even the shitty third one. These aren't unusual demands for a movie, and they aren't things that we should expect to be ignored because the story happens to be based on a comic book. This is basic, bare minimum stuff here, and this movie has none of it. I keep hearing that this movie was made for fans, by fans, but as a fan, I actually wanted the characters I grew up loving to actually do things that interest me and move the story forward, not just stand there and look cool. Yes, there was a lot of fan service in this movie, but it was of the shallowest kind. The characters fight, team up, smash bad guys, etc, but so what? What does it all amount to? What happens in this movie that should make you interested in seeing another one, except as an excuse to see more fighting and smashing with no amount of depth? Those who have seen the movie are probably immediately thinking of the mid-credit sequence, but as much as it is a legitimately fun few seconds for Marvel fans (again, only in a fan-wanking sense), it leads into my next problem.

The central conflict of this movie follows the adopted Asgardian Loki in his attempt to use the Cosmic Cube (sorry, the Tessaract) to summon an army of aliens to take over the Earth. I think I stayed well within the content revealed in trailers for that, but I apologize if I spoiled anything for anyone. That being said, it would be almost impossible to do that, because if you’ve seen the trailer, you’ve basically seen the movie. Anyway, if you deconstruct that, you have three elements, Loki, the Cube, and the aliens, specifically a race called the Chitauri, and in each case, these factors are basically Macguffins, objects sought after by one character or another that are completely irrelevant except as superficial plot devices. Loki, rather than being a full-fledged villain with a rich history and unique personality, is reduced to a stock maniacal bad guy whose plan is right out of a 50’s sci fi serial: using the great and powerful Whatzits to summon the Monsters from Dimension X. He might as well have been Lex Luther for all it matters to the story. All three of these elements are taken directly from the comics (The Chitauri being an odd example, but I’ll get to it), but the way they are used makes them interchangeable with any other element from the comics. Why not Red Skull (Captain America) using the Infinity Gauntlet to summon the Kree, or M.O.D.O.K. using the Ultimate Nullifier to open the Negative Zone and release the Brood? I know none of those statements make sense if you actually know what any of those things are, but that’s the point. If your fan boy standards are so low that all they need to do is name drop these things with no regard for what they actually are or why they are important, essentially playing Mad Libs with the Marvel Universe, than I would submit that I’m not the lesser comic book fan for calling bullshit on this. And going back to that end credit scene, what about this movie gives you any faith that they will be able to tackle something as complicated and interesting as that character considering the treatment they gave the bad guys in this movie?

When I said before that I’m not the kind of fan who demands absolute faithfulness to the source material, I genuinely mean that. The thing about comic books is, most of the time you’re talking about characters that have been around for years and have far too many incarnations to ever pin down one essential version to be true to. Still, there’s something to be said for staying true to the spirit of what you’re adapting. Sure, Batman has been a cheesy 60’s farce, a gritty Dark Knight, and everything in between, but that doesn’t mean you can change his mission from hunting criminals to fucking stray dogs in dark alleys. There’s a line, one that’s sometimes hard to define, but like obscenity, you know it when you see it. On this score, the Avengers themselves are at least as true to the characters as they were in their respective films (though I still have a problem with Bill Bixby’s Hulk being treated as the starting point for every new interpretation). But again, the villain fails miserably here. I’m not just talking about Loki, who while one-note at least somewhat pays lip service to the comics. My problem is the Chitauri. I mentioned the Fantastic Four movies before, and I don’t know any Marvel fan who can talk about those movies without mentioning one element of the second film that, for many, ruined any goodness the franchise had left. Specifically, it’s the treatment of Galactus, now a shadowy blotch of man-shaped puffy smoke that can be defeated by one of his own Heralds just flying into him really fast. The recent Green Lantern movie did something very similar with Parallax, turning a character crucial to Hal Jordan’s story into a random flying poop monster. Again, I don’t know anyone who loves these books and doesn’t hate these needless changes that are almost always for the worse, made by people who clearly don’t care about the source material they are working from. That being said, I don’t know why more people aren’t more upset about how the Skrulls were treated in The Avengers.

What, you didn’t realize that the Skrulls were even in The Avengers? You’re not alone, almost everyone I mention this to just looks at me like I’m some sort of crazy person. The Chitauri are the Skrulls. No, I don’t just mean that they are like the Skrulls, and that’s actually part of the problem because in the movie they are nothing like them. If you look up Chitauri on Wikipedia, check what page you get redirected to. To be fair, the name is only given to the Skrulls in the Ultimate Universe, but that only makes it worse, because everybody who loves the classic Marvel Universe shits on the Ultimate Universe with a vengeance, and yet they treat this movie like it’s the greatest and most faithful adaptation ever, despite the plot essentially being a much less interesting amalgamation of Ultimates volumes one and two. The Skrulls are one of my favorite bad guys, and to treat their history with such disdain is unforgivable, and to have so many people who claim to be fans of the comics just give the producers a pass on this is inexplicable. How is this any different from Puffy Smoke Galactus, or Poop Monster Parallax, or any of the shit in Spiderman 3? Like Loki, this classic Marvel race is treated as a stock, forgettable enemy that once again might as well have been the Kree or the Brood for all they added to the story. And what of the months of speculation as to who these creatures were, and the consistent denials on the part of the producers that they were using the Skrulls in the movie? Bullshit, apparently. One wonders if they deliberately used the unfamiliar name to shroud the fact that they knew they were pissing all over such a beloved element of the Marvel Universe.

Maybe it was a joke. Maybe it’s one of the many examples of classic Whedon-esque wit and humor that everybody keeps telling me is infused into every moment of this movie. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that there weren’t any funny moments, but it was nothing close to what we know this writer is capable of. Some people are even complaining that the movie was too quippy. Too quippy? Really? Sure, Robert Downey Jr’s Tony Stark was funny as usual, but the rest of the cast maybe had one good line a piece (the one other exception being Bruce Banner and the Hulk). Still, this is the guy who brought us Buffy, Angel, Firefly, and the recent Cabin in the Woods, which, while I didn’t think it quite worked as a horror film, is probably the best comedy in the last decade. His ability to write fast, clever dialogue is second to none, but at every step of the way he holds back, letting whole scenes die by way of clunky exposition. I’ve heard complaints about Whedon’s style before, that he has a cadence that can be annoying and his characters all tend to sound the same, and I’ve even heard people say how much they love this movie for not sounding like a Joss Whedon script. They’re right that it doesn’t, but wrong to suggest that that’s a good thing. It would certainly have been better than what we got. It’s not terrible, and a lot of it is saved by the actors, most of whom do a commendable job with such boring ass material, but given the source, it could have been so much better.

I think that that may be the ultimate sin of this movie. It’s not the worst thing in the world. It’s not even close to the worst Marvel movie, but it could have been so much better. With all the talent involved and money that went into this, to see this as the end result is just incredibly disappointing. Some have argued that the movie just didn’t have time to be as good as it could have been, needing to set up so many characters, but this is crap. There is at least an hour of this movie that is completely superfluous. The final battle scene alone, which is commended by many for simply exceeding the standard set by Michael Bay’s Transformers in that you can tell the characters apart, is just filler after a while. And say what you will about Transformers, I probably enjoyed the good parts of Avengers more and Transformers pissed me off something fierce, but at least I wasn’t nearly as bored with that as I was with this movie. Yes, the giant flying snake monster is cool the first time, but by the fourth one, I can’t find a reason to care anymore. And don’t give me that crap about popcorn movies: that you just have to shut your brain off to enjoy them. Plenty of movies work like that and I don’t fault them for it, but this should not have been that kind of movie. The people making it are too talented and the fans have invested too much time, money, and passion to be expected to settle for it..

And yet they do. For reasons that are beyond me, fans are heaping praise on this movie like the well-meaning parents of a retarded child heralded as a genius for tying his shoes. Yes, it’s not terrible, or even close to the worst Marvel movie. Yes, it’s better than Ghost Rider, but then again so is that YouTube video of the monkey peeing into his own mouth. Yes, it respects the canon enough not to turn Captain America into a Communist and the Hulk into a Teenage Alien Ninja Turtle. But that doesn’t mean it’s good; being slightly better than Michael Bay is not an accomplishment! My friend and editor Nate Zoebl often criticizes me for being too beholden to the opinions of others when forming my own, but most of the time, he mistakes a rhetorical position of using other opinions to frame my own as a causal relationship. Still, in this case, I can’t divorce the fan reaction to this movie from my own. The universal acclaim this movie has received as not just okay or good but great suggests that the world at large, including a huge majority of comic book fans, know something that I don’t. Maybe some of you are like me, just waiting for the haze of hype to fade from your mind before you can accept the blatantly obvious. Maybe some of you actually do genuinely love this movie as much as you say you do, or maybe you’re just not that big into comic books, so the need to capture the spirit of the material isn’t important to you. At the end of the day, I am a comic book fan, but more than that, I am a fan of quality cinema and storytelling. And at the end of the day, The Avengers was not made for fans like me.

Incidentally, if I ever learn how to play an instrument and form a band, it will be named Poop Monster Parallax, and we will win all the gold records.

Excelsior!
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