I’m not “a Marvel” but I am a she-geek from way back, so I took off work early on Friday to see The Avengers on its opening day and I must say it’s the most expensive comic book I have ever perused. What I mean is that people saying it’s the “ultimate comic book movie” are more on the nose than they may realize – and it’s less of a compliment than they think.
Briefly, this is a movie for people who have actually had that “Who would win in a fight between Hulk and Thor” argument. It has a typical Marvel plot: a thin, generic one that serves as a rudimentary framework for a series of fights. The fate of the world hangs in the balance, and the bigness and badness of the big, bad threat is impressed upon as if… Well, I’m not saying Mr. Whedon thinks we’re stupid, but let’s put it this way…(switching comic universes for a moment for reasons that will soon become clear) The old school Batman has a silhouette of a bat on the center of his chest, set off by a bright yellow oval. ‘Cause he’s Batman. Got that? Bat-Man. So there’s a bat and he’s a man… Okay, I’m going to assume you were all able to follow the logic there without belaboring the point with the Power Point slides and sock puppets. The Avengers is a movie written by and for people whose idea of “subtle” is to remove the yellow oval.
It is also a typical comic-reading experience in that you may well read 18 issues of colorful but empty “stuff” (that may or may not bore you to tears, depending on your mood that day) to get to a scene/few panels of absolute and unrivaled awesome. The Avengers does have those moments. They’re exclusively when Robert Downey Jr. is on screen, and it’s ironic–as only disappointing comic books can be unintentionally ironic–that Tony Stark brings the only moments when The Avengers has a warm beating heart under all the synthetic sturm und drang. His exchanges with Pepper, with Bruce Banner and with Loki are, quite simply, the only times the story has the ability to make the ordinary non-comic fans care.
It’s not that The Avengers is a bad movie; it fills the time quite nicely in the same way cotton candy keeps your taste buds stimulated while you eat it. It’s just missing that thing that is alive in a good story to make it endure beyond the 144 minutes it demands our attention. And that is truly a waste. Because there are those who will always counter negative reviews of empty fluff like The Avengers by saying it’s “for kids.”
I agree that we lose something important when we forget the “Look! Up in the sky!” thrill of superhero comics, when we forget that childhood rush. But that in no way lets The Avengers off the hook, because “for kids” should not mean vapid. From The Wizard of Oz to Star Wars to The Lord of the Rings, there have been hosts of stories for young audiences that still have meat on the bone, and those stories endured because of that capital-q Quality.
There is a reference to the flying monkeys early on in The Avengers, and Captain America is thrilled because it is virtually the first thing any of the 21st century fast-talkers say that he actually understands. He recognizes the allusion because the movie was made in 1939, or 73 years ago. I guarantee you that if you’re still alive 73 years from now and you reference Loki’s fleet of Tesseract-powered transformerish-dragon-things, nobody will have the slightest idea what you’re talking about.
You know, there’s talk of Warner Brothers making a Justice League movie based on the Marvel Avengers model. I have to ask it: Why? I look at Christopher Nolan making art in the Batman mythos–serious, lasting, Monet/Dickens/Beethoven art–and I have to wonder what the hell is broken in their self-esteem over at DC Entertainment.
If you have dreams of being Mozart but all your talent can produce is coffee jingles, then that’s fine, you do the best that you can with the gifts that God gave you. You write that jingle. You write the best damn jingle you can, and at least you’re spending your life making music.
But if you’re Mozart, why the hell would you look at the guy writing the coffee jingle and say “Now that’s what I really want to do.”