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Sunday, May 6, 2012

Avengers Movie Review: A Thoughtful Fangasm (SPOILERS)

When I saw the Avengers movie yesterday, I thought there were two film's competing for the (hypothetical) audience's attention, and while I enjoyed one, I could've done without the other. The first film is a thoughtful character piece which takes a look at the costs of military expansion and the theory of deterrence's validity. It's immediately established that Fury would never have unleashed Loki and his Chitau'ri allies on Earth were he not fiddling with the Tesseract as a means to make weapons. He claims that he was looking at a source of clean energy, but as is so often the case with the military industrial complex, the beneficial uses of the new technology just end up as the agreeable wrapping paper trying to hide the jingoistic core. He assembles the Avengers to clean up the mess he effectively caused, and when they find out what he's really been up to, he justifies it by blaming them for bringing superhuman menaces to Earth and claiming a need for self-defense. Self-defense is perfectly valid, but it's hard to believe that Fury and SHIELD would just stop at deterrence. This is an organization wire-tapping every electronic device around the globe, confiscating/stockpiling the weapons of the worst criminals in history, and sending their highly skilled agents to capture or kill people at will. If anything, it confirms Loki's idea that people want to be ruled-- that they would rather feel safe with Big Brother watching over them, than know any true freedom. Which works up to the point when it doesn't, when you end up with neither due to an invasion. The best review I've found of the Avengers is Something Awful's, which eloquently (if critically) expresses this problem. However, I disagree with the author's belief that the Avengers is a justification of the US brand of imperialism. If anything, it's advocating the ability of individuals over byzantine political systems. The Avengers are all unique, skilled, yet damaged individuals. They may have been collected by Fury, but when they form a team, they do so on their own terms. And after they defeat the enemies, they go their separate ways, but will still come together if needed for another crisis. The Avengers don't represent America or any other nation; they represent people who can and will save lives. The only will they follow is the will of Coulson, after he proved too good for our sinful planet. The other film, on the other hand, is exactly what I feared the Avengers would be; a sensationalistic fangasm, a film that exists with no purpose beyond putting a bunch of big stars in the same room. For the most part, the Avengers avoids this due to mixing thoughtful and sympathetic character scenes with the big set pieces. However, we all know which one gets asses in seats. So unfortunately, the latter half of the movie is one long, repetitive fight. Which would be fine if it were shorter, but when you keep the action at that high level for so long, it stops being so intense. The Chitau'ri have no personality beyond being Mooks for the Avengers to slaughter (I assume they don't have families, right?), and their design doesn't even go beyond most CG aliens. When the Chitau'ri ship appeared, the big metal snake reminded me of Shockwave's craft in Transformers 3. Any time I'm comparing something to a Michael Bay movie, that's not a good sign, though at least this movie has substance beyond the prolonged final battle and at least keeps its goddamned camera steady. My fear was that this would be the end of the super hero movie's unique qualities; once they get to the crossovers, they become the same recycled garbage that so often characterizes the comics. The superhero is no longer special, but a face in a crowd of hundreds of others, with the act of putting on a costume being just another profession in that universe (albeit one that looks ridiculous to most in our universe). The Avengers doesn't go that far, as it thankfully keeps to a smaller cast and features a well-written story on top of all the requisite explosions. Still, can the next Avengers movies keep that self-contained? Or will we inevitably see "Avengers V: Secret Infinity Siege " and " Avengers VI: Coulson Reborn"? My general perspective with Marvel media (or any big franchise divorced from its original creators, for that matter) is to assume it's going to be bad and be surprised when it isn't. But with the Avengers, at least, I was surprised. Highly Recommended.


  1. I think that, not only can you say the Chitari don't have any families, but they're barely individuals to begin with, in direct contrast to the Avengers. They are the ultimate expression of Loki's vision: a mindless, soulless army with cybernetics that blur the lines between themselves and their weapons. It may be a bit of dramatic convenience that the infantry dies when the mothership was destroyed, but it was useful dramatic convenience that underscored exactly why the Avengers work as a team to begin with. They were a collection of unique individuals operating as such, and the Chitari were not.

    (Which, of course, brings the Masters of Evil to mind, but considering they'd consist of the Abomination and...that's it, in the movie-verse, that's getting ahead of where we are.)

    SHIELD's Big Brother-esque nature is unfortunately downplayed to the point where it's barely addressed, and it's kind of an important element to ignore. Still, its own impotence may be the implied counter-argument to its methodology.

    But there's one point in the political undercurrents that sticks in my craw, and it's Stark's line about deterrents. It's a common reading of the Cold War that sort of ignores how the Cold War ended; specifically, increasing the amount of military spending until the USSR stretched itself too thin trying to keep up. The metaphor simply doesn't apply to the situation, and it particularly undercut because the Avengers themselves function as a deterrent.

    But for serious, totally awesome movie, with a couple mixed messages that probably weren't given as much thought in production as they were upon viewing.

  2. While I agree that the film briefly suggests the problems of hierarchies imposing values on others, I think Fury's own arc in the film is about his resistance to such hierarchies. It's really his shadowy masters, the World Security Council, who seem to impose calculations and hierarchical valuations of humanity.

    Fury's deception aside, his last act seems to be to let the Avengers drop off the grid entirely; it's worth noting that the film seems to attribute the weapons program to the WSC, since it's stated and later confirmed that the weapons program replaced Fury's proposed Avengers Initiative after the WSC rejected it.

    It's also worth noting that Whedon's anti-hierarchical politics generally don't trend all the way to atomistic individualism. Whedon's works give us small, flexible, non-hierarchical groups, not lone geniuses: the Scooby Gang, the Serenity crew, even (by the end of the series) the New York Dollhouse all work as microcollectivities more than anything.

    The film reflects this in the arc you say little about, the Iron Man arc. Tony is certainly an individualist at the beginning, and it's his prickly "go-it-alone" attitude that come sin for a beating at several points. His big heroic moments int he final battle consist in a speech valorizing the entire team -- he's the one who accepts the collective name "Avengers" -- and later in sacrificing himself for the others.

    In this way, Tony in this film is one of Whedon's classic examples of the lone badass who must redeem him or herself for his selfishness. See also Spike, Faith, Jayne, and Adele. While Stark is less overtly antiheroic than these previous examples, . The Black Widow seems to have gone through her version of this arc before her first appearance in Iron Man 2. And Hawkeye gets a spare and truncated version of this arc, going from the guy who'd rather sit in the rafters at the beginning to a serious team player by the end.

    The film is clever, to my mind, in giving us two unappealing collectivities -- the WSC's black ops utilitarianism and the Chitauri's hivemind -- while also giving us individuals who realize that they need some sort of local collectivity or emotional network in order to really do what needs doing or what matters.

    Whedon is deeply suspicious of power in general because it creates hierarchies. Everything from the Tesseract to the source of the Slayer's powers turns out to have a dark side rooted in domination and categorism (gods over mortals in this movie, men over women in the primeval days of the Buffyverse, the Powers that Be vs. Free Will in Angel, etc.).

    But the heroic moments in his work, including the Avengers, are less about pure individualism than about the formation of alternative social formations in which the different capacities of individuals don't produce hierarchical imbalances or inscribed differences. People still need to come together to accomplish things in his work. Whedon's egalitarianism is not of the radical individualist mode, so far as I can tell.

  3. Hey! I was hoping you'd reviewed this, and now I find you have. Yay.

    I was also kind of unsatisfied by the extent of the movie's treatment of the "nuclear deterrence" theme: what they seem to have arrived at is, this is bad but we're going to do it (SHIELD)/let you do it (Stark, Rogers et al.) anyway because, ummm ....

    I did not feel that they really *addressed* this question beyond first posing it, in that meeting where Stark and Rogers confront Fury with the plans for the Tesseract-powered weaponry (guess who just saw the movie TODAY?).

    I also felt like Whedon's treatment of his favorite theme, messy individual freedom vs. peaceful, ordered submission to institutional authority, wasn't as good in this as it has been in, say, "Serenity." Not only is the Alliance a more appealing incarnation of the "slavery will make you happy" argument --- who *really* wants to be ruled by a guy as sociopathic as Loki, or by those horrible Space Orcs, anyway? --- and the Operative from that movie a better spokesman for it than Loki (who giveth not one crappe about the good of humanity, but who is instead obsessed with one-upping his brother Thor), but the Avengers don't work as well as the Browncoats as champions of human freedom. (Well, Tony Stark might.) Heck, one of them is 100% not-of-this-world, one is basically Riley Finn with the jet lag from Hell (i.e., not generally given to questioning orders, and a bit cut off from the civilian world he's supposed to be protecting), and another is a hermit in one form and mindless in the other. I like how he wrote them, and I found the tension between Rogers and Stark compelling; I just think this group adds complicating factors to the rebel-humanists-vs.-soulless-bureaucracy narrative he tries to shoe-horn them into. They're not the same kind of "found family" that the characters in "Buffy," "Angel" and "Firefly"/"Serenity" all make up. They were brought together by one overarching power to fight another.

    ALSO! Why is Loki, the trickster god, appearing here in the capacity of Mouth of Sauron? It seems to me like his natural bent would be to egg man on toward rebellion, not submission! I know nothing of the Marvel versions of the Norse gods, so maybe the character is different from the one I remember from the random stories out of Norse mythology, but this REALLY bothered me when he first showed up.

    One final thing: Have you read "Fray"? Because if you haven't, you won't have seen how the final battle sequence replicates some major elements of the battle in that book. (Of course, maybe you have, and you did see it, and *STILL* thought it was boring, messy and bloated.)