Sunday, May 6, 2012

A Review of Marvel's The Avengers

Anyone who knows me well knows that I LOVE action movies, and particularly action movies based on comic books.  When I was a teenager, I dreamed of writing a screenplay for X-Men.  When I heard that that movie was being made, and made by Bryan Singer (whose The Usual Suspects is a modern classic), I was ecstatic.  

It's interesting that X-Men came out in 2000, and that movie seemed to usher in an age of non-stop comic book movie adaptations in the 21st century.  Like any genre, the comic book movie adaptation has its hits (The Dark Knight), and misses (The Green Lantern).

As a bona fide 32-year-old nerd, I was really really excited to see Marvel's The Avengers, and particularly excited that it was being made by Joss Whedon, who is not well-known as a big-budget film director, but is very well known in the fanboy/comic-con universe.  Whedon is perhaps most famous for Buffy, the Vampire Slayer.  Before you start snickering, consider this.  My colleague at Cal State Fullerton, Erin Hollis, a James Joyce scholar, wrote a paper about Buffy, The Vampire Slayer for an online journal devoted to Whedon studies.  My point is that, intellectually speaking, Joss Whedon is no lightweight.

Let me begin by saying what I did NOT like about Marvel's The Avengers.  I didn't like that, before the movie began, there were not one but TWO ads for the United States Military, inflicting their propaganda on young viewers who were just there to watch a good movie.  Those ads really make my skin crawl.

The movie itself is a fast-paced, action-packed, and emotionally satisfying experience.  In my view, one of the things that separates a good comic book adaptation from a bad one is emotional believability.  I'm willing to accept that reptilian robots want to invade earth from another dimension, no problem, but what I will NOT accept is a hero without internal conflict.  And the heroes in The Avengers are tremendously conflicted internally.  The main internal struggle seems to be between their giant egos, and the good of the world.  The name of the game for The Avengers is cooperation.  The clear message is "We are stronger together."

This is a unique message for an American film, where heroes are usually lone "rugged" individuals going up against difficult forces.  The idea of cooperation is kind of a rare thing in American hero mythology.  This brings me to the main insight I walked away with from The Avengers.  Comic books and movies offer us a kind of contemporary mythology, a way to think about our world.  We don't really believe superheroes exist, but the comics and films give us a way to think about our shared values, and these values are ever-evolving.

A great illustration of this idea of changing values in The Avengers are the exchanges between Captain America, who is a product of the 1940s U.S. Military, and Iron Man/Tony Stark, who is a product of 21st century privatized war.  Captain America's valorous "old school" values clash with Tony Stark's "new school" irony and skepticism.  But in this clash of ideas emerges shared values.  The WWII-era super soldier and the postmodern techno-soldier must find common ground, and that common ground is deeply rooted in cooperation.

It's easy for an academically-minded person to dismiss comic book adaptations as big business, as pop culture triviality (which they sometimes are), but the good ones, like The Dark Knight, like X-Men, like The Avengers can serve the dual purpose of entertaining us AND (hopefully) causing us to reflect on who we are.

This trailer is awesome.

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