Saturday, May 5, 2012

Superhero circle jerk

And so officially begins the summer movie season.

And it seems like everybody is excited about the ceremonial first movie of summer but me.

It feels like two years now that all I've heard about is Avengers this, and Avengers that. And from the first moment I heard anything about it, I thought it sounded like a bad idea.

Here's my problem with it, in an admittedly broad nutshell. It gets together two groups of people who tend to be insufferable in their own ways:

1) People who go on and on about comic books.

2) People who go on and on about Joss Whedon.

Some of you reading this undoubtedly fall into one of those two categories, and no, I probably don't actually find you insufferable, per se. It's the prototypical "you" that I find insufferable.

I have lately felt the urge to post about there being a difference between being a movie fan and being a fan of superhero movies. There are certain forums in which I discuss film where people call themselves film enthusiasts, but their "love of movies" seems to begin and end with movies adapted from comic books. They'll throw in movies that might as well have been adapted from comic books for good measure. But they don't seem to be interested in talking about anything beyond that. Fortunately, Hollywood has given them plenty to talk about within that sphere in the past decade.

Then there are those people who are still trying to tell you how awesome Buffy the Vampire Slayer is, even though it has been off the air for nearly a decade. I'm sure it was awesome, but I didn't find it so. I watched one episode, and thought I was hooked; I watched the next episode, and immediately lost interest. What's worse, they will also proclaim their undying love for Firefly, which I did not watch at all. But I did see the awful film version of the show called Serenity, which was, simply, awful. There's a certain cutesiness that suffuses Whedon's work, that I can't quite get over.

But I certainly like, even love, some comic book movies (Batman Begins and Watchmen are two examples) and I certainly like, even love, some stuff by Joss Whedon (The Cabin in the Woods and Dr. Horrible's Sing-a-Long Blog are two examples).

So maybe the better way to encapsulate my disinterest in The Avengers is this:

Do I really want to watch a movie about a bunch of superheroes, sitting around jerking each other off?

Of course I'm not being literal, though one of these superheroes is Scarlett Johansson, so that would be pretty titillating. But I can imagine them all sitting around in a room, looking kind of funny because superheroes shouldn't sit around in a room, having fake arguments that are really just designed to demonstrate how awesome they all are in their own different ways with their own different powers. It's ego stroking disguised as the kind of bickering men and women do in romantic comedies before they realize they're in love.

See? Cutesy.

But really -- and I expect to keep defining this and modifying it as I write the piece -- the main reason I'm not so sure about The Avengers is that I think over-stuffing a movie with superheroes is very "Joel Schumacher Batman." I think superhero movies tend to work better if they focus on only a single hero or a finite number of heroes, not the 12 or 13 in this movie. Movies like the X-Men movies are the exception, because that was always part of the concept of that series -- a multiplicity of heroes. I'd rather see for a second time the movie subtitled The First Avenger -- which would be last year's surprisingly awesome Captain America -- than see Captain America the character have to elbow out of the way a bunch of other dudes (or dudettes) trying to hog the spotlight.

But maybe the REAL reason I'm not looking forward to The Avengers (you sick of this yet?) is that it seems to rely all too heavily on the mythology -- and I do mean "mythology" quite literally -- that originated in last year's disappointing Thor. The main villain in The Avengers is Tom Hiddleston's Loki, who is the fallen brother of Chris Hemsworth's Thor. The problem with both of these guys is that they are gods who live on another planet. I don't like that idea at all, but I definitely don't like it mixing with a bunch of other heroes whose back stories are grounded in reality (even if one of them, the aforementioned Captain America, effectively time traveled to be in present day). Throwing all these different realities together into one melting pot just seems fraught with peril. You are effectively telling me that Iron Man could get on that "space bridge" (even though I think it was destroyed at the end of Thor) and travel to Asgard -- another planet, in outer space, inhabited by gods.

But I hear The Avengers is good. Right? That's what "they say."

Then again, I wonder if I should really trust "they," if "they" is increasingly comprised of people who love Firefly and Thor.


Don Handsome said...

I'm not all in on the Avengers - though I'm certainly more in than you - and I think this is because of the mythology it shares with the previous movies in its continuum as well. I didn't just not really like Thor. I didn't really like ANY of the Avengers prequels . So yeah...I’m just not all that confident that its going to deliver. So I’m partially with you…except that I think it also needs to be argued that it does have tremendous potential outside of its "source material", and I will probably see it in the next couple of weeks. I will admit that one of these sources of potential is certainly Whedon ( know, I know. But I don't think you need to be a Whedonite to recognize that what he can offers this project is the ability to handle an ensemble of strong characters without losing the insight of interpersonal interaction), but another source is that I disagree with you that the Superhero Circle Jerk is a negative.

I tire very easily of seeing just one superhero (or mostly one) for an entire movie (notable exception is the a lot of the Batman cannon (especially the recent Nolan Batman cannon) where I think the strength of the batman character carries me through a lot of stuff that I wouldn’t be tolerant of in a film about a superhero I didn’t like as much). There's something unsustainable about Iron Man, for example, in a feature length film. I'm accustomed to the short monthly or bimonthly burst of Superhero information and in book form I think there's something fun about learning the origins and backstory of heroes over the course of years or decades. In a movie, you get it all really fast and thus the holes are often laughably exposed - Iron Man's nuclear reactor heart thing is ridiculous in the film and for some reason I’m just not willing to suspend disbelief when they freeze Captain America, but that kind of goofiness plays just fine for me in individual books where you get a little bit at a time over time - and that's exactly what these ensemble superhero films do for you. They give you little bits of information that if dragged out would be ridiculous, but in the circle jerk milieu they seem acceptable enough and allow us to focus more on the spectacle of seeing some fantastic colorful physical specimens fly around worlds we could possibly actually inhabit. The fat that is necessarily cut by incorporating a plethora of heroes is not missed and instead we (generally, because there ARE bad ensemble hero films like Fantastic Four and Mystery Men) get to simply witness. When the films are really good, witnessing is all that it takes to enjoy.

I’m hoping Avengers will awe me. I’m hoping I will be witnessing something truly majestic. I’m worried about it though.

Will you ever see it? I’m betting you see it once the hype dies down, just like me.

Travis McClain said...

I've been having this conversation each summer for about a decade now, and I grow wearier each time around. This time, I'm just gonna offer a distillation of my talking points and save us both the charade that I'm reacting to these ideas for the first time.

1 Comic books =/= superheroes. Despite the tendency to think of that one milieu, the comic book is a medium. It would be like suggesting that all music is pop or all movies are dramas.

2 Comic book readers and superhero fans do need to be more discerning and have broader horizons. So, too, should many self-avowed film buffs, who go so far down the Truffaut rabbit hole they forget that there were movies made in other places than 1970s France.

3 I got together a couple weeks ago with some friends and we watched Twister and it dawned on me that you couldn't make that movie today. No one would spend that kind of money and stake that kind of movie to a May release today because there's no merchandising potential and not even really any chance to develop it into a franchise. It's a shame.

4 My biggest gripe is with the studios; Paramount has made an absolute fortune off not just the Avengers solo movies, but the Transformers trilogy, Star Trek and Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol. Maybe they've used some of those extraordinary profits to take a chance on a smaller, intimate drama but I'll be damned if I can think of what it was.

That's not the fault of superhero fanboys, though. We can blame studio bean counters who don't have any artistic fancy, but the truth of the matter is that it's the fault of those aforementioned movie buffs. See, they may dominate niche forums but they're still very much a minority. Studios would much rather make the kinds of movies they want to see because they're much cheaper than, say, Iron Man 2. But they don't draw Iron Man 2 crowds.

Thaddeus said...

I'm partly with Travis here. I don't deal with enough fan boys to be as annoyed as you. But there are too many people who see film as pure escapist entertainment, and that bothers me.

Still, I trust good writers - and Whedon's definitely one, despite his flaws - to make a film with actual heart and/or some gravitas. If we were lucky, Whedon and Nolan would be doing most of our popcorn movies, and we'd probably be happier, more entertained, and a little smarter for it.

Or do you really wanna get another Daredevil?

Vancetastic said...


That perspective makes sense. Perhaps it was having an entire movie's worth of Thor that made me think Thor was boring. However, the multiplicity of superheroes approach seems indicative of Hollywood's general "Bigger! Faster! More!" philosophy, which is often misguided. And I agree on such things as Iron Man's nuclear heart (why does he need it again?) though I do like Captain America quite a bit. Yes, I'll see it, but I'm especially wary of adding to its coffers now that it made $200 million in its opening weekend. However, tonight IS cheap movie night ...


I was worried that you in particular would take umbrage to this post -- I probably should have included the disclaimer "*Not you, Travis!" somewhere in the post. What I didn't communicate well enough is that it's not that I dislike comic books (agreed, a medium, but a medium that disproportionately employs superheroes), but that I don't like it when "movie fans" have comic book/superhero properties as their only frame of reference within the world of cinema. But your comments indicate that you got that's more or less what I meant. Also, maybe they just wouldn't make Twister today because it sucked. ;-) (Agreed, there's no potential for marketing, but that's true of almost the entire effects disaster genre, including half of Roland Emmerich's films. They still make those.)


I must admit, I thought Daredevil was "okay." It's funny, I think because I don't live and die by superhero movies the way some people do, I'm less enamored than the average person with the good ones and I hate the bad ones less. I also thought Green Lantern was "okay," possibly better than that. And you are right to trust Joss Whedon. I should probably trust him more, but I can still taste my hatred for Serenity, which I saw like seven years ago now.