Saturday, May 5, 2012

The Avengers is Darker Than You Think

Note: this post discusses plot points of The Avengers, so if you're sensitive to spoilers you may not want to read it until you've watched the movie. Although frankly it's not the Sixth Sense; if you can't guess how it's going to end from the very beginning you probably haven't watched many movies.

By now most of you have seen or plan to see the latest superhero juggernaut, Marvel's The Avengers presented by Marvel. With the upcoming Batman (volume 3, issue 3) and Spider Man (volume 2, issue 1) movies, we're probably entering the pinnacle of the Hollywood Superhero Era. Eventually audiences will tire of endless comic book sequels and reboots (right? RIGHT?) and Hollywood will move on to the next big thing, but for now superheroes (or enhanced individuals, as they prefer to be called) own the day. Incidentally, the next trend has already begun: board games and childhood toys! Somewhere a self-loathing screenwriter is struggling to build a narrative around Hungry Hungry Hippos, which can't possibly be worst than the upcoming B*****Shi* movie (note: the title of this film has been redacted because the editors feel that acknowledging its existence will only encourage it). Personally I'm waiting for Ticket to Ride, a story of violence and ruthlessness set at the peak of the Gilded Age.

Starring Daniel Day-Lewis as Jay Gould.

Anyway, The Avengers. I don't intend to write a review, because it's the kind of show where you probably know going in whether you'll like it. I enjoyed it, because I'm a sucker for affable characters and snappy Whedonesque banter. Some are going to claim it's the best movie EVER, primarily those who are 1. Under the age of 21 and 2. Don't watch very many good movies. Don't be fooled: The Avengers is delicious, but it's a Taco Bell Grilled Stuft Burrito, a Brick Oven Pasta Bar. It's the best you can get from where you're getting it, but it ain't fine dining and it's not trying to be.

So, having established that Avengers is a Fun, Action-Packed Summer Blockbuster, let me deconstruct one troubling aspect of the film: its blithe treatment of horrific violence. Wait, what? Well, the movie's final act is a massive Heroes vs Aliens battle over Manhattan, wherein our dysfunctional protagonists must work together to thwart an unstoppable invasion. It's full of CGI-soaked action, witty one-liners, and, oh yeah, thousands and thousands of grisly deaths. As befitting a PG-13 romp, most of the slaughter is off-screen, but it's evident every time the camera cuts from debris toppling into populated sidewalks, or with every shot of wrecked buildings and devastated streets. This is a battle in a densely populated city, and people are being killed.

Woo yeah!

This boisterous rampage, full of collateral damage, paints Avengers into a corner. The movie's focus is on its heroes: their flashy kills, their ariel acrobatics, and teamwork saving the day. We, the audience, are supposed to gasp at the awesome visuals, laugh at the jokes, and cheer when the heroes triumph. We might even become emotionally invested in Iron Man's Heroic Sacrifice to stop the invasion. Those innocent people everywhere? Just running and screaming background noise. They don't matter unless a hero goes out of his or her way to save a some of them. We're meant to relish the mayhem while ignoring its consequences.

But isn't the point of the battle that it's so cool to see CGI property wrecked by CGI characters? Well, yes. Yes, it is cool. Some action movies avoid my dilemma by staging battles in lightly populated areas (Thor!), by limiting the threatened populace to a confined space like a train or bus (Spider Man!), or by making sure most of of the casualties are military personnel (which, as the Joker said, we accept as "part of the plan"). Some movies establish that the battleground has been evacuated, leaving us free to appreciate the wanton property devaluation. Avengers briefly plays an attempted evacuation for laughs when Captain American instructs the NYPD to create a perimeter for the battle, but logic and repeated shots of civilians in peril show that their success was limited. It's very clear that amidst the havoc millions of people are in immediate danger.

As any New Yorker will tell you, frequent monster attacks keep property taxes and insurance costs sky high.

So what do I expect, I want an artsy mediation on War? Saving Private Ryan? A brooding, moody comic adaptation? Not really, but the Avengers wants it all -- the immediacy of a threatened populace, the elation when a few people are saved, and no reflection at all on the ones who are not. A halfhearted nod to the human cost via a brief news report montage isn't really sufficient.

The Avengers isn't supposed to be about regular people. It's about a team of lovable misfits coming together to save the day, which they do with aplomb. At that level, it works splendidly. Once again, I liked the movie. But I couldn't help feeling that in spite of the character development, witty dialogue, and pretty visuals there was some awful stuff disguised as awesome background.

Was there a way around this, a way to keep the stakes high and the movie fun without ignoring the grim realities? I don't know. Am I reading too much into it? Probably, but that's the laziest accusation people make against anyone who critiques a popcorn flick, and it makes popular entertainment immune to anything but fanboy analysis, so I'll keeping reading too much into things, thank you. And what about other movies I like that positively revel in violence and death (looking at you, Kill Bill and Boondock Saints) without inspiring the same level of analysis in me? Maybe I'll have to think that through more.

By all means, go forth and enjoy The Avengers. Watch it two or three times with your friends (just remember: cheering and clapping is only appropriate for live shows when the performers are there to receive your adulation, not for a movie premier. Unless Joss Whedon happens to be there). Discuss what the sequels might do and whether the characters are faithful to their ink and paper counterparts. The Avengers isn't as all-fun-and-games as it pretends to be, but you can be forgiven for choosing to ignore that in order to enjoy the ride.

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