The superheroes of summer
Superhero flicks offer a vehicle to generate revenue at the box office and beyond while speaking to our anxieties, frustrations and hopes, says.
We love our superheroes because they refuse to give up on us. We can analyze them out of existence, kill them, ban them, mock them, and still they return, patiently reminding us of who we are and what we wish we could be...[T]hey [have] never failed to offer a direct line to the cultural subconscious and its convulsions. They tell us where we've been, what we feared, and what we desired, and today, they are more popular, more all-pervasive than ever because they still speak to us about what we really want to be.
--Grant Morrison, Supergods
WHETHER THIS epigraph from author Grant Morrison is taken seriously or not, it is undeniable that the entertainment industry has absorbed it as a truism. The Avengers grossed more than $200 million in consecutive weekends at the U.S. box office, and the infinite merchandizing possibilities for The Avengers make it nearly impossible to calculate just how much more revenue is waiting for the marketing gurus to tap into.
Based on this alone, we can safely assume that we've not seen the last of these muscle-bound heroes and their big-screen adventures.
Comic books and the super-powered denizens who populate their pages have been a fixture of American society for nearly 80 years now, and in the past decade, they have skulked out from the shadowy margins of geekdom and claimed their place in the center of the pop culture pantheon.
An aspect of this is no doubt due to their profitability, but this at least partly begs the question of why they've grown to be so popular, and why a low-brow action-adventure romp featuring half a dozen caped crusaders could simultaneously break ticket sales records and garner such widespread acclaim from both critics and the champions of geek-culture.
The Avengers, written and directed by Joss Whedon, starring Robert Downey, Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth and Scarlett Johansson.
For capitalist producers of culture, comic books are an endless mine of creative material just waiting to be plundered. With decades of plot lines already tested on the cultural imagination and literally thousands of characters (the overwhelming majority of whom belong to the companies and not their creators) with pre-established fan bases, the comics are, in many ways, the perfect commodity for the entertainment industry to seize upon and exploit to their fullest.
Not only is it possible to spin off individual stories, but the heavy emphasis on the continuity of the characters in comics naturally lends itself to franchising. And when the franchise and its characters seem to have been bled completely dry, there's always the possibility of a series reboot. It's for these reasons that Marvel Entertainment managed to become the top-grossing movie studio of all time in a matter of 10 years.
The Avengers perfectly encapsulates everything capitalism loves about superheroes.
Not only does it feature characters introduced to audiences in their own films (five of them, to be precise), but the entire premise--"these incredible heroes are brought together to face down only the most monumental threats"--leaves each of its constituent parts completely undisturbed.
The marketing formula has a certain brilliance to it: keep releasing films about the Hulk, Thor, Iron Man and so forth, and then every couple of years, bring them together for another Avengers movie when the likes of Ultron or Kang the Conqueror once again rear their heads in order to have them lopped off.
This gets us half the way toward explaining why it's possible to see three or four different superhero movies in a given year and also purchase everything from l'eau de l'Hulk to Spider-Man underpants (for adults and children alike). But what it doesn't account for is why these absurd spandex-clad characters derived from the pages of serialized picture books became popular in the first place.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
AN HONEST and successful explanation of this question would be historical in nature, rooting the numerous rises, falls and transformations of superhero stories in the shifts and changes in popular consciousness through their eight decades of existence. Such a task is outside the scope of this review, but several general points are worth making.
To begin with, the original superheroes were forged in the tumultuous era of the Great Depression of the 1930s, with its intolerable inequality and the looming threat of fascism weighing heavily on the minds of the American working class. The first caped marvel on the scene, Superman, was a kind of "everyman," possessed of astonishing strength and speed, but still lacking the god-like abilities that developed later.
His main adversaries were corporate big wigs destroying regular people's lives, and though very much a vigilante, the early Superman's extrajudicial violence against stand-ins for the rich seemed to flow at least in part from an implicit recognition of the imbalance in the legal system that would never bring the real criminals to justice.
His immediate successor, Batman, represents the opposite of all this: a billionaire philanthropist who dons a cape and mask to fight petty criminals "terrorizing the law-abiding citizens" of Gotham City. These two characters, in their early iterations, represent the poles of political possibility that exist within superhero stories.
The stark contrast between the hope and optimism of the comics and the desolation and despair of the world outside their margins marks an important starting point for any explanation of their enduring appeal. In a heartless world where the feeling of powerlessness is nearly ubiquitous and the hardships faced in daily life seem insurmountable and inhuman, superheroes are beacons in the dark.
They offer tales of overcoming peril on a scale even larger than we mortals are likely to ever confront. No matter the odds, no matter the desperation of our lives, one thing that can be relied upon is that our illustrated heroes will always find some way to prevail.
Yet even as their cosmically significant trials and tribulations routinely pull the universe back from the brink, what really makes our superheroes interesting and appealing is their humanity. Exciting as Spider-Man's high flying battles with the Hobgoblin may be, what makes the character truly compelling is Peter Parker's struggle to hold down a steady job, keep up in school, have a social life and regularly save the world.
Our most beloved comic book do-gooders are all deeply flawed in recognizable ways, and all make mistakes that carry dire personal consequences. In most cases, fighting invincible robots with omnipotent intellects seems easy compared to the everyday challenges that look just like our own hardships.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
IT'S THIS element of superhero stories, the way in which they epitomize humanity at our best--resilient, bold, selfless--while still maintaining all of our flaws, that makes The Avengers more than just a brilliantly engineered marketing gimmick. Studio executives may with justification see comic-book adaptations as get-rich-quick schemes, Joss Whedon, writer and director of the film, recognizes why superheroes have become such powerful and beloved symbols.
The adulation with which Whedon approaches this subject shines through in every scene, and it's Whedon's touch that makes what would otherwise have been a throwaway moneymaker into an interesting film.
To be clear, this is no art flick. The Avengers delivers no shortage of monumental action sequences, high-speed and high-flying chase scenes, explosions and all the other staples of butter-flavored popcorn summer blockbusters. The noticeable difference is that Whedon, who is something of a living legend within geek circles for writing Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Astonishing X-Men, does all of this while showing a clear affection for both the characters and their fans.
In a movie adapted from a comic that prides itself on smashing together half a dozen larger-than-life personalities, the risk of underdevelopment and tokenism runs deep. On the page, this can be surmounted by spending issue after issue slowly giving definition to various characters over the course of years (and in some cases decades). In a two-hour film, there's no such possibility, and while all of the individual heroes have films of their own, Whedon does a remarkable job of not relying on these previous stories to provide each Avenger with subtle texture that keeps fans coming back to the comics each month.
Whedon not only makes a towering Norse deity both believable and relatable, but he also manages the even more difficult task of resisting the tendency to use every female character as either a fawning damsel or a scantily clad sex object with superpowers. Despite their two-dimensional origins, Whedon's characters are all cut from better cloth than the average one-dimensional personages in most summer action blockbusters.
Impressive as the characters may be, arguably more extraordinary is the film's ability to hold together a coherent and interesting plot, given the frenetic pace and all of the moving parts. The series of events that eventually bring together "earth's mightiest heroes" begins when Loki, Thor's brother and Asgardian God of Mischief, steals the Tesseract, a source of infinite power, from the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement, and Logistics Division (or SHIELD).
In response, Nick Fury, head of this secret government agency, sets in motion the Avengers initiative to unleash Thor, Captain America, Iron Man and the Hulk upon Loki in an effort to retrieve the artifact and save the world. As the story unfolds, Whedon pulls together all of the disparate threads, tugs at the heartstrings, offers smart dialogue and provides many immensely rewarding pay-offs--the dramatic showdown between Loki and the Hulk being a memorable example.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
SO IF Grant Morrison is right about superheroes offering a direct line to this cultural subconscious, what does The Avengers reflect politically? What are radicals to make of the fact that a movie about a group of vigilantes, brought together by a spy agency, led by a man dressed in an American flag and featuring a billionaire arms contractor in a metal suit, has become one of the top-grossing films of all time, and in a matter of weeks, no less?
One approach would be to throw our hands in the air and denounce the film as fundamentally reactionary and be done with it. Vigilantism is, after all, politically backwards, and in a certain respect every superhero is a glorified vigilante.
Looked at in this light, Alan Moore's Watchmen could be taken as the first and last statement about what's wrong with the superheroes genre.
At their worst, superhero stories hold up a vile "law-and-order" ideology implicitly--and in rare cases, explicitly--to defend the idea that petty criminals should be met with unrelenting violence by justice-loving citizens wearing masks. And even at their best, this underlying elitism and the unwavering faith in an abstract ideal of justice is never far from the surface.
Yet taking the problems of vigilantism as a given, there exists a great deal of political variety and contradiction in both the comic books and their big-screen adaptations. Frank Miller recently scribed a Batman story arc that outright glorified the most reprehensible aspects of the U.S. "war on terror"--while not so long ago, Captain America led a superhero rebellion against Marvel's version of the civil-liberties-shredding USA PATRIOT Act.
The Dark Knight Returns shamelessly depicted a billionaire vigilante as the only hope of cleaning up our crime-ridden metropolises, while the first Spider-Man movie pitted a working-class college kid against a deranged CEO, with both the media and, to a lesser extent, the police on the wrong side.
In The Avengers, the central conflict is fairly black and white: the misunderstood, though undoubtedly sadistic, Loki wants to rule the world and unleashes giant shape-shifting aliens to level New York City. No one can honestly question the thought that his efforts need to be stopped. Slightly more subtle, though nearly as trite, is the message that egos need to be set aside in the service of the greater good.
A little more than half of the film is spent convincing the various superheroes that they should work together, even as they frequently come to blows and nearly kill each other while Loki amasses his forces. The other more interesting--if equally liberal--political note is struck in the revelation that SHIELD had been trying to weaponize the Tesseract, rather than harness it as an unlimited source of clean power for the whole world.
This is presented in the film as the wrong-headed policy of higher-ups in the government who call the shots about SHIELD's ultimate course. The implication is that what's necessary to correct twisted priorities is the emergence of a few good men and women standing up for what's right.
Radicals looking for a film that offers meaningful insight into the most effective route toward proletarian self-emancipation should probably steer clear, but for everyone who can appreciate superheroes for what they are, The Avengers will not disappoint.
Though it may seem paradoxical, The Avengers is in some respects among the most self-aware films in recent history. As with Cabin in the Woods, his other box office success of the summer, Whedon relies on all of the conventions of the genre in which he's working to spoon-feed audiences their own expectations. But he does so with the smile of a participant, rather than the sneer of a critic.
From start to finish, Whedon acknowledges that this is a movie about superheroes, and he neither tries to make it into something more than that, nor does he accept that these boundaries mean he's resigned to producing trash. The Avengers represents an homage to the best aspects of superhero stories by simultaneously offering us an escapist adventure and a thoughtful--though far from profound--reflection of the "cultural subconscious."