Last week, living in Europe brought with it another benefit to list alongside universal health care (for now, at least) and affordable wines: I got to see Marvel’s The Avengers a good week before American moviegoers were afforded that opportunity. This is doubly curious because of the film’s unusual importance for American geek culture: calling the film something like “hotly anticipated” is both understatement and hyperbole, as the film has been marketed so aggressively and for such a long time that it has reached something approaching peak saturation. It is therefore rather extraordinary that it’s as good as it is – in fact, I don’t doubt that its record-breaking box office success is to some extent the result of audiences’ incredulous lack of real disappointment.
The Avengers delivers exactly what its (surprisingly immense) audience wants, and that may just be the problem. Familiar characters like Tony Stark and Steve Rogers hit all the beats one would expect them to, and the whole thing builds to a frenzied action climax in which the team comes together elegantly and efficiently, topped off by some very well-judged Hulk-smashing. If the first hour of the film feels forced and suffers from some pretty atrocious pacing, the last 80-odd minutes fly by in a frenzy of fan-pleasing superhero mayhem. This amounts to an enjoyable step up for the genre, which usually suffers from the opposite dynamic: an exciting first act that ultimately has nowhere interesting to go (see: all previous Marvel installments, from Iron Man to Captain America: The First Avenger).
But at the same time, the film refuses to take any kind of risks. Everything about it, from its by-the-numbers character introductions to its unimaginatively choreographed action set pieces, is calculated and mechanical, while Whedon’s one-liners and compulsive pop-culture references attempt to convince us that the whole thing was in fact created by a human being rather than a mainframe. The film’s mammoth success therefore represents the triumph of a corporation’s ability to assemble (no pun intended) all the elements required to guarantee the kinds of obscene profits Marvel and parent company Disney are now reaping. Compare any scene from The Avengers to Ang Lee’s breathtaking Hulk to see the difference between an artistic vision that dares to take some real risks, and a generic entertainment product that keeps the fans happy while appealing primarily to the lowest common denominator. What is all the more depressing is that it has been Joss Whedon’s main strength throughout his career to go against expectation, frequently taking sizable risks in the name of artistic integrity. It is therefore more than a little ironic that his first real mainstream success is also by far the least ‘Whedonesque’ thing he’s ever made.
But perhaps the most depressing thing about the film’s blockbuster status is that this all but guarantees another half-decade of superhero fare on the big screen. A flop of John Carter-size proportions could have signaled the long-overdue demise of this overblown genre that is starting to feel like the bane of my professional life. (I wasn’t too fond of John Carter, but it had a lot more character than The Avengers, and a much better understanding of how to do action scenes.) As the great Roger Corman so memorably emphasized upon receiving his honorary Academy Award, “in order to succeed, you need to take chances.” But in 21st-century Hollywood, where a giant like Corman has sadly become a marginal figure, the opposite now appears to hold true.