Thursday, May 3, 2012

Avengers Assemble!

The Avengers is coming out this Friday, and I have to admit, I’m more than a little geeked out about it. 

For those of you living off the pop culture grid, there has been a spate of recent superhero movies focusing on individual Marvel comic book characters Iron Man, Hulk, Thor, and Captain America.  These films established the origins of each character while simultaneously injecting a shadowy, overarching plot line that will serve to bring them all together in the culminating film in this series.  The Avengers is that film. 

I’m not one of those people who will camp out to see the first show at midnight on Thursday, and I’m not one of those people who would willingly sit through the five preceding Marvel movies consecutively as a warm-up for The Avengers, as some theatres are doing.  In fact, I’ll probably wait a week or two to see it (okay, I’ll be lucky if I make it a week), just to prove to myself that I am in firmly in control of my geekitude (geekiness?  geekosity?). 

Considering that I am a forty-four-year-old man with two young daughters, the fact that I’m excited at all about this latest superhero movie is probably reason enough for concern, especially amongst the hardcore realists with whom I have been known to associate.  It’s a superhero flick.  It’s shallow, adolescent, male fantasy wish fulfillment.  What’s wrong with you?  I sidestep the question, because I don’t know how to answer it.

Yes, I know it’s foolish to let my inner geek’s enthusiasm get the better of me.  I completely understand that it’s entirely possible, even likely, that The Avengers won’t live up to my expectations.  By now I should know; I’ve been through this so many times before.  My better judgment says the rational approach is to go in expecting two hours of light escapist fare, like any other summer fluff film.  But I can’t.  I want, I truly want, The Avengers to be a great movie.  I’ve waited a lifetime for something like this.  It’s difficult to suppress the giddy rush of anticipation, even though I know I shouldn’t pin my hopes to a film genre that has been so consistently disappointing. 

You see, there have been a lot of bad superhero movies made over my lifetime.  In fact, in all the years I’ve spent watching these kinds of films, I can say that there are only about five or six that I truly love out of the many dozens Hollywood’s cranked outoHoilaa.  The rest have been decent at best, or far more commonly, alright, or just okay.  The worst – well, the worst have been a lot like being dragged naked down a gravel road for an hour, then forced to sit in a lemon juice dunk tank on Cy Young reunion night at Cooperstown.  You think I’m exaggerating? I’ve got the scars, and the lingering aversion to lemon juice, to prove it.  Yes, the last four decades have been nothing if not unnecessarily cruel to the superhero movie enthusiast.

When I was growing up in the seventies, Hollywood didn’t even bother trying to make superhero flicks.  As a kid, I had to derive whatever enjoyment I could from TV shows like Spider-Man, Superfriends, Shazam!, and old reruns of the sixties’ Batman with Adam West.  It made my day when I happened to catch an episode of a black and white Captain America serial from the 40’s the local station ran as filler between the late show and the late, late show.  All of them were basically cartoons, either animated (with all the depth and quality that 70’s Saturday morning television connotes), or live-action cartoons, hamstrung into absurdity by low-budget special-effects, corny physical film manipulations, and a sloppy, “our audience won’t notice the difference” attitude.  On seventies’ prime time network television there was Wonder Woman, which I watched, at least until I was disallowed from doing so when my mom discovered me confessing to impure thoughts regarding Lynda Carter while under the influence of an imaginary magic lasso.  

Is she bending that, or straightening it?

Then there was The Incredible Hulk, the Bill Bixby/Lou Ferrigno series, which was the noblest effort of the lot, but Lou Ferrigno’s make-up was an awful shade of green; it was all wrong and made the Hulk the color of Chicago-style pickle relish.  


And as big as he was (no offense, Mr. Ferrigno – by the way, have I told you how great you were in I Love You Man?), he just wasn’t Hulk-sized.  He couldn’t do Hulk things, only Hollywood things; he couldn’t squash a car like an accordion and then toss it away like a crumpled piece of paper, he could only lift a car, vvveeerrryyy ssslllooowwwlllyyy lift a car.  See the difference?  Ultimately, regardless of nobility of intent, none of them could feed the insatiable desire I had to see a superhero brought to life in a way that was convincing enough to be believed.  I was left to yearn for the day when a superhero movie could be done ‘right.’

Fortunately, I didn’t have to wait all that long because Superman: The Movie was released in 1978.  My dear, blessed aunt took me along with her boys that summer (my nuclear family was not a movie-going one), and for the first time, my suspicions about how good a good superhero movie could potentially be were largely confirmed.  

The original tagline for the film was, “You will believe a man can fly.”  After seeing the movie at ten years old, I’m not sure I totally bought that a man could fly, but I did believe that a movie about a superhero could.  Looking back, there were several things that made that film work so well.  First you’ve got Christopher Reeve’s performance.  Forget believing that a man could fly; Christopher Reeve made me believe that the same person could be both Superman and Clark Kent.  

An amazing, humanizing, and hugely gratifying portrayal of the Man of Steel.  Then you have the music; John Williams’ score alone could have made the unbelievable believable with its epic, romantic, melodious sweep.  Oh, there is much to say about Mr. Williams and his music, but for now that will have to wait.  Lastly, thanks to Richard Donner’s direction, the film’s tone, pacing, and scope were all spot-on.  At its core, the Superman story is based on a naïve, sweet, beautiful idea – a godlike man who comes from another world and devotes himself to saving us from ourselves – and the film accurately captured those qualities.  Naivety, sweetness, and beauty (non-sexual beauty, anyway) do not seem to be appealing concepts in our culture anymore.  I’m glad Superman was made when it was, because I don’t think anyone would have the guts, or be able to get their hands on the corporate cash, to make something that intentionally innocent now.   

And then there was the flying.  Alright, so you couldn’t help but notice how unnatural some of Superman’s aerial moves were, and how static the camerawork.  I’m sure that people of subsequent generations probably look at this film and have a hard time seeing beyond the limitations imposed by photographic technology.  Don’t let that throw you.  In its time, it was nearly perfect; the technical fissures in the final product were small enough for a ten-year-old to easily step across.  It didn’t hurt that the movie made it easy to overlook these kinds of problems because it worked so well in the areas that mattered: characters, and story, and heart.  Besides, back then, we gave points for effort.

It would take nearly a quarter-century for computers and digital imagery to surpass the results achieved with the old school wires, blue screen and optical printer technologies used in Superman: The Movie.  

By the time Sam Raimi’s Spiderman showed up in 2002, CGI was able to help accomplish what had never been done before: bring a four-color comic book superhero realistically, and even more important, believably, to life.  CGI was used adeptly to handle realistic; Raimi handled believable, and did so respectably well.  With CGI, both the characters and the camera were freed from the curse of gravity.  We were finally able to keep pace with Peter Parker swing for swing as he threaded through the skyscrapers of Manhattan.  

Old parlor tricks weren’t necessary to show Spidey scurrying up tenement walls, or clinging to ceilings.  We weren’t forced by abrupt jump cuts to skip over the parts where ol’ webhead strings up baddies with silken strands of spider web; no, this time we got to see everything.  CGI finally empowered filmmakers with the one thing they had always lacked:  the ability to render and reflect with great visual realism the amazing visions and creativity of the best comic book artists.

Wait, you say.  Visual realism?  In a superhero flick?  Since when does ‘visual realism’ matter?  They’re superheroes, fer cryin’ out loud.  No one expects them to be realistic.   Au contraire, I respond haughtily, in my most superior French accent.  My experience as a seasoned superhero flick observer has led me to the conclusion that realism is absolutely essential in superhero films, and here’s why.  The audience knows going in that what they’re about to see doesn’t exist, or is impossible, so they walk in the theater door already primed with disbelief.  They may look innocent, sitting in their seats, chatting up their friends during the previews, scarfing down popcorn, but inside their heads, those brains are preparing, tensing, ready to pounce once the movie starts.  Any discrepancy, any incongruity, any flaw which destroys the illusion of realism becomes a gotcha moment in the mind, which only reinforces the improbability of the premise it’s being asked to believe in.  That, in turn, only weakens the film’s chances of getting the audience to suspend their disbelief and buy into the story they’re being told.   In old school terms, that would be like seeing the wires holding up Superman.  In CGI terms, think of it as something as subtle as a foot that doesn’t appear to meet the ground when it’s supposed to, or a misplaced shadow.  A completely realistic context is the only thing that will allow the audience to buy into the existence of the impossible.   I know it sounds counter-intuitive, but it’s true.  When that illusion is expertly and believably presented, our minds and imaginations will gladly follow the film over the suspension bridge of disbelief, and from there we can be taken anywhere. 
The suspension bridge of disbelief:  it's a beautiful thing.
But CGI alone, and the illusion of realism that it creates, doesn’t make a movie believable; it only serves to create the backdrop that allows for believability.   And it inherently does nothing to make a film great other than making it possible to make a great film out of a certain kind of story that was far more difficult, if not impossible, to tell before.  Simply put, it only provides a starting point.  A great superhero movie, like any great movie generally, has to have a great story and characters, and then some combination of superior script, masterful performances, inspired direction, etc.  So, it turns out that making a great superhero movie is much harder work, and is much more difficult to achieve than a regular movie, because there’s all the extra technical work that has to occur in addition to everything else it takes. 

And judging from the procession of half-assed projects that Hollywood began spitting out after the success of Spiderman, it quickly became obvious that the major studios didn’t get this, or didn’t care.  With few exceptions (Spiderman 2 and Batman Begins come to mind), things got pretty bad before they started to get better.  Major studios were screwing up the Marvel universe (and at this time, aside from Batman, the superhero genre was being defined by Marvel’s creations and not rival comic book titan DC’s) at an impressive clip.  Fortunately, someone at Marvel had the good sense to realize that if they wanted to salvage – and extend – the company’s creative capital and legacy, it had to find a way to assume control of the production of movies based on its catalog.  They sagely understood that there could be no film equivalent of a Marvel universe unless and until its core characters could be brought under a coherent, unified vision.  Luckily, over the course of several years they were able to do just that, and in 2008 they released the first Marvel Studio production, Iron Man. 

What made IM so good, what got me and so many other fans so excited for the future of the superhero movie is that Marvel as a studio, with Jon Favreau as director, demonstrated with near geometric precision that they understood how a superhero flick should, and must, work in order to be effective.  Principally, you have to invest screen time, serious screen time, in the characters, and in their relationships.  The power of the conflict ultimately derives directly from them.  You have to create a connection between the characters and the audience.  You must make them understand, feel, and believe in what it’s like to be a superhero; in this case, Iron Man.  That’s not an easy task, considering most of us don’t have billions of dollars at our disposal, or a cutting edge exoskeleton that allows us to fly over the morning commute, crush naysayers like Styrofoam cups, and obliterate our enemies with repulsor blasts.  The hero’s human qualities must resonate with our own; if that doesn’t happen, adding more CGI explosions certainly isn’t going to save the movie, although that seems to be a very popular strategy.

For example, when I think of Iron Man, I think first of the relationship between fellow captives Tony Stark and Yinsen, the guy who helps him build the first armored suit, and how real that felt.  I think of the chemistry, the genuine, flirtatious concern between Tony and Pepper Potts.  I think of the relationship Tony had with Jarvis (the AI computer brain that runs his lab) and how real that felt.  I think of how important it was that the movie showed us what Tony does best: invent, and how the movie took us inside that process, and how intense it felt, how ridiculously cool, how amazing it was to watch.  

Oh yeah, and there were some pretty tasty battle scenes, and some awesome flight sequences, and some really fresh effects.  That’s how it’s supposed to be in a good movie, any good movie.  You notice the story first, your connection to the characters; then you remember the flashy stuff.  I haven’t done the math, but IM may have the lowest ratio of violent action to overall film running time of any comic book superhero movie in the last thirty years, and yet people consistently list it as one of the best of its kind.  To me, that is no coincidence.

So, what does all this mean to The Avengers?  If Iron Man was so good, why am I feeling anxiety about this new movie?  Well, although Iron Man was an unqualified success, it has been succeeded by several films from Marvel Studios, none of which has demonstrated the same kind of meticulous, or successful, application of principle.  In Iron Man 2, The Incredible Hulk, Thor, and Captain America: First Avenger, the results have ranged from uneven to forgettable.  In other words, although solid, we’re not talking about a phenomenon approximating Pixar’s ascendancy.  So from that respect, some element of doubt has crept in. 

In addition, I think it’s pretty clear now that Marvel’s (or is it Disney’s now that Disney owns Marvel?) intent is to replicate its comic book universe on a cinematic scale.  That would be a massive undertaking, and if successful, an achievement of truly staggering magnitude.  It would easily rival the Star Wars universe, and perhaps challenge Disney’s own animated conglomeration of stories and characters.  It would allow for a profusion of characters, team-ups, and storylines, just like the comic books do.  It would allow characters to cross over in each other’s films at will, while allowing second- and third-tier characters, like Hawkeye and Black Widow, to add their personalities, qualities, and relationship dynamics, without the burden of a stand-alone feature film.  But it’s all contingent on the success of The Avengers.   If The Avengers squanders this opportunity by being a mediocre movie and a box office bust, it would certainly threaten the future viability of any proposed interconnected Marvel universe.  That would undoubtedly please many people, but I think I’d kind of like to see it.

Also, just in a general sense, I think it’s good to have superhero movies in the theaters.  Maybe not so many at a time as we’ve had recently.  I would vote for fewer, better movies; but then I have a strange sense of priorities compared to your typical Hollywood executive.  Superheroes are one of only a few legitimate forms of modern mythology we have, and at their best can teach us much about heroic qualities, morality, and the consequences of our actions.  They provide us with entertaining ways to examine commonly held, but easily distorted, ideas of virtue.  They give us a way to transmit our big ideas to the next generation in a context they are eager to endure.  Good things can be, and are, accomplished through our mythologies.     

Anyway, that’s why I’m so geeked out about tomorrow.  So today I’m letting my geek flag fly proudly. I’m also crossing my fingers, wishing on a star, and saying (just a little nervously, if you can’t tell) that the time has come at last for these two words: 


P.S. - I mentioned earlier that there were five or six superhero films I truly love, but I didn’t say specifically which ones they were.  So, for my money, here are the five greatest superhero films of all time.  Of course I’d love to hear yours. 

Five Greatest Superhero Movies (as of 5.1.12):

Spiderman 2 (2004) – The best Spiderman film of the Sam Raimi series, and the one with the most emotional depth, thanks in no small part to the portrayal of Doc Ock by Alfred Molina.                    
Unbreakable (2000) – Not a comic book movie, but a superhero movie of the first order, one that really shows you what it’s like to go through life with an amazing power and not even realize it, awakening to it, and then deciding what to do next.  Sublime, masterful stuff; exquisitely constructed.  Highly underrated, excellent superhero flick.
Iron Man (2008) – Already explained why I think IM is great.  What I didn’t mention, because so many others have, is how important Robert Downey Junior is to the success of the movie.  As much as Christopher Reeve was Superman, you have to say the same for RDJ and Iron Man.  He carries the movie, and probably the hopes of the Marvel universe, squarely on his back.
The Incredibles (2004) – my favorite superhero movie of all time.  I love this movie for so many reasons.  Far too much to say about this film for such a small space; expect to see more from me on this one. 
The Dark Knight (2008) – greatest superhero movie ever.  Google it if you need someone to tell you why.  

* You might be wondering how I can rhapsodize about Superman: The Movie (1978), and yet not include it in my top five.  Truth is, the only thing keeping Superman from shouldering past one of those other films is the insultingly absurd fly-around-the-earth-earth-so-fast-you-make-it-rotate-in-the-opposite-direction-and-reverse-time trick the film pulls at the end.  Man of Steel or not, twisting the laws of physics (not to mention logic) into balloon animal shapes does not serve any story well, not even a superhero one. 
Found this and had to share...


  1. This was my favorite out of the movies leading up to this. And, yes, Ameer did camp out all day so we could see the midnight showing.

    1. I'm glad to hear you liked The Avengers. I saw Ameer's FB post about waiting and his reaction to the movie. I don't know why, but I feel obligated to show some restraint when it comes to seeing these kinds of movies. Isn't that stupid? I should be more like him, and just get my geek on!!! Who cares anyway? I'm glad Ameer thought it worth waiting for; now I'm really amped to see it!!!

  2. We love the incredibles too! And not just because the babysitter bears my name... Good thing you can't wear out DVD's. Can't wait to hear more about that one!

    1. We love The Incredibles DVD too, to the point where it's gotten scratched and we have to skip over certain parts to keep the DVD player from crashing. Also love the second disc, which has The Incredibles short "Jack Jack Attack!" I don't know how many times I've wanted to say, "It's Kari. Kari Thorson. It's like Carrie, only with a 'K' instead of a 'C,' an 'ah' instead of an 'ay,' and only one 'R,'and an 'I' instead of an 'IE.' There, I finally got to say it! Now I won't have to embarrass you in public!

      That disc also has my all-time favorite Pixar short (so far anyway), "Boundin'." It blew me away when I saw it at the theater, and I still watch it regularly. It was during that short that I first realized Pixar was actually out-Disneying Disney (in a good way). To me, everything about it is absolutely perfect.

      As for writing about The Incredibles, there is so much to say, I could probably write ten different posts about it without overlapping. For that reason, it's hard to know where to start. Not only that, but I already have problems keeping my posts to a manageable size (for both writer and reader). I'm afraid if I set off on an Incredibles jag, I might be gone for years!