How the Avengers Brought Stupid Back (and beat Batman).
“There is an attempt to bring a superficial reality to superheroes that’s ultimately rather stupid”
Legends of the Dark Knight: The History of Batman (Documentary).
Long story short, The Dark Knight Rises should be the summer’s best film. On storytelling terms it is a pure fable, a rousing tale of challenges met and sacrifices made. The villains are unpleasant, brutal and intimidating, the hero gets battered before he rises and the ending is ruined with laughably telegraphed Basil Exposition and a multiple ending gambit so forcibly contrived that even Return of the King has been forced to abdicate from that godforsaken throne. Simplicity evaded the Bat, but this was an honourable failure. You have to hand it to Christopher Nolan for sticking to tried and true storytelling for his blockbuster effort, but with an ending that tries so vainly to assemble a ploy to suggest Bruce Wayne survived a nuclear blast (something to do with ‘The Bat’s’ autopilot and a string of pearls, apparently) that poor old Alfred’s plea “stop trying to outsmart the truth and let it have its day” is an almost shamefully appropriate maxim to affix with concern to that film’s many structural issues. K.I.S.S, Keep it Simple, Stupid. This is the initialism on the post-it notes that screen-scribblers use to trim the fat off their unruly pages. It’s one that despite its two hour twenty minute running time, Marvel’s The Avengers (who honestly called it Avengers Assemble?) cut a brutally effective swath with a third of the effort. But at the cost of its potential smarts, was it worth it?
The superpowered tag-team was wisely translated as a Men on a Mission-cum-Alien Invasion flick. Individual goals are sidelined as a common threat is established, paving the way for the climactic rumble. Character development consists of our heroes nagging each other, evacuating boneheaded wisecracks (“Clench up Legolas” Iron Man to Jeremy Renner’s bow-savvy Hawkeye) and failing at any point to get hurt, physically or mentally. Tom Huddleston’s Loki is a sneering prince turned pompous rockstar, of an entirely unimposing sort not seen since Richard Roxburgh’s laughable Dracula in Van Helsing. His legion of CG Chitauri (a bunch of space-mummies riding metal space barracudas) become the bull’s-eyes in an intergalactic custard-pie fight. Yet, with such a medley of largely insipid elements, something clicked. Audiences cheered and the naysayers who cried out for some greater jeopardy to the proceedings were accused of wrongly comparing this to ‘art cinema’ or James Joyce and really ought to have some fun. After all, the sight of Thor twatting an alien in the face alone was enough to warrant applause.
All of this despite a century of blockbuster entertainment, one that has ridden on the white knuckle thrills of Jaws, Raiders and even as far back as 1933’s King Kong. Hell, even Independence Day was contracted to give us the bitter apocalypse before mankind’s sweet victory. Avengers is all victory, no pain yet all gain. It succeeds at this bizarrely because it never tried to do anything beyond pacify. The film didn’t deal in furrowed brows of concern but in gut chuckles and belly laughs, if there was a better case for Joss Whedon to write Ghostbusters 3 than this film we’ve not seen it. Fundamentally, the power of laughter smothered narrative weakness. It ultimately didn’t matter that neither Iron Man nor Thor matured in any way, nor that Loki was a dweeb who (at worst) conveyed mild inconvenience as opposed to world-ending menace or indeed that we had seen these action sequences before (in each Avenger’s own movies no less). We laughed, we smiled and over a billion punters were served with smiles on their faces as they left the theatre. We even went back for more.
Here’s the rub, was it too much to ask for more? The movie is a big and as dumb as they come as Whedon’s constant post-modern twists only spell out a dumber film still, one the simply refuses to submit to that old storytelling bugbear; stakes, yknow? Giving a sh*t. Stupid here isn’t so much measured in narrative detail (major plot holes in Avengers are scarce, unfortunately unlike TDKR) as in impact. Nothing sets out to startle, unsettle or put a strain the audience. The goal was to mollycoddle, like comfort food. Push-Start’s own Film Team debated on our monthly Film Podcast whether the film was junk food, the analogy of a cinematic pop tart came up. One that may be briefly enjoyable, but insubstantial. But, the opposing perspective retorted ‘but after one pop tart, you want another’. Of course you do, but you can’t fill a vacuum with more vacuum (hence, insubstantial). In fact, it could be argued that the paper thin dramatics of Marvel’s Mightiest led to the repeat viewings that propelled it to the Third Highest Grossing spots of the worldwide and domestic (US) box office. The price paid for this success? Dramatic integrity, ditto to even the standards of its forebears. Let’s not forget, Tony Stark nearly died when Obediah ‘Ironmonger’ Stane plucked out his personal Arc Reactor. Or that Thor and Captain America respectively stared powerless mortality and impending death in the face prior to Avengers. But, when you’re herding caped cats, you have no time for wheezing commissioners and broken backs.
The sad fact is that Nolan’s bat-capper tripped itself up with eyes bigger than its stomach, in its attempts to be culturally relevant, thematically grandiose and emotionally astounding it reached overload and as a result, satisfied few of those goals. Avengers satisfied its only goal, to make em’ laugh. It over-performed, they cheered. They apparently cheered in gut satisfaction, akin to howling in appreciation over a mouthful of hamburger. Half-masticated bread, beef and ketchup spraying everywhere, but it’s the simply joys that give us the most immediate pleasure. As much as we refute it, intellectualism is one of the biggest taboos of the modern age. Of course, Nolan himself would be the last person to call his (recently anointed) ‘Dark Knight Trilogy’ intellectual, but in the context of blocks busted, it’s stratospheric in that regard. But then again, big budget stupidity is not a new fad but it sure as hell is a reliable one. Yet, Transformers 3 had better villains. Avengers may be much leaner than we gave it credit for; it successfully proved that people really don’t need to care to be invested. They just need to be amused, but then what does that say about the audience? Most of them will be queuing up to see the divisive new Batman movie, a movie that tries desperately to make you care. Yet, it’s been outfoxed by a movie that never asked us to care, just strap in and enjoy the ride. That’s until, Thanos turns around and grins at you as you leave your seat when the credits rolled. Turns out you were sold a quarter of a burger all along, still, Marvel will serve up another third in the impending menace that is The Avengers 2.
“Is this not your natural state? It’s the unspoken truth of humanity that you crave subjugation”
Loki Laufeyson, Former Prince of Asgard.
P.S. Spoilers, just so you know.