This mania is what Marvel followers have hungered for, and it would be fruitless to deny their delight. As Loki says to a crowd of earthlings, ‘It is the unspoken truth of humanity that you crave subjugation.’ We do, Master, we do.
'I aim to misbehave,’ Malcolm Reynolds famously said in ‘Serenity.’ But for all their maverick swagger, the Avengers are dutiful corporate citizens, serving a conveniently vague set of principles. Are they serving private interests, big government, their own vanity, or what? It hardly matters, because the true guiding spirit of their movie is Loki, who promises to set the human race free from freedom and who can be counted on for a big show wherever he goes. In Germany he compels a crowd to kneel before him in mute, terrified awe, and ‘The Avengers,’ which recently opened there to huge box office returns, expects a similarly submissive audience here at home. The price of entertainment is obedience.
It's astounding that The New Yorker and The New York Times, two of the most venerable (if not THE most venerable) brands in old media, show open disdain for their readers, strongly implying in their summary paragraphs that attendees of what turned out to be the biggest opening weekend in history were open to being subjects of an imperial or fascist ruler. How much of an over reach is that? We're living in a world in which fascist rulers are still in power, and we're facing real issues at home (obviously), as yesterday's vote in North Carolina shows. How is it possible that prominent film reviewers can be so out of touch with a mass audience?
Last election cycle Anil Dash wrote What Sarah Palin is saying, a post about how people communicate in the modern age:
Linguists use the phrase "code switching" to refer to the act of using more than one language when speaking. As someone who grew up in a multilingual household, I'm intimately familiar with code-switching, and one of the most interesting traits about the practice is not merely how easy it is for people to switch language on the fly, but rather how the choice of language actually informs the meaning and the nuance of the words being said.
This is exactly what Joss Whedon does in his films and television shows as well. But where Palin (and others) used this language to advance a dangerous right-wing agenda, Whedon uses it to advance a counter-cultural, anti-war agenda. He is a master storyteller, rewarding even a casually close reader of his movies by embedding multiple meanings in dialogue. This is how he makes the character arcs in a movie with nine or ten main characters as satisfying as a blockbuster with only two or three. In a conversation between two or three characters, all of the characters involved are developed at once while the plot is advanced. He also references a geek sensibility (Galaga, Wizard of Oz, Stephen Hawking), without hiding his agenda too deeply in the subtext.
The lessons of The Avengers — refuse authority, nuclear weapons are evil, green energy is important, the scientific method leads to truth (and before you roll your eyes, at least Whedon MENTIONS the scientific method instead of creating scientists who are merely struck by "divine inspiration" when solving a problem), a group of people are more powerful as a unit than individually — are all more or less absent from most action movies. The Avengers is not a radical or even explicitly anti-war text, but it is meaningful that Joss Whedon makes a show of Tony Stark undressing from battle but not dressing in Iron Man's suit on the way to battle. This is markedly different than the Iron Man prequels.
(Spoiler in this paragraph). Whedon doesn't like nuclear weapons, and he doesn't like the government, so he makes the highest-stakes moment of the movie one in which the main character of the franchise sacrifices his life to take a nuclear missile launched towards Manhattan by the US government into the alien dimension. After succeeding our hero lies lifeless on Park Avenue. If one hundred different directors made this movie, one hundred of them would resurrect Tony Stark, he is necessary for the sequels. But only Whedon, whose career has been buoyed throughout by his fan base, would resurrect Stark with the Hulk's roar, the fan's roar. The obvious thing would have been for the Hulk to transform back into Dr. Banner, but by having the Hulk literally roar Tony Stark back to life Whedon creates a moment that is at once transgressive and ecstatic. Dr. Banner's journey is complete. The Hulk, heretofore known only for his smash, is now the healer as well.
Matt Haughey wrote about modern movies invoking 9/11 imagery, and I agree that this is a troubling trend that makes me uncomfortable watching many action movies. But I did not feel what Matt (and others) felt when watching the film. I appreciated that the imagery of mourning echoed 9/11, but not the action scenes themselves, and that Whedon also took time to leave the police & fire department in critical roles. Whedon also avoided many of the cliche signifiers of 9/11ism; there is no dust-covered populace, no skyscraper falling in on itself, no jet colliding with a building, and of course no suicide bomber behind the nuclear attack — it is launched by a "council" in absentia.
Don't believe me? Take it from the man himself. Here's an excerpt from an interview with Joss Whedon in Wired UK
You studied with the film professor Jeanine Basinger at Wesleyan. Did she teach a strong gender studies component?
No. She was teaching about genre and directors and the studio system. It was really, 'What do you see? What do you feel? How did they do that and why?' That was her thing. It was very nonspecific. The thing that we talked about was a film student's paper is only ever about themselves. The audience member only ever brings themselves to the movies. The whole point was you're going to bring your obsession to whatever it is. But are you really looking at what they're doing through the lens of your obsession, or are you trying to fit something into your agenda? Obsession and agenda not the same. My obsession was gender.
I remember thinking that my gender studies classes, especially literary ones, didn't bring many tools to bear that I found useful for looking at text.
Yeah, the big thing I always get is, 'That rape scene was offensive because it was disturbing.' I'm like, as opposed to the sexy rape scene? It's so easy to be knee-jerk on either side. There's this amazing film critic, Robin Wood, who I got to come and speak at Wesleyan. He talked about Ingrid Bergman and Alfred Hitchcock and it was just riveting. All his stuff. You know, it was seminal for me. He's very political. But he talks about, I want to say from Roland Barthes but I'm not sure, the incoherent text. X-Men is an incoherent text. It's a movie that's saying one thing when it clearly or at least partially means another. It's like when you're saying 'war is bad,' but don't you just want to see Rambo suit up?
There is much more to say, but I am losing focus and I have to go get my iPhone replaced. I will end on a note from my friend @nataliepo:
I did spend most of the time waiting for the fight scenes to end so the characters could to talk to each other. I'd much prefer a superhero movie with literally no physical conflict. My ideal? A Hulk comedy, reflecting on the humanity of super-sized anger, using it to pay the bills in a quarry or something. An Iron Man political thriller, where his superbots serve as a mere plot element. Captain America aged, alone, living in Ditmas Park, watching Girls and trying to relate. Thor in anything at all whatsoever with Kristen Wiig.
Are you paying attention, The New York Times and Yorker editors? I don't agree with everything Natalie wrote, but that is how you write a critical review — playfully, personally and with empathy. Just because a movie is made for a younger generation doesn't mean that generation is unaware of fascist imagery. It's actually the opposite. I suspect some critics are aware code switching is happening, but they aren't able, or are simply too lazy, to decode it themselves, so they claim fascism and call it a day. Not cool!