Sunday 29 April 2012

Big bullies: "Marvel Avengers Assemble"

Our expectations having been lowered by the entertainingly clanky Iron Man films, varyingly insubstantial Hulks, the patchy Thor and an utterly conveyor-belt Captain America, Marvel finally connects the dots within its comic-book universe with Marvel Avengers Assemble. Emphasis firmly on the "its": there's something brilliantly, insidiously corporate in how that possessive "Marvel" has been slipped into the title card - a throwback, perhaps, to those 1950s TV shows sponsored by Geritol or Chesterfield cigarettes. Avengers Assemble, a business model masquerading as entertainment, isn't synergy so much as a synergasm: the realisation of a wet dream fanboys and Hollywood accountants alike have been edging themselves towards ever since they were thirteen years old. Well, after a decade of seeing the exact same film every summer, the constituent elements are now in place. The tissues are positioned on the bedside cabinet. The hand lotion has been replenished. An Internet connection has been established. And the grown-ups are out of the way for the evening. Let the frenzied adolescent frothing commence - or so the idea goes.

I hate to be a terrible boner-killer, but as a movie, Avengers Assemble really isn't much cop - and certainly not as much cop as we've been led to believe. Narratively, it remains at the most basic, first-draft stage: Loki (Tom Hiddleston), the baddie from Thor, has returned from Earth to run off with a glowing blue cube thing. This, the goodies - Iron Man, Thor, Hulk, Captain America, Black Widow and Hawkeye - don't like. AA's storyline is no more sophisticated than that, no matter how you might want to dress it up: it's an utterly unambitious washing line on which can be pegged the all-important, trailer-friendly set-pieces. These include Loki storming into Berlin, where he gets the locals to kneel before him and unfurls a big speech claiming we pitiful humans crave subjugation. With its too-obvious echoes of real-world conflicts - an elderly Jewish resident stands up in dissent, and is spared disintegration by Cap'n America's shield (whoop!) - this is exactly the kind of specious, phony parallel that has started worming its way into our event movies. We're supposed to buy this junking of history as proof the Avengers are fully-motivated freedom fighters, yet Avengers Assemble is very much a Loki-movie: it wants us to bow down, hand over our money, cower, coo. Marvel, as that title card seems almost subliminally to prompt. 

What we're witnessing in pop culture right now is a colossal revenge-of-the-nerds moment. Geek culture, with its yen for acquisition (all that damn collecting), has aligned itself with corporate culture to bully everyone into spending non-existent money on the same damn product. See the Avengers movie, because you've seen Iron Man and Thor and two previous Hulks. Buy the DVD when it comes out, and then upgrade to Blu-Ray, with its optimum bit rate. (No matter that Blu-Ray automatically makes every movie look like a live episode of e.r. - as recent rumblings over the early footage from Peter Jackson's digital Hobbit movies only underline.) Watch it all over again in 3D, even if the medium forces you to squint through a murk the colour of the average Polish industrial town in a rainstorm. Removed from this equation is simple common sense: just look at the queues of people sleeping overnight outside the Apple store to get their hands on an iPhone upgrade they could just as easily walk in and pick up the next morning for the same extortionate price. But then, hey, we pitiful humans apparently crave subjugation: our collective gazes have been lowered by the gadgets we now hunch over to watch The Apprentice on.

Avengers Assemble collects together as many superheroes as anybody in possession of an X-Box might want, but they end up crowding and cancelling one another out: they all do the same thing in only negligibly different ways. Tellingly, it's those periphery figures that AA brings most sharply into focus: Samuel L. Jackson's grumpy cyclops Nick Fury, here rescued from the end credits of a half-dozen other films, Clark Gregg's nicely brisk Agent Coulson, the indefatigable Harry Dean Stanton (through which this studio-financed movie attempts to co-opt an element of rebel indie cool) as a security guard who - in the film's one truly amusing moment - encounters Hulk v3.0 (Mark Ruffalo) in the remains of a ruined factory and diagnoses him with "a condition". These are good actors trying to etch something out with the limited number of days they had on set, aware they don't have the luxury of their own spin-off summer franchise movie and might, you know, actually have to justify their juiciest of paycheques.

Everybody else indulges in zombie acting, aware they don't particularly have to raise their game because they've done this schtick before and an audience has turned out for it. The Chris third of the movie is more or less a write-off: the heart sinks whenever AA cuts away to Chris Evans's featureless Captain America, very much the Ringo of this supergroup, while Chris Hemsworth's Thor remains a crashing bore for anyone who doesn't have a hard-on for six-packs. The usually reliable Ruffalo gives the most self-effacing reading of Bruce Banner yet, which only compounds the usual Hulk-movie problem that the character only threatens to become interesting when he rips his shirt off and starts smashing shit up. Robert Downey Jr.'s Tony Stark remains the most completely developed personality - but having to share the screen with this bunch of no-marks gives him no-one to spark off, and it's hard not to think the actor could do this droll pantomiming (see also: the Sherlock Holmeses) in his sleep. I miss the brilliant polysexual shambles Downey Jr. used to embody in films like Two Girls and a Guy - but that was 1998, a time when the current target audience hadn't even been born, and a moment when Hollywood still hadn't completely succumbed to its pathological fear of making films for mature audiences.

With only the thinnest strands of comic-book DNA connecting us to these characters, AA starts to seem joylessly long. Kitted out with those whizzy touchscreens and that gantry flooring (clank clank CLANK) that have somehow come to define the anonymous modern event movie, it's visually underwhelming; more worryingly - given that there's another of Chris Nolan's monumentally expensive Batsulks looming on the horizon, conferring on Avengers Assemble the status of summer 2012's "fun" superhero movie - it's never particularly amusing, too often mistaking snark for wit. What jokes there are start to become tiresome through repetition: Thor doesn't get the other Avengers' references, because he's from another planet; Cap'n Stomach Crunch doesn't get their references, because he's from another time. It's all callbacks, anyway, often beyond the films themselves to the comics, establishing a further degree of alienation between the action and anyone who hasn't been hoarding rare first editions all these years.

Curiously, Shakespeare appears to have been a touchstone for cast and crew, alluded to both at points within the film and in a thinkpiece the generally smart-seeming Hiddleston wrote for The Guardian ahead of the film's release. This latter reads like an elevated form of marketing intended to pique the interest of those who wouldn't normally go near the misadventures of men in latex bodysuits; I'm no scholar, but I've read enough of the Bard to know the difference between real, involving, human drama and kids' stuff in which the good guys (who number six, remember) outshoot and outfight the bad (who in this case number but one). Avengers Assemble isn't remotely mythic, classical, one for the ages: it's just another juvenile B-movie Hollywood's PR department has bullied the world into taking under consideration as a double-A investment. Stay tuned through the end credits to lose another seven minutes of your life, and to find out what we'll all be expected to pay for again in two summers' time.

Marvel Avengers Assemble is in cinemas nationwide.


  1. Every point you make is a fair one, and it's an entertaining read. But although adults will go and see this, remember it is aimed at kids! Like 'Avatar' and 'Star Wars' before it. I think you missed the bit that most people seem to have liked. It was called 'fun'.

    1. Thanks for the comment - all I would ask is this: *is* it really for kids? If so, why is it a 12A/PG-13 rated movie? Why is it on the side of every bus and phone box, and getting trailed in every prime-time adbreak? Would it make sense for an expensive summer event movie like this to *only* aim for the kiddie audience? (Could it recoup its costs that way?) Or is it being aimed at a wider audience, of adolescents, and adults in arrested development? And is it healthy, particularly with the world the way it is right now, for our movies to seek to keep us in this state of arrested development?

      For the studios, of course, it's a financial no-brainer - but wouldn't we rather have experienced, sure-headed, decisive grown-ups around, ready to deal with the world's problems - real-life superheroes, as it were - than the giggling, smirking (and, presumably, heavily indebted) manchildren Hollywood is currently raising? I think "Avatar", cartoonish as it was in places, told us something about the world we're living in, and the forces we're up against - I don't believe for a moment "Avengers Assemble" is intended as anything other than a diversionary cash-cow.

      (Sorry for the barrage of questions!)


  2. But they're not fun. They're mind-numbingly boring, in fact, and utterly impenetrable unless you've been dutifully shelling out to see the feature length trailers they keep putting out, or collecting the comic books for the last thirty years. A comic book movie's in-jokes might have been cute when superheroes were only a feature of the summer, but now they're the only game in town those in-jokes are the vicious attack of a nasty clique - "Well you're not one of us, so you just won't understand" - encouraged by a movie studio whose sole goal is to drain every penny from the pockets of those it claims to serve.

    The action is mindless and pointless, because no-one has bothered to provide the characters with any amount of meaningful motivation. A god wants to be a king, for some reason. And he can't do it without the intervention of some mechanical aliens and their all-powerful cube thing, arbitrarily. I've seen the latter details before, in a film based on children's toys, and they weren't especially compelling then, either. In the meanwhile, a cavalcade of CGI monsters battle it out, for nothing is more tense than the on-screen antics of a mass of ones and zeroes. Remember when heroes used to really feel a punch? It wasn't so long ago - what has happened?

    And if you dare disagree, you're missing the fun, or worse, actively preventing someone else's, for god forbid a reasoned critique might rock the film's perfect Rotten Tomatoes score. Especially if it comes from a woman. Expect the wrath of an army of misogynistic, braying teenagers - and, let's not kid ourselves, an ever-growing number of immature adults too - brought up to believe in the ideals of their lycra-clad bubblegum comic book world in which real power isn't earned, it's acquired in some fortunate nuclear accident. These heroes are just like you! Until, of course, they aren't. Which usually happens somewhere in the first act of the first movie.

    1. Joe - I couldn't have put it better myself. Thank you so much for taking the time to comment, and so thoughtfully - it's good to know I'm not alone in my concerns about the Hollywood mainstream.