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Film Review: The Avengers

The Avengers (2012; Directed by Joss Whedon)

The Avengers is not told by an idiot, but it is full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. But that nothing is nonetheless everything. What Marvel and Joss Whedon’s grandiose, overstuffed airborne beast of a superhero ur-movie signifies is the feverish daydream of an American mass culture entirely unmoored from the necessitous advantages of signification. It is epochal, in its way, for its times. But that is not to say that it is, in the narrowest sense, good or bad. It stamps such distinctions into the dirty earth. As a film, it does not seduce or persuade or convince. It tramples.

To kvetch so about The Avengers’s lack of underlying meaning is to be a hopeless bore. So let’s be hopeless, though hopefully not boring: for all there is to recommend it, I cannot. Or rather, there isn’t any point in recommending it or not, which is the exact problem. The Avengers is not merely post-criticism (this concept might sound like a good thing to many, but then it sounded pretty good to Stalin, too). It is – in its elaborate, all-encompassing, inevitable dominance – post-ideology. Slavoj Zizek said in a recent television appearance that ideology functions even if you don’t believe in it, but even this gnomic inverted-donut Slovenian Marxist-Lacanian logic is no match for The Avengers. Thought crumbles in the face of its enormity. Faith is not even in the conversation. It’s pointless to even criticize it as a simple overblown corporate product, although it is one. Its fundamental commodification explodes, reconstitutes itself from the energy of the blast, then implodes until nothing is left to grasp onto. It is a mystery, wrapped loosely in an enigma, reclining on a bed of money, oysters, and looted art, inviting us puny mortals to lick its toes. And who are we to say no?

If these issues seem tenuously drawn or overly theoretical, it’s because a traditional220px-theavengers2012poster critical dissection of the film’s cinematic parts cannot avail us in comprehending the excessive lack before our eyes. By all the terms by which we ought to understand the movies, The Avengers is a wild success. Presaged by no less than five previous superhero films, it represents an ambitious culmination of the translation of comic-book storytelling form into motion pictures, for good or for ill. If Whedon has no particular style worth pointing out as a filmmaker, then he gladly indulges in destructive visual fantasies of gigantic scope like a good Hollywood sport and a well-versed comics fanatic. In particular, extended action and battle sequences aboard a secret security agency’s flying aircraft carrier (your tax dollars at work, America!) and in midtown Manhattan are grand and exhausting exercises in violent vision.

Additionally, because this is Joss Whedon working from his own script, every character banters fluently in Whedonspeak, which is sometimes amusing in its witty inertia but just as frequently oddly defamiliarizing and capable of pulling us out of the moment. And The Avengers exists in nothing but the moment, ultimately, so allowing the audience to be yanked out of it doesn’t work out in its favour very often. Whedon’s cadre of actors are happy to meld into the larger picture and grab at their own moments here and there. Robert Downey, Jr. and Mark Ruffalo have some nice beats together as Tony “Iron Man” Stark and Bruce Banner (the Incredible Hulk may never catch on with audiences in his own flick, but is compelling in small doses here and gets one of the best gratuitous violence gags with Tom Hiddleston’s villainous Loki), and Chris Hemsworth’s buff Thor is a magnetic, laconic delight again. Most of the other actors fill the eye-candy role (although Jeremy Renner needs a non-action role or two but quick to avoid career stagnation) and serve some useful function in the plot, which, for all of its reliance on a shiny MacGuffin (the Tesseract, or something), is very much constructed with interlocking intentionality.

By any measure, then, The Avengers was a triumphant commercial success and is perhaps an aesthetic one as well, at least in its given context of cryogenically-preserved eternal male adolescence. But if this exquisitely-mounted pile of absorbing emptiness qualifies as a success, of what use can the term be to us anymore? This movie represents “success” in the post-millenial sense that has given us hedge-fund billionaires and reality-show debutants and very nearly President Mitt Romney. It’s not that The Avengers itself is terrible; it’s just that, in its undeniable accomplishment, it embodies a particular economic, cultural, and social context that is terrible. “Terrible” in the anachronistic meaning of great, imposing, and irresistible. Alternately, one could employ “awesome”, and not in the sense that the word was used by the movie’s fanboy target audience, which it seems to have thoroughly conquered. The Avengers, as its smug, snobbish demigod villain does at one point (in Germany, of all places), invites us to bow down to its superiority because that is our nature as pathetic humanoids. Unable to fathom disappointing the film in all its impressive glory, we obeyed. And perhaps that says as much about us as it does about the movie.

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Categories: Comics, Culture, Film, Reviews

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