Origin Stories: Marvel’s The Avengers and Chronicle:
Near the beginning of Boogie Nights, right before Dirk Diggler’s first scene as a porn star, Burt Reynolds, the director, turns to William H. Macy and asks, basically, what the scene-by-scene breakdown of his current film is. William H. Macy’s response is something like this: “Karen and Frank get it on, then Molly and Frank get it on. Karen walks in on Molly and Frank and all three get it on. Mike and Amber get it on, the Amber and Dirk get it on, the Dirk and Molly get it on…” and on and on.
The joke, of course, is that William H. Macy is recounting the plot of every single pornographic film ever made. He is also, unbeknownst to him, giving a pretty good summary of The Avengers. George Carlin made the point in Class Clown that if progressive parents would rather see two people making love than killing each other on film, then he should be able to replace the word “kill” with the word “fuck” and have everything remain copasetic (“Alright Sheriff, we’re gonna fuck you now. But we’re gonna fuck you slow…”). The Avengers turns that idea on its head, by basically making a porn film for families to watch together.
David Foster Wallace has already made the point that the gradually escalating violence, mayhem, and effects of most Hollywood blockbusters runs parallel to the way the intensity, creativity and population density builds in the sexual gymnastics of long-form pornographic films (Vanilla-sex coupling turns to flexible threesomes turns to Olympic displays of gangbangery). It’s not a new point, nor a very original one. However, I’ve never seen the adult-film structure so rigidly adhered to by a mainstream Hollywood film. If I didn’t know any better, I’d suspect Joss Whedon of some kind of metafictional prank.
The movie begins with a brief and entirely incomprehensible explanation of the Tesseract, which Whedon wisely leaves mysterious and confusing and ultimately no more important in and of itself than the weird powder spilling out of the bottles in Claude Rains’s basement in Hitchcock’s Notorious. We have a Macguffin, in other words, and an excuse to get the party invitation s in the mail.
And then, this is basically the plot: Black Widow fights henchmen, Black Widow stares down The Hulk, Thor fights Loki, Thor fights Iron Man, Thor fights Captain America, Captain America fights Iron Man, Black Widow fights The Hulk, Thor fights The Hulk, Black Widow fights Hawkeye, and then they team up for an interstellar, intergalactic gangbang where everybody fights everybody and they destroy New York City.
I’m sure I’ll be called to task for my summary, not because the central thesis is wrong, but because some schmo will correct the order of the list above, because details are important, and the Tesseract is important, and how could I call one of the most important fictional energy sources in fictional history a MacGuffin (I teach high school students, and though I have not let them know my thoughts on my “Avengers as pornography for the whole family” idea, they are quick to point out anything I get even slightly wrong in their geek-iverse. These are the same young men and women who cannot successfully staple two sheets of paper together, but I’m an idiot because “Iron Man fought Captain America BEFORE Thor did!!??!”)?
It’s a strange conundrum: Whedon borrowed a extremely lowbrow trope to make a middlebrow movie, and it probably has significance, and if I was smarter I could probably equate it with some hokum about Jungian thoughts concerning the sacred and the profane or perhaps the idea that the establishment, when confronted by an aberration, has no choice but to circle the wagons and reject it outright (the original Norse myths tied Loki to the bottom of the world; the coyote in Hopi fables was killed repeatedly, Warner Bros. style; the entire career of Bill Pullman was thwarted even though he had, according to Greil Marcus, one of the most amazing faces in film) or envelope it, celebrate it, and make it lose its original, disruptive power (The Monkey in Buddhist mythology, Edgar Allen Poe, Bob Dylan, Keanu Reeves), but I’m going to let it slide and talk about the film itself.
The truth is that the film is important mainly because the studio allowed Whedon—a smart, untested, frequent failure—the chance to wrote and direct what some consider to be one of the more important projects to come about in recent memory. It’s not important-important. It’s not Raging Bull, which ultimately legitimized 70’s film culture. It’s not The Piano, which kicked open an only-unlocked door for female filmmakers. It’s not Brokeback Mountain, perhaps the most socially-relevant film of the past fifteen years. It will not change lives, at least not those in the Cineplex, but it is important in that a relatively untested writer-director was given the keys to the hottest car in the lot, and he won the Daytona 500 with it.
Whedon is a god to many, but consider: Buffy the Vampire Slayer was a critic’s darling with a cult following. Firefly was cancelled midseason and the leftover episodes burned through like a s’more. Dollhouse was never even a thing, even to people who really liked Joss Whedon. Dr. Horrible was on the interwebs. I haven’t even seen Serenity, and I liked Firefly. They let him take Iron Man (two films, billions of dollars), Thor (franchise-in-the-making), The Incredible Hulk (two films, both successful, if uneven, and of which we’ll speak to in a minute), Captain America (another hit, like Thor, from last summer, and gee-whiz enjoyable) and build something impossible: the ultimate geek-out.
Then, he did.
Finally, a couple of notes on The Hulk, who is the highlight of the film, mainly due to Mark Ruffalo’s performance as Bruce Banner (and The Hulk, if we are to believe that he did his own motion-capture for the film). Ruffalo has been one the most reliably excellent actors of the past decade, as at home in contemporary fare as he is in period pieces (notice his swagger in Shutter Island—Leo DiCaprio looks like he’s playing dress-up; Ruffalo looks right at home. Also consider his work in Michael Mann’s Collateral). Here he nails the central tragedy and comedy of what is, to my mind, the best comic book hero ever created. He underplays, but never loses sight of someone trying desperately to reamin in control. He’s also probably the only actor in the film with the exception of Samuel L. Jackson (maybe Jeremy Renner, who’s given very little to do…) fast and funny enough to go toe-to-toe with Robert Downey Jr. When he finally cuts lose, it approaches an emotional triumph the genre rarely sees. He’s given a purpose, a chance to embrace and not run from his id, which the other Hulk films failed to employ (the Norton Hulk was spectacle, the Ang Lee was Greek Tragedy. Both were humorless and dead). Think about it, this is probably the only super hero whose ultimate power can and consistently does make the situation worse rather than better. So the power lies not in the “SMASH” but in the ability to prevent it, except when it’s time. It’s both the most ludicrous and most emotionally honest conundrum facing a contemporary superhero, and here it is just awesome. He also tosses Loki around like he’s snapping a towel, which is the highlight f the film for me.
You could argue, that The Hulk, in essence, is the money shot, a fitting end to a superhero epic that is basically fetish porn.
If The Avengers is pornography, then Chronicle is the wildly masturbating teen on the other end of the streaming video. This is a world that has seen The Avengers, and Spiderman, and Batman, then exited the theatre to take on the shit-sandwich of their lives, hoping beyond hope there was something they could do to get even. Its setup is simple enough to be a fable (three teens gain telekinetic powers and lose their shit). It is Spiderman for the YouTube generation, and it is masterfully done and hopefully a promise of things to come from the actors and creators behind it. This set-up has been done before (Zapped! With Scott Baio comes to mind; so does Carrie, of course) and it has many of the same fears about male impotency, wish-fulfillment, and the malfunctioning, treasonous body that everyone is saddled with in high school. It’s different in that its world is that of a generation completely convinced that if they aren’t recording everything they do, all the time, they somehow don’t exist. The main character and eventual big bad even figures out how to manipulate the camera to achieve crane and tracking shots to document his rapidly developing powers. The movie’s sick thrill is how it takes a ridiculous albeit common conceit (what if we were superheroes) and plays it out in such a realistic, psychologically fraught world. If superpowers did exist, they would not just land in the laps of the truly selfless and good. It would affect those with definite scores to settle. There’s a Joe Hill story that has a similar thrust, about a boy who learns to fly and uses the power to take his lousy ex-girlfriend into the clouds, then drop her to her death. It’s a good thing we don’t have these powers, I guess. We are a cruel and unjust people, and the world is unfair enough. If the lucky were to be even more powerful, that would be bad enough. What if the people we’ve held down for so long developed the wherewithal to strike back in superhuman ways? A complicated theme done with verve and panache.