May 09, 2012

Movie Review: The Avengers

Once upon a time there was a hugely famous television series called, "Buffy the Vampire Slayer". It was aimed at teenage girls and it featured a teen lead who learned she was actually a super-powered sort of hero gifted with special strength, stamina, regeneration, and spirit in order to save the world from hordes of evil vampires disguised as goth bar loving humans. The series was a great success and earned a very good profit for its creator, Joss Whedon. Over time the hero grew up, went to college, fell in love, fell out of love, and spun off a series about a reformed vampire named, ironically, "Angel".

Joss Whedon then ventured into new, uncharted terrain with a science fiction series that has since become a cult classic, "Firefly". That series was killed by network management before it ever really got a chance to get off the ground, but the fans were so devoted they launched a campaign that eventually resulted in the feature film, "Serenity". The combined Firefly/Serenity epic is, in my never humble opinion, the finest science fiction adventure anyone in Hollywood has ever produced. Not only does it feature some of the most memorable characters ever created in any fictional media, it rides Joss Whedon's quirky sense of humor like a rodeo bull destined for glory on the broken backs of stubborn cowboys. Firefly/Serenity shatters genre assumptions and in doing so, creates an entirely new genre that previously only Japanese anime had dared to explore (Cowboy Bebop, Trigun) and they hadn't done a very good job of it.

"The Avengers" screenplay was also written by Joss Whedon, but I didn't know that until the end credits ran. When I was heavily into comics back in my preteen and early teen years, I didn't care much for "The Avengers" comics. I was into "Werewolf by Night", "The Haunted Tank", and "The Amazing Spiderman". So right away I am at a disadvantage when it comes to enjoying this year's leading Hollywood blockbuster. Before seeing the movie, I probably missed learning about Joss Whedon's involvement because the whole Avengers concept was not one that resonated well with me. One of my old friends from high school was there at opening day and reported the experience on Facebook in glowing terms. Based on her recommendation, I decided I might as well see it. After all, I'd really enjoyed "The Hulk" and all the Spiderman movies, so I thought perhaps I would enjoy The Avengers as well.

As the movie unfolded Tony Stark and Captain America both struck me as very odd characters. This time around Tony Stark was even more annoying than he had been in the Ironman movies. I've never been fond of the "rich playboy who plays at being a hero" archetype seen in Ironman, Batman, the X-men, and so many others. For me, they all had far too much in common with the Green Goblin to be real heroes. This little eccentricity of mine made Tony Stark of the Ironman movies a total bore, and the version of him in The Avengers goes way beyond even that. Narcissism does not make for a good hero, regardless of how you dress it up. I did not see the Captain America movie, so I can't comment on it. The Avengers version, however, is so different from the comic version he really ought to be called by a different name. The Captain America I remember was a guilt-torn patriot who hated what he had become, hated the necessity of his own creation, and hated the enemies of America even more. I'd never enjoyed the Captain America comics because all that self-hatred made me want to scream, "Stop whining and get on with it already!" In The Avengers he's overcome all that self-hatred. Instead, he comes across as a shallow, mindless drone. Even worse than the drunken adult version of a high school athlete who never grew up, the Avengers version of Captain America is an adult version of that same high school superstar now devoid of personality altogether.

And then there is the villain, Loki. In Nordic mythology Loki is cheated out of his rightful inheritance because Odin prefers his second son, Thor. Loki is the mischievous spoiled prince and Thor is the do-gooder son desperate to please their father. After the throne passed to Thor, Loki became the thorn in Thor's side, a violent troublemaker who never really suffers the consequences of his actions. The Nordic Loki is clever, witty, sadistic, and quite possibly the most intelligent of the entire Nordic pantheon. The Avengers movie version of Loki, on the other hand, is shallow, callous, not particularly smart, and desperate to be revered. His allies are an alien race that combined several classic Hollywood monster traits in ways that were, for me, a bit unsettling. They were too random, too mindless, too utterly devoid of any real motivation for invading the Earth. They had the chance, so they went for it. A very huge waste of resources and manpower that even the most sadistic and power-hungry real-world tyrant would ignore while searching for a more lucrative target.

At the end I learned that Joss Whedon had written the screenplay. That certainly explains the weird alien invaders. Joss Whedon has not been able to come up with a decent villain since Buffy killed off the vampire patriarch at the end of season one. His Avengers aliens are a cross between the mindless, cannibalistic Reavers of the Firefly/Serenity universe and the vampire hordes of Buffy's first season. It seems to me that Joss Whedon is much too fond of zombie movies (or perhaps merely jealous of their success). The few enemies with both personality and motivation that he has managed to come up with since the end of Buffy's first season have always wound up becoming allies of his heroes.

In the end, that is the core problem with The Avengers movie. The iconographic heroes created by Stan Lee are reinterpreted by Joss Whedon into caricatures of their former selves. Each hero is stretched into such an extreme version of their comic book self that any hint of humanity Stan Lee managed to put in place is completely removed. These are elitist heroes who have nothing in common with the rest of us. They have far more in common with the movie version of Erik Lensherr or Victor von Doom than they do with the comic book heroes they are supposed to be. These are not thinking, feeling, human people with extraordinary talent. Instead, they are bloodright monarchs who refuse to take the throne. Perhaps Joss Whedon intended to portray them as moral heroes but for me they are nothing more than moral cowards who enjoy fighting. They fight to save the earth not from conviction or deep responsibility, but because it provides them justification for their own existence.