Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Avengers: Assembling An Empire

The Real Super Hero?

If we aren't talking about police officers, surgeons, teachers, fire fighters, soldiers or parents, then often in the real and boring world perhaps the closest thing to real super heroes that we have are the people who bring our fictional super heroes to life.  Usually beset on all sides by the inequities of life (along with countless bean counters attempting to test market all originality out of existence), these writers and directors and artists are the ones who create and nurture the comic books and movies that fire our imaginations, giving us all a much needed respite from the banality of workaday life. And it would seem to me that we have reached a tipping point where the best of these men and women are now the only hope we have of avoiding a world where we cannot see any discernible difference in depth and character between the characters in spandex & leather on the screen and the little plastic dolls that represent them in the store.

Perhaps nothing pointed this up for me more, or made me realize just how close we had been coming to that tipping point of banality, than the out-of-the-box style, wit, complexity and character brought to the newest super hero movie, The Avengers, by it's writer and director, Joss Whedon.  Starring a bunch of characters most people had never even heard of five years ago, The Avengers exploded onto the scene this past week, starting with an out-of-nowhere record breaking opening weekend that cemented and locked down, forever and always, the now undeniable fact that what was once thought to be cult is now decidedly mainstream and eminently marketable.

If the Marvel Machine, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Disney Demesne, can infuse such unknown quantities into our culture so completely and thoroughly in just half a decade, then comic book super heroes are now truly commodities to be reckoned with.  If you no longer need Spider Man or Batman or Superman, characters ingrained deeply into the public consciousness for many decades now, in order to break the bank, then it is clear that today super heroes are right there with Mom, football, and apple pie flavored moonshine.

But if super heroes are now concrete commodities, then only the most delicate care and feeding going forward will prevent the commodities brokers of the world from taking total control and leading us down a path to the land where super heroes are no more interesting or exciting than anything else they buy and sell and marekt, from pork bellies to frozen concentrated orange juice. Rather than a knock on the boys and girls who work at Duke & Duke and all the other brokerage and marketing firms out there, this is merely a pragmatic assessment of the practical effects of them doing their jobs correctly. The attempt to maximize profit and broaden accessibility usually means sanding down all the edges and ensuring that nothing that could alienate a potential customer is ever allowed to slip through the cracks.

This, of course, completely ignores the fact that daring originality is generally the entire reason why the very thing they are trying to neuter in order to increase popularity actually got so popular in the first place. But, hey, when was the last time the things human beings did in the pursuit of more dollars made a whole hell of a lot sense anyway?  Once the good old $$$ signs reach a certain level, people wig out and lose their shit. Common sense is the first to go, and good judgement is usually right on its heels, with objectivity left dying on a vine.

That's why the most important thing to trumpet about the unbridled acceptance of the The Avengers is not its phenomenal creative and financial success, but rather the possibility that said success is now of such an awesome nature that it will finally bring about the ascendency of one Joss H. Whedon, and that it will perhaps even ensure future employment for all the other potential Whedons of the world. Perhaps these staggering box office receipts will finally prove to even the densest of studio execs that an unfettered Joss Whedon can make you far more money than a tightly controlled Martin Campbell or Joe Johnson ever could.

In other words: the big question to ask now is, will the Powers That Be realize who the real super hero is?

Regardless of your level of geek love, or your total absence thereof, you will have to admit that it is pretty cool that Joss Whedon, a guy who has been under the mainstream radar for so many years, could break out in such a big, bad way.  As the surprise writer/director of the surprise movie of the year, it's nothing short of amazing that Whedon is now the one making the strongest argument yet that something can be engaging, multi-layered and original, while still being cool and fun and hugely profitable.

(Long after, it must be said, guys named Nolan, Jackson, Raimi and Singer loudly made much the same argument yet were seemingly not heard at all.)

The reasons for this amazement have nothing to do with talent and everything to do with Hollywood's tendency to worship at the altar of the status quo. Joss Whedon had spent 20 years as the guy who could only bring in a devoted but miniscule audience. In the strange wood they call Holly, the chances of anyone giving him the opportunity to try and break out of that mold were so small that it would have taken serious effort just to bring them up to slim. Forget slim to none; the odds of it happening were more like somewhere between none and negative none to the tenth power.

And yet ten years after his television show Firefly became the poster child for the long held Hollywood belief that complex ideas, intricate story-lines, balloon popping humor, and intensely character oriented storytelling produces nothing more than a small and deeply disturbed subset of fans who will be devoted but won't make you any money, Marvel hired him to write and direct one of the biggest gambles in movie history. In between the crushing disappointment of Firefly's mishandling and cancellation by Fox (seemingly dooming Whedon to forever making low rated television series for minor networks) and his hiring to write and direct The Avengers in 2010, three things happened:

1. Whedon formed a relationship with Marvel the old fashioned way: he wrote one of the most successful runs, both critically and financially, of one of Marvel's most successful titles, The X-Men. Starting in 2004, Whedon penned 24 landmark issues of The Astonishing X-Men, forging a relationship with the Powers That Be at Marvel unlike that of any other writer/director. It gave him an in on the comic book side of the company that should not be underestimated.

2. In 2005, Whedon took 35 million dollars and made it look like 100 when he directed Serenity, the big screen spinoff of Firefly and Whedon's first major motion picture. The movie didn't make much money, but what was so impressive to many was Whedon's sure hand in his first feature, and the way he made each dollar look like ten up on the screen.

3. Jon Favreau and Robert Downey, Jr. hit one out of the park.

It's impossible to overstate the shock waves Iron Man sent through the industry.  Relatively untested directors had helmed successful comic book adaptations before---Raimi with Spider-Man and Singer with The X-Men---but Iron Man was something else entirely.  To begin with, Marvel was involved with Iron Man up to their eyeballs, unlike with the Sony produced Spidey pics or the Fox produced X-Men, and so they saw first hand that you could have giant hit with a relatively untested director who valued character over action and special effects.  More importantly, Iron Man was more unconventional than any of the super hero films that preceded it.  As the first massive hit film to be based on an obscure title, Iron Man played with tone and style in a way not yet seen in the risk averse world of mammoth budget film making.  The playful script for Iron Man, along with the unconventional choice of Robert Downey, Jr. as the lead, no doubt convinced Marvel that it could be successful making movies in a manner similar to the style Whedon had been demonstrating he was adept at for almost 20 years.

So Marvel now had a giant success that came from hiring an obscure director to helm their first big solo effort.  Like Whedon, Favreau made his mark as a low budget, cult writer/director who managed to make his movies look much bigger than their budget.  The main difference between the two was that Favreau did have one giant hit to his credit, 2003's Elf, but it was the look of the 2005 comedy/sci-fi bomb Zathura which likely had a lot more influence on Marvel's decision to hire him for Iron Man.  As with Serenity, Zathura was well received critically and in the community, and it looked a lot bigger than its budget of 60 million.

And so a perfect storm came together, emboldening Marvel to hire the man they knew every comic book junkie on the planet wanted to see them hire.  And now Joss Whedon has become the director of the moment by being the guiding force behind one of the biggest mainstream hit movies of all time.

The funny thing is that Whedon didn't do it by selling out and making some generic piece of comic book claptrap that hit every movie beat according to Hollywood Hoyle, as so many post-Iron Man comic book movies seemed to do; he did it by taking something familiar and making it unique. Yep   he did it by making a movie filled to the brim with complex ideas, intricate story-lines, balloon popping humor and detailed character oriented storytelling, which in turn engendered an enormous number of deeply disturbed fans and tons of fucking money.

You just can't make that stuff up.

No, you cannot make any of this up, which is why we should not take lightly just how unusual Whedon's success here is. Nor should any of us ignore the lessons to be learned from the impressive and creative manner in which he did it.  The what is certainly amazing, but it's the how that is truly illustrative.  Somehow this master of what was thought to be limited appeal, geek friendly pop culture took the most unwieldy super hero story ever attempted and managed to make it geek friendly and yet still broadly accessible, and he did it by using the same techniques and creative choices he's been using every step of the way for his entire career.  Joss Whedon didn't change; comic books just came along and changed Hollywood.

That's not something you're going to see every day, and it would be a shame if we (and, more importantly, the Marvel Machine) did not learn from this experience.  Because even for a comic book nerd such as myself, there was a moment there in the middle act of The Avengers when it appeared to want to crawl up its own ass and devolve into the typical third act boom-fest nightmare that turns so many people off of super hero movies, and which had limited both of the previous Marvel movies, Thor and Captain America, keeping them from reaching anything like the financial success of Iron Man.  But just as that feared specter reared its ugly head, you could practically feel Mr. Whedon reaching into the abyss and pulling his movie back from the brink with sheer determination and wit, crafting what may be a first in comic book movie history: a finale that was better and more engaging than all the fun and games and drama and bombast that had preceded it. And he was so successful in doing this that more people ended up loving The Avengers  than perhaps any previous comic book movie ever made

(CinemaScore, an imperfect measure if ever their were one, found that audiences gave The Avengers an aggregated rating of A+, one of only 20 or so movies to ever receive that rating, while The Dark Knight, the current    but perhaps soon to be felled    comic book box office champ, was rated as an A-).

Whedon took perhaps the least accessible comic book story ever told and managed to make it accessible and entertaining for all without sacrificing even a dollop of the artistic integrity that people had long believed was the one thing standing in the way of his ever achieving mainstream success. Through sheer grit, determination and talent, he Whedoned audiences all over the world into submission.  And if you've never heard of Joss Whedon, then perhaps you don't know just how unpredictable of an accomplishment this was.  Perhaps you don't know just how long and strange this trip has been, or why his overnight success actually took nearly 20 years, or why a success of this size for Joss Whedon might just turn out to be a triumph for movie lovers everywhere.

Literate and wry, with a massive pop sensibility, Joss Whedon has long been the most difficult man in Hollywood to market.  He refuses to bend to convention, yet he knows conventions so well that he can play them and subvert them at the same time. Often hamstrung by  his choice of projects that came with little, if any, ready made appeal or audience awareness, Whedon has long been one of the best kept secrets in Hollywood. I know of no other writer/director who has been so adept at turning off the public with his choice of projects(*), while at the same time being so able to turn people around 180 degrees if someone would just chain them down and actually make them watch what the man produced.

* (I spent several years laughing at the idea of something called Buffy The Vampire Slayer without ever checking it out.  Then I spent several months playfully ridiculing Mrs. Schmoker once she started watching and raving about it.  One night I was lying on the bed and reading while she was watching an episode, and it took less than an hour for me to put my book aside and start in with the "Who is that?" and the "What's his or her story?" questions.  Three weeks later I was hooked like a hungry fish, and then Whedon simply reeled me in, easily and efficiently turning me into one of those annoying converts you love to hate in less than a year.  Soon I owned every DVD I could get my hands on, catching up entirely on the man's back catalog.  Shortly thereafter I was proselytizing like John the Baptist on a sugar rush.)

And now the man whom people seemingly couldn't be blackmailed into checking out has become THE MAN of the moment, the creator and purveyor of the latest Biggest Movie of All Time.

Now, if you adjust for inflation, The Avengers isn't really going to be the biggest movie of all time (and neither was Avatar (14th) nor The Dark Night (28th), by the way, but rather Gone With The Wind).  In fact, it's entirely possible that this largest opening of all time doesn't even land The Avengers in the Top 30 movies of all time, at least when it comes to tickets sold.  But while it's fairly certain that The Avengers won't really end up as the biggest movie of all time, it is also certain that The Avengers will end up being one of the biggest movies of our time. 26 million tickets were sold this past weekend, and that had never happened before.  Never had so many people gone to see a movie in so short a period of time, and that translated into 207 million dollars, which, in case you were unaware, is a shit ton of money in any era.  Even adjusting for inflation, no film has ever made that type of money its first weekend. 

Of course, films have only been opening wide enough to make that type of coin in their first few days since the late 1990's, so it's impossible to make a true apples to apples comparison between The Avengers and many of top grossing films of all time.  The Exorcist, for example, sits at #9 on the all time list, which is likely going to be far out of The Avengers reach, but no one really thinks of The Exorcist as one of the biggest movies of all time because, for one thing, it only opened in a handful of theaters, as did most films in those days, and then it proceeded to rake its money in over the long, long, long haul.

Prior to Jaws and Star Wars, which stunned Hollywood with their success via a wide release pattern that had never been used before, movies never opened so big as to allow you to guesstimate how much money they might make overall.  Whether a movie was a success of failure generally could only be understood after a very long time, rather than after the first 72 hours. Movies primarily opened in big cities and, if successful over a number of weeks, spread out across the rest of the country from there, often in a painfully slow fashion, as word of mouth spread and moviegoers agonized over the wait. Sometimes movies, even those that were phenomenally successful, were allowed to play themselves out in one part of the country before ever even opening in other parts of the country.  Studios only made so many prints of a film back then, and they had to physically schlep them from one region to the next (a practice that was dealt a mortal wound by Spielberg and Lucas, and then finished off completely thanks to the advent of digital movie files).

The Exorcist finished its first year of release with 66 million in rentals, and then it just kept playing and playing and playing.  Ultimately, over a longer period than any film plays today, The Exorcist wound up with 230 million dollars in total gross. On the surface that is less than the Avengers made by the end of its first Tuesday. When adjusted for inflation, however, that comes out to nearly 900 million dollars domestically, a number which The Avengers is surely not going to reach.  Even Avatar (770 million adjusted) didn't reach those heights, and The Dark Knight (588 million adjusted) didn't get within a country mile of that.  Heck, The Dark Knight didn't even come close to taking down The Sting (706 million adjusted) or The Graduate (677 million adjusted), so take all those big box office records you hear about these days with an entire lick of salt.

And let's just pause a moment to remember a time when the biggest box office hits in the country were movies such as The Sting, The Godfather, The Graduate, and The Exorcist.

Okay, end of pause.

But back to Joss Whedon. What I most appreciated about The Avengers wasn't how much money it made, or even how much of a great popcorn flick that it was, but rather how Whedon managed to merge the sensibilities of a Christopher Nolan film with the raucous crowd pleasing nature of a Michael Bay turd.  The Avengers was neither fish nor fowl, but somehow a rather pleasing mixture of both (and what wine would you serve with that dish, by the way?).

Neither as pretentious as The Dark Knight during its most dour moments, nor ever as mindless as Transformers during its... well, its every moment, The Avengers was a movie that was as strong on character and humor as it was on action.  I wouldn't give it the A+ that CinemaScore gave it, but for the first time since Sam Raimi and Bryan Singer were making their sequels, or perhaps even since Richard Donner kicked all this off back in 1978, I finally found something that wanted to be both a movie and a film.

The Avengers wasn't perfectly successful at either, mind you, but I found any flaws to be simply a result of the inherent problems that came with trying to make movie with a story almost unlike any other ever made, rather than a result of any failing on the part of the writer/director.  If every first movie in a super hero franchise suffers from having to tell two stories in one movie (The Origin & The Adventure), then The Avengers had that problem times seven. And Whedon had to tackle that problem while bringing together disparate elements from a slew of films of varying degrees of quality, or lack thereof, which, it cannot be stressed enough, had never even been tried before.

That the movie wasn't an incoherent mess was itself an accomplishment of note.  That the movie ended up worthy of being part of the discussion about the apex of comic book film making is nothing short of a modern day miracle.

Previously the apex of modern comic book films have almost always been the sequels. Spider Man 2, X-Men 2, and The Dark Knight, freed from their introductory restraints, all put their predecessors to shame.  The Avengers, to my mind, also put those franchises first movies to shame, and it did so while dealing with more introductory restraints than any six movies combined. Given Whedon's success at accomplishing this near unprecedented feat, one has to be giddy with the anticipation of what he can do now that he will likely be free to pretty much make The Avengers 2 any way he sees fit.

If Marvel can get out it's own way, that is.

And that brings us back, finally and mercifully, to where this discussion began (sorry about that whole pointless digression into historical box office receipts, but a blog just brings the worst in tangential writing out of me), and where we began is with me wondering whether or not the people in the big offices in Hollywood, those mythical Powers That Be, will finally begin to understand just how much they need the Joss Whedon's of the world.  I am wondering whether all the money that is raining down on their heads will teach those people any sort of a lesson, or if someday we will instead look back on The Avengers as a blip on the radar, much the same way we do now with the second X-Men, Spider-Man and Batman movies.  For it all seemed so clear when those earlier movie were made and started popping out golden eggs left and right.  The message was simple and writ large: All you need do is combine comic books and art, and then you were golden.

Yet those three films are still very much the exception and not the rule.  Even though they combined to make more money than anyone could have ever dreamed possible, the Powers That Be apparently watched those movies and saw the capes and the super powers and nothing else.  How else to explain the piles upon piles of steaming comic book crap that's been produced in between? 

(By the way, I know I am screwing over Iron Man here by not mentioning it along with the other great super hero flicks, and I know that Jon Favreau's film certainly doesn't fit into my neat little "The Sequels Are The Best" box, but let's just agree to call that the exception that proves the rule, shall we?  Iron Man was obviously pretty golden also, and it's nearly right up there with any of the other great super hero movies, but, at the very least, Iron Man 2 quickly proved without a doubt that Marvel is just as capable of ignoring the lessons of success as well as anyone else in Hollywood. They may have the balls to pick unconventional directors, but Iron Man 2 certainly showed they do not always have the courage of their convictions when it comes to leaving them alone to do their job.)

One the one hand, I do have to hand it to Marvel.  Their movies may be up and down, but they have somehow managed to be a marketing machine while never quite putting out a Green Lantern-type piece of shit when it comes to their core character universe.  And it's even more amazing to me that they somehow managed not to use their six thumbed hand of marketing and development to screw up this particular film, which had a higher degree of difficulty than any comic book movie so far made.  I certainly don't like all their movies, and there are a few that I thought were just plain bad, but at least they have never screwed the pooch badly enough that they lost their shirt or their way.  Even the two atrocious Hulk movies had some interesting moments.  They sucked, but they didn't suck in an aggressively bad Green Lantern/Ghost Rider style, nor were they the type of financial bloodbaths that could have stopped their entire master plan dead in its tracks. And the only real problem with Iron Man 2 wasn't that it was a bad movie; it was that it was at least three great movies folded, spindled and mutilated into one exceedingly mediocre one.

So while I may be getting a bit tired of comic book adaptions on the whole    and while I certainly believe that most, if not all, of the problems with any particular Marvel produced adaptation are primarily self inflicted    I do feel the need to take a moment to acknowledge Marvel's audacious and unprecedented accomplishment to date.  They may actively fuck up their own films from time to time by occasionally masquerading marketing as film making, and they may take some sort of bizarre pride in their ability to drive away talented directors who do well by them, but they still have managed a pretty unique accomplishment in film history.  Certainly this whole run of films could have been quite a bit better, but they sure as shit could have been one whole hell of a lot worse.

I just hope they learn to step back now, because I think The Avengers marks a turning point in their filmed universe. Prior to The Avengers release, I was certainly burning out on super heroes, and the diminishing returns of the past year seemed to indicate that the public was as well.  While their last three films all made money and received generally good notices, none of those releases last year reached anything like the dizzying heights of The Avengers or Iron Man when it came to audience acceptance, be it creatively or financially. And there were many, myself included, who were wondering if perhaps the super hero gravy train was running out of steam.

So while none of the post-Iron Man movies were stinkeroos, all them of leveled off into the good-not-great range, and not a few people felt that a big problem was that the six-thumbed hand could be felt all over many of the creative choices that were being made.  If there was a common complaint, it was that Marvel seemed to start making films that were 3/4 movie and 1/4 commercial for another, yet to be made movie.

Yet now The Avengers has come along and managed to relight the flame within me (and apparently within at least 26 million other people), all thanks to Marvel's bold and supremely risky decision to hand over their most important and expensive movie to date to a TV writer with one of the worst commercial track records in the business, and then to pretty much get the fuck out of his way.

But this greatest of their achievements is now also a sword of Damocles hanging over all their future endeavors. Like the handful of great comic book films before it, The Avengers will ingrain within people the desire for a level of greatness that cannot be produced by a committee.  And beyond that, it's possible that Joss Whedon managed to push the "big, dumb fun" movie to a level of quality and depth that is as unsustainable as it was unprecedented.  The Avengers is a great movie, but simple replication again and again will not make for something greater.  Whether Marvel learned that lesson from Iron Man 2 or not cannot be evaluated until we see the next round of films they produce, but if they do not start to differentiate these films from one another now, then I believe they are going to grind down their cash cow until they'll be hard pressed to exchange it for even a thimbleful of magic beans.

So while it's been exceedingly cool to see Marvel pay such fine attention to detail throughout their filmed universe, and while their willingness to make unconventional directorial choices must be applauded, it should  also be understood that those two admirable and fairly unique strengths have been barely able to keep at bay the outrageous excess of marketing and development that keeps reaching into their stories, threatening to turn each one into an abject failure.  The delicate push pull going on between the creative and the financial sides of the company these past five years has been fascinating to watch, but its continuation is going to cause the whole shebang to collapse in on itself like a Shield Dark Energy Laboratory if they don't learn to keep the guys who are wearing ties and holding flowcharts away from the guys who are wearing capes and holding hammers.

So it's time to start letting their freak flag fly a bit more. Whatever instinct led them to pick guys like Favreau and Branagh and Whedon in the first place needs to come to the fore, and the instinct that leads them to check off boxes while cutting and pasting their scripts needs to shrink to the size of a very small hemorrhoid.  I'm a pretty big comic nerd, but I need another movie exactly like Thor or Captain America like I need a Hulk sized fistula.  And while I'd be happy to see Joss Whedon continue to crank out all the big, dumb fun that 250 million dollars can buy, I'm sure that ultimately I'd find it to be a gigantic waste of his talent, my time, and all the good will Marvel has now managed to accumulate.

I've had about enough big, dumb fun now to last me a few cosmic cube enhanced lifetimes, and the ties and the flowcharts should hit their knees every night and give thanks that Joss Whedon was able to navigate their minefield and craft what was the perfect capstone to a series of films that I will now always think of as The Marvel Movies 1.0. But it's adapt or die in this world, whether you are talking movies or mankind.  You cannot hope to replicate and evolve at the same time, and without evolution these movies will begin to produce diminishing returns both creatively and financially.  That may be tough to accept when standing at the summit of your greatest achievement, but it's exactly when you are on that summit that the smallest misstep can result in the greatest fall.

I believe now that the only way comic book movies will stay relevant and prosperous, whether you are talking about dollars or sense, is if they begin to transcend their genre. Otherwise super hero movies could easily go the way of the western genre, which was once even more ubiquitous than the men in tights genre is today.  These days westerns can only break through when they are reinventions of a revelatory nature. Whether you are talking about Unforgiven or True Grit, the financially and critically successful westerns are few and far between, and they are nearly always the result of film making of the highest order.

And so it shall some day be with super hero movies should they stand still, content to reap short term dollars via long form condescension.  Because like addicts, we need more or better to keep reaching the same high. So you should think long and hard about giving us better, because there is only so much more you can give us before we O.D. 

Somewhere between The Dark Knight and The Avengers is a truly great film just dying to be made.  Joss Whedon just proved that he is the perfect guy to try and make it, and that the public will reward whomever lets him do so with billions of dollars. I only hope that the Marvel Machine can get the fuck out of their own way and let it happen..


  1. Someone Who Loves YouMay 10, 2012 4:21 PM

    By the way, someone needs to let Joe Wright make one of these movies. There is a scene in a parking garage in Hanna where Eric Bana takes on six guys at once. It beats the living shit out of anything Hack McGee did with the action in Captain America, and Joe Wright made that movie for what the bagel budget probably was on Captain America.

    Captain America: Best story of the entire Marvel filmed universe ruined by the most pedestrian directing imaginable.

  2. Not Kevin SmithMay 13, 2012 3:09 PM

    I appreciate that this doesn't lay out any spoilers for the film while still providing an interesting take on it. I'm seeing The Avengers today, and I would like to see a spoilery review from you down the road, Schmoker. But I'm glad you didn't do one while so many people still have yet to see the movie. But soon I'd like to see you do just that. Just what exactly did you like that makes you think Marvel needs to change its ways in order to survive?

    I sure agree about Captain America. The action in that movie was terrible, and it was a real drag on the whole film. I liked the story a great deal, but staging looked like nothing more than the most expensive TV movie ever made.