Individual critics don’t influence studio films’ success or failure.
I’m not sure we ever did. Perhaps when Siskel and Ebert had a weekly television show they might use a particularly large platform to champion a deserving film at the tipping point of success. But who has the reputation, or even the audience, to play iceberg to some megafilm’s titanic momentum?
That admission raises the question: what, then, is the purpose of the movie review? The Internet has not simply allowed the critic to be subsumed by the studio system’s marketing tentacles (as individual, independent venues with permanent, paid critics not beholden to the studio for access have withered and died), it has flattened the critical marketplace. More important than the impact of the review is the discussion that surrounds.
I am rolling out a new column: Dissenting Opinion. The title should be self-explanatory. This space is for discussions of films where I find myself in the minority about the quality or value of a film. As with dissenting opinions in the legal realm, these won’t change the verdict. They will get my disagreement on seek to inform conversation moving forward.
Also, this seems like a good time to repeat one of my mantras. If someone disagrees with me, that does not make him (or her) an idiot. If you are in the majority, I am happy for you. While I recognize that, theoretically at least, my Malvolio-like refusal to join the fun (or More-like refusal to come over to your side for friendship’s sake) can put a momentary cloud over a happy ending, trust me that it’s only momentary.
Avengers: Age of Ultron (★½) is a monster hit. Critical opinion is not unanimous, but reviews are running about 3-1 on the positive side. I will begin my dissent with a concession–for what it is, Ultron is proficient and professional. I am tired of comic book movies, which I never adored in the first place. Perhaps I have just reached a saturation point. (Remember when Who Wants to Be A Millionaire? was on every day of the week?) Ultron is not the worst of the bunch, just the latest. And my last nerve has been effectively torn to shreds.
As the film ticked past the two hour mark, my increasingly morose spirit gave up any hopes that the movie would let me go before it grounded my resistance into dust…and provided a couple of teasers for the next couple of Marvel films.
Here’s my four point diatribe. Nothing I will say below is particularly new or original. That’s actually heartening in my book. It tells me that while I may have felt these things more deeply than some others, I wasn’t alone in feeling them.
1) No real stakes: I get that comic book movies come from comic books. These have historically been serial publications, which are by tradition open-ended. The novel is my favorite literary form, and I am conditioned by it to see stasis as undramatic and uninteresting. So too is constant activity. The dominant feature of the comic book film is its lack of an end. Each film is simply a prelude to the next film. The Marvel films are particularly painful in this regard. There may be universal annihilation threatened if someone does or doesn’t push that button, but there is so little death in the face of so much property damage. And that death has so little impact. Then again, universal annihilation isn’t really possible, because then there wouldn’t be another movie, so no matter how cataclysmic the consequences of defeat, we know they aren’t going to happen.
2) Bloated battles: These fights just go on and on and on and on and on and on and then you think they are over, but no, the heroes are just reassembling for more and more and more and more and more and more. Because of computer enhancements, the screen is very busy, almost frenetic. I could marginally buy into the fantasy notion that the characters could be in these battles: it’s the difference between playing a frenetic game like Robotron and watching someone else do it. Your eye never knows what to rest on, and even if it does, it can’t process what it is resting on before the next image in a series so frenetically edited it would overstimulate an ADD mouse on crack. Perhaps this is why superhero narratives on television, with their lower budgets, are increasingly more interesting than the more prestigious films. Did I mention these fights go on and on and on and on and…here’s another one. They all look the same. If you took a ten second snippet of a fight from any superhero movie, would anything but the costume differentiate it?Someone gets slammed into a building and breaks through the wall. Someone gets slammed to the ground and makes a crater. Someone picks up a large object (elevator, car, beam, train) and hits somebody else with it.
3) No character development: I like comic books. While the battles are all the same, a higher percentage of the books are stories…stories about the characters’ personal lives or motivations for fighting. The fights themselves are not that interesting. This is one reason why I actually find the individual hero films to be at least marginally more bearable than the Avengers. Character development isn’t exactly massive, but if you are going to devote, say, twenty-minutes of your film to it, at least it all goes to the same character. Divide that by twelve and you get a series of quippy one-liners that are designed to make Joss Whedon fans purr. Sure, the repartee is witty, but it gets old after awhile. Neil Postman once said in Amusing Ourselves to Death that it was impossible to take the world as a serious place if news reporters saying war was inevitable were followed by commercials for Burger King. It’s hard for me to take the Marvel Universe seriously when it is populated by heroes who all missed their calling as vaudeville comedians. Yeah, I get that too. There is something charming in the self-recognition of its own conventions. Whedon does for the comic book movie what Williamson did for the horror genre in Scream. But after the third or so Scream film this self-referential winking at the cliches becomes itself cliche. Whedon writes good dialogue, but he doesn’t tell a good story. He doesn’t tell an interesting story. He doesn’t make the characters interesting. When the boys sit around and boast about who has the hotter girlfriend or try to raise Thor’s hammer, they are pretty much indistinguishable…both from each other and from the people they protect and serve. I know that one distinctive of the Marvel universe has always been that superpowers do not inoculate one from human grief and human problems, but we’ve gone so far down the “they’re just like us” road that there is no longer anything inspiring or aspirational about these “heroes.” Captain America might be an exception here in that he talks in very traditionally value-laden terms, but honestly, the only character I find remotely inspiring is David Banner in his somewhat consistent attempts to remove himself from the fray. Even here, though, Whedon is willing to sacrifice threads of character development for a quick joke. The saddest moment in the film, for me, is when Black Widow substitutes her own judgement for that of the man she claims to love. That she does it while delivering the best one-liner in the film’s endess procession of punchlines only makes it the more painful.
4) I don’t like this world. I suppose Nolan’s Batman franchise is the best of the comic book franchises in that it keeps a toe, however tenuously, in the real world. The problems Batman faces are not just about defeating the bad guy, they are about trying to create and preserve a society that is threatened by that bad guy. There’s a weird interlude in Ultron where the momentarily thwarted heroes all go to Hawkeye’s civilian farm, meet his wife, picket-fence, kids, etc. They chop wood. This house exists somewhere in the same universe as where aliens attacked and were barely turned back in the last film. Where across the globe an entire country is about to be annihilated. In such a universe, would any corner of the globe remain untouched, unaffected? Would life go on as “before,” anywhere?* Given how much, in our world, we use traumatic events as markers of history’s progression, is it plausible that a few months or years after some giant event, things would be back to normal until the next disruptive battle? Once again, I get that earthquakes and disasters happen every day in the real world, and we go on with our lives, but it’s hard for me to fathom what these people do while Hawkeye is off saving the universe. Given the endless run of threats, it’s also hard for me to buy the notion that this is some sort of normalcy to preserve or return to. Be afraid. All the time. Because the world is under constant attack. Is that a world I want to live in? To visit, occasionally? We are told Pepper and Jane are off running important companies and doing important work (that their men gave to them or enabled), but, really, how can any work be of importance when each couple of months brings another crisis of existential proportions? In a roundabout (and intentional) way, this point circles back to the first. The serial nature of the universe means that characters never age or die, that the world never develops, that fights are never lost or won. It’s a Manichean world, and we are just living in it. If you call that living. We exist in it as ants to be obliterated or saved by the half-dozen people who actually matter. A universe with endless strife and destruction, with no hope of an end suffering, only the end of everything….it’s not exactly a nihilistic universe, but it sure feels like a hellish one. It’s a universe that is neither a mirror to reflect our own nor an oasis to refresh our spirits for a few hours in the dark. It’s a universe in which life is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and…endless.
*Edit: This is the essential complaint, is it not, that Slacktivist lays as fresh kill on the doormat of the Left Behind francshie? Yeah, there are other problems with the world-building of Left Behind, but this is the foundational one, one that undercuts every activity in that world. And it sure seems to me that it is equally applicable to the Marvel universe.