THE AVENGERS and the Restoration of Wonder

columnist, critic; USA (@suddenlyquiet)
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THE AVENGERS and the Restoration of Wonder
I took my eldest son to see The Avengers today.

...and who cares, right?

Except that there are two possibly interesting things about this: I can't remember the last time I saw a movie in theaters twice during its opening run. Maybe that makes me a snob, I don't know. And granted, I didn't pay the first time I saw it (which perhaps makes me spoiled as well)... but still, this made me stop and think: why did I make a point of returning to The Avengers so soon?

Is it because I feel it's non-stop fun, nearly flawless, relentlessly original, and so on and so forth? Um, not really.

No, I did it because I so much wanted to see my son's reaction to the film, pure and simple. I wanted to be there and watch his face light up as I knew it would. To hear his laughter at being so overwhelmed by popcorn-y goodness. And no, this has nothing to do with being a dad, not really, and this is not one of those earnest father-and-son bonding articles. In fact, my reasons for catching The Avengers again are largely selfish insofar as they involve my experiencing his experiencing of the film.

Which brings me to that second possibly interesting thing at work here: my son's age is about the same as mine was when I first saw Superman: The Movie. And that's relevant because, along with Sam Raimi's first Spider-Man flick, The Avengers represents, at least for this lifelong fan, not just a great ride, but a landmark in its genre.

To be clear about the personal context, I was those kids in Super 8. I saw Star Wars and Close Encounters in their first runs, then Dawn of the Dead and Alien over the following couple of years. I, like thousands of other tweens and young teens, had my mind stuffed full of wonderment, and a lot of us never really recovered. And tucked away in the middle of all that was a little film featuring Superman, a character whom almost all the hip kids felt was a bit corny, and it starred some guy you never heard of.

Oh, and did I mention that I was a huuuuuge comics fan at the time?

That could explain why I was skeptical, even as a youngster, of the film's tagline: "You'll believe a man can fly." Not that I felt the effects work wouldn't be topnotch, but rather that the marketing itself seemed cheesy. This wouldn't be a comic book movie, I told myself, but a Hollywood cash-in that I'd certainly check out but wouldn't be blown away by.

Boy, was I wrong. Now, looking back nearly thirty-five years later, I realize that that tagline represents the essence of what I now call wonder. It wasn't, "You'll see a man fly and do some amazing things!" -- no, you'll believe it. Moreover, the tagline humanized that stuffy-sounding title, softened it; it said, "This is a man, i.e., a human-scaled protagonist, and so you'll have a character that you can relate to, not just a super-powered being."

Wonder, then, is not the same thing as spectacle. "Spectacle" is a row of towering glass-skinned buildings crumbling à la Transformers. Wonder is the Hulk grabbing a teammate mid-fall and halting his descent by digging his fingers into the facade of the same sort of skyscrapers. It's about human action, or human-like action, within a landscape made up of the incredible and the awesome. With wonder we don't merely witness astounding things on screen, although that's an important first step -- we experience them in some way. And we experience them in part because we believe in them.

Much more importantly, though, with true wonder you don't simply believe and experience things ... you believe and experience things that you honestly never thought you would ever believe or experience. In fact, previously you almost felt you had no right to expect that kind of faithfulness to images and ideas that were born so far away from the movies A perfect non-superhero example of this is Peter Jackson's LOTR trilogy.

That's why true wonder doesn't capture our imaginations so much as liberate them: our senses validate something that had heretofore existed only in the realm of our mind's eye or -- and certain fans will get this while the rest of you should feel free to roll your eyes -- in our souls. Wonder, even if lasts just a few seconds, is not just powerful, but empowering. There's a euphoria that comes from our inner and outer worlds being joined so dynamically.

A lot of us felt this way when Raimi released his Spidey movie back in 2002. It not only captured much of the pulpy spirit of some of the best comics, but also you didn't have to squint and ignore the rough edges when our hero would swing through the canyons of steel. More than that, the film reflected something of the reckless lyricism, the keynotes of freedom and grace, that you always imagined Spider-Man would possess if, you know, he really existed. Stuff that deep down inside you may have wondered if others really responded to the way you did when you read the comics.

The Avengers works (ultimately, that is: I was embarrassed by much of the first 30-45 minutes) for a lot of the same reasons. The superheroes on display are both more fully human and more superhumanly mighty than in their previous incarnations. Also, and it's fine if this brands me as a hopeless geek, but the way that Whedon staged and shot those classic '60s-era moments -- e.g., the Hulk tries to lift Thor's hammer, that same weapon squares off against Cap's shield -- is what kicked my wonderment into high gear. I have no problem with non-comics fans being put off by the pointlessness, predictability or gimmicky-ness of such moves. To me, however, they were the manifestation of concepts, of impossibilities and paradoxes, that had been rattling around in my brain for decades. I'd actually forgotten about them, or at least their power, until the film's terrific compositions and editing revived them like a splash of water to the dried-out seeds in my subconscious.

But by elevating The Avengers to my private little pantheon, do I mean to knock other superhero movies? Not at all. I love the Chris Nolan Batman movies, including their visual grandeur, and I'm not going to argue with anyone who states flat-out that that they're better films than may ever be accomplished within the Marvel Universe. However, probably because Batman isn't super-powered, my inner child places them in a different category of coolness, along with things like James Bond and Bruce Lee movies. That is, they're pretty much rooted in the real world, or at least a real-ish world, not works of fantasy. I can also respect the notion that Tim Burton's Batman or the first couple of X-Men movies were landmarks, and, sure, aesthetically, technically, or culturally, a case could be made.

They just never made me believe in something that I felt I had no proper business believing in. They weren't landmarks in generating, or reviving, an innocent sense of wonder on the order of these other three films I've cited.

Which is why I'm glad I brought my son to the movies today. Wonder is more fun -- more wonderful -- when it's shared. And while, yes, the feeling can be contagious to a degree, what's at work is not merely the old saw about being 30 or 40 or 50 and suddenly turning 12 again as you sit enthralled in the darkened theater. Because if you're a certain type of superhero fan, you've developed a long-term thirst for wonder... and so never stopped being 12. You were just waiting until someone made the kind of movie that not only satisfied that thirst, but also showed the rest of the world why you were willing to go so long between drinks.

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More about The Avengers

Ard VijnMay 6, 2012 7:24 PM

The truth! Well said Peter.

Ben UmsteadMay 6, 2012 7:55 PM

I haven't seen The Avengers, and in fact, may not catch it in the theater, but if this didn't perk me up, literally made me sit up in my seat, and get a little teary-eyed. Wonder it is! And spectacle... well spectacle is an ingredient that's easier to concoct. Thanks, Peter. For me as a child, it was Jurassic Park, and even Hook that gave me that wonder. We may not look back on these films as fondly as those you mentioned, but if they didn't do the job for me between 8-10. Those first few X-Men films gave that to me too, and LOTR, Wall-E and Spider-Man 2 much, much much(!) more so than 1.

Jim TudorMay 6, 2012 10:06 PM

Amen and amen!

Speaking of pointless but wondrous sidebar moments (a lot of which make this film so wonderful) involving Thor's hammer, I fondly remember a throwaway moment at the end of a comic from the late 80s (IIRC) in which, following a huge battle with Cap and Thor defeating some foe together, Cap, without thinking, picked up and handed Thor his hammer. Thor realized the significance of this, adding the only mortal to a very short list of others who can also lift the hammer. (Balder, Odin... IIRC.) Part of me was kind of hoping for that, but it's cool as is...

Niels MatthijsMay 7, 2012 1:28 AM

It's a beautifully written piece Peter.

I think it's fair to say we're not going to agree on specifics (I believe there's little wonder in most genrefilms), but one recent superhero flick that crossed those borders is Chronicle. It gave me pretty much the same feeling you describe here.

Kurt HalfyardMay 7, 2012 7:55 AM

I agree with this wonderfully expressed piece in a universal sense.

I disagree that the new Disney/Marvel collaborations have ever hit this point (or maybe my inner child is not what it used to be). I've not seen The Avengers yet, but all of the other adaptations have left me flat. They are competent and handsome, but wholly lacking in what you describe above as "WONDER"

The Iron Giant hits this zone for me, however. So do many scenes from Ratatouille. Ditto The Prestige and Paprika.

Peter GutierrezMay 7, 2012 8:38 AM

Thanks, Kurt.

But I'm not sure why you say you disagree. First, you haven't seen Avengers -- which I think is the only real "Disney" project, the rest had been in the works before the acquisition -- but at no point do I include those other films. They left me rather flat, too. My only mention of them is this, which is hardly complimentary: "The superheroes on display are both more fully human and more superhumanly mighty than in their previous incarnations." The implication being that they fall short on two "indicators" of "wonder." The Pixar movies and some other animated films (Iron Giant, yep.) are a definite contrast, but this piece was mostly about live-action superhero films.

Kurt HalfyardMay 7, 2012 8:53 AM

"But at no point do I include those other films. They left me rather flat, too."

This is encouraging. I have my doubts about the Avengers, but I suppose I'll see it when the crowds thin out, should make for a fun Matinee with the boy.

Kurt HalfyardMay 7, 2012 10:29 AM

Oh, and I'm only really picking on Marvel Studio's here. Disney was (in my non-industry opinion) enticed by Marvel Studios as an acquisition precisely because they do that safe-kind-of-business (mega-wide audience, not rough around the edges in story/execution, with lots of merchandising - i.e. VANILLA, (somehow Pixar transcend this 'vanilla criticism' - if only barely sometimes)).

Again, I'm picking on all the development of Marvel titles under the Marvel Studios Banner.

Greg ChristieMay 7, 2012 9:30 PM

I'm still on the fence with this but mostly due to all of the hyperbole and hype the film is receiving. People are making this out to be an important cultural event and I would strongly disagree with that. Watching those bizarre giant metal dragons tear through New York was such a strange and surreal image that I can certainly see wonder and imagination in that and Avengers is solid entertainment. Joss Whedon presents the characters with an admiral sense of intelligence but it felt like a Saturday morning cartoon, the kind created solely to sell action figures. It's fun and perfect matinee entertainment for children and adults alike, but it still left me dry. It didn't insult my intelligence like X-Men 3, it didn't stimulate me like Spider Man 2. While the film isn't campy, or patronizing, it still lacks the pathos of Batman The Animated series, or X -Men the animated series, or Raimi's first 2 Spider Man films. There was nothing at all for me to connect to on a personal level. Comics and fantasy is about wish fulfillment and all of that is more palatable when it's built around characters the audience can identify with such as the nerdy, awkward, and shy Spider Man or misunderstood Jubilee. Captain America is xenophobic propaganda, Thor is a demigod (and really, who the fuck ever actually read Thor comics?), Black Widow is wet dream fanboy sexual fantasy( There is nothing liberating or feminist to supermodels in skintight leather where the director constantly focuses the camera specifically on their ASS. Hawkeye is macho and boring, and Iron Man is an alcoholic prick. Hulk is really the only interesting hero, a brilliant character rarely allowed to actually capitalize on his own story and origin. For all the expositive pysh babble, we never see Hulk as a human wrestling with his own emotions and anger in Avengers. As flawed as Ang Lee's film was, I still admire it more than this. The Avengers is all surface face with very little underneath. It's damn fun, but I don't see myself coming back to it the same way I don't go back to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or Transformers. Sure, I loved that shit as a kid, but they were both commercials for the toys, particularly Transformers. So what those movies sucked? So did the cartoon. I think our obsession with nostalgia is dangerous. I only saw the film 4 hours ago and can barely recall much of what happened. It really feels like a very well made product, an excuse to sell toys and tie in merchandise where as Nolan's Dark Knight is the opposite. The toys, happy meals, and associated merch feels irrelevant and almost tasteless but serve as necessary evil for the film to exist. The story lines and characters that propelled Bruce Timm's Batman cartoon provided plenty of action but also provided multi-layered stories with deeper and more complex themes for kids to chew on. Ultimately, I guess Avengers was just spectacle for me not so unlike Transformers, but at least it wasn't racist, homophobic, republican bullshit pandering spectacle. There's nothing wrong with spectacle and Avengers is an impressive accomplishment, but there's just nothing in it beyond the appeal of seeing 4 iconic figures with their own franchises grouped together.

Peter GutierrezMay 10, 2012 4:15 PM

Thanks, Ben -- but I do think you should try to see it in theaters if possible. Very glad I initially saw Wall-E and some of the other ones you mention that way. The film is at first too noisy and busy but later I think you'll be grateful for the sheer size of the sounds and sights. Oh, and re Spider-Man 2: I might agree with you but my purpose here was to call out landmarks, not make a best-of list, and since Spidey 2 is a sequel, it's kind of hard to be landmark. Similarly, I expect some wonder out of Avengers 2 but I won't be able to consider it a breakthrough since it will be building on what we experienced in the first film.

Peter GutierrezMay 10, 2012 4:20 PM

Yes, I liked Chronicle, too -- and certainly its point-of-view characters, and the way we identified with their own delight in their new powers, heightened the film's moments of wonder. Not sure what you mean by not finding wonder in genre movies, though. Not in fantasy and science-fiction movies? Where then? Or do I misunderstand?

Niels MatthijsMay 10, 2012 5:21 PM

Most genre film are tied to rigid clichés. Wonder for me often lies in the unexpected, in the things I _haven't_ seen yet. True genre film making is more about doing something familiar. Originality comes in the form of small nuances or subtle shifts of tone. There's nothing really wrong with that, sometimes it results in damn fine films, but these are not the films that bring me wonder or that make me realize why I really love cinema.

I actually didn't see much difference between The Avenger and the other Marvel comic adaptations. I'm sure that big fans (of Marvel, or super hero movies) will see this differently, but for me it was just more of the same.

Somewhat unrelated, but I have similar issues with the fantasy genre. Most people consider something like LOTR the ultimate fantasy film, for me it lacks everything I look for in good fantasy film (namely something fantastical that really sparks one's own imagination).