Marvel's blockbuster superhero film The Avengers opened Friday, and by pretty much any possible measure of success, including those both financial and critical, the thing's a massive hit. Yet I can't help but have a little trepidation over this $600 million monster.
I totally see the appeal of The Avengers. It had incredible action sequences and for the most part was very well acted. It also strikes me as the most pure example of a superhero comic book movie, inasmuch as the movie embraces basically every trope of the modern superhero comic to tell its story. Sometimes this pays off really well. But there are a couple points where this movie embraces its parent media a bit too well. See, no one would say that superhero comics as they exist now are perfect, and some of what I'd consider the worst things about them are adapted gleefully by The Avengers. What, specifically?
1. Superheroes fight... ALL THE TIME. This is a comic book trope practically as old as time, dating back to the first Marvel superhero team-up, where the Sub-Mariner and the original Human Torch duked it out all across New York. Basically, any time two superheroes meet, they're gonna spar with each other before they realize their common goals and join together. Sometimes this sparring is purely verbal, a contest of who can out-snark who, and other times it's literal sparring. This is something we definitely see in Avengers, and I think we see it way too much.
Look, character conflict is great. It's how you drive a story. But for thousands of years writers have found ways to put their characters in conflict without literally having them at each others' throats. So while each hero's ideals and philosophies should conflict... that's what makes a team dynamic worthwhile, after all... what we don't really need to see is everyone being snotty with each other at the most inopportune times.
We're to assume that these superheroes... or most of them... are professionals, or at least really really good at what they do. So, for instance, while Steve Rogers and Tony Stark are too different to immediately get along perfectly, they're also probably too seasoned to end up having the two or three lovers' quarrels they have in the movie. By the time we get to the scene on the SHIELD Helicarrier where reality's about to be destroyed but Steve, Tony, and Bruce Banner want to insult each other, it's just a bit much. These guys know what they're doing, and they should be able to put aside their differences enough to actually get things done.
I've heard it argued that Loki's manipulating the heroes into being on-edge the whole time he's around. This is certainly the case with Bruce Banner, but possibly true with all the others as well, so I'm willing to subordinate this objection to point #2...
2. This movie is not new-viewer friendly. One of the biggest discussions in comics involves the question of how to get new readers. There's a fine line to be tread between paying homage to/developing old continuity and making stories inviting enough for someone who has no experience with the superhero genre to pick up a book and enjoy it. Avengers definitely errs on the side of the former, and I think it's a problem.
Going in to Avengers, I hadn't refreshed myself on Marvel's movies; I hadn't seen them since their original theatrical releases between 2008-2011. As as result, I was struggling to remember certain plot points and items that had been introduced in previous Marvel movies. What's a Tesseract? Why does SHIELD have the Cosmic Cube? How did Loki get to the position he's in? For me, the first half hour or so of the film had me completely engaged in trying to remember what came before instead of appreciating what was unfolding now. And for someone who reads and thinks about comic books much more than any sane person should, I find that a little worrisome.
Now, I can definitely appreciate that Marvel's building and enriching their film universe the same way they've cultivated their epic comic book history over the past 70 years. Still, there's certainly no guarantee that everyone who saw Avengers would've seen the prerequisite Incredible Hulk, Thor, Captain America and Iron Mans. In fact, box office numbers would suggest that a fair amount of the Avengers audience HASN'T. So I'm not sure it's the smartest move to produce a film that rewards people for paying attention to past installments at the expense of confusing fresh faces.
And yet, as much as The Avengers numbers support my point, they also challenge it. Obviously this movie is striking a chord with a LOT of people. Maybe everyone's ready for a superhero movie that's incredibly faithful to its source material not just in content but in form. If so, that's great, and I certainly don't begrudge Avengers its success. I just worry, you know, that in five years film executives may have the same problem comic creators have now—how do you get NEW fans? If we don't examine superhero comics carefully and improve upon them where necessary, their resulting movies will almost certainly travel the same path they did, and in 20 years comic book movies will exist in the same cultural ghetto that their printed counterparts now enjoy.