Up to this point, Marvel's The Avengers has grossed an amount of money that feels unreal. And the worst part? It's pretty good. Fanboy lothario Joss Whedon dutifully delivered a piece of entertainment that appeases the vast populous, young and old, boy and girl. It's just enough to keep us rolling in menacing chemical spills and burgeoning mutant powers for years to come, sequel after prequel after reboot. Or, wait, are we calling it re-imagining now?
In the short term, The Avengers is an impressive enough feat that it should be celebrated (and it has been, ad nauseam). In the long term, it is tragic stuff. It represents the perfect excuse for mediocrity, whether it be the past, present or future. Things like The Incredible Hulk are brushed off as world-building while poor, expositional writing like Cobie Smulders' entire character Maria Hill are excused as unfortunately necessary to the macro-plot. And you can be sure lazy spin-offs for fringe characters not unlike Hill that are to come will be salvaged by The Avengers 2. We are convinced now that all we need to be entertained is a Hulk that smashes and a city that crumbles. Simply put, The Avengers is fun, and not much else. It seems most of us have chosen to forget the "not much else" part.
Whedon's film, which follows a slew of superhero movies both noteworthy and otherwise, exalts its heroes into some Happy Meal version of modern mythology. Thor stands in an open field, summoning lightning from the sky. Captain America slings his shield of patriotism for the good of mankind. These are striking images, if not particularly powerful. We get what we want in small, expensive doses these days. Loud and fast.
People will remember these moments and pass that excitement on to future generations. And those generations, you can be sure, will have new regurgitations of those same heroes. This is the problem. These generations may not have much else in the way of BIG entertainment. Do we not strive for more from these overlords of industry?
This is a world where a Hawkeye film is as possible as rebooting a tired, web-slinging franchise a mere decade after it began. The Avengers will allow for the continued simplification of art and its artists. Whedon once represented a rebellious force in pop culture, bleeding Spielbergian nostalgia with biting satire. The crew of the Serenity are a cynical bunch, aware of the futility of their purpose, the inevitably of their termination. But still they push on, because, well, what else is there to do?
The Avengers know little about futility or loss, and their cynicism is played strictly for laughs. Whedon's group of demi and semi-gods are employees, reluctant slaves to a government fighting a faceless villain, save a baddie who cannot be killed. Are these the heroes we root for now? Termination is a near impossibility.
Roger Ebert once fabulously lamented the final battle in the original Pirates of the Caribbean film and its absolute lack of stakes: soldiers fight and die against those who are already dead and cannot be deader. This has become the norm. These are the villains we expect now. If you're not convinced, wait for Battleship, or re-watch Battle: Los Angeles (you know what, don't re-watch Battle: Los Angeles). Our heroes fight battles against whoevers and whatevers.
We are living in a world where we, the people, crucify Andrew Stanton for spending too much money to try to do too much and praise Joss Whedon for spending as much money to play it safe. Where's the risk? The ambition? Literally putting six or seven superheroes in the same room and letting them play is interesting as novelty, but not much else. Even on a technical level, The Avengers offers nothing new a la Avatar, a similar box office juggernaut retroactively criticized for an overly simple narrative.
I have gotten into heated arguments about films like Avatar and John Carter with friends and critics alike, questioning the why of it all. Any conversation about The Avengers starts and ends with a smile and a shrug. The "why" of it all is fairly obvious, maybe painfully so.
"Pretty good" has become the bar we shoot for. The same bar that allows Samuel L. Jackson to call for the firing of one of the world's most talented film critics and get defended for it, in some cases by other films critics. Let us defend those artists who push against the current, determined to find new stories to tell in new ways. Not those who find enough fun in what is rehashed, and call it good enough. The minute this is deemed good enough, a smile and shrug will be the most emotion we can hope for from our fledging silver screen.
Dan Mecca is the Co-Founder and Managing Editor of The Film Stage. He both makes and writes about movies.