When putting together last week’s Escape to The Movies, I became suddenly aware that it had been overall a kind of not terribly great summer in terms of movies. Too many flat-out bad films (Battleship, Amazing Spider-Man, Men In Black 3) too many so-so letdowns (Prometheus, The Dark Knight Rises) and too many projects that could’ve been interesting but ultimately weren’t (Dark Shadows, Snow White). Sure, there were some nice surprises – I’m still kind of reeling from the fact that Ted will probably end up being one of the best comedies of the year, for example – but overall? Kind of a bummer summer.
So why did it take so long for me to notice? Easy. Because for most of it, whenever I might otherwise have been jonesing for a good movie fix, I always had one: going to see The Avengers again.
The Avengers is the sort of movie I occasionally wind up putting at or near the top of a Year’s Best list almost symbolically, as an “Attaboy!” for the sheer magnitude of its accomplishment. But in this case, symbolism has nothing to do with it – it really is that good. And in a nice change of pace, that goodness has been rewarded with deservedly stratospheric box office and stature as not just a movie geek object of worship but a bona fide pop culture event. It also appears to be the future of its genre (superhero movies) and thus, for the time being, the future of blockbuster filmmaking, period.
So let’s talk about why that might not be a good thing.
Okay, I won’t even pretend this is anything more than a thought experiment. I’m as convinced that The Avengers‘ unfolding influence is a big net-positive as I ever was. But there’s no such thing as a good idea that can’t go bad under the wrong circumstances, particularly given Hollywood’s tendency to learn the wrong lessons from success. On that note, here’s a few very wrong lessons I hope aren’t mis-learned from The Avengers.
Continuity Over Quality
The big shiny new feature of The Avengers was that it cemented Marvel Studios’ continuity experiment as having worked, which on the plus side could encourage other studios (looking at you, Warner Bros/DC Comics) to make similar use of it as a storytelling tool. Unfortunately, it could also encourage them to use it as a crutch or let it stifle other projects unnecessarily.
Ideally, continuity in comics is a way of expanding a universe, increasing story possibilities and maintaining a certain level of internal consistency – plus hardcore collectors/fans like it because it rewards their pre-existing tendency to memorize and catalogue. In the wrong hands, though, it can have the opposite effect in all of those areas, making a universe feel too small, forcing too many rules into a story and making inconsistency a bigger flaw than it ought to be. Go through a list of bad comic book arcs over the last few decades and you’ll find a lot of stories that only existed for purposes of continuity book keeping.
Much as I enjoy seeing movies in a series bring back favorite characters or bring interesting story points back to the forefront, sometimes it’s best for everyone to just let some things go. Heather Langenkamp’s character from A Nightmare on Elm Street is said to have died in the sequel, but since everyone hated Freddy’s Revenge, she’s handwaved back to life in Part 3 and nobody brings it up again. I worry that, today, a “for the best” fix like that would impossible and instead we’d be asked to suffer through a “bridge” film laboriously explaining how and why she came back.
Like anything else, continuity is only useful when it works – when it doesn’t, ignore it. A minority of fans will miss the bigger picture and complain, yes, but you will make it up in volume.
The Material Is God
The other big “trick” in Avengers‘ favor is that it hews closer to its comic book roots in terms of style, affect and story – certainly in comparison to its most visible competition, i.e. Christopher Nolan’s reinventionist Batman movies. This sort of thing is always pointed to by fans of other material slated for adaptation, who may be so attached to certain specific elements of a property that they’ll brook no alterations no matter how necessary or beneficial. I’m as guilty of this as anybody, but the fact is not everything works from one medium to another and good adaptations understand that. “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it,” yes, but also “if it don’t fit, don’t force it.”
Most filmmakers and movie producers know this, of course, but they also know that the Internet Age gives fans the ability to marshal big waves of outrage and bad publicity over what they – often myopically – insist must be done with their beloved book/comic/show/play, etc. And with The Avengers, misread by much of the industry as being “Fanservice: The Movie,” being such a runaway success the temptation to give in to such whims is going to be strong.
The first big problem with this is that some of the best movies have been made by taking huge liberties in the process of adaptation. Mario Puzo’s The Godfather was a lurid pulp potboiler (what we’d call an “airplane read” today) as a book but was elevated to one of the greatest films of all time by story and tonal liberties taken by director Francis Ford Coppola. Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining is probably the best Stephen King movie and also bears the least resemblance to the King book it was based on. I’m in the camp that says Paul Verhoeven made the right call by turning Starship Troopers into a vicious satire of itself instead of getting what might’ve been at best a solid military sci-fi flick out of a straight retelling.
The second problem is The Avengers isn’t necessarily the “faithful to a fault” translation it’s been pegged as. Yes, it has more fanboy shout-outs per frame than almost any previous film in the genre. Yes, it’s as close to just pointing the camera at a series of comics pages as anyone has come outside of animation. But it’s still its own entity, mixing and matching elements from half a century of Avengers comics to create unique synthesis.
Just one example: In the Avengers comics, the recurring “bro-mance” buddy relationship is usually between Captain America and Iron Man, and while they certainly have an interesting back-and-forth throughout the film the male/male buddyship everyone came out loving was Iron Man and Bruce Banner. Mostly because Robert Downey Jr. and Mark Ruffalo had killer chemistry, but also because it makes so much damn sense in-character. Of course Banner gravitates toward the only guy in the room who he can relate to through his other skillset! Of course Tony Stark is reckless enough to look at The Incredible Hulk and think “I bet this guy is a one-man party!” And of course an alcoholic and a guy who (literally) can’t control his own id can understand each other! It’s a masterstroke of character interplay, and it doesn’t really exist in the comics – it’s wholly an invention of this adaptation borne of this creative team’s interpretation.
Visionaries Need Not Apply
This one is by far the most worrisome to me.
Cinematic style can be a hard thing to define, even for professional critics and definitely for movie producers. Some filmmakers (think Terry Gilliam, Tim Burton, Wes Anderson) have vast, yet specific, stylistic preferences that extend all the way from theme to composition to design to costuming, but others strive to be aesthetically malleable or simply have less noticeable tics. Just about everyone can pick out a Tim Burton movie right away, but you might have to look twice to recognize For The Love of The Game, A Simple Plan and Army of Darkness as the work of the same director (Sam Raimi, in this case).
For original films, directors of strong personal vision are prized, but in adaptation their gifts often go unappreciated or downright resented, because fans feel denied an “accurate” translation by a filmmaker who “imposed” their personal touch onto this or that element.
Certainly, there are plenty of times where this is absolutely a detriment. There is way, way too many of M. Night Shyamalan’s personal fixations in The Last Airbender, for example. And Tim Burton’s version of The Penguin has so little to do with his comic counterpart it might as well not be The Penguin at all. But, other times this can yield greatness. David Lynch’s Dune is a flawed adaptation for other reasons, but from where I sat the unmistakable “Lynchian” flare of the costume, set and creature design was more interesting than how it was described in the books.
Thusly, it’s a huge mistake for fans to resist filmmakers whose style doesn’t match up perfectly with a given property’s established look or feel, and it would be a mistake for a studio to acquiesce to that resistance and favor lesser filmmakers who’ll just “shoot what’s on the page” and bring nothing personal to the table. I’m already seeing hints of this in the reception of The Amazing Spider-Man, which is about as flat-feeling and ordinary-looking as a superhero movie can get, but is being praised by many as superior to the preceding Sam Raimi-directed installments precisely because it lacks the elements of personal vision (slapstick comedy, Evil Dead-style camera gymnastics, retro-cornball melodrama, an authentically dweeby Peter Parker) Raimi had brought to the franchise.
Sadly, because Avengers director Joss Whedon’s signature style comes in the form of staging and scripting instead of explicit visual themes, I can easily imagine it being mistakenly held up as validation of this approach. And while that means this or that beloved costume or splash-page might wind up a direct translation it also means we’ll be denied seeing what a real visionary might add. It’s worth noting, after all, that Marvel themselves took a major risk placing Thor in the hands of a director best known for Shakespearean drama and wound up making a fortune off the result.
Nothing can take being good away from a good movie, but long term legacy is only ever as good as the way it manifests. Remember, The Matrix made a then-shocking amount of money by merging an anime/kung-fu sensibility alien to mainstream audiences with a smart, risky, philosophically dense post-cyberpunk sci fi script … and the lesson Hollywood chose to learn was that every action hero needed a black trenchcoat.
Bob Chipman is a film critic and independent filmmaker. If you’ve heard of him before, you have officially been spending way too much time on the internet.