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I devoted this week’s Escape to The Movies to Marvel Films’ grand, still-in-progress Avengers experiment: Not only the first superhero team up live-action movie, but also the first time a series of (non-comedy) movies with wildly different tones and “rules” are being positioned up-front as taking place in the same “world.” Iron Man, a “hard” sci-fi actioner (nothing more “out there” than exoskeleton armor,) officially takes place (via cameo) in the same universe as The Incredible Hulk, a “soft” sci-fi monster flick where getting zapped by radiation turns you into Shrek, which is also haunted by the presence of Captain America in the eerie allusions to WWII experimentation. And soon enough, their shared universe will include Thor – as in, The Ancient Norse God of Thunder.

I wonder if people realize how significant this is. The potential of an idea like The Avengers as a universe-fusing movie is nothing less than the potential of a movieverse wholly decoupled from “rules.” Think about it: Once audiences worldwide have digested the idea that Iron Man – “hard” sci-fi or not – is best buddies with irradiated ogres, Viking gods and time-displaced war Heroes, what’s to stop him from tussling with the odd warlock or alien invader in his own series? This is the potential: Movies where anything can happen. It’s bold, it’s exciting… and it’s completely unrealistic.

Thank the gods.

If there’s one thing I wish I never had to read again, it’s another mopey lament for the passing of realism from the movies. You hear it all the time now, the idea that the subject matter and the very style of moviemaking is tumbling down some long slippery slope away from some mythic peak era when a commitment to gritty realism reigned supreme.

The peak era in question is, for the most part, also known as “The 70s,” the vaunted era in American movie history when the collapse of the studio system briefly allowed a ragtag generation of seasoned “B” filmmakers and idealistic film students to take over the asylum.

The ur-text of “70s Film Deification” is Peter Biskind’s omnipresent, essential (once you get past it’s obvious biases) book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, which laid down the basic fall-from-grace narrative from which the modern realism complaint now descends: The Holy 70s were destroyed by Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, filmmakers for whom the movie world held greater fascination than socio-political relevance and fantasy appeared to trump reality. To be fair, Biskind’s sprawling story ultimately drops the lions share of the blame on the more relevant members of the so-called Movie Brats being undone by fate and their own self-indulgence, but the broad notion of Jaws and Star Wars as the apocalyptic events that brought down the gritty, grownup realism of the 70s has endured.

Some of this, of course, is a generational thing: I was born in 1981, making the Jaws, Star Wars and Raiders the beginning of the movie world I’d grow up in rather than the end of whatever had come before. I’m also, of course, an unrepentant geek. Either way, this combination of factors tends to place me somewhat outside the broader spectrum of film writers (though it’s become a rather crowded outside, as of late) in as much as I don’t have any real issue with movies trending toward the unrealistic. In fact, it’s a prospect I wholeheartedly endorse.

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As I may have said before, I don’t particularly care for reality. It’s an unpleasant place full of horrid people (aka “people”) and not a single dinosaur, alien or even unusually large gorilla to be found. Frankly, I’m glad to be living in a time when the only successful political war movie is set on Pandora, the only successful terrorism movie is the one where the terrorist is The Joker and where – just recently – damn near every youngish white guy in Hollywood was fighting it out over who got to star in the life story of WWII hero… Audie Murphy? George Patton? Nope – Captain America. No complaints here.

But that’s me.

One of the most vociferous of the “what happened to realism?” contingent is critic/commentator Jeffrey Wells, whose Hollywood Elsewhere blog is a must-read both for its film commentary and the spectacle of Wells’ rebel-yell outbursts against the depressing cluelessness of the average movie audience (on which we’d essentially agree) and the geeking of American film (on which we would not). In an early, unexpectedly positive (for Wells) reaction to Kick-Ass, he provided a fairly perfect crystallization of the argument:

It’s gotten to the point that I’d like to arrest and incarcerate every last geek-pandering filmmaker and every last pudgy-bodied, ComicCon-attending comic-book fan and truck them all out to re-education camps in the desert and make them do calisthenics in the morning and swear off junk food and straighten their heads out about the real value of great action movies, and how their stupid allegiance to comic-book values is poisoning the well.

Wells wrote that on April 1st in a piece titled “Geek Apocalypse”, later expanding with: “The vast majority of action films used to live by the realism creed. Now it’s pretty much the exception to the rule. Many if not most action films these days are committed to the willfully surreal if not absurd. They’re all angled towards aficionados of Asian sword-and-bullet ballet.”

Now, look, for all the flowery language on any end of this, the fact remains that we’re basically talking about asthetic preferences. From where I stand, the idea that a movie – an action film in particular – looks or plays out like some grand mélange of comics, videogames and Asian martial arts asthetics makes me more inclined to check it out, whereas for critics of the above temperament it’s often a license to dismiss it out of hand. But what stood out to me in particular was the “lost greatness of the realistic age” encapsulated in this passage: “The vast majority of action films used to live by the realism creed.”

Now, that sounds like it’d be the case, and depending on how narrow a net you want to cast in terms of era and geography it might be situationally correct. But in terms of film history, it’s just not true.

The fact is realism – especially in the action genre – has been the exception for almost the entirety of film history. Thomas Edison and George Meirelles – who ought, fairly, to share credit for the invention of what we think of as The Movies – invented special-effects trickery and reality-warping abstraction right afterwards.Action heroes of the silent era like Douglas Fairbanks (to say nothing of comedians like Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd) performed death-defying stunts and feats of superhuman strength frequently augmented by editing tricks or perspective-decieving sets. German expressionist silent directors sent their actors tumbling through surreal worlds of nightmare imagery and warped angles with little or no rationale in the story.

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This didn’t change much with the sound era: In The Adventures of Robin Hood, Errol Flynn makes a dramatic slide down a three-story curtain – and since no human being could likely do that in reality, he was assisted by a solid slide hidden beneath the fabric. Johnny Weismuller swung through the jungles as Tarzan: The Ape Man on “vines” of sturdy stunt cable. In the golden age of musicals, people burst into elaborate song and dance choreography right in the middle of the otherwise normal plot. Cowboys from Roy Rogers to John Wayne engaged in running gunfights and spectacular horse stunts with falls that’d easily kill you if took them without meaning to in the real world. Realistic? Hell no, it was a movie!

And that’s only speaking of American/European cinema – in the national film histories of China, India, Hong Kong, Japan, and so forth, realism of the kind so lamented in the West now never took much substantial hold. On a complete enough timeline, it becomes increasingly apparent that the gritty realism so many seem to miss was essentially a fad that a slim majority of American filmmakers went through for about a decade once upon a time, between longer periods of a default to un-reality.

Today, this fetishism for “the real” most annoyingly survives in the form of arbitrary walls separating one genre from another – the notion that the various unrealisms must at least be kept separate from one another: James Bond can do some improbable action stunts, but the cyborg henchmen and scifi weaponry of 007’s past is now verboten. Dr. Doom menaces The Fantastic Four as a corporate executive rather than as castle-dwelling ruler of Transylvaniaesque fictional country, while planet-devouring Galactus had to be changed from a godlike giant into, er… the weather. (Seriously: Fantastic Four 2 ends with the superheroes fighting a cloud.) In comics, The X-Men fought aliens, wizards and dinosaurs. In the movies? Mutants and only mutants – so Juggernaut loses his nifty “muscle powers from magical ruby” origin and is instead just some guy with the mutant power to reference to moronic internet memes. Even Star Wars wasn’t immune – Lucas stripped the spiritualism and magic from The Force and replaced it with a scientific explanation about Midichlorians.

Science must never touch magic, magic must never touch action … it’s all so ultimately pointless when what we’re talking about is only ever at best a representation of reality. No film camera precisely mimics the human eye, and reality has always lacked editing and a soundtrack. Film becomes unreal the moment it becomes film. So why obey these ultimately meaningless boundaries not only between reality and unreality but between levels of unreality? Arthur C. Clarke provided one of the all-time great justifications for ignoring these divides: that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” but hardly anyone bothers to use it.

And this is why The Avengers – at least, the idea of The Avengers – has me so cautiously hopeful. Maybe this will be the one that smashes down all the walls, tears up the book and declares that the New Rule is that movies and moviemakers get to make their own rules. No more artificial boundaries, no more “you can’t do that,” no more “wrong genre.”

Imagine a world where the only explanation anyone would ever need for the most bizarre, out of left field thing to unfold onscreen in any given movie were the words: “Feature Presentation.” That would be a reality I just might be able to stand.

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.

Bob Chipman
Bob Chipman is a critic and author.

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