“The Avengers” and Western Civ

Posted on 2012 May 24

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Remember those college classes where the professor droned on about the European literary tradition and its relation to contemporary arts and letters? Me neither. But the prof was touching on something that hums along in the background of our culture, an ancient practice of storytelling that’s still ongoing, sending us new tales of bravery and tragedy and struggle and triumph. That time-honored custom has lately presented itself in the surprising form of a superhero action film.

Major motion pictures about comic-book characters are not for everyone. After all, such movies are aimed at kids, right? Well, not exactly; not these days. If you’re more of a Woody Allen aficionado than a Spider-Man fanboy, please bear with me, and I’ll explain why the action film “The Avengers” might be part of an honored storytelling tradition.

Scholar-critic Herman Northrop Frye in 1957 famously divided the literature of Western civilization into several sub-types, including “mythic” (battles between gods), “romantic” (exploits of extraordinary heroes), “high mimetic” (imitating life’s high-functioning people as they wrestle with difficult situations), “low mimetic” (imitating ordinary people’s travails) and “ironic” (the tragic screwups of doofuses; or, say, Franz Kafka’s characters turning into cockroaches). Frye prophesied that literature, having cycled through these formats and plumbed the depths of despair in the “ironic” phase, was now ready to come full circle and again embrace the mythic and romantic. The success of Harry Potter novels, vampire books, and literary science-fiction seem to favor Frye’s theory.

Much of modern storytelling has migrated to film. Before the invention of advanced computer graphics, though, superheroes and their deeds were hard to depict onscreen, so that most early comic-book movies looked slightly ridiculous. Today’s Batman or Superman, on the other hand, can perform amazing cinematic feats that appear totally realistic, while their fantasy worlds can be evoked onscreen to perfection. This process requires huge outlays of cash, and producers hedge their expensive bets by hiring the best actors and writers and directors. Overall, then, the quality of comic-book superhero movies has gone way up.

For a film to earn a billion dollars at movie houses, usually it must feature high-tech visual wizardry, lots of action, and story lines about the end of the world or alien invasions or titanic battles or mythic sagas. “Star Wars”, “Star Trek”, “Lord of the Rings”, “Avatar”, “Twilight”, “The Hunger Games”, “The Dark Knight”, and, now, “The Avengers”, fall within this category. (“Gone with the Wind”, arguably the first movie blockbuster, was itself a massive, action-packed Civil War saga with big stars and expensive production values. “Titanic” was similarly large in scope and expense.) These films have broad, even universal, appeal. You can pooh-pooh fantasy-action movies all you want, but they strike loud chords in a significant fraction of humanity. Something hugely appealing is being presented onscreen.

“The Avengers” affirms Frye’s prediction that storytelling — even if in comic-book or cinematic format — has swung around to embrace the ancient mythic and romantic forms. “The Avengers” manages to incorporate those, as well as the “high mimetic”, with its epic battle between Norse deities that pulls in superheroes and highly skilled normal humans.

The story pits the god Loki and his army of minions against Earth and its protectors, the Avengers. One of the Avengers is himself a god — Thor, brother of the alienated Loki — while two are genetically enhanced humans: World War II’s Captain America, thawed out after 70 years frozen in sea ice; and The Hulk, a Jeckyll/Hyde type known for his periodic, massively destructive rampages. Three more are highly skilled normals: Hawkeye, a supremely proficient archer; Black Widow, an ex-Soviet spy who now plies her world-class skills for the West; and of course Iron Man, a prickly genius of an arms tycoon who dresses for battle in a robot-like suit of flying weaponry.

The film looks gorgeous; the action sequences and battles are breathtaking; the pace is breakneck. Many of the stars are big names in cinema: Robert Downey, Jr., Samuel L. Jackson, Scarlett Johansson, Mark Ruffalo. The rest are fast becoming household names simply by virtue of this film.

None of these arguments will change the minds of diehard cinema skeptics who prefer their entertainment more subtle or existential. And normally I wouldn’t argue with them, except “The Avengers” has two qualities required for any classic film — great writing and great directing. And both are embodied by the brilliant and witty Joss Whedon.

Whedon cut his teeth on his darkly humorous TV fantasies “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”, “Angel”, “Firefly”, and “Dollhouse”. With co-writer Zak Penn, he has written a script that manages to be epic and funny, exciting and thought provoking, cynical and inspiring.

His direction brings out the characters’ flaws and yearnings and guilts and redemptions. Mostly, though, Whedon evokes off-the-cuff humorous interactions between extremely bright and adventurous and dedicated people — people we might want to hang out with, people who are braver and more talented than we are, people who ache and bristle and screw up just like the rest of us yet have the wit to communicate with snappy humor.

A few examples:

Tony Stark (Iron Man), discussing Avenger boss Nick Fury: “He’s a spy, he’s the spy! His secrets have secrets!”

Thor, defending Loki: “He is my brother.” Black Widow: “He killed eighty people in two days!” Thor: “…He’s adopted.”

Bruce Banner (The Hulk), pondering Loki: “That guy’s brain is a bag full of cats. You can smell crazy on him.”

Loki gets in a riposte now and then. When Nick Fury declares, “We have no quarrel with your people,” Loki replies, “An ant has no quarrel with a boot.” Ouch.

Thor asks Loki why he wants to conquer humanity: “You think yourself above them?” Loki: “Well, yes.”

And when Loki’s plan comes to fruition and Earth is attacked at Manhattan by the alien army, Nick Fury protests the government’s determination to nuke the city: “I recognize the council has made a decision, but given that it’s a stupid-ass decision, I’ve elected to ignore it.”

At the height of the ferocious battle for Manhattan, Hawkeye radios in: “Thor’s taking on a squadron on Sixth.” Iron Man, overwhelmed by his own attackers, replies, “And he didn’t invite me!”

Okay, that last bit has been done before. But I’m reminded of Wagner’s Valkyries (back when opera was the blockbuster storytelling entertainment of the day) who swoop spectacularly from the sky on horseback to collect the souls of slain warriors for an army of the dead, all the while talking smack: “I’ll just graze my horse over here among the bodies.” — “Hey, your dead soldier is picking a fight with my mare!” — “Well, let the soldier graze somewhere else, ha-ha.”

Ah, Wagner, the jokester. Anyway, even cornball humor has its place in the history of epics.

. . . So go ahead, have some fun, set aside Proust and Prufrock for an evening, let your hair down, and indulge in a childlike pleasure that has a lot more of the adult in it — and more than a snippet of timeless literary tradition — than you might expect.

Besides, as Hulk would say, “The Avengers” is a “SMASH!”

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Posted in: The Arts