Of Avengers and Superheroes

Avengers Still

I was skeptical that this post by Joss Whedon on Whedonesque, a fan-run message board, was legit, but now that the Washington Post went ahead and published a story on it I feel pretty confident it was in fact penned by the director of the record-setting box office smash of the moment, The Avengers. The message to his fans is rather shticky1 but there is one nugget in there I think is worth discussing.

When “asked” about how he would feel if Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises eclipses the runaway financial success of his feature debut, Whedon had this to say:

I’m glad I made you ask that. I will feel sad. But let’s look at the bigger picture, and I can’t say this enough: THIS IS NOT A ZERO SUM GAME. Our successes, whoever has the mostest, are a boon to each other. We’re in the business of proving that superhero movies aren’t just eye-candy (they’re eye-TRUFFLES!). People seem intent on setting us against each other, and though I’m proud to be Woody Strode to Nolan’s Kirk Douglas, I think they’re missing the point. Whatever TDKR does on its first weekend, the only stat that matters to me is the ticket I’M definitely buying. Nolan and Raimi INVENTED the true superhero flick, yo. (Special mention to Jon Favreau and James Gunn.) Happy to be in the mix.

Tongue-in-cheek as his piece is2 I think this excerpt comes from a genuine place. Box office numbers have long been the bludgeoning stick of Hollywood’s power set, but that goofiness has seeped into fan culture. Which superhero is better? Well, which one had a better opening weekend? Box office, for many, isn’t just a way for big wigs to flex but a way of taking audience temperature.

I don’t that’s true anymore, chiefly because I don’t get the sense that audiences actually like these movies all that much. It feels like every few weeks a film comes out that is massively, stupendously just good enough that people come out in droves to see it. Whenever I talk to people who love big budget superhero films there is always this sense of apologism, that they love these movies because they’re not “Oscar fodder” or “great movies.” The Avengers, it turns out, isn’t just good enough, it’s more good enough than the other superhero films out there, about $500 million more good enough so far.

Whedon took the opportunity of being at the center of a zeitgeist to ply his fans with this fun “I’m still me” posting, to let them know that he is still the same nerd he was when he came into this game. I can’t help but wonder about his off-handed remark about the invention of the superhero movie though. He’s left out a major contributor to the form and I think there’s more to it than just plain forgetfulness. The modern superhero craze would not exist in its current form without the contributions of Bryan Singer, but I don’t know that fans will agree with that.

We can split hairs about the history of superhero cinema,3 but Singer’s 2000 X-Men changed the landscape of superheroes on film. Suddenly these movies could be darkly existential outings with complex characters, not the gloss and razzle-dazzle of, say, a Joel Schumacher affair. X-Men opens at Auschwitz, for goodness sake. Without fear of fan reprisal, Singer took the source material and made what holds up as a great film, perhaps still the best of the Marvel breed.

I could maybe see a world in which Sam Raimi makes his Spider-Man if Singer had never dipped his toes into comic books, but I see no way that Christopher Nolan would have ever gone in the direction he did with Batman Begins without the existence of X-Men. Singer cut the genre4 down to its core and showed other filmmakers that you can make serious work out of these layered yarns. He kicked off this movement and it seems he has gotten lost in the conversation.

Whedon wasn’t making a judgement as to who is the best filmmaker; he was simply talking to his fans on their level, reiterating accepted knowledge to fire them up. Nolan and Raimi and Jon Favreau and James Gunn (whose Super was something of a comic-lover’s wet dream inasmuch as it provided all the gooey raunch that better filmmakers know to leave out) are names that resonate with this set and get them pumped. Singer, on the other hand, is still stupidly paying for Superman Returns, a film I believe was an incredible exhumation of the oft-doomed franchise. But fans didn’t like it and Singer got the boot.5

There are so many odd accepted truths about these films, like that Ang Lee’s Hulk was a disaster or that nobody liked Indiana Jones and Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. I disagree with both of those assertions but I get sideways glances when I pronounce that fact. “You liked that?” Very much so, actually. I don’t know where these homogenized opinions came from. Did the rise of the Internet congeal opinions? Has Rotten Tomatoes infiltrated the minds of moviegoers, making movie goodness a binary metric? Or maybe things were always like this and I’ve only noticed it recently.

The Avengers, for all its heart, is only a so-so film that barely carries the mark of Whedon’s efforts. It does little to move us forward and certainly doesn’t seem like the filmmaker was able to squeeze much of his own personality into the piece.6 It’s a box office smash and it’s certainly good enough, but it’s no X-Men (or Superman Returns for that matter). I’d like to see the form elevated instead of being massaged, but ticket sales tell a different story. The more of the same you make the more money you can rake in.

I want Bryan Singer back.

  1. Most of the post is framed as an interview with a journalist named Rutherford D. Actualperson. ↩︎

  2. Did I mention he also talks about doing an Air Bud sequel in which the eponymous pup plays jai alai? ↩︎

  3. How vital was Richard Donner? Wasn’t Tim Burton the real progenitor? ↩︎

  4. Was it even a genre back then? ↩︎

  5. Now Zack Snyder, the fanboy’s fanboy, gets to take a crack at it. ↩︎

  6. Yeah, yeah, “mewling quim…” ↩︎