Friday, November 07, 2014

The Avengers: The Next Generation

For the past several weeks, fanboys and girls, a variety of geeks, and corporate execs and their usual trains of cronies at both Warner Bros. and Disney have been involved in a strange sort of cultural orgy after several (sort of) major developments in the ever-expanding genre of comic book movies.

With an almost orgasmic glee, Disney and Marvel released their upcoming superhero movies up to the third and fourth Avengers films, spanning all the way until 2019.  No to be outdone, Warner Bros. and DC announced their slate of superhero films to be released until 2020, well after the predicted time period where we'd have self-tying laces on our shoes, miniature hair dryers in our jackets, floating boards of moulded plastic, and an entire new legal industry based on the unforeseen (but undoubtedly substantial) liability issues involved in the widespread proliferation of flying automobiles. Assuming we all survive the onslaught of Skynet and various murderous cyborgs (not to mention the latest TERMINATOR sequel, which will be an ordeal in and of itself), audiences will be "treated" to a literal slew of superhero films, an onslaught in its own right.

With gauntlets having been thrown down and contests of pissing in full swing, Marvel sought to once again turn attention back to itself with the release of the first trailer for the upcoming AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON.  That trailer was--somewhat unpredictably--hacked and released online in advance of Marvel's regularly scheduled programming.  Unlike most governments, Marvel, apparently, has no qualms about negotiating with terrorists, and to combat the low-quality of the trailer that was released, they went ahead and released their HD-quality trailer so as not to offend the ocular nerves of the general public:

And then, in order to boost viewership for its Agents of Shield television show as seemed to be their strategy all along, they released a slightly extended version of the Hulk's penis the trailer based on the original release date:

I am not exactly the biggest fanboy of the Marvel cinematic universe (MCU).  The majority of their films to date have been mostly middle-of-the-road popcorn movies large on bright colours and explosions and small on depth or character development, with the first IRON MAN and THE AVENGERS being somewhat notable exceptions.  (Full disclosure: I have yet to see CAPTAIN AMERICA: WINTER SOLDIER or THOR: THE DARK WORLD, which may have been cinematic masterpieces ahead of their time.  If so, my apologies...).  So, while I am looking forward to the next Avengers movie, I am still of two minds about the video evidence presented thus far.

The first thing I noticed, and a lot of other people on the Internet noticed, was how the trailers seemed to signal a "darker" turn for the titular heroes of AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON.  And by that I mean darker thematically, because the visual palette employed by Whedon seems to be the bubble-gum rainbow of primary colours in scenes practically bathed in light.  At first glance, it wasn't hard to see how this new AVENGERS movie is taking several cues from (arguably) the best superhero movie to date, THE DARK KNIGHT.  Even the delivery of some of Ultron's lines by the one and only James Spader were reminiscent of Heath Ledger's Joker.  (The line, "I want to show you something... beautiful," might as well have been salvaged from the floor of the editing room of THE DARK KNIGHT.  Try reading that line in the Ledger Joker voice that you still practice when you think nobody's around and you'll see what I mean.)

And I hope it does.  AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON taking lessons learned from THE DARK KNIGHT (the movie or the trilogy as a whole) would, I feel, result in a much better end product than we might have gotten otherwise.  And taking a random sampling from any corner of the Internet where such things hold weight, and the AGE OF ULTRON trailer is getting heaps of praise, not the least of which is for it's "darker" tone.

When reading this analysis, I couldn't help but be reminded of the criticism levelled against Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy just a few short years ago alleging that those superhero movies were "too dark" and that what the genre really needed was more light-hearted fun and excitement.  Unfortunately, the way these arguments were constructed, the terms "dark" and "light" seemed to become more, and more synonymous for "substantial" and "mindless eye candy."

For me, the archetype of "fun but substantial" is perhaps best embodied by a film like RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK.  Nobody's going to argue that RAIDERS was Shakespeare (a much fairer assessment might be "B-movie archetype elevated by visionary director"), but it perfectly captured a spirit of adventure while still having enough meat (not chilled monkey brains) in the characters, plot, and themes for ravenous audiences to sink their teeth into.  If you're not willing to venture into the land of the substantial that Nolan did, then the "happy medium" might be some level of substantiality to at least anchor the more ludicrous narrative elements for audience members who enjoy .

I was struck, I thought, by the foul stench of hypocrisy; undoubtedly, some of the same people who had complained about superhero films being too dark were now praising AGE OF ULTRON for going darker.  But, as a good friend pointed out, it wasn't necessarily hypocrisy from fans entrenched on a certain side of the Marvel/DC divide.  It was more a sense of general human fickleness.  People want what they don't have.  Ever since Nolan ended his reign in the realm of comic book films, mostly all that audiences of the genre have had to chew on have been Marvel's cinematic love letters to themselves focusing on more light-hearted vintages of visceral excitement.  Now that the pendulum has swung so far in that direction, it makes a great deal of sense why audiences are now clamouring for something different.

I can only hope now that audiences are also clamouring for character development and thematic and narrative cohesion.  I've definitely come to be swayed by Whedon's talents in recent years, and he's proven he can deliver.  The questions that need to be answered then are what and to whom?  Unfortunately, a lot of it comes down to the market.  Nobody's going to pay for a pizza he didn't order.  Let's just hope we don't end up with the same generic peperoni-only pies that are all we've had access to for so long.        


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