Do you remember a few years ago when everyone was wondering whether the comic book franchises were running out of steam? When we couldn't believe they were plumbing the depths with such dross as Daredevil and Ghost Rider? Even X-men had run its course and the Superman Returns reboot had failed to set the world on fire. Christopher Nolan's Batman films seemed at this point like the exception that proved the rule that comic book movies could be good or bad but they never made great films. Aside from the dubious attractions of camp and nostalgia, and the opportunity for the various special effects departments to showcase their latest ingenuity, the films themselves were what? did what? If they disappeared, if they stopped making them, if Marvel somehow disintegrated because of the accidental unleashing of some terrible power unknown to human scientists, we could have got our silliness kick from something else. But then came Iron Man, Thor, Captain America and now The Avengers. None of these films are bad (I omitted Iron Man 2 so I could make that statement). In fact, for my money, Captain America was actually very good. It seemed aware of itself as a glossy but necessary lie, a lie that nevertheless has a human cost. It brought that out and, despite its ludicrousness, there were moments that were genuinely touching.
It feels right then that The Avengers relegates Captain America to a stuffy one dimensional do gooder to act essentially as the foil to Robert Downey Jr.'s increasingly obnoxious Tony Stark. This effectively sets out the stall of the film: post-modern high jinks. The necessary lie runs through all comic book films, from the apparently essential disguise be it Clark Kent, or the costume; to the innocence of Harvey Dent in The Dark Knight Rises; to the lie of the bloodied personal items that Samuel L. Jackson uses to motivate his team. There are deeper lies in The Avengers. American intervention in the Third World is benign cf. Bruce Banner; the Russians are still our enemies cf. Black Widow. Friendly fire is inevitable cf. Hawkeye. The world is ruled by a shadowy council who can't seem to get their web cameras to work who are willing to nuke New York in order to win the war. The war?
As with The Dark Knight, there are many visual references to 9/11, but The Avengers has a knuckle headed Transformers like joy in destruction. There attempt to save New York seems to consist in destroying a large part of it. The rescuing of people from a bus is supposed to stand for a wholesale rescuing but who were in those streets, where did the people in those buildings go? 9/11 has become a whizz bang moment of history, a great special effect that can then justified mayhem elsewhere.
The film is smart, fun and witty entertainment. Thumbs up certainly on that front. But George Orwell told us we can't just admire a wall for being well built and ignore whether it surrounds a concentration camp or a garden and so you have to ask a few deeper questions. More people are going to watch this film than will watch all the films of Ken Loach put together. So the political and ideological messages inherent in this have to be unpicked. Especially because there is no better way of getting a political message across than pretending this has nothing to do with politics.
Here's a couple: what is our relationship to Tony Stark following the financial crisis? Isn't this exactly the kind of asshole who got us into the fix? Isn't the irony and the wit a way of getting what he always wants? And isn't this character the death of a great actor, who seems to be playing Tony Stark in everything now (his Sherlock Holmes for instance)? And what is it with Loki's Nazi stuff? Many of these superhero films come back to the Nazis: X-Men, X-Men First Class and Captain America. The reference in The Avengers appears to be a pre-emptive: as if to say Superman but not that Superman. And yet the message of all these films is essentially Nazi. There are the chosen ones with special powers and the rest of us get to run about screaming. The chosen ones protects us from nasty horrible inhuman forces whose motivation is to turn us into slaves or whatever. Any criticism of these figures is shown to be 'political' and, in the context of the film, ungrateful.
And I suppose I am ungrateful. I did enjoy the film. No doubt about it. But you have to ask some questions don't you?
John Bleasdale is a writer. His work has appeared in The Guardian, The Independent, Il Manifesto, as well as CineVue.Com and theStudioExec.com. He has also written a number of plays, screenplays and novels.