Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘The Avengers

The crowded circle

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Earlier this week, Thrillist posted a massive oral history devoted entirely to the climactic battle scene in The Avengers. It’s well over twelve thousand words, or fifty percent longer than Ronan Farrow’s Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation of Harvey Weinstein, and you can occasionally feel it straining to justify its length. In its introduction, it doesn’t shy away from the hard sell:

Scholars swore that comic-book moviemaking peaked with Christopher Nolan’s lauded vision for The Dark Knight, yet here was an alternative, propulsive, prismatic, and thoughtful…The Battle of New York wasn’t just a third-act magic trick; it was a terraforming of the blockbuster business Hollywood believed it understood.

To put it mildly, this slightly overstates the case. Yet the article is still worth reading, both for its emphasis on the contributions of such artists as storyboard artist Jane Wu and for the presence of director Joss Whedon, who casually throws shade in all directions, including at himself. For instance, at one point, Ryan Meinerding, the visual effects department supervisor, recalls of the design of the alien guns: “We tried to find something that, if Black Widow got ahold of one of their weapons, she could use it in an interesting way. Which is how we ended up with that sort of long Civil War weapons.” Whedon’s perspective is somewhat different: “I look back, and I’m like, So my idea for making the weapons look different was to give them muskets? Did I really do that? Was that the sexiest choice? Muskets? Okay. But you know, hit or miss.”

These days, I can’t listen to Whedon’s studiously candid, self-deprecating voice in quite the way that I once did, but he’s been consistently interesting—if not always convincing—on points of craft, and his insights here are as memorable as usual. My favorite moment comes when he discusses the structure of the sequence itself, which grew from an idea for what he hoped would be an iconic image:

We’re going to want to see the group together. We’re going to want to do a shot of everyone back to back. Now we are a team. This is “The Avengers.” We’d get them in a circle and all facing up. Ryan Meinerding painted the team back to back, and that’s basically what I shot. They’re so kinetic and gorgeous, and he has a way of taking comic books and really bringing them to life, even beyond Alex Ross in a way that I’ve never seen…But then it was like, okay, why are they in a circle? That’s where they’re standing, but why? Let’s assume that there are aliens all over the walls, they’re surrounding them, they’re going to shoot at them, but they haven’t started yet. Why haven’t they started yet? And I was like Oh, let’s give the aliens a war cry… Then one of the aliens takes off his mask because we need to see their faces and hear that cry. The Avengers are surrounded by guys going, “We are going to fuck you up.” But not by guys who are shooting yet.

He concludes: “So there is a very specific reason that sort of evolved more and more right before we shot it. And then it’s like, okay, we got them here, and then once they’re there, you’re like, okay, how do we get them to the next thing?”

On some level, this is the kind of thing I should love. As I’ve discussed here before, the big beats of a story can emerge from figuring out what comes before and after a single moment, and I always enjoy watching a writer work through such problems in the most pragmatic way possible. In this case, though, I’m not sure about the result. The third act of The Avengers has always suffered a little, at least for me, from its geographic constraints. A handful of heroes have to credibly fend off an attack from an alien army, which naturally limits how big or dispersed the threat can be, and it seems strange that an invasion of the entire planet could be contained within a few blocks, even if they happen to include the photogenic Park Avenue Viaduct. The entire conception is undermined by the need to keep most of the characters in one place. You could imagine other possible climaxes—a chase, an assault on the enemy stronghold, a battle raging simultaneously at different locations around the world—that would have involved all the major players while still preserving a sense of plausibility and scale. But then you wouldn’t have gotten that circle shot. (Elsewhere in the article, Whedon offers a weirdly condescending aside about Zak Penn’s original draft of the script: “I read it one time, and I’ve never seen it since. I was like, ‘Nope. There’s nothing here.’ There was no character connection. There was a line in the stage directions that said, apropos of nothing, ‘And then they all walk towards the camera in slow motion because you have to have that.’ Yeah, well, no: You have to earn that.” Which sounds more to me like Whedon defensively dismissing the kind of joke that he might have made himself. And you could make much the same criticism of the circle shot that he had in mind.)

And the whole anecdote sums up my mixed feelings toward the Marvel Universe in general and The Avengers in particular. On its initial release, I wrote that “a lot of the film, probably too much, is spent slotting all the components into place.” That certainly seems to have been true of the climax, which also set a dangerous precedent in which otherwise good movies, like The Winter Soldier, felt obliged to end in a blur of computer effects. And it’s even more clear now that Whedon’s tastes and personality were only occasionally allowed to shine through, often in the face of active opposition from the studio. (Of the one of the few moments from the entire movie that I still recall fondly, Whedon remembers: “There were objections to Hulk tossing Loki. I mean, strong objections. But they were not from Kevin [Feige] and Jeremy [Latcham], so I didn’t have to worry.”) Marvel has since moved on to movies like Captain America: Civil War, Thor: Ragnarok, and Black Panther, much of which are authentically idiosyncratic, fun, and powerful in a way that the studio’s defining effort managed to only intermittently pull off. But it’s revealing that the last two films were mostly allowed to stand on their own, which is starting to seem like a luxury. Marvel is always trying to get to that circle shot, and now the numbers have been multiplied by five. It reflects what I’ve described as the poster problem, which turns graphic design—or storytelling—into an exercise in crowd control. I’m looking forward to Avengers: Infinity War, but my expectations have been tempered in ways for which The Avengers itself, and specifically its climactic battle, was largely responsible. As Whedon concedes: “Sometimes you have to do the shorthand version, and again, that’s sort of against how I like to view people, but it’s necessary when you already have twenty major characters.”

The watchful protectors

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Ben Affleck in Batman V. Superman: Dawn Of Justice

In the forward to his new book Better Living Through Criticism, the critic A.O. Scott imagines a conversation with a hypothetical interlocutor who asks: “Would it be accurate to say that you wrote this whole book to settle a score with Samuel L. Jackson?” “Not exactly,” Scott replies. The story, in case you’ve forgotten, is that after reading Scott’s negative review of The Avengers, Jackson tweeted that it was time to find the New York Times critic a job “he can actually do.” As Scott recounts:

Scores of his followers heeded his call, not by demanding that my editors fire me but, in the best Twitter tradition, by retweeting Jackson’s outburst and adding their own vivid suggestions about what I was qualified to do with myself. The more coherent tweets expressed familiar, you might even say canonical, anticritical sentiments: that I had no capacity for joy; that I wanted to ruin everyone else’s fun; that I was a hater, a square, and a snob; even—and this was kind of a new one—that the nerdy kid in middle school who everybody picked on because he didn’t like comic books had grown up to be me.

Before long, it all blew over, although not before briefly turning Scott into “both a hissable villain and a make-believe martyr for a noble and much-maligned cause.” And while he says that he didn’t write his book solely as a rebuttal to Jackson, he implies that the kerfuffle raised a valuable question: what, exactly, is the function of a critic these days?

It’s an issue that seems worth revisiting after this weekend, when a movie openly inspired by the success of The Avengers rode a tide of fan excitement to a record opening, despite a significantly less positive response from critics. (Deadline quotes an unnamed studio executive: “I don’t think anyone read the reviews!”) By some measures, it’s the biggest opening in history for a movie that received such a negative critical reaction, and if anything, the disconnect between critical and popular reaction is even more striking this time around. But it doesn’t seem to have resulted in the kind of war of words that blindsided Scott four years ago. Part of this might be due to the fact that fans seem much more mixed on the movie itself, or that the critical consensus was uniform enough that no single naysayer stood out. You could even argue—as somebody inevitably does whenever a critically panned movie becomes a big financial success—that the critical reaction is irrelevant for this kind of blockbuster. To some extent, you’d be right: the only tentpole series that seems vulnerable to reviews is the Bond franchise, which skews older, and for the most part, the moviegoers who lined up to see Dawn of Justice were taking something other than the opinions of professional critics into account. This isn’t a superpower on the movie’s part: it simply reflects a different set of concerns. And you might reasonably ask whether this kind of movie has rendered the role of a professional critic obsolete.

A.O. Scott

But I would argue that such critics are more important than ever, and for reasons that have a lot to do with the “soulless corporate spectacle” that Scott decried in The AvengersI’ve noted here before that the individual installments in such franchises aren’t designed to stand on their own: when you’ve got ten more sequels on the release schedule, it’s hard to tell a self-contained, satisfying story, and even harder to change the status quo. (As Joss Whedon said in an interview with Mental Floss: “You’re living in franchise world—not just Marvel, but in most big films—where you can’t kill anyone, or anybody significant.”) You could be cynical and say that no particular film can be allowed to interfere with the larger synergies at stake, or, if you’re in a slightly more generous mood, you could note that this approach is perfectly consistent with the way in which superhero stories have always been told. For the most part, no one issue of Batman is meant to stand as a definitive statement: it’s a narrative that unfolds month by month, year by year, and the character of Batman himself is far more important than any specific adventure. Sustaining that situation for decades on end involves a lot of artistic compromises, as we see in the endless reboots, resets, spinoffs, and alternate universes that the comic book companies use to keep their continuities under control. Like a soap opera, a superhero comic has to create the illusion of forward momentum while remaining more or less in the same place. It’s no surprise that comic book movies would employ the same strategy, which also implies that we need to start judging them by the right set of standards.

But you could say much the same thing about a professional critic. What A.O. Scott says about any one movie may not have an impact on what the overall population of moviegoers—even the ones who read the New York Times—will pay to see, and a long string of reviews quickly blurs together. But a critic who writes thoughtfully about the movies from week to week is gradually building up a narrative, or at least a voice, that isn’t too far removed from what we find in the comics. Critics are usually more concerned with meeting that day’s deadline than with adding another brick to their life’s work, but when I think of Roger Ebert or Pauline Kael, it’s sort of how I think of Batman: it’s an image or an attitude created by its ongoing interactions with the minds of its readers. (Reading Roger Ebert’s memoirs is like revisiting a superhero’s origin story: it’s interesting, but it only incidentally touches the reasons that Ebert continues to mean so much to me.) The career of a working critic these days naturally unfolds in parallel with the franchise movies that will dominate studio filmmaking for the foreseeable future, and if the Justice League series will be defined by our engagement with it for years to come, a critic whose impact is meted out over the same stretch of time is better equipped to talk about it than almost anyone else—as long as he or she approaches it as a dialogue that never ends. If franchises are fated to last forever, we need critics who can stick around long enough to see larger patterns, to keep the conversation going, and to offer some perspective to balance out the hype. These are the critics we deserve. And they’re the ones we need right now.

Pictures at an exhibition

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Silhouette by Kara Walker

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s topic: “What piece of art has actually stopped you in your tracks?”

“All art constantly aspires toward the condition of music,” Walter Pater famously said, but these days, it seems more accurate to say that all art aspires toward the condition of advertising. There’s always been a dialogue between the two, of course, and it runs in both directions, with commercials and print ads picking up on advances in the fine arts, even as artists begin to utilize techniques initially developed on Madison Avenue. Advertising is a particularly ruthless medium—you have only a few seconds to grab the viewer’s attention—and the combination of quick turnover, rapid feedback, and intense financial pressure allows innovations to be adapted and refined with blinding speed, at least within a certain narrow range. (There’s a real sense in which the hard lessons that Jim Henson, say, learned while shooting commercials for Wilkins Coffee are what made Sesame Street so successful.) The difference today is that the push for virality—the need to attract eyeballs in brutal competition with countless potential diversions—has superseded all other considerations, including the ability to grow and maintain an audience. When thousands of “content providers” are fighting for our time on equal terms, there’s no particular reason to remain loyal to any one of them. Everything is an ad now, and it’s selling nothing but itself.

This isn’t a new idea, and I’ve written about it here at length before. What really interests me, though, is how even the most successful examples of storytelling are judged by how effectively they point to some undefined future product. The Marvel movies are essentially commercials or trailers for the idea of a superhero film: every installment builds to a big, meaningless battle that serves as a preview for the confrontation in an upcoming sequel, and we know that nothing can ever truly upset the status quo when the studio’s slate of tentpole releases has already been announced well into the next decade. They aren’t bad films, but they’re just ever so slightly better than they have to be, and I don’t have much of an interest in seeing any more. (Man of Steel has plenty of problems, but at least it represents an actual point of view and an attempt to work through its considerable confusions, and I’d sooner watch it again than The Avengers.) Marvel is fortunate enough to possess one of the few brands capable of maintaining an audience, and it’s petrified at the thought of losing it with anything so upsetting as a genuine surprise. And you can’t blame anyone involved. As Christopher McQuarrie aptly puts it, everyone in Hollywood is “terribly lost and desperately in need of help,” and the last thing Marvel or Disney wants is to turn one of the last reliable franchises into anything less than a predictable stream of cash flows. The pop culture pundits who criticize it—many of whom may not have jobs this time next year—should be so lucky.

Untitled Film Still #30 by Cindy Sherman

But it’s unclear where this leaves the rest of us, especially with the question of how to catch the viewer’s eye while inspiring an engagement that lasts. The human brain is wired in such a way that the images or ideas that seize its attention most easily aren’t likely to retain it over the long term: the quicker the impression, the sooner it evaporates, perhaps because it naturally appeals to our most superficial impulses. Which only means that it’s worth taking a close look at works of art that both capture our interest and reward it. It’s like going to an art gallery. You wander from room to room, glancing at most of the exhibits for just a few seconds, but every now and then, you see something that won’t let go. Usually, it only manages to intrigue you for the minute it takes to read the explanatory text beside it, but occasionally, the impression it makes is a lasting one. Speaking from personal experience, I can think of two revelatory moments in which a glimpse of a picture out of the corner of my eye led to a lifelong obsession. One was Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills; the other was the silhouette work of Kara Walker. They could hardly be more different, but both succeed because they evoke something to which we instinctively respond—movie archetypes and clichés in Sherman’s case, classic children’s illustrations in Walker’s—and then force us to question why they appealed to us in the first place.

And they manage to have it both ways to an extent that most artists would have reason to envy. Sherman’s film stills both parody and exploit the attitudes that they meticulously reconstruct: they wouldn’t be nearly as effective if they didn’t also serve as pin-ups for readers of Art in America. Similarly, Walker’s cutouts fill us with a kind of uneasy nostalgia for the picture books we read growing up, even as they investigate the darkest subjects imaginable. (They also raise fascinating questions about intentionality. Sherman, like David Lynch, can come across as a naif in interviews, while Walker is closer to Michael Haneke, an artist who is nothing if not completely aware of how each effect was achieved.) That strange combination of surface appeal and paradoxical depth may be the most promising angle of attack that artists currently have. You could say much the same about Vijith Assar’s recent piece for McSweeney’s about ambiguous grammar, which starts out as the kind of viral article that we all love to pass around—the animated graphics, the prepackaged nuggets of insight—only to end on a sweet sucker punch. The future of art may lie in forms that seize on the tools of virality while making us think twice about why we’re tempted to click the share button. And it requires artists of unbelievable virtuosity, who are able to exactly replicate the conditions of viral success while infusing them with a white-hot irony. It isn’t easy, but nothing worth doing ever is. This is the game we’re all playing, like it or not, and the artists who are most likely to survive are the ones who can catch the eye while also burrowing into the brain.

The poster problem

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Avengers: Age of Ultron

Three years ago, while reviewing The Avengers soon after its opening weekend, I made the following remarks, which seem to have held up fairly well:

This is a movie that comes across as a triumph more of assemblage and marketing than of storytelling: you want to cheer, not for the director or the heroes, but for the executives at Marvel who brought it all off. Joss Whedon does a nice, resourceful job of putting the pieces together, but we’re left with the sense of a director gamely doing his best with the hand he’s been dealt, which is an odd thing to say for a movie that someone paid $200 million to make. Whedon has been saddled with at least two heroes too many…so that a lot of the film, probably too much, is spent slotting all the components into place.

If the early reactions to Age of Ultron are any indication, I could copy and paste this text and make it the centerpiece of a review of any Avengers movie, past or future. This isn’t to say that the latest installment—which I haven’t seen—might not be fine in its way. But even the franchise’s fans, of which I’m not really one, seem to admit that much of it consists of Whedon dealing with all those moving parts, and the extent of your enjoyment depends largely on how well you feel he pulls it off.

Whedon himself has indicated that he has less control over the process than he’d like. In a recent interview with Mental Floss, he says:

But it’s difficult because you’re living in franchise world—not just Marvel, but in most big films—where you can’t kill anyone, or anybody significant. And now I find myself with a huge crew of people and, although I’m not as bloodthirsty as some people like to pretend, I think it’s disingenuous to say we’re going to fight this great battle, but there’s not going to be any loss. So my feeling in these situations with Marvel is that if somebody has to be placed on the altar and sacrificed, I’ll let you guys decide if they stay there.

Which, when you think about it, is a startling statement to hear from one of Hollywood’s most powerful directors. But it accurately describes the situation. Any Avengers movie will always feel less like a story in itself than like a kind of anomalous weather pattern formed at the meeting point of several huge fronts: the plot, such as it is, emerges in the transition zone, and it’s dwarfed by the masses of air behind it. Marvel has made a specialty of exceeding audience expectations just ever so slightly, and given the gigantic marketing pressures involved, it’s a marvel that it works as well as it does.

Inception

It’s fair to ask, in fact, whether any movie with that poster—with no fewer than eight names above the title, most belonging to current or potential franchise bearers—could ever be more than an exercise in crowd control. In fact, there’s a telling counterexample, and it looks, as I’ve said elsewhere, increasingly impressive with time: Christopher Nolan’s Inception. As the years pass, Inception remains a model movie in many respects, but particularly when it comes to the problem of managing narrative complexity. Nolan picks his battles in fascinating ways: he’s telling a nested story with five or more levels of reality, and like Thomas Pynchon, he selectively simplifies the material wherever he can. There’s the fact, for instance, that once the logic of the plot has been explained, it unfolds more or less as we expect, without the twist or third-act betrayal that we’ve been trained to anticipate in most heist movies. The characters, with the exception of Cobb, are defined largely by their surfaces, with a specified role and a few identifying traits. Yet they don’t come off as thin or underdeveloped, and although the poster for Inception is even more packed than that for Age of Ultron, with nine names above the title, we don’t feel that the movie is scrambling to find room for everyone.

And a glance at the cast lists of these movies goes a long way toward explaining why. The Avengers has about fifty speaking parts; Age of Ultron has sixty; and Inception, incredibly, has only fifteen or so. Inception is, in fact, a remarkably underpopulated movie: aside from its leading actors, only a handful of other faces ever appear. Yet we don’t particularly notice this while watching. In all likelihood, there’s a threshold number of characters necessary for a movie to seem fully peopled—and to provide for enough interesting pairings—and any further increase doesn’t change our perception of the whole. If that’s the case, then it’s another shrewd simplification by Nolan, who gives us exactly the number of characters we need and no more. The Avengers movies operate on a different scale, of course: a movie full of superheroes needs some ordinary people for contrast, and there’s a greater need for extras when the stage is as big as the universe. (On paper, anyway. In practice, the stakes in a movie like this are always going to remain something of an abstraction, since we have eight more installments waiting in the wings.) But if Whedon had been more ruthless at paring down his cast at the margins, we might have ended up with a series of films that seemed, paradoxically, larger: each hero could have expanded to fill the space he or she deserved, rather than occupying one corner of a masterpiece of Photoshop.

Written by nevalalee

April 29, 2015 at 8:44 am

How is Starbucks like the Kardashians?

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Kendall Jenner

Last month, it was announced that Kendall Jenner, one of the two youngest Kardashian girls, would become the new face of Estée Lauder. I expect that this surprised many viewers, like me, who were used to regarding Kendall and her sister Kylie as bit players in the ongoing Kardashian saga. Yet it’s only the culmination of a strategy that the show—and the family—has consciously pursued from the start, and the shrewdness it exhibits is part of the reason I find them so weirdly compelling. I should confess that I’ve kept only sporadic tabs on the Kardashians; I watched much of the first four seasons of Keeping Up With the Kardashians with one eye, usually while doing something else, but dropped it after it disappeared from Netflix. But I’m also married to a lovely, intelligent woman who has worked as a business journalist for more than a decade, and she’ll readily admit that she’s oddly obsessed by them, both as human beings and for the unexpected lessons they provide. At a time when cultural impact has been increasingly abstracted from the idea of any real content, the Kardashians are the ultimate case study: a purified model, like the Game of Life, of how faces and personalities can spread to all corners of the globe with minimal underlying substance.

And even that isn’t entirely fair to the Kardashians. To complain that Kim, for instance, became famous for doing nothing is to ignore the fact that we’ve always had celebrities who offered up little but their own attractiveness, and she brings plenty of assets to the table. Even more to the point is the fact that Keeping Up With the Kardashians is an exemplary work of its genre; after you spend an hour watching a really awful reality show, like I Wanna Marry Harry, you start to appreciate a series that at least cares enough to provide a slick, professional product. It’s often derided as a series about nothing, but that’s precisely the point: it’s an empty vessel that can accommodate whatever its subjects feel like highlighting or promoting at the time. These days, television is only one of many tubes through which people and products can enter our lives, but it remains the largest, at least in terms of the psychic space it colonizes, and the Kardashians recognize this, using their flagship show to introduce elements that will pay off in other media. In the past, this might have been a new fragrance or a book; now it’s a pair of human beings who are rapidly moving from the background into leading roles, with data indicating that Kylie now ranks as the most influential member of her family among teenage girls.

Kim Kardashian in Paper Magazine

The case of Kendall and Kylie is particularly interesting, because it shows how good the Kardashians are at leveraging their own familiarity. It reminds me a little of Starbucks, which has long embraced a model centered on its role as a third place, a location outside the home or office where customers naturally meet and converge. As soon as people are coming in for the coffee, the store’s physical location becomes a showroom where the company can unobtrusively push whatever else it likes—food, music, merchandise—to a captive, existing audience. Amazon and Uber follow much the same strategy, albeit at radically different stages in their development: once a customer base and distribution network exist, they can be used to deliver products or services that might have seemed unimaginable when the company began. In the case of the Kardashians, viewers may have tuned in initially for Kim, but over time, they’ve come to know Kendall and Kylie, who have become valuable properties in themselves by entering our awareness before we even knew it. Television is our real third place, as well as a distribution network of uncanny power, and the Kardashians have proven highly adept at using it.

This idea—that you can use an existing circle of awareness, whether it’s a store, a website, or a television show, to expand the range of the possible—feels like the fundamental branding insight of our time. You see it at work in the Marvel cinematic universe, which cleverly uses its established properties to introduce supporting characters, like Black Widow, who might later carry a franchise of their own. (At one point, there was a rumor that the third installment of The Avengers might feature only Iron Man and an entirely new cast, and the fact that it turned out to be unfounded doesn’t mean that it wouldn’t have worked.) It’s a process that functions best when it feels organic, with elements incorporated, emphasized, or discarded by trial and error, an approach to which the Starbucks model is especially suited; when it’s more calculated, as with DC’s belated attempt to create a comparable universe, it’s harder to pull it off. I don’t know if the Kardashians intended to put Kendall and Kylie front and center all along; my guess is the they probably didn’t. But once the pieces fell into place, they were more than ready to run with it. The Kardashians know, like Machiavelli, that to have a reputation for guile is really to have no guile at all, and they seem happy to be underestimated. And it’s no surprise if we see them, like Starbucks, on every corner.

Written by nevalalee

December 30, 2014 at 9:53 am

Raising the stakes

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2012

If there’s one note that nearly every writer gets from an editor or reader at one point or another, it’s this: “Raise the stakes.” What makes this note so handy from a reader’s point of view—and beyond infuriating for the writer who receives it—is that it’s never wrong, and it doesn’t require much in the way of close reading or analysis of the story itself. The stakes in a story could always be a little higher, and it’s hard for an author to make a case that he’s calibrated the stakes just right, or that the story wouldn’t benefit from some additional risk or tension. It’s such a common note, in fact, that it’s turned into a running joke among screenwriters. In the commentary track for the Simpsons episode “Natural Born Kissers,” for instance, the legendary comedy writer George Meyer watches a scene in which Homer and Marge need to drive to the store to buy a new motor for their broken refrigerator, and he drily notes: “This is what’s known as ‘raising the stakes.'”

And the fact that development executives can give this note so unthinkingly explains a lot about the movies.  Recently, the New York Times reporter Brooks Barnes circulated a fake proposal for an action movie called Red, White and Blood to a number of Hollywood insiders to see what they had to say. The response from producer Lynda Obst is particularly interesting:

The stakes need to be much, much higher. A gun battle? How cute. We need hotter weapons. Huge, big battle weapons—maybe an end-of-the-world device.

Hence the fact that every superhero movie seems to end with a crisis that threatens to wipe out all of humanity, or at least most of Gotham City. In itself, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing: the lack of a credible threat is part of what makes Superman Returns, for all its good intentions, a bit of a snooze. But after a while, the stakes become so high that they’re almost abstract. The final battle in The Avengers is theoretically supposed to determine the fate of the world, but it still comes down to our heroes fighting a bunch of aliens on flying scooters outside Grand Central Station.

2012

Really, though, the problem isn’t raising the stakes, but finding ways to express them in immediate human terms. Take the ending of Man of Steel. After an epic fistfight that destroys entire skyscrapers and probably costs thousands of lives, the struggle between Zod and Superman comes down to the fate of a handful of innocent bystanders—also staged, interestingly enough, in Grand Central Station. In principle, a few more casualties shouldn’t matter much either way, but they do: it’s an undeniably powerful moment in a movie in which the emotional side is often puzzlingly opaque. And it isn’t hard to see why. Instead of the legions of digitized fatalities in a Michael Bay movie, we’re given a good look at a handful of real people. We’re close enough to see the fear on their faces, and we care. (One suspects that Synder and Nolan took a cue from Richard Donner’s original Superman movie, in which the destruction of most of California seems insignificant compared to what happens to Lois Lane.)

And maybe it’s time filmmakers—and other storytellers—gave the world a break. In his great Biographical Dictionary of Film, David Thomson notes of Howard Hawks:

Like Monet forever painting lilies or Bonnard always re-creating his wife in her bath, Hawks made only one artwork. It is the principle of that movie that men are more expressive rolling a cigarette than saving the world.

Aside from the fact that Disney isn’t likely to show any of its Marvel characters smoking, this is still good advice to follow. You can raise the stakes as high as you want, but as disaster movies like 2012 have shown, you can destroy the entire planet and we still won’t care if you don’t give us characters to care about. Like most notes from readers, “raising the stakes” is less a way of solving a problem than an indication that deeper issues may lie elsewhere. And the real solution isn’t to blow up the world, or introduce hotter weapons, but to slow things down, show us a recognizable human being with needs we can understand, and maybe even let him roll a cigarette or two.

Written by nevalalee

July 10, 2013 at 9:17 am

Man and supermen

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Man of Steel

I’m starting to come to terms with an uncomfortable realization: I don’t much like The Avengers. Watching it again recently on Netflix, I was impressed by how fluidly it constructs an engaging movie out of so many prefabricated parts, but I couldn’t help noticing how arbitrary much of it seems. Much of the second act, in particular, feels like it’s killing time, and nothing seems all that essential: it clocks along nicely, but the action scenes follow on one another without building, and the stakes never feel especially high, even as the fate of the world hangs in the balance. And I don’t think this is Joss Whedon’s fault. He comes up with an entertaining package, but he’s stuck between the need to play with all the toys he’s been given while delivering them intact to their next three movies. Each hero has his or her own franchise where the real story development takes place, so The Avengers begins to play like a sideshow, rather than the main event it could have been. This is a story about these characters, not the story, and for all its color and energy, it’s a movie devoted to preserving the status quo. (Even its most memorable moment seems to have been retconned out of existence by the upcoming Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.)

And while it may seem pointless to worry about this now, I think it’s worth asking what kind of comic book movies we really want, now that it seems that they’re going to dominate every summer for the foreseeable future. I’ve been pondering this even more since finally seeing Man of Steel, which I liked a lot. It has huge problems, above all the fact that its vision of Superman never quite comes into focus: by isolating him from his supporting cast for much of the movie, it blurs his identity to the point where major turning points, like his decision to embrace his role as a hero, flit by almost unnoticed. Yet once it ditches its awkward flashback structure, the movie starts to work, and its last hour has a real sense of awe, scale, and danger. And I’m looking forward to the inevitable sequel, even if it remains unclear if Henry Cavill—much less Zach Snyder or Christopher Nolan—can give the scenes set at the Daily Planet the necessary zest. At their best, the Superman films evoke a line of classic newspaper comedies that extends back to His Girl Friday and even Citizen Kane, and it’s in his ability to both wear the suit and occupy the skin of Clark Kent that Christopher Reeve is most sorely missed.

Joss Whedon on the set of The Avengers

If nothing else, Man of Steel at least has a point of view about its material, however clouded it might be, which is exactly what most of the Marvel Universe movies are lacking. At this point, when dazzling special effects can be taken for granted, what we need more than anything is a perspective toward these heroes that doesn’t feel as if it were dictated solely by a marketing department. Marvel itself doesn’t have much of an incentive to change its way of doing business: it’s earned a ton of money with this approach, and these movies have made a lot of people happy. But I’d still rather watch Chris Nolan’s Batman films, or even an insanity like Watchmen or Ang Lee’s Hulk, than yet another impersonal raid on the Marvel toy chest. Whedon himself is more than capable of imposing an idiosyncratic take on his projects, and even though it only intermittently comes through in The Avengers itself, I’m hopeful that its success will allow him to express himself more clearly in the future—which is one reason why I’m looking forward to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., which seems more geared toward his strengths.

And although I love Nolan’s take on the material, it doesn’t need to be dark, or even particularly ambitious. For an illustration, we need look no further than Captain America, which increasingly seems to me like the best of the Marvel movies. Joe Johnston’s Spielberg imitation is the most credible we’ve seen in a long time—even better, in many ways, than Spielberg himself has managed recently with similar material—and you can sense his joy at being given a chance to make his own Raiders knockoff. Watching it again last night, even on the small screen, I was utterly charmed by almost every frame. It’s a goof, but charged with huge affection toward its sources, and I suspect that it will hold up better over time than anyone could have anticipated. Unfortunately, it already feels like an anomaly. Much of its appeal is due to the period setting, which we’ve already lost for the sequel, and it looks like we’ve seen the last of Hugo Weaving’s Red Skull, who may well turn out to be the most memorable villain the Marvel movies will ever see. Marvel’s future is unlikely to be anything other than hugely profitable for all concerned, but it’s grown increasingly less interesting.

Written by nevalalee

July 9, 2013 at 8:54 am

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