Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Avenge Me: The Avengers and the Culture Industry


I did not think that I was going to write anything about The Avengers. This is partly because I am too busy writing, book writing, to really do much blogging, but also because I did not think anything of it. I enjoyed, but I did so in a kind of moment of absolute regression. The Hulk smashed things, Thor wielded his hammer, humorous quips were uttered, and things went boom. To quote Adorno, "It is no coincidence that cynical American film producers are heard to say that their pictures must take into consideration the level of eleven-year-olds. In doing so they would very much like to make adults into eleven-year-olds." On that level the film succeeded, I felt exactly like I did leafing through marvel comics at Comics Closet or reading comics in the back of the bus with Chip Carter. 

To continue this of Adorno's culture industry and regression a little more, one easy criticism of the film is to say that it is the culmination of the culture industry's tendency to turn everything into an advertisement of itself. Books become adds for movies, movies for soundtracks, soundtracks for videogames, etc. everything exists just to advertise something else. The Avengers takes this to a new level, starting with Iron Man in 2008 there have a series of films with cameos and postcredit scenes that have built up to this film. One is reminded of Jameson's remarks about the "becoming-film" of previews. As Jameson writes, 

"Now the preview is obliged, not merel to exhibit a few images of the stars and a few samples of the high points, but virtually to recapitulate all the plot's twists and turns, and to preview the entire plot in advance. At length, the inveterate viewer of these enforced coming attractions (five or six of them preceding every feature presentation and replacing the older kind of shorts) is led to make a momentous discovery: namely, that the preview is really all you need. You no longer need to see the 'full" two-hour version (unless the object is to kill time)."

The films leading up to The Avengers  are a kind of reversal of this, a becoming preview of film, as the films exist to promote the next film, all leading up to The Avengers. Although the crucial scenes are often after the credits, creating a kind of atmosphere of esoteric dedication. (As an aside, it is worth noting how much Jameson's remark could be "historicized." In the case of films like The Avengers we now have previews for previews. The preview as cultural form has only expanded since Jameson's remarks were written, a transformation that would have to be read against the changing dynamics of financial capital). 


The Avengers can be viewed as the culmination of this tendency of cross platform marketing. However, there are two exceptions. First, since the Jameson quote comes from an essay on finance capital, the dominant trend in blockbuster filmmaking has been a kind of "pump and dump" strategy. A film is hyped through every possible means, opens on several thousand screens, and makes big money before the critical response and word of mouth can sink it in the next weekend. It is a cycle of boom and bust. In contrast to this strategy, the whole idea of spending four years building up a film, a film that would them become the basis of future films is at least a "long con," if not a long term investment. Second, and perhaps more importantly, as much as it is possible to see this cross-branding as a culmination of movie advertising, it really reflects the medium of comics. Comics, especially Marvel comics, are as much about a "universe, " to borrow Nick Fury's line, as they are about individual characters. The Avengers can thus be seen as comic book movie more than a superhero movie. It is less about a "hero's journery" and more about envisioning a world where norse gods trade blows and insults with supersoldiers. It translates the intertextual references long familiar to comic book readers onto the big screen. When the film references Hydra, the Tesseract, or the Hulk's adventures in New York, one can almost see the footnotes or hear Stan Lee's voice reminding us of the previous films. Of course this construction of a universe was always a marketing strategy as well, as anyone who got to their favorite issue of X-Men, Daredevil, or Avengers only to find out that story was continued in some other comic, can attest. 

However, it still seems that The Avengers can seen through this intersection of marketing form and pulp culture content. This can be seen in the selection of Joss Whedon as the director, a man with little commercial viability (two canceled shows, a marginally successful movie) but a great deal of fan dedication (cult hits, blogs, and t-shirts). Much of the fan dedication is based on the fact that Whedon appears to be a fan himself, a comic book film director who reads comics. It makes sense that the general cultural reversal in which TV are the new movies would also include its own auteurs, television creators such as Joss Whedon, David Simon, Matt Weiner, etc. who are discussed and studied according to their styles.

What is interesting about the selection of Whedon, that this movie follows his much delayed Cabin in the Woods, which could be viewed as an allegory of filmmaking. In that film a group of men huddled over surveillance monitors, pressing buttons and twisting dials to construct scenes that would please unseen gods. It just so happened that what these gods wanted were the clichés of the horror film, nubile hypersexaulized teens pursued by monsters. The Avengers also has its almost unseen rulers, "The Council" and a group of men huddled over monitors in a helicarrier. The exchanges between Nick Fury  and the Council end up being about the structure of the film. The Council wants to deal with the alien threats through superior technology, while Fury prefers to assemble his team of Avengers. The exchange where the Council express concern about his group of isolated weirdos sounds like an investors meeting a Disney. "Were putting everything behind a movie about a norse god, WWII hero, and robot man?" The Avengers often wears its construction on its sleeve. The big cathartic moment, the moment that gives the avengers something to avenge, turns out to be orchestrated onscreen as much as off. The same can be true for the big final showdown. These meta-moments often take the form of debates between Nick Fury, who discusses the ideals of heroism and the need for proper motivation, and the Council, which prefers the efficiency of technology. It is hard not to see these as externalizations of the film's pitch meetings. The film externalizes the conflict between comic book geek turned director and movie studio. The final post credits scene in this case is a kind of victory of the former over the latter.

Beyond this meta-angle, the film is mostly a comic book brought to the screen. There have been attempts to argue that it is the first post 9/11 movie.  I think it perhaps more interesting to look at the way it normalizes some of the trends of the post 9/11 era, namely torture and surveillance. The first doesn't take place in the film, even though the whole film could be understood to be a ticking tesseract scenario, but it is constantly implied or assumed. There are several allusions to it, from the scene that introduces the Black Widow, to Loki's time aboard the helicarrier. Although to be fair, Thor refuses torture his brother (and ultimately returns him to Asgard to face some kind of intergalactic criminal court), suggesting that things are not so bad on Asgard. More interesting is the way the film that deals with surveillance. The Dark Knight made total surveillance a central object of its plot, and ethical hand wringing: Batman only agreed to do it in a "state of exception" to stop the Joker, destroying the technology after..  The Avengers has a scene where a shield agent simply states that they are scanning ever possible camera, cellphones, laptops, etc. to find the whereabouts of Loki. Total surveillance has fallen into the backdrop. One could take this a bit further and argue that the film's central tactical political debate, should threats be dealt with by group of highly skilled individuals or by superior technology and firepower, can be understood as some afterimage of military strategy post 9/11. However, I was too distracted by the Hulk smashing things to really follow that logic. 

One last note, I can only assume that this is why Harry Dean Stanton was cast: 


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