The Avengers: Kicking Ass and Selling Tickets

May 09, 2012

Multiple Pages
The Avengers: Kicking Ass and Selling Tickets

It was a bad weekend for Nicolas “The American in Paris” Sarkozy but a great weekend at the global box office for what the French sniffily call l’empire américain’s hyperpuissance.

Marvel’s The Avengers, a comic-book movie featuring a half-dozen old-fashioned superheroes such as Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), and the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), start out sparring before joining forces.

The Marvel Studios movies, going back to Downey’s triumphant performance in 2008’s Iron Man, have illuminated how America’s dominance of international pop culture is intertwined with its military might.

In Bryan Singer’s 2006 Superman Returns, the Man of Steel’s catchphrase “truth, justice, and the American way” was toned down to “truth, justice, all that stuff” to avoid offending more tender sensibilities at home and potential ticket-buyers abroad. But from Iron Man’s opening scene depicting reactionary weapons-maker Tony Stark and some GIs rocking and rolling across Afghanistan’s plains, Marvel has been confident in the box-office brawn derived from the military-industrial complex’s renown for ass-kickery.

“This is a prime cut of Big American Moviemaking.”

Today’s youth aren’t really into rebellion and outlawry. They fantasize about organization—the more awesome, the better.

Perhaps all those The Making of… documentaries included on DVDs inculcated a love of military precision. A movie set is a sort of pretend military operation with the director as the commanding officer. (But you can’t enlist unless your uncle was in the union. And what neither the recruiters nor the documentaries tell you is that the main sensation of both is Hurry Up and Wait.)

Much of The Avengers, therefore, takes place on a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier that flies. It’s not powered by some cost-effective superpower, either. Instead, it hovers due to colossal helicopter rotors that look like a project on which Lockheed Martin would run $500 billion over budget.

Whedon’s fictitious Helicarrier is equipped with J-35 vertical landing fighters, a quasi-real warplane first seen in the 2007 blockbuster Live Free or Die Hard, but which remains, five years later, still in flight tests despite its estimated $1.5-trillion lifetime cost. Every Pentagon gizmo in The Avengers had me scratching my head and wondering: How much am I going to be paying in taxes for the rest of my life for this boondoggle?

I often confuse Whedon with J. J. Abrams (Star Trek), the twin kings of Comic-Con. Both sci-fi auteurs are gigantically energetic storytellers who grew up in showbiz. (Whedon’s grandfather was a Leave it to Beaver writer.)

Whedon is the one who looks much like the Marvel Universe’s Agent Coulson (played by Clark Gregg, son of an Episcopalian minister). Typically in movies, this kind of bland government operative is automatically sinister (for example, Hugo Weaving’s Agent Smith in The Matrix). But Agent Coulson is Whedon’s surrogate, a nice guy fanboy (he hopes Captain America will sign his superhero trading cards) with whom audiences identify.

The notion of a movie-military-industrial complex can also shed light on the strange career arc of Jeremy Renner, who isn’t getting any handsomer but is getting richer. He plays Hawkeye, ace archer and the second of three big-budget American secret agents Renner will have portrayed in the span of twelve months (Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol late last year and The Bourne Legacy upcoming). The ascent of the stumpy Renner is a bit like Humphrey Bogart’s improbable late-in-life transformation from society scion to tough-guy leading man. Renner rather looks like a hillbilly Bogie.

Renner’s fine performance as Sgt. Will James in The Hurt Locker apparently associated him in the Hollywood collective mind with American imperial muscle, and how its military servants tend to be the highly competent guys from Nowheresvilles such as Renner’s hometown of Modesto, California.

Perhaps this isn’t the real Renner, but he’s a fine enough actor to pull it off.

The Avengers obliterated Harry Potter’s opening-weekend box-office record with a total domestic take of $207 million. Including overseas receipts, its current box-office haul is over $650 million.

Remarkably, The Avengers might deserve the billion-plus it will rake in. Granted, Loki, the Wagnerian villain with a horned helmet and an Old Etonian accent who was inherited from the prequel Thor, makes a forgettable bad guy. Alan Rickman did the evil German with aristocratic English diction better in Die Hard.

Still, writer-director Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) has turned this convoluted marketing conceit—upon which hangs the fate of a decade’s worth of sequels and plastic crud merchandising—into a highly entertaining film. This is a prime cut of Big American Moviemaking. It’s funny, well-acted, and emotionally gripping (at least for its 155-minute running time; the plot had pretty much evaporated out of my skull by the time I reached the parking lot).


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