Wednesday, May 9, 2012


So like many others this last weekend I saw The Avengers.  Don't worry, this isn't yet another review.  Countless other comic sites and news outlets and critics have already raved about it. Reviewing it at this point seems a bit self indulgent. It’s made millions upon millions and broken box office records and is on track to break even more records. Suffice it to say, I loved it. But it sparked some melancholy feelings. What I want to talk about here is how the Avengers made me feel and it’s similarity to another film that, almost 35 years ago, made me feel the same way.

For decades now, my all time favorite superhero movie, my all time favorite movie period, was the 1978 film Superman The Movie. I went to see the Superman movie when it was first released and it changed my life. It was one of those defining moments for me as a lover of movies and comics. I had seen great movies before as well as great blockbusters. Three years earlier I had seen Jaws. Just a year earlier I had gone to see Star Wars. But there was something different about Superman. It wasn’t just another genre film. It spoke to me like Star Wars didn’t or rather couldn’t. Superman was about comics and it blended my love of film and comic books so perfectly that for decades to follow, no other comic book movie would reach that level of perfection. It was also my first experience with audience reaction.

When Christopher Reeve's Superman tells Margot Kidder’s Lois that he’s on earth to fight for “truth, justice and the American way”, audiences both laughed and cheered. But what my young brain picked up on immediately was that they weren’t laughing at Superman, they were laughing in a positive way. They were laughing at their own cynicism rather than at Superman‘s seeming naiveté . The laughter was a positive acknowledgment of Superman’s pure, honest belief in what he was saying. The audience was responding to the innocent charm of that statement. It made them happy and that level of happiness was unexpected to say the least.

This was 1978 after all. Vietnam and Watergate were still fresh in peoples minds. As were the mile long lines at gas stations during the oil shortage just a few years earlier. The economic situation wasn‘t looking too good. The days of audiences clamoring for dark, depressing fare such as Taxi Driver and Exorcist were waning. People needed something lighter. People needed heroes who were good through and through. Not hostile anti heroes but a colorful superhero who not only had the power to defeat evil, but more importantly the power to defeat an oppressive cynicism. Superman filled that bill.

Something amazing happened while watching one particular scene in the movie. The helicopter that Lois is in crashes and is teetering on the edge of a skyscraper. Lois falls from the helicopter as a crowd of onlookers gasp in horror. Out of nowhere, Superman swoops up and catches her. But the audience sees this part coming so any surprise in the scene of her rescue is tempered with foreknowledge. Then the helicopter breaks loose from the edge of the building and falls.  This is something that we don't see coming.  Superman maintains his speed with Lois in one arm and we see a back and forth between shots of the falling helicopter and a completely, almost absurdly confidant  Superman on a deadly collision course with each other. Then, with one hand, Superman catches the helicopter. That was it. The audience went wild. They not only cheered, the majority of them stood up and cheered. And even as I watched this happen, turned around to look at the audience to take it all in, I heard myself cheering.   It'’s a memory that even 30 some years later is burned so vividly into my brain that when I watch the film today it evokes some of those same feelings.

Superman would do far more amazing things over the course of the film that would evoke a positive and vocal response from the audience, but nothing like that scene with the helicopter. It’s a simple scene on the surface, but it’s full of complexity. It wasn’t just the perfect intersection of deft acting by Reeves, direction and technical skill by Richard Donner and perfect placement of that iconic and rousing John Williams score. It was more than that. The audience wouldn’t’ have responded that way if there hadn’t been some doubt, even on a subconscious level, that Superman would fail. That Superman was in over his head on this one. The audience, having lived in the world that we lived in at that time, had no faith. But when Superman catches the helicopter, faith is restored. Hope is restored. Here was someone who would save us no matter how bleak things looked. No matter how dark the lens was through which we viewed the world, Christopher Reeve’s Superman was able to dispel that darkness.

But how could an audience think that? It’s Superman after all. Of course he’s going to catch the helicopter and save the day. Good guys had been saving the day in films long before Superman came along. It’s almost ludicrous to think that an audience would have that doubt. But what Donner does so brilliantly in Superman is to bring a hero from the comic book world into the real world. The cynical world. Our world. A world that audiences of the time were up to their necks in. Drowning in. Donner brings the audience into that world, shows us crime, shows us cynicism and then shows us Superman. It’s a rather amazing slight of hand. We are tricked into doubting Superman for that one brief moment. We fall for the trick because in the post Vietnam, post Watergate world of 78, it’s easier to believe that our heroes will fail us, easier to believe in a hard world full of selfish people who do mean things than it is to believe in a hero who is good and who will save us from the bad stuff and never give up.

Prior to that moment, the only other time that I experienced anything close to that feeling was when I read comic books. Comic books took me to a world of heroes that always saved the day. A world where anything was possible. In that brief moment when Superman catches the helicopter, audiences were transported to the comic book world. It was a moment that represented comic books perfectly. The reason that no other scene in the film evokes the same reaction with audiences is that they now believe completely in Superman. With all doubt now removed they believe totally that Superman will win. Our cynicism, our dark thoughts, our doubts, our ingrained fears are dispelled. Which brings me to Joss Whedon and  The Avengers.

The Avengers takes audiences into that comic book world and removes all fears and doubts. But where Donner brought Superman from the comic book into our world and made us believe in him, Whedon’s Avengers does the reverse and takes audiences into the comic book world. There are several scenes in The Avengers that achieve the same result as the helicopter scene in Superman but the one that stands out the most, the one that is most effective, is the scene when the Hulk confronts the villainous Loki.

The Hulk is full of rage.  He’s been smashing thousands of alien invaders and is now about to face off with the main villain. But Loki is an Asgardian, his power is said to be near God like. He stops the Hulk in his tracks with his own rage. Loki is insulted that any mortal would dare to touch him, that anyone would be that stupid, let alone a brainless savage like the Hulk. Then the Hulk grabs Loki like a rag doll and flings him against the marble floor over and over and over again until a stunned Loki lays there, staring into space in total disbelief. The audience, like Loki, is momentarily stunned. Just like the helicopter scene in Superman, the audience has a lingering doubt when Loki stops the Hulk in his track’s with his vitriolic ranting. After all, only someone who could defeat the Hulk would dare to scream invective at him. Just like the scene in Superman, the audience has a lingering doubt. We are both shocked and elated by the scene. Shocked by the almost surreal, cartoonish violence, then elated that the villain is so completely and thoroughly humbled by the brainless, violent but ultimately good hearted Hulk. We the audience love the scene because we are the Hulk. We have been transformed into a comic book character and have completely entered his world and are granted the power, however briefly or vicariously, to bring evil to it’s knees.

2012 has a lot in common with the era that Superman The Movie came out in.  War is fresh in our minds. We fear acts of terrorism. The economy is in dire straits. Gas prices are high. People have little faith in their political leaders. We still deal with racism and discrimination. So it’s not surprising that movies about superheroes are more popular and more plentiful than ever. However, The Avengers achieves something that no other superhero film since Superman has achieved. Whedon, like Donner, is able to make audiences believe, able to make them have faith. Whedon, like Donner, makes us cheer. Whedon transports audiences into the world of comics just as those of us who read comics transport ourselves. Where Nolan was able to give life to the Joker via Heath Ledger and make us believe that such a being could exist in our world, Whedon takes us out of our world completely. Whedon puts us on that 9 panel page where we coexist with these amazing characters. Whether you‘re a die hard comic book fan or have never read a comic book in your life, The Avengers is currently the closest that you will come to the pure comic book experience. The Avengers represents everything that I love about comics.
Like Superman the Movie, Avengers has the power to take an audience from their cynical world and make them cheer. The Avengers removes the doubt and skepticism of 2012 audiences. The Avengers makes us believe in the preposterous, that anything can happen, that our heroes while flawed and probably not as pure as Superman (this is Marvel Comics after all, the company that pioneered the flawed “heroes with problems”) will do the right thing, always. While Superman showed us the inherent charm and innocence and goodness of comic book heroes and brought Superman into our world to give us a glimpse of what the comic book world might be like, the Avengers yanks us out of our dark, cynical world completely and utterly. We are transported to the world of comic book heroes for 2 hours and 23 minutes. We are witness to a group of very special people who, while not perfect, will sacrifice all for the little guy and save the world.  Possibly the universe.

While there are other superhero films that I enjoy, franchises like Batman and Spider-Man that I look forward to, The Avengers accomplishes something to a degree that the others can’t. Put simply, the Avengers holds nothing back. It bravely and whole heartedly plunges headlong into the unabashedly silly, innocent, good hearted, heroic world of comic book heroes. For decades I loved Donner’s Superman for its whole hearted dedication to bringing the most famous superhero to cinematic life. Avengers shows us many heroes and takes us completely into the world in which they live. The films dedication to fully realizing the tone and heart of this world for us is, to date, unparalleled.

And while I feel a bit conflicted that Avengers is, for me, a better comic book movie than Superman, I’m happy that a film like Superman, a film once so singular in it’s pure portrayal of the comic book superhero, is no longer alone on that list of perfect comic book movies. It has The Avengers to keep it company.

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