Team Building Exercise

I couldn’t not like AVENGERS ASSEMBLE in the end, because where else can you see Jenny Agutter attempt to nuke Manhattan? She hasn’t wielded power like that since WALKABOUT.

And there are other enjoyable guest spots besides her 30 seconds of screen time: Harry Dean Stanton, Jerzy Skolimowski, Powers Boothe. Oh yeah. You heard right. Powers Boothe.

Of the main cast, Robert Downey Jnr has the most star wattage, and continues to have fun with the Howard Hughes goes rock ‘n’ roll aspect of Iron Man. Scarlett Johansson is most like a comic book character, in a good way, and is intriguingly understated in everything she does, whether it’s swearing in Russian, walloping elderly Polish film directors, or jiggling. And Mark Ruffalo is THE BEST. “Always have a secret from the audience” — this guy has a hulk-full. Tom Hiddleston: very enjoyable. Chris Evans provides the heart, which turns out to be crucial in what could merely be a glib, loud entertainment.

Oh, and there’s that Thor guy.

Was sort of glad we chickened out and saw this one flat, because the sheer duration/volume gave me a pounding headache, but I still enjoyed myself. The writers of X-MEN and X-MEN II join forces in the ultimate team-up! And it works, because not only are the quips of a higher than average standard, they’re wonderfully character-specific. The nicest one-liner might be Captain America, refugee from the ’40s, being pleased to actually get a cultural reference (to THE WIZARD OF OZ). But there are lots of good moments. A sequence where the Hulk violently interrupts Loki’s monologuing reminded me of a favourite moment from Alan Moore’s early Captain Britain strip, back in the day.

(Cap has a villain down on the ground, and menaces him with a huge boulder. The villain starts taunting Cap, saying he hasn’t got the guts to make good on his threat. The reader turns the page and WHUMP – Cap makes good on his threat. Refreshing, since it cuts through a time-honoured comic book cliché, where the villain always manages to turn the hero’s merciful nature to his advantage, and the hero always falls for it. We’re willing to forgive the whole murder thing in sheer relief at sidestepping tedium.)

The film is weaker on plot than it is on dialogue, action of (admittedly comic-book) character. The heroes obey comic book law by getting into petulant fist-fights with each other, which is fine, and there’s a lot of gamma-irradiated dick-measuring going on, but at the moment they manage to figure out the Hulk’s role in the villains’ masterplan, they really should have acted more rapidly to get him out of harm’s way. There are a few things like that.

But as blockbusters go, this does actually bust blocks — I know the dream of post-9:11 sensitivity to images of burning cities is long dead, but I was still slightly surprised that this movie’s willingness to, you know, GO THERE: although this is an urban apocalypse with no visible civilian casualties. That’s problematic, in a way: the airbrushing out of human death.

I was reminded of Grant Morrison’s comics, which are the only superhero stuff I tend to read nowadays. He would have had more interesting aliens though. And I recommend his book, Supergods, to those interested in this phenomenon. His thesis, that superheroes are breaking out of the comics and into every other medium, preparatory to actually becoming real, does seem borne out by a lot of developments. Clearly, the movies are in thrall to the costumed crime-fighter right now. Only a couple of Hulks and a Green Lantern have tanked, the rest have basically hit the button, box office-wise. Judging by the new BATMAN trailer, Christopher Nolan is continuing to take his series closer to hyped-up realism. When his trilogy ends, a further reboot is supposedly already in the works. SPIDERMAN is coming back after just ten years. And KICK-ASS was the first modern, “realist” superhero movie.

I read an interview with Morrison last year where the interlocutor, attempting both levity and sanity, pointed out that the superhero look, shorts and tights, was still not popular. But he was wrong: admittedly, it’s only girls wearing them for now, but I see girls in tights or leggings with denim shorts on top ALL THE TIME.

Cue Twilight Zone theme.

And cue Fred MacMurray as a superhero —

(Freudian dream from Mitchell Leisen’s NO TIME FOR LOVE)

And cue the superhero, Captain Marvel, who was actually based on Fred —


Incident at Loch Ness

Zak Penn’s film never got the audience it deserved. Herzog vs Nessie!

Supergods: Our World in the Age of the Superhero

They’re coming! And when they do, you want to be Jimmy Olsen (Superman’s Pal!) not Lex Luthor.


41 Responses to “Team Building Exercise”

  1. Great to see a clip from NO TIME FOR LOVE – surely one of the gayest films of the Production Code era!

  2. Didn’t Avengers look lifeless and flat though? The overdose on green-screen doesn’t do the atmosphere any favours. And to mount a personal hobby-horse, Joss Whedon’s debt to mid-1980s JLA comics, where screwball dialogue got welded onto superheroes and something close to Whedon-style writing is on the page fully formed before he even got into the business, was clearer than ever here as well

    As for box-office, aren’t big superhero-movie numbers driven by repeat visits by a core audience, rather than any true break-out? The trick is stretching that core to include anyone who recognises the characters involved, which Avengers may well have pulled off. Tom Spurgeon wrote a piece in the middle of the Inception Wars about how movies and TV have become the means by which we understand the cultural potency of things that aren’t movies and TV, and that’s all wrapped up in this too.

  3. Yes, it’s a bright, green-screen look. Not totally inappropriate to a comic book movie, but not crossing the line into making for an actual style. I liked the momentary use of pumped-up, acidic chroma for when a character wakes from unconsciousness. I’d like to see a whole movie that looked like that, in fact.

    The core audience for superhero movies is young people, but not comic book readers — because hardly anyone reads comics, right? What has happened is that comic book aesthetics have cross-pollenated every other media. So yes, movies kind of explain comic books to people who don’t read them, as they used to do for literature…

    I think Whedon is slightly better than the JLA writers at writing character-specific quips — most of his best bits aren’t purely “That’s a funny line” or “That’s funny because it’s so in character” but both of those and more.

    Curiously, when I looked at Whedon’s comics I didn’t find them interesting at all.

  4. mndean Says:

    If the superhero era is coming I’m sunk. I can’t be Jimmy Olsen, I’m too old. I can’t be Luthor either, mild prankster is as far as I go towards villainy. Can’t be the editor of the Daily Globe, I’m not irascible, have no taste for cigars and no desire to run a newspaper. So what does that leave? I guess I get to be one of those people who runs out into the middle of the street and points up, “Look, up in the sky!” IOW, one of the chumps who gets destruction rained upon them.

    This fashion you speak of, David, has not reached my neck of the woods, and I am happy it hasn’t. Could be as bad as the bicycle shorts fad of the 1990s.

  5. mike mccarthy Says:

    I remember where I was when I bought AVENGERS #100 (1972). For me the Avengers were about The Vision and The Scarlett Witch, who were absent from the movie. But I liked it. Of course, in making these things “real”, you destroy the fantasy of what made them great in the first place, one would presume, in the name of reaching more people. I wish Jack Kirby was alive.

  6. I think it would be fun to run a newspaper.

    My concern about supermen is, how will they treat us poor normals and subnormals. Morrison has a childlike faith that they’ll be kindly demigods like Superman, because that’s what Siegel and Schuster predicted. I slightly worry about what most of us would be like with the power to punch through walls (and X-ray vision)…

    Mike, the celluloid Kirby has yet to appear among us (And will we recognize Him when He comes?), although Glenn Kenny argues for James Cameron as the inheritor of his dialogue skills. I want to see that black bubbly radiation! I want a Fantastic Four reboot that captures the demented joy of the strip!

  7. mike mccarthy Says:

    Every time I see a Lee cameo I think of Kirby spinning in his grave. I met Kirby twice. A very sweet gentleman. That’s during the days I was drawing for Fantagraphics. Think of the books that Kirby spawned, starting with CHALLENGERS OF THE UNKNOWN. the FANTASTIC FOUR is basically the CHALLS but with Stan Lee wit. (Did anyone notice the lack of SPIDERMAN in Manhattan’s demise? Nor was there a SPIDERMAN trailer in the loud obnoxious block. I heard that Sony owns SPIDERMAN and Marvel owns everything else. Is this true?

    Thinking back on past trends in superhero comics to screen, I want to say “POP” to “CAMP” to “GOTH” and then to the current “TECH”. Is there a seventies period that I’m missing? I think the actual early seventies are missing when it comes to superhero movies.

    To make a “Kirby” film one must create backlash at the current TECH feel. It’s easier to do with animation. Pixar could do it. For the longest time I have wanted to make something akin to EQUINOX (in ‘feel’), Bet they’d turn their cells phones then, eh?

    Kirby is line weight, dynamics, simplicity. Sometimes no backgrounds, sometimes actual photos for background. Kubrick could do Kirby. One recalls Kirby’s adaptation of “2,001…”

  8. I saw the Avengers a week before the Anglophone release since it opened in several international markets at the end of April.(If this is some revolutionary way of combating piracy, its actually fairly smart). The only thing that I liked is that the movie remains an ensemble with no real main character(like Hugh Jackman is the X-Men). I liked Scarlett Johanssen and Mark Ruffalo best, and was pleasantly surprised to see Jerzy Skolimowski. But the movie is just another superhero film. It’s not a genre with leg-room, its odd that it should ideally be B-film material but its rigid and fixed where the former never is. Honestly, will we ever see an adaptation of MARSHALL LAW or MARVELMAN.

    Jack Kirby’s introduction to me came through the excellent Warner Bros. superhero adaptations as TV cartoons, produced by Bruce Timm(probably the only time they had a lengthy continuity, with a fixed ending). Darkseid was especially awesome, just his look told you everything, which is true of all his creations, and apparently the villain at the end credits of THE AVENGERS was Marvel’s rip-off of Darkseid after he moved to DC. I wonder if an upcoming Marvel film will have Ego the Living Planet, it could be Pixar’s biggest challenge.

  9. Interestingly, Mark Hamill met Kirby and said that the person he reminded him of was Samuel Fuller(director of The Big Red One)

  10. No power on earth (super or un) would drag me to see this farrago. In The New Yorker Anthony Lane compares the experience to being mugged by a gang of cheerful psychopaths with good body tone.

    Capitalism is in a tailspin. Religion is on its last legs. Nation states are crumbling by the nanopsecond. So what do the movies offer us?


    Meanwhile in the real world . . .

  11. mndean Says:

    David E., you’re sounding like John L. Sullivan! Thing is, I agree with you. But what to do? The popular screen (note I said popular) has been amping up a form of fascism for years now. It’s a surreal, inclusive fascism – racial minorities and LGBT folks can be part of the enforcement of order, too! Now we get authoritarianism in a friendly guise (one reason I quit reading superhero comics many years ago was all the contradictions that were glossed over). Politicians have already used (and been described in) superhero terms without a convulsive laugh from the entire populace. That’s scary.

  12. David E and mmdean: I’m not sure where you’re getting the “superheroes = fascism” thing from THE AVENGERS specifically. I’d be more inclined to blame shoot ’em up style action films for the trend instead.

    After all, AVENGERS has the heroes worrying about letting too much power rest in the hands of a super-spy and his unaccountable agency, a bit where an old man stands up to a god (which could have come out of a Kirby comic) to show mankind will not kneel, and a superhero who is explicitly identified with fighting fascism. Heck, it even has dialogue explicitly disdaining the use of torture to get info from an enemy.

  13. The artist who had a grasp of the inherent contradictions of the superhero was Alan Moore, and ironically he gets a very faithful-to-the-letter adaptation of Watchmen which manages to completely miss the point of the book.

    As for Miracleman et al, I think the move is now away from characters the general (young) public hasn’t heard of (Watchmen, Mystery Men, The Phantom, The Green Hornet) and towards characters who already occupy their piece of “mental real estate” — the assumption being that the public wants to have heard of the character, and have a clear expectation of what kind of fun to expect, before they buy the ticket. So that ultimately you barely need a trailer. The character IS the trailer.

    Kirby and Fuller had A LOT in common, I’d say. And a Sam Fuller film of, say, The Black Panther, would have been beyond awesome.

  14. Or THE FIGHTING AMERICAN, which is a spoof of Captain America and openly anti-McCarthy.

    I think the point of Alan Moore is that superheroes are useless and done with and the only stories worth telling in their genres is about their failures, defeat, death and exhaustion. And honestly, I feel the same with these superhero films. That they are too little too late.

    I mean you can’t have a naive idealistic cop film or a Western film since these genres are totally deconstructed, the only time you have assumptions about “Heroes” embraced uncritically are these comic book movies. They work better as cartoons or on the panel pages than in live action. I mean in Old Hollywood, such genres were looked as Serial or B- Films.

  15. David Boxwell Says:

    Nobody, no man, not even a superhero could get Colbert’s right profile in sustained close-up!

    I always sensed there was a gay creative connection to Capt Marvel….turned out it was Leisen.

  16. If you’re a Superhero there’s no way tha t you can “Fight Facism” because Superheroes are Frascist by definition.

  17. Here’s the Ulltimate Superhero Movie

    The Superhero in question is of course a tortured bi-polar sado-masochist.

  18. Well, Lawrence is a man who seeks to become a Hero, and the film is very smart at analysing the consequences and underlying weirdness of that.

    I guess you could say the superhero fantasy is about being the strongest kid on the block, but I’d say that makes it childish rather than fascist. Part of the genre is often the idea of characters having greatness thrust upon them. The more fascistic figures are Iron Man and Batman, who consciously turn themselves into superheroes. But there’s also the strand of Marvel Comics particularly which sees the mutants as despised outsiders, as in Spider-Man and X-Men. They’re all about the conflicts between post-human creatures over whether we humans should be nurtured or extirpated.

  19. Children can be quite fascistic as William Golding shows in Lord of the Flies

    Meanwhile. . .

    Anti-Topic — Punishment Park

  20. Mr. K, one film does not a genre make. I don’t want to pick on you as I think we commenters are not really so taken by fantastic ideas presented on the screen as a way to live. However, I have had conversations with people whose filmic diet consisted largely of cop and superhero films and likeminded fantasies which included a heroic all-conquering figure and their views on life were often quite skewed toward forms of authoritarianism. What was interesting is they rejected most other genres of dramatic entertainment as “boring”. I’d like to say they were after something else (excitement, thrills) in such films and were naive, but they embraced the idea of a superhero to cure societal ills and thought little/nothing of the responsibilities or consequences. In wanting to “help” society, they really wanted to control it or have someone control it to their taste, so vigilante ideas came easy to them. Any ugly consequence would be glossed over, anyone killed wrongly would be just a mistake to be quickly forgive/forgotten as their intentions were good and just. Usually, torture was considered wrong until it was right (or, ahem, “necessary”).

    I met far too many who thought like this, some who were ostensibly quite liberal (shows what a lot of meaning that word has). I had hoped adults would know better, that it was something to be grown out of like adolescence, but no. The only good thing I can say is those I spoke to weren’t the sort to act on their views directly, but some wished they could. I don’t know if this is a largely American fault or more widespread.

    Sorry for the verbosity, everyone.

  21. Verbosity at the serice of insight is always welcome. What the Fanboys want is Magic. But they’re looking in the wrong place. They’ll find it HERE

  22. mndean: Have you read Kracauer’s From Caligari to Hitler? Because I really don’t think The Avengers (or Captain America or The Dark Knight) fit a fascist mindset writ large across America. Thor or Punisher: War Zone I might be willing to grant you.

    I just find it reductive to say that superheroes are all fascist. dcairns’ statement that they are “childish” is closer to the mark.

    And if a superhero given his powers by a Jewish scientist, whose adventures were written by two Jewish guys from the Lower East Side, who debuted in a comic where he punched Hitler a year before the U.S. entered the war, counts as a fascist, then the definition of fascist is meaningless.

  23. They want magic, but they may not have the patience for mystery. And they wanted pumped-up steroidal mayhem. And some feminine interest to make that OK.

    There are a lot of barroom philosophers/phascists here too. Moore even wrote one into Watchmen, but he didn’t make it into the movie.

    One thing: the politics of the superhero movies isn’t worse than the politics of the post-Dirty Harry cop movies. And when The Avengers capture an enemy, he expects to be tortured and ISN’T, which was a great relief after 24. Torture is something bad people do.

  24. “And if a superhero given his powers by a Jewish scientist, whose adventures were written by two Jewish guys from the Lower East Side, who debuted in a comic where he punched Hitler a year before the U.S. entered the war, counts as a fascist, then the definition of fascist is meaningless.”

    Oh really? Do you want to talk about the Palestinian situation?

  25. Mr K — yes, and if we add Superman, we have another creation of Jewish artists, a defender of the people from humble origins. Frank Miller portrays Superman as a lackey of the state, which is one reading, and pits him against the libertarian crypto-fascist sadist Batman, whose individuality marks him as more honest (and Miller got a lot of credit for being ambivalent about his Batman whereas really he just loves him).

    But Morrison’s recent Superman reboot in the comics went back to his proletarian roots. One of his earliest acts was to punch a wife-beater through a wall. Domestic violence being the kind of crime often disregarded by the police, it does seem a suitable object for neighbourly intervention…

    Of course, anybody who’s been the victim of violent crime knows the appeal of these fantasies, but anybody who thinks about it should also feel that they’re unrealistic models for real-world behaviour. They frustrate even as they entice. Probably love is the answer, or something.

  26. The other thing, as Alan Moore pointed out, is that superheroes are metaphors for cowardice. Like they stand for ideals but they are owned by corporations that lied and exploited the real creators, like the Superman creators or Kirby and the people who write them never stand up for real-world injustice in their lives. Anyway, Moore doesn’t do superhero comics anymore. I quite respect him for that.

    David Ehrenstein is quite right about Lawrence of Arabia as the ultimate superhero film. As for superheroes being fascist, I think they are too inherently silly to be taken that seriously. They are entirely about themselves and their hermetically sealed conflicts.

  27. mike mccarthy Says:

    Correction: Someone pointed out to me that was Thanos at the end of the Avengers movie, not a Skrull. But the angle sure was close-up and confusing. An aside: Consider poor Billy Batson / Captain Marvel. He is weaker than Superman in power and in court cases. Superman is created by Jews who like science fiction (just like the Old and New Testament) but have you ever considered the lonely jew that makes up the word SHAZAM? Solomon is stuck with a bunch of Greeks. Oi Vey!

  28. A lot of Nazi art was very silly, so I’ll stand up for the right of superhero stories to be fascist under the right circumstances. The Punisher is fascistic, and Batman often has been. The last Christopher Nolan dances around that idea. Like the Bush administration, Batman violates everyone’s civil rights, but only because it’s a very special occasion. Questionable.

    As for the behaviour of Israel,yes, it shows no one race has a monopoly on evil (but race is an illusion anyway).

  29. +40 teenage Werewolf Says:

    I read somewhere that Captain Marvel is actually based on cowboy star Johnny Mack Brown. the Captain certainly looks more like Brown did at that time than McMurray, and Brown was a bigger star in the early 1940s as well.
    The Nolan “Batman” movies are alright, but they are not Batman. On the night of his parents’ murder, the Wayne family had attended a movie not an operetta. In later years the movie has been identified as ‘The Mark of Zorro’, as a reference to one of Bob Kane’s inspirations for the character. Batman does not ask someone else to either explain chemical formulas to him, nor does he ask anyone to whip up an antidote for him. Besides training in martial arts, he also knows science. And Batman does not have to beat up the Joker to get a confession out of him. The cartoons have gotten Batman right, the live action movies have not.

  30. No no, must be Fred — chin cleft, beetle brows, tiny eyes.

    Of course another B-movie cowboy star, Tom Tyler, got the role in the serial.

    As to “getting the character right,” I do think these figures are malleable. But also sharply defined in certain ways — they’ll bend only so far. Whedon and Penn’s characterisation of The Avengers FEELS right to me.

    If certain parties had been less risk-averse, Whedon would have made his Wonder Woman by now and might be helming The Justice League instead of The Avengers…

  31. I think the main problem with superhero movies is their pretenses of realism. As soon as you have anointed superheroes in a world that is supposed to be filled with serious stakes, the situation just becomes absurd. Like Batman is immensely silly and stupid to begin with but at least he’s entertaining when Joker just wants to copyright fish that has his smile, making it some parable about terrorism is childish. Then there’s the problem of whether it works in live-action at all.

    These comics are inspired by movies to begin with, Batman and Superman from silent cinema, the marvel stuff from 50s science fiction and the like, so its like they are taking on imitations of themselves. Tim Burton smartly took Batman to its roots in German Expressionism but the results still feel inert when compared to the real thing.

    The best film made about comics is Tashlin’s ARTISTS AND MODELS for that reason. Whereas when comics guys worked in movies, the most interesting so far is Garry Trudeau’s TANNER’88 with Altman.

  32. Yes, let me see…
    The Matrix useddesigns by Geoff Darrow. Moebius had a long association with the cinema,including designing bits for Alien.

    The Flesh Eaters is an interesting B-movie storyboarded by a Doom Patrol artist, which has a great comic book pugnacity (and the monsters are neg scratches).

    I quite like Hellboy. “I think most comic book movies are made by people who don’t like comics and despise those who do,” says Del Toro.

    Sin City for me proves the error of movies trying to clone comics. I do wish Resnais had made Mandrake the Magician. Or Fellini.

    Raul Ruiz drew inspiration from Milt Caniff, and Fritz Lang studied the comics to learn American idioms.

    Altman’s Popeye is a very interesting take on comic-book characters, not wholly successful but rather lovely. Reading EC Segar’s original increased my respect for it.

    I love Hodges’ Flash Gordon (which was nearly Fellini’s and Roeg’s).

    The correct approach to superheroes in movies should either be funny, like Kick-Ass or Mystery Men, or surreal and bizarre, as Tim Burton tried to go (his limited script sense held him back though). We certainly haven’t had anything as crazy as Morrison’s Doom patrol, with villains derived from Struwelpeter and dada.

    I’d like to know how David E fits his love of Buckaroo Banzai into his dislike of superheroes… BB is wholly benign, but he’s unquestionably a superhero in the Doc Savage tradition.

  33. Aactully he’s not. Buckaroo is simply a cool guy with cool friends. In many ways his status as a rock perfomer is more important than hios career as a neurosurgeon. And hios batle withe the Lectroids from Planet 10 is entirely collective affair. Buckaroo is the C.E.O. of the Hong Kong Cavaliers but not a “leader” in the traditional sense. His casual demeanor is a marked contrast from that of Dr. Emilio Lizardo whose acent and de meanor are a specific evocation of Benito Mussolini

  34. a fortiori, “truckin'” is not a “goose step.”

  35. But I’m not sure Doc Savage had any kind of official rank or precedence over his gang. And likewise the Avengers operate without a real leader — it’s Nick Fury’s insistence on keeping secrets that almost causes the break-up of the team.

  36. hi David, so you don’t have issues with Grant Morrisons blatent Moorcock & Moore plagiarisms?? to quote Big Mike….
    “As I’ve said before, GM is one of those who, when you come home, is standing at the fire escape window carrying out your TV. When you confront him he grins uneasily and says ‘You have a great taste in TVs, man.’ ” or maybe the familiarity is what is appealing in his worK??
    anyhow, just back from Croatia, sorry to not have done that ‘Demo’ for you yet, meant to sort it before i went but time wasn’t on my side.. yrs matt

  37. I’m unclear how much Morrison Moorcock has read. Very early Mozza (Gideon Stargrave) is clearly indebted to the Jerry Cornelius books, but I think what happened on The Invisibles is he wrote a single episode as a Cornelius tribute and somebody showed it too MM, who thought that’s what the whole series was. Morrison clearly has magpie tendencies, but that one episode was a single element in a vast and elaborate saga which was pretty stunningly original as a whole, even as it incorporated tributes and borrowings from all over.

    As for Moore, it’s maybe slightly disingenuous of Morrison to criticise Watchmen when he was happy to use the match-cut technique it popularized for several issues of Animal Man and a few other places. But Moore is a flamboyant and joyous plagiarist himself, using Ian Sinclair, William Burroughs, OC and Stiggs, and anything that isn’t nailed down. And good luck to him. Sometimes he does it brilliantly, but sometimes Morrison does it better…

  38. I love The Final Programme. I showed it to my students to prepare them for a visit by Lord Puttnam. Not sure it’s what he would have chosen to represent his oeuvre, but my second choice, Lisztomania, might not have pleased him either…

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