When a Spectacle is Shrunk


Yesterday was a red-letter day in my mailbox. Next to an invite from American Express and a copy of Leslie Feinberg's Drag King Dreams (ordered from swapabook.com) lay a Netflix red-and-white envelope that I quickly ripped open. Inside: The Avengers DVD that I had forgotten I'd requested.

Eureka! My evening had unexpectedly become free an hour before, and here was a cinematic event I had missed out on. What true joy! From what I had heard, on this 4-1/2-inch silver platter was imprinted the Super Heroes event of the decade. Well, at least the best one not helmed by Christopher Nolan. After all, it had a 92% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, beating out Fellini's Amacord by two points and Pasolini's Teorema by six.

I immediately elevatored upstairs, then prepared a major salad and a huge Teeccino. Settling in front of my 24-inch MAC along with my edibles, I inserted the disc, and mentally prepared myself to be transported by Marvel Marvelousness to a realm where good conquers bad, where there are copious amounts of inventive destruction, and where the visuals will employ the latest developments in special effects wizardry. All will be laced together by an unbridled intelligence, witty dialogue, and some sort of underlying philosophy that will set ten-year-old viewers on the path to becoming forty-year-old peacemongers. For example, John F. Kennedy's "Mankind must put an end to war before war puts an end to mankind."

Well, after five minutes of irksome ads for Marvel goodies, the feature began. . .with a limp. Over some ominous music by Alan Silvestri, The Other (Alexis Denisof) announces, like a Darth-Vader wannabe, "The Tesseract has awakened. It is on a little world, a human world. They would wield its power, but our ally knows its workings as they never will. He is ready to lead, and our force, our Chitauri, will follow. A world will be his. The universe, yours. And the humans, what can they do but burn?"

My first reaction was: "What the fuck's going on here!"

Not forewarned, I had no notion that The Avengers was "the sixth installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe," and I, or any viewer, really should have viewed the previous five to be up to snuff, plus read a few dozen of the comics on which they were based. But I was up to snuff, having seen all previous entries and, most importantly Thor (2011), to which The Avengers is basically a sequel -- and I was still discombobulated.

You see, in Thor, Prince Loki (Tom Hiddleston), the "brother" of Thor (Chris Hemsworth), discovers he is adopted, a revelation that aggravates him to no end and causes the young man to commit patricide. Then when he doesn't become king of Asgard, "apoplectic"would really best describe his demeanor, especially after his sibling defeats him in an epic battle.

Now in this follow-up, conceived by Zak Penn and director Joss Whedon, Loki returns and his goal is to capture the Tesseract, which is an energy source that will allow the Chitauri (see paragraph 4) to invade Manhattan and then control the universe, which is what Liza Minnelli has been singing about for decades:

If I can make it there, 
I'll make it anywhere. 
It's up to you, 
New York, New York. 

To prevent this from occurring, Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), Dr. Bruce Banner/the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Thor, and eventually Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) will have to join forces under the leadership of Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), the director of S.H.I.E.L.D. and coordinator of the "Avenger Initiative."

Of course, we all know there will be a happy ending, but why does getting there have to be so generic? There's nothing basically new in The Avengers, nothing that hasn't been done much better elsewhere. Take the early car chase scenes where the villains are escaping with the Tesseract. If you want to see thrilling highway escapades, check out the Terminator series or any Jason Bourne offering.

As for the dialog, at least you have Ruffalo and Jackson spouting lines like these:

Banner: How many spectrometers do you have access to?
Fury: How many are there?
Banner: Call every lab you know. Tell them to put the spectrometers on the roof and calibrate them for gamma rays. I'll rough out a tracking algorithm, basic cluster recognition.

(It works better on The Big Bang Theory.)

Then there's Loki, now attired as Brunnhilde in Der Ring des Nibelungen, trying to be the new Hitler in Stuttgart, Germany, where he's gotten the populace to all kneel down to him:

"Is this not simpler? Is this not your natural state? It's the unspoken truth of humanity, that you crave subjugation. The bright lure of freedom diminishes your life's joy in a mad scramble for power, for identity. You were made to be ruled. In the end, you will always kneel."

Angela Merkel might start bristling when she views this scene, but have no fear, gnadige Frau, Neo-Nazi supervillains have nothing on Captain America and Iron Man, and German honor is revenged.

But one of the most fascinating moments in the picture occurs after Thor grabs Loki out of a plane from the clutches of our heroes. Iron Man immediately pursues, and Captain America gets ready, but is warned by Black Widow to be cautious.

Black Widow: I'd sit this one out, Cap.
Captain America: I don't see how I can.
Black Widow: These guys come from legend. They're basically gods.
Captain America: There's only one God, ma'am. And I'm pretty sure he doesn't dress like that.


Ah, monotheism versus paganism. Can they exist side by side? Clearly, Thor is a god, which proves Cap'n America wrong. Or can we have an existence where both gods and a God rule side by side?

Metaphysics aside, is The Avengers a great film or just one more pea in the comic-book-industry pod? And why have Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America: The First Avenger all seemed so slight to me when I've watched them over the past year on my computer? Quite possibly these "event" pictures need a huge screen and a pounding sound system to convince viewers of their worth. After all, the folks at Marvel would hardly deny that these movies are basically products created to sell more Marvel products.

But some films work really quite well on a screen of diminished proportions including last year's Arbitrage with Richard Gere and even the more visual Moonrise Kingdom. They hold the viewer because there is more meat to chew on their bones. Even Dustin's Hoffman's Quartet, which could use a tiny bit more bite, warms the cockles of one's heart because the grand foursome of Maggie Smith, Tom Courtney, Billy Connoly, and Pauline Collins let loose from beginning to end with their well-seasoned actors' chops. And a masterpiece such as Chantal Akerman's Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles works sublimely on even an iPhone.

All of which comes down the fact that with in the next few weeks, I'm purchasing my first really humongous flat screen TV. I'm going to be prepared for Iron Man III.