by KC Carlson
Apparently, The Avengers rule, as the movie has made over a billion dollars worldwide. “Oh, my stars and garters!” one famous former Avenger might say. I happen to think the film deserves it, at least a little bit, for being one of the more completely entertaining blockbuster pictures in recent memory. (Sorry, I don’t do vampires. Or sparkly, either.)
Part of what made The Avengers so satisfying was that it had a little something for everybody. Sure, there were practically wall-to-wall action and spectacularly cinematic superheroic battle scenes, but what made the movie for me was all the lighter touches, from the sparkling Whedonesque dialogue to the silly little fact that the Hulk likes to punch people when they’re not looking. The film had some of the best battle one-liners ever, as well as plenty of moments that made life-long comics fans’ hearts swell, seeing their four-color fantasies come to life (even CGI life) on a big screen.
STAN BRINGS THE FUNNY
That use of humor is in keeping with the great Marvel tradition. In the comics themselves — at least in the Stan Lee-written Silver Age, as well as a couple of the eras that followed — humor was an essential part of the Marvel experience. Some of comics’ most memorable moments for a certain generation of readers included scene after scene of Human Torch vs. Thing battles (or perhaps just their aftermath) in the pages of Fantastic Four. Few of us at the time realized that was how these “brothers” expressed their love for each other.
Plus, many’s the time that young Peter Parker had to go into battle as Spider-Man wearing something embarrassing, because his super-suit had been destroyed or (more often) was in the wash. My favorite was when Spidey actually donned long underwear (and a web mask) to take down the foe du jour. The Spidey books were filled with crazy stuff — Spider-Mobiles, J.J.J.’s Spider-Slayers, Aunt May dating Doc Ock, clones. (Okay, maybe those weren’t that funny at the time — but they are now!) But for sheer Marvel craziness, three words: Swingin’ Mike Murdock! (Look it up!)
Stan Lee also ran Marvel like a madman running the asylum. He had crazy nicknames for everybody who worked for him. (Many of which have stuck — probably into eternity. Who da King? Jack Kirby da King!) Stan made so many mistakes while writing (mostly from forgetfulness) that he eventually gave out prizes for people who could explain away the mistakes. The joke was on the winner of these No-Prizes — the prize was (really) an empty envelope, with the Hulk on the front telling you that you’ve just won a No-Prize! Is that not goofy!?! And yet they have become one of the most enduring collectibles from that era.
Most of the classic Marvel superhero comics shared this humor with a lot of flat-out superheroic action, as well as straight drama (or melodrama). As with any good piece of fictional entertainment, good comic book storytelling should contain a number of different story elements — from humor to drama to action to big emotional conflict and all points in-between. Stories that concentrate on one thing (in comic books, frequently the physical conflict) tend to be less interesting or memorable than those that mix several different elements, making for a more diverse reading experience. (Although, I do freely admit that if you are solely into comics for the artwork alone, it’s very easy to be attracted to the super-fights.)
SOMETHING TO BE LEARNED FROM FILMS THAT SHOULDN’T BE FUNNY — BUT ARE
It’s the mixture of these diverse elements that makes stories memorable. For example, in film, the Die Hard series of movies are pretty much non-stop action (and massive explosions!). What takes them beyond your typical run-of the-mill action flick is the sardonic quip machine who is John McClane, tossing off one-liners with the speed and ease of a Robin Williams. You also have interesting characters (that you care about) and situations that lead to humor — no one ever initially believes that McClane is chasing killers in mundane situations (airports, office buildings, etc.). Finally, you have the bigger-than-life heroic element of McClane doing things that obviously no ordinary human could survive. There have been seemingly hundreds of action movies trying to be the next Die Hard franchise. Most of them fail miserably because instead of balancing the mix, they just concentrate on one thing. (Usually, blowing up stuff!)
Some people don’t like the Die Hard movies because that guy just won’t shut up. That’s okay. Some people don’t like it when too many jokes mess up their “violence for the sake of violence” movies. If you’re one of them, you won’t like the rest of this article. Me, I happen to like stories that have more than just people punching or blowing up other people.
EARLY BIG-BUDGET SUPERHERO FILMS
Tonality and getting all the elements in proper balance was very important in DC’s superhero films. They tend to get it right early on and then lose it in subsequent films. For a long time, the first two Superman movies were the epitome of what a perfect superhero movie should be. They were heartwarming and humorous — but they also told a great action story that was also mythic to the lead character. And then, somehow, it all fell apart, with the too-Hollywood Superman III and the train wreck of Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, which was so poor that I no longer even remember any of the details.
The first two Batman films (the Tim Burton ones) were also acclaimed by most comics fans as spectacular. My take on them wasn’t quite so high, as I felt that they frequently placed style over substance (but what style!). I thought they had made a few too many concessions to change the characters from the comics to the films. But, in retrospect, the first two films are masterpieces compared to what was to come. Batman Forever was slightly interesting, but I would have liked to see a little bit more of Tommy Lee Jones as Two-Face and a lot less of Jim Carrey as The Riddler. The tone and balance of the film was all wrong. This was too silly.
Then I saw Batman & Robin and had to redefine “silly”. I saw it at the official DC Comics employee pre-screening with Johanna (not yet my wife). We both wanted to walk out about 30-40 minutes into the film, but we thought better of that when we realized that Paul Levitz was sitting right behind us. As it turned out, we were ultimately happy that we didn’t leave, as it was about that time that writer Peter David had had enough of the film and started yelling insults at it from his seat, just a few rows back from us. We spent the rest of the film being entertained by Peter while we (and most of the rest of the audience) were not doing a very good job of trying to stifle laughing at his witty comments. I’ve not seen the film since, despite us owning the DVD box set (which Johanna found very cheap). I refuse to watch this film again without a Peter David commentary track.
The current series of Batman films are much better, although I occasionally apply the tagline of The Dark Knight to them. “Why so serious?” They seem overwhelmingly grim to me, despite the occasional one-liners thrown out by the supporting characters, especially the acidic Alfred. I think the films have a lot to offer, but the relentlessness of them often gets to me. (When I first saw The Dark Knight, I actually thought it was over when the Joker blew up the hospital and just walked away. Little did I know that there was still most of an hour to go! I guess I just wanted it done at that point.) I don’t watch them very often.
In contrast, as soon as the Avengers film was over, people were standing and applauding and commenting on how fun it was. I immediately thought back to the very dark and grim trailer I saw beforehand for The Dark Knight Rises and thought “Uh oh.” Guess we’ll find out what folks still think of that approach in a couple of weeks.
PUTTING THE FUN IN EPIC (EPFUNIC?)
The Avengers is the latest and best Marvel film to date, and the culmination of their strategy to take more control over the movies. After their bankruptcy and the resulting rebuilding of the company, they felt they needed to make better movies, ones that represented their characters more correctly on screen. It’s been a long, hard battle, not always successful, but with each relative failure (Hulk #1, Daredevil) came eventual success elsewhere (The first Spider-Man and two seperate X-Men franchises). And now, Marvel’s movie franchises are among the strongest in film. With The Avengers, we see that they’re also extremely profitable, with more of the profits staying close to home.
Look back over Marvel’s film successes to date. Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America are all infused by the Marvel style of Stan Lee. They all know when to not take comics too seriously and when to go for the joke as needed.
Give that man a bouquet of banana peels!
KC CARLSON: I’ll really miss Agent Coulson, although I’m not convinced he’s really gone. S.H.I.E.L.D. still has LMD (Life Model Decoy) technology, and Tony Stark mentions it in The Avengers. But what I really wanna know is if Agent Coulson (as Calvin Trager) bought the Continental Sports Channel (and its Sports Night TV show) before or after he became an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.
Amazing Spider-Man cover from the Grand Comics Database.