The Avengers and the Multi-Film Franchise [May 7-11, 2012]
by Alisa Perren — University of Texas at Austin
May 06, 2012 – 13:30
Monday, May 7, 2012 - Jim Mroczkowski (iFanboy) presents: The Avengers and the Evolution of the Multi-Film Franchise
Tuesday, May 8, 2012 - Roger Whitson (Washington State University) presents: Joss Whedon’s The Avengers
Wednesday, May 9, 2012 - John A. Sweeney (University of Hawaii at Manoa) presents: I have an Army/We have a Hulk: Thinking Politics in The Avengers
Thursday, May 10, 2012 - Zaki Hasan (Zakiscorner.com) presents: THE AVENGERS: The Rise of the Superhero Movie and the End of Superhero Comics
Friday, May 11, 2012 - Kayley Thomas (University of Florida) presents: What Fangirls Want: Making More of and More from Marvel’s Men
Theme week organized by Drew Ayers (Georgia State University).
Image from Marvel.
In the contemporary media landscape, where filmmakers are often more accountable to shareholders than to their muses, studios have become ravenous for franchises. The ability to present audiences with something both new and known is the ticket to profitability, and no ticket has ever been as golden as The Avengers.
The Avengers is the infinite franchise. The number of moving parts it has boggles the imagination. It launches a series that is itself the culmination or continuation of at least four other franchises. It is simultaneously the first film in a series and the sequel to five other films. Having already broken every available box office record, it will also undoubtedly be a launching pad for one or more spinoffs featuring ancillary characters and Avengers To Be Named Later, to say nothing of the resurrection of the Incredible Hulk series.
The result is a narrative daisy chain that alters, and to some extent potentially damages, each individual film’s ability to legitimately begin, tell its story, and end. Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America have wildly different tones, settings, and even eras, but all must build on one another and lead into one another so that when Thor and Tony Stark finally do share a world, it is not jarring or ludicrous. One false move not only ruins The Avengers but tarnishes the legacy of the previous films.
To some extent, this type of filmmaking requires the viewer to be in for the long haul. Pepper Potts’ and Tony Stark’s relationship cannot develop in The Avengers because they need to “save it for their own movie.” If you had the gall to leave Iron Man when the credits rolled, everything about Samuel Jackson is a non sequitur. Pity the poor soul who sees movies without reading about them online all year: “Am I crazy, or is this ‘Coulson’ character showing up in every movie we see?”
As monumental as this undertaking is, it has succeeded, meaning it will quickly go from being anomalous to being copied badly by every other studio in Hollywood. What will the long-term impact be? Will every summer movie come with homework and a reading assignment for the next decade? Is this the dawn of every film ending with ellipses and Easter eggs? Only time will tell, but I wouldn’t tell any fans of auteur filmmaking to hold their breath.
On the plus side, maybe Edgar Wright can finally get Ant-Man made.
Several news outlets have prefaced their reference to The Avengers film with Joss Whedon’s name. The name might just mark the fact that Whedon is directing the film. And yet the possibility of a slippage in the possessive has sparked outrage amongst many fans who, having also reacted negatively towards DC’s decision to publish a series of comics focusing on Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s Watchmen without their consent, have threatened to boycott the film.
The moment marks an interesting case study involving two separate fandoms. Whedon fans have also struggled with an attempt by Warner Brothers to make a Buffy the Vampire Slayer film without either Joss or television star Sarah Michelle Gellar. Whether or not a Buffy fan or an Avengers fan should boycott the film is less interesting to me than the way that corporate-owned characters become associated with different authors who did not create them, especially when those authors have a celebrity status of their own. To what extent can authors like Brian Michael Bendis, Roy Thomas, or Kurt Busiek be said to have helped create The Avengers as we know them today? Each of these authors are widely considered to have contributed significantly to Avengers-lore. Also worth mentioning are the the legions of artists, inkers, colorists, and producers whose work made the monthly publication of The Avengers possible.
Charles Hatfield admits in his recent book on Jack Kirby that “[t]he underlying problem for the critic has to do with, again, the need to locate Kirby’s authorial voice, if not autonomy, in the face of a market and a genre justified mainly in heteronomous terms” (252). As a culture, we are trapped between a Romantic cult of the individual author, and a dwindling (but still powerful) mass media form of corporate production in comics and film that makes money from leeching off of the efforts of individual artists. In this light, consider this interview with Joss Whedon. When asked about what he changed that he fears might anger fans, he makes a joke about changing the sex of all the characters. “And She-Hulk is a fan fave, but I don’t know, maybe it was the wrong way to go.” The comment was tongue-in-cheek, but it also suggests a question that (in my mind) is fascinating, if purely speculative. What would a film that could truly call itself “Joss Whedon’s” have looked like?
Disclaimer: I like the Hulk.
I think my affinity stems from viewing him as a monster rather than a hero. As an ambiguous anti-hero, the Hulk embodies a horror that disrupts one’s sense of things, and I get the sense that he never seems to be in control of his extraordinary power, which is tied to his immense rage. This double articulation is useful for thinking the conditions of possibility for politics in our historical moment, specifically as bodies subject to the machinations of Late Capitalism, which Jameson conceives of “catastrophe and progress all together.” Might the Hulk be a hero precisely because he is a monster?
In The Avengers, tensions between “Earth’s mightiest heroes” are as integral to the workings of the film as the CGI-driven fight scenes, and one of the key, if not crucial, questions of the film centers on the mutative horror of the Hulk. Will he be a member of the team or is he beyond reproach? When asked by Captain America to get angry so that he can Hulk-out, Dr. Banner confesses, “That’s my secret, Cap. I’m always angry.” If he is always angry, what is it that brings about his mutation? Articulating the monsterous heroism necessitated in today’s world, Dr. Banner voices a politics that reframes the paradoxical logic of Late Capitalism. His mutative capacity ruptures the catastrophe/progress binary. In what ways, then, are the very conditions of possibility for politics yoked to presencing a mutative capacity? Is there an inherent horror to politics?
Reframing the political, Rancière distinguishes between politics and policing, which is to say radical redistributions of sense (i.e. politics) versus the normative dimensions of politics-proper (i.e. policing). For Rancière, politics lies in moments that call the very logic and sense of our age into question. Thus, there is a certain mutative horror to politics—one that collapses the paradoxical logic of our historical moment. This Rancièrian dynamic arises in an exchange between Iron Man and Loki, the film’s antagonist.
After Iron Man coolly outlines the sides, Loki brazenly retorts, “I have an army” to which Tony replies, “We have a Hulk!” This riposte encapsulates Rancière’s politics/policing distinction, and as it is the Hulk who eventually (and brutally) dispatches the petulant Loki, the ambiguous anti-hero embodies a radically mutative politics—one that transverses the paradoxical logic of our age through the horror of his monstrous heroism. In other words, Hulk smash!
Last weekend’s record-shattering release of Marvel’s The Avengers marks the culmination of a multi-year plan by the comic giant-turned-movie studio to translate the shared superhero universe of its comic books to the silver screen. And while The Avengers’ broad-based acceptance by critics and audiences signals the success of that plan, it also signals the transition of Marvel’s “canon” away from the comics over to their screen avatars, potentially sounding the final death-knell for a medium long buffeted by the twin travails of rising prices and reduced readership.
Since 1978’s Superman: The Movie, the first real attempt to treat a comic character with a seriousness and profundity that belied the dimestore origins of the medium, there’s been a constant progression toward giving the filmic superhero genre credibility, with ever-bigger budgets and ever-improved effects. However, the one barrier forever giving superhero comics advantage over their celluloid cousins was the inability to allow characters from different franchises to cohabit the same fictional space, thanks to various legal loopholes and hurdles related to how different properties were licensed to different studios. But that all changed in the mid-2000s.
As Marvel saw the box office bonanza its characters were generating for studios such as Fox (home of the big screen X-Men franchise) and Sony (producers of the Spider-Man film series), they set about reclaiming some of their most prominent properties. Thus, with 2008’s Iron Man, the first Marvel superhero film to be self-produced by the newly-minted studio, the first crack in that final wall between comics and movies appeared via a post-credits “stinger” scene where Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), director of ubiquitous spy agency S.H.I.E.L.D., assured Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark, a.k.a. Iron Man, that he isn’t the “only superhero in the world.”
Just over a month later, this concept was further paid forward when Stark himself visited Universal/Marvel’s The Incredible Hulk. Suddenly, everything had changed. As seen in the collection of “stingers” placed at the close of the different Marvel Studios productions, something that had always been deemed impossible, or at the very least impractical, was now the new normal: Different franchises freely cross-pollinating with one another. From Iron Man to Thor to Captain America to, finally, The Avengers, the superhero movie has finally arrived in its purest form…though it may well have killed the superhero comic in the process.
Some might say The Avengers’ record-breaking debut is due partially to Joss Whedon’s revitalization of the comic book film as “the first superhero chick flick.” Nevermind the comics legacy and series of movies The Avengers seeks to unite – surely what women want are men in costumes as tight as Black Widow’s.
While many women are in line as much for the action and comics lore, fan works like the video featured here, which explores the macho posturing and potential connection between Iron Man and Captain America, highlight another draw. The call to appreciate more than muscular arms may best be heard when in the film Loki asks Nick Fury: “how desperate are you that you call on such lost creatures to defend you?”
Loki pinpoints a powerful emotional appeal of the team, who individually are steeped in tragedy and dysfunction. Prior to the movie’s release, (predominantly female) fan writers, artists, and vidders have been drawing from Marvel films, comics and each other’s stories and knowledge to explore the varied possible dynamics between these lost figures, showing an understanding of what complex character-driven stories could be cultivated in a multi-film franchise and ensemble cast.
Sheenagh Pugh differentiates between fans whose works reflect a desire for “more of” or “more from” their source material, citing the Sherlock Holmes fanfic that emerged when Conan Doyle killed off the detective as an instance of wanting more of: “However many cases the great man solved…they would never have been ready for the story to end” (19). But with the fanfic that flourished in the 1970s, many female fans of Star Trek, for example, “wanted the action to slow down enough to give the characters and relationships time to evolve” (Pugh 20). Notably, fan works that slow down the action aren’t declarations of distaste; rather, they may function as indications that one ingredient of a media property excels while revealing the lack or even potential of other elements - fans asking more from their media.
What Whedon accomplishes in his finer moments is precisely what fans have been anticipating in their creations: a very human story about extraordinary people connecting through shared experiences. The question that arises with The Avengers is whether multi-film franchises ultimately offer more of or more from and, with the sequels and prequels set to emerge from this film: which one do which audiences want?
Sun, 06 May 2012 18:30:06 +0000