Sunday, May 6, 2012

Like many others, I come from a generation that didn’t always get what they wanted when it came to entertainment. When I was a child, I thought of how much luckier I was than previous generations that there was this explosion of comic books, video games and movies for me to enjoy. And yet, Saturday mornings, I watched my cartoons until noon, because when it ended, it ENDED. Golf would start airing. Or lame live-action programming for tweens who somehow didn’t grasp the subtle nuances of primetime sitcoms. Whatever the case, some of us read. Some of us went outside. We exited our bubble and sought entertainment of our own.

This was important for our growth, naturally, and for me it meant truly discovering the side of movies that I wasn’t seeing on television ads, in toy stores, at the mainstream multiplex. I know of people who grew up force-fed the classics, bred into the world of great movies, but I had older siblings who merely wanted to cycle through a limited library of contemporary hits. From the ages of six to ten, I engaged in multiple viewings of the likes of “Coming To America,” “Pretty Woman,” “The Lost Boys,” “Robocop,” “Die Hard” and whatever shitty kids movie I would want to see, a decidedly limited palette.

The very first “different” movie I ever saw was far from an art house hit. My best friend invited me over to watch a VHS of “The Evil Dead.” I was about thirteen at the time, and while I thought I knew all about horror films (endless TV showings of the “Nightmare On Elm Street” series, always poorly censored), “The Evil Dead” rewrote the rules of not only horror but basic filmmaking. I just wasn’t accustomed to the idea of a film being so… unpredictable, so bizarre, so unwieldy. The eighties movies I previously mentioned weren’t bad at all (with the exception of “Pretty Woman”) but they were all decidedly the product of big commercial studio filmmaking. They had formulas, they had expectations, and despite some subversive elements, they gave the audience what they wanted. I sat there thinking that “The Evil Dead” featured stuff almost no (conventional) audience member ever wanted. It was awesome.

Good businesses are built on the foundation that you give the customer what they want. Great businesses believe you are best suited giving the customer what they didn’t yet know they wanted. As I’ve grown, I realize that major film studios have shifted from flirting with greatness to purposely seeking goodness. How else to approach the sacrosanct attitude towards comic book adaptations, like “The Avengers”?

Now, I absolutely ADORED “The Avengers,” but my enjoyment of the film comes specifically from a fairly primitive place. Not only had I read the comics, allowing a very specific sense of nostalgia to be resurrected via Joss Whedon’s film, but I appreciated the upgraded technical blockbuster sensibilities of the film. It looks, sounds, and moves like a perfect blockbuster, a pizza with all the great toppings perfectly arranged. But studios no longer offer a balanced diet, and “The Avengers” is probably best suited to a younger crowd. When we’re older, we should probably be seeking proper, fuller meals, not just another pizza.

Is there a single moment in “The Avengers,” or any other Marvel film, that feels unexpected? Unpredictable? Hell, do our heroes even break a sweat? The opposition faced by the title character in “Iron Man 2” is laughable. It’s stunning that we don’t really understand why Cap has to sacrifice himself in “Captain America” after seamlessly making his way through armies of faceless drones who can’t shoot straight. “Thor” incapacitates enemy Loki at one point simply by resting his hammer on Loki’s chest. And the Hulk is the Hulk. Each film had its own quiet grace notes, but they felt almost mandatory amongst the cacophony. But they sure made pretty good pizzas.

The comic book movie craze, which matches the YA novel adaptation craze (and, to a lesser extent, videogames-to-movies) all seem like basic instances of serving an audience exactly what they request. It comes from the world of children who, like all of us, watched Saturday morning cartoons. Except the cartoons don’t end at noon — in fact, there are a good hundred channels with cartoons and other child-geared programming airing all day. If not, there’s On-Demand VOD, and DVR’ing. The moments when a child can say, “This is over” and explore another realm have ended.  This audience is being served. And served. And served. And every meal is pizza, because that’s what kids love (and I guess that’s what parents assume kids love, though that’s an entirely separate conversation).

While we wait to see what sort of punctuation mark Chris Nolan puts at the end of his “Batman” films, it’s important to note that these comic book adventures (and their modern counterparts - all currently studio blockbusters that AREN’T based on comic books nowadays really are based on comic books, if you get my drift) don’t do what art is meant to do. Art is meant to raise questions, to challenge us, to introduce us to a new way of looking at our world. There’s a whole ocean of films out there for adults, with adult themes and ideas, with characters that are real people, older and more contemporary. I watched “Batman Begins” last night, and if you drink every time someone says, “Good people” in that movie, you’d die of alcohol poisoning. There’s no such thing as “good” or “bad” people, that’s the dichotomy of children’s entertainment. Real people are wounded, sad, happy, energetic. They can’t be defined by what they do in a certain moment. A killer can give a tip to a homeless man. A philanthropist can shoplift. People let each other down every day. There are no “bad guys,“ there are just those with an inconsistent moral compass who, at the moment, are devoted to their self-preservation.

For me, the mark of a good film is that you walk out of it and it’s a different movie than it was when you first walked in. And “The Avengers” is basically exactly the movie you think it is from beginning to end, when the toys go back in their packages. There’s nothing wrong with that, but there’s more to cinema than this. Let’s endorse this.


  1. Do you feel yourself physically aging as you write this stuff?

    Heck, I don't feel like I can judge kids today for enjoying stories with an overly strict divide between good and evil. I grew up with He-Man for Christ's sake.

    In fact, you seem to be saying that you grew up with the same fairly similar black and white storytelling, but with the proviso that you went away and read books too.

    I'll tell you what though. A great children's film that didn't give me what I expected when I was younger (and kind of has the same "now go read a book" message that you seem to espouse here) was "The Neverending Story".

    On the other hand, I'm sorry but ten was way too young for you to watch "Robocop". I'd say it was pretty young to watch "Diehard" too.

  2. Well, let's not get too judgy - seeing Robocop and Die Hard at ten made me the man I am today. Would I want my ten year old watching Robocop? Certainly no, but that has more to do with not understanding the satire more than it has to do with the violence level.

    And I'm certainly not judging kids, but rather the systems in place for them to experience film and television. Today's children can't help themselves that mass media gives them only fleeting opportunities to move out of their comfort zones and therefore develop character based on diversity of experience.