By Nelson Carvajal | Press Play April 20, 2012 at 9:00AM
Amazingly, the Marvel movie brand has been able to survive with an enthusiastic audience—even in the midst of artistic failure. To explain: Marvel’s track record at the box office is basically critic-proof. No matter how bad or silly a Marvel movie may be (e.g. Thor), the bottom line box office numbers speak to a broader truth (e.g. Thor eventually grossed $449 million in ticket sales). And now with The Avengers, the already highly successful Marvel economic phenomenon should increase exponentially. Regardless of whether or not you’re sick to death of superhero movies, this upcoming release of The Avengers deserves some close examination—if not optimistic thinking. You see, unlike the cavalcade of superhero movies that preceded it, Avengers is attempting to do something that no feature film has ever done; it will cinematically bring to life all of Marvel Comic’s core superheroes in one movie, a feat that should excite a wide spectrum of fan boys. The top tier cast is unmatched: Robert Downey Jr. (Iron Man), Mark Ruffalo (Hulk), Scarlett Johansson (Black Widow), Chris Hemsworth (Thor), Jeremy Renner (Hawkeye) and Chris Evans (Captain America). So the real question is this: Is The Avengers the light at the end of the tunnel for a nation of loyal Marvel fans?
Perhaps the best way to tackle this question is to go back to what captured fans’ hearts in the first place—the Marvel comic books. Consider: The heroes that were created under the Marvel umbrella transcended the quick-fix throwaway ethos found in traditional comic strips (e.g. brief standalone scenes) by maturing through long prose narratives. For example, a comic book hero like “Captain America,” birthed onto ink and paper at the start of World War II, sprouted brimming nationalism. On the other hand, the “X-Men” comic books (1963) took their crucial twist, the existence of mutant heroes, and illustrated a parallel narrative evoking the anxieties of the African-American Civil Rights Movement. Each of these Marvel superheroes was able to tell a never-ending American saga in comic book form. His or her iconic superhero outfits could always be updated, but the heart of each hero was linked to its cultural reference in the national timeline.
Underlying their messages, of course, was the immediate draw of the Marvel comics: pure unadulterated escapism. A billionaire who builds his own iron suit to fight world terror! A brilliant scientist who can morph into a giant green beast when he’s angry! A demigod who wields a hammer with the force of thunder! They’re all sky-reaching wonders. On top of all this, the syntax of a comic book—with its varying panel sizes and meshing of word balloons against vibrant images—projected these flights of fancy onto the imaginations of generations of readers.
So what went wrong with the Marvel movies?
To be fair, using the phrase “lost in translation” would be unjust. After all, the motion picture medium works with different gears (sight and sound); plus the Hollywood system was never one to choose artistic purity over dollar signs. Yes, these Marvel movies are telling the literal comic book stories of each superhero—but not without diluting the purity of each hero with laughable screen dialogue (as when the titular hero of Captain America asks if he has time to pee before undergoing his explosive transformation) and distracting product placement (Robert Downey Jr. sure does love his Burger King in Iron Man). In fact, nothing is really “lost” in the translation from page to screen: it’s as if the filmmakers mistook the comic book ads as pages to the main narrative. These Marvel movies are super sized to please the most aloof of moviegoers; throw in some A-list movie stars, an innumerable amount of CGI explosions and you got yourself a box office hit.
Which brings us back to The Avengers. Over the last few years, Marvel has been hinting at an eventual all-barrels-blazing motion picture adaptation: The comic book character of Nick Fury (aptly embodied by Samuel L. Jackson) appears after the end credits of recent Marvel movies, recruiting each titular superhero to join the Avengers team. Now we are literally days away from seeing this cinematic event hit screens across the nation. The sheer anticipation from hordes of loyal fans will surely churn out staggering box office figures come opening weekend (possibly giving the film legs to ride out the early summer). Though, the real challenge for The Avengers won’t be to save the world onscreen or to etch its place in box office history. The real challenge will be in the film’s ability—or inability—to redeem the historical iconography of its heroes, which would in turn reaffirm Marvel as a vital cultural phenomenon (and not just an economic phenomenon). Fortunately, writer-director Joss Whedon reveres the mythology behind the characters he brings to the screen (look no further than his highly-celebrated Buffy The Vampire Slayer TV series). Couple that with his knack for gleefully deconstructing cliché movie vehicles (like his witty and ingenious screenplay for the horror-comedy The Cabin In The Woods) and The Avengers seems destined to be that one-in-a-million blockbuster that actually has the brains to match its box office brawn. It just might be the miracle fan boys, as well as commercial moviegoers, have been waiting for.
Nelson Carvajal is an independent digital filmmaker, writer and content creator based out of Chicago, Illinois. His digital short films usually contain appropriated content and have screened at such venues as the London Underground Film Festival. Carvajal runs a blog called FREE CINEMA NOW which boasts the tagline: "Liberating Independent Film And Video From A Prehistoric Value System."
You can follow Nelson on Twitter here.