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Whedonesque - a community weblog about Joss Whedon
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May 21 2012

The Avengers defeated irony and cynicism. A great piece from BAD's Devin Faraci, who argues that the tremendous success of The Avengers can be attributed to the optimism and old-fashioned heroism on display.

That's a pretty awesome article (and a nice Doctor Who reference), but I do have a minor quibble with it: one of the reasons we don't see "the boring Hero's Journey" in this movie is because that's already been established and worked through in the earlier films. I'm not entirely sure it's "fair" to praise a movie for not doing something that it was specifically set up for - all of the other movies in the franchise were setting up this point, and Thor and Iron Man certainly followed the more "boring" hero's story line.

(I admit I'm a bit wobbly on whether or not Captain America did - he did actively seek out being a hero, repeatedly. I've only seen it once, though, so will let others more knowledgeable than I hit on that point.)
That was a really good read. I agree with a few people in the comments that it's hard to pin a zeitgeist down that accurately, especially given that Iron Man hit a lot of the same hopeful notes and came out 4 years ago, but I still think he's broadly correct on why this kind of story is resonating with people right now.

(Re the hero's journey: even in sequels, is there not often an 'I've had enough of this, let the world save itself this time' moment? Maybe not always. But definitely not here.)
The positive feel to the film really is the reason I fell in love with it. I loved Dark Knight but when I showed it to my dad his main response was "It's pretty dark... I'm not sure I liked it". He was right of course, and I still think it was a great movie. But it was extremely dark and a little depressing.

With The Avengers I found it refreshing that a superhero movie that was this unbelievably light and fun could do so well. This is a film that, like the article said, the main moral is teamwork. When after all the team's disagreements they still know that they need to come together and "get this done".

Well written, bravo. Let's look into the future with a positive attitude. I think I can smell the shawarma.
I do think there's still a lot of elements of the hero's journey in the text. It's not like Avengers came up with a narrative form.
I loved this article. I agree that there has been a glut of cynicism and individualism in art for a while now. It's interesting that Joss Whedon, a king of deconstruction, has become for a force for construction.

I've felt kind of doubtful that Joss could find popular appeal because a lot of his recent work can be read as more detached and intellectual. The Avengers is kind of disproving that.

But always in his work there has been the story arc of the gang of alienated misfits finding a way to work together and becoming a group of heroes despite -- and to some extent because of -- their differences.
When I first heard Loki's speech about people needing to bow down and serve a master, it kind of reflected a cynical view of people I've heard voiced a lot recently, that the masses of people are mere sheep and can be convinced to follow their leader even if it's off a cliff.

The movie rejects this cynicism wholesale and is very much optimistic that people will find a way to do the right thing, even if it's in defiance of their leaders, as Nick Fury did.
Each summer Hollywood tells us that there are 5-10 Big Event Blockbuster Movies we need to shell out increasing amounts of cash for, but the fact of the matter is most of them are pretty underwhelming and have been for some time. The Avengers is the first one in recent memory to actually deliver you back to the summers of the 1980s, where you had big event action movies and franchises that consistently delivered 2 hours of ear to ear grins.

Loved the Ayn Rand line too, heh.
The Avengers is the first one in recent memory to actually deliver you back to the summers of the 1980s, where you had big event action movies and franchises that consistently delivered 2 hours of ear to ear grins.

Yes. In some ways, I consider The Avengers to be the spiritual sucessor to Ghostbusters.
Ooh, Simon, I hadn't thought of that but I totally get what you mean.
And, having just watched it again this weekend, Aliens. Let's say Avengers is the best Ghostbusters/Aliens mashup evar! Speaking (slightly more seriously) of the latter, it's clearly got a stunning amount of influence over Joss, not that that's news or anything.
It's very funny that there is a paragraph dealing with how non-partisan and unifying a figure Captain America is and that it is followed immediately with a paragraph suggesting that the film pulls towards socialism - simply because it involves looking out for others! Sure, working for the interests of others is hardly a Randian ideal; but it isn't as if socialism is the only alternative!

Otherwise a good read. There look to be some really fine comments on that page too, with some good discussion of the zeitgesit idea. I don't really believe in such a thing as 'the zeitgeist' but if there were one it wouldn't be represented by a view so much as by general presuppositions and a set of obsessions. Given that kind of loose model, the Avengers fits in fairly well; but I'm not sure how revealing that is of the film's themes which are fairly universal. Still, it might be more important in terms of what the film might say to us at this time.
No coincidence that Joss used Star Trek (2009) as a touchstone. Another great example of the best of us, coming together in the face of adversity. Abrams also channelled those fun, character-driven summer movies of Spielberg and co.

[ edited by Andy Dufresne on 2012-05-21 18:58 ]
This is why this movie is simple escapism, to be sure. Yes, I do agree that one of the aspects of this movie which helps its popularity is its relentless positivism of people working together for the common good (ooh, you socialists, you!). But on the other hand, it is this aspect of the movie that I find least compelling, because it is not how our society is right now. It is wishful thinking; that is, escapism. For a far more realistic depiction of our society, I highly recommend the little indie movie Take Shelter, which builds existential dread out of job loss and loss of power in an increasingly corporatized society.
Heaven forbid any movie not be a reflection of how society is right now.
Why would a realistic depiction of our society be necessary (or desired)? I live that everyday. Not paying $15 to be entertained by it in 3D. Nothing sounds more horrible.
it is this aspect of the movie that I find least compelling, because it is not how our society is right now. It is wishful thinking; that is, escapism.
I don't really see how wishful thinking = escapism. Didn't most major world events, good and bad, start with wishful thinking? It would be escapism if it was about a bunch of people who had lost their jobs and their fairy godmothers gave them back to them. But it's not, it's about a bunch of not-concerned-with-money people who go out and do good things. I mean, I'm not trying to say that it's an important philosophical work here, but it is kind of inspiring in a way that just "escapism" isn't.
If I believed that working together wouldn't help, or that we could never work together, I might agree with Dana5140 that the cooperation aspect was escapist. I don't believe either of those things, nor do I think that history supports such beliefs. But I do think that it is a very sharp observation that holding out an unrealistic way of making things better can be appealing without being instructive or illuminating.
Personally, I think it's useful, and compelling, to occasionally, and entertainingly, help people remember they're capable of better. I don't find that escapist.
I agree that Avengers is extremely optimistic, and rather escapist, and this is why I enjoyed it immensely; it's also why I find Cabin to be the superior and more interesting film.

(vagued-up Cabin spoilers follow)

Avengers is an old, old, old story told really, really well: in the darkest hour, the heroes will return and come together to save the world and us all!

Cabin is a fun iteration of a much newer story that says, roughly, be your own hero... and is the world really worth saving?

The Avengers aren't "the heroes we need right now," I think. I think we are the heroes we need. Still, both approaches Joss has taken may ultimately work.
It'd only be escapist, to me, if it had no conflict, and was just some saccharine story where everyone just cooperates, period. It's not.

It's full of conflict, as inevitably any human interaction is. The point of it is that empathy trumps those conflicts, and yields the cooperation necessary to get the necessary shit done. ManEnoughToAdmitIt is right: that's not escapism, it's optimism, and not some pie-in-the-sky unattainable version.

[ edited by The One True b!X on 2012-05-21 21:26 ]
I think movies pegged "escapist" are often underrated. Buffy told an unlikely story even if you remove the supernatural aspect. It would be more realistic (even with vampires) to show a teenage girl who isn't that capable. I am a teenage girl, and I and the teenage girls I know often can't handle the horrors of high school Buffy fought in metaphor. But Joss created a hero, because we need to see examples of heroes in our stories in order to become heroes ourselves, as there are very few heroes in real life to serve as role models. The Avengers shows us a goal to achieve, not just a hopeless wish.
Are we reading "escapist" as "just for fun"? because I'm with Film Crit Hulk here:

Comparing the number of excellent "fun" movies to the number of excellent "serious" movies, I think he's right.
The superheroes are escapist of course, but everyone knows they're fantasy. It's the teamwork - everyone actually working together for the common good - that's wishful thinking; but I'd call it aspirational rather than escapist. In dark times one way to deal with fear is to draw the circle small and identify more and more people as "not us", not to be identified with or fought for. The Avengers argues that that's not the right way. We can use that.
New York is in flames, dangerous alien technolology lying all over the place and The Avengers decide to go for a takeaway. Apart from that one glaring plothole about working for the common good, the teamwork was well handled.
Hey, their contract never mentioned "cleanup".
New York is in flames, dangerous alien technolology lying all over the place and The Avengers decide to go for a takeaway. Apart from that one glaring plothole about working for the common good, the teamwork was well handled.

Simon | May 21, 23:01 CET

Well, there's really no indication as to WHEN the shawarma scene is supposed to be set. I mean, the group could have just spent hours helping with the FEMA/SHIELD joint cleanup and decided to hit a late night shawarma joint to fuel up for another day of helping to clean up the mess they helped cause.

"Existential dread" is a more realistic depiction of our society? If that were true, I'd say let's just give up right now, turn our govt over to the profit-mongers, don't even bother to try to help people.

But it's not true. Bill Gates spends billions helping people. Poor volunteers spend hours and hours helping people. Arab women spark an Arab Spring because they're people too. All of these people are heroes. They are what gives the world hope. Hope is what keeps us going. It is certainly not 'escapism', even when the people making us hope are superheroes.
@Simon: The Avengers were meant to do the things that no one else can (to paraphrase Fury). They did their part. Doesn't mean they should do everyone's part. (And especially when there are only a handful of them, and hundreds/thousands of police/firefighters/soldiers around.)

@MrArg: The "Aliens" connection makes more sense if I imagine Powers Booth saying "We need to nuke NYC from orbit. Only way to be sure."

@Dana5140: There is a reason people responded to Rodenberry's vision of "Star Trek". It was a reminder that things could be better, that people can work together if they want to. The worst of human experience is often allowed to happen, rather than being something inevitable. And I don't know if it was Joss or one of the other writers, but Angel had this nugget for Conner to chew on:

Nothing in the world is the way it ought to be. It's harsh and cruel. That's why there's us. Champions. It doesn't matter where we come from, what we've done or suffered, or even if we make a difference. We live as though the world were as it should be, to show it what it can be.
One of my favorite Whedon lines, OneTeV.

We see Tony Stark rebuilding Stark Tower, so it's easy/nice to fantasize that he helped rebuild the rest of the city. I'm not sure I'd want Thor or the Hulk on a rebuild crew, though.
I think the whole point of escapism is to shove aside our problems and focus on something that doesn't matter, which is not what this movie does. Granted these characters have powers (whether they be technological or supernatural)well beyond ours, but those powers aren't the deciding factor in the team's victory. The point, not to get all cheesey, is that our humanity (no offense, Thor)--the spirit to fight in the bleakest of moments, the ability to set aside ego when faced with a common foe, etc.--is what will ultimately carry us through difficult times. If ever there was a period in our history when this reminder is relevant and necessary, now is that time.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I think I broke my soapbox.
What I find interesting about it is the DC vs. Marvel style of it all. Looking back at the initial comics, before all the recent deconstruction/reconsruction and re-launches, the way I personally would have described the difference between the two universes of heroes would be something like this:

In the DC universe, the heroes are bright and bold, always do the right thing and are paragons to be admired and show an ideal that we can aspire toward. In the Marvel universe, the heroes are painted in shades of grey, they are all flawed, real, people and it is through overcoming their own personal challenges that they provide a model for us.

The recent DC movies (Batman) were the grey films and Avengers is bright and bold. Not that I'm complaining - both approaches work for me and I've enjoyed all the Marvel films of this batch - even the two Hulks. It just seems that they have flipped roles. I know a lot of people have said it - but DC must be kicking themselves over Wonder Woman.
@Simon - even superheroes have to eat. ;-)
MobileHQ I think that you're right, in essence; although the picture no longer really held by the late 1980s it did linger in a diluted form. DC, I think, retained a great concern with the inspirational aspect of the heroes, and less with the wider psychology of the people who are heroes. While the difference can be overdrawn, something like it is there.

The funny thing is, for me, that I read Marvel comics when I was a young child - around six to eight - and DC comics when I was an adult. So the comparative cheerful exuberance of the Avengers fits my responses to the original comics very well.

I am not sure that Joss's success with the Avengers will persuade anyone that they were wrong to halt work on his version of Wonder Woman. They may still have been right that that wasn't going anywhere highly profitable. I don't know. I sure would love to have seen it, though. Wonder Woman is by far and away my favourite superhero.

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