Following what I wrote here I actually did end up sneaking into the Avengers movie (with the attendant donation), but with only four of the original comics read. While the dialogue was snappy, intermittently funny and occasionally incisive, and the film’s progressive politics were agreeable, they don’t really deepen anything that hadn’t been established either by the Iron Man films or the comics themselves. Some of the jokes may have a higher level of sophistication than Stan Lee’s dopey one-liners but what comes across in the film is the residual Sorkin/Abrams compactness of modern television pacing (the opening sequence seemed to have dropped out of an episode of Fringe).
It has some moments though. Mark Ruffalo’s choice to play Banner as both mournfully removed and humbly self-deprecating is inspired, and the banter with Downey Jr. in the floating laboratory was like a Big Chill-ish sequel to Real Genius. Scarlett Johanssen, here given a more sizable role with a spectrum of emotions, seems to harness all of her real life’s TMZ drama and no-doubt hurtful criticism of her acting as wooden and nothing much beyond a body. It hangs over the character’s ass-kicking confidence, with the restrained vulnerability given meta-textual depth, her compromised reputation held back like a dam behind her controlled delivery. Every now and then, the characters transcend the aesthetic limitations and locomotive “get to the sequel” plotting of the film, but the moments are informed more by the actors than anything that has to do with the characters.
My earlier criticism, that filmic translation of comics loses one of the original medium’s largest draws—its vibrant imagery i.e. the work of comics artists—still stands. I sincerely doubt this was lost on Whedon, and there are some aspects of the film that seem like an attempt to counter that discrepancy. Loki’s planet of exile looks like a lost set from Carl Sagan’s Cosmos repurposed by Lord Zedd, and the tesseract glows like Ivan’s ooze, but equating that with comics art limits its reputation as anything beyond simplistic children’s fare. Along with the main conflict, the film inadvertently presents an attendant clash between the avengers’ reverently colorful costumes (plus the glowing orb they’re after) and the grey-hued/washed out, technological modernity of the shooting locations.
Since the film was hamstrung by the new continuity parameters set up by the intersectional franchise I imagine they had to let some of the stuff go, and given my dilettantism there isn’t much for me to argue with someone like Whedon that can confidently cite an Avengers annual as a milestone in Marvel history. Also, I know, holding up a film to a small, somewhat outdated portion of a voluminous text seems antithetical to the non-linearity i held against the film franchise’s master narrative. And though I kind of disagree with Truffaut’s fairly conservative point against the blasphemous nature of Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest, his objection that replacing slavish reverence to the original text with something merely in the spirit of it rings false when the spirit of the text is lost in the translation as well seems relevant here.
Looking at the earliest introduction of the Avengers, which the film is attempting to both recapitulate and rewrite, it seems like there were some opportunities missed. Here I’ll focus on three of them, first being the Captain’s integration into the Avengers. The Captain’s return is played as a conflict between the Manichean binaries of the good soldier Rogers and the post-modern nihilism of the reference-heavy Stark. Though rendered clever by Stark’s dialogue, the scenario wouldn’t be out of place in an inspirational sports film. In the recent Jack Kirby roundtable, Glen David Gold discusses the importance of Kirby’s background as a soldier in WWII:
…Jack Kirby is the only major cartoonist to have killed Nazis. And he didn’t do it from a distance — he killed Nazis using the same hands that later drew Thor, the Aryan God of Thunder, hammering Mangog (old testament villain name, more or less) in the snout. Kirby shot and stabbed Nazis for about six months in 1943 and 1944, and I would argue that experience didn’t just change his life but shaped his work from that moment forward, in that an underlying PTSD worldview took him places he wouldn’t have gone otherwise. For instance: Kirby deepened the emotional realm of the Marvel Universe by the re-introduction of Captain America in Avengers #4.
Avengers #4…now had a hero with a truly nuanced, complex unsolvable problem: Post traumatic stress disorder. Cap responded from his thaw by freaking out, flashing back, displaying hypervigilence, remorse, guilt, nightmares, delusions…the list goes on. And with that, the Marvel universe was really born. Every character had to have emotional layers like that from then on. And the world of Marvel was based on a trauma that Kirby suffered through.
The whole discussion is fascinating, including a long quote from Kirby on his liberation of a small concentration camp and what Kirby being one of the first Americans to encounter the Holocaust meant for his subsequent work. I don’t have much to add to this, but its absence in the film is a disservice. There, Captain America’s flashbacks, during a semi-serious punching bag session, serve less as a sign of PTSD than they do a cross-promotional signal to everyone in the audience that didn’t catch the Captain America reboot, saying: a) this is what they need to know about him to enjoy the following product and b) there’s another product to check out, if you haven’t yet, when this one is over! The following panel, on the other hand, is the original coming to:
A number of things are happening within it. The Captain’s initial amnesia is visually articulated as a clash between the material objects that subsumed his human identity and a white void that signifies nothing recognizable. He stands confused, a hero without anything to defend, much less relate to. The middle image shows the captain finding the return of his memory “lucky” but the way in which he puts on his mask to re-familiarize himself with the trappings of his costume suggests an awkward, alienated discomfort. The third panel stands in stark contrast with the first, with the Captain reassuming obedient military posture to feel out an instinctual connection with the identity he was trained into assuming. The modern, technologically enhanced background is there, though still less vivid and detailed then his outfit.
The initial comfort soon turns for the worse, since the Captain’s obedience to military dictum brings on another instinct, that of immediately identifying anyone unfamiliar as an enemy that needs to be wiped out. The clash of primary colors between the Avengers’ various costumes stands in contrast to the image of the Captain against the purple-hued machinery. The reds, whites and blues of his uniform are no longer in unfamiliar territory as the action becomes a swirl of primary colors, but the Captain’s hard-wired, war mode programming automatically equates the surrounding bodies with Red Skull and the Nazis that defined his reality the last time he was conscious.
Captain’s episode is stopped by Ant/Giant-Man’s companion The Wasp, who Warner Bros. hadn’t managed to make a film for and thus wrote out of the storyline. (The Wasp is somewhat controversial and problematic (in the hands of men, at least) in that she is boy-crazy and verbally promiscuous, but she also functions as an emasculating and witty counterpoint to the group’s abundant testosterone.) The following shot reads “Captain America’s fighting mood seems to pass, a veil of sadness comes over his eyes.” Essentially a manic episode is followed by its bi-polar counterpart, depression, and the distance between some of the coloring, the shading, and the lines, is transformed into a sapped vitality of someone whose identity is no longer surrounded by what defined it.
Another telling sequence comes later, when Captain America falls asleep, in his outfit, at a motel. He is plagued by the loss of his sidekick, Bucky, and his career trajectory is momentarily rendered immobile. In what initially seems like sleep paralysis, he wakes up to a shadowy silhouette in the doorway, bathed in a purple orb but entering from a black abyss, something that wouldn’t be out of place in Mario Bava’s Black Sabbath. The captain doesn’t even register how unsettling it is, as his dementia insists that Bucky, and not his haunting specter, is alive. When he finds out that the person is actually Rick Jones, a teenage sometimes-assistant to the Hulk, the cognitive association automatically enchains the boy’s features to the familiar visage of Bucky.
Aside from the quick-cut flashbacks to other movie, the only reference to WWII in this film is an unfortunate sequence where Loki crashes a museum gala in Germany and forces everyone to kneel, except one man refuses. His Tevyeh-style accent and refutation of Loki’s “fascist subject as free man” theory do not carry the potent punch Whedon and scribe Zak Penn probably intended. Instead it recalls the hokey sequence from Menachem Golan’s Delta Force where one of the Delta passengers signals his survivor status to hijacking terrorists, except it replaces the jaw-droppingly exploitive flashing of the passenger’s tattoo with an allusive, simplistic stump speech. Here, a Shoah reference becomes bite-size shorthand for the war’s legacy, and is reduced to nothing more than a check off the list. It ends up registering more like the reductively fable-bound Art Spiegelman, whose Kirby criticism is pointed out as hilariously ironic by the roundtable.
The Captain says something like “last time I was in Germany, I was fighting people like you” which, while conforming to the Captain’s one-god, pedestrian interpretation of how the world works, does nothing to deepen our understanding of Asgard and the Norse mythology that the Captain is jibing against, or the war which he’s holding it to. In a sense, he is reducing the unfamiliar to the familiar, but it is less a function psychological characterization than a point the filmmakers intend for us to consume wholesale.
Another aspect that seemed unfortunate but also hampered by franchise continuity, was the Hulk. Hulk’s “puny God” line in the film was funny, but partly because it was startling to hear him make a rational observation. I’m not really sure why the films removed the Hulk’s ability to communicate, since it creates a false binary between civilized and savage, which his original ability to communicate complicated. I suppose when an actor’s paycheck/visibility is on the line, some things have to be renegotiated. Unfortunately, doing so reduces the Hulk’s ability to be anything more than a vaguely symbolic cipher.
For the ostensibly progressive film version, Whedon has Banner hiding out on a discarded, disease-ridden set from Slumdog Millionaire, rounding out the upscale buffoonery of Ghost Protocol’s India for a Western projection of the country as an incompetent Other struggling to maintain itself after colonialism. On the surface, Avengers #1’s iteration of The Hulk’s hiding is not particularly meaningful and only disposably funny, but it illustrates some of the problems of silencing the Hulk’s voice. After saving a train from crashing, despite Loki’s from-Asgard manipulations, he is blamed by the public for its danger anyways. To hide, he joins the circus in clown make-up and identifies himself as a robot named Mechano, giving his feats of strength the credibility of modern technology.
The outfit’s color scheme, red and yellow, suggests a conflict between rage and cowardice, hatred of others and hatred of the self. Also, by correlating with the ubiquitous image of Ronald McDonald, there is a canny boxing of the self into a universally digestible product. The vertical streaks over the eyes, in the illustration’s long shot, render his eyes similar to those of a deceased cartoon character, and with the haloed frown, give a sense of soullessness to the entertainment. Coupled with the bewildered faces of the juggled animals, forced into fetal helplessness by Kirby’s swirl, Hulk’s facial expression ends up rounding out a circle of existential anxiety, with all parties having no clue what they are doing there.
Instead of the white man’s burden condescension of the film, the comic has the Hulk engaging with the limitations of family-oriented entertainment. His attempt to blend into the human realm as a clown provides ironic commentary on the human standard for acceptance a la Tod Browning’s Freaks. Once the disfigured anomaly accepts its unusual lot, patronage becomes acceptable. The superhuman feats his bastardized incarnation is capable of are rendered palatable as a self-flattering signifier of human ingenuity instead of a human accident produced by the faulty roadblocks in scientific progress. He juggles the animals which he is compared to, signifying his control over the taxonomical classification he is relegated to.
A hilarious juxtaposition in the panel above is the outfits of the ringmasters and patrons with the clowned up Hulk, which are equally ridiculous, deflating the sense of importance humans attach to their appearance, especially when contrasting themselves with their subjects. Similarly, having one of Ant-man’s redirected minions catch the Hulk’s balancing act gives a visual comparison between the obedient, carrying more than its weight role of the ant and the for others feat the Hulk is performing.
In the above panel, Hulk is reacting to Ant-Man and the Wasp’s attempts to wrangle the Hulk on behalf of the Avengers and save him from his self-exile. The humans, thinking it is a part of the show, inadvertently become a stand-in for passerby that view comics as mindless fare, ignoring the alternately mythic and human dilemmas at their center. An interesting conflict in the above scenario develops between anonymously performing tricks under a ringmaster and the manipulative tactics of other superheroes.
In the films, Banner is attempting to restrain the beast. His alter-ego is a burden worthy of suicide attempts, and causes him to develop an inferiority complex that the beast isn’t particularly aware of, being a semi-conscious vessel of rage. His conflict with the Avengers is polite embarrassment and a desire to not become himself. Here, it’s the hidden beast that sees potential for emotional damage on all sides of the conflict, partly articulated by the color scheme of the background. Much like the white void behind Captain America’s amnesia, and the relatively plain purple background his uniform clashes with (here audience instead of technology), the background becomes a reflection of the unstable psychological interior of the character. When the Hulk dons his Hulk-ness, the white void becomes red, bolstered by Hulk’s exclamation mark-inflected, defensive hatred of everything. Unlike, say, Godzilla, the Hulk’s ability to communicate his alienation from humans/everyone gives a significant voice to the cast-off “mistakes” humans would rather bury in half-truth-laden narrative of progress.
One final point, since this is approaching 2,500 words, is about that revised ending to Transformers 3. This, perhaps, is as much about the comic as on the loss of creature effect magic to the work of computers. In the comic, Loki is attempting to lure Thor to his planet of exile. Once Thor arrives, Loki confronts him with large, purple, underground trolls worthy of Jason and the Argonauts and casually tosses out a counter theory to human mythology, in itself containing a gigantic idea on human enchainment of the unnatural into palatable terms.
This might be a huge stretch, but look at the following quote on Kirby’s liberation of a small concentration camp:
I thought I was going to see prisoners of war, you know, some of our guys that got caught in some of the early fighting, but what I saw would pin you to the spot like it did me. Most of these people were Polish; Polish Jews who were working in some of the nearby factories. I don’t remember if the place really had a name, it was a smaller camp, not like Auschwitz, but it was horrible just the same. Just horrible. There were mostly woman and some men; they looked like they hadn’t eaten for I don’t know how long. They were scrawny. Their clothes were all tattered and dirty. The Germans didn’t give a shit for anything. They just left the place; just like leaving a dog behind to starve. I was standing there for a long time just watching thinking to myself, “What do I do?” Just thinking about it makes my stomach turn. All I could say was, ‘Oh, God.”
This, of course, might entirely be my tainted reaction to their appearances after having read two books on Holocaust survivors this week, but the ill-fitting shorts, the scrawny arms, the bald heads and the sagging faces bring to mind photos of musselmen. There was a Bill Moyers interview with Maurice Sendak (RIP), where they discussed the illustrations of Where the Wild Things Are in the context of Sendak’s upbringing, surrounded by Eastern European relatives that narrowly escaped extermination. Sendak, raised with his parents’ obsessively displaced guilt over being alive while their family burned, used the memory of his childhood perception of the family that did survive to write about the Wild Things. Their grotesqueness (to a child), coupled with their spirited gallow’s humor, were partial inspiration for intentionally frightening if still joyous imagery.
If we take the Kirby discussion to its logical (or perhaps necessarily illogical) conclusion, the “pin you to the spot like it did me” horror of witnessing the ravaged bodies of concentration camp survivors would just as well instinctively filter itself into his art. The earlier conflict between blond and blue eyed Norse god and the old testament is here, too, like a whack-a-mole response to the burned-in memory of those crematorium-evading prisoners. While Sendak’s book reclaims stereotypes and channels the lively spirit of survival, this interpretation of Kirby’s work would suggest a House-style evasion of war veteran trauma.
I’m not saying Whedon should have used Loki’s trolls to extend the conversation about the Holocaust initiated in the hokey German museum takeover sequence, but the visceral quality these colorful creatures have engage a much stronger response mechanism in the imagination than the anonymous skeletors of the film, a bunch of pixelized goons waiting to be obliterated in array of fast cuts and reductive action (something the old Judge Dredd film’s creature shop toadies avoid as well, but that’s for another time). Given the Where the Wild Things Are film’s success in balancing new school pixelation with old school puppetry, Avengers’ devolving battle seems decidedly un-magical. With the rapid rate of comics production, the gap between a focused, end-in-itself book of pointed illustrations and an endless, cheaply produced series seems immeasurable, but the potential for imagery to be as indelible in both should not be understated.