I saw the best actors of my generation destroyed by B-movie superhero madness, slumming crummy costumed, dragging themselves through the digital streets of universe Marvel, looking for a super-size paycheck, empty-headed hipsters burning for the ancient mythic connection to the star-system dynamo in the machinery of the studios, who filthy rich and smirking sat up playing “Guitar Hero” in their Hollywood Hills McMansions, floating across their pools contemplating the next sequel, who bared their brains to their agent in El Lay and saw terrorist super-villains waiting to be terminated …
Yes, I saw “The Avengers,” where a horde of fine actors — Mark Ruffalo, Robert Downey Jr., Jeremy Renner, Samuel L. Jackson, Gwyneth Paltrow, Scarlett Johansson, Stellan Skarsgard -were reduced to playing cardboard preteen cliches, solemnly mouthing clunkers such as “If we can’t protect the earth, you can be damned well sure we’ll avenge it!” or “I remember you tossing me into an abyss; I, who should have been king!” It’s hardly Allen Ginsberg, is it.
Ruffalo, speaking of how he inherited the role of monosyllabic green-skinned superhero The Hulk from his friend Edward Norton — who himself took over from Eric Bana — said, “I look at it as my generation’s ‘Hamlet': We’re all going to get a shot at it.” It’s a comment that makes you either chuckle at Ruffalo’s oh-so-deadpan irony or weep with despair.
Norton himself complained bitterly about his limited character development in “The Incredible Hulk,” while Renner has described playing Hawkeye in “The Avengers” as “fun stunts, but is there any sort of emotional content or thought process? No.” Of course, the idea that they were actually expecting to do some serious acting makes me wonder whether they’d ever seen a superhero film before appearing in one. Take the check and go off and do a Darren Aronofsky or David Cronenberg film, guys.
“The Avengers” is a fanboy dream-team movie, with four A-list franchise heroes — plus a handful of second-stringers — all in one film. Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive and seeing stolid Captain America glower at trash-talking Iron Man, or The Mighty Thor take a nasty room-rattling sucker punch from The Incredible Hulk. For the fanboys at least, who patronize these films with a fervor rivaling that of evangelicals awaiting the Rapture; nonbelievers will find slim pickings in this increasingly barren genre.
Director Joss Whedon (of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” fame) grafts the buddy-cop genre onto the superhero template, with the very different personalities of the costumed crusaders leading to much locker-room sparring before they finally put their differences aside to crush the common enemy. Downey, as could be expected, sprays sharp puns like an AK-47, so much so that nobody else comes close. Johansson gets to look great in the Black Widow body suit, while Renner mostly gets to glower and shoot a lot of arrows as Hawkeye, while Chrises Evans and Hemsworth get little chance to plant tongue in cheek as Captain America and Thor.
Although the presence of Whedon serves as Kryptonite against the critics — “Buffy” has inspired more serious cultural-studies essays than anything this side of “The Matrix” — the story line here is pretty much what you’d expect, with evil demigod Loki (Tom Hiddleston) trying to seize the magical MacGuffin known as the Tesseract that will open a portal in space and allow him to bring in an invading army to destroy the Earth.
Not like we’ve seen that before, with Clu in “Tron: Legacy,” Cohaagen in “Total Recall,” Megatron in “Transformers: Dark of the Moon,” or in countless other silly films that in a more enlightened age would have been relegated to Saturday morning children’s cartoons. (Actually, Fox Kids did run a stupendously cheesy “Avengers” cartoon back in 1999.) What’s rather mind-boggling is how this 6-to-10-year-old level of story comprehension and attention span is now the operating model for theoretically mature adult audiences, though in the case of the fanboys, that’s a mighty big “theoretically.”
Also familiar is a climax involving a nuclear bomb that’s about to destroy Manhattan, a tasteless plot device seen just a few weeks earlier in “The Dark Knight Rises.” And really, what is it with Hollywood and this obsession with depicting the annihilation of NYC on screen, especially after 9/11? It strikes me as being rather like wandering through the halls of Hogwarts humming “Voldemort, Voldemort, Voldemort” all day long.
Fanboys will no doubt point to the movie’s $1.5 billion box-office takings and say “See! Best movie ever. Shut your pie-hole, hater!” Well, dudes, McDonald’s sure sells a lot of burgers, but it’s still junk food. Superhero movies — with their franchises, massive marketing budgets, cross-merchandising synergy and dedication to presenting the same experience every single time — are nothing if not the Mickey D’s of cinema, and I’m sure not lovin’ it.