On Superheros and Cinema: Things Thought While Watching The Avengers

CGI has yet to define itself as a new color in the cinematic palette.  This may not seem the case when you consider that any major blockbuster released by Hollywood is lousy with it.  But let’s not take Hollywood as a guide in this instance.  Instead, let’s just say that CGI is nothing more than digital matte paintings, digital make-up effects, digital animatronics and digital-digital, just to be safe.

Don’t worry.  I’m not leading up to an argument for how the new digital landscape will forever tarnish the good name of cinema.  But I do think that what CGI may have in terms of scope and detail it lacks in terms of discipline.  Older techniques required that things be framed in a certain way in order to sell the effect.  Smarter filmmakers would then take these apparent limitations and incorporate them into the overall style of the picture, to make the effects feel part of a whole.  This would then feed into the experience of the film, intensify our connection to it and solidfy our love for it for all time, e.g. John Carpenter’s The Thing.  With CGI, however, you simply need to make the thing in a computer then paste some actors over top of it.  In any old way you choose.  This leads to some very uncinematic results.

Wide shots.  Giant-Ass Anamorphic Glory.  I miss them.  Maybe I’m just crazy, or loosing sight in my old age, but of the recent blockbusters I’ve seen very few have used the wide shot to great effect.  Seems strange when you consider that CGI gives you endless possibilities when it comes to filling up a frame but not so much when you consider the discipline issue.  Within limitations we find creativity, remove the limitations and you get a giant video game that you never get to play.  But what a carefully constructed wide shot can give you is that sense of play.  When elements are arranged on the screen to convey information then moved around in tighter shots, or with dolly shots, or just a carefully constructed sequence of shots, we become naturally more involved.  The reason why cutting works in cinema is because it is very similar to how our brains work.

When you think about it, cutting from one shot to another shouldn’t make much sense to us.  In life you’re only ever given one point of view at a time.  If you have a long drive in front of you to meet up with your destiny, I know I have two or three of those a week, you don’t skip the drive and cut to your destination.  You experience every second of it.  The only thing equivalent to a fade to black would be when you fall asleep.  But thankfully, over a hundred years of a developing cinematic language has made it so that we understand that when you cut from one person talking in one shot to another talking in another shot that these two people aren’t in two entirely different locations at two separate times, they’re having a conversation.  And our brain works the same way, a thought leading to another thought, one completing the other through associations we know or intuit, gives us more or less of an understanding of an idea.  So we can watch films, even gigantic blockbuster ones, and get the gist.

Superheros are the gist.  They’re the perfect CGI creature and having watched The Avengers tonight I can tell you that I am finally ready to confront my 12-year old self which is a debt I will forever owe to Joss Whedon as most men only confront their 12-year old self when they are middle-aged and it makes them buy Ferrari’s and I don’t want to do that.  My 12-year old self would not be able to handle the current slate of superhero productions.  The idea of an Iron Man movie alone would have been enough to send me into a catatonic state of excitement, let alone a string of films leading up to an Avengers movie, a team-up movie!  Do you have any idea how many comic books have been sold since the 1940’s based on the idea that your favorite superheros have teamed up to take on evil? Well it’s in the millions, maybe hundreds of millions.  A lot, basically.  The team-up is the turning point for comics coming into what they are today because it was the first step in the idea of Universe Building, something novelists had been doing for centuries, but it didn’t happen in comics until The Justice Society of America, which lead to The Justice League, and thus the Fantastic Four and The Avengers and countless others.  A Universe as opposed to the daily comic strip model, a model I think I now prefer, where a hero goes on yet another exciting two-fisted adventure.

Seriously! Wide shots! There’s an introductory scene for the Black Widow in the Avengers that seemed weird to me, and it seemed weird because they chose the wrong wide shot for the scene.  In the scene BW is tied to a chair and is being interrogated by some Russian…guys? We follow up the side of the building to see the chair she’s tied to is in front of a flight of stairs…or a hole, I forget which.  We really could have benefited from the introductory shot leading up these stairs or hole or whatever to see the danger she’s in, instead of finding out a few shots in when we’ve already had time to figure out that she’s really in no danger at all.  When it comes to superheros you must convince the audience of the danger immediately.  And that’s my only criticism of The Avengers.  In all 142 minutes of the picture that is the thing I choose to focus on, “They really missed an opportunity with that shot.”

Because superheros are CGI now (watch as I attempt to draw these disparate strands together).  They are an idea from 1938, earlier if you consider Pulp Fiction characters like The Shadow or Doc Savage, or even The Phantom who appeared in comic strips in 1936.  It was a simpler time that wasn’t simple at all really.  While technology constantly increases its capacities, human emotion stays relatively the same.  We develop, emotionally speaking, a lot slower than our toys do.  But in 1938 a character in a bright blue costume with a red S on his chest could easily stand out from the skyscrapers and turnstiles.  In fact, an image of a man leaping across such a cityscape would actually inspire something like awe, would speak to man’s yearning for greater things and as a metaphor for achievement.  But we’re living in the future now.  Iron Man does most of his work from his iPhone, advertisements are advanced enough nowadays to serve as entertainment for decades past.  It’s harder now than ever for the superhero to stand outside of society and it’s a shame because that’s all he was ever good at.  Watching The Avengers tonight, entertained  completely in case you want to say I’m a jerk, I realized the limitations of superheros. 

For some reason I thought about Cassavetes and how a single scene in A Woman Under the Influence, emotionally speaking, could devastate me more than all the digital explosions you could render.  And that’s how Superhero Cinema will always be lacking. There are no true stakes for any involved, we all know they’ll win in the end right?  But then how do you explain Indiana Jones?  Well in that case you’ve got a lot more factors involved, namely Speilberg and genius, but also you have a world that is created explicitly for the screen.  Superheros were made for comic books.  These are paper people.  And it is on the four-color page that they achieve true narrative impact.  I’m not sure of the alchemy involved, I only have years of reading comics in my youth to draw from.  But it seems like once you take them off the page, and once you pollute them with the bile of mainstream success, they are revealed as the shallow escapes they are.  There are no true losses, no things done that can’t be undone, no fear of ambiguity, and no need to get to some larger truth.  Of course, simple entertainments shouldn’t be held to such standards or God forbid we may actually be moved by them.  The true power of the Superhero is in iconography, something that can be rendered as brilliantly as Kirby was capable of on the page.  But it seems once you get real live human beings in those tights something begins to unravel.  Once $200 million dollars is spent on it, things start to feel not quite right.  The simple act of putting them in front of a camera, a device that exposes truth, creates problems that can’t be resolved.

The thing I knew as a 12-year old, the thing I hadn’t quite admitted to myself even years after I stopped reading comics, is that comics would always be either mocked and ignored or win Pulitzers.  And as far as the mainstream is concerned that’s exactly the same thing.  Superheros are mightily powerful but they must be contained on the page because that’s where they work best.  Like how seeing a movie in a theater is the best place to see it.  They have to exist in a world that is whole, where nothing stands apart from the frame.  In comics this is acheived by the careful hand of the artists, a world is created in which tights make sense.  Unlike how a CGI effect is pasted on top of parts of a real world environment, clearly standing apart from what’s actually being photographed.  Hey…I think I just tied the threads together.  How about that.

What I propose is that since Hollywood is forcing us to watch all these Superhero Movies that don’t have stakes that truly represent the human being and his struggles, that they make up for it by giving me $10 million, or roughly the snack budget for Iron Man 3, to make a superhero film.  This won’t be about an established comic book character.  It’ll be about a young boy who has an encounter with a superhero, taking place in a world where superheros exist of course.  The boy grows up idolizing the hero who saved him, but when he reaches his teens the superhero is killed in battle.  A devastating blow.  But when the superhero is examined his identity can’t be established.  So it remains a secret, one that compels the boy to try to find out who this guy really was who selflessly fought for others.  And what he finds out…will cost you ten million dollars.  Give it to me studios, if not for me than for the critics who have to get yelled at by Internet commentators when they don’t like what you put out.  I have a feeling they’d dig this one.  It’s called…Superhero. 

P.S. I enjoyed the movie in case you were wondering.  So much fighting though.