Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Samuel L. Jackson, Chris Hemsworth, Jeremy Renner, Tom Hiddleston, Stellan Skarsgard, Clark Gregg, Gwyneth Paltrow, Mark Ruffalo
(Walt Disney Studios; US theatrical: ; UK theatrical: ; 2012)
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
Tom Wilkinson, Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Bill Nighy, Dev Patel, Penelope Wilton
(Fox Searchlight; US theatrical: ; UK theatrical: ; 2012)
4 May, 2012 is a date that deserves to go down in entertainment history as the culmination of one of the greatest marketing offensives ever witnessed. Starting in the summer of 2008, when Marvel Studios released the first Iron Man, audiences have been treated to a succession of supercharged superhero flicks like Iron Man and Thor. For all their respective merits and defects, those films can now be seen as little more than the initial building-blocks for the box office smasheroo that was to follow. By the time that The Avengers came to the United States on May 4, with its market-tested heroes and cash in the bank – opening a week and a half early in foreign markets, it had practically already earned back its gargantuan production budget well before the ritualistic midnight fanboy screenings – it was a preordained success. That the film would be a hit with audiences was almost as assured as Disney’s other big spring release, John Carter, was doomed to failure.
There’s not a little genius to this. Remember, this is an age when most of the totems of big Hollywood filmmaking have become less than trustworthy. We’re not quite at the level of panic that afflicted the studios in the Easy Rider era when all their old genres and stars had so suddenly stopped working, but the lack of certainty in the industry right now feels endemic. But the Avengers films are something else. Even the installments seen as being less successful, like The Incredible Hulk (the Edward Norton one) and Captain America, each took in well over a quarter-billion dollars worldwide. For Marvel and Disney to spend years confidently engineering an entire series of hit films with a broad diversity of stars and characters and directors (Kenneth Branagh to Jon Favreau?) to then bring all those personalities together in a titanic conclusion that can play as well in Karachi as it does in Indianapolis, is nothing less than astonishing.
There is the film itself to consider, however, and “astonishing” is not exactly the word one would use it. To help look at what is truly wrong or at least missing from the equation in The Avengers, it might be instructive to consider another sure-fire success that also opened in American theaters on May 4. There aren’t any indications that The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel has anything in common with The Avengers, except in one critical area: a nearly complete lack of creative risk-taking.
Although The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel doesn’t have the advantage of support from an entertainment-complex juggernaut, not to mention already existing characters to build from, its story and people feel just as market-researched as those found in the 3D-equipped theater next door. At its helm is director John Madden, who has shown in films like Shakespeare in Love and Mrs. Brown that he can easily put together pleasing middle-brow dramas for the mainstream arthouse set. Packing the screen is an almost embarrassing wealth of graying British acting talent, any one of whom could ably carry a film all on their own. The story, in which some British pensioners think that they’ve found themselves a bargain retirement palace in India only to find it’s quite a bit more decrepit than they’d thought, is smartly calibrated to give each of its performers just enough drama for a mini-epiphany. A racist Maggie Smith discovers the error of her ways, a quiet Tom Wilkinson finds out that a childhood secret of his is not at all what he’d thought, and a put-upon Bill Nighy realizes what everybody else knows: his wife is a detestable person. And so on. Nothing too earth-shattering, mind you, just enough to allow each of the actors to show off their range. Pretty photography, too.
It’s all very smoothly done but comes without a hint of surprise or revelation. The same can be said for The Avengers. The plot is the usual kind of guff about getting possession of this superpowerful glowing cube which could spell the end of the world. (Again.) To stop said apocalypse, Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury gathers together all the heroes of the earlier installments into a ragtag band of hyper-sensitive misfits (including a couple non-superheroes like Jeremy Renner and Scarlett Johansson who don’t seem to deserve their own films). They bicker amusingly, thanks to director / writer Joss Whedon (whose trademark wit is present only in occasional sparks during this lumbering enterprise), and then spend a lot of time in midtown Manhattan battling … something.
At no point is the world-ending threat truly explicated. Sure, we know that Thor’s evil little adopted brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston, stealing the film almost as easily as he did Terence Davies’ melodrama The Deep Blue Sea earlier this year) wants to enslave the human race because he felt slighted as a child. Also, because some masked villain in a crudely inserted background scene threatens Loki to do what he wants. Then, when the glowing supercube opens up a portal into another universe, squadrons of baddies who look like the aliens one mows down in a down-market first-person shooter video game, come pouring out and make a mess of the city.
As this all grinds on, Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark gets to riff on some nicely sarcastic dialogue, and Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner finds a spark of honest tragedy beneath the Hulk’s green rage. But when the smashing is done and evil vanquished (sort of, not enough to keep a sequel from happening), is any of it that memorable? Nothing ever seems truly at stake (putting the Avengers together like some superhero squad of Navy SEALs doesn’t leave much chance that they’ll loose, after all), and but for the death of one particularly loveable character, little of it sticks.
There isn’t much to hang on to in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, either. Its little dramas unfold in predictable ways, just as cozy as one of the costume dramas which many of its stars have put in their time on. Though it doesn’t indulge in the expected Orientalist exoticism – Dev Patel’s hyperbolic entrepreneur being a refreshing change from the cutesy-wise Indian stereotypes such films normally traffic in – there is also little to be found in the way of true risk, adventure, or discovery; which should be illegal in a film about retirees marooned in a foreign land.
These are both films that know their audiences, perhaps all too well. You recommend The Avengers to your thirteen-year-old nephew who loved Transformers and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel to your aunt since you know that she watches Downton Abbey; they will both be happy. It is difficult to imagine, though, either being truly thrilled or transported or wanting to argue about the film afterward. What is there to talk about, really?
Both films are already great financial successes, The Avengers’s ever-mounting record grosses being reported on by a strangely-enraptured entertainment press and even a comparatively small operation like The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel had already raked in over $70 million before opening in America. But as art or entertainment they feel like little more than placeholders, target-marketed product that deliver exactly what they’re supposed to, and not an iota more. These are risky times, after all.