[16 May 2012]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
With its unbelievable worldwide box office take over the last 19-plus days, Joss Whedon’s version of The Avengers has joined an exclusive club of mega-hits. While Tinseltown used to gauge success via the magical $100 million ceiling, the recent revision toward a more international approach has produced something far more significant. Now, boffo is measured in billions, with a ‘B,’ and with only 11 other entries in that elite company, it’s clear that a nerve of sorts has been hit. The Avengers is obviously more than just a comic book driven action film. From its proposed feminist perspective to its amazing hero moments (especially those given to the otherwise underserved Hulk), it’s the very definition of a phenomenon…
...except, it isn’t really. Oh sure, any time you can proclaim an amount ten times the original reflection of cinematic triumph, you are breathing rarified air. Similarly, Whedon’s ability to meet both fan expectations and the needs of the novice suggest something far more potent. Yet it’s clear, considering the wealth of new markets being lumped in as part of the total, that the movies that don’t make a billion are true question marks. While everyone argues that movies like this translate across the obvious language barriers, there are still cultural divides to overcome. No, there is another reason why The Avengers has crossed that mighty money threshold, and it’s sitting right under your hands.
That’s right, it’s all the web’s fault… or triumph. Indeed, as the multinationals and pundits love to argue, the Internet has made the world a helluva lot smaller. It has given information and access to parts of the planet otherwise left out of the mix while connecting people and product in ways unheard of a mere decade ago. Think about it, before the sizable social network advantages of Twitter, Facebook, et. al., community was measure in comments. Blog posts were the town crier while mainstream hubs like Yahoo and AOL acted like the nightly news. Before long, word of mouth was not only measured in conversations, but talk backs and trolls. Soon, a feeling of togetherness spread beyond the personal into the professional, and finally, the product.
As a result, you can now pitch to everyone who is a potential viewer. Before, there were gaps in the marketing schematic. You couldn’t tell patrons in heavily censured Communist countries or residents of remote regions about your latest release. Instead, you had to shuffle talent out amongst the rabble, hoping the chance to see Jean-Claude Van Damme was enough to drive unsuspecting butts into seats. Back pre-WWW, advertising was driven by personality, not posts to your profile. That’s why suspect stars like Arnold and Sly survived in the ‘80s and early ‘90s. They were larger than life individuals, able to translate said onscreen presence to places like Malaysia and the former Soviet Bloc. Now, all you need is a server, a PC set-up, and the ability to spend endless hours scanning the web. Before long, you’re practically Harry Knowles and the entire Ain’t It Cool News staff.
Still, that doesn’t quite explain how Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland makes it to $1.02 billion while a superior experience like Inception barely breaks $820 million. This is, perhaps, where content finally comes into play. People are still confused over Nolan’s puzzle box of an entertainment. Yes, it’s science fiction, but the moral isn’t based in future shock cannibalism or evolutionary nuclear annihilation. Instead, Inception deals with the flaunting of reality, something not necessarily translatable across various language barriers. All they can rely on is loads of iconic eye candy and loud than bomb explosions. Indeed, at the core of every mega-hit is something strategic - simplicity.
What is The Avengers really other than a group of good guys battling a metallic intergalactic menace? Similarly, Avatar is the reverse, with the aliens acting as the victims of humanity’s insatiable greed. In fact, if you look at the 11 other movies that have made over $1 billion at the box office, at least eight have a similar storyline. Only the perplexing Pirates of the Caribbean sequels (not the first film, oddly enough), the aforementioned take on Lewis Carrol, and the doomed shipboard romance between Kate and Leo can legitimately opt out of the formula. In fact, it appears that those anomalies are just that, flukes formed out of a kind of calculated mass hysteria. Without Cameron or Depp attached, it looks like many on the list have to rely on being the final installment in a proposed trilogy.
Of course, the difference between The Avengers and most of its fellow entertainment tycoons is that it had a rocky journey toward its triumph. Iron Man and Iron Man 2 were solid, but Thor, Captain America, and the two attempts at The Hulk were all mixed in their artistry and appreciation. Add to that Whedon’s weird legacy on the big screen (he’s a whiz when it comes to TV: Buffy, Firefly) and you’ve got concerns. This is the man who scripted Titan AE and Alien Resurrection, after all. And don’t count The Cabin in the Woods just yet. Even with the overlap with The Avengers, that horror homage is still struggling to make it past $40 million.
What’s readily apparent, then, is that translation is everything. If an idea can be easily absorbed, explained away in a sentence or two (humans battle monsters for control of a kingdom) and expressed in visuals that turn everything into an world of wonder, most everyone alive on the third rock from the Sun can accept it. Add layers of complexity and you slowly reduce your speed toward ultimate ticket sales bragging rights. In fact, if anyone says they have the Billionaire Boys Club for film figured out, they’re lying. John Carter was an equally epic effort and it will go down as one of 2012 biggest disappointments. Similarly, Wrath of the Titans was a terrible sequel, but it sure had lots of spectacle.
Clearly, one needs to be both psychic and lucky to become a member of this particularly privileged group. Hype cannot predict payoff, especially when you consider that even the brightest international stars dim in the wrong arena (right, Ms. Jolie?). In baseball, a hit can come after many times at bat, the numerous pitches and appearances at the plate all gravy once the rock sails over center field. Sure, we like a single, but a home run is so much more satisfying. Somewhere, in the hallowed offices of the studio suits, there are bean counters making mountains out of weekly release molehills. When an Everest arrives out of the fog, it flummoxes everyone. The Avengers will continue to break records as 2012 plays out. How and why it does so will also remain a partially solved mystery.