Joss Whedon's 'Avengers' Reaches Apex of Averageness, True Believers

The Avengers may be awesome, but that doesn't mean it's any good. The new standard for superhero films seems to be that they don't suck as opposed to actually containing any ideas of interest.

The Avengers

Director: Joss Whedon
Cast: Robert Downey, Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson
Studio: Walt Disney Pictures
Year: 2012
US Release Date: 2012-05-04

If the thought of vague, ill-defined power sources falling into the clutches of vague, ill-defined armies, resulting in all kinds of terrible vague, ill-defined consequences sends tingles down your spine, then you're probably part of what's fuelling this faux-renaissance of the superhero movie. Luckily for you, The Avengers offers up all kinds of wooden, simplistic heroes to face up to this vague threat.

It's surely no spoiler that the Avengers win a fight against a bunch of flying CGI things (as in every other recent superhero movie), but what's somewhat surprising is just how little trouble they have in doing it. That is, it's surprising for those viewers who still hold on to the belief that fantasy scenarios -- no matter how outlandish -- are still vehicles for exploring real human tensions and conflicts. The latest round of superhero movies would seem to suggest that there's a new principle at play. The principle that awesome people are awesome.

Being a modern superhero is all about being smug—as is, it often seems, being a fan of modern superhero movies—and then going through some minor personal journey. The journey pretends to be about learning humility or something, but is really more about the hero realising how great they were all along. Director and co-writer Joss Whedon taps right into this pandering template when he stacks the deck firmly in his heroes' favour, serving up passing time-killing threats of dubious interest in place of a substantial villain.

It's this lack of real antagonistic threat that is most troubling, befuddling and probably most representative of the new mainstream formulation of non-problematic wish-fulfilment: The Avengers win fights because they are awesome.

They are so awesome that, once they've overcome their film-school-script-template background of troubles and stock inter-character conflicts, they rarely seem like they're ever actually in any real danger of losing. Whenever a villain makes a threat, our heroes can barely stifle the smug quips that come with the certainty of victory. Whenever we glimpse a weakness, it's only a trick to show just how far ahead of everyone else they are. Whenever they seem worried, it's only because they're momentarily not sure that they can live up to their own awesomeness by pressing a magical robot-suit button or something (which, of course, they always can).


The Avengers doesn't just stack the deck in favour of our heroes, it expects us to thoroughly enjoy the fantasy of constantly dealing from one. It's like playing Monopoly with a young child who doesn't realise that the game doesn't work if you simply give yourself all the money. Eventually the kid realises that too, and you can play the actual game. Through two-and-a-half hours of The Avengers, "non-awesome" audiences will be stuck waiting for that moment of realisation.

Remember Freud's observation of the "fort/da" game, where he observed a child throwing away his toy yelling "fort!" ("away") only to recapture it with a cry of "da!" ("here")? This process may be at the heart of all fantasy construction -- the constant negotiation of loss and achievement. In this, The Avengers is no different, except that it never seems to have the guts to throw the toy very far from its grasp.

Somehow this fact that the villains really aren't very good or interesting or confronting is a key selling point. As is the fact that our heroes are essentially omnipotent.

Our heroes always act beleaguered, but they always have another magical wild card to play. The card represents nothing except for the fact that they always had it. It's a strange adolescent and culturally-enclosed self-awareness that summons this fantasy image of the underdog who always wins.


As a result, the excellent Tom Hiddleston as villainous Loki is entirely wasted. So good as a troubled and layered quasi-villain in the first half of Kenneth Branagh's Thor (2011), The Avengers reduces Loki to a simplistic black-hat bad guy barely worth Hiddleston's time, or ours. It's never entirely clear what Loki is capable of -- he never seems to do much of consequence -- and by the time there's a final confrontation, it's clear that Loki really can't do much of anything, just as he isn't motivated by much of anything. That's exactly how this show likes it. The final confrontation with this supposedly central villain is shrugged off in a cheap joke. It's an amusing moment, but the ease of the villain-destroying points to the hollowness at The Avengers' core.

After a climax of what seems like hours of video game style shooting, where our heroes calmly stand around mostly unguarded while knocking off waves of uninspired and incompetent CGI meanies (who seem incapable of actually fighting back against anything but unmoving buildings), the lack of any actual human element in the conflict becomes painfully apparent. Superhero and fantasy movies can summon all kinds of silly battles and exciting images, but what's the point when they're not tangled up with a hint of authentic human conflict?

Sure, there is one key conflict in The Avengers. Namely, can the Avengers discover that they are all awesome in time to win a random battle? The first hour and a half of the film is filler, killing time until the space bugs can appear. So, the characters quibble and bicker and summon conflicts that even the dopiest viewer can see are only there so that they can be quickly and painlessly overcome. Our heroes are omnipotent until it's convenient for the storyline for them not to be; and then, to overcome that temporary setback, they suddenly are again.

Despite helming a film based almost entirely on the idea of having a bunch of colourful pre-established characters in the same room, Whedon can't even manage this inter-character conflict (aka prattle) in a group setting. Instead, Whedon splits his heroes into various groups of two so that their conflicts never have to grow into anything more complex that two people agreeing or disagreeing with each other over minor personality traits.

The Black Widow

There's no life to these conflicts -- they simply serve to slow the end of the film and make it appear as though there's character to be explored. There isn't; unless variations on "I don't like you, but really I do" seem new and fresh to someone out there who hasn't seen any 1980s buddy-cop movie ever. Acrobatics and gymnastics solve crankiness between Iron Man and Captain America. The Black Widow and Hawkeye have a deep and troubled past, or something. When a moderately central character dies (nobody with any non-fan name-value), we're supposed to treat it like a big deal, even though it's the standard "he died so that we may fight on" group-hug motivator (the attached hint of a mild ethical compromise that comes with it is merely an thrown-away nod to possible complex moral ambiguities, in no ways a real exploration of them).

In between all the posing and TV drama posturing, there is one story that offers a hint of human depth, or at least human texture. Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner (aka the Hulk) is the only cast member actually in the business of acting in the film, as opposed to reciting a line in whatever emotional tone seems appropriate at the time. As the man fighting a monster, he's a tangled mess of poise and fury, philosophical distance and uninhibited rage. Metaphorical representation of the Hulk is nothing new, but it's a hint of "something more" that the other heroes are deprived of. The few truly strong moments come from Ruffalo, seeming like the only grown up among children playing dress-up. The constant onslaught of pointless camera angles and droning underscore even seems to recede when we first encounter him; Whedon may prop up most of The Avengers with these lazy techniques, but is at least smart enough to realise that Ruffalo can carry the scenes on his own without the dubious directorial "assistance" doled out elsewhere.

The Hulk

The impact of the the Hulk's unleashed rage comes when it seems to truly unnerve one of our otherwise unflappable heroes -- perhaps the only human response any of them have to anything. For a moment, it suggests a glimpse into something not merely capable of punching things made of CGI, but also capable of tearing oneself apart from the inside. Ruffalo balances this tightrope sensitively, giving his final Hulk transformation a sadness that lingers even through the CGI spatter.

But ultimately there's no room for tensions and sombre uncertainties in Whedon's larger vision; whatever tensions Ruffalo builds, Whedon is happy to throw away for some cheap laughs and empty action in the finale. I guess there's no place in the "we're all awesome!" group hug for the kind of depth that could have been extracted from Ruffalo with some extra care.

The rest of the mega-cast give power through their presence rather than their various levels of ability; for the most part, this bombardment of celebrity works, helping us feel that these guys are a big deal even when they're little more than simple stereotypes (yes, trendily-troubled Iron Man included, kids). As a result, the weaknesses of pretty-boy casting can't help but stand out. Chris Hemsworth's Thor is a little less awkward than when he was embarrassingly (and not surprisingly) outperformed by Hiddleston and Anthony Hopkins in his first hammer-twirling outing; now his delivery just sounds a little silly, which is a step up and no big problem in this kind of thing anyway.

Captain America

Chris Evans' blank-faced Captain America suffers the most; the role seems to be designed for the Captain America of the comics -- a veteran hero of a past age, with values and character traits that simultaneously confront modern sensibilities and demand respect. But the Captain America of the new Marvel franchise is the same kind of superhero modern audiences always seem to get -- hot, young, brash, bland, "awesome" (think Green Lantern, or J.J. Abrams' Captain Kirk). Cap makes a few "cute" references to being from the past, but there's no real sense of values in conflict; it's probably too much for Whedon to deal with and Evans simply doesn't have the ability or presence to slip some depth in through the cracks, as did Ruffalo. Captain America is supposed to be the glue that holds it all together -- but instead his wooden-faced blandness seems representative of just how hollow it all is at the centre.

For all that, The Avengers isn't a bad film; Whedon proves to be entirely competent in this swing at unremarkable averageness, which will no doubt fuel the hailing of the film in some circles as a modern comic-book masterpiece. The new standard for superhero films seems to be that they don't suck as opposed to actually containing any ideas of interest. It may be awesome, but that doesn't mean it's any good. With an increasingly-vocal online fan-base, that's something we're all going to have to work hard to remember.


Spawning Ground

David Antrobus

In this ancient place of giant ferns and cedars, it seems the dead outnumber the living; the living fall away too quietly, too easily, taken away by stealth. There is tremendous natural beauty here, but its hold is tenuous, like moss clinging to rotting bark that will ultimately break and sink into the forest floor.

If I were to choose a visual symbol of my adopted home of Mission, an average-size town in the impossibly green western Canadian province of British Columbia, I would probably come up with a rotting carcass in a verdant pasture, a vision of death amid life. If this sounds harsh, hear me out and I'll tell my own truth about this place.

Clinging to the swift-scoured, salmon-haunted northern bank of the mighty Fraser River like an ailing lamprey to the deadly smooth flank of a Great White, this town, situated about 70 kilometers east of Vancouver, owes its entire existence to the water of its rivers and lakes, and to the wood harvested from the dense, surrounding forest. Settled in the mid-19th century, Mission has managed to survive despite two serious floods, a bridge collapse, the ominous early signs of malaise in the natural resource sector (did we really think the salmon and the great conifers were infinitely, magically renewable?), and a general reputation for unfocussed, redneck belligerence.

It all comes down to the Fraser River. The river has brought both food and trade; it provides a thoroughfare upon which the people of Mission (among others) float the great log booms that are the defeated renderings we humans fashion from the vast tracts of coastal rainforest (cedar, spruce, fir, hemlock) in our seemingly inexhaustible compulsion to exploit her resources and bring Mother Nature to her matronly knees — in part because (we believe) we can.

But the details about life in this town — the jeweler murdered in a robbery, the pretty high school graduate killed by a drunk driver, the 14-year-old suicide — in fact, all the jostling narratives crowding like paparazzi, each insisting on exclusive front page drama, bubble and coalesce and ultimately conspire to reveal the hidden Mission. There is a dark vortex lurking beneath the seemingly placid surface; the ominous shadow of something ancient beneath sun-dappled waters. Even the countless apparent banalities playing out on the town's rural borders disguise something deeper, more clandestine: the hobby farmer up in MacConnell Creek bemoaning his exhausted well; the entrepreneur hungry for an investment opportunity, eager to transform the hillsides of quiet, bucolic Silverdale into sudden, lockstep suburbia; the hiker mauled by a black bear in the mountains north of Steelhead. And always, the numerous lives derailed by marijuana grow-op busts. For all the gradual liberalisation of laws at the consumer end of this local economic rival to wood and water, those who supply the celebrated crop usually feel the full force of Canadian justice, anyway. There are times when nothing in Mission seems devoid of some kind of meaning.

A monastery sits above this town, a Benedictine haven of alternating silence and the evocative clatter of Sunday Matins bells. Its tower is phallic and disproportionately defiant, rising above the landscape like a giant darning needle, casting its intrusive shadow over the patchwork quilt of human settlement as if to stitch a final tableaux, symbolically and definitively, of the history of the original inhabitants and their mistreatment at the hands of the white settlers. Said inhabitants were (and are) the Stó:lo people (their language, Halq'eméylem, was an exclusively oral tradition, so the words are spelled phonetically nowadays). Stó:lo territory stretched along the river valley from present-day Vancouver to Yale in the Fraser Canyon, a 170 kilometer swath of virgin, fecund land, teeming with such totemic creatures as salmon, ancient sturgeon, deer, black bear, cougar, coyote, beaver, and wolf.

The Stó:lo, a Native American (or First Nations) people belonging to the larger group of Central Coast Salish, settled this area around 10,000 years ago. Europeans, attracted by rumours of gold, arrived in the 1850s. The resulting clash of cultures did not work out well for the indigenous people, and today they are still recovering from the trickle-down effects of at least one generation having been torn from its extended family. Residential schools, for which the monastery in Mission is a present-day symbol, were sites of a particularly virulent form of cultural genocide. First Nations children across Canada were taken from their homes, often exposed to physical and sexual abuse and occasionally murder, their mouths scoured with soap if they even dared to utter their own languages. St. Mary's in Mission, founded in 1861 and relinquished in 1984, was the last residential school in Canada to close.

There are 82 Indian Reserves in the Fraser Valley. There are eight correctional institutions, two in Mission alone (Aboriginal people represent around four percent of the Canadian population, yet account for 18 percent of the federally incarcerated population). Somebody — something? — really likes to control and segregate people, around here.

This fragmentation is reflected in the odd demographics of the town in general. Leaving their multicultural mark have been, at various times, Italians in Silverdale, Swedes in Silverhill, the French in Durieu, the Japanese in the early years of the fruit industry (as in the US, the Japanese were rewarded for their labours by being sent to internment camps in 1942), and immigrants from India in the early days of the shake and shingle mills. (The Western Red Cedar, with its straight grain, durability, and imperviousness to the incessant rain, while inspiring Native culture with the quixotic grandeur of totem poles, grabbed more prosaic European imaginations in the form of the shake and shingle industry, which provides reliable roofing and siding components for homes.)

In some ways, Mission is a vibrantly conflicted example of Canada's multicultural mosaic. With just over 30,000 residents (of which 3,000 are First Nations) mostly crammed into a relatively small area, bordered by the river to the south and the mountains to the north, mill workers and biker gangs, artists and Mennonites, muscle car boys and summer folkies, soccer moms and Sikh Temple-goers, merchants and pagans, Freemasons and caffeine addicts, street people and Renaissance Faire anachronisms all rub shoulders with varying degrees of friction, occasionally achieving harmony in spite of themselves. Perhaps the relative accord is due to the overall youth of the population (73 percent are under 35-years-old).

Earlier, I mentioned the presence of death. Why? Because it is everywhere here, its proximity eerily palpable. It inhabits the sly rustle of the towering conifers. It taints the air with the swampy pungency of skunk cabbage in springtime. It hums incessantly in the sub-woofer buzz of the hydroelectric dams. It shuffles along in the downcast, scuff-shoed limp of a lone child returning to a chilly home. From a distance, even the monks in their dark cassocks, knit-browed and bound by their vows of silence, seem eerily close to the Reaper caricature. For actual evidence of its pervasiveness, though, one need not go far back in time.

The bodies of three women were dumped between here and neighbouring Agassiz back in '95. Suicides and the furtive aftermath of murder, barely registering in the town at all, have spattered Burma Road, a potholed strip of rocks and dirt skirting the shore of Stave Lake. In 1997, Doug Holtam of Silverdale (a small community west of Mission) bludgeoned his pregnant wife and six-year-old daughter to death with a hammer. Against all odds, his young son Cody survived the attack. In 1995, a drunk driver, leaving in his wake not only the proverbial outpouring of community grief but also a devastated twin sister, killed 18-year-old Cindy Verhulst during the week she and her peers were busy celebrating their high school graduation. There was the little boy who slipped away from his day care centre and drowned in the swollen Fraser River. The 12-year-old boy found hanging from a school washroom towel dispenser. The elderly pilot whose body was discovered in dense forest a full two years after he had gone missing. And there was Dawn-Marie Wesley, a 14-year-old Native girl who took her own life in the basement of her home after enduring relentless bullying at school; barely noticed in life, Oprah material in death.

As disturbing and tragic as these stories are, however, there was little precedent for the breaking news in the summer of 2003. This one will need a little background.

Since the mid-'80s, women have been disappearing from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, Canada's poorest postal code. Partly due to the initial incompetence of the Vancouver Police Department and jurisdictional issues with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), partly due to the amorphous (read: investigative nightmare) nature of the disappearances, and partly because so few people cared about missing hookers and addicts, more and more women went missing, with nary a ripple in the public consciousness (or conscience). In fact, as of this writing, a horrifying total of 65 individuals are currently on the Missing Women list. For years, law enforcement didn't even refer to their disappearance as crimes, and it wasn't until 1998 that an official task force was even assigned to investigate.

Finally, in February 2002, Robert William Pickton, a pig farmer from the Vancouver suburb of Port Coquitlam (approximately half way between Vancouver and Mission), was charged with two counts of first-degree murder of two of the missing women. More charges followed in the months ahead. Pickton currently faces 15 counts of first-degree murder with seven more expected. DNA samples of 31 women have been linked to his 10-acre farm. In short, potentially the largest serial murder case in Canadian history is now underway just 35 kilometers from Mission.

Given the frequent intrusion of death into the area, I suppose it should have surprised no one when, on 20 July 2003, the missing women's joint task force announced they would be searching an area of wetlands near Mission. Just south of Highway 7 (aka the Lougheed Highway) and the man-made body of water known as Silvermere (itself the subject of a delightfully creepy urban legend or two), the area is basically marshland bisected by a meandering slough. Immediately following the announcement of the search, the site was fenced off with temporary chain link, and the highway's wide shoulders — traditionally home to roadside fruit and flower vendors hawking their locally grown products — were suddenly and unequivocally off-limits.

Driving this formerly innocuous stretch of blacktop, especially under the after-dusk arc lights, with their swirling bug armadas and liquid island oases in the dark, now touched off an indescribably eerie feeling. It was a relief when, on 8 August, the entire ensemble of law enforcement personnel (numerous forensic investigators plus 52 anthropologists) took up their tools again and vanished. They gave no word of what they had uncovered or even whether anything had been found at all, leaving our community to its familiar, fitful dreams once more. Mission's part in this unfolding story, as it relates to the wider world, remains amorphous and indistinct, with its usual chilly glints of barely suppressed horror flickering amid the overall grey.

Here, it seems, empirical proof takes a back seat to rumour and anecdote every time.

Sometimes, while hiking alone in the tree-bejeweled mountains west of Steelhead, east of the dams, I have suddenly felt the fetid breath of graves, a harsh raven-shadow lurking behind the abundant emerald and olive greens of this sodden paradise. Inexplicable noises in the deep tangled brush; distant rending, gnashing. Something skulking and hungry. With all the assured rationality of the white male immigrant, I've been known to smirk at the idea of ghosts, and yet stumbling along a jade-tunnel trail bristling with old man's beard and devil's club, I've occasionally recoiled from something, the skin of my arms prickling with gooseflesh. There are spirits here, all right, something not too far removed from the capricious tricksters who inhabit indigenous myth. Spectres of a kind, nursing some nameless, hollow ache of unrequited need rendered manifest, paradoxically, by a landscape dripping with life.

The closest we Europeans get to perceiving this (however inadvertently) can be heard in the low extended rumble of the nighttime freight trains as they call out in the dark, hunching parallel to Railway Avenue long after most residents are asleep, lonely as a buffalo herd that's somehow seen and almost comprehended its own approaching ruin.

Of course, my telling is by no means the complete, illustrated history of Mission, a town that can barely hold onto its own name (since 1884, take your pick: St. Mary's Mission, Mission Junction, Mission City, Village of Mission, Town of Mission, and currently the District of Mission). Not by a long shot; this lurid splash portrays but a small corner of the canvas. How can any one person paint the full picture of a community, after all? No, despite my perverse zeal to stir the viscous mud below the bright surface, great deeds and happy memories adorn the history of this place, too, adding the sparkle and lustre of life above and hopefully beyond the stillness and silence. And yet, no matter how much joie de vivre this community may exhibit on its special days, like a red-carpet celebrity when the cameras start rolling — whether it be the laughing children with their maple leaf flags and pancake stacks celebrating Canada Day up at Heritage Park, or the benevolently stoned crowd at the annual Folk Festival, or even the choked air and sharp adrenaline at the Raceway — surely one thing cannot go unremarked: nearly half of those missing-presumed-dead women were of Aboriginal descent. This adds one more layer of indifference to a jaded populace apparently caught somewhere between the small town rural cruelties of its past and the uneasy suburban shrugs of its gathering future.

I know this. I worked with the street kid population here for years, witnessed their hardscrabble resilience. Few people ever gave a genuine damn about the plight of these children, even though some of the throwaways had not yet reached puberty. Two-thirds of street-involved youth in Mission are Aboriginal. Many are sexually exploited by family members, neighbors, pimps and selected citizens, but few speak of it. Some of these kids head west to Vancouver for a date with misery, stretching already tenuous community ties to the breaking point. My job as a street worker was to speak for these lost children, to ensure some semblance of the child welfare system would kick in through advocacy with social workers or teachers or families or counselors or probation officers. In a world in which the so-called "bottom line" — money and the politics of money — has become drawn too garishly, these already marginalized youth were, and continue to be, largely abandoned by a system designed to protect them. Sometimes I stand beside the town's failing heart, its run down main drag (1st Avenue), taking in the pawnshops and thrift outlets and dollar stores, and I'm convinced I truly hate this place... but only because I've loved it so deeply. In life: death. In death: life. The great inscrutable cycle.

In this way, the perennially troubled summer Pow Wow, always skirting the edge of ruin (corrupt, inept politics and sporadic funding, take a bow), yet often prevailing regardless, seems to me a far more accurate symbol of the clutching, ragged breaths that secretly haunt the sleep of this community. The fleeting vibrant colours of traditional dancers whirling in bright regalia — poignant as the plumage of endangered birds, flying amongst the high wailing melismas of the Northern-style singing and the vital, aorta-punching drums of the circles — somehow speaks more of an unavenged wound in time and place, set amid the cruelty that underlies so much beauty, than anything else this conflicted human settlement seems capable of offering.

An absurd contrast, really — this vibrant gathering and the judgmental silence of all those surrounding stories of the dead — the whole place holding its breath waiting for these mortal sorrows to purge themselves before the pristine lawns and asphalt and vinyl sidings are allowed to spread and eventually suffocate every fucking thing that ever felt like something here.

For here, tenacious as the town itself alongside relentless churning waters, the living will no doubt cling to hope and the perpetual dream of life until the muscled river — unnoticed, stealthy, taken for granted — wrestles away everything (horror, joy, splintered wood and the final word) at long last, sending it all tumbling toward the planet's dark and pitiless seas for good.

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