Film

'The Avengers': The First Superhero Chick Flick?

The Avengers is the first full blown superhero movie that honestly speaks to women. Not only has Whedon done the impossible cinematically, he's done something unheard of demographically.


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

It's already got geek boy nation in a frothy uproar. In fact, outside of the announcement (and then eventual cancellation) of George Miller's Justice League film, few in the comic book nerd universe have thought of little except the final teaming of The Avengers... and it's just about here. Now, granted, this isn't the most complete of pictures -- there is no Ant-Man, Wasp, or a number of noted names -- and has been carefully constructed on a foundation of (sometimes flawed) origin films, but with the Summer season about to start in full swing, Marvel's mammoth undertaking is the first picture pimping for the almighty popcorn dollar. And it appears destined to make a mint. Already earning heavy praise and heated buzz, it looks to be one of the leaders once 31 August rolls around.

Even better, writer/director Joss Whedon has done something remarkable, something unheard of in the echelons of superhero movies - he's managed to make something that just might capture the female demographic. For the most part, the genre is considered the domain of male members of AA -- no, not Alcoholics Anonymous -- a far more lethal organization, the arrested adolescent. Symbolizing the subjugation of cinema to the whims of trolls and comment page obsessives, the kowtowing by and to Marvel and DC has routinely been blamed on "the guys", while gals get to share the blame for making Nicholas Sparks, Stephanie Meyer, and any number of Cupie of the Moment actresses box office gold.

But with The Avengers, Whedon does what he did so brilliantly in his seminal work of any medium, Buffy the Vampire Slayer.There, he took a female protagonist and kept the gender bias, working in male interest by investing the genre necessities with some broad bravado. Approach and angle were always about the lack of a Y chromosome. By being so inclusive, by never forgetting that women sometimes accompany men to the movies (or make the decisions while seated on the living room couch), Whedon works The Avengers into a creative communal experience. Gents will get the mandatory bang for their buck. The ladies, on the other hand, get all the emotion and male eye candy they can handle.

First off, the film is made up of five fascinating and attractive male leads. They run the gamut from pure stud muffin-ry (Thor) to a more recognizable, and ripped, human ideal (Captain America). There's the brainy dude with a dark secret (Hulk), a jet setting entrepreneur with wealth, power, looks, and a way with the smarmy small talk (Iron Man) and pumped up military marvel with deadly aim (Hawkeye). All of these men and their various superpower permutations are viewed through the prism of our presumptive guide, Natasha Romanoff, also known as the assassin/spy Black Widow. She begins the assembly of The Avengers by answering S.H.I.E.L.D.'s call, kicking some Russian butt, and then recruiting Bruce Banner to bring his big green ogre option to the mix.

Romanoff also has a personal investment in the outcome, as the narrative immediately places one of her closest colleagues in villainous jeopardy. Indeed, throughout the entire film, Whedon makes us aware that our heroine has the hots (both metaphysically and... without the meta) for the bow-wielding Cliff Barton/Hawkeye. They have a past, a particularly powerful link based on respect, and a call that goes beyond duty or demand of country. In fact, one could argue that without Natasha, the movie wouldn't work. All we'd have are a bunch of testosterone fueled titans ready to rip each other apart without rhyme or reason. While able to kick just as much ass as the men, our stealthy government gun for hire in the skin tight leather get up is the balance between demi-god/monster outrage and civilian/soldier strength.

Similarly, the assembly of the Avengers is all about touchy feely things like discovering what makes a radioactive rage creature tick, or how to topple the gargantuan ego of a man who doesn't need combat to conquer the world. In Whedon's world, each of the members come in with some personal chink in their armor -- Captain America is a man unstuck in time, Thor is an unseated king, Banner is haunted by his Hulk alter ego, etc. -- all of which adds an aura of tragedy to their presumed winner personalities. They become complex, emotional, sentimental... the kind of stuff that resonates amongst a certain percentage of the female movie-going public. Even the bad guy, Loki, is working through issues of abandonment, disrespect, and a feeling of being unloved by his deity foster Daddy. In the past, someone like Christopher Nolan's Batman made inroads into this demo because of the character's tormented soul. Whedon has just borrowed the idea and multiplied it.

This concept permeates The Avengers. Samuel L. Jackson's Nick Fury is a steely man of decisive action -- that is, when he's not battling bumbling bureaucrats or doubting his own motives. Clark Gregg's Phil Coulson is a huge nerd for Captain America, even going so far as to fetter out a near mint condition set of the hero's old trading cards. In fact, unlike other superhero films, the flaws here are more fascinating than the derring-do. We expect Hulk to smash, to see Hawkeye peg a predator in the perfectly targeted place. When we don't expect is to see them question and kvetch. It turns the standard heroes and villains into something more complicated. While the post-modern version of the comic book movie has always embraced a bit of this, Whedon and The Avengers make it their own.

Besides, a good judge of such strategies is always via the newbie, the non-committed... or even better, the non-familiar. During the screening, yours truly had the chance to watch as someone without any knowledge of the previous installments -- that's right, someone who had never seen Iron Man, Iron Man 2, Captain America: The First Avenger, either of the two Hulks, or Thor - experienced this coming together . As a critic, my frame of reference was all over the map. I was intrigued by how well Whedon got everything to mesh and how he made sure that every character got his or her own personal moment of triumph. My partner (okay, it was my wife), simply enjoyed the movie on its own unfamiliar terms. She loved the story, could easily follow the characters and their concerns, and raved about the action scenes and the aforementioned hero tropes. Better still, she thought all the men were "hot", making sure that her female friends knew about their flashy, fetching nature in post-experience comments and phone calls.

In essence, she responded like a chick. And this was her flick. While no one is suggesting that this will be a common reaction, it is a wholly unexpected one. My wife is a huge cinephile, considered, and cannot be easily swayed by standard, static ideas. Sure, she weeps openly at An Affair to Remember and enjoyed many of the movies (The Dark Knight, Watchmen) that make up the genre's best. But her response to The Avengers was so overwhelming, so all encompassing of what makes her a passionate, empathetic spouse that it seems like Whedon actually struck a nerve. Of course, the fanboys will be driving the next few weeks at the turnstiles, but don't be surprised if there are just as many girls as guys in the crowd. The Avengers is indeed the first full blown superhero movie that honestly speaks to women. Not only has Whedon done the impossible cinematically, he's done something unheard of demographically.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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