New York Times film critics Manohla Dargis and A. O. Scott tag-teamed summer super-hero movies as the lead story in the paper’s July 1st Sunday Arts and Leisure section, ripping into the genre with accusations of corporate manipulation, sexism, and racism that just do not apply, especially in the hands of gifted artists like Joss Whedon, director of Marvel’s The Avengers.
Okay, clearly the film companies want to maximize profit; no news here. But this goal is not the sole domain of super-hero movies, so why the fuss? The critics seem to suggest that Marvel’s The Avengers is suspect because it is so wildly successful and that its success is attributable mainly to an extensive promotion campaign. These critics seems to suggest that the audience for this film lurched into theaters like the walking dead, lobotomized by trailers and ad campaigns, unable to think for themselves. They seem to ignore the possibility that we actually raced to the multiplex because we’ve been aware of these characters for approximately 50 years. Many of us grew up liking these characters, wanting to see them portrayed successfully onscreen. The simple truth is we want to see such films succeed because we love the characters, and each purchased ticket cheers them on.
Why do we love these characters? What is the appeal of The Avengers? Older fans who read the comics fulfilled lifelong desires to see their favorite comic book characters together onscreen. Younger fans did too, but perhaps as much from cartoons as from comics. And the critics do have a point, these movies are marketed relentlessly, especially by Marvel, which essentially built towards The Avengers with movies featuring the Hulk, Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America. However, we cheered this build, we didn’t succumb to it. We loved the use of Marvel’s old comic marketing trick of teasing the next issue with something in the one we were reading, and we thrilled to their intermingling of characters from one film to the next. One of the great things about reading Marvel comics as a kid was the cross references, the call backs, the “insider” knowledge faithful readers enjoyed from issue to issue. Now Marvel is daring to do that in their films, and audiences love it so much Marvel has us staying through the credits. When was the last movie audiences did that for? We didn’t even do it for The Lord of The Rings. Now audiences wait … and cheer! The teaser at the end of Iron Man II when Thor’s hammer is revealed, received huge applause. The mid-credit reveal at the end of The Avengers introducing the galactic terrorist Thanos inspired audible gasps, then wild cheers. Why? Not because we have been brainwashed by marketing, but because we know these characters, understand the relevance of the reveals, and want to experience their stories. We are inside the world, invested in the characters, pre-marketed for decades before the first trailer was aired.
The critics also recycle the venerable complaints about sexism and racism, and they seem to miss the mark on both. Suggesting that Scarlet Johanson’s main super-power is her shapely rump, generously displayed in the film, is to miss both the Black Widow’s feminist power and Johanson’s insightful performance. The Black Widow is so beyond feminism in these films she all but makes that point moot. Throughout her appearances, this character trades on sexist cliches to position herself to do her job as one of the world’s most effective espionage weapons. Whether posing as an executive secretary in Iron Man II or as a defenseless victim being interrogated in The Avengers, or as a seductive emissary approaching The Hulk’s alter-ego, or as seemingly falling victim to Loki’s assumed mental superiority in the same movie, she is a chameleon who allows men’s own sexism to lead them into her web. And then the real Widow emerges, capable, powerful, resourceful, confidently turning the tables on each male, owning the moment again and again. That’s pure Joss Whedon, one of our better champions of female empowerment. And let’s discuss her super powers in The Avengers. She and Hawkeye are the only non-enhanced characters, and they stand shoulder to shoulder with the most powerful beings around. Johanson’s performance particularly shows her character’s courage, bravery, and absolute ability to hang with the super-powered beings. Feminist? She’s post-feminist.
As a post-feminist character, Natasha Romanov/the Black Widow is never treated as anything less than a key member of the team. She is shown tiring (along with Captain America, Iron Man, and even Thor, which puts her in damn impressive company), she is a key grounding element of the film. Each of these moments brings us closer to experiencing the story; they let us in just a little further, especially Cap and Widow. We might not be able to afford Stark’s armor, or be a god, but we want to be pure of heart like Cap, or determined and able like Widow.
Natasha Romanov is also not alone in her capacity to handle a deadly situation in the Marvel universe; it is the extremely capable Pepper Potts who takes command of the chaos during the climax of Iron Man II while the boys blast away like, well, cliche boys. Does she look good doing it? Yes, but that’s not her main role. Also in The Avengers, we see Maria Hill, second in command of the SHIELD helicarrier, as a smart leader and lethal combatant. Does she look good doing these things? Again, yep, but that is never the main focus. All these women leave the damsel in distress image for lesser mortals; they’ve got work to do. Lastly, yes, we do see a few views of shapely feminine butts, but no more that we see beefcake on display. Male bodies ripple throughout the Marvel film universe. I would suggest the critics sit down for a repeat viewing of these films and see how often the men are displayed as sex objects. How about a certain shirtless Asgardian openly discussed in lusty terms by Kat Dennings in Thor? Or Agent Carter copping a feel off the (again) shirtless Steve Rogers, the newly minted Super Soldier, in Captain America, the First Avenger? Viewed in context, Marvel does seem admirably post-feminist.
Finally, a word about racism in the Marvel films. Actually two words, and an initial: Samuel L. Jackson. Throughout the Marvel films, Jackson has portrayed Nick Fury, commander of SHIELD, clearly the most powerful military agency on the planet. On. The. Planet. And Marvel didn’t cast Jackson because the character was African-American. Nick Fury was white in the comics until characters were recast with an eye (pardon the pun) toward attracting Hollywood with the Ultimates line of Marvel comics. And when that recasting was happening, the Marvel elite were looking to align characters with A-list stars who could play them. Jackson fit Fury perfectly, not due to race, or race-based marketing, but because as an actor (not a minority actor, or an African-American actor, an actor) he carried the weight and attitude Nick Fury needed. That is post-racial thinking. Best actor for the role, period. And the argument can’t even be made that he is limited to a reduced role; Fury is one of the elements that links the films together. He’s omnipresent, a force of immense resources, insight, knowledge, and understanding. He is the ultimate player here, and is not saddled with an apologist white hat. Quite the contrary, Nick Fury is one of the most morally complex characters in the Marvel universe, and Marvel asked Jackson to perform that complicated role because his abilities as an actor gave them the best chance to present Nick Fury in all his complex glory. That is beautifully post-racial.
Sadly, it seems the critics brought their own agendas and pre-existing prejudices to the discussion. They are better than this, and hopefully will be able to rise above their self-imposed limitations regarding this genre of films in the future. The audience has clearly already made up their minds regarding these issues, and certainly seem ready to do it again this week with The Amazing Spider-Man and shortly after with The Dark Knight Rises. Let’s hope the quality continues.