Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. Community. The Avengers. With pop culture landmarks like these, it certainly appears that the geeks are having their cake and eating it too. Or at least that Hollywood has found a new niche to exploit. Thus we find The Avengers a nexus of cross cultural exchange of mass and niche cultures, traversing the lessening gap quite spectacularly. At first, it seems like there isn’t much to say about The Avengers: the world is in trouble, and a group of superheroes need to get over their conflicting egos to save the day. However, past the surface, there is plenty to discuss.
Moral ambiguity is a concept rarely portrayed in most contemporary superhero movies, exceptions being Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy and, to a lesser degree, The Avengers. For behind these group of superheroes stands Nick Fury; agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., and ringmaster of the various conflicting personalities brought into his fold. How dubious is it for Fury to bring these powerful people into S.H.I.E.L.D., a faceless organization with huge amounts of power and wealth, yet no apparent accountability for its actions? Without spoiling anything, it may prove somewhat troubling, indeed. In response, the U.S. military opted not to aid the Avengers production, whereas in other films such as Iron Man and Act of Valor, they loaned out military equipment for filming.
In this case, even the military was uncomfortable with the moral ambiguity. In an interview with Wired, Phil Strub, the Defense Department’s Hollywood liaison, said “We couldn’t reconcile the unreality of this international organization and our place in it, to whom did S.H.I.E.L.D. answer? Did we work for S.H.I.E.L.D.? We hit that roadblock and decided we couldn’t do anything” with the film. This moral ambiguity, while refreshing to grapple with for a Hollywood blockbuster, also proves to be somewhat disconcerting to what stance the film actually affirms.
To complicate matters, New York Times film critic A.O. Scott adds the conundrum of niche vs. mass culture to the conversation around The Avengers, asserting that “The [film] cannot overcome the grinding, hectic emptiness, the bloated cynicism that is less a shortcoming of this particular film than a feature of the [superhero] genre. Mr. Whedon’s playful, democratic pop sensibility is no match for the glowering authoritarianism that now defines Hollywood’s comic-book universe...The price of entertainment is obedience.”
Though such cynicism is understandable (albeit strong), what Scott shouldn’t forget is that all art, whether high art or popular art, has a commercial element to it. Paying to read, watch, or listen to any piece of culture is also known as patronage, and supports the artists who made it. Is enjoying a piece of manufactured pop inherently bad? Perhaps if only consumed uncritically, accepting anything Hollywood puts before us. As a product of Hollywood, The Avengers may even be just the sum of its parts. But when everything works so well, is that a bad thing?
- Jacqueline Ristola