Bernie & The Avengers: A Case Study of American Summer Superheroes

Originally written early summer 2012, prior to the atrocious Batman film and the associated theater shooting.

Even though The Avengers is bland, forgettable, recycled, predictable and unengaging, at a certain point – probably the climactic battle sequence – one comes to appreciate how great it is for the economy. Leaving aside the billions in ticket sales revenue, the computer-generated reptilian/amphibian alien monsters that swarm the skies over Manhattan without any worthwhile explanatory interest/apprehension-building introductory prelude and lead to violent showdowns replete with loud and explosive destruction obviously required the work of dozens if not hundreds of otherwise unemployed programmers and digital artists whose firms are woven into the high-tech-Hollywood complex and appear among the thousands of credits-cited contributors to the film. The sexy and muscly superheroes fly through the air and dodge projectiles, just like in all those other movies, spout smart remarks that follow the same pacing and tenor as the ones in those other movies, and impress some initially resistant authority figure into instant subservience with an extreme show of strength in the exact manner of comic payoff that has functioned so many times before. What is actually different is that through seeing this reliable repetition we are eventually compelled to theorize about why people want to make and attend films like these.

Mental meanderings on economics also gradually penetrate the spectator of Bernie, a movie released around the same time that does without snappy exchanges of terse witticisms and aerial combat and has made about 100 times less money in the US at the time of this writing. The storyline itself, rather than the myriad contractors required to bring it to life, gently presents a microcosm for the inequitable powers and possessions that have been so currently wracking the country and its trading partners. The title, trailer and premise appear hokey and limited in ambition, but within a short time of watching the actual work a clear and novel depiction of national and personal life emerges. People speak with an intelligence completely heretofore foreign to cinema, because many of them are not actors but apparently small-town citizens with a uniquely vibrant and evocative diction and phraseology. Whether these people have thought to say these things on their own without the script is not certain, but the effect anyway is to remove wit from the vocabulary playbook of the seasoned and media-saturated screenwriter and return it to the mouths of those who speak colorfully on their own without the need for accentuating shot-cuts between interlocutors. This proletarian patois, so distinct from superhero repartee, itself also signifies the importance of its story’s metaphor.

Bernie basically confronts the audience with the state of American (and, largely, world) society as viewed by working people rather than by the editorial writers and pundits in newspapers and on television. The latter group of picture-painters are often paid by think tanks in the ideological service of large business interests – or are simply selected and restricted according to the advertising prerogatives of their particular media outlet – but despite their disparity with public sentiments and understandings their stale messages and benign visions are those which are constantly reinforced before that public. The reasoned defense or exploration of a nonvengeful and nonpsychopathic, genuinely nice-guy, one-time murderer is basically unheard of, but the hero of the film is such a character, who has killed someone without sacrificing his dignity or reputation. Instead of the expected resultant ostracism or madness he retains a bevy of supporters ready with justifications: the victim is extraordinary wealthy and extremely unpleasant, controlling, selfish and isolated. Bernie has reached out to her and worked tirelessly in her service, but the gradual accumulation of her histrionic ingratitude eventually leads to a momentary collapse of his moral system. The social remove of financial inequality and its appearance within character creates a scenario in which the demands upon those who appease the elite continually increase to outstrip what the toilers can bear.

Character scarcely seems to exist in The Avengers, socioeconomically metaphoric or otherwise, except as differently paint-jobbed vehicle for the momentum of the vague and forgettable-if-ever-really-known plot caulking the fisticuffs and dialogic interchanges in the same haphazardly serviceable manner as a porno sandwiches its intercourse. This is not something despicable, because it too valuably comments on the state of American society: we may not know what’s going on or who profits by it, but we’re going to do our jobs regardless so we can have fun and excitement and conversations rife with good-humored injokes. There are some shady government shenanigans behind the sponsorship of the Avengers’ quest to recapture the power-cube – the means of team assembly are dishonest, and the cube, in a subtly close-to-home reversal of Iranian fearmongering, may not be intended for peaceful energy production as claimed – but there is no time or interest in exploring this avenue further because of the foreign-world trash-talking bad guy hotdogging for all of the opprobrium and combative reactions. The greatest scene of the dynamics and depth of the characters is relegated to a few seconds at the end of the credits, where their back-and-forth lets up at last for a stretch of nonverbal communication that finally invites the viewer into the superheroes’ world. Until that point, admiration and awe maintain a translucent caul between human feelings and spectacular actions that leaves a puzzlingly asymmetrical sense of numbness at excitement.

Under the fair assumption that the mind can only handle so much at a certain time, a barrage of projected action and pyrotechnics and back-to-back one-liners shifts the balance of the experience-scales away from the self and toward the external input. Large-grossing mass-market films are increasingly of this type, spectacular and epic, but seldom dredge up internal emotions. Readers of comic books or novels like Harry Potter enjoy a direct intimacy by animating the static symbols and image-frames themselves, immersed within a quietude which permits a pacing and emotional resonance (stop, consider, relate to other things) alien to the pulse-pounding chopped-up-and-soundtracked blastfest that brings all the action to the viewer in a fashion inoffensively universal to most familiar with the source content but thereby depersonalized and emptied of those precious ponderings. A calmer, slower film like Bernie pushes the audience members to fill in the gaps with their own interpretive readings and reactions, an audience not drawn to the cinema by the promise of witnessing a specially effected and adrenalinfested vision of godlike heroes and powers but drawn out in the cinema by witnessing a peculiar story that starts to reflect more and more of familiar scenes and dynamics.

Critiques of crowd-pleasing popcorn films are generally liable to draw disdain and mockery, as if the expectation of innovation or engagement should be suppressed for anything designed to be fun and entertaining. Yet there is an immense hunger for meaning in entertainment, else there would not be the enormous journalistic expenditure nor the reams of Wikipedia pages nor the everyday dialogue nor the electronics industry income nor the perusal of movie reviews for agreements and arguments, so evidently the appetite requires more than buttery kernels of praise. Some savory strains should linger afterward, since an overabundance of pure pleasure – doing the thing too perfectly, cleanly, within all the proper boundaries of marketable success – does not push hard enough against the shock absorbers of appreciation, which need a measure of rugged feedback for the on-the-fly sensorimotor tactile adaptations to roughwild terrain that make planting, pivoting and pushing the feet up mountains and through forests such a desirable and memorable activity.

The value of a superhero is in the sense of empowerment he or she lends to the suppressed or underdeveloped proclivities, skills and awarenesses of the reader or viewer. In a way those movies labeled superhero films glitter and shine too bright beyond the humdrum so familiar to the people who approach them, since part of the appeal of the original printed cel-blocks seems to be the jagged, dark and grimy suggestiveness that is so seamless with the internal world of the comics and so representative of the one beyond. A more proper superhero is a figure like Bernie, someone with impressively strong principles and super powers – singer, stage director, funeral director, philanthropist, socialite – yet flawed and fallible, with varying and relatable emotions, whose primary act of failure, his crime, challenges the perception of his shortcomings. The lives and deeds of the Avengers are assumed to impress and leave no room for debate, but the life and deeds of Bernie pass with a litany of observers and associates casting their opinions in the mannerisms and intellectual frameworks of different recognizable segments and strata of America. This ambiguity and meditativeness aligns better with the mystique and intimacy of the superhero; there is less “I wish I could do that” and more “I see myself here.”

Movies are a unique medium in presenting a full and vibrant image of reality, a gesamtkunstwerk that confines the intake-bombardment to spatiotemporal rigidity but appropriates more of the stuff and the mood of the everyday than a grand opera or a Greek tragedy. A video game can function and captivate without letting up on the overload because it forces participation in the flurry of action and synchronizes the player with the pursuit, but a film, as a passive undertaking, has to let the viewer in with spaces for gentleness and deliberation and the creep of emotions that take time to stretch out and sink deep – unless the thing is purposefully epinephrined into humorous ultramania like Jason Statham in the Crank world. A little room for largo passages helps call attention to the quarklike building-block depth of superficial quirks, giving the proceedings a chill of profundity through which art triumphs and inspirits. Endless allegro tugs and strings us along with a riveting immediacy but suffers for its inability to offer breathing and thinking space, a problem both for the performers and the receivers. Inherently some stories and styles favor one or the other tempo, but of late the preponderance of popular narrative seems stuck low on the quick-clicking metronome to which one can heatedly toe-tap but never quite dance. It is always possible to examine an artwork to read messages a posteriori, but the in vivo experience benefits from the possibility of participation in the watching.

Consider the absolute certitude – well beyond the doubts of those people in regular contact – of a district attorney and a stockbroker that Bernie is homosexual, when to the others the question’s answer is either unclear or irrelevant. This has no bearing on the plot and does not feed into any action, but in making time for it the film reveals something crucial about character. Apart from the incongruousness of two men who appear to present themselves as heterosexual claiming to have such authority on the matter, the nature of their ease of labeling and compartmentalization points to their shallow and callous treatment of others. The district attorney cares about justice as a means to his own self-aggrandizing triumphs while the stockbroker cares about his clients as far as he can enrich himself by their ignorance of his activities: to them, fellow citizens are simply types, categories and figures to number-crunch into profits and accolades. As soon as the viewer has a wedge into this recognizable side of humanity, the particular characters can be universally generalized into tendencies that guide the crises of our era. The broker becomes the big banker, interested with his financial instruments and contemptful of any attempt to redistribute wealth toward the community, and the DA as the government authority acts as the political machine who gerrymanders his way into reactionary populist territory that can be counted on to flamethrow the straw man of entitled decadence that he constructs for his fortune and fame. Something of the same national dilemma can assuredly be found in The Avengers, but characters are occupied with too many interchangeable verbal parries that echo the exchanges between other people in the film – and in other action/superhero movie dialogues – to perturb the intaking brain into accounting for and interpreting new and bizarre idiosyncratic behaviors.

Oodles more people have gone to see The Avengers than Bernie, but rather than assume this is the outcome of a meritocratic free market one can reenvision the former’s success as a public outpouring of sympathy for the hard and concerted effort wrought by its army of contributors. It’s the forced smile a well-mannered kid wears to please a parent who has put a lot of time and trouble into earning the cash for a Christmas gift that was anticipated differently as more satisfying and surprising. Eventually the child will grow up and out of these just-what-I-asked-for fantasies and learn that it has to seek what it wants on its own; the parents really, sadly, have no idea. Likewise adults may learn to approach the wealthy and the powerful “job creators” and film studios with a much greater skepticism, and perhaps come to realize that those rogue acts of rebellious violence and criticism of popular opinion are less of a threat than the disinterested and noncommunicative people who are eliciting those reactions.

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