It’s always a little discomfiting to hold a minority opinion of a universally admired cultural artifact. The very possibility of such discomfiture is part of the process whereby a cultural artifact becomes universally admired. A groundswell begins and people eager to be early adopters of the conventional wisdom jump on the bandwagon, mixing their metaphors just as I did right there.
Case in point: I criticized Saving Private Ryan in this magazine, and for a month I was treated as though I were Patrick Buchanan, arguing that World War II itself had not been worth fighting. Today, at a remove of nearly 15 years, my objections—the movie didn’t recover from its bravura opening sequence and told a morally confused story that was profoundly unjust to its own title character—wouldn’t be remotely controversial, since they are, in fact, as true now as they were then. But at the time Saving Private Ryan was released, the film had morphed from a movie into a piety, and my impiety was profoundly offensive to a great many people.
At least Saving Private Ryan was about something important. Why do I get the feeling that, as I spend the rest of this piece writing about how The Avengers isn’t very good, I am going to generate an emotional reaction in some quarters little different from the two-minute hate that greeted my Saving Private Ryan review? This insubstantial comic book superhero movie—and not just any comic book superhero movie, but one that is actually the sixth in a series of Marvel Comics superhero movies, of which only one was any good—is threatening to become the latest cultural piety. The reviews have been not only favorable, but rapturously so.
At the same time, Hollywood has been getting reports of wild enthusiasm from prospective moviegoers. Cinemascore, a firm that has moviegoers rate the films they’ve just seen, reported an A+ for The Avengers, which made $200 million in North America its first weekend—nearly 20 percent more than the previous record-setter, the final Harry Potter film.
The writer-director of The Avengers, Joss Whedon, has built up more than a decade of hipster/fanboy cred due to his stewardship of the cult television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly—not to mention his mastery of spreading his evangel with early adopters in new media, first on the web and then on YouTube. Word began to diffuse outward from the conventions and the breathless science-fiction websites that The Avengers was something very special, that it had broken the code of “do a superhero movie right.” (People always forget that every time fans like a superhero movie they say the same thing, only rather than The Avengers getting it right it was The Dark Knight or Iron Man or Spiderman 2.)
The combination of a critical hit, an audience pleaser, and a box office smash validates everyone: the critics, the fans, and the green-eyeshade guys. Disagree and you’re at best Debbie Downer and at worst a person of infuriatingly limited vision and questionable character. “A man watches a movie, and the critic must acknowledge he is that man,” wrote the greatest of all movie critics, Robert Warshow. I am that man. So, as a man, I must acknowledge that The Avengers got me with a few good scenes and a strong concluding sequence. But as a critic, I have to reach into the extensive vocabulary I learned from studying Coleridge, Eliot, Leavis, and Auerbach and declare that The Avengers is meh.
The problem is the plot. Which is to say, the plot is just awful. There’s a cube that opens a window between worlds. The Norse god of mischief, Loki, wants to harness it to dominate mankind. We saw Tom Hiddleston play Loki in Thor last year, and as was the case in that misfire, he comes across as a combination of a catty hairdresser and a mean judge on a TV dancing competition. This is a villain?
Loki comes to earth with a magical stick. It hypnotizes a couple of good guys and turns them into bad guys. They destroy a government building where Samuel L. Jackson works. Jackson’s character gets a bunch of superheroes together to save the earth from Loki and his friends—some weird space creatures who have skull faces and otherwise never make their reasons known for behaving badly (besides which, you can’t hear a word of what the head skullface guy is saying).