Yesterday my almost-seven-year-old son and I took in a 3D matinee of “The Avengers” and had a blast. We loved it so much that we plan to see it again in iMax.
The movie has everything—Joss Whedon directing off a terrific screenplay he co-authored, a huge budget with huge stars, and, startlingly for a popcorn movie, emotional arcs for several of the main characters.
However, what has sent Avengers directly into my top 5 list of all time best superhero movies is how it culminates the previous four Paramount Pictures movies—Iron Man, Iron Man 2, Thor & Captain America.
Each of those movies seeded hints about this movies that followed and about Avengers, and fans like me stuck around all the way through the credits on each film to see the parting hints.
You don’t have to have seen any of the previous movies to thoroughly enjoy Avengers, but if you have seen any or all of the earlier movies your pleasure will be amplified by your memories of the earlier movies.
Avengers’ optional relationship to its predecessors makes this series different than, for example, The Matrix series where by the third movie nothing much made sense if you hadn’t seen the first two, played the video game and read the comic book (Henry Jenkins wonderfully describes all this in his book Convergence Culture.)
This amplification is the topic that I spent eight years of my life researching in a different context—Shakespeare’s audience. (See the top video on this blog or the summary of my doctoral dissertation under “Writing” for more.)
It’s a complicated trick to smuggle extra experience into a movie to thrill the fans that won’t distract the uninitiated. Similar to but different than pop cultural throwaways like — @CNNLADavid’s favorite line, “Better clench up, Legolas.” Said to Hawkeye by Iron Man as they zoom roof ward, it’s a one-second tribute to The Lord of the Rings’ elven archer from another fan-fave movie cycle.
What’s different about in-series amplification is that it lasts: 100 years from now a viewer of The Avengers who has seen the previous movies will have the amplified experience, whereas the Legolas throwaway is contingent on different knowledge.
For those of you (anyone? anyone?) who care about good old-fashioned aesthetics, this phenomenon is the cinematic version of what Stephen Pepper described as “funding” in his classic book “The Basis of Criticism in the Arts” (1949), only he was writing about painting and how the second time (T2) you see the Mona Lisa you are actually viewing both the painting itself and your earlier experience (T1), and the third time it’s T3 + T2 + T1, and so on. (I’ve written about this here before: click the “Cognitive Funding” tab to the right to find those posts.)
Moving on to my top 5 list of super hero movies and why
Mystery Men (1999): Hysterical and brilliantly cast exploration of every comic book cliché and why they’re still powerful even though cliché. A passion project for everyone involved, it was probably the only superhero team movie to work well before Avengers.
Superman 2 (1980): Like “Empire Strikes Back” in the Star Wars series, and Spider-Man 2, the second movie with Christopher Reeve surpassed #1 in this series by light years when it came to the story. Although the first Superman had the inspiring flight sequences and John William’s magnificent score, it was in essence a two hour preview for Superman 2, which still blows me away.
Iron Man (2008): The movie so effectively deployed star Robert Downey Jr.’s real-life brilliant, charismatic bad boy persona into the Tony Stark protagonist that it took my breath away, and having both Downey and Jeff Bridges square off in the movie was like the Foreman vs. Ali “Rumble in the Jungle” back in 1974—two titans.
Dark Knight (2008): Heath Ledger’s performance as The Joker was so intense that it killed him. Unlike earlier portrayals across all media, Christopher Nolan’s movie didn’t try to explain The Joker or to resolve his paradoxes—each time the Joker explained how he came to be the story failed to match the earlier version. It’s a brilliant exercise in Keatsian “Negative Capability.” That paradox was the engine that drove the movie, poised in perfect tension with the equally powerful engine of Batman’s motivation to fight the evil that killed his parents. Batman is the only superhero whose origin story and motivation are identical, and it’s an inexhaustible supply of narrative.
Avengers (2012): See the first half of this post: it’s not just one movie—it’s five blockbusters tied together.
What movies are on your list? Please share in comments.