Hey, readers, seen any good movies lately?
Sure you have. You were part of the multi-million throng that watched the Avengers thrash the stuffings out of Loki and his loathsome alien allies over the past weeks. With what should be the highest-grossing box office totals in history, the Superbly Super Six have become the supreme expression of what action entertainment strives for. Why am I focusing on The Avengers this month? Simple. The Avengers is an animated film, albeit one that has live actors running around in it (when not bitching at each other or learning how to play as a team). If one were to take all the computer-generated work out of this film, you would have a few people in funny costumes staring up in the air at nothing, a guy in a black coat wearing an eye patch, and a Hulk the size of Mark Ruffalo, no matter how loud he roared.
There is admittedly more to the film than mere presentation. Besides being a resounding cultural statement about our preferred modes of entertainment, The Avengers is a very good film, even if nobody did shout out “Avengers Assemble!” Besides having outstanding SFX, the movie solved the problem of having multiple cardboard do-gooders by giving four of the Avengers individual feature films before hype for the team-up ever began. The audience felt theyalready knew the heroes before the Avengers initiative went into effect.
A case could also be made for the film as a national panacea, coming as it does after a decade of American futility on foreign battlefields. Our antagonist often seemed to be a foreign nation’s religious ideology. (Think of the Asgardian Loki as a stand-in). Captain America could then be interpreted as this nation’s spirit of democracy (as in nation-building), the Hulk as America’s unstoppable military power, Iron Man as the USA’s technological superiority, and Thor as the idea that the “right” God is on “our” side. Cast SHIELD in the role of our national security apparatus. The parallels are tempting, but take us too far afield; I am more interested in examining The Avengers as an animated film, which it undoubtedly is.
There is a growing sense since Avatar that animation now drives and defines the big-screen blockbuster. An in-depth discussion of the CGI methods used to create the film is presented in a wonderful recent AWN article by Bill Desowitz ; I refer the reader to it. Among the dazzling facts listed: It took fourteen software systems just to produce the end titles. Stunt persons, miniature set builders, modelers and make up-artists could be driven into obsolescence by the end of the decade. Although it is my duty to keep up with advances in the art (and science) of animation, I grew up watching Harryhausen’s monsters. My amazement at the current state of CG animation can, at times, overwhelm my critical faculties. The Avengers represents one of those times.
I can, however, see a cost involved, one that goes beyond making a sequel that outshines the original.. As fantastic and commendable as CG SFX have become, they start to furnish ever-realistic depictions that take the place of individual fantasy. The Avengers is a masterpiece of imagination. Just not yours. And that is where animationthreatens to become a double-edged sword. Or shield. Or hammer.
When I was in junior high school I read Marvel comics as if they were scripture. If God had found a way to turn out new issues of the Talmud every month, no rabbinical scholar would have read them as avidly or mined their nuances as thoroughly as I devoured Tales to Astonish, Journey Into Mystery, Tales of Suspense, Amazing Spider-Man, and yes, The Avengers each month. The stories were dramatic, the artwork sublime (Gene Colan, Jack Kirby, John Buscema, Jim Steranko, and John Romita the Elder were among the stellar talents of the day). The words “Continued Next Issue!” inevitably left me willing to trade a month of my young life in order to possess the next comic immediately.
Yet, as graphic as the comic books were, there was still much left to the imagination. You had to connect the panels by creating mental interstitials. A close up of a snarling face in one panel might lead to a punch in the next, but it was up to the reader to imagine the buildup, gauge the emotional impact, and construct a version of the story that the static panels merely suggested. Although there were word balloons that depicted dialogue and sound effects to suggest impactful noises (my own favorite was “SPONG!”, created when Captain America’s shield struck a robot), you had to imagine what that sounded like. You also had to decide how Reed Richards shouted commands, how loud Dragon Man roared, or whether the Green Goblin had a sinister, high-pitched voice. You probably had different voices in mind for Doctor Doom or Professor X.
There is a scene in The Avengers where the Hulk, tiring of Loki’s egotistical tirade, comes close to whomping the immortality out of him. We see Loki repeatedly slammed at high speed into a concrete floor like the losing contestant in an unworldly WWF match. Chips fly, dust spurts up in columns, and the soundtrack recalls what a building on the wrong end of a wrecking ball must hear. I can recall an early issue of the Fantastic Four in which Jack Kirby devotes a full page to a single Sunday punch launched by the Thing, expressed through a mighty pose and a large red “sound effect”. All that could be seen of the villain were his insteps, as he had been propelled off the page. That one image, for me, was more powerful than the Hulk’s brutalizing of Loki, because it was up to me to feel it.
I can recall one double-page spread of the SHIELD helicarrier drawn by Jim Steranko in forced perspective from below, and it was every bit as awesome as the SFX shot in the film, because with a two-dimensional drawing you were left to imagine its enormity, all the while marveling at its design. It is true that both the comic books and the outstanding crew that created The Avengers supply an audience with images aplenty. The Mighty Marvel Bullpen depended on their reading audiences to provide realism. The filmmakers and their SFX arsenal did the heavy lifting for them.
Before you start typing angry responses I will state that I have no problem with this. It is simply a matter of technology evolving and supplanting earlier forms. Our expectations change accordingly. Some outré thinkers believe that our very neurological makeup is transforming to adapt to ever-increasing advances in technology. For all I know this may be true, and if so, the 2012 version of The Avengers may be a multi-purpose iPad, where past movie blockbusters can be compared to 1960s dial telephones. As with the Hulk, you can’t get in the way of that, stop it, or slow it down.
I do, however, lament the fact that the audience’s imaginative capacities are somewhat compromised by the ultra-realism of today’s megahit films. There will never be a reverse gear, only a forward one. Still, the most interesting point as far as we are concerned is that animation is the nuclear power core behind these cinematic advances; perhaps in the end all we can do is marvel at its power and wonder what forms it will take decades from now.