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Assessing Shame at THE AVENGERS [On The Contrary]

Sometimes you have to capitulate to the cultural zeitgeist, if only to have an informed opinion on the major movements in our (pop) culture. An English teacher of mine once encouraged us not to actually read the great works of literature (that would take far too long) but to instead develop a nodding acquaintance with them (Cliff’s Notes would suffice). While I think that was a horribly irresponsible message for a high school teacher to be putting forward, she had a point—if you’re not going to really learn everything to have a complete understanding of a topic, it’s at least a good idea to know enough to be able to fake it. (This movement toward superficial understanding of things has arguably become one of the most destructive forces in education, journalism, and our general cultural understanding, but that’s a log for another fire.)

So it was that in pursuit of general understanding of an apparently important cultural moment, I found myself sitting in a movie theater preparing to experience THE AVENGERS. I had no connection to the material, having never read the comics or feeling any real connection to the characters other than seeing most of the previous blockbuster superhero movies in which they appeared. Still, I had been hearing nothing but positive things about the movie, I had reasonably enjoyed some of the individual Marvel Comics movies, and most of all I was beginning to feel really left out since it seemed everyone else in the world saw the damn thing on opening weekend. So off I went, plunking down my $20 (or however outrageously high the ticket price was) and settling in for what I expected would be a positive communal experience.

The crowd was certainly into it. A week after opening the matinee screening was still filled up. As the movie started, it became clear that everyone was really into the film. With the appearance of each hero, villain, and zingy one-liner, the crowd swooned. This wasn’t like the numb audiences I’d shared through the last two TRANSFORMERS sequels, who seemed to be there simply because a blitz of marketing and American pop culture had brainwashed them into thinking it was mandatory. This was an audience that specifically wanted to see a movie with a bunch of comic book characters running from explosions, causing explosions, flying over explosions, and fighting some kind of robot-ish monster army (spoiler alert).

The film itself is both easy to attack and easy to defend. It’s not a good movie, but clearly it works in engaging an audience emotionally and leaving them satisfied. And really, how nuanced can a movie be combining a man in a robot costume, a bastardized god from Norse mythology, a big green cartoon character, and a “super soldier” whose only weapon is a shield? There’s plenty of witty(?) banter and impressive effects, so everyone leaves happy, not caring that the plot was stolen from an episode of MIGHTY MORPHIN’ POWER RANGERS.

When I was on the cusp of teenage-hood, I went through a period where I was really into comic books. It only lasted a few years (luckily, since it’s a surprisingly expensive habit), but aside from avoiding most Marvel books, I tried to read a bit of everything, or at least keep up with what was going on via Wizard magazine. I loved some of the stories dearly, yet always I felt a hint of shame in my enthusiasm. I knew deep down that most of what I was reading was trash, poorly written, clichéd, and sometimes blatantly plagiarized. Because of this, I didn’t like the message I sent out reading them publicly. I didn’t want some imagined sophisticated older person to see me and assume this was the only thing I was into, or that I was just some fanboy. So for the most part I kept my comic reading confined to my bedroom. Some 12-year-old boys had a porn stash; I had my comics collection (which ironically could serve the same function as porn in creating in a young man wildly wildly delusional expectations for the female form).

I bring this up because while sitting in the theater surrounded by people of all different stripes who were fully engaged in what has become the most popular movie in the world, I suddenly found myself overwhelmed with the same sense of shame I felt when I was spotted reading a comic book when I was 12. I know it’s completely irrational, but I felt like what I was watching was almost too childish and I didn’t want to be identified with it. This is of course absolutely ridiculous, but the feeling was there, and it only got worse as the two hours and change unspooled on screen.

So in its way, you could say THE AVENGERS made me feel like a kid again. It’s a film for children, and it’s no wonder kids go out of their minds for it. But it is a little surprising that adults seem to be going just as gaga over something that is really a very expensive Saturday morning cartoon. Maybe I’m just jealous of their enthusiasm, but it does strike me as a little sad. It’s disappointing that as a 12-year-old I felt embarrassed for my childish enthusiasms, not wanting some imagined adult to think me immature, only to grow up and find out that immature has become the popular thing.

It might be silly and pointless on my part to rail against such an inoffensive summer movie, but if you’re over the legal drinking age, maybe you should temper your enthusiasm for THE AVENGERS just a tad. If it’s something that a 12-year-old would be embarrassed to like, maybe a 30-year-old should feel a little shame at tweeting about how awesome it is. Save some of that excitement for a film more appropriate to your age and sophistication. I think BATTLESHIP comes out this weekend.

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