One thing I always say is that all critical endeavour begins with an emotional response to a work. I felt fairly uninspired by Avengers 2, and the cause was fairly obvious: far too much time spent kicking and punching. Hardly anything was resolved by dialogue, and it was difficult for me to see a deeper emotional aspect to much of the fighting. Other than winning, I could barely recognise any story consequences or stakes. In particular, the final uber-battle between Ultron and the Avengers at the end was just so much white noise.
As it rolled along, it felt sort of inevitable and inexorable. Throw a certain amount of money at a project and however much you might like all of the constituent parts, it does seem to become something of a sluggish behemoth of a story, especially with so many characters. “Ho hum” would seem to be the critical consensus, the best example of which is a Salon article framing this film as a signal of the Golden Age decadence of the super hero. I think this is a wonderful insight and finger on the pulse of the modern zeitgeist. The only thing that could perfectly encapsulate where we are right now is if they follow up Avengers: Infinity War with the Marvel Zombie franchise. Super Heroes have never been more popular and better positioned to speak to the deeper issues facing our society – making Captain America 2 so far the best of the current crop (and a genuinely terrific film). But, such is not the aspect of Avengers 2, though the shear momentum of its genre frame is creating scope for genuinely interesting and great artistic works.
Phrases like “Golden Age” are very evocative, at once suggesting the perfect flowering of a genre form, and at once a little condescending: the Establishment is never cool, so it never has prime cultural currency. It implies that the big picture is all that’s interesting, with the little incidental works like Avengers 2 comfortably negligible. This put me in mind of another Golden Age critic – Raymond Chandler. By 1950, Chandler had been substantially involved in putting a stake through the heart of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction by offering a competing vision for the detective melange that also aspired to content with “literary” fiction. Structurally his more coherent work is actually compellingly similar, but in The Simple Art of Murder he well and truly put the boot into what were effectively his genre rivals and their foibles.
The Simple Art of the Super-hero, like its predecessor, can only emerge once the genre it excoriates has ossified into inviolable conventions whose structure can be readily ripped from its flesh (and costume!) and put to completely contrary ends. Yet, weirdly, that ossification in detective fiction ran in parallel to what would become the destabilising genre outings: Chandler’s articulated vision for imparting meaning onto the empty habit of the Whodunit had its origins at basically the same time as the dominant form. Black Mask reached its zenith in Hammett et al at the same moment in history as Christie was anointed as the Queen of Crime. After that flowering, Chandler’s self-styled successor, Ross Macdonald, collapsed completely back into the genre realm circumscribed by the Golden Age with his rooted interest in families, retaining only the patois of the hard-boiled dick.
In the case of super heroes, we’re still waiting for one of the rival schools to emerge as the dominant and coherent artistic vision but when it comes. Assuming the Avengers are on the winning side – and the box office suggests it is – the excoriation will reference Matthew Vaughn’s Kick-Ass as its prophet, just as Chandler martyred Hammett’s ghost to make his case. Whenever someone complains about the “Grimdark” look of, say, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice or the Fantastic Four reboot, I’m secretly sure they’re seeing the inevitable Chandlering of the genre they think they already know and have all sewn up.