Geek culture has become so completely mainstream that even the term “geek culture” sounds like a relic from an earlier era — a time before the biggest movies of the year were all based on the things you loved when you were in fifth grade. That’s especially true today. A decade ago, the notion of a movie like The Avengers would have seemed ridiculous, if not dangerously unstable. The last time someone combined three different movie franchises into one mega-movie, the film was called Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster and Godzilla just made Rodan look irrelevant. (Rodan = The Hawkeye of mid-century Japanese monster movies.) The Avengers has earned plenty of glowing reviews. It is also going to earn a ludicrous amount of money. Everyone involved with The Avengers is going to make many, many more movies about the Avengers. All should be well.
But every silver lining has a cloud. Yesterday, Samuel L. Jackson — Marvel Studios mascot and highest-grossing actor in movie history — took to Twitter to complain about New York Times movie critic A.O. Scott’s review of Avengers. “#Avengers fans,NY Times critic AO Scott needs a new job! Let’s help him find one! One he can ACTUALLY do!” tweeted Jackson. One of Jackson’s followers tweeted a thoughtful counterargument: “the critic has a right to his opinion. Just because the movie has made a ton of money does not mean it is a good movie.” To which Jackson responded: “Actually, sometimes it DOES!” (Note that Jackson said “sometimes,” so he’s clearly aware that we’re all thinking about Mace Windu.)
Jackson seemed to be mostly speaking off-the-cuff and isn’t looking to make a crusade out of it — he later tweeted, “They aren’t going to fire [Scott’s] jaundiced ass & You & I Know It!” Scott, for his part, has been holding up his end on Twitter by pointedly avoiding any obvious potshots (like how certain people have been letting the eyepatch do the acting for four years now), and has instead been treating the whole thing with good humor. (“My son, a minute ago: ‘Mace Windu wants to take the food from our table!'”)
Still, speaking as someone who enjoyed Avengers, this whole thing can’t help but leave a bad taste in my mouth. It’s similar, in some ways, to the perpetual plaintive arguments about why such-and-such hugely successful blockbuster movie wasn’t also nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. When Daniel Radcliffe voiced that complaint about the eighth Harry Potter movie, I proffered this comparison: Imagine if the captain of the football team was also the student council president, and he complained that he wasn’t elected Prom King. The weird thing about Jackson’s response is that he basically is the Prom King. He gave the whole notion of the Avengers mega-franchise a hearty dose of his cultural cachet and paycheck-gravitas, and he looks likely to spend the next decade barking orders at superheroes in the highest-grossing movies ever.
It’s also worth pointing out that Scott’s review wasn’t even that bad. He didn’t like the action sequences, but he compared it to Rio Bravo and the Rat Pack. He did say, however, that “the light, amusing bits cannot overcome the grinding, hectic emptiness, the bloated cynicism that is less a shortcoming of this particular film than a feature of the genre.” Scott also noted the most troubling factor of Avengers, and indeed, the whole modern blockbuster genre: The sense that Avengers is not so much a movie as it is an annual product launch for a major corporation, featuring characters that are all “dutiful corporate citizens, serving a conveniently vague set of principles.”
Listen, there was a time when big movies weren’t just about special effects, because there was a time when there wasn’t much else to film besides human beings. (Even in the golden age of ’80s action movies, there was only so much screen time you could devote to explosions.) Nowadays, though, the vast majority of major Hollywood releases pay lip service to acting for maybe 3/4 of the screen time before throwing half the budget onscreen for a big city-destroying alien-attacking explosive action climax. (The Dark Knight is the rare superhero movie that doesn’t end that way — even Batman Begins has that bananas water-exploding train scene.)
Which leads us to the weirdest thing about Jackson’s argument: Why is an actor attacking a critic who wishes The Avengers could have been more about the actors?
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