THE AVENGERS and the Restoration of Wonder

I took my eldest son to see The Avengers today.

...and who cares, right?

Except that there are two possibly interesting things about this: I can't remember the last time I saw a movie in theaters twice during its opening run. Maybe that makes me a snob, I don't know. And granted, I didn't pay the first time I saw it (which perhaps makes me spoiled as well)... but still, this made me stop and think: why did I make a point of returning to The Avengers so soon?

Is it because I feel it's non-stop fun, nearly flawless, relentlessly original, and so on and so forth? Um, not really.

No, I did it because I so much wanted to see my son's reaction to the film, pure and simple. I wanted to be there and watch his face light up as I knew it would. To hear his laughter at being so overwhelmed by popcorn-y goodness. And no, this has nothing to do with being a dad, not really, and this is not one of those earnest father-and-son bonding articles. In fact, my reasons for catching The Avengers again are largely selfish insofar as they involve my experiencing his experiencing of the film.

Which brings me to that second possibly interesting thing at work here: my son's age is about the same as mine was when I first saw Superman: The Movie. And that's relevant because, along with Sam Raimi's first Spider-Man flick, The Avengers represents, at least for this lifelong fan, not just a great ride, but a landmark in its genre.

To be clear about the personal context, I was those kids in Super 8. I saw Star Wars and Close Encounters in their first runs, then Dawn of the Dead and Alien over the following couple of years. I, like thousands of other tweens and young teens, had my mind stuffed full of wonderment, and a lot of us never really recovered. And tucked away in the middle of all that was a little film featuring Superman, a character whom almost all the hip kids felt was a bit corny, and it starred some guy you never heard of.

Oh, and did I mention that I was a huuuuuge comics fan at the time?

That could explain why I was skeptical, even as a youngster, of the film's tagline: "You'll believe a man can fly." Not that I felt the effects work wouldn't be topnotch, but rather that the marketing itself seemed cheesy. This wouldn't be a comic book movie, I told myself, but a Hollywood cash-in that I'd certainly check out but wouldn't be blown away by.

Boy, was I wrong. Now, looking back nearly thirty-five years later, I realize that that tagline represents the essence of what I now call wonder. It wasn't, "You'll see a man fly and do some amazing things!" -- no, you'll believe it. Moreover, the tagline humanized that stuffy-sounding title, softened it; it said, "This is a man, i.e., a human-scaled protagonist, and so you'll have a character that you can relate to, not just a super-powered being."

Wonder, then, is not the same thing as spectacle. "Spectacle" is a row of towering glass-skinned buildings crumbling à la Transformers. Wonder is the Hulk grabbing a teammate mid-fall and halting his descent by digging his fingers into the facade of the same sort of skyscrapers. It's about human action, or human-like action, within a landscape made up of the incredible and the awesome. With wonder we don't merely witness astounding things on screen, although that's an important first step -- we experience them in some way. And we experience them in part because we believe in them.

Much more importantly, though, with true wonder you don't simply believe and experience things ... you believe and experience things that you honestly never thought you would ever believe or experience. In fact, previously you almost felt you had no right to expect that kind of faithfulness to images and ideas that were born so far away from the movies A perfect non-superhero example of this is Peter Jackson's LOTR trilogy.

That's why true wonder doesn't capture our imaginations so much as liberate them: our senses validate something that had heretofore existed only in the realm of our mind's eye or -- and certain fans will get this while the rest of you should feel free to roll your eyes -- in our souls. Wonder, even if lasts just a few seconds, is not just powerful, but empowering. There's a euphoria that comes from our inner and outer worlds being joined so dynamically.

A lot of us felt this way when Raimi released his Spidey movie back in 2002. It not only captured much of the pulpy spirit of some of the best comics, but also you didn't have to squint and ignore the rough edges when our hero would swing through the canyons of steel. More than that, the film reflected something of the reckless lyricism, the keynotes of freedom and grace, that you always imagined Spider-Man would possess if, you know, he really existed. Stuff that deep down inside you may have wondered if others really responded to the way you did when you read the comics.

The Avengers works (ultimately, that is: I was embarrassed by much of the first 30-45 minutes) for a lot of the same reasons. The superheroes on display are both more fully human and more superhumanly mighty than in their previous incarnations. Also, and it's fine if this brands me as a hopeless geek, but the way that Whedon staged and shot those classic '60s-era moments -- e.g., the Hulk tries to lift Thor's hammer, that same weapon squares off against Cap's shield -- is what kicked my wonderment into high gear. I have no problem with non-comics fans being put off by the pointlessness, predictability or gimmicky-ness of such moves. To me, however, they were the manifestation of concepts, of impossibilities and paradoxes, that had been rattling around in my brain for decades. I'd actually forgotten about them, or at least their power, until the film's terrific compositions and editing revived them like a splash of water to the dried-out seeds in my subconscious.

But by elevating The Avengers to my private little pantheon, do I mean to knock other superhero movies? Not at all. I love the Chris Nolan Batman movies, including their visual grandeur, and I'm not going to argue with anyone who states flat-out that that they're better films than may ever be accomplished within the Marvel Universe. However, probably because Batman isn't super-powered, my inner child places them in a different category of coolness, along with things like James Bond and Bruce Lee movies. That is, they're pretty much rooted in the real world, or at least a real-ish world, not works of fantasy. I can also respect the notion that Tim Burton's Batman or the first couple of X-Men movies were landmarks, and, sure, aesthetically, technically, or culturally, a case could be made.

They just never made me believe in something that I felt I had no proper business believing in. They weren't landmarks in generating, or reviving, an innocent sense of wonder on the order of these other three films I've cited.

Which is why I'm glad I brought my son to the movies today. Wonder is more fun -- more wonderful -- when it's shared. And while, yes, the feeling can be contagious to a degree, what's at work is not merely the old saw about being 30 or 40 or 50 and suddenly turning 12 again as you sit enthralled in the darkened theater. Because if you're a certain type of superhero fan, you've developed a long-term thirst for wonder... and so never stopped being 12. You were just waiting until someone made the kind of movie that not only satisfied that thirst, but also showed the rest of the world why you were willing to go so long between drinks.

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