Feeling Seen: Avengeance
Feeling Seen is a new column focusing on personal reflections on films and featuring a different author every week. For this edition, critic Nick Pinkerton and artist C. Spencer Yeh sat down, both before and after viewing the film, to talk through the implications of the world-eating blockbuster Avengers: Endgame. The conversation touches on Disney’s financial and creative dominance of the multiplex, genre, fandom, criticism, and more, in a wide-ranging dialogue on the film, the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), and the superhero film as a genre unto itself. (Note: the conversation has been edited and condensed.)
All images from Avengers: Endgame (Anthony Russo and Joe Russo, 2019)
Nick Pinkerton: Something I’d like to touch on, before we get into the nitty-gritty, is why should we be doing this in the first place?
C. Spencer Yeh: You mean like, specifically us?
NP: I mean like anyone. Because I’ve found myself butting up against a certain critical dilemma with regard to these movies. Generally speaking, I try to operate according to the Truffaut maxim “all films are created equally.” Generally speaking, I try to operate according to the Andrew Sarris idea of a trees critic rather than a forest critic, that is– somebody who is evaluating any given film on its individual merits and demerits rather than…
CSY: So, to pit it against itself as criteria?
NP: Well, the idea that, rather than looking at the terrain of commercial movies as a forest where the individual trees are swallowed up by the totality, giving each tree its due consideration. So when looking at the multiplex, rather than seeing so many junky commercial movies that can be filed away as all of a piece so you don’t have to bring to bear any of your critical facilities on it, being a critic who is going to look at every film individually and try to figure out what is the worth in it. What I’ve found myself drifting into, though, is a conviction that, even though to varying degrees I can be sympathetic toward some of these movies, I think that they are a force for evil in the world.
And it troubles me that as a writer, as a critic, as anybody sort of contributing to what I’ll eye-rollingly call “cultural discourse,” the most power that you have, and it’s not a lot, is the power to just veto, to just say “I’m not going to consider this thing at all.” I’m not going to do it in public forums, at least, with my column space and my byline. To say there are things of greater interest that are receiving far less attention and it would behoove me as a critic being ethical about my work to bring my resources to bear on these things instead.
CSY: What you’re saying is that the time and the words spent, for yourself, are more productive if you were to, not necessarily find a small movie that you think you’d want to champion, but to place yourself in a situation in which you have to think through whether something is worthwhile.
NP: It’s not a matter of applying the thought so much as it’s a matter of any additional verbiage that’s expended on this thing—be it positive, be it negative—contributes further to the hegemonic importance of it.
CSY: It’s sort of like the sham president. You occasionally see people on Twitter saying, “Don’t re-tweet,” because you’re ultimately just calling more attention to it.
NP: And the other side of the juggernaut Marvel machine is that they seem at this point to be infallible films, that is to say, every one of them without exception rakes in a certain amount of cash.
On another level—and here’s where I’m slightly sympathetic to these films—there is a certain degree of dependability and quality control at work in all of them. I would say if I were a normal person who had a normal relationship to movies—which is to say, if I was somebody who had a family, and took my family out to see a handful of films a year—the absolute one-stop-shopping dependability of the product that they put out, that contains attractive stars engaging in high-flying heroics with a peppering of jokes throughout would be appealing.
CSY: A hefty peppering of jokes.
NP: Again, I have varying degrees of fondness for some of these movies. There are none that I care about passionately enough that if, Thanos-style, a finger were snapped and they were to disappear from the face of the earth, I don’t think I would be all that terribly crestfallen. I don’t categorically find them awful. However, I find myself turning more and more into Siegfried Kracauer in my fogey-dom.
These films signify a development that bothers me profoundly, which is a model of filmmaking that is building these massive franchise structures in which films are no longer individual contained units. Of course, sequels are nothing new, but what is new is the fact that you have individual films serving as puzzle pieces, as building blocks in a massive edifice, as buttresses. And part and parcel of that is the diminishment of the ability of any single filmmaker having a bit of wiggle room to make the work their own, because they are responsible to a template, and to the needs of a larger franchise. Filmmakers are coming onto these individual pieces as hired guns, while you have overseers who are operating at this show runner–like capacity—people like Simon Kinberg with the X-Men movies.
Now that is troubling to me in one way. What is troubling on another hand is the degree to which, as I’ve said, these films have proven themselves to be infallible and have pointed to a business model that minimizes risk to a degree that studios and their executives have always wanted, but never succeeded in doing. Because they are putting money down on franchises and intellectual property and tentpoles, rather than investing in a diversity of films, a wider menu of film types, or investing in the instincts of individual talents, you see the eventual narrowing of the sort of movies that are available to be seen at the multiplex. So you get Wendy’s menu instead of Shopsin’s.
I say this not as somebody bemoaning the gormless barbarians who are going to see Thor: The Dark World instead of Ingmar Bergman, but as somebody who has historically had a real investment in pulpy, middle-range movies and the idea of the functional, healthy pop cinema. But I feel like, in the last five years even, these have become a kudzu-like invasive species that are gradually swallowing up theater space that would traditionally have been given over to other sorts of pop films. And that’s really fucking disturbing.
CSY: The pop voice is flattened, it’s dependable and predictable, even as it attempts to try to twist and turn and sway and manipulate the audience—because these MCU movies do try to manipulate to a degree, in a way that isn’t necessarily predictable to what you call a casual movie-going person. In Part 1 of this Avengers thing—I don’t know what conditions you saw it under, but I saw it in the theater and people were really sort of surprised that the ending went where it went, to that greatest of cliffhangers. But at the same time, there is this sort of flattening, this controlled calculated array to work from, no question.
It’s funny, because I think about how the fan base ranges from fanatics to people who just believe in the innocuous popcorn-movie bullshit. Of course, you could say we’re all complicit, but the hardcore fans, and that classic sort of fan behavior—going after critics on Rotten Tomatoes who pan a Marvel movie—it’s certainly not the MCU or Disney that trained people to be that way.
Then you have people who are elated at an increasing representation of identity in these movies, and what they perceive to be an empowering message as a result. There’s almost a mass insistence on accepting a movie, even with all of its problems, if it meets those terms. The movie may not actually be hitting all the notes—not actually being the best MCU it could be—but because it is doing something for representation, fans will say it’s awesome. It’s sort of the way Asians ran to prop up Crazy Rich Asians. There’s some really problematic shit there, but mostly it’s just kind of flat and unexciting—it wasn’t even the banging rom-com it set out to be. But, no one can say this movie sucks, because with this movie we’re supposedly getting this thing we’ve wanted. You know what I mean?
NP: I do. My natural inclination regarding all of this stuff is to think it’s been a terrible and brilliant PSYOP on the part of the marketing arms of the various studio enterprises to make people conflate their ticket-buying practices with positive political action. The idea being that you vote with your dollar to provide proof of the marketability of certain kinds of representation and therefore bring out a popular culture that more closely resembles, demographically at least, the America we live in today. My natural inclination is to be incredibly cynical about this, and how it’s been played upon by marketing men.
On the other hand, I’ve been teaching this spring, and to hear 19-, 20-, 21-year-olds talk about, for example, their experience of Black Panther and what it meant personally to them—however much I may be incredibly wary of this operation to turn the ticket booth into a ballot box, I can’t listen to these testimonies and just say, “Oh, that’s bullshit, you’ve been hoodwinked.”
CSY: Yes, exactly. If we’re playing the long game here, it’s better for Crazy Rich Asians to be out and for people to be excited, even if it’s in a rotted system. Hopefully, 20 years down the road people won’t say, “Look at all these complicit fuckers who did nothing. All they did was talk about self-care. They just went to movies. They weren’t in the streets lighting shit on fire.” We do what we can in the moment, to push toward that future.
But, people do want something more: given the options, when there is something more, it’s celebrated. It’s championed. People do feel touched by Black Panther, and that’s very legit and real. I mean, access to whatever culture is totally a privileged and guarded thing. Genre film can be a smuggler of radical material.
NP: At the same time, you speak of complicity… It’s not like I’m likening the rise of the MCU to that of Nazism [laughs], but I do again find it deeply worrisome the degree to which we are all so quick to accept the valuation of importance that is handed down to us by Disney and their vast army of PR people. Again, it’s not that I’m formulating some dichotomy between the virtuous art film being ignored and wasting away while the wicked dunderheaded action movies suck up all the oxygen and attention. There’s all kinds of interesting genre work being done all the time that just does not move the needle at all, because it doesn’t exist in the eyes of the culture media, it’s essentially being relegated to a sort of folk art status, at least stateside. If you know you know. I’m talking now about DTV stuff, the sort of movies that Scott Adkins stars in, the Triple Threats of the world.
CSY: Genre as folk art. Interesting.
NP: We can think of the way something like Stephen Chow’s The Mermaid or Johnnie To’s Office were handled when they appeared stateside and the fact that there was just absolutely no press there to greet them whatsoever. And that’s supposed to be the job of cultural journalism, to offer a counter-narrative to the narrative that PR is writing. This year there was also Yuen Woo-ping’s Master Z: The Ip Man Legacy, there’s fantastic stuff going on in Tamil cinema, there’s Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich…
CSY: Have you watched S. Craig Zahler’s Dragged Across Concrete?
NP: I have.
CSY: I was a fan of Bone Tomahawk—
NP: Oh sure.
CSY: And Brawl [in Cell Block 99]. There was a lot of good in that, in the way the camera loved and cradled Vince Vaughn, in terms of communicating the bulk and strength and cadence of his character. Dragged Across Concrete, however… [Laughs]
NP: You raise an eyebrow.
CSY: I’m conflicted. On one hand, the slow burn, the setup, is incredibly well done. On the other hand, I’m like, why does this fucking movie exist? Do I need to be spending any more time or thought on it? I don’t know, I find the vibe of the interviews with the director increasingly noxious, but I can’t stop talking about it apparently.
NP: What I am sympathetic toward in S. Craig Zahler’s work, any number of films really, is that I’m responsive to movies that have the capacity to face-plant, that seem like they might fall apart. And again, I think this is something that bothers me not only about MC movies but maybe the superhero film in general, is that there is this intrinsic, deity-like invulnerability.
We’re going to see a three-hour movie, which I suspect we’ll come out of perfectly entertained. I suspect it will move along at a brisk clip. I suspect that no expense has been spared to give us an entertainment experience that is completely lubricious, free of bumps, where every crack has been caulked in. And the very fact that I am so confident in the fact that nothing will ruffle my feathers… [Laughter]
CSY: Let’s see what happens. I’m stoked now.
NP: I’m interested in talking about one particular aspect of the movie tonight because, in the course of watching 19 MCU movies, I can count exactly one moment when I did feel, I think, actually moved.
CSY: Yeah? What was that?
NP: It would be in the Russo Brothers–directed Captain America: The Winter Soldier, where Chris Evans’s Captain America, in the present day, is reunited with his lady love [Hayley Atwell as Peggy Carter], who is now a very old woman in a hospital bed. There’s this deeply emotionally charged exchange between the two of them, between Captain America, who is still the young, strapping buck that he was in 1945, and this very, very old woman. It’s extremely touching in the way that certain things, in films particularly, can be in regards to how they make us aware of our own chronologies and the passage of time. That’s something I think film as a medium, and a temporal one, is curiously well suited to.
It’s just tremendously moving, this reaching across time, this acute sense of a missed opportunity, and that’s what you’re being confronted with across Avengers: Endgame, be it Tony Stark being briefly reunited with his father… But this little moment has become something strenuous here. You’re being constantly pelted with it, beaten with it, bar-soap-in-pillowcases Full Metal Jacket–style.
CSY: When the time-machine angle came in with Endgame, I suddenly felt this drop in my gut. At that moment, I realized, whether it was intentional or not on the part of Avengers: Endgame, that the movie was basically saying, look, we all know this doesn’t fucking matter. It’s just a vehicle to have these emotional moments and meetings between these sons and mothers and son and fathers—or son and son in the case of Captain America meeting himself. I don’t know how else to put it, but I have to think that the logic of time travel in that movie is just a red herring, a distraction for fans to mind-chase.
But you’re talking about how there’s a certain simultaneity, there’s the idea of taking whatever feelings and identity you have in the present moment and wishing that you could go back and change the timeline. It’s that particular brand of romantic bittersweetness that’s thoroughly self-involved.
NP: There’s an enormous number of fantastic self-realization scenarios at play throughout the movie, and a couple things with regards to the time-travel aspect and the degree to which that plugs into a sort of retrospective, backwards-directed thinking and a desire to right a perceived upended world, which is very much at the heart of the project.
I’ve written in the past about superhero films as a genre, at least trying to dope them out as a genre, and understand what the rules of a superhero film as a genre are. And I realized retrospectively that one of the fundamental errors I made was to think about superhero films in the framework of other genres—the Western, whatever—rather than to realize that what they are is a sort of super-genre that, magpie-like, takes things from everything else. Avengers: Endgame has as good as put it right out front; in some ways it sets itself up as a heist movie or a time-heist movie where you have several teams working in concert to pull off very specific missions in very specific ways. And then, because we live in this pop-culture garage sale where everything is formed from leftovers, we get references to Back to the Future and a tossed-off crack that recalls Indiana Jones.
All of which is to say, I don’t recall a Marvel mega-production in which nostalgia and the desire to whole a halved world has played quite the same role. Of course nostalgia is kind of baked into this idea, the premise that we begin with, that something’s gone terribly awry and needs to be set right. By which I also mean I can’t recall seeing a Marvel film that also felt so much a Disney film.
CSY: You were talking about this earlier—the formula, a way to play it safe while still frissioning the audience just enough. It’s like Lay’s potato chips trying to sell Thai sweet chili flavor, when in fact it’s the barbecue flavor with a different proportion of spices. People eating the chips think that they’re getting…
NP: A trip to Southeast Asia.
CSY: Hell yeah they are.
NP: On the face of it, the movie is built on a basically conservative premise—that something has gone horribly wrong in the timeline and that we need to get back to a holistic, unified world that once existed. And where we wind up finally is this scene where Steve Rogers is reunited with his lady love, left behind in wartime when he went into the ice or whatever. The film’s final scene essentially takes us to Disneyworld’s Main Street USA, which was Walt Disney’s idealized version of his boyhood home in Marceline, Missouri.
CSY: Yeah, what we like to call “simpler times.”
NP: It is literally the imagined small-town Missouri of Walt Disney’s youth, where a guy and his best gal finally get to have that slow dance and raise a mess of kids. Nowhere have I seen the peculiarities of the Marvel universe and the particular comfort of the Disney universe dovetail so perfectly as they do in that moment.
CSY: In terms of the cast of characters, who decided that Captain America and Iron Man would be the major characters of this whole arc? Is it because of a contract loyalty toward these particular actors? Arguably, the actors really are making these characters work, relative to the movies. I think about Chris Hemsworth. As a friend of mine said, the first Thor was a movie only moms would love, but since then, they’ve actually been able to make Thor into a much more interesting character, thanks to Hemsworth’s performance. A light-handed play against type, being the stoic burnout who’s let himself go, but not letting go his ego.
NP: What struck me a bit tonight was, all gravitas aside, just how sitcom-y the whole enterprise is. I was thinking about it in terms of a construction like Cheers, wherein you have certain shiftings of personnel going on: Coach gets sick, you go from Diane to Rebecca, you have certain moving parts that for one reason or another have to move but beyond that you have certain consistent elements that you’re going to satisfy consistently, as you pass on the Captain America shield or the Iron Man suit.
Similarly, most of the characterizations, and this is kind of natural when you have as many moving parts as something like this does, you have a lot of people just stepping in, getting their bits off, and getting off screen. I think this is the particular balance that these movies have—I don’t want to say mastered because I don’t know that it’s an art worth mastering—but consistently being able to smoothly move between gestures signifying gravitas and then a quick, undercutting one-liner that will then give a chuckle and let you move along. Truly, something for everyone.
CSY: It’s not complexly weaved in at all. It’s dictated: this scene is where we need to feel emotional and bow our heads and remember our brothers and sisters who passed. Speaking of genre films and emotional beats, I think a lot about certain Hong Kong Category III movies where the switching between grotesque violence, drama, and slapstick happens in a way that’s different from what we’re accustomed to in Western culture. We pride ourselves on a certain tonal balance in the West as an elevated state of being, particularly in whiteness. Whereas, in something like Dr. Lamb—it’s about this sadistic serial killer—you have these long passages of shocking proto-torture porn, and then randomly you have a scene where like a severed breast lands on a forensics person’s back, and it’s clearly played for laughs.
NP: I had a thought while watching Avengers: Endgame that maybe this was just the Pax Romana, which is to say, this is the pop culture Roman Empire, an entity that can cover a vast amount of territory and provide a cohesive entertainment system that works in Russia as well as it does in Uganda, that can pay lip service demographically to a very broad and diverse group of people, just as we saw in the rather terrifying moment where Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel is joined by all the women of the Marvel universe—
CSY: Oh boy, that moment. Earlier you were talking about how slowly all these MCU movies are becoming similar to each other, and pointing also to these Disney movies—how Marvel/Disney is working toward a formula.
NP: Certainly there are all sorts of international idioms that are alive and well, even if they don’t really register much in these United States, but what I think goes away is the middle-range studio picture. What you get increasingly, and this is very much the stated Disney business model, is to make fewer movies but more shored-up and quality-controlled movies—the “quality” being determined by studio executives—with a greater guarantee of fiscal success. What Disney has done over the last decade is to shear off all of those appendages like Lionsgate and Miramax that used to address themselves to all sorts of smaller movies, and instead to concentrate on Pixar movies, Marvel movies, Lucasfilm movies, and movies that are going into the Disney IP and resurrecting properties, hopefully with box-office success.
CSY: It really is something when you look at it like that, when you actually pull back and realize that the Goofys of the world are on the way out.
NP: And everyone wants to create some kind of film-world historical parallel. I think that’s something that’s extremely attractive to people who want to dignify these films intellectually, to say, well, it’s just like the Western in the ’50s.
And though there are parallels to be made, there are no parallels for the mega-entertainment undertaking like that which Walt Disney incorporated with Marvel Studios is currently undertaking. I just don’t see any parallel whatsoever. All of which is to say, with regards to Avengers: Endgame, I found it a crushingly dull, visually undistinguished experience and one which that I’ll almost certainly be having many, many times again.
CSY: Right, or in Winter Soldier, people were saying it was a “smart political thriller,” trying to elevate it out of its own skin. Well, sure, of course it is whatever you wish, because it’s very much sourced from the collective psyche and that reflects our times, which are bizarre and fucked-up.
NP: As somebody who enjoyed the fight choreography in that movie, thought it had real muscle and heft, I saw none of that in Endgame. But then it’s always difficult to assign credit in these things because they’re such massive undertakings, and the old auteurist assumptions, shaky in the best of cases, really don’t apply. I’ve never set foot on the set on a Marvel production, but you have to wonder who’s actually doing what. To what degree are Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden the directors of Captain Marvel, and to what degree is second unit taking things over? I am someone who is so trained to look at things through this auterist lens, so this is a big problem, I think, when trying to explicate what’s going on with these movies.
CSY: That reminds me of one of the Ronald Moore episode commentaries from the Battlestar Galactica reboot. They were great because he would basically get drunk and talk about the realities of running a TV show and how they had no grand plan despite how much the fans fought and theorized about what they were doing. But he cited this one action scene where, due to whatever reason, they left the entire direction and visualization of the scene to the effects studio. And the results were basically the equivalent of a 10-year-old boy whizzing some action figures around in the air—the scene totally went against not only the camera moves and action that the show was built on, but also against the world of these characters. You were supposed to have these fairly grounded, flawed people, not high-flying superhero-esque untouchables. So these attempts at really trying to expand or elevate the genre just end up being tethered, in the end, to what the 10-year-old boys are wanting. I don’t want to totally hate on the boys—but I am one, and I know what they are made of.
NP: I’ve seen some extremely hysterical pieces where you see the Russo Brothers from Cleveland, Ohio, basically looking like they run a restaurant on Mayfield Road—which is the best thing about them. And the Russos are citing the influence of Michelangelo Antonioni on Avengers: Endgame—specifically the headline ran that they were tapping into Antonioni-type darkness. And certainly the ultimate effect is one of alienation, if not the kind I think they were aiming for.
CSY: As far as Endgame being dull, the first 40-whatever minutes I was along for the ride, but then the time-travel churn came in, and all of a sudden, it’s a very hollow and normal story about a son and a father. If I were a younger sort, fully drawn into this particular genre culture that I certainly ran within as a youth, and if this work was one trying to teach me how to navigate the world, I would have been trying to push myself to feel something for the fact that Tony Stark randomly meets his father. As a result, also perhaps pushing myself to bring that into my real life, because that’s what I’m being told is proper, even if it’s not the real kind of emotional work I need to be doing.
NP: Also, Guardians of the Galaxy is all father fetishism. It’s becoming the one great themes of the contemporary multiplex because, as human sexuality has been banished entirely from multiplexes, what remains to us is daddy complexes.
CSY: You were talking about the most moving moments and I found the setup in the first Guardians of the Galaxy moving enough. Do you count yourself as a Guardians enthusiast? What do they call themselves, Browncoats?
NP: It was eons ago in this conversation but it’s hard for me to express totally unfettered enthusiasm for any of these endeavors because they violate so many things that I hold to be true about film as opposed to a serial-TV form, which is that there is this marvelous compression, there is this sense that everything not only counts but has been doted over by an intelligence or intelligences. Whereas in the Marvel project I always feel the degree to which I’m not looking at a cathedral, I’m looking at a buttress, I’m looking at a spire, I’m looking at a part, I’m not looking at the whole.
CSY: You can be talking about any one of those 20-plus movies.
NP: It’s a damn shame. They always feel incomplete to me, because there’s never any sense of anything being absolutely crucial, really life-or-death. This is but one of many quibbles that I have, though it’s not an insignificant one. The other of course is, can it ever be that much fun to watch $350 million being burned on the screen?
I found myself kind of stifling a giggle—can I say this without violating the no-spoilers contract?—toward the end. The film includes a funeral scene at a riverside, and… do you know the Vincente Minnelli movie Some Came Running? It’s from 1958, and it takes place in a small southern Indiana town. It ends with a funeral on the shores of the Ohio River, one of the most moving closing shots in American cinema. And though the equivalent scene in Avengers: Endgame isn’t a closing shot, it has some of the same elegiac air, the same riverside funeral setting. But instead of this very compact group of characters in Some Came Running—a handful of people who you’ve become enormously involved with that the camera can contain in a single shot—the shot in Avengers: Endgame just goes on and on and on and on past this endless parade of characters, like the Spaceballs parody of the opening shot in Star Wars where the freighter starts to go by and it just goes by and goes by. That parody of overstuffed blockbuster largesse.
CSY: Which is actually kind of amazing, like the endless ED-209 shooting of the suit in RoboCop.
NP: Sure, it becomes quite comical at some point after you’ve passed your 37th prominent character purportedly meant to be registering their sense of loss with equal weight.
CSY: So the other thing in terms of time as material and theme, is Endgame’s use of art movie moves to gain some prestige—or at least, what is considered arty. It reminded me of the last Star Wars movie, when they had to put a sign outside the theater saying that at a certain point, the sound cuts out completely and that it was not a glitch or a mistake. It was a radical artistic decision.
NP: So what is the art film movie move equivalent in Avengers?
CSY: Duration. Slow cinema. Even the title cards move slowly with all the weight of an artiste’s hand—
NP: You could feel the Russos’ self-satisfaction with the audacity of that “Five…” long pause… “Years…” long pause… “Later.” That without question is evidence of the profound effect of Michelangelo Antonioni. Or Apichatpong Weerasethakul. [Laughs]
Nick Pinkerton is a regular contributor to Film Comment and a member of the New York Film Critics Circle.