My generation read comic books growing up: Superman, Batman and their various ancillary Supers and Bats. Green Lantern and Green Hornet, Archie and Jughead. And then most of us stopped at about 12 or 13, and moved on to other literature.
In those days, any movie based on a comic book was a Sunday serial or a cheaply made B movie, or a TV show made especially for children. Even Batman with Adam West was for children, although like Rocky and Bullwinkle, Mad Magazine and now The Simpsons, adults could also enjoy its tongue-in-cheek satire. Again, at about 13 or so, we stopped watching the movies and TV shows based on comic books.
Or most of us did. Some of us, especially men, stayed in the juvenile world of comic book heroes.
That was the baby boom generation. More kids from the next generation kept their comic book habits into adulthood. And even more from Generations X and Y.
Something else happened, too, in the late 70s (okay, it was 1976!), about the time the country took a turn from its commitment to economic equality to the harsh social Darwinism that now rules. Star Wars showed the new Hollywood of the late 70s and 80s the possibilities of presenting what was formerly low budget B material as first run high gloss features. The new Hollywood also quickly learned the value of sequels and of both appealing to and cultivating the growing market for adult versions of juvenilia such as science fiction. Disney had already introduced the concepts of branding and merchandising. The recognition that comic books were the mother lode came quickly to Hollywood. Superman started it in 1978, followed by Batman movie franchises, and now the recent run of Marvel comic book hero films.
My son, a PhD student in structural engineering at Stanford, asked me to review Marvel’s The Avengers, which is well on its way to becoming the most financially successful film in the 120 some-odd years of the cinema. I told him I’d take a pass. It’s not my kind of movie, and as a social critic, I consider its very existence res ipsa loquitur, which is Latin for “a thing that speaks for itself.” The thing, in the case of The Avengers is the infantilization of American adults, which means that instead of graduating to adult-level entertainments, many adults today keep their childhood pleasures such as comic books and video games. The ultimate mass market symbol of adult infantilization are the scientists in The Big Bang Theory, who live for comic books and video games and never crack a book open, volunteer, go to the theatre, or serve on the board of an organization.
I’m not saying the film isn’t well made. It has the brilliant-but-always-seems-to-be-slumming Robert Downey, Jr., which means that whenever he’s on screen, there is at least something interesting to watch and listen to. And it looks as if he may have issued one of Hollywood’s lasting lines. Fine movies sometimes produce great lines such as “I could have been a contender,” but they are more likely to produce great images, like the girl waving to Marcello at the end of La Dolce Vita or Jack Nicholson playing classical music at a piano on the back of a moving truck in Five Easy Pieces. But it seems as if many of the most remembered movie lines are from schlocky movies such as Schwarzenegger’s “I’ll be back” and “Hasta la vista, baby” or Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry saying “Do you feel lucky today punk?” and “Make my day,” which our Actor President Ronald Reagan resurrected when hard-balling Congress about taxes.
The magic line for Downey is in every ad for The Avengers that I have seen, and despite not watching that much TV, I have seen a slew of ads for the movie. A bad guy says “We have an army,” to which Downey replies with an arrogant insouciance, “We have a Hulk.”
Great line that may prove to be timeless.
But it reminds me of what my father once said about a sappy middlebrow costume drama starring the A list of British actors at the time in which a churchman stands sanctimoniously defies a King on religious grounds. My father’s words, sanitized here: “If you take a piece of crap and you polish it, you have a polished piece of crap.”