It’s Not about Joss: Concerning The Avengers, Science Fiction, and New York Times Critics

Since 3 a.m. last night, I have been singing the praises of The Avengers, the über-anticipated epic directed by one of the deities of fanbois everywhere Joss Wheedon. Now while this may make me sound like I’m looking down my nose at fanbois and geeks, I disagree — I’m just practicing full transparency, just as I practice in my life a blatant display of geekiness. It’s part of my job. It’s part of my life. I have no shame being a geek. It’s who I am.

This morning (as in the midnight showing) Pip and I saw what I would argue is Joss Whedon’s second-best film (still not as shiny as his best) but his greatest triumph as a screenwriter and filmmaker. Whedon took four of Marvel’s heaviest hitters, threw in three more for good measure, shook well, and created a script and a movie that was balanced, entertaining, and good fun. And when I say fun, I mean “original Iron Man” fun. Already on IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes, the reviews are coming in and the movie will, as summer blockbusters do, raise the bar for other movies of its ilk…

I will go on to say, though, if Battleship breaks The Avengers records, I am seriously going to wrap up this blog and hide. For a decade.

There was, though, one venue that did not care for The Avengers: The New York Times. Perhaps the one voice against the film would have gone unnoticed had Samuel L. Jackson not channeled co-star Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk and gone on a Twitter rant.

The backlash, some of which I admit to piling on to, comes across as fanboi rage. It would be just one more incident of fanboi rage that makes geeks look like idiots playing World of Warcraft in the basement of their home, but what makes this fanboi rage different is Samuel L.M.F. Jackson (and you know what the MF stands for…) leading the charge. But why? It’s just a sole negative review, right, amongst a tsunami of positive ones, right?

I can’t speak for Nick Fury but I can speak for myself, and when I did on my Facebook page, comments continued to prod at my (apparent) opinion of the New York Times review, the summer blockbuster, and how this movie really won’t in the long run further anything in the genre other than Joss Whedon.

Instead of ranting on Facebook, I decided to bring my rant here. Why? Because I feel the need to explain myself…again.

My own stand against the New York Times review is not because (gasp!) they didn’t like The Avengers, because there will be Marvel fans who will refuse to go mainstream and simply protest for protest’s sake. I take more umbrage in the Times’ apparent disdain for the genre on the whole. Admittedly, the review could have been a lot worse, but it does come across a bit condescending. For example…

“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.”

This was the point of the review that made me blink, but not as bad as…

“The price of entertainment is obedience.”

Hold on — was the New York Times review telling me I was being manipulated to enjoy this film? “Obey — as this is a summer blockbuster…” or some such?

At this point, I was reminded of another review from the Times

“The true perversion, though, is the sense you get that all of this illicitness has been tossed in as a little something for the ladies, out of a justifiable fear, perhaps, that no woman alive would watch otherwise. While I do not doubt that there are women in the world who read books like Mr. Martin’s, I can honestly say that I have never met a single woman who has stood up in indignation at her book club and refused to read the latest from Lorrie Moore unless everyone agreed to The Hobbit first. Game of Thrones is boy fiction patronizingly turned out to reach the population’s other half.”

I have grown tired — very tired — of how Science Fiction and Fantasy is regarded as the red-headed stepchild of storytelling genres, and regardless of accomplishments like Game of Thrones or The Avengers, the NYT has fed into that with ongoing commentary, which I found to be a shallow look at what is a complex, well-written series. The snide remarks about The Avengers, a movie that was a real gamble no matter how you look at it…

And yes, before I get the pile-on about the formulaic summer blockbuster with all the pretty people in the leads, The Avengers was a gamble because Marvel started up the hype four years ago. This movie could have been a steaming turd ala Green Lantern because —Whedonites, prepare your own retaliations now — Joss Whedon isn’t perfect. Dollhouse, for me, was proof of that.

Whedon was given a challenge and he surpassed it. Four years of hype, of buildup, of expectation, all fell into place with this film; but leave it to the New York Times — just as they did with Game of Thrones — to pretend that the argument is invalid, and it’s just more of that Science Fiction and Fantasy crap, designed to appeal to the gamer crowds exclusively.

Perhaps I’m snapping in light of things like people who claim “Oh I don’t read that science fiction stuff, that’s just not my thing…” while they say only a moment later “Oh yeah, I’m reading The Hunger Games on my Kindle right now…” A great comeback to “That sci-fi stuff is too weird for me…” is “Really? What was the last title you tried reading?” To date, only one person has ever come back to me with an answer to that — it was Lani Tupu and the book was Stranger in a Strange Land.

Good on ya, Lani.

My ire is not against the Times’ review. It’s the Times’ attitude about Science Fiction and Fantasy being beneath them. There’s a lot more to this genre than death rays, swords, and magic. When done right, it is about people and the extraordinary challenges they face; and if we are really given a terrific story with amazing characters, it is how we can learn from their struggles and face our own. The NYT critics apparently do not see it in that same light, and as they fail to understand it simply think it’s tiresome.

And to my friends on Facebook who drove me here, no, I’m not angry on you disagreeing with me. That’s not my style. I was growing punchy in my own failure to make clear what I was reacting to. Disagree with me all you want, so long as we’re having the same debate. Right?

Maybe it’s sleep depravation and not fanboi rage that is currently driving me. I’ll take a nap. Let you know how I feel tomorrow…

28 thoughts on “It’s Not about Joss: Concerning The Avengers, Science Fiction, and New York Times Critics

  1. Tee —
    As someone who is famously contrarian about Whedon (I think he’s good, but not nearly as great as he’s made out to be by his devotees), I gotta say…

    You nailed it. Not about The Avengers (I have no opinion on it as I haven’t seen it, and won’t review it if I do unless I think it’s spectacular, due to my policy of not negatively reviewing things I’m prejudiced against, as it simply isn’t fair football), but about the NYT. The “high-culture” prejudice against pulp of any kind has long and ugly history that stems from one of the most toxic attitudes I can imagine: contempt for the masses. Anytime you see “pop” anything derided as “pop” or “pandering to fanboys” or any of the endless variations on that thing, what you’re seeing is an aristocratic attitude that is fundamentally opposed to the fundamental wager of a free society: That most people, most of the time, are more competent at governing themselves than any cadre of elites will ever be. If there is a more contemptible attitude on the planet, or an attitude that has contributed more to the suffering and misery of humanity in the history of the world, I’ve yet to run across it. The NYT arts department (and the New York arts culture) are one of the major bastions of this kind of monstrousness. Kudos for calling it out!

    We should never forget that Austen, Doyle, Twain, London, Welles, Kipling, Shakespeare, Mozart, Chaucer, and nearly every other literary and artistic great in history did their best work while “playing to the cheap seats.”

    FWIW
    -Dan

  2. Really, my main reason for disagreeing with you is that you view as negative a review that makes me want to see the film MORE.
    As I in my own sleep-deprived haze failed to make my point clear, I can hardly fault your original post. In fact, I saw no reason to fault it, as what I disagree with you about is your thesis.
    I don’t read as much condescention into the piece as you do – to me, the very fact that the author is so well-versed in his references makes that assertion hypocracy. I don’t automatically assume that this person, so obviously tired of the themes and aspects of the superhero genre, is putting down sci-fi as a whole. (Yes, I read genre in his review as a substition for what is arguably a sub-genre, because the writer begins as discussing superhero films and not sci-fi/fantasy as a whole.) On the contrary, he felt the film had content worthy of an assessment based on his perception of an underlying theme that, intellectually, goes far beyond a simplistic dismissal of a “kiddie genre”.
    I can’t comment on NYT prosecution of Game of Thrones, mostly because I’ve given a pass on it. I’d read the first several books several years ago, and while Mr Martin is obviously a better technical writer and planner, to me his series ultimately fell flat. After the initial rush of excitement and discussion with friends who loved it, I just did not feel the urge to re-read and keep up with it. Frankly, I found less well-written and plotted series like the Wheel of Time, the Southern Vampire series, and even the Dark-Hunter romances Kenyon pens much more engrossing, and I’ve been unable to fully articulate why.
    I can talk about Whedon all day, though. I, too, found Dollhouse to be less interesting, but to be compelling it would need to address sexuality in a way that just doesn’t translate well to people who aren’t looking to think about their television. The things it needed to do to be meaningful were things it couldn’t do without violating the societal constructs that determine how we are allowed to be sexually edgy and break the rules.
    In any case, would love to see more input on this….

  3. Name Twin,
    This is always, always the case. I’ve long used the ‘redheaded stepchild’ analogy when discussing the lack of respect genre fiction receives. The review, no, not surprised by it. NYT is part of the establishment and said establishment has very infrequently (LoTR winning an Oscar notwithstanding) supported or even tolerated genre in any medium. This is the reason Stephen King or even Gaiman has and will never, ever win a Pulitzer and it is also the same reason Joss has been repeatedly rejected by Fox and many other major studios. Remember, Firefly, Dollhouse and, eventually, Buffy were all canceled. I don’t know why. I have no idea why and couldn’t begin to fathom why these shows and Joss’ work has been belittled and cast aside. However, it isn’t the studios who go to the movies. It isn’t the studios who buy DVDs or read comics or unfailingly support the Creator Gods of the universes we adore. Screw the studios. Screw the establishment and continue to fanboi all you want. I’ll be right along side you doing the same. But, ya know, the girl version of that.

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  5. Got a problem with people playing World of Warcraft in the basement? Fine, I’ll move upstairs… 🙂

    Great article. Can’t wait to see the movie!

  6. I haven’t seen Avengers yet. I’m not one of the cool kids apparently. But I note that the NYT hires a critic. Not a judge. Not an expert. A critic.

    Critics are paid to be critical. Their job is to pander to those who would tear down, rather than build up. To point out anything objectionable, disappointing, and sub-standard.

    This is also why I don’t listen to critics. I have no problem with a fair discussion of the merits of a work, but I don’t expect that from a paid critic.

    Doc

  7. Tee, you and I have talked enough about the SW Prequels to know I watch what I like and couldn’t care leds about what critics say 😉

    And the NYT? Who reads them anyhow? Kinda like casting your pearls before swine, if you ask me.

    Anyhow I agree: Joss Whedon’s greatest triumph. This was a phenomenal piece of storytelling especially considering how many characters he had to balance.

  8. I read the NYT review. It was very balanced, had nice things to say, had some critical things to say. Several things were, I bet, spot on:

    “The best scenes are not the overblown, skull-assaulting action sequences — which add remarkably little that will be fresh or surprising to devotees of the “Transformers” franchise — but the moments in between, when the assembled heroes have the opportunity to brag, banter, flirt and bicker.”

    Funny — when I saw the big metal snake thing in the trailer, I thought “Transformers!” Even Whedon confessed to deliberately employing recognizable tropes (see his April 11 interview in the (gasp) NYT.)

    You’ll notice that quote from the review doesn’t actually say anything negative about the film.

    Heck, a little farther down, the critic compares the film favorably to “Rio Bravo!”

    The strongest criticism in the review seems to be, for me, this:

    “Mr. Whedon’s playful, democratic pop sensibility is no match for the glowering authoritarianism that now defines Hollywood’s comic-book universe.”

    Even this is not so much a knock as an observation about the super-hero genre as a whole, especially as depicted in film… and it’s correct. Superhero stories are fundamentally tainted by fascism and authoritarianism. Authoritarianism and obedience — often unwavering obedience to a cause, a flag, an oath, a psychotic obsession with death — are integral to superhero stories.

    I say this as someone with a great love for the genre. Hell, it’s what Frank Miller and Alan Moore and Warren Ellis have said in their own works, over and over again. Ellis even went so far as to call his super-team “The Authority.”

    So, again… I see nothing geek-hating there. Certainly nothing that takes an unfair shot at science fiction and fantasy as a whole!

    Putting this review in the same box as the mean-spirited and reverse-feminist “Game of Thrones” rant by Ginia Bellafante is unfair and, I think, unfounded.

    Equally unfounded, though, is treating a review of a summer blockbuster adaptation of a super-hero comicbook as some kind of condescending attack on science fiction and fantasy.

    In other words, to paraphrase a cute and kinda-viral YouTube video, “It’s okay to not like when people don’t like things, but don’t be a dick about it.”

    Read the review after you’ve had some sleep. Try to do so with objective eyes. Don’t come into the room looking for a fight. I think you’ll find that this was not a negative review. It was a critique, and a responsible one.

    If you still think it’s a panning review, it’s certainly not “the one voice.” You and Samuel L. Jackson had better get to tweeting the Wall St. Journal, the Village Voice, the Chicago Reader, the Globe and Mail, Salon.com, etc. etc.

    Or, better yet… don’t let it bug ya. Not one of those writers has taken a glove and slapped your own face. None of these reviews will stop “The Avengers” from being wildly popular at the box office — and most of those people buying tickets are the same audience that drove the awful “Independence Day” into record-breaking territory, you’ll remember.

    You get to enjoy what you enjoy no matter what other people think.

  9. I feel like the NYT is poo pooing on everything I love lately, especially what’s on the screen. They hate my Game of Thrones, they Hate John Carter and now the Avengers (I just got back from seeing it, one of the best movies I have seen in a long time, and I said that last week about The Cabin in the Woods, but those are two different film types.) I feel like Avengers was done so well and I can get why Sam Jackson got all Jules on the NYT, if you made something and were that proud you would flip out too. Twitter has allowed celebrities to do that, while more often than not they get themselves into trouble, but hey, good on Jackson for standing up for himself and the project.

    Because I saw Avengers today, I saw (from what I was informed, and did not fact check) the second cut scene that was added after the first screening that the main actors filmed because they all love the end result and the fans so much. How many films inspire that kind of commitment and love from actors?

    I often think Joss is making something crappy, when I hear about his projects they sound stupid to me, and countless times he proves me wrong. Is everything Buffy? No, and that’s a good thing.

    SciFi and Fantasy is the forgotten genre (wont say red headed stepchild because I love one of those) and even with it being able to make money and get the fans, it doesn’t get the respect (is it the rodney dangerfield of genres?) I don’t know why, but it makes me put less and less value in the traditional scales and grading

  10. You know what i’m finding slightly odd about this discussion? I don’t mind it happening here. For some reason, it feels “better” here on my blog than on Facebook.

    Call me goofy.

  11. Well, I’m vaguely annoyed because I have to sniff out the link every time I wanna check up on it. 🙂
    Matthew says exactly what I meant – the movie (which I have now seen, and it is beYOND haaaaaaaaWESOME) wasn’t panned. The genre wasn’t panned. This guy is bemoaning the Modern Age of Comics. For all we know, he’s really decrying the fact it wasn’t a Silver Age adaptation. 🙂

  12. As a Joss fan girl I do have to point out that Whedon didn’t write Avengers (he consulted on the story). 😉

  13. Comicbookgoddess: My point wasn’t that the Scott was bemoaning the Modern Age of Comics. My points were:

    The review is a balanced critique of the film, summer blockbusters, and the comicbook blockbuster movie in particular.
    There’s no geek-hating in the review.
    There’s no attack, condescending or otherwise, on science fiction and fantasy in the review
    When someone doesn’t like what one likes (even thought that’s not what happened in Scott’s review) one doesn’t need to get upset about it, because it takes nothing away from one’s enjoyment.

    Tee: Glad you’re enjoying the discussion,! I’m looking forward to your reply to my comment. (Have you considered turning on threaded comments?)

  14. First some heart-felt affirmations…

    Dan’s right… the NYT arts staff are effete douchebags (I paraphrase). F**k ’em. Doc’s right… they’re critics. F**k ’em. Matt’s right… it wasn’t a “pan”, it was a perspective. And you, Tee, are right… the review embodies the dismissive tone genre writers have been enduring since genre became a literary term.

    So what are you really ranting against? Big Media (and the culture in general) not taking genre fiction seriously? Or is it Big Media throwing its weight around to perpetuate the illusion that genre fiction is fluffy and inconsequential (a subtle difference, but relevant).

    Dude, legitimacy and value are not bestowed by the NYT. You could argue that the sheeple of contemporary culture look to media icons (like the NYT) to learn what they should think about world, and you’d be right. But since when has the opinion of the wooly masses been a deciding factor in your life?

    You were a nerd and a geek long before it was cool. And you’ve been a pioneer on many levels, never requiring public endorsement to pursue whatever shiny thing had caught your eye. So what’s changed that the NYT’s snobbery has gotten under your skin?

    Fans and authors of fantasy/scifi/spec-fic have always been social pariahs, dismissed as weirdos out of touch with reality. I find it interesting that – as the world stage darkens with economic, political, and social upheaval – it is the movies and books of speculative fiction that have risen in the public consciousness. You yourself have acknowledged the ascendancy of fairy tales and steampunk and contributed to that body of (genre) literature.

    To quote Dan Sawyer, “SpecFic… helps us cope with anxieties and build ambitions to help us navigate this tectonic transition so we can create a future that will see us outlast the death of our own sun.”

    But legitimacy has never been our destiny… not should it be. To rail against the Establishment’s disdain for the genre we love is to deny our role in the social order. We are the dreamers, the tricksters, the seed-planters. We can’t work in the light because it’s in the shadows where we find our creative food… the fringes of “what is” is where we find the stuff of “what may be”. We use that stuff to create possibilities and fulfill our role as the purveyors of those possibilities.

    I riff rhapsodic, but you know what I mean. Cultural structures are grounded in real-life challenges… and the grinding masses must contend with issues of acceptance and self-image against that backdrop. Look at any high school and witness the crippling fear and frothing adherence to “trend” and you can see a microcosm of the larger stage. It takes courage and deep conviction to stand apart from that, and even more to commit time and talent to evolving something that no one seems to quite understand.

    Courage that you and every spec-fic author and fan have demonstrated time and again.

    So rant on, brother. It’s frustrating to have the body of work you’ve devoted yourself to dismissed by the very culture you support with it. We’ve all felt that rage and thank you for giving it voice.

    But don’t let it wound you too deeply. If you stand on the fringe, you have a better view of things. There’s more room here and more opportunities to build the visions that will open minds and hearts.

  15. I was not planning on commenting. I generally don’t. I read few blogs and none with any regularity. Yet, for what ever reason, I need to say something.

    First, I haven’t seen the movie, yet. Haven’t (and won’t) read the NYT’s review. Nor have i seen the S.L.J. tweet rants (those might be interesting to read). Nor did i follow Tee’s FB discussion on this (although I probably will hunt it down now).

    With that said, Reviews, Critiques, et. al., are only useful if the reviewer/critic is someone you routinely agree/disagree with. I understand that yourg problem with the NYT review was not that you disagreed with them, but their tone, their perspective on the “genre” or “sub-genre”, their condescension. Yep, that happens. I drive a scooter, serious “bikers” scoff and make fun of it. So what? I enjoy it. Its two wheels. It represents freedom and fun to me. Let them scoff and laugh. I will keep riding my scooter, keep having fun. I will most likely enjoy the movie. I will most likely rave about the movie. I cannot control people with “High-minded” ideas (my SiL is married to one) who look down on what I enjoy or what I consider worth my while and attention. All I can do is not allow their opinion, however wrong it is, affect my enjoyment or what i view as pleasurable/interesting entertainment.

    Ranting and defending our rant is allowed and expected, especially on the internet. People misunderstand what we say, what we mean, how we say it. It is good to have an opportunity to express our views and allow others to express theirs. You, Tee, are especially good at this. You lay it out there and let people say what they will. You restate and rethink your position with every comment (well, not EVERY comment). I applaud your desire to be involved in an open discussion on a variety of subjects not just movie reviews.

    There was no point to be made here, just an observation. Just an opinion.

    Laters Taters

    TREED!!
    (I tried, but i do not think i caught all my typoes)

  16. For all that they’d like to be and for all that they put themselves forward as, I just don’t think the NYT is the gatekeeper of culture they think they are.
    I think the culture is shifting under them.

  17. I’m heading out to see Avengers in about 20 minutes… and have been agonizing over the delay. So, call me fanboi if you will…
    I agree about the arrogance of the Times and actually kind of delight in it anymore. I’ve been (and am) a sportswriter, a poet, a romance novel and an eroticist… and have had people look down on me for each and every one. Whatever.
    As J. Daniel pointed out, Shakespeare was playing to the cheap seats. Yes, he had to entertain the patrons too, but still… and Spielberg, Lucas, Whedon and (my fav) Scorcese are entertaining the masses as well. Mozart’s example in music is easily followed forward to reveal Louis Armstrong, The Beatles, etc.
    Is it art? Don’t listen to a critic. Time will decide.

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