So. Cabin in the Woods and The Avengers. The last two movies I’ve seen (and I know I’m not alone in this), both of them bearing the Joss Whedon imprimatur (producer and co-writer of one, co-writer and director of the other). Even if there wasn’t anything else to look forward to this summer, even if there weren’t the looming shadows of Prometheus and The Dark Knight Rises, this would already be a pretty strong season. A few thoughts on them both below. These are not reviews. I’m assuming you’ve seen both movies, so there are spoilers ahead. If you haven’t seen them, then stop reading this and hit the theatres.
No, I’m serious. Go away.
Fine, while they’re off doing their homework, the rest of us can carry on. As I said, these aren’t reviews, but let me get this out of the way: Cabin in the Woods is the most fun I’ve had at a horror movie in quite some time, and The Avengers, too, is enormous, fist-pumping fun.
You’ll note that I used the word “fun” twice in the preceding sentence. I was not being lazy. It seems to me that this is exactly what the two films are about. Fun is what they are having, and they want their audiences to join in. They are exuberant, witty works, made by fans for fans, yet open to general viewers who would never even have heard of Hawkeye until just now.
A big part of that fun is the massive, extremely conscious use of intertextuality in both films, and that’s what I find myself returning to as I think about them and the nature of their viewing experience. All works of art, of course, are filled with echoes, conscious or not, to other works. Whedon’s scripts are very self-aware, and they demand an equally alert audience, one that will engage actively with the games being played. This is particularly true of Cabin in the Woods – if you have never seen a horror movie in your life, then this film is not the place to start. But even The Avengers makes some demands along these lines: if (however unlikely this may be) you have not seen the previous Marvel adaptations, or are otherwise unfamiliar with the characters, then you’re probably going to be a bit lost.
But the more the references are recognizable for a given member of the audience, the more likely that viewer will be to exult in the film. And that kind of endless referencing is, furthermore, a big part of the comic book reading experience. Any given issue of an ongoing series from Marvel or DC is not going to be a completely self-contained story. It will be part of a larger story arc, possibly a never-ending one, and it will intersect with story arcs from other series, which will do the same with still more. It’s a clever marketing tactic – one that, at the peak of my comic collecting back in the late-80s, resulted in my buying DC’s entire line every month – but it is also an exciting experience for the reader, given the size, depth and richness of the universe so created.
The Avengers, then, recreates that experience of being in the know, and tapping into multiple story-lines. It also religiously follows the other conventions that complete the Marvel comics experience – the snappy patter during combat, the fact that all super-heroes must fight each other when they first meet, and so on. The self-conscious intertextuality of the film mirrors the same in the comics, and so brings the movie even closer to its source material.
I am willing to bet, however, that if you saw Cabin in the Woods, no matter how much you loved it, it probably didn’t frighten you. Maybe it’s just me, but the greatest suspense I felt was the worry that the world wasn’t going to end, and I would be cheated out of something extremely cool. But the world did end, and I was not cheated. Yay! But what this also means is that I was responding to the movie on an intellectual, rather than visceral, plane, and horror movies, like romances, need to get us at the more atavistic level if we’re going to be frightened. Similarly, The Avengers is not likely to have the same emotional punch as The Dark Knight for many viewers, I’m guessing. Nor is it trying to, except insofar as it thrills by being the incarnation of the super-hero-team comic book experience.
But maybe that’s enough. Sometimes, sheer, giddy, smart fun is all we need.