I saw the trailer for Marvel’s The Avengers this week, and I said on Twitter something to the effect that this film (due out May next year) is the point that the whole of the history of cinema has been leading up to.
Of course, it was treated as hyperbole, and those who bothered to respond did so in an “oh, don’t over-react” kind of manner. But I was being serious. In fact, my original assertion was an understatement. It is, in fact, the point that the whole of the history of narrative storytelling has been leading up to.
I don’t mean that I think the film will be more well-made than Citizen Kane or more entertaining than the Muppet Movie. I don’t mean that it will be smarter than 2001 or Inception, for that matter (though that’s certainly possible) – and I don’t mean that it will “the new Matrix” or “the new Star Wars” or “the new Blade Runner” or any such thing.
And nor am I just being a Joss Whedon fanboy here. I mean, I AM a Joss Whedon fanboy – but that’s not what this is about.
This is way more important than any of that.
This is about literature
In his ‘Anatomy of Criticism’, Canadian literary theorist Northrop Frye characterised the history of narrative in a succession of five phases or literary ‘modes’. It has very close parallels with my Five Ages of Media thing I’m always going on about.
The Mythic mode
In the beginning was the Mythic age. We told each other stories of Gods and monsters. It was a naïve age, but these stories helped us understand our world and our place within it. It helped us think about things bigger than ourselves, and made sense of everything from where the world came from to how we should think about things like morals, loyalty, history, the relationships between people (such as father and son, husband and wife, friendship, and so on), and how we should behave.
Every culture on earth has developed its own mythology, and as Joseph Campbell points out, they all have incredibly close parallels. There are archetypes that human beings keep coming back to again and again in all sorts of different ways – but there’s a creation, there’s a miraculous virgin birth, a betrayal, a death and a resurrection in pretty much every mythic tradition you care to name.
These are stories about gods-among-us. Deities deliberately acting upon, and having effects within our lived environment. The thunder god spoke. The volcano god is angry. The burning bush spoke.
Human beings are hardwired for narrative, and so we seek out these stories, and we use them to shape the ways in which we experience the world. And of course, at various times in our history, it has been appropriate (or politically expedient) for us to not only define ourselves by an adherence to these myths, but to believe they are literally true, rather than simply useful metaphors and important allegories.
Scriptures are sacred because they are so incredibly important for our understanding of the world around us, and our understanding of ourselves – not because they are historically accurate documents of record. But typically, myths assert divine inspiration.
The Romance mode
Frye’s second literary age is something very closely related to myth, but distinct from it. This is the time of legends. La Morte d’Arthur is a key text, but we are talking about magic and dragons, heroes and villains. The boy finds himself outside the castle walls and must slay the beast, retrieve the treasure, rescue the princess, and return a man.
Again, these sorts of stories are important ways of thinking about ourselves, and extracting meaning from our lives, guiding our action – and while there is no presupposition that we will take these stories literally, there are sometimes genuine connections with history, in a ‘very loosely based on a true story’ kind of way.
In the Romance, the Gods are back up in the sky where they belong, and we meet their spokespeople on earth, and their presence is invoked through proverbs and traditions.
We can see these stories as being in some ways more ‘sophisticated’ than myths – but to Frye (a Christian, as it happens), they are of a lower order. Not in the sense of being less worthy, but in the sense of being less lofty. Romance stories are not about the universal order of things, but primarily about the personal, symbolic, inner journey.
The High Mimetic mode
Mimesis concerns the copying of things from life, and so the Mimetic modes (high and low) are about stories from the real world, or about real (or at least realistic) things – things from our culture and society.
High mimetic narrative is about cities and states, nations and kings, important people and high society. They may have fanciful aspects to them, but ultimately, these are stories of power, or people in power – but crucially, these are people, not demigods or heroes on epic quests.
Often, High Mimetic narratives take the form of national epics.
The Low Mimetic mode
As you might expect, low mimetic narrative is about ordinary people. It’s about social mobility or our ability to relate directly to a central character, who is in many important respects ‘like us’.
The low mimetic story, whether comedy, tragedy, or a thematic story about individualism, allows us to see ourselves within the narrative and use empathy to deploy an emotional impact, such as shared joy or pathos.
We also get more of a glimpse of the author (and not just the narrator). The God’s Eye View perspective places the author as an authority within the low mimetic literature. This is not literature dictated by a deity, nor inspired by a divine source, but a creation of the intellect of the author.
The Ironic mode
Below the low mimetic mode is the ironic mode. The ironic is critical – sometimes jaded. It parodies and mocks, and sometimes the protagonist finds themselves outside society, or in opposition to it. The protagonist is a scapegoat, or the story provides a satire on a snobbish and ‘out-of-touch’ society.
Characters in poverty or without access to resources are not uncommon, and the ironic narrative shows us a world that may be baffling or nonsensical. Moreover, rather than providing an authoritative view, the author serves as a fellow observer. Beckett, Joyce and Kafka typify this ‘bottom end’ of the narrative ladder.
Songs of Innocence and Experience
Now, Northrop Frye was a Blake scholar. His book ‘Fearful Symmetry‘ is widely regarded as one of the best works on the poems of William Blake – not just in terms of what they mean as poems, but what they mean as part of our culture.
To Frye, Blake’s poems and symbolism are not to be interpreted with a single meaning, but held up within a particular historical context and used to illuminate our struggles and issues.
Blake’s ‘Songs of Innocence and Experience‘ is a complex work, which you may well have encountered in high school. The songs of innocence reflect upon the ways in which the human condition blossoms given liberty, and the songs of experience shows how we wither when bound by rules and conditions.
However, there is also a sense to which experience liberates us. That is, we may be jaded, darkened and constrained, but we also have wisdom and understanding that the innocent does not possess.
This is important, because of what happens once you reach the bottom of the Ironic mode and start free-falling. Because there’s nothing beneath it.
The second Mythic Age
We have told ourselves and each other stories throughout human history. We started in the mythic mode and progressed through the various modes, until we ended up in the trough of irony that we have found ourselves in for some years, or decades.
But when we push through past irony, and find there’s nothing beneath it – we discover we come out back up at the top again. This was Frye’s point: below the ironic, we’re at the mythic all over again. We get to go around again. And that’s where we find ourselves now.
We get to tell ourselves stories all over again from the beginning – but this time, rather than starting down the path as innocents, we get to go through this narrative cycle with the experience of having already done it once. That is to say, we can create myths that know about irony, and everything else.
Batman to the rescue
I would argue that this is already starting to happen, and it is happening most overtly in the realm of superhero comics and films. Watchmen was perhaps the great ironic superhero film, in which nobody is either super, nor heroic – and the day is not saved, insult added to catastrophe. Unintended consequences and misplaced faith.
Adam West’s TV Batman is low-mimetic fiction. He may be smart and rich, but he’s one of us, and he shares our ideals, if not our resources.
But a good case could be made that the major cinematic and televisual cultural project over the past few years has been the reboot. We are starting to tell our heroic and mythic stories again from the beginning. Batman, James Bond, Star Trek, Iron Man, Spiderman, Planet of the Apes, Conan, Hulk, Nikita… even the Karate Kid.
But we’re not just telling the stories again with different actors and bigger budgets. We’re reinventing mythology through the eyes of experience. Batman and Bond in particular have taken the dark lessons of the ironic mode and infused their stories with the weary – and sometimes brutal – wisdom that came with it.
But make no mistake – we’ve started again. Post-apocalypse. Our world has already ended, and these are the central myths that our imaginations can now use to understand our relationship with the world as we build it anew. We are hard-wired for narrative, and these are narratives that reflect our times and our understanding.
The Avengers is our pantheon of gods-among-us for the second Mythic Age. This is everything the entire history of narrative has been working towards. We have broken through the bottom of the ironic age, and arrived, fully-formed in the land of myth, ready to embark, but with full knowledge of everything that happened the last time we went on this journey.
It’s important that it’s Whedon
All right, so I said that this wasn’t just going to be a fanboy rant about what a genius Joss Whedon is. But it’s important that Joss Whedon is writing and directing this film. Whedon is a scholar of narrative.
If you didn’t get what all the fuss was about with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel and Firefly… yes it was the ensemble cast in each case, but it was mostly the command of narrative and dialogue that Whedon brought to the table (and shared with fellow writers Jane Espenson, Tim Minear and others).
Whedon thinks deeply about archetypes, tropes and tradition in literature. This is a man who knows his Shakespeare inside out, but also knows how to situate universal themes in different particulars at different times in history. Buffy may have been his magnum opus – and Firefly his unfinished masterpiece – but the Avengers is his opportunity to define storytelling for a new age.
But importantly, you won’t notice it happening. You will see a film with explosions and superheroes, a lot of brilliant lines given to some really great actors. In fact, Whedon writing sarcasm for Robert Downey Jr is a dream come true for pop culture junkies. Nobody writes sarcasm better than Whedon, and nobody delivers it better than Downey Jr. It will be a fun film.
But it’s more important than that.
The very definition of awesome
The Avengers promises to be the centre of the canon of new works in the new mythic age. It’s where the stories of Hulk, Iron Man, Thor, Nick Fury, Black Widow, Hawkeye, and Captain America intersect. And they all mean something. They stand for a virtue or a value that we wish to aspire to in our own lives, in this place at this time. Casting Loki as the fallen angel of the piece – the silver-tongued tempter and destroyer of mankind could not be more overtly a myth-making strategy.
When he says (in the trailer) “In the end, it will be every man for himself…” we know that instead, in the end we will have come to a way of being a society. An understanding of ourselves that connects us to our fellow human being. Just as the individual hero/gods must work together to defend the earth, we must work together to restore it from its now irrefutably Kafkaesque decline in the real world.
As we thwart this particular devil (for now), human beings win out as we find a way to work together to rebuild. Strength in numbers. We are the 99% – and these are our symbolic champions.
This is where we get to make sense of a number of disconnected threads that have formed part of the mainstream public consciousness for the past few years, and set the scene for the next few to come (Thor 2 and Iron Man 3 have been confirmed for 2012 & 2013). But importantly, this story is about who we are and who we should be.
We’re starting our myths again from the beginning. Reboot.
You’re soaking in it
The recent leaps forward in 3D film technology are timely – perhaps even suspiciously so.
Symbolically, we are not mere passive observers of the film, and nor does it come out to meet us (as was the case with previous 3D technology) but rather we lean forward and become immersed in its world. We physically and perceptually enter this realm of super beings, archetypes and cinematic epic poetry. A realm of awe in the literal (and literary sense). We are among gods.
This is our new mythic, but one that blends the ideas (and some characters) of the previous mythic, the romantic, the high and low mimetic and the ironic modes before it.
And I can’t wait to sit in a cinema, with my 3-D glasses on and a bucket of popcorn in my lap, and watch literature start all over again from the beginning – with a Nine Inch Nails soundtrack.
If you’ve got this far, go watch the trailer again. It’s very, very cool – and not just because it’s a comic book on the big screen with the geek’s geek behind the wheel. This could well be the most important film ever made.
Hope it’s good…