The Devengers, Part Three

This is a story about the telos of our current wave of megablockbuster superhero films and shows, beginning roughly with the Marvel Cinematic Universe in 2007 and The Dark Knight in 2008, which endowed the genre with broad critical respectability, public embrace, limitless bankrolls, a persistent universe, and a viable playbook for adapting second-string intellectual properties.

Black Widow and Captain America, Marvel Heroes MMO, 2012

The lights lower and the curtains swish open in the last theater with curtains, in the waning age of plexes, maxes, and humanity, a year that begins with 2. Meals delivered by drone to your seat have their savors sucked away to hidden vents and replaced with the smells of your choice. The world is about to end. The movie is about to begin.

In this world, I mean the one you and I live in, every franchise has been rebooted, crossed-over, outmoded, revived to poor reception and resplendent success, until, after a chain of complicated acquisitions, of retcons and squarings of lore, only one enormous studio conglomerate produces and distributes superhero movies, the cinematic totalities it used to comprise have collapsed into a single continuity, and every original superheroic mantle has passed through every configuration of gender, race, sexuality, ability, historical era, and genre. Every worldview and ethical system has been allegorized in the idiom of violent, costly spectacle. The lone remaining superhero franchise is called The Devengers.

You and I pay $600 each for tickets to the premiere and are forced to sit in the front row, with our knees touching the wall that the screen hangs on. We look straight up and see poorly, but hear perfectly, for instead of speakers, the theater’s bone-conduction system transmits sound in perfect fidelity from the seats’ headrests through the occipital bone, so that anyone not seated hears nothing and sees only a room full of people silently gazing at the radiant wall.

Though The Devengers has just been released, many sequels have already been announced; in fact, a teaser trailer for the sequel is playing right now, though it consists solely of an air horn blaring ceaselessly over a title card that says THE DEVENGERS 2 in lowercase Verdana font.

Like all superhero movies, it is uncomfortably aware of reiterating an exhausted formula: adapting an old comic series, in which one or a group of flawed but virtuous protagonists use supernatural power to confront a threat that happens to be linked to their personal trauma. The Devengers attempts a twist on the formula (the twist being itself part of the formula), and the twist is that it is unprecedentedly vague and mundane and underproduced. The protagonists are not heroes, nor antiheroes, but nonheroes. None of them have names or origin stories or distinguishing costumes or recognizable actors. All of them are out of shape, shorter than 5'6", and are uninsured with minor depression.

One is a telepath who can only sense people’s least charitable opinions of her looks. She has always been able to do this. She didn’t know it was a superpower.
Another can fly, but the wind chaps her sensitive lips and her pale skin sunburns easily in the upper atmosphere, and after her doctor warned her of potentially lethal altitude sickness, she avoided flying any higher than a few dozen feet.

The third knows that his indestructible muscle-bound body is not the one he was meant to have.

Last is a man whose superpower is he’s Asian, and can point out instances of genteel racism as they occur, without being seen as unreasonable and biased, and the offenders do not immediately question his motives or whether racism against Asians even exists, though they still resent him, and are not great at hiding it, being ordinary humans. He is played by a white man with no makeup or digital alteration, whose stunt double is also white, as is the director, and less than a third of the audience.

The Devengers’ production budget was $23 trillion and 39¢, subsidized in full by the U.S. federal government. Sluggish ticket sales will send the nation into a decades-long depression. Advance reviews are measured but positive, not that they matter. Ticket presales show promise.

The superheroes’ enemy is a villain named Bad Stuff, whose powers are entirely unspecified, and who doesn’t even appear to be doing anything wrong. He doesn’t look like anything. He’s just a form, like a logo or colophon. Boom mics appear often in shots, accompanied by the coughs and light conversation of crew members, every detail of which is captured by the theater’s crisp, delicate speakers. Instead of actually showing explosions or extravagant laser battles, the camera keeps cutting away to an extra who points offscreen and says, Whoa holy crapola my dude that was sick!

At the beginning they’re all standing around looking at some terrible event based on World War II. What even is all this about even? says one of them in a heavy, indistinct accent (it’s not clear who, too blurry to tell). Bad Stuff is happening, and they kind of . . . they kind of help Bad Stuff to not happen. It’s hard to tell because the camera keeps falling over and its lens keeps getting dirtier. But then Bad Stuff gets worse anyway and one of them is like, This totally blows.

During the climax Bad Stuff is like, Yo.

And the superheroes are like, Maybe no?

And Bad Stuff is all, Yeah okay, and goes away. So the ending kind of peters out like that, after just 38 minutes.

The movie credits roll for another 85 minutes, featuring a list not of names but of short video greetings from each of the 2,000 cast and crew members. Everyone in the audience stays past the credits, since life is worse than boredom.

Then comes the real twist. After five minutes of mute darkness after the credits, the projection comes back on: It’s the sequel to The Devengers, titled The Devengers Sequel You Moviegoers Implicitly Asked for with Your Ticket Purchase and Are Now Getting. In this film the heroes of the first Devengers film are walking down the street together and come across a movie poster; in a single take they discuss whether they feel like seeing a movie, then line up at the automated kiosks, buy tickets and chewy candies, look for seats in the dark theater, and watch 70 minutes of commercials and trailers. When the movie begins, they (both the superheroes and us) realize it’s about their heroic exploits from the first movie; in fact, it is the first movie, the entire film from beginning to end, including the credits. Yo, that was not very good, one of the Devengers whispers after the film ends, but after the credits, Bad Stuff returns . . . with a vengeance. He has a new sidekick named Not-So-Good Stuff, and they get together and overall, generally, it’s like, not so great.

And it, too, kind of peters out in the end. But you and I sit with our phones hushed through the third set of credits, finger-drumming through the disclaimers and yawning past the stinger, until the lights rise in the only movie theater with curtains in a year that begins with 2, making it last.