Tag Archives: archetypes

Masculinity in Age of Ultron

I saw Age of Ultron Thursday night and I have thoughts. There’s the obvious nerd-out factor of the film, and it’s really cool and does a lot of things right (and, arguably, does indeed go smaller than the first Avengers), but those are essays rants for another day.

So let’s talk about how the movie portrays the idea of masculinity. Because it’s actually really interesting.

Age of Ultron, like The Avengers before it and probably every Marvel movie until I get my friggin’ Captain Marvel movie, is very male dominated. But that doesn’t stop it from portraying a variety of roles for the men to take on. Macho men being manly all the time this is not, rather the Avengers portray different shades of masculinity.

Bruce Banner may be the most obvious. His ‘alter-ego’ is inherently violent and destructive, a stark contrast to his more mild-mannered usual self. He’s a violent man who eschews violence. Here’s a man who would rather that problems not be solved by punching.

This serves as something of an antithesis to Thor, who delights in battle (and tries to comfort Bruce at one point by telling him how well he fought). That said, when Thor competes with Tony, it’s not over who’s the better fighter. Instead they’re boasting of the impressive accomplishments of their significant others. Implicit here is that these two who embody traditionally masculine traits (Thor’s the fighter, Tony is characteristically bawdy) are both with accomplished and important women, and both are okay with it. Being ‘manly’ doesn’t mean downplaying the accomplishments of others and sometimes it means deferring to that as the true measure by which they measure themselves.

It’s Steven Rogers, though, who as Captain America is in some regards the paragon of masculinity: he’s brave, physically fit, honorable, a leader, and so on. But at the same time he’s also humble, he hopes for the best in people, is willing to be vulnerable, and knows he can’t always do it alone. He’s a lot like Captain Awesome from Chuck, in that he embodies a sort of ideal masculinity, but without a lot of the toxicity that goes with it.

Which brings me to Hawkeye, who gets a vastly expanded role in this film. Not only do we get a deeper look into his inner life, but we also see his role as a part of the team. Clint is, not unlike his comics counterpart, effectively the most normal of the Avengers. More than that, though, he’s the one with the most normal and fulfilled personal life, making him also the most stable; the least ‘manly’ of the Avengers is also the one who’s got it the most together. Furthermore, within Age of Ultron he carries much of the film’s emotional weight; he may not be the hardest hitter but he is the heart. In many other stories this position is usually occupied by a woman, or the most feminine one if there are multiple (think Katara from Avatar and Kaylee from Firefly). Clint isn’t seen as less capable for it; he, like Raleigh in Pacific Rim, portrays a form of masculinity that’s supportive in nature.

The male action hero has been somewhat pigeonholed over the years. There’s an immense focus on the John McLane, John Matrix, and Indiana Jones type, that is the swaggering, self-reliant, gun toting, never backing down sort. Compare The Expendables, an ensemble cast of very traditionally manly action heroes, to Age of Ultron. The former are all cut from the same hyper-masculine cloth, whereas the male Avengers are more nuanced. None of them are seen as lesser for not being as much of a brawler as Thor or as brave as Captain America. Rather, the film acknowledges that masculinity comes in different forms and that’s perfectly okay.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

A Manic Pixie Dream Problem

You know the story. Boy’s stuck in the doldrums of life. Girl shows up. Is quirky. Her quirkiness brings boy out of the normal world. They fall in love. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl has done her job. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl is a term to describe a female character archetype whose purpose is to bring a male character into a more interesting existence. Also they usually fall in love.

But this is a little broad. Is Wyldstyle from The LEGO Movie a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, then? For starters she’s Emmet’s love interest, should he be able win her away from Batman. Then her arrival brings Emmet out of normalcy into a life of adventure and she supports his transformation into the Chosen One. And she’s very different from anyone Emmet’s met, with her DJ-esque name, dyed hair, and rebellious nature. She seems to fit it to a T.

Thing is, Wyldstyle doesn’t only exist for Emmet. She has her own goal and arc. Wyldstyle wants to save the world, that Emmet is the Chosen one is more disappointment than cause for celebration. Over the course of the movie she learns to be vulnerable and to believe in herself.

Ramona, from Scott Pilgrim vs The World; however, is. Though a well-rounded character, her purpose in the plot is to be Scott’s prize and the catalyst for him to self-actualize (that is, realize that self-respect is necessary for love). Yes, she has baggage, but the movie doesn’t afford any runtime to developing it. And yes, she’s quirky: dyed hair, infinitely cooler than Scott, and is from New York. She’s that dream-girl who comes along and makes and makes the male character’s life better.

But Summer, from (500) Days of Summer, isn’t. Though Summer is someone a lot of people jump to when they think of this term (seeing as she’s quirky-ish and portrayed by Zooey Deschannel). The film, on the other hand, takes apart the notion of the dream girl. Tom expects Summer to ‘fix’ him and make his life better, but she doesn’t fit into who he expects her to be. Most notably, it’s only after they break up that Tom gets life together and gets out of his rut. Essentially, the movie breaks down the Manic Pixie Dream Girl fantasy, saying that someone else isn’t going to save you, you have to do it yourself.

I realize I’m using a lot of non-examples as a way of defining the term, but I owe that to my own unfamiliarity with a lot of the movies usually associated with the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. So why even talk about it?

In the years since coining the term, Nathan Rabin has distanced himself from it. Way he saw it, the term had almost lost reason; it’d become a trope unto itself rather than a symptom of problematic portrayals of women. It became easy to just say that a character was a Manic Pixie Dream Girl rather than it fostering discussion.

Because the term isn’t a way to demean women or to pigeonhole them, rather it should make writers and viewers conscious of women existing solely in relation to men. Though archetypes can be good, sometimes, like damsels in distress, they not only become emblematic of lazy writing, but also perpetuates a less-than-healthy view of reality (especially given how prevalent this one can be). That’s why I love using (500) Days of Summer as an example here, since though Summer very much fits the archetype, the film shows the consequences of the mindset.

In any case, it’s time to write better characters. Give a character depth, depth beyond “being quirky,” and give her life.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

The Hero and the Antihero

The Avengers came out on BluRay (and DVD, but I’m a BluRay person) on Tuesday. Naturally, I have it. Now, stop your groaning: this isn’t another post just about how good that movie is. Well, okay, it kinda is, but not only. Trust me.

See, Iron Man and Captain America embody two distinct archetypes. Cap’s the hero, Iron Man’s the antihero. But neither Steve Rogers nor Tony Stark fall into the abyss of dull stereotypes.

Typically, these stereotypes are just the archetype in fancy clothes. Rather than getting an actual character we’re treated to the hero who believes that he must do good because it is good and good is what he does (because it’s good). The villain is an evil man who does evil because he enjoys the evility of evil. These aren’t characters. These are crappy plot devices dressed up as characters.

Compare Steve Rogers in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. He’s introduced in his movie as a genuinely good guy. He wants to become a soldier not to go on a Nazi killing-spree but rather because he doesn’t like bullies. He’s earnest, he’s good. In The Avengers he’s still that really nice guy. When he meets Bruce Banner he dismisses the monstrosity of the Hulk due to Banner’s intelligence. They want him, not the monster, and so Steve treats him as the scientist.

It’d be easy for Cap to become dull and uninteresting or, worse yet, corny. But he doesn’t because he’s got a character to him. He’s interesting, he has his ideals that go beyond good for the sake of good.

Tony Stark serves as his foil. The hero who’s not all that heroic isn’t exactly rare these days (a hero hero [like Cap] is hard to find instead). Tony wins us over due to his charm and, again, the fact that he has depth. When presented with the truth about his weapons he decides it’s time to fight back. He fights his own demons to keep up the hero thing.

He’s not glib and sarcastic just because it’s ‘cool’. Like Steve Rogers, he has a background to it all. Tony Stark is a man who bears the traits typical of the antihero, rather than being an antihero with a personality painted on.

So we have these two fully realized archetypes. Now what?

Now comes the fun part! What happens when the hero and the antihero collide? When idealism and cynicism meet, what do we have?

Tony and Steve butt heads in The Avengers. Whether it’s Tony messing with Bruce, Steve’s militaristic attitude to losing a soldier or anything in between, they seldom see quite eye to eye. It’s the interplay and clash between the two outlooks (and archetypes) that we find so interesting. A good deal of both characters’ arcs is spent on them reconciling their differences to work as a team (along with the rest of the Avengers). The payoff is, of course, getting to watch Captain America and Iron Man work together. And it means so much more because of the characters and the interplay of archetypes.

The thing about archetypes is they’re universal. Star Wars gives us Luke and Han. Luke’s the wide eyed idealist of a farm boy who yearns to save the world. Han’s the cynical smuggler who’s been across the galaxy a few times over. When presented with saving the princess Luke leaps to the call. Han opts to stay out of trouble until the prospect of payment emerges. Again: hero and antihero.

Luke and Han’s different views and personalities lend a humanizing aspect to the fantastic adventures. It’s not overt and not the focus, but it adds and help defines both characters. We have characters built on archetypes interacting and driving the story. Furthermore, over the trilogy both characters develop: Han gets his dose of heroism and Luke his darkness.

Sometimes both archetypes can be embodied in one character. Take Nathan Drake from Uncharted. Sure, he wisecracks, makes fun of everything, and happily insult his ex-partner-in-crime. But he’s also the guy who’ll risk his neck to save his friends and face a madman to save the world (berating himself the whole time). Within Drake we have an antihero with the core of a hero. It’s the internal tension between two archetypes that gives us a lot the character and heart in the stories.

Archetypes. Yay. Like most every trope/tool in literature/fiction, they can be used fantastically or wind up being sheer crap. Don’t think that sticking a hero, antihero, optimistic bruiser, angry stoic, atoner, and ace will elevate the piece. It’s about fleshing them out, making them interact, and, most importantly, making them interesting.

Normally, anyway.

 

Also: buy my book In Transit! There are characters who embody archetypes in it too! And they’re interesting too!

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized