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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.

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The Avengers > The Dark Knight Rises

You read that title right: The Avengers was better than The Dark Knight Rises.

Man. Always fun to stir up some controversy.

Why do I think this? So glad you asked.

But let me preface all this with something: I’ve loved Batman for as far back as I can remember. I loved The Dark Knight, heck, it was one of the first movies I added to my BluRay collection. I’m not some Batman hater championing The Avengers because it’s not Batman; I legitimately think The Avengers was better.

The Dark Knight Rises is called the end of the Dark Knight Legend. Which it certainly is. Unlike it’s predecessor(s), however, it doesn’t stand alone. Rises depends on The Dark Knight and Batman Begins for the plot to have impact. It still works without them, it just nowhere near as well and winds up feeling incomplete.

The Avengers has no such problem. Having seen the prior movies does help us understand the characters more, but the script is deft enough to sum up what’s relevant to their characters quickly. Even a hitherto unseen character like Hawkeye (besides a brief cameo in Thor) has development and character.

In addition, each of the main characters in The Avengers (The titular team and Loki) are given their own character arcs. The characters in this film feel complete and round, as opposed to the archetypes of Rises.

Another thing that’s comparable about these two movies is the presence of a woman that spends a lot of the time in a catsuit. The Avengers has Black Widow, Rises has Selina Kyle. Both are remarkably good protagonists, both use others perception of them as women as a tool, both have their own goals.

But it’s Black Widow, and not Selina Kyle, that sticks out as being better. Unlike Selina Kyle, Black Widow has a much fuller character and development. In Rises we know Kyle’s a master thief, and we know what she’s after. It’s implied in passing she perhaps fancies herself a modern day Robin Hood, but that’s it. We’re never told why nor are we given a personal reason for her actions. We can see what she does, but never does she come into her own person.

Black Widow is given a couple of key scenes where we meet the woman wearing the catsuit. We find out that she has red in her ledger that she needs to clear, and that’s her motivation for wanting to achieve her goal. Selina Kyle’s steals to get something that will clear her name of her previous thefts. As great as she is, she feels like just another archetype.

The other thing is The Avengers has you pour more investment into it. Yes, Gotham at risk is indeed a serious threat and we want to see Batman rise to the challenge. But in The Avengers we watch a group of people who are heroes in their own right learn to set aside their differences for the greater good. It’s a different conflict, but one was handled better than the other.

Furthermore, Batman and Iron Man are both called to make sacrifices. Batman’s feels like an eventuality, something that had to happen. Iron Man’s was a culmination of the development of Tony Stark’s character within the film. We have an investment in him and the people who care about him due to the events in the film thus far. Rises had a few moments, but focused too strongly on Batman as a symbol and not enough on the actual people around him.

In The Avengers we legitimately care about the characters and who they are. Not just the fate of New York/Gotham, but the fate of the very heart and soul of these characters. Sure, The Dark Knight Rises had it too, just The Avengers had it more.

Then there’s the heroism. No moment in The Dark Knight can compare to the shot of the assembled Avengers in New York City ready to save the day. None.

Don’t get me wrong, I loved The Dark Knight Rises. It’s a perfect ending to an excellent trilogy with regards to both plot and theme. And maybe comparing these two movies is like comparing apples to pipebombs. One’s an epic, the other’s an adventure. Both are very different and both succeed at what they set out to do.

At the end of the day though, The Avengers was just a better film.

 

Writer’s note: I realize there’s much more I could get into here (like how The Avengers had more heart and humor, etc), but I’m already past my self-imposed deadline and have to go to work soon. My apologies.

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Doth Mother Know You Weareth Her Drapes?

Yes, another entry about The Avengers. I’m fully aware it came out two weeks ago and I should probably stop going to watch it every so often, but, well, no. The movie is, simply put, great. It sets a new standard for comic book/superhero movies and, more than that, proves that a movie of this nature can be of the same caliber and quality of those dainty arthouse dramas. ‘cause yes, the script is exceptional, acting top notch, and direction impeccable. But, far and beyond everything else (including Scarlett Johansson), The Avengers is just plain fun.

The recent trend in ‘pulpy’ fiction (y’know, genres like action, scifi, fantasy, superheroes, etc; those ‘entertaining’ movies) has been to add copious amounts of grit to the formula. These days it’s not enough to just have a simple romantic adventure, you have to make it dark and amp up the edginess. A quick look brings up Nolan’s Batman movies and fare like District 9 or The Hunger Games. Not to say that these movies are necessarily bad (in fact, they’re pretty great), they’re just indicative of this current trend.

Joss Whedon and The Avengers merrily threw that to the wind.

This movie isn’t a character study, it’s not a depressing deconstruction of superheroes in real life nor is it some grandiose observation on how people would react to a world-conquering alien invasion. No, it’s an adventure! Start to finish, The Avengers is first and foremost an adventure. We’re talking an adventure like Star Wars or Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid! An adventure like each of the Avengers’ own movies were, just taken up to eleven and then some. The Avengers is a pure adventure.

We can take Star Wars as an archetype of an adventure. There’s peril and plight aplenty, but it doesn’t leave us moping and brooding; every tragedy is a catalyst for the next course  of action. In The Avengers we have our tragic moments. But it doesn’t slow down the adventure, it gives our characters depth and a motivation to rise. Whereas in films like The Dark Knight  a character’s death sends out hero into deep self-inspection; a death in The Avengers spurs them on to, well, avenge it and save the day.

Why? You should know this; because it’s an adventure!

The movie is made of fun. It’s somewhat grounded in reality but doesn’t let that hinder the delight of the film. We get to watch a team of superheroes save the day with all the awesomeness and wisecracking it entails. If you’re me, you would have had a massive grin on your face throughout most of the movie (each time you’ve seen it) and every now and then muttering words like “frick yes!” or just cheering.

Don’t get me wrong, there is a time and place for the brooding hero. The Dark Knight firmly proved that, if done well, the dark and tortured hero can create a compelling and engaging story. And The Avengers proves that there’s still space for a movie that sets aside the grim solemnness for fun.

But here’s what’s so good: The Avengers pulls it off. There are movies out there, fare like Transformers: Dark of the Moon or, say, The Losers that are fun movies in their own right, but don’t quite leave you thinking “man, that movie was great”. See, as much as The Avengers runs on fun, it backs it up at every turn. Like I said in the beginning (and in previous entries), it’s well developed. Characters aren’t cardboard stand-ins and the plot isn’t just some vehicular shell. Without this foundation the fun would be unwarranted and shallow.

Sometimes, the current trend can be bucked and bucked well. In a day when big blockbuster fare tends to be epics like Avatar and Deathly Hallows Pt. 2, weird/creepy supernatural romances (Twilight) or mindless action films (Transformers, Fast Five, etc), it’s refreshing to see a proper adventure doing so well. But The Avengers surpasses other recent adventures (Ghost Protocol and John Carter come quickly to mind) in that it’s so consistent.

What’s my point? The Avengers is an adventure and it’s fun. Furthermore it’s a great example of summer movie fare that has depth and astounding quality without sacrificing thrills.

So I’m gonna go watch this movie for the fourth time in a few hours. This is a movie that bears watching over and over again because well, it’s so dang fun.

 

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Why The Avengers Will Be Awesome

In a little less than a week, a movie I’ve been waiting a long time for will finally be released. No, not The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (though that looks like fun), but The Avengers. Understand, I’ve been waiting for this movie since the stinger attached to Iron Man four years ago. I saw each of the ‘prior’ movies (except The Incredible Hulk) opening weekend (or, in the case of Iron Man 2, three times over opening weekend). Essentially, I’ve been really looking forward to this movie. Of course, one of the biggest fears of me and others like me is that the movie’s gonna suck.

That won’t be the case.

Why?

I’m so glad you asked.

See, right off the bat you have the whole fanboy thing. After Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America each got their own movie they’re being put in one. One film. Together. Not since Alien VS Predator have we had a crossover like this. Unlike AVP, though, this crossover has been intended since the inception (and will actually be good). But people! We’re getting Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America in one friggin’ movie!

But while it’s great for a movie to run on the Rule of Cool, The Avengers is going to be so much more than that. See, the conflict isn’t just them against the world. It’s internal as much as it’s external. The drama will stem not just from “will they be able to save the world?” but the added question of “can they even get along?” We’re watching not just to watch these guys save the day; we want to see them overcome themselves. Because no matter how big an external threat, if we can’t get invested in the core of the characters it’s not worth it.

On that note, Scarlett Johansson’s in this movie. Not complaining. In fact, I’m the opposite of complaining.

Seriously though, the writer and director of the movie is Joss Whedon. If there’s one thing he proved when he did Serenity was that he knows how to balance several characters; developing each of them and giving them their own special moment. In other words: a true ensemble movie. Whedon’s proven himself to be an excellent writer/director more than capable of handling strong characters interacting and conflicting without anyone being sidelined. And this guy can alternate between funny and serious with ease; a vital element of a film like this.

To carry a good script, though, you need capable actors. This, too, won’t be an issue. In each of their films, Robert Downey Jr, Chris Hemsworth, Chris Evans, and Tom Hiddleston have proven themselves to be able to work that tone of dramatic comedy; being able to deliver gags on cue but also hit the emotional notes. They’ve also proven that the know the characters and we’ve accepted them as them. All clear on that front. Mark Ruffalo’s a bit of a wild card, seeing as this is first time as Banner. Jeremy Renner too, due to his rather small role in Thor. But hey, we’ll see. And, again, we have Scarlett Johansson who also happens to be a great actress. Bases covered, man.

Characters and all aside, the external conflict’s pretty serious too. We’ve got Loki commanding some army from space/another realm or something threatening to, well, do something terrible to Earth. This really necessitates our main characters coming together to battle this threat. It’s still dire enough that there’s something actually on the line here. We need these heroes, the Avengers, to save the world. No one else can do this but them. Hence, you know, the whole teaming up thing. Duh.

And hey, Scarlett Johansson’s in it.

What I’m saying, if I’m saying anything at all, is that The Avengers has all the right ingredients for an amazing movies. Great conflicts, fantastic actors, the right people behind the camera. Barring an unmitigated cinematic disaster, there’s no way this movie can suck. At least, I hope not.

In any case, at 11:59pm on May 3rd you’ll find me sitting in the cinema waiting to watch what will most definitely be an awesome movie.

I really can’t wait.

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