Tag Archives: The Avengers

A (Civil) War of Flaws

Civil War came out. This post it about that. Yes, that’s all the intro I’m giving.

Marvel’s done a fantastic job of giving their characters major flaws. Look at the original (cinematic) Avengers: Iron Man’s selfish, Captain America’s noble to a fault, Thor’s proud, The Hulk’s, er, angry, Black Widow doesn’t trust anyone, and Hawkeye’s just the archer (okay, so he’s more the cynic). It’s these clearly defined character defects that make them clash so well, something made overt in the first Avengers when Loki’s scepter has them arguing in the lab. Flaws make characters interesting. The Avengers wouldn’t be half as fun if everyone got along like sunshine and rainbows, instead they spend half their time arguing and trying to get over themselves.

It’s because it builds on that central tenet that Captain America: Civil War succeeds so well. The question posed to the Avengers in the film is simple: should they report to a higher authority? It’s a question of authority and also who’s responsible for the Avengers’ actions. The creative team behind Civil War deserve major credit for making the question, herein rendered as the Sokovia Accords, feel nuanced, with no side feeling altogether right or wrong.

But that’s all plot stuff, and, as the last eight years of Marvel Cinematic Movies have proven, the best of part of these movies are the characters.

And so the divide of the Avengers falls firmly along character based lines. Tony Stark, who’s selfishness has given way to guilt and paranoia, sees the Accords as a safeguard. Furthermore, they’re a way for him to further absolve himself of guilt; he can be part of a tool to make things right, going where the majority feel he and the Avengers are most needed. Conversely, Steve Rogers’ nobility and idealism has him see the Avengers as guardians. They’re there to fight threats no one else can and they need the freedom to use their own judgement. Where Tony wants approval, Steve believes that they’ll do the right thing no matter what. It all fits into their established characters, characters which, for good measure, get set up again quickly in the film’s opening.

Thus, Civil War’s divide is one built on flaws. Many characters’ allegiances comes out of fears and flaws. War Machine and Falcon are loyal to Iron Man and Cap and so will follow them. Black Widow and Vision see the Accords as an insurance against an unknown danger; Scarlet Witch fears control. Black Panther is nursing a grudge. Even Cap’s idealism is tempered with asking “what if they send us somewhere we don’t want to go?” The battle lines develop naturally rather than arbitrarily. The combatants have a horse in their fight and it becomes personal.

To see this done wrong, you don’t have to look much further than Batman v Superman. There the central question is one guy going “I don’t like the way you’re above it all and cause massive collateral damage” and the other saying “I don’t like the way you’re above it all and brand people.” That Batman and Superman’s eventual fight isn’t born out of an escalation of tensions and faults makes it pointless at best and arbitrary at worst. They start out not liking each other and spend the movie prepping for a fight until they’re manipulated into coming to blows.

Civil War has Steve and Tony start out amicable before the Accords cause an ideological split. It’s the reappearance of the Winter Soldier driving a wedge deeper between them, plus a couple other turns that happen so that by the time they really come to blows it is an inevitable extension of their (flawed) characters. Civil War led it’s hero-fighting-hero with character, Batman v Superman relied on a contrived plot; so while the audience feels apathetic watching Batman fight Superman, the fight between Captain America and Iron Man is brutally tragic.

And so we’ve come full circle. Tragedy is born out of flaws. Creon’s pride is his downfall in Antigone. Othello’s jealousy costs him everything. And in Civil War, it divides Captain America and Iron Man.

Man, aren’t character flaws great?

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Let’s Talk About That Whole Black Widow Thing

People are mad on the internet. As usual. The hubbub recently, though, is about choices made regarding Black Widow in Age of Ultron. Now, I’m a big fan of Black Widow. I’d really like her to get her own movie and Nathan Edmonson’s run on the comics has been fantastic (issue #13 is framed on my wall). And I’ll be the first to admit that a character beat in Age of Ultron did throw me off for a bit. But I didn’t realize the furor until I started reading up on it.

Mild spoilers for the film from here on out.

Most all of it seems to boil down to one particular piece of characterization: In a quiet moment, Natasha reveals to Bruce —who she’s debating entering into a relationship with — that she was forcibly sterilized and she laments being unable to have a normal life. It’s clear what there is to take issue with: The one female Avenger is preoccupied with romance, babies and the lack thereof. It doesn’t matter how badass Black Widow is, Natasha’s life is still incomplete without a man and children. Hence the death threats against writer/director Joss Whedon.

The beat did get a knee jerk reaction from me, but it made sense enough given her characterization. Natasha’s something of a reformed assassin and her past missions haunt her (as we see in her interactions with Loki in Avengers). Along with that,  she’s never had a proper childhood, let alone any semblance of a normal life. We also see that she’s good with Clint’s kids and close enough to the family for the kids to call her aunt. Her attraction to Bruce makes sense, then: Both are damaged people who are trying to atone for their own inner monster. We can also see in it her desire for normalcy (and with it, motherhood). This all makes Natasha a very complex character. She’s torn between the normal life she could never have and atoning as an Avenger. There’s tragedy there too; while Thor enjoys the thrill of the fight, Natasha’s ultimate fantasy is a normal life. She’s forced to make a choice by the end of the movie: continue fighting or run off to find a sort of normal life.

It’s a shame that all of that gets forgotten in light of her grief about being unable to have kids. I’ve seen some people defend the scene by saying that what really was affecting her was that she was denied the choice of being able to have kids — she was denied her agency. Whether or not that’s the case, I don’t think her wanting kids necessarily diminishes her character. If anything, it added the depth detailed in the prior paragraph. There’s a beautiful dichotomy to the cold-blooded assassin wishing she could have a family.

So why the controversy? Are strong female characters not allowed to want families too? It seems male characters are — no one’s complaining about Clint Barton having a wife and kids (except those of us who wanted a Hawkeye Netflix series about him in Bed-Stuy like in Matt Fraction’s comics). Even though his personal life could easily be described as traditionally masculine — what with the farm, wife and kids and, always fixing stuff around the house — he doesn’t get any flak for it.

Ultimately, the issue is that it’s the one female Avenger. Since she’s the only one, she’s going to come under closer scrutiny. There are a host of narratives for the male Avengers, meaning that Clint could have his farm and Bruce be hesitant towards action without undercutting The Manliness as we had characters like Thor and Steve (that and, y’know, 70% of movie characters being men). Criticism is inevitable no matter how unfounded if the only female Avenger’s narrative contains shades patriarchal femininity. We need more good stories about strong women so we can have different sorts of strong women. Give us moms, scientists, and fighter pilots saving the world. Black Widow can’t be the only female superhero.

Which is why we need Captain Marvel next year and not in 2018.

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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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How Do You Make An Avengers?

Avengers: Age of Ultron comes out here in the States in a few days, which makes me realize that we now live in a time where time can be measured in Avengers movies. Which makes me think about three years ago when I was eagerly waiting for the first one to come out.

It’s important to look at just how sharply The Avengers affected the current blockbuster landscape. The idea of a bunch of characters from separate films coming together in one movie was a very novel idea, outside of maybe Alien vs Predator. Now, ever since The Avengers made approximately all the money, DC’s been working fast as they can to establish their pantheon of superheroes. Amazing Spider-Man 2 spent much of its time trying to set up as many plot points for there to be a variety of spin offs. There’s even been an attempt to revive Universal’s horror movies with the intention of having Dracula, et al team up. Ever since The Avengers proved that it works, there’s been a big push to establish these so-called shared universes.

Of course, that’s missing that one of the things that made The Avengers work was that it wasn’t rushed. Marvel Studios spent five movies and four years building up their characters and their world. By the time The Avengers came out, audiences were at the very least aware of Iron Man, Hulk, Thor, and Captain America through good old pop-cultural osmosis. That done, they still took time to set up each character — including lesser known characters like Black Widow.

Furthermore, Marvel Studios hired a writer/director with a reputation for being able to handle ensemble casts. Joss Whedon’s only other movie at the time, Serenity, was able to reestablish the crew of the titular ship for people who both had and hadn’t seen the show. He had a similar task in The Avengers: establish six heroes, their boss, a couple minor characters, and a villain while also weaving together a coherent plot. The Avengers worked, due in no small part to Whedon’s writing.

The other thing about the shared universe concept is that it’s different from your typical movie production. There are grand story arcs that each film has to navigate around and fit in alongside. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is being run more like a television show than a typical movie series. Kevin Feige, executive producer on all Marvel Studios films, is effectively the showrunner of the series. He’s come up with the big ideas and found writers and directors to do each ‘episode.’ Once again, getting Joss Whedon onboard for the first two Avengers films made sense, most of his experience has been within the constraints of television. The Dark World was directed by someone who’d worked on Game of Thrones, and the Russo brothers, who did The Winter Soldier, directed for Arrested Development and Community. It’s also the Russo brothers who’ll be directing Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War, showing again Feige’s predisposition to those used to working in television. But this is still a novel form of filmmaking, and it’s one that Marvel’s making work.

I’m as excited to see Age of Ultron as I was to see The Avengers three years ago. Of course, I’m approaching this movie from a different perspective than I did the last year. And I don’t just mean someone who now actually reads comics, either. I’ve spent the greater part of the last three years at university studying storytelling and narrative. All this to say, I’m really impressed with how Marvel’s been handling their universe. It takes a lot of work and there are a host of missteps they could have taken.

So come Thursday evening I’ll be sitting in an IMAX theater in Kips Bay. I want the movie to be good, because I want to see Marvel keep expanding their movie world. That and I can’t wait for the Captain Marvel movie.

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Twisted Echoes

I’ve actually got a bunch of half-written posts I wanna post. Stuff on Birdman and the Oscars, or one on the Parks and Rec finale. However something came out, and, well, I can’t help myself.

I’m talking about the new Age of Ultron trailer.

There’s a lot to nerd out about. You’ve got the Vision teaser at the end, all the hints of the Avengers falling apart, Ultron being deliciously evil, and the glorious shot of the Avengers soaring into battle. I’m getting excited. Really excited.

There’s one moment in the trailer that’s particularly significant, and since I’m not above writing a rant essay on a small part of a trailer, we’re going to do so. About 1:36 into the trailer we have one of my favorite bits: Hulk and Iron Man’s Hulkbuster fighting against a building. Obviously, this is another geeky moment; the Hulkbuster has been a staple of the comics since the ‘90s, so seeing it on screen busting the Hulk is grand. But that’s not why it’s important.

Remember the end of The Avengers? After Iron Man has blown up the Chitauri ship he’s falling down to earth. Then Hulk bounds up and catches him, slowing their descent against a building. It’s the culmination of Bruce Banner’s arc, where the Hulk is usually a wild force of destruction now he’s saving someone. Furthermore he’s saving Tony Stark, the first one willing to befriend him not in spite of the Hulk but because of it too (see their first meeting and conversation in the lab).

Age of Ultron looks to be turning it on its head. Instead of going down a skyscraper, Iron Man and Hulk are going up one. Instead of Hulk catching Iron Man, Iron Man is propelling them upwards while Hulk attacks him. It’s visually reminiscent of the beat from The Avengers, only turned on its head into a twisted reflection.

Now, the reason for Iron Man and Hulk’s battle isn’t overly important (there’s a theory floating around that it’s a result of Scarlet Witch’s mind-altering powers). Rather, let’s focus on the visual significance. Beyond being a callback to the first film, we have two friends fighting. This, along with much of the rest of the trailer, brings up the idea of division among the team. It’s somewhat dialectical materialist in its approach; having been brought together by the first movie, now the opposite has to happen. Because a sequel can’t just rehash the first, it has to go deeper. We have a positive, let’s hit the negative of that now.

In a way, Age of Ultron is looking to deconstruct elements of the first movie. Joss Whedon’s said that one of the driving forces of the film is “the idea of heroes and whether or not that’s a useful concept.” So where the first film had Nick Fury straight up telling the World Security Council that, yes, we need heroes, Ultron turns this on it’s head and questions if they’re really necessary after all. The new film will probably take each stance (“We need heroes” / “we don’t need heroes”) and synthesize a new idea from the product. This bit of dialectical materialism, playing a defense against a rebuttal to come to a new consensus, serves to reconstruct the themes of the superhero films.

Back before the first Avengers was released, Whedon was asked how he’d try to top it with a sequel. He said he wouldn’t try to, rather he would by “being smaller. More personal, more painful. By being the next thing that should happen to these characters…” Now, he’s since admitted that Ultron’s gotten bigger than the first, but there remains the throughline he set forth three years ago. Age of Ultron is going deeper into these characters, figuring out what makes them tick, and pushing them to their breaking points. From a storytelling point of view, I am beyond pumped to see this movie.

That and, of course, this shot.

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Control in The Avengers

I’m working on an essay for school this weekend (seriously, when aren’t I?), and once again I find myself needing to practice analysis and stuff. And because this is me, I’m doing it about something fun.

Manipulation and control of people play big roles in The Avengers. Loki’s staff gives him the ability to outright control minds, the bloodied Captain America cards are Nick Fury’s subtler means to get the Avengers to team up. A lot of the film’s runtime has characters competing to be the one in charge, to be able to control the others.

This is probably most visible in the characters and dynamic of Natasha Romanov and Bruce Banner (or, y’know, Black Widow and the Hulk). When we first meet Natasha she seems powerless: she’s tied up and being interrogated by some Russian mobsters. We quickly find out that this is exactly where she wants to be as she reveals that she’s been using this to get information out of them before effortlessly beating them up. Natasha is used to being in control and around those she can manipulate or overpower, often by seeming like the one who isn’t in control at all.

However, the next time we see her she’s recruiting Bruce Banner to the team. She’s in a  position where losing control of a situation could mean Banner hulking out and plastering the room with her. Her wariness of Bruce, which becomes more evident as the story progresses, stems from her inability to control him. Finding out it’s her job to get Bruce on their side is enough to make her stop in her tracks, when confronting Tony Stark — who isn’t a huge fan of hers after the events of Iron Man 2 — hardly elicits a reaction. She can even get Loki to reveal his plans to her — even if he does get under her skin — but she can’t talk down a Hulk.

Bruce Banner’s own arc similarly deals with the question of control. Central to his character is the ability to keep the Hulk in check. If he loses control of his emotions he hulks out and risks being an uncontrollable rage monster, which, as Natasha points out, he’s “…been more than a year without an incident. [She doesn’t] think [he wants to] break that streak.” Bruce is a man who by necessity must always be in control. Not only his internal conflict, but his interactions with others too is colored by this theme. Aboard the Helicarrier is a chamber designed to contain him should he suddenly pose a risk to the safety of those aboard. Even those who want him around want to keep him check, want to stay in power over him.

All this comes to a head at the midpoint. The team has fallen out, Loki’s people attack, and everything goes to hell. Banner is a victim of this chaos and the monster he’s been hiding is released in a fit of blind rage. Natasha is the one who first faces the Hulk and there the Avenger who’s power is founded on being in control is suddenly powerless to the one who is uncontrollable. For Natasha this is terrifying; she has no angle to control the Hulk. Banner, meanwhile, has been rendered helpless. The team’s low point sees both of them bereft of control.

By the time of the climax, however, things have been reversed. Natasha, after a heart-to-heart with Clint Barton, is coming to terms with not always having the upper hand. Bruce, meanwhile, has been assured of his latent heroism (the security guard tells him lack of hurting anyone was due to “good aim”), and returned to the team. As they face down what looks to be certain doom, Cap looks to Bruce and says:

Steve Rogers: Doctor Banner, now might be a good time for you to get angry.

Bruce Banner: That’s my secret, Captain: I’m always angry.

And then we know that Bruce has control over his Hulk and this time, when he transforms, it’s far less painful and far less wild than before. It’s not so much a curse as it is a blessing.

Now, control plays a role for the other Avengers too. Tony Stark and Steve Rogers both play opposite sides of a coin, first is impulsive, the other disciplined. Clint spends most of the movie under Loki’s thrall. Thor, perhaps, might be the one with little personal investment in control (though an argument could be made about his relationship with his brother being one that Loki uses to manipulate him). All this to say, control is obviously a major theme in The Avengers, but it’s in Natasha and Bruce that the conflict takes its clearest form.

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THEY’RE MAKING A CAPTAIN MARVEL MOVIE

Marvel announced their upcoming slate of movies this week and I am very excited for one very important reason: Captain. Marvel.

Now, of course I’m pumped for the other announcements. Captain America 3 is officially Civil War, which bodes very interesting the MCU at large. Black Panther’s also showing up in Civil War and getting his own solo film a year later. We’re getting a second Guardians and another Thor, which is cool (especially the art for Guardians 2). The Inhumans are getting a movie so they’re definitely part of other MCU (five bucks say they show up in Agents of SHIELD). And the Avengers film(s) following Age of Ultron Is, based on being named Infinity War, hopefully going to be based on the fantastic Infinity event from last year. So of course there’s all that.

But Captain Marvel. Those of you who’ve been reading this should know that I’ve been clamoring for a Black Widow film, which part of me still is. I’m assuaged partially because there are plans to weave Black Widow into other films. But mostly because not only will Carol Danvers probably be showing up in some of the other films, there’s going to be a freaking Captain Marvel movie.

I’m gonna come right out and say it: Captain Marvel is my favorite comic in print right now (up there with Avengers and New Avengers. Black Widow probably comes after).There are a bunch of reasons, like the epic adventure nature of the comics and the sheer fun they’re filled with, but it’s mostly because Carol Danvers is such a great character, especially as Captain Marvel.

There’s the obvious fact that she wears pants, which is a welcome respite. More so than that, she’s interesting. She does all the usual superhero stuff, time traveling, fighting bad guys, saving New York and so on. Best of all, the comic is never condescending. We have a woman fighting crime who’s not presented as a special case or just a sex-object. She’s fleshed out and great in her own right. Writer Kelly Sue Deconnick has done a fantastic job creating a character who’s not just layered but likable and, most importantly, fun.

With that, Captain Marvel (like Black Panther) will bring something new to the Marvel ‘verse. Black Panther’s the first not-white guy headlining a Marvel film and also, as the king of Wakanda, has the potential to add additional political intrigue to the universe. Captain Marvel, on the other hand, will be the first female headliner and, based on comments by Kevin Feige and the most recent batch of comics, bridge the cosmic and earthbound sides of things. Besides getting her powers from the Kree (who showed up in Guardians of the Galaxy), Captain Marvel’s also been running with the Star Lord and crew as well as getting up to her own space adventures. It’s this variety that’ll help keep the superhero genre from getting stale.

But there’s also the sheer nerdy joy. In four years not only am I finally getting a movie starring a female superhero, but she’s Captain frickin’ Marvel, one of my favorites. That’s exciting and that’s something that’s making me really eager for 2018 to come already.

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