Tag Archives: The First Avenger

But What About The Men??? 2: Sexy Lamps

Back at a con panel in 2013, Kelly Sue DeConnick (writer of Captain Marvel, Bitch Planet, etc) coined the Sexy Lamp Test. Its rubric is that if you can take a female character out of a story and replace her with a sexy lamp and your plot still works, then “you’re a [beeping] hack.” Like all tests used to judge stories (ie: Bechdel), it’s not perfect – mostly because it’s a little too vague. But it still provides a good starting point to examine fiction.

Like I love The Dark Knight, but Rachel in the movie is very much a sexy lamp. She doesn’t do anything that affects the plot in a major way. She’s there for Bruce and Harvey to pine over and then to be ‘fridged and give Batman some angst. Still a great movie, but there are issues with how the film handles women.

Conversely, Star Wars aces it. You can’t replace Leia with a lamp that goes along for the ride, she does way too much – her first appearance is giving the Death Star plans to Artoo and setting the movie’s plot in motion. Throughout the film she does stuff, she has agency, she makes things happen.

You with me so far? Because here’s where we’re gonna talk about Wonder Woman. And dudes.

Steve Trevor is The Male Character in Wonder Woman. Sure, we’ve the villain and the other soldiers, but Steve Trevor is The Guy. He buddies up with Diana early on in the film and they go out and Do Things. Given that Diana is the protagonist of this movie, Steve becomes, quite naturally, the deuteragonist of the film and fulfills what in any other movie would be the ‘girlfriend role.’

This is one of Wonder Woman’s acts of brilliance: the film flips the roles. Steve is the one who buoys Diana’s force of character, he’s her tie to the real world, and he’s the one whose main role is to support her and her arc. Like I said, he’s the girlfriend.

Consider Peggy Carter in the first Captain America. Though this was later remedied in her tv show, she doesn’t really affect the plot much in the movie. She supports Steve Rogers and helps out here and there, but at the end of the day doesn’t really change the plot much more than a talking sexy lamp would. Oh, she’s still a really great character, but the plot doesn’t position her in such a way that she does stuff. This is one thing the Sexy Lamp Test exposes: cool characters who don’t actually have much agency or effect on the plot. Like Boba Fett, who outside of going to Cloud City offscreen, has no more narrative impact than a lamp in dope armor. Except Peggy is actually one of the main characters of The First Avenger.

Steve Trevor of Wonder Woman, however, does quite a bit in the movie; considerably more than your typical ‘superhero girlfriend.’ Without spoiling too much of the film, it’s his actions – particularly one he does of his own volition and not under orders – that set most of the plot in action, and in the final act he gets to make a Big Choice that changes the course of the climax.

A sexy lamp Steve Trevor is not. And maybe that can be chalked up to good writing, but I’m gonna blame it on Steve being a guy. Imagine this; it’s the climax of the film and the main male character does nothing. Maybe he drives a car so the main female character can go save the day, but elsewise he watches. It’s basically unheard of, and uncommon at best (look at how much Peeta and Gale get to do in the climaxes of The Hunger Games movies). But it happens all the time for female characters. It’s what Peggy does in The First Avenger. It’s what Pepper does in Iron Man 2. Sexy lamp or not, it’s easy to cast aside the supporting female character, the ‘girlfriend role,’ at the climax. But Steve Trevor still gets to Do Stuff, and Important Stuff Of His Own Accord at that.

For all its subversions of norms, Wonder Woman doesn’t neuter the agency of its male lead. Which, woo, equality! But at the same time, it shows how unfair the treatment of women in blockbusters – especially superhero films – is. We’ve got the first female-led superhero in over a decade and we still have a dude who goes around saving some of the day. Oh, it’s still Diana’s movie; but Steve gets an arc just about any other female character would kill for in just about any other film. Even in a movie about Wonder Woman, the dude still gets special treatment.

Which in this case means fair treatment.

And therein lies the problem.

 

For the first But What About The Men???, go here.

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Interconnected

I’ve been waiting for Agents of SHIELD to really get into its groove proper. It finally did last week, courtesy of some major plot points from Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

Which is kinda odd, really. A feature film bearing a different name affecting a TV show that much. I mean, it makes sense within the universe they’re creating, but from a meta perspective, it’s terribly uncommon.

And that’s one thing I love about the stories Marvel Studios’ been telling. They’re all connected. This was a gamble. Back in 2008 when Iron Man came out and Nick Fury mentioned the Avengers Initiative, Marvel was asking audiences to wait a few years and watch a few seeming unrelated movies in hope of a big team up coming out later. It could have failed, some of the movies could have sucked, but they took the risk to try and build their cinematic universe.

Seeing as The Avengers made what businesspeople call a ‘crapload of money,’ it paid off. Not only that, but it was a legitimately awesome film. Best of all, it stood alone. You didn’t have to have seen any or all of Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor, or Captain America: The First Avenger to get it. Sure, watching those movies helped, but it was great on it’s own. Each Avenger was quickly and succinctly introduced enough for a new viewer to get what was happening.

Every Marvel movie works that way. Someone can see The Winter Soldier on its own, or after having only also seen The First Avenger, or seen all the films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe chronology as well as Agents of SHIELD and enjoy it. There’s a decided effort for each film to be able to stand on its own and yet play with the others around it. They compliment each other but are not dependent on the others. It’s a fun sort of storytelling; you follow a group of independent characters and then see them all in a big event, then see them apart again.

Marvel’s asking viewers to embrace a sort of storytelling not really seen in film (or TV, really). Outside of the occasional Alien VS Predator, having independent franchises team up like what happened in The Avengers just doesn’t happen. Though it does in the comics. Their Guardians of the Galaxy title may intersect with the Avengers title, but you don’t have to be following both to understand what’s going on. Does it help? Sure, but it’s not a requirement.

Consider the last episode of Agents of SHIELD, “Turn, Turn, Turn.” What happened in The Winter Soldier directly affects the show in a massive game changing sort of way. Like in the comics, they’re weaved together to stand alone but also enhance each other. “Turn, Turn, Turn” offers a different perspective on what happened in The Winter Soldier and the film shows the big picture of the events in the show.

This also makes great business sense. See, Marvel’s smart; they know that not everyone will watch every one of their movies. It’s to their benefit for every film to be as stand alone as they are. It allows them to remain accessible to anyone. Winter Soldier deftly sets up Steve Rogers as being a man out of time who feels a bit lost in a way that doesn’t feel obtrusive to someone who’s seen the prior movies, yet so that someone new can follow what’s going on. It plain works. Add in the fun of getting more understanding the crossovers and Marvel’s market expands.

I’m so glad Marvel managed to pull this off. Things like seeing Bruce Banner at the end of Iron Man 3, references to Stark tech in The Winter Soldier, and Sif showing up in Agents of SHIELD remind me of the Iron Man and Spider-Man cartoons I’d watch as a kid where anyone could and would show up. Somehow, Marvel did it: they made a cohesive cinematic universe. Now I really wanna see what happens next in that world.

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Genre Blending

Remember when superhero movies were just becoming a thing? They usually fell into the same pattern: someone gets powers and saves the world. Fairly straight forward, right? Sure, there were different approaches to the idea: X-Men drew on themes of discrimination and Spider-Man was about a hero trying to balance life and superheroing. The Dark Knight, Watchmen, and The Incredibles deconstructed several tropes associated with the genre, and Iron Man and The Incredibles reconstructed a deal of them (yep, The Incredibles did both). But at the end of the day, all of them were, for the most part, variations on a theme.

Then Thor rolled around. While, yes, it was still about a superhero saving the world, the film and character were approached like a fantasy film in the vein of The Lord of the Rings rather than an out-and-out ‘superhero film.’ The result was a movie that felt very different from, say, Iron Man. Suddenly the superhero genre had expanded. Thor wasn’t just about a normal guy getting powers; it was about a fantastical superhuman progressing through the hero’s journey in a blend of fantasy and reality.

A few months later Captain America: The First Avenger came out, transplanting a superhero movie into a period piece (like The Incredibles!). Unlike The Incredibles, though, The First Avenger fully embraced its time period: World War II. Just as Thor crossed into fantasy, this film blended the a war movie with superhero tropes. Yes, The First Avenger still has all the hallmarks of the superhero film, but it’s hardly a strict superhero movie. We have a superhero who’s more like a commando (or is it the other way round?). Similarly, X-Men: First Class (also released in the Summer of 2011) took place in the ‘60s, keeping its discrimination subtext and mixing it with Cold War imagery.

Which brings me to The Winter Soldier, the trailer of which just dropped (if you haven’t seen it, go now!). The new Captain America movie seems to be, like The First Avenger before it, dispensing with a lot of ‘classic’ superhero tropes. If anything, The Winter Soldier is shaping up to be more like a political thriller in the vein of Patriot Games or The Bourne Identity rather than Iron Man. Yes, it’s still a movie about Captain America and there is an evil looking villain; but Blade Runner has androids and it’s not Star Wars. It’s not solely a film of one genre.

As a genre, superhero movies, like science fiction and fantasy before it, are rapidly becoming far more diverse with their subject matter. The Avengers drew some aspects from war movies, Man Of Steel focused its central theme not on Superman vs Zod but on the question of Superman’s identity. Of course, this doesn’t always go so well; Green Lantern tried to create a space opera and, well, failed miserably. So what did Green Lantern do wrong? Does space opera simply not work with superheroes? No, Green Lantern was a reminder that blending genres isn’t enough: you always need a good story.

Fun thing is, this trend shows no sign of stopping. Upcoming Thor: The Dark World is still a fantasy (directed by some Game of Thrones alum, no less), Guardians of the Galaxy is looking to be Marvel’s attempt at a space opera, and Ant-Man is gonna be an Edgar Wright film. Why is this so important? Folks, we’re watching a genre develop.

 

Short post? Yes. Why? I’m working on a short film this weekend. I’m busy. Heck, I hardly have time to go out and watch movies.

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