Tag Archives: Thor

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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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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Storytelling Lessons from Jesus

Doesn’t matter what you think of Jesus, gotta admit the guy could tell a story. Or the people who recorded them spiffed them up. Either way, Jesus often communicated (religious and otherwise) points through stories in ways that were not heavy handed yet still managed to tell a good story.

See, Jesus knew his audience. He knew that some people were inherently opposed to him and knew that there were occasions where he wasn’t gonna win anyone over if he started getting preachy (I’m looking at you, October Baby). So rather than constantly preachifying, he told good stories. His truth was in his stories (and messages can be found in arguably any story), he didn’t have to spell it out every time (October Baby, you again).

For an example let’s look at the Good Samaritan. Most everyone knows how this one goes, so let’s make like the movie industry and update it. Israeli’s walking through an alley. Bunch of guys jump him and beat the crap outta him; they steal everything he has and leaves the man bleeding against the bricks.

A man walks past, just another ordinary man. He ignores the pleas for help. A teacher of religion walks by and, hearing the man’s cries for help, turns around and finds a different route.

The bleeding man’s almost passed out when another man comes down the alley. This Palestinian sees the dying man and instantly stops to help him. He drags the man to his car and brings him to a hospital, paying for all the fees. Then they become best friends and fight crime [not actually in the Bible].

The point of the story is simple: help can come from unlikely places (and love others as you want to be loved). But there’s no beating anyone over the head with the point.

So Jesus did it. Who else?

Joss Whedon in Firefly! In the episode “The Train Job” Mal and his crew pull of a heist on a train. But when they find that it’s medicine a nearby town desperately needs, they eventually come to the decision to return it at cost to themselves. Understand, some of the crew are fugitives, some of them are very amoral, and most of them are not above thievery. Yet they choose to do the right thing anyway. What’s the message? Help the other one in need, do the right thing, don’t screw over those who are already screwed over. It’s understated, but it’s there and it works. Granted, Mal does later kick an uncooperative goon into Serenity’s portside turbine, but hey, he aims to misbehave.

Within the grand adventure of Thor is a simple lesson of humility. It’s his hubris that gets him thrown down to earth and it’s his learning to care for others that gets him back on his feet. Does Kenneth Branagh and his writers make it overt by someone saying “behold what your humility hath netted you!”? Nope. It’s there. Thor arrives on earth haughty and proud, but slowly comes to realize there’s more to life than glory and honor as he interacts with Jane and friends. We see the change in Thor’s actions and later in his conversations with his brother. It’s shown through a person and his journey, not having it told to us through some speech!

So let’s take another swig of this. A big one. In one of the finale episodes of Avatar, Zuko is reunited with his uncle. Understand that Iroh has been trying his best to lead Zuko to be a man of honor (unlike his family) but Zuko betrayed him at the end of the second season. Suddenly the prince has his honor back and everything he wanted, but he’s haunted by turning his back on his uncle.

When they finally meet again Zuko feels that he is not even fit to wake the old man from his sleep. It’s only when Iroh wakes up in the morning that Zuko begins apologizing, but his uncle cuts him off with a powerful embrace and says he was never angry with his nephew, but rather was so proud of him for getting this far.

There’s so much there! Forgiveness, love, and so on! It’s the parable of the Prodigal Son only with more firebending and world domination. The message isn’t obstrusive; it’s heartfelt and a longtime coming.

 

Look, I love a good story. And it’s awesome when stories have a point. The Lord of the Rings displays that no matter how little we are we can have an effect, Up tells us not to dwell on what’s lost and to find adventure everywhere, Tangled’s about having dreams, Zombieland reminds us of the importance of having a ‘family’. Yes, Zombieland. But the reason we don’t gag on it is because it’s done softly, gently. Like Jesus and his parables, good stories don’t try and force a point down your throat over and over again until you’re tired of it.

Granted, sometimes some things need to be made obvious, but if you’re breaking up the narrative (October Baby!) for the moral, you’re just not doing it right. When Jesus told his stories, the point evolved with the narrative. The message and story should be woven together seamlessly. Otherwise you’re just preachifying, and, as Phineas of Phineas and Ferb put it: “I think we all learned a valuable lesson today, but we all know what it is so why waste our time restating it?”

Also: buy my book In Transit! Just because!.

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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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