Tuesday, May 5, 2015
Let me start off by saying that I didn’t want to see Age of Ultron on its opening weekend. I have a great fondness for Marvel films and have eagerly looked forward to many of them, but I’m not one of those people that just have to see something the moment it comes out. I don’t count down the days until something opens. I don’t go to midnight openings. I don’t crow triumphantly when comparing box office numbers between DC and Marvel. I go to see a movie because I want to, and I see it when I want to – usually a couple of weeks afterwards when the crowds have died down.
However, I felt forced to see Age of Ultron its opening weekend – that’s right, forced. Marvel, social media, and various clusters of the Internet have been hyping this movie basically since an Avengers sequence was announced (if not before). Every Marvel movie made between Avengers and Age of Ultron only heightened the eagerness and anticipation. Its worldwide release a week and a half before the US release and the series of cast interviews released on a near hourly basis only made things worse. Trying to avoid spoilers meant a social media shutdown and CONSTANT VIGILANCE to scroll past spoiler-y posts. It was exhausting and irritating and gave me a fair amount of anxiety.
But my irritation at media’s seemingly inability not to spoil every book, movie, and moment if you’re not the first to view it should be the topic for another post. Suffice it to say that I didn’t appreciate Marvel’s media inundation and entered the theater feeling less like a willing and eager audience member and more like a victim of subtle and state-sanctioned harassment.
The movie started out horribly with the worst CGI I’ve experienced since Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace. Clint and Natasha were being thrown around in a Humvee like a couple of kids in a rollercoaster car, and the vehicle stood out glaringly against the computer-generated background, not even producing the right shadows, indentations, or dirt. The Hulk, Thor, Captain America, and Iron Man were whipping around so fast that I had flashbacks to the shaky camera in The Hunger Games. You couldn’t see any of the action, and there was no sense of irony about this, no understanding that we were all just unskilled mortals and thus couldn’t see them – it was just poor editing. It was no where near comparable to the final battle in Avengers where the characters were fast but still visible and the camera changed its pace, lingering or even stopping to give us a full understanding of the power of these characters and their personalities.
I immediately didn’t like the movie. I immediately didn’t care about it. I immediately wanted to leave. And this all in the first two minutes of the film.
Then we came to Captain America’s infamous, “Language!” line (Context: Tony Stark says, “Shit!” and Captain America immediately says, “Language!” to remind him to watch his language.). I groaned. I actually groaned. Not only is rebuking someone for swearing such a tired action that irritates anyone over the age of 15, it is also completely out of character and completely inappropriate for Steve Rogers to say.
Let me remind you that Steve Rogers grew up in the Bronx as a skinny little kid that wouldn’t put up with injustice or disrespect and habitually got into fights he knew he couldn’t win. Let me remind you that Steve Rogers had chronic pain and illnesses and went through a series of physical tests and an incredibly painful medical procedure. Let me remind you that Steve Rogers is a World War II veteran who saw active combat and worked with other active duty soldiers (including Peggy Carter who I can’t imagine ever minced words or watched her language). Let me remind you that Steve Rogers and everyone on the Avengers team is above 30 years old. Finally, let me remind you that at this point in the movie the Avengers are in an active combat situation bad enough that it necessitates them needing the Hulk. Do you honestly think that Bronx-native, World War II veteran, grown-ass man, currently trying not to get shot or blown up Steve Rogers would give a good Goddamn if Tony Stark, a man in his forties, said, “Shit!” in a combat scenario? Do you really?
The only reason that line got in the script was to give the movie a running gag – and it wasn’t even a good running gag. The running gag of Tony trying to piss off Bruce Banner and see what would happen in Avengers was much better, more mature, and actually consist with the character. The running gag of Steve writing down pop culture to learn about in Captain America: The Winter Soldier was much better (as was Natasha Romanoff’s efforts to get him a date). A better running gag would have been making fun of Tony for being arguably the smartest man on the team but still being the one who repeatedly shoots first, asks questions later, and continually engages in experiments without fully thinking them through (and then gets into a ridiculous amount of trouble). That would be something to make fun of him for. Or if Steve insisted on using a flip phone instead of a smart phone because flip phones look more like what he’s used to and Tony keeps trying to give him a smart phone but Steve keeps giving it to Clint because Clint is poor as hell and has two girls who keep begging him for a phone. That could have been funny, Tony repeatedly trying to slip Steve a phone and Steve repeatedly tossing it to Clint (who probably wouldn’t even look when he caught it). Or everyone could keep trying to get Steve a date because Nat told them about her efforts (so the second Wanda Maximoff showed up, someone could say, “What about her, Steve? She’s cute.” Tony could even bring up F.R.I.D.A.Y. as a potential suitor – “Well, you both have such engaging personalities, Captain.”). Or anything, really, other than making a veteran of active combat chide another veteran of active combat in a war zone about his language. Anything.
This brings up the movie’s main problem: inconsistent characters and cheap thrills/laughs. And I’m going to hold Joss Whedon accountable for this because by and large, he was the main writer and director for Age of Ultron. I’ve read his interview where he was unhappy with some of his disagreements with Marvel and Disney (which you can read here), but what he defends is ultimately what I hated the most. I also haven’t heard from anyone that Whedon didn’t have the final say or that someone rewrote his script or that he was forced to portray the characters in a certain way. Basically, it seems like executives just wanted him to move faster, to turn this lumbering two hour and twenty-one minute beast into something palatable for younger ages and shorter attention spans. I have no problem with that as I was consistently bored, unimpressed, and irritated with the plotting in the movie. So all my complaints are leveled at Whedon.
Let’s start with what Whedon did to Natasha Romanoff.
He took everything that Natasha was in the previous Marvel movies and completely negated that, turning her into an archetypal figure: The Mother. Natasha, Steve Rogers’ wingman in Captain America: Winter Soldier? Gone. She barely talks to him in this movie. Pepper Potts’ right-hand gal, a certified badass, and the one person capable of shutting down Tony? Gone. Master manipulator capable of seeing through the most adept liar in the universe? Gone. A tactician that sees the big picture and sacrifices dead weight to get it done? Okay, I’ll give you some of that, but she seemed more desperate, less willing to do what she had to survive, and more willing to go down with the ship. In other words: the woman that gets sacrificed so that the man can be motivated.
(I would also argue that her actions didn’t necessarily move the plot along – what happened to her did. But I’ll let everyone keep her riding on a motorcycle out of the bottom of a plane and wearing a glow-in-the-dark suit that probably made all of her espionage training cringe. You need something.)
The scene I’m referring to, of course, is the now infamous “You still think you’re the only monster on the team?” scene where Nat reveals to Bruce that her greatest horror was not learning to kill or torture a man or having her childhood stripped from her to become a killer or learning about the horrible things she had done when she was still a Russian spy but was instead the moment she was sterilized.
Calling Nat a monster for being sterilized is gross, cruel, and obscene. It means that women are only worthwhile human beings when they have functioning ovaries. It takes a personal event and a woman’s desire to have children and turns it into a spectacle. It makes Nat responsible for her sterilization when she absolutely was not. It says that the worst thing that can happen to a woman is that she becomes incapable of bearing children – not rape, not torture, not being forced to have her body regulated, not being told that she isn’t a woman because her body is biologically male, not going through war or famine, none of those. A woman’s greatest nightmare is to be rendered sterile.
Women already have a complicated relationship with their bodies without this kind of bullshit. I can pretty much guarantee you that every woman has felt betrayed by her body at least once whether it was from getting her period at an inopportune time to being curvier than she’s comfortable with to not being able to carry children to having too much or too dark hair on her face and arms to having debilitating period cramps to being born with incompatible genitalia. Women suffer through these things every day and have to figure out how to negotiate their body’s demands with society’s. We don’t need “famed feminist” Joss Whedon and the largest cinema franchise in America telling us that not being able to have children makes us monsters. We really don’t.
Everyone keeps telling me that Whedon means well. They remind me of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, arguably one of the most influential feminist TV series in television history (Well, in the ‘90s.). They bring up Firefly. They tell me how he’s a certified, card-carrying feminist. They show me this interview where he talks about how awesome women are, how cool it is that women can create life, and how there totally needs to be more female-centric media for his daughter to see. They say he has the best intentions.
At this point, I absolutely do not care. I will not give him a free pass on this. I am not a magical creature because I have functioning ovaries (that I know of, anyway). I am not a magical creature at all. I am a human being, and if I am worthy of admiration and respect it is because of what I do, often in spite of my biology.
That is how Whedon should have approached Natasha, not as a stereotype to be given all of woman’s main attributes – the Coy Flirt, the Mother, the Fierce Warrior Woman – but as a human being with personal dreams, drives, and fears.
However, that’s not the full extent to how gross the portrayal of Natasha was. It gets even worse when you realize that Natasha is supposed to be this Mother figure but, specifically, she’s supposed to be the Mother to Bruce, the man she loves and probably wants to sleep with.* At least twice in the movie she sings “The Lullaby,” a weird, let’s-touch-skin-and-allow-everyone-to-reference-“Beauty-and-the-Beast” moment where she calms down the Hulk. Many find the Lullaby intimate, even erotic, which brings forth allusions to Oedipus and Jocasta, the woman he marries and fathers children with before knowing she’s his mother. Then, overcome by horror, he rejects her and tells her the truth. She hangs herself, and he blinds himself with her broach. But in this instance Natasha, the Mother, is pursuing her “son,” and he must show that he possesses the strength and foresight enough to reject her. So it all boils down to the man making the right decision.
I am really tired of this gross, completely inappropriate and completely unrealistic trope where the Romantic Interest doubles as the man’s mother. We saw it in Guardians of the Galaxy only last year when James Gunn decided that Peter Quill needed to have his mother die to give him a tragic backstory and then, when he was about to die and needed something to anchor him, he imagined Gamorra, the woman he was actively trying to have sex with during the entire movie and one of the least maternal creatures in the galaxy, morphed into his mother, which gave him the fortitude to hold on. Why is this a thing? Why do the Romantic Interests have to be mothers and why do we have to turn every woman into a Mother figure? It’s unnecessary, incongruous, and I’ll say it again, gross. Stop making grown men lust after their mothers. Just stop it, Hollywood.
But let’s move back to Nat and Bruce.
Overall, the Natasha-Bruce relationship was just embarrassing, even painful. Every time they came up, my girlfriend groaned and hid her face in my shoulder. My sister left during the cringe-worthy, “Maybe I should have joined you in the shower” scene. I yelled out, “Come on!” when Natasha said dead-eyed and flat-voiced, “I adore you.” They could have been an interesting couple, even a good one, but nothing in the script supported that or even made it probable. Why was Natasha doing a weird speakeasie voice at the bar? Why was she, the most direct person on the team, dancing around being in a relationship with Bruce? Why did she get abruptly serious when Bruce joked, “I guess we missed our opportunity”? Why did she, the most focused person on the team, the one most committed to righting past wrongs and making the future a better one than she grew up in, ask someone to run away with her and abandon the mission? None of that sounds consistent with her character. She should have been direct. She should have told Bruce what she wanted and what she was willing to do to get it. She should have pulled him back from his self-loathing by letting him know that she couldn’t have kids either and it wasn’t a big deal. She should have been funny, capable of emotion, and at ease with herself. That’s what she’s fought to achieve all these years. And Whedon takes that away, turns her into an archetype, and calls her a monster? And he wonders why fans are mad at him?
This brings us to another problem: Bruce Banner’s complete regression. One of the most surprising and touching things about Avengers was how Whedon wrote Bruce’s character. Instead of being fragile, tortured, and constantly worried that he was going to Hulk out, Bruce is cautious, focused, and fully in control of himself. Throughout the movie as almost everyone dances around him and worries that he’s a ticking time bomb, he demonstrates his control by being supremely confident and not allowing himself to be baited by anyone. It literally takes a preternatural event to make him Hulk out. In the final battle, he is not an unstoppable wave of destruction but a member of the team. He is still, by and large, a tool, but he’s capable of channeling his rage and pain to hurt those deserving of it and save his comrades. He is fully capable of recognizing people, and he has gained a greater measure of self-confidence in knowing he can unleash himself in public and still keep it together. By the end of Avengers, we saw him as one of the (if not the) most powerful, in control, and moral characters in the entire movie. I had nothing but respect for him.
Then we get to Age of Ultron and, much like Natasha’s main attributes, all of Bruce’s get thrown out the window in favor of converting him into another archetype: The Man Who is Really a Lost, Little Boy in Need of a Mother Figure. Even though he’s attacking precision targets in the opening battle scene, he still requires Natasha to come and sing him a lullaby and put him to sleep. Bruce is now literally incapable of putting his inner demons back inside or getting them to listen to him. His years of meditation, control, and self-restraint have completely evaporated, turning him into a tortured, self-loathing, insecure man-child who huddles in his baggy sweaters and shivers against the dark. In the Avengers, he had come to terms with his condition. He didn’t want to use it or let it out, but he was dealing with it. He could laugh at another scientist trying to provoke him. He could soothe a man who thought he was a monster. He could be the voice of reason in a group of arguing demigods. He was a new, mature Hulk, the kind we had yet to see in any Marvel movie in the past ten years. And he was wonderful.
Now I’m glad that he’s leaving. Obviously, being the Hulk so often has severely damaged him emotionally and psychologically. He no longer trusts himself around other human beings. He is no longer confident in his abilities. He allows Tony to run roughshod over him performing an experiment he knows is fundamentally flawed. He is so worried about his inability to control himself that he actually consents to the building of Veronica, otherwise known as the “Hulkbuster Suit” (and how telling is it that Bruce needs another woman to subdue him when he has a temper tantrum? “Veronica” is not canon. It’s an Archie reference and a weird Whedon joke.), whose sole purpose is to beat him senseless when (not “if”) he Hulks out. He’s allowed Tony’s paranoia to infect him, and he needs to go off on his own to get back to himself.
Now if Bruce comes back and he’s himself again, I have no problem with him and Natasha getting together – provided it’s done in a way that’s consistent with their characters. None of this, “Oh, I’m so tortured, we could never be!” or, “I’m damaged, you’re damaged, we’re a perfect fit,” or “We’re so star-crossed!” nonsense. They’re adults. They’re confident, controlled, focused human beings. Their love story should be sweet, direct, and just in the background. We should see them leaning against each other talking. We should see Nat briefly resting her hand on Bruce’s shoulder before she goes off on a mission. We should see Bruce leaning against her catching a few moments of rest between missions. We should see all the normal signs of coupledom between them without any painful Oedipal complexes or star-crossed lover clichés. And if Whedon had done that, I guarantee you he’d still have a Twitter account today.
At just over 3,300 words, this concludes Part I of “Angry, Spoiler-Tastic Age of Ultron Thoughts.” Stay tuned for Part II where I rip into Whedon for thinking that PTSD is cured by a plucky ten-year-old sidekick and how the script’s plot should have gone back to Scriptwriting 101. Until then.
*Note: I think we can make a case for Natasha being asexual. She’s never seen (at least, in the movies) in an overtly sexual relationship that she’s chosen for herself. She will use sexuality as a weapon and means to an end, but I’ve yet to see her want to engage in sex or be sexually attracted to a person for herself. But, as asexuals are only 1% of the population and Whedon has yet to show an asexual character on any of his shows, I’m going to assume that she experiences sexual attraction. It’d be cool if she didn’t though.