Feelings About Superheroes, Part 1

I saw Age of Ultron last night and like much of the Internet, I have Some Thoughts. But I thought that instead of doing a straight up review, this could be a Learning Moment ™ for all of us. Of course those thoughts ballooned and now this post is nearly five thousand words, so in the interest of time, I’m going to split this up. And there are massive, massive spoilers throughout for Avengers: Age of Ultron and the movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Let me begin this Teachable Time by saying that I actually did enjoy this movie. I laughed a lot, which is usually a good marker for my relative opinion. I began writing this post because the issues I had with A:AOU were, I think, avoidable. And given the general tone of the reaction I’ve seen, I’m not alone in this.

I think it’s at this point that I should also say that, up until now, I didn’t have a boeuf with Joss Whedon, nor did I have a deep understanding of the Marvel Comics Universe beyond what Wikipedia and tumblr have taught me about the various storylines. So I am not coming at A:AOU from the standpoint of a Whedon hater (or superfan) or as a slavish fan of the comics. In this post I will refer to decisions made in the writing/plotting and I will attribute them to Whedon; since he’s the grand poobah of the Avengers as the universe exists now, I’m assuming that he either wrote or approved of the writing of all of the things that happens. So if this is an incorrect assumptions, I’m happy to look at receipts and correct myself. I’m not here to bury or praise Whedon, or the larger Marvel universe, or even Avengers: Age of Ultron;

I’m just a girl, standing in front of a movie universe, asking it to give her narrative and emotional consistency.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe is a textbook example of how to keep audiences engaged in a wider universe while preserving engagement in individual story lines. Over and over Marvel has demonstrated that they can take comics characters who- up until the recent past, I would argue- didn’t have the most immediate cultural cachet*, and not only give them life onscreen, but make the audience care about them at every level of fan engagement, from the casual viewer to the writer of epic fan fiction. Since we live in a mid- or – post MCU world now, it’s hard to look back to that time in 2008 when everyone was scratching their heads going “Iron man? Is that the best tone to set? Also, RDJ? Doesn’t that guy do crack?” But there was that time. And then we got Iron Man, one of my favorite all-time movies. We got Iron Man 2, which I wasn’t big on at the time and look more fondly on in hindsight. And then we got Thor, which shouldn’t have worked but did, and then Captain America. These movies told strong individual stories for characters that audiences weren’t familiar with from comics unless they were hardcore fans. (And made Marvel a bucketload of money.) The first Avengers brought these storylines together against a common villain (Loki) who enlisted a weapon from the wider Marvel universe (the Scepter, the Chitauri ostensibly sent by Thanos).

So when I say that A:AOU was muddled, people might say that the first Avengers movie, which imo was a triumph of world building cohesion, only had what- five movie threads to integrate, and therefore it is unfair to compare the two. After all, in the time since Avengers we’ve had Thor 2, and the “death” of Loki; Tony Stark removed the Arc reactor from his chest at the end of Iron Man 3; Steve Rogers destroyed Shield (and Hydra) in Cap 2 while discovering the horrifying truth about his friend Bucky Barnes; and that’s not even mentioning Guardians of the Galaxy and the introduction of the Infinity stones and the (re)introduction of the Mad Titan Thanos as part of the larger Marvel universe.

That’s a lot of ground to cover, not even counting the introduction of the Scarlet Witch, Quicksilver, and Vision. But I argue that the inconsistency in A:AOU isn’t the result of the huge cast, but the result of choices made with the existing cast that undermine the narrative tension and make the audience less engaged with the new characters. Time to define some terms!

POINTS OF CARE

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This is a question I ask my authors a lot during revisions. If you looked at the comments in documents I send back and forth, half of them are either “But Why?” or “But how does he feel/how does this make her feel?” Those are the questions that matter to me as a reader, and though they can’t be answered directly in a movie without sounding robotic (“You turning into a rage monster makes me feel sad”), the principle still stands- I want to know how events are making a character feel, even if they don’t tell me in words, and I want to know why something is happening.

To that end I would like to talk about something that I’ve been calling “points of care,” which I know sounds like soulless corporate speak. But hear me out! Each character on screen is a point of care for the viewer, who has to decide, given the information presented to them by the plot/story, how much care and emotional involvement to invest. And the characters themselves have points of care in the other people sharing the screen with them- and this web of relationships affects the viewer’s points of care and vice versa, letting the circle be unbroken.

There are a number of points of care that the MCU has established over what feels like ten movies. I’ve made a list here of who I am counting as the major points of care for the Avengers as previously introduced by the MCU, in relative order of closeness:

Tony Stark- Pepper Potts, Rhodey, JARVIS
Steve Rogers- Bucky Barnes, Peggy Carter, Sam Wilson
Black Widow- Clint Barton, Phil Coulson **, Nick Fury
Bruce Banner- Betty Whatsherface, Tony Stark I guess?***
Clint Barton- Natasha Romanov, Phil Coulson, Nick Fury
Thor- Jane Foster, Loki, Erik Selvig

In A:AOU, instead of maintaining and strengthening those points of care, entirely new relationships are introduced (sometimes with entirely new characters) and others are completely ignored. There’s an economy of storytelling in a movie like this- we expect the movie to be long, but for the payoff to be that we learn new things about the characters we care about and, if we are introduced to new characters, for them to be people we want to stick with. If the movie was muddled and baggy, it’s not the fault of all the new stuff that Marvel forced Whedon to incorporate—it’s because Whedon made dumb choices with the characters he already had on hand. He was being a bad story economist!

ECONOMY OF STORYTELLING

The word “economy” has two meanings.

First: the wealth and resources of a country or region, especially in terms of the production and consumption of goods and services.

Second: careful management of available resources.

In this sense, there is an economy of points of care in the Marvel Cinematic Universe – the relationship wealth of a group, and how that wealth changes. And every economy has to be managed, which gives you the second definition – you don’t want to waste your region’s wealth.

So this brings me directly to the Barton Home on the Prairie, Or: The Great Squandering. A:AOU massively wastes the web of points of care that the MCU has built up for Clint Barton, already the most underdeveloped Avenger. Instead of seeing him deepen his relationship with Natasha or his new teammates (beyond banter) we get a family that comes out of fucking nowhere. Where was the wife when he got compromised by Loki? When he came out from under mind control? In the aftermath, as they send Loki back to Asgard in chains?

This family might as well be one of Scarlet Witch’s hallucinations for all the relationship it has with Barton’s story so far. According to A:AOU, Fury helped Barton set up the safe house as a condition of his joining SHIELD when he was recruited. So Clint, a man we know little about, but who helped murder hundreds of agents on the Helicarrier and countless more on the ground in the Chitauri invasion, who inadvertently caused the death of his handler, who in the comics was a homeless circus attraction orphan, not only has a young family, but seems to be the most well-adjusted member of the team in the aftermath of the Battle of New York.

According to this interview in Buzzfeed, Joss Whedon is gleeful that “Hawkeye’s dark secret is that he doesn’t have a dark secret.” I’m going to go and punch something, but in the interest of keeping this informative for everyone, I’m going to do it off the page where you can’t see.

Now, it’s fine that Joss Whedon wants to do things he thinks are “cool” with characters. And in another situation, I might think that this is indeed a cool move – that Barton is the steady one in a sea of weirdos. But here’s where the economy metaphor comes in – it may be a cool move, but it wastes the fucking resources.

What do we know about Clint Barton’s points of care, according to the MCU? Phil Coulson’s shaken little message to Natasha- “Barton’s been compromised”- has inspired legions of fan fiction speculating on the relationship between these two characters. Whedon was able to inspire that with one line (and one performance from Clark Gregg). What made that moment even more compelling was the relationship that we saw unfold between Barton and Natasha after his “cognitive recalibration.” He asks how many he killed- she tells him not to go there, that this was “magic and monsters, nothing we were ever trained for.” And later in that conversation, Clint wonders that she has decided to become a soldier by fighting with the Avengers. This conversation tells us two things: that he is disturbed by his acts during his time as Loki’s puppet, and that he and Natasha have a long history with one another and with Shield.

Notice who didn’t come up in this conversation? A WIFE AND CHILDREN, WHO NATASHA APPARENTLY KNOWS AND IS FOND OF. “Are my wife and kid ok?” It doesn’t take much. No, we get the hints about Barton and Nat fighting in Budapest, and we get their mocking (unheard but implied) banter as Loki is led away in chains.

So this is the information we have- Clint and Natasha are very close, and he has at least a working relationship with Coulson. And given how underutilized he’s been up until A:AOU, it’s understandable that they’d want him to have more screen time. But this much time? And at the expense of the relationships that have already been developed? To put it simply, the audience doesn’t give a shit about Clint Barton’s random wife and kids because it’s completely unearned in the context of the MCU emotional economy as we know it so far.

  1. A casual fan resents the time that is spent developing this storyline at the expense of action.
  2. An intense fan of the movie universe resents the time developing this relationship at the expense of established relationships
  3. A fan of the comics might resent the fact that if you were going to give Hawkeye a low-key background, there are way more interesting ways to accomplish it while still remaining slightly rooted in the comics. (Hawkeye is a shambling yet lovable landlord! Who adopts a dog!)

Another example of the squandering of established points of care is the complete absence of Pepper Potts from A:AOU. Now, film scheduling being what it is, maybe they just straight up couldn’t get Gwyneth Paltrow for this movie. (Or Natalie Portman.) But it is a fact that when Stark gets Scarlet Witched, and sees all his friends laid out by the Chitauri, Pepper isn’t among the dead. (Is Rhodey there? I’m pretty sure he isn’t, but correct me if I’m wrong.) The only mention we get of her is when he and Thor have their dick-measuring contest about which of their girlfriends is more awesome. I will address this part later in the post, because, oof. Pepper doesn’t come into Tony’s calculations at all while building Ultron or fighting him. And since during Iron Man 3, when Pepper caught a bad case of Extremis and is now literally a fire monster, wouldn’t you think she’d come in handy in the fight against Ultron?

OK, I’m going to go breathe deeply into some wine and remind myself that there were things I liked about this movie.

So, what is the takeaway from this, writing-wise? (she says, into her nth glass of Pinto Grigio.) Whether in a long-running series or a single book, the reader can’t just forget what they’ve read up to this point. So when introducing new relationships and points of care, it’s important to balance those new relationships against what the reader knew abut the characters before.

SPEAKING OF ECONOMY OF STORYTELLING

What the hell is all this Ultron is in pain nonsense?

*takes another giant swig of wine*

I think that Ultron’s campaign to wipe out humanity was meant to be a manifestation of Tony Stark’s fear and anxiety- which, fine, but we have already had the Tony Stark Anxiety Hour- it was Iron Man 3, and it was one of the best character entries in the MCU. So I was not overjoyed that Whedon went back to this well. And the larger MCU handed Whedon a way to tie in both the recent universe history- the destruction of Shield and the Macguffinage of the Infinity Stones: why not have Ultron be more of a product of Hydra, more influenced by Hydra’s philosophy? Hell-bent on bending the world to Hydra’s will through the infinity stones?

Hear me out. Hydra was attempting to build a robot powered by the infinity stone inside the spear, which is what gave Tony the idea (even if he didn’t know the stone was there.) So instead of giving Ultron a half-assed “the world sucks and I just need to rule it” chaos philosophy, we could have had a philosophy informed by MCU events in combination with Tony Stark’s fear.

200_s

I’m not even sure if that last part made sense, but really, neither did Ultron’s motivation. He felt… bad about humanity? And this brings me to something else: Did anyone notice that Ultron was basically Dr. Horrible? “The world sucks, and I just need to rule it” might have been compelling enough for Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, but it was not enough for the motivation of the villain of an Avengers movie.

What’s the takeaway here for writers? I think that movies like A:AOU and probably the upcoming Infinity Wars might be suffering from the belief that the danger always has to be the physical destruction of the world. One of the most interesting facets of the Hydra storyline is that it capitalizes on what’s happening in society today– the paranoia of the surveillance state, the privatization of world security, the sacrifices we’re willing to make in order to keep ourselves “safe.” There are a number of world-ending scenarios present in those ideas that don’t involve the dropping of a giant chunk of Eastern Europe on an unsuspecting Earth, killing billions. When the physical consequences become so huge, they become abstract – if you asked me to summarize Tony Stark’s plan to stop the giant chunk of city from killing people, I’m not sure that I could. What do we sacrifice when we say, yes, I accept this monitoring, knowing that its in the common interest? What kind of world are we creating?

I’m not sure if Whedon et al think that these kinds of stories are too small – or maybe they’re facing too much pressure from the Marvel honchos to incorporate certain storylines, I don’t know. But when thinking about plotting the overall arc of a series, especially one with epic scope involving lots of characters, the stakes don’t always have to be the physical end of the world. And if there’s going to be a physical threat, the basis and motivation for that threat is always stronger if it taps into an emotion that has at least been suggested by what has come before.

So that’s  nearly 3,000 words right here and I haven’t even talked about Black Widow, the Hulk, or Steve Rogers, or- wait, I’m sorry, I have to go take some blood pressure medication.

I hope this has been interesting and Part 2 is coming soon!

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5 thoughts on “Feelings About Superheroes, Part 1

  1. Keep in mind that most of these movies have had different screenwriters, and that, as much as directors love to convince us that they are the “author” of a film–they aren’t. Nor are the screenwriters, *entirely*, because “development” committees insert their notes on every damn script, even when perfectly good money has been spent hiring the very top screenwriters (who are never allowed to just do their job unhindered). This makes consistency from film to film problemmatic, and may account for the insertion of some extra nonsense character-relationship-wise. As a working screenwriter I’m actually amazed that the films fit together as well as they do.

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    • I’m obviously aware that there are multiple screenwriters involved as well as the Marvel development team (which I made reference to in the post.) And in terms of tone, this entry definitely hews to the previous Avengers and MCU films. What I’m talking about here is, imo, lazy storytelling choices that take away from the larger story that are identifiable as Whedon’s particular choices.

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  2. I read this when you first posted it and wanted to take some time to collect my thoughts. Like you, I’m not coming from a position of someone that loves or hates Whedon. (And I never really have an opportunity to engage in any kind of in-depth movie discussion like this so hopefully everything I say comes off respectful of your thoughts, cause that’s how I intend it to!) So, HERE WE ARE.

    I agree on some of your points and disagree on others. As a casual fan, I actually loved the part with Clint’s farm and his family. True, no, it wasn’t mentioned or even hinted at before now. And that brief scene with him talking on the phone, saying he answered to her, could have EASILY been slipped into an earlier film as a subtle hint, BUT, I didn’t find myself resenting the scenes because there was no action. I liked the fact that Clint is one of the few people that aren’t inherently damaged and broken and just filled with angst. The angst wars these characters have in their back and forth, oh-so-tragic backstories gets old after a while. They need SOMEONE a little more grounded to help the team be a team and every single other member likes to think they’re that person (especially Cap) and they’ve all tried their hand at it, but they just aren’t. Would I have cared more about his wife and kids had they bothered to introduce them sooner? Sure. But I didn’t NOT care about them. I also loved the fact that Natasha knows about his family and is a major part of that family, it just makes sense given how long they known each other. As for furthering his relationship with Natasha, that’s basically the ONLY relationship we’ve seen developed with Clint. Even though all he had was banter with some of the other characters, I was THANKFUL for that banter. It was small, but it was still more interaction we’ve seen Clint have with the other teammates than anything before. He was joking with them! Laughing! When have we seen that? He’s usually pulling a Batman and brooding in some rafter.

    As for the lack of Pepper & Jane, I’m going to assume they simply couldn’t get a hold of the actresses. Just as I’m assuming the guy playing Falcon had a tight schedule, which would explain why he was there for the get-together & party (but disappeared for the after party) and was there at the very end, but absent from the main fight. And since I have zero concrete knowledge on these actors & actresses and their schedules, I don’t think I can really weigh in on their absence from the film. [As an aside, I WANTED to like the back and forth between Stark and Thor as they went on about how awesome their girlfriends were, as I THINK it was meant to establish that while these guys are partying, the women are doing actual work, but it still just came off as a dick-measuring contest. Somehow, they managed to turn a conversation about how cool their girlfriends are into how cool THEY are. And that DID piss me the hell off.] Barnes is mentioned, by Falcon and his missing-person mission. Peggy’s there in Cap’s hallucinations. I haven’t seen any of Agents of Shield, so I’m not at all qualified to weigh in on Coulson and how he does/could have fit in.

    As for Ultron, I’m a sucker for the newborn AI figuring out the world bit, I’ll admit that. So his initial introduction was great, I loved it. And I liked that it wasn’t Hydra who created him. I get what you’re saying that they’ve dealt with the Stark Anxiety Hour (although Iron Man 3 remains the only MCU movie I haven’t seen yet) but hear me out. We can see how much MCU is struggling to balance all of these threads and storylines, and they haven’t even fully integrated GotG into it yet. Having Hydra be the creator of Ultron would keep focus on Hydra, AND Thanos. They’ve established they can really only handle one MAJOR bad guy at a time per movie, unfortunately. Having Hydra be the ones to have the initial concept gave them an opportunity to show they haven’t completely forgotten about the baddies that, up until now when aliens started showing up, were their primary bad guy. But now they’ve stepped up to bigger threats. This, I think, allows them to now move past Hydra for a time and focus on Thanos and whatever other aliens they want to bring in. As for Ultron being a product of Stark’s anxiety/fear, again, hear me out. Sure, they’ve dealt with that aspect but it’s not exactly something that goes away, you know? Stark is in a large part driven by his anxieties and fears, just because it was handled in one character-driven movie, doesn’t mean it’s an aspect of that character that’s going to be ‘healed’. It’s a part of him, it’s going to always be a part of him. I much rather see a character continue to struggle with their faults than have a story arc that “cures” them of these issues. Stark’s fears combined with his UN.BELIEVE.ABLY. huge ego has always caused problems for the team and always will. Now, I agree, that does not excuse Ultron’s absolutely ridiculous plan of lifting and crashing a giant chunk of land into the Earth. His meteor/dinosaur/extinction event theory was …cute. But I didn’t buy it as motivation. And why…wherever that was? (The name escapes me.) Why that location? Furthermore, even from a storytelling perspective, how the fuck are the Avengers supposed to talk that down? End of the day, Stark created an evil, intelligent robot that tried to destroy the EARTH. It stands to reason, no Avengers = no evil, intelligent AI trying to wipe out humanity. So I think they’ve kind of dug themselves in a little deep with that one, when it comes to the next Avengers driven movie if they expect us as an audience to suspend or disbelief in accepting that any government in the world wants anything to do with these people and will allow them to keep doing their thing. Hell, after the FIRST Iron Man they wanted to shut Stark down, as things have gotten progressively more insane, what, the government’s just been like, man forget it. Not worth the headache? I’m not buying that.

    Focusing on emotional driven threats doesn’t seem to be MCU’s strong point, honestly. It’s easier (and, yeah, lazier) to figure out some insane way to physically threaten a bunch of innocent people. They’ve got a huge cast and a limited amount of time. I think they tried, by using Stark’s initial hallucination as a catalyst for everything, I think that was their attempt to create an emotional link, but even that was a little lackluster. How many times have we seen a hero character be distraught at the notion of failing and all of his friends/comrades dying as a result, thus leading said hero to make some asinine (borderline out of character in some cases) mistake? So believe me, I’m right with you there on that one. There’s a lack of open communication and trust between all of these characters, which has always been the team’s issue, but that doesn’t excuse it. It’s a LOT easier to write in some drama that’s founded in miscommunication or lies, cause then we just have to wait for those lies to surface and things explode. It’s a lot easier to do that than, say, have a team that actually communicates with one another and secrets are at a minimum. But, unfortunately, that’s a pitfall I think a lot of stories fall into. (Except Sleepy Hollow but that’s a tangent for another post.)

    Natasha and Bruce. Man. Natasha and Bruce. I’m guessing this is going to be addressed in your next part, but I’ll just say, I LIKED it but I would’ve liked to have seen ANY of that develop on screen. It’s an interesting concept, considering where they started when she first recruited him. And I don’t think it’s an impossible relationship to have developed. But it is from left-fucking-field. We get to see none of that develop and come in right at the end. So as much as I wanted them to work, I didn’t find myself all that torn up when he left cause it’s like, well. Ok? Likewise, their whole let’s just run away together back and forth? Seemed REALLY out of character for both of them. Natasha would just up and abandon the team, not say anything to Clint, to anyone? Just leave them to fight for themselves? Bruce would walk away from the BFF/bromance he’s developed with Stark? It COULD have made sense, had we seen any of their relationship develop prior to where we’re thrust in, but, well, we just didn’t.

    All in all, I think A:AoU certainly had some weak points, but I do also think in comparison to the first Avengers movie, we did see some improvement. With this movie I didn’t find myself wondering what the hell the point of certain scenes even were. Even the after party scene with them all trying to lift Mjolnir, while entertaining, actually served a point. Without that scene, the scene were The Vision just hands over Mjolnir, right after saying there’s nothing he can SAY that would make them trust him, wouldn’t have been as poignant. Likewise, seeing their collaborative attacks when they fought together, that was amazing. We got to see they’ve actually been training, practicing, working together. And I liked that. I think they did a fairly decent job developing the newer relationships with Scarlet Witch & Quicksilver, although those developments seemed primarily focused on those characters with Clint. (And what was the deal with killing Quicksilver? Why introduce him and then kill him same movie? WHHYY?) Everyone’s teasing of Cap, entertaining, but considering how much of a “I’m Older Than You and Have Seen It All and Therefore Smarter, Son” prick Cap kind of was in previous movies, I think it showed an improved relationship between him and the rest of the team. Even Bruce & Stark’s “Figuring Stuff Out” montage was helpful. The fact that they, seemingly, developed Veronica together, told us things. It’s not perfect, but I do appreciate the hints we got to see of how the relationships have developed in the time that’s passed off screen. (Except Nat & Bruce, grrr.) There’s still room for improvement in other areas but to be honest, there’s never been a storytelling undertaking in film like this before (as far as I know). The MCU storyline is massive and, generally, fairly cohesive. They’re not going to get it all right on the first try. Hopefully, fingers crossed, by the time we get to Infinity Wars, we’ll see continued improvement with every scene actually serving a purpose as well as the character arcs and character driven plot beyond tropes. Hopefully.

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