This is a response to Sady Doyle’s well-written article titled Age of Robots: How Marvel Is Killing the Popcorn Movie. As much as I’d love to have this conversation over shawarma, with all of the back-and-forth “getting to know and understand each other better” that an actual discussion allows, I’ll have to settle for a solitary rumination in front of a computer screen.
Starting with common ground: Yes, there were a lot of characters in Avengers: Age of Ultron (A:AoU). Yes, that hampered the opportunity for deep character development across the board. Yes, there were tropes. Yes, the “Marvel plot template” is starting to look a bit predictable, and worn. Yes, this wasn’t a stand-alone movie with fully self-contained story arcs that showcased the majesty of character development that resonates with each of us on a visceral level.
But, really… is that what you were looking for?
A Nexus Film
Sure, it may have been nice for A:AoU to be a self-contained stand-alone film. Or maybe not. With the multitude of franchise threads floating around out there, it makes sense to me that something had to serve as the nexus for them all. Much like a switching station for freight trains, or a central hub for major airlines, from A:AoU, you can get to just about anywhere else. It’s a connector, not a final destination.
A:AoU is only one piece of a larger tapestry that relies on all of the other pieces to make it meaningful, relevant, and to give it greater depth. In that respect, it it a fairly daring piece that is part of an effort to draw a truly epic tableau laid out more like a spiderweb than a single thread.
Still, I found a fair amount of character development and depth in the film (relatively speaking, of course). But that may just be because I’ve had a different life experience.
Time = Character Development?
More of a side note here. While your point is well made that, given the large cast, there isn’t a lot of time for deep character development, I want to point out that a lot of depth can be created in a very short span. You’ve likely seen the meme labeled “Pixar created a better love story in eight minutes than Twilight did in four books.”
That’s all I have to say about that.
At least until we get down to Hawkeye and Black Widow towards the end.
Tony Stark: Narcissism & Karma
From the article:
One arc that’s pitched, and then never executed, is that Tony Stark is coming face to face with his own narcissism. Ultron is his karma, his shadow self, his punishment for believing he’s smart enough to save the world single-handedly. That’s interesting. That’s a solid character-based story. It does what good stories do: Zones in on a character’s biggest flaw, and dramatizes it, so that he can come to a profound realization about himself and his place in the world, and triumph by using what he’s learned.
True. If you want yet another predictable “this is the way story always goes” sort of story arc. You do realize that’s what you’re asking for here, right? Tony gets caught up in his own superiority, it bites him, he learns from it, and becomes a changed man. That’s what we expect would happen. Which means that would be predictable. It would fit our own personal narrative of how the world should be.
But that isn’t what happens. No, there is an entirely different narrative here, and since it isn’t the way we think it should be, it’s wrong. But I believe there is another powerful lesson that can be applied on a personal level just as much as the whole Hulk/Loki scene you brilliantly interpreted.
In this case, Tony thinks he has a solution, but most of the rest of the team won’t understand, so he talks Bruce Banner into helping him, but they both keep it a secret. Note that Tony wasn’t working alone on this. He needed Bruce to help.
Yes, it all goes horribly wrong. Guess what… sometimes we try something and it doesn’t work. Does that mean the whole idea was wrong and we should just give up? Or do we learn from the mistake, make some changes, and try again? Here’s the kicker: Tony was right. Yes, his first attempt was a disastrous failure. Sure, if he had never even tried, the whole premise of the movie would never have happened, saving all kinds of trouble. But what if he had quit after Ultron? What if Vision had never come about? Could they have defeated Ultron without Vision? Doubtful. (Of course, if the script writer says so, then it is so, but let’s not go there.)
Just about everyone on the team doubted Tony Stark. They didn’t trust him, but he pressed on because he was convinced he was right. He also wasn’t alone. He talked another brilliant mind into helping him. (A mind Tony recognizes as superior to his own in many respects.) So, Tony had some small validation for his idea. It was a team effort.
No, Tony Stark’s story arc is not stereotypical. It’s not an “I screwed up, learned from it, and won’t try that crazy idea again.” It’s quite different, yet still relevant. It’s more of an “I screwed up, learned from it, and will do it right next time.” Even though most of the people closest to him still didn’t believe in him. Even though he needed help from an unexpected source to make it work. (Thank you, Thor.)
Bruce Banner: Self-loathing into Embracing who you are
From the article:
There is a release that goes beyond the rational or the personal, here: The noise of hundreds of strangers united for just one second in the realization that deep down, despite all the pain, despite all the shit they put themselves through, despite the endless cruelty that inner critical voice subjects them to, they don’t have to let it keep talking. Deep down, they are not ugly or stupid or unlovable or bad or worthless. Deep down, they are strong. They are heroes.
I would love to quote the whole section, because it is a brilliant insight, and exceptionally well written. This excerpt is just to point out the thread I’m talking about here, though. This is partly to recognize your powerful interpretation of the scene, and also to strike a contrast in understanding when we get to the “sexism and Natasha” part farther down.
I should mention that I didn’t really distill all of that meaning out of the scene when I saw it, and I want to thank you for helping me see it. Maybe it just wasn’t something I personally identified with on that level. Not that I’ve never faced that issue in my life, but rather that it’s not something I personally deal with in such a way that the scene sang to me in the same way.
There were several elements of A:AoU that did, though.
Clint Barton: The man with the ultimate choice
From the article:
The extent to which a movie invests in character-based, character-driven storytelling is the extent to which it recognizes, appreciates, and honors the humanity of its audience.
I was never really much of a Captain America fan growing up, and had scarcely heard of Hawkeye. I was more of an X-Men guy, and Wolverine was my favorite. However, I find myself strongly identifying with Steve Rogers as portrayed in the movies. I won’t bore you with all of the psychoanalysis of that here. Hawkeye was “just another guy on the team” to me until A:AoU. In this latest installment, I felt a connection. I don’t expect everyone to get it, but since the segment of the population that it will resonate with is often misunderstood anyway, I will try to explain.
Clint is the quintessential military person (rather than “man,” as this is a situation that does not discriminate these days). He has a loving, supportive family that is the most important thing in the world to him. His home life is wonderful. But he has special skills and training that allow him to make a real difference in the world. Those skills, coupled with a sense of responsibility to use them, means that he has to make a choice. And, he has to make that choice over and over again. Every time he answers the call, he knows he might not come home.
He is not the only person who has to make that choice, either. His wife, his full and equal partner in their relationship, also has a choice to either support him or to tell him that he’s done enough. That she no longer wants them to share the burden that she might suddenly be left alone to raise their children. That she might lose her best friend and be left to pick up the pieces. It is a very real possibility that her whole world could fall apart in an instant because of some bad situation that happens when her husband is out saving the world.
But they are united in their understanding, their shared responsibility, and their willingness to sacrifice in service to others. In that respect, the Bartons are the quintessential military family.
It all comes to a head when Clint loads what should be the last of the civilians onto the barge. He turns and scans the city wreckage, looking for any lost souls, searching for anyone who still needs him, even if it is only one person among so many already saved. And there… yes… there is one. A child. The child of the woman he just rescued. He can’t leave the one. It really doesn’t matter who it is, Clint couldn’t leave them to die. He has to try.
So he runs out into the open in a desperate attempt to save that child. Not his child, but he knows the worth of that one soul. More than anyone else on the team, he understands. He has to be the one to do this for it to have any meaning. If it had been anyone else on the team, it would have been cute. With Clint, it’s visceral.
He reaches the child, wraps him in his arms, turns to take him to safety, and realizes that, this time, he won’t make it. He has said goodbye to his family for the last time. The best he can hope for is to shelter this child in his arms, hugging his family goodbye by proxy, and hope that this child, and his own family, survives his own death. He closes his eyes and waits for the end.
That is the reality of every single member of the military, law enforcement, fire department, and countless other public servants who kiss their loved ones goodbye every morning, knowing that it could be for the last time. It is a reality that thousands willingly take on so that millions will not have to. It is a commitment shared by the whole family, over and over again. For many years, I was Clint Barton. That was my life.
Of course, he doesn’t actually make the ultimate sacrifice this time. Someone else steps in and does it for him. Someone else, who Clint barely knows, but who finally realizes that they both do, in fact, share the same values of service and self-sacrifice. He gives his own life so that Clint can live. Clint, his wife Laura, and their kids avoid having their semi-idyllic world destroyed due to the selfless sacrifice of someone who is barely more than a stranger. Someone who has no one but his sister to carry on his own memory.
So, when Clint and Laura honor that sacrifice by naming their own son after this man, and then I read:
This… is especially egregious because the baby’s mother never met the dead guy — and, if she ever knew that the dead guy existed, which is highly debatable, she knew him as “that guy who’s trying to murder my husband.” She names her baby after someone she never met, on the premise that her husband once slightly got along with him for about two hours. Stirring!
I figure that our different life experiences have given us a different perspective on the matter. What, to you, is sarcastically “Stirring!” is, to me, deeply moving and profoundly personal. I get it. I can easily believe that Laura Barton would feel the same way.
As a side note, it seems highly likely to me that Laura heard the whole story on Pietro Maximoff. It was clearly established that she knew all about the whole Avengers team before they showed up on her doorstep. I suspect that Clint doesn’t keep many, if any, secrets from Laura.
To me, Clint Barton’s whole story arc was one of the largest and most profound in the movie. It almost made up for the fact that an arc for him was practically nonexistent in the first Avengers movie, where he spent most of his screen time as a mindless automaton of Loki.
Anyway… on to Natasha.
Natasha Romanoff: More depth than you think, but not the kind you want
From the article:
If you want to deepen your female character past being a sexual object, in a movie that has no time or patience for anything resembling “depth,” what conflicts do you give her? Well, women have babies, right? Women want babies. Okay. She can’t have babies. She’s sad because she can’t have babies. There you go! Depth established!
I mean, it’s disgusting. Defining your female character’s motivation solely around the Betty Crocker axis of “wants boyfriend” and “wants babies” is 100% disgusting.
Okay, this bit right here is really the reason I felt compelled to write anything at all. I was tempted to reply with something like “the presumption that a desire to have a loving relationship and be a mother is worthy of scorn is 100% disgusting.” Except, I don’t really find it disgusting. Frustrating, yes. Exasperating, yes. Sad, even.
Let’s get this out in the open. I have some biases. Who doesn’t? I mean, really. I like to think that I’m in favor of equal opportunity for everyone, regardless of race, color, creed, gender, and the list goes on. Most of the time, I think I do pretty well. I’m sure I have some blind spots. However, one of the big gripes I have about “mainstream feminism” is that it really isn’t all about liberating women to be who they want to be. It’s about portraying women who live in a homogenous world where career is the highest achievement.
If a woman says she would rather eschew a career, and wants to be a “Betty Crocker” wife and mom, well, that’s bad. That’s disgusting. No, to be a heroine, she can’t want that. Loving someone, and having that person love you back in a committed relationship? That’s so 1950s. That’s so oppressive to women. No, a woman can’t want that. That’s so sexist.
Well, guess what… if that’s the narrative, then feminism is just as oppressive as what it rails against. If it really is about choices, options, and freedom to pursue what the heart really desires, then having a lasting relationship and being a mother should be just as valid as any of the rest of the options. It should not be disgusting. Ever.
There are two really big elements here that I want to touch on. One of them, I think, supports a core argument of feminism, which I agree with. The second one addresses the assertion that the portrayal of Bruce and, especially, Natasha lacked depth and ended up being vapid.
Feminism, Sexism, and Careers
I believe there is a sincere and profound feminist-friendly message in A:AoU, but it apparently wasn’t obvious enough.
Natasha is a “career woman.” She was brought up by her society, ever since she was a child, with the expectation that she would have a job, and that would pretty much be her whole life. Society said “this is our expectation for you. This is what you will be.” She was never given the choice to have a family. In fact, that choice was quite literally taken from her. Because of her career, she will never have a family. At least, not the way that her best friend Clint Barton does.
Clint, on the other hand, gets to have it all. He gets the cool job, and he gets the fulfilling family life. He is in a loving relationship with a supportive spouse and wonderful kids who are happy when he comes home. And, get this: his boss totally supports it. Nick Fury gave the okay for Clint to live a double life. No one else on the team knew about this arrangement. No one except “Aunt Natasha.”
Natasha is part of Clint’s life, and has been for a long time. They’re best friends from way back. She gets to “kind of” share in the family environment. She sees Clint’s joy in his family. She sees the love that Clint and Laura share.
Why can’t she have it all, too? Why can’t she have both a career and a family?
Well, she had to sacrifice it all for her career. Because by sacrificing it all, she’s “committed.” It makes things “easier.”
But we barely bat an eye when we find out about the “safe house.” It registers as little more than a “huh” by almost every other member of the team (and audience) who don’t really want that sort of thing, anyway. Except, of course, Steve Rogers. He would have liked to have that for himself, but he has to face the fact that that train probably left the station a long time ago, and there might not be another train coming. So, there was that sidebar, but let’s get back to Natasha and how it matters to us.
Why can’t Natasha have everything that Clint does?
This unanswered question, I believe, is what lies at the heart of feminism in its purest form. I think it’s both very deep and very relevant.
Natasha & Bruce: Still a better love story than Twilight
So, we’ve discussed the fact that Clint has it all, and Natasha doesn’t. But she recognizes that she wants what Clint has, and she tries to figure out a way to get it. Or, at least, as close as she can come to it this late in life, where she has already sacrificed so much, and some dreams will never be.
So, she looks around to see what her options are. You can run through that list of options on your own as a fun little exercise. In her world, the pickings are pretty slim. She decides that she likes Bruce. She understands Bruce. He has his demons, his parts of himself he is ashamed and afraid of. (Despite the time when he embraced who he is in the first Avengers. But then, that’s never a “one and done” event with any of us, is it?)
What’s more, Natasha can help Bruce. She has a way with him that helps to calm his rage. She brings out the best in him. Bruce needs her. We all need to feel needed. Bruce, without even realizing it, fulfills Natasha’s deep need to be useful in a way that doesn’t involve killing. He provides an opportunity for her to feel like more than a monster that uses sex as a tool and solves problems by killing them.
With Bruce, Natasha’s caring and nurturing side is what solves the problem and makes things better. With Bruce, she gets to be human. She likes that side of herself, and wants a reason to use it more. You can see in her face how much she loves to be around Clint’s family, especially his children. When she’s at the “safe house,” she doesn’t have to wear masks. She doesn’t have to pretend. With Bruce, she sees a chance to develop a part of life that has always been closed to her, but that she has had a taste of, and that she deeply, desperately wants. She wants it so bad that she opens herself up to Bruce, exposing her vulnerability.
It isn’t about “having a boyfriend.” It isn’t about “having babies.” It’s about finding someone that shares your deepest, darkest secrets, and loves you anyway. It’s about being appreciated and needed by another human being who you appreciate and need in return. It’s about taking that chance in the beginning, hoping that it will turn into something wonderful.
And what does Bruce do? He runs away.
Despite having come to terms with being the Hulk. Despite his moment of grandeur that cut short Loki’s attempt at a monologue, Bruce still has deep insecurities. He has some expectations about what it means to be a family, and he insists that he can’t give that to Natasha. She counters that she can’t have any of that anyway. She’s not looking for that. She just wants someone to love, and someone who will love her in return. Why not give it a try?
Because Bruce is unlovable. He’s so caught up in his own insecurities and his own self-doubts that he’s convinced that he can’t be loved, and so cannot love. He thinks he’s doing her a favor by running away, but that ends up hurting her more than anything else he could have done.
Because, to her, that means that she is unlovable, too.
This is real life. I have seen this same scenario play out over and over again with people I know. For some of my friends, this is a very real and relatable situation where they are Natasha. They want what she wants. They offer their heart to Bruce, and Bruce runs away, leaving them hurt and alone.
Depth? Yeah, there’s some of that there.
We’ll have to see how that arc develops. I hope it works out for the best, but then I’m a sucker for happy endings. Sometimes we don’t get our heart’s desire.
Punching is better than talking?
Okay, last item. From the article:
There’s an alternate interpretation for that Hulk-slams-Loki scene in the first Avengers. I try, very hard, to believe it’s not the correct one. Because it’s an evil message, which cynics will tell you is at the heart of every comic book movie. It is: Punching is better than talking.
It happens in a lot of big, commercial movies, right? There’s a guy who talks a lot, thinks, plans, tries to get somewhere by thinking. In the end, that guy is evil, because thinking is bad. He has to be subdued by the heroic brute: The guy who’s just “normal,” who’s more like you, more pure, because instead of thinking and analyzing, he just feels and does. Loki thinks he can get somewhere with a monologue, but surprise! Giant biceps trump clever monologue, every time.
This is worth a quick discussion, but I don’t think it’s worth obsessing over. I’ll touch on a few of the highlights that come to mind.
First, I think that this jumps to a broad, unfounded conclusion that ignores several key elements. I’ll use a couple of examples.
In the first Avengers, Loki (the poster child for talking) makes his presence known to the world with a huge display of force, then demands that everyone kneel before him, which they do out of fear. Except for one guy. All that one guy can do is refuse to kneel… and talk about why. At that point, Loki doesn’t try to persuade with more words. He goes directly to the use of force, and Captain America intervenes just in time. And then? A little more talking, then Loki resorts to force again. Then Iron Man shows up and, well, uses force because there isn’t much else to say at that point. But, that’s really more his style, anyway.
In A:AoU, Tony Stark does quite a bit of thinking. Sure, the result of that thinking causes some pretty serious problems, but the solution comes about by learning from the errors in that thinking and trying it again. The second time, it works so well that the result can wield Thor’s hammer, and plays a critical role in saving the day. (Not to mention that the solution to the projectile city problem required a bit of thinking and technical know-how… punctuated with some cool special effects and a bit of force in the physics sense of the word.)
I could go on about how there was quite a bit of thinking throughout the various comic book movies. Sure, there may be some exceptions, but there are plenty of examples where the hero doesn’t simply go straight to punching to solve problems. They had to piece things together, then craft a solution. (I can think of several examples in Winter Soldier.)
Really, though, I think the bigger message that such an accusation ignores is that all of these stories are a metaphor for life. Evil is the obstacle we face, whether it be internal or external. We are each the hero, and must overcome that obstacle. To overcome involves struggle. The greater the obstacle, the greater the struggle. The greater the struggle, the sweeter the victory.
Sure, we could have a superhero movie where the entire struggle is a war of words and ideas. But then that wouldn’t really be a superhero movie. It would be more like a political drama. With the Hulk/Loki encounter, you gave a great illustration of how a superhero metaphor can inspire greatness in each of us. The big screen provided a visual illustration of an emotional and intellectual struggle. Imagine trying to get the same message across using only words. Yeah, it could probably be done, but it just wouldn’t be the same, and there are some folks it definitely wouldn’t reach the same way.
Superhero movies, like the comics that inspired them, are meant to be larger-than-life metaphors for the struggles we each face. Even when those struggles are completely internal, the effort is very real. Sometimes it can feel like the opposition is overwhelming, and that the struggle will never end. Some days it can feel like we’ve fought off hordes of nameless, faceless opponents to win that personal victory. After all, not all of our demons have names.