The Sum of Their Parts

Warning: I’ve now seen “Avengers: Age Of Ultron” and will be referring to parts of the plot fairly freely in the post below. Also MCU is short hand for “Marvel Cinematic Universe” 

Avengers-Age-of-Ultron-Trailer-3-Team-In-AirOne of the overarching themes running rampant in Joss Whedon’s “Age of Ultron” (and, believe you me, there are many) is about teamwork, and whether it matters how a team is broken down. Fittingly, it’s a similar allegory for how Marvel churns out their films.

Sure, there’s the the criticism that all their blockbusters are homogenous, or that they’re just another cog in the Marvel-complex that demands that all box offices kneel before it. But that’s selling short the true vision of the entire operation, and frankly that’d be a dumbass thing to do.

Marvel is building a universe. An imperfect one, but an awe-inspiring one nonetheless. It’s got action, it’s got chapters, and—in my book—above all, it’s got heart.

Take Tony Stark. When we first met him in the gamble that was 2008’s “Iron Man” he was the man who would shirk responsibility with any chance he got. By the end, he had transformed his PTSD into some serious firepower. That could’ve been the end of the arc (and had “Iron Man” been a bomb it likely would’ve been) but as Devin Farci notes in a post for birth. movies. death., all the movies since then have traced and pulled on this arc in powerful new ways, culminating in the most recent release:

[In “Ultron] when the Scarlet Witch shows Tony a destroyed future, his PTSD kicks in again. It’s important to understand that while standard narratives would have a hero getting over his PTSD, in reality you never do – you just live with it, hopefully dealing with it but never leaving it behind. And that PTSD can return, can rear its ugly head and fuck you up all over again. And that’s what happens to Tony.

Tony’s post-script has now morphed into a new arc. The guy who didn’t give a shit in Iron Man now cannot stop giving a shit. His journey has taken him from shirking responsibility to accepting responsibility to, in Ultron, embracing ALL the responsibility. This is an incredible arc, a profound change of a character who still remains recognizable after all this time.

Writing off any “Iron Man” or “Avengers” flick as just another in the mega-wheel that is Marvel Studios right now as more of the same misses the larger picture—and the profoundly engaging character development that goes on in between (and during) all the fights. iron-man-jericho

And if you read Farci’s piece (which you should, because it’s fascinating; here’s the link again) the roots of everyone’s arcs in “Ultron” can be traced back through the MCU so far (and presumably foreshadow arcs in the next phases as well). Like the titular Avengers, Marvel has built a universe that triumphs in not only its breadth, but in its details as well. As a reader of the comics, it’s the best kind of fan service I can ask for. That they all work within and towards the same vision—building a cohesive MCU—warms my heart.

It’s also the same reason I’m so ambivalent on DC’s offerings. Ever the competitive comic industry, DC has now started building its own cinematic universe, but theirs is without any sort of vision. Thus far the sum of their parts hasn’t been all that promising. Their world so far has been most successful with Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, and that’s over.

Now they’re starting from scratch while at the same time running to stand still next to Marvel, and it’s got the overwhelming potential to be messy. As Mike Ryan notes for Uproxx, “The Avengers” was a culmination of the story thus far; “the orgasm after four years of foreplay.”

So far from DC’s universe we’ve seen “Man of Steel,” (which admittedly I didn’t care much for), and though it’s unclear how that piece fits into the larger whole, they’re already rushing to put out “Batman vs. Superman,” which will introduce four new characters, not to mention a new face for Batman. It’s messy sure, but if it were all working as part of a larger, coherent sum we could forgive a bit of messiness (I’m looking at you, “Iron Man 2”). But as Ryan notes, it’s not quite that simple:

But the problem is DC doesn’t have a Kevin Feige – a studio head that also has a deep personal knowledge of these characters. I’ve interviewed Feige four times over the last couple of years — the man knows his sh*t. That’s not a ruse, he’s legitimately a fan of these characters. He never speaks like someone coming from the business side of this operation, he talks to you like he’s got the best toy collection on the block and knows exactly how to display them. But the funny this is, DC legitimately has the best toy collection – they have access to every DC character, as opposed to Marvel, who doesn’t. The problem is, they just don’t know how to display or position that collection.

Marvel fan or not, you have to hand it to them for how they’ve built up an empire on solid foundation.

Whedon is a master at balancing while exploring the subtler dynamics of a team, and it’s thanks to his hand that “The Avengers” movies have been able to stand on the shoulders of all the films that came before them. It’s going to be a bit of juggling act to switch up directors now, but with any luck the Russo brothers are up to the challenge of taking Marvel’s vision and weaving it with those character arcs. Because so far all the puzzle pieces have fallen right into place, and they don’t look like that’s going to stop anytime soon.

Hell, they’ve even made “Ant Man” look promising.


The Unbearable Feminism of Whedon

To preface all of this, I haven’t seen “Avengers: Age of Ultron” yet. By circumstantial law I am bound to see it either with my best friend or for Mother’s Day, and neither of those things have happened yet.

I have, however, managed to follow along with the controversy. Particularly once Joss Whedon left Twitter. Because although he left his reasons initially secret, the ensuing madness made clear that Whedon was just the latest victim in the radical feminist’s war against everybody. (He’s since come out and said that is “horseshit” and that everyone should move on; I’m looking at you Oswalt) Joss Whedon

Despite being a card-carrying, self-identified feminist, Whedon frequently faces blowback over his works because people find them so anti-woman sometimes. They’re not wrong either. Whedon’s track record of writing complex and strong women is equally rife with narratives that abuse and punish those same women. His brand of feminism is often stalled, somewhere in the 90s girl power/white feminism movement, leaving all else as sort of collateral.

But the thing I’d argue could never be said about Whedon is that he is simple. His narratives are always complicated, involved, and in my experience largely two-sided. In that latter part I am specifically referring to (what I have inferred about) the debate around Black Widow’s role in “Age of Ultron.” To simplify her to merely a love-interest (and later experiences with fertility) robs the arc of quiet revolution it achieves just by flipping the narrative between Natasha and Bruce.

8438f1df93ca7ee304d23fb44b2f57d7ab7f1a1fJoss Whedon isn’t perfect, and nor is his body of work. It deserves to be discussed in-depth, and analyzed from a perspective of social justice because everything does. But it’s important to me to remember that Whedon is both more and less self-aware than people give him credit for. He’s a straight, white, cis, privileged male who won’t get it right necessarily because he doesn’t know better (that’s what privilege is). But on the other, he strikes me as a guy who’s trying.

“For someone like Anita Sarkeesian to stay on Twitter and fight back the trolls is a huge statement,” he said. “It’s a statement of strength and empowerment and perseverance, and it’s to be lauded. For somebody like me to argue with a bunch of people who wanted Clint and Natasha to get together [in the second Avengers film], not so much. For someone like me even to argue about feminism — it’s not a huge win. Because ultimately I’m just a rich, straight, white guy. You don’t really change people’s minds through a tweet. You change it through your actions. The action of Anita being there and going through that and getting through that and women like her — that says a lot.” –part of Whedon’s statement on why he left

But then, we’ll find out when I finally get to see “Age of Ultron.”