An Impassioned Defense of Avengers: Age of Ultron

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To enjoy Avengers: Age of Ultron is to be in the minority, and sometimes to be outright attacked. I have loved and supported this film since I saw it as a newly minted Avengers fan in May of 2015. It was instantly my favorite Marvel film and it has remained that way 12 films later. I have engaged in many a heated debate defending this film. It has taken up an embarrassing amount of space in my brain for the past 4 years. All of these points have been thoughtfully ruminated upon, refined by the fire of argument, and cooled by the passing of time.  

For context, Age of Ultron, the sequel to 2012’s Avengers, at the time of its release, was given a mixed-to-positive reaction by critics, getting a 75% Rotten Tomatoes score. Critics primarily praised director and screenwriter Joss Wheaton for his writing and James Spader’s voicework. In 2015, superhero-fatigue hadn’t completely set in yet, so many of the reviews of the film can be boiled down to, “It’s exactly what you think it is and it does it pretty well!” 

The film made $191,271,109 in its opening weekend and quickly passed one billion by its third weekend. It overall made $1.4 billion worldwide (almost $460 million domestic) and now sits as the 10th highest-grossing film of all time. But, by all accounts, Disney still thinks of the film as, at best, an underperformer, and at worst, an outright failure. 

Why? For one, it didn’t make as much money as the first Avengers film, which sits as the 8th highest-grossing film of all time. AOU wasn’t as universally acclaimed as that film either. It also had a rocky press tour, which included Joss Whedon going around in interviews talking about how making the film nearly “broke” him and blasting Marvel for making him add things to the film to set up future movies. And lastly, the film has a complicated relationship with fans. 

The fans/fandom reaction was mixed to negative. There was the kind of stuff that accompanies each franchise property, like shipping wars (I wanted Black Widow to get together with Hawkeye but Joss Whedon made them just friends!) and anger over deviations from the comics. Then there was, in the internet intersection of academia and social justice, a lot of discussion over Joss Whedon’s brand of feminism and the treatment of Black Widow in the film, which many were displeased at, to put it lightly. (I know. I was on Tumblr. I was there. I still have scars.)

We’ll get to all of that. At best, the movie has gotten a *slight* positive turn by fans who, now with the context of history, have realized AOU is the closest we ever got to a superhero hangout movie. Mostly though, as time goes on, AOU has been mostly forgotten or considered a blight at best. 

If you haven’t seen the film lately, I’d suggest doing a quick recap on the plot. Read it? Is your memory jogged? Okay, great! Before I argue that AOU is actually one of the most interesting Marvel films (and maybe even persuade you that it is the best), it’s always worth noting that movie-going is subjective, and I try to disclose any major biases I have, so here it goes:

  1. My favorite Marvel characters are, in this order: Bruce Banner/Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) These are the characters that the film focuses on, so of course there’s bias that my favorite characters get the most to do. 
  2. This is a loose adaptation. In this discussion, critiques about comic book accuracy such as “Wanda and Pietro are mutants and their dad is Magneto! Ultron was created by Hank Pym, not Tony and Bruce!” do not matter. In the words of Black Panther:     

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Now that we have that out of the way, I’m going to start breaking down major criticism of the movie and my refutation, and then move on to things about AOU that are often overlooked that I see as critical to seeing this film as, dare I say, a masterpiece.  
I am willing to die on this hill. Let’s begin. 

Criticism of AOU That Are Legitimate

“The plot is overstuffed and too much of it is just set up for future films. It’s confusing and ruins the movie’s pacing!” Yeah. The growing pains of the MCU’s expanding cinematic universe are certainly here, and this is an example of foreshadowing and franchise synergy bogging down a movie. Marvel has gotten better at this, but I think at the expense of their films becoming more and more similar. Because AOU has such a unique style and a more singular, standalone vision, all of the setup for future movies feels extra jarring and out-of-place. 

“There are sexist jokes.” There are, and it fricking sucks. The prima nocta “joke” and gag of Bruce falling into Natasha’s chest are gross and, yes, I hate it. I have no interest in defending Joss Whedon as a person or as a feminist figure. I want to give him credit where it’s due, but also call him out when that is due, and these “jokes” were in poor taste, unfunny, and overall not-in-character for the film. 

“Why is it called ‘age’ of Ultron when the whole movies takes place over what seems to be just a week or two? Cause it sounds super epic. But you’re right. 

Criticism of AOU That Are Bad

“Ultron is a lame villain.” We’re going to get to that, but put simply: no. Is he as cool as Killmonger? No. Is he as powerful as Thanos? No. Is he as charismatic as Loki? Debatable, but no. But you know what he is, in a way that none of the other Marvel villains (except Killmonger) are? He’s a precise foil to our main characters and is devastatingly effective in showing our heroes’ flaws. He fits into the philosophical framework of the film beautifully, and James Spader is inspired casting.

“Natasha gets kidnapped! And it’s only because she’s the The One Girl™. She has a moment of weakness, therefore this film is ‘unfeminist.’” Natasha being the only lady Avenger is a problem, but this is a criticism towards the MCU at large and not this particular movie. This trope of a woman being kidnapped is generally considered a problem for two reasons. One, it’s frequent, and two, the female character in question does nothing else in the story except to be kidnapped and therefore be motivation for the (male) hero. But neither of these things are true in AOU. Natasha has never previously been kidnapped, and in no other way is she a weak hero. Secondly, and most importantly, she is far from a passive character in this film. Getting kidnapped is not her only purpose or plot point. In fact, this kidnapping scene (which stems from Natasha being a part of a huge and important action sequence) is used to highlight Natasha’s strengths, not that of her fellow Avengers. While imprisoned, she resourcefully reveals Ultron’s location to the team to further the plot. Getting kidnapped doesn’t make characters inherently weak or passive. Context is everything, and here the context makes this more an inversion of the trope than the trope itself. 

And, speaking of Natasha, possibly the biggest criticism of all: “The Hulk/Bruce-Black Widow/Natasha romance came out of nowhere!!! Now Natasha is defined by a man!!!! I don’t know how to think critically!”

We’re gonna come back to this more in-depth later, but I’ll just say here that both of these critiques are shallow and the latter is often made with a misguided understanding of feminist media criticism. 

First off, Natasha isn’t defined by a man, for the exact same reasons I said her being kidnapped is not problematic: because it’s A) not a pattern and B) a subversion of a trope. Romance is not the problem, in and of itself. Being in a relationship is not what makes a character have a sexist portrayal. If that were the case, every other Avenger should be called out because they are in romantic relationships.

The reason the role of women and romantic relationships in media is so heavily scrutinized is because women’s roles and agency in stories are often only contained within a romantic relationship, sending the message that women need to be in a romantic relationship to have value. But this should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, and not an overarching generalization that all women in relationships in movies are bad. If you look at the roles Bruce and Nat inhabit in the film and in their relationship, Bruce embodies the classic romantic interest type much more than Natasha does. Natasha is more proactive, pursues without taking no for an answer, has a dramatic confession of love, and is ultimately the more heroic character. Meanwhile Bruce, in the words of our modern poets, One Direction, doesn’t know he’s beautiful! Natasha spends much of the movie telling him such:

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He’s adorably clumsy! He has Black Widow guard him in the first Ultron fight. His power set is, like many classic female superheroes, dictated by his emotions. He doesn’t like violence and wants the two of them to leave the superhero business. In every movie he’s in we just happen to see him shirtless or naked! If we’re gonna be worried about anyone being the passive, defined-by-their-romantic-relationship character, it should be Bruce. But we don’t worry about him, because he has other things going on in this movie and other parts to his identity and character, just like Natasha. We don’t put the crushing weight of thousands of contradicting expectations on him so he can positively represent all men. 

Secondly, there are a ton of things in AOU that are inferred to have happened between movies. The movie clearly establishes how the team has grown closer and who has become besties with who. A romance isn’t all that hard to imagine happening between two attractive, shy, similarly traumatized characters with complementary skill sets who have a mutual admiration for the other’s deeper, more peaceful self. 

But, critically, the promising seeds of this relationship are sown in the first movie. Watch it again. Pay attention. Nat and Bruce have more screen-time together than with any other characters, from Nat recruiting Bruce in Calcutta, to him Hulking out, to Nat and Bruce’s various confrontations and conversations throughout, to him asking for her forgiveness at the end. As a duo they had a dramatic joint-character arc that is reflective of the emotional arc the entire team goes through: they had to learn to trust each other. 

Their relationship embodying the beats of the entire team’s experience continues in this film. This is made very clear a few minutes into the film when they have an exchange where Bruce expresses fear about Hulk’s involvement in their recent battle. When Natasha tries to reassure him of Hulk’s usefulness, he’s doubtful. Then Natasha says:

Natasha: How long before you trust me?

Bruce: It’s not you I don’t trust.

BOOM. That’s the entire team’s problem. They can’t trust themselves, so they can’t truly trust and rely on each other. Bruce and Natasha’s trust issues stem from fear they have about themselves. Bruce, that in the end he’s just a green mean killing machine; Nat, that she’ll never move past being the monstrous assassin she once was. In other words, neither of them can shake their “programming,” which of course sounds a bit like the problem of our titular murderous robot.  Every one of the Avengers has this problem and it is ultimately everyone’s downfall. Thus the film operates on two levels. The micro-level is this intimate romance between two characters, which mirrors the macro level, which is a conversation of whether:

  1. A) The Avengers will and can last (and are even good for the world), and  
  2. B) If the individual members will ever be able to find personal satisfaction, whether by superhero-ing or not. 

By the end of the film, it’s clear that Bruce and Nat’s insecurities and trauma keep them apart (for now), and so too does it keep the Avengers from ever completely self-actualizing as a group. While Bruce and Nat are able to save the day at the end, they’ve given up on the relationship. Meanwhile, the team itself is splintered, also having, in a way, given up. Bruce and Thor go into self-appointed exile while the others try to pick up the pieces, knowing things will never be the same. 

To the idea that these heroes can ever escape the self-destructive path of superhero-ing, the film ultimately gives a sad ‘no’, displaying a rather cynical view that saving other people is a job only for those who can’t save themselves. So when you consider the Hulk/Black Widow relationship, not just as a B-storyline, but as a shadow, a more intimate, smaller picture of the overall drama happening, the beats begin to make more sense. 

The Thesis of AOU

So the main question of AOU is this: Can superheroes (the Avengers) live normal lives? 

I talk in my Endgame review about how the MCU equates a normal life, aka “making it,” with a biological family and domestic bliss. The Marvel movies operate on the assumption that  “having a biological family is a sign of a character succeeding, being relatable, and having a greater purpose. It’s presented as an ideal life.” And while I love biological families, having one should never be an idol, in any case, and especially not in a series that is the definition of a “found family” trope. AOU is the only Marvel film to really wrestle at all with this assumption, while also reinforcing it. 

Throughout AOU, the language of the film makes it clear that this is a movie about family. What makes it, what destroys it, and what it looks like. Almost everything in the film is codified using the language of family. From Nick Fury calling the avengers “kids,” to Helen Cho’s machine that creates Vision literally being called  “The Cradle,” to Nat’s ritual with the Hulk being called a “lullaby.” The child metaphor is not subtle. 

I’ve already said that the film ends up having the view that these heroes, by nature of themselves and their jobs, can’t ever have this domestic bliss. To come to that conclusion, the film breaks down each of the Avenger’s possibility of getting biological family and domesticity. So let’s take a look. 

Thor

Age of Ultron is decidedly not Thor’s movie. As a consequence, this theme is the weakest with him. However, there are some things to take away. 

Thor’s family are his people, the Asgardians. He feels a responsibility to them, but as the vision, Wanda gives him shows, his deepest fear is that he’ll destroy them. In the vision, Hemindall (a wasted Idris Elba) says to Thor, “You’re a destroyer, Odinson. See where your power leads you.” Then we see Thor killing people in the vision. Even during the scene when the team is at Clint’s house, Thor steps on a Lego house, crushing it. Thor is a threat to the home. This is setting up an arc where Thor has to overcome his fear that he will destroy his own people. 

This never goes anywhere because Taika Waititi and the Russo Brothers drop this character arc completely, making it so that Thor is never a threat to his own people. But this isn’t Whedon’s fault. Thor’s journey changes from “How can I be a leader if I have the potential to kill my people, my family” to “All the things I have set my identity on have been taken away. Who am I now?” But while Whedon’s arc for Thor is never completed, it demonstrates how Thor will never get a domestic ending, and by extension, will never get to quit being a superhero. 

Steve 

Steve is haunted by the war and can’t leave it behind, which may explain why he would rather start a civil war then talk reasonably (come @ me Team Cap). In Steve’s dream, he’s walking through a WWII victory party. But, among the festivities, the war is mixed in. A camera flashes and it sounds like explosions. A spilled cup of red wine looks like a bullet wound. Ultron says that Steve can’t live without a war. Even in his happiest moments, he can’t separate himself from the war, and this follows him until his resolution in Endgame, which is why he and Nat are the only Avengers who really stay and lead the team. They won’t abandon the fight. It’s all they know. 

 Peggy appears in the vision, telling Steve, “We can go home.” But, clearly, Steve can’t. This picture of domestic bliss in front of him is barred, like it is for all of the other characters. It’s still an idol, but one they will never get. But, because the Russos didn’t watch this movie he actually does get this ending, so… whatevs. 

Clint

Clint’s storyline is strange here, and the most complicated in terms of this theme. He acts as a foil to the rest of the Avengers because he’s the only one who actually achieves the domestic dream (until Endgame). 

He is only able to achieve this dream by 1) hiding his family away, and 2) being the least effective, interesting, or necessary member of the team. Clint and his family’s role as a foil is showcased in the safehouse sequence in the middle of the film. After the team gets a beating from Ultron and the twins, they go to Clint’s house to hide out and regroup. This is where we get Bruce and Natasha’s dialogue about kids, and some other nice character moments. But this whole sequence, and Clint’s family in particular, has a dark edge to it that adds to the film’s view on family and all it represents by being denied to the other Avengers. 

The small detail I previously mentioned of Thor stepping on the Lego house sends the message that these heroes are a threat to the home, and that’s almost immediately when the Avengers arrive. 

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Bruce and Nat’s conversation shows their ideological split, one they won’t be able to mend in the course of the film. Clint’s wife, Laura (Linda Cardellini), talks about Clint making it back home from the fight (which in movie-language is supposed to make you fear for Clint’s life). Tony and Steve have an argument that helps set up Civil War.  Thor leaves, and this is the last time the whole team is ever all together again (except briefly during the final battle) until literally Endgame. And in Endgame Clint loses his family. All of this shows that for the Avengers, even if they get to achieve this domestic bliss, their identity as superheroes will always be threatening the family and any illusion of stability. 

Natasha

We’ll talk more about this later, but in the safehouse scene, we learn that both Nat and Bruce are infertile. They cannot have biological children. It’s also heavily implied they also both feel like they would be a threat to their own children. The movie clearly disproves this view, but the characters never get over this view of themselves. If Bruce and Nat are our micro-look at the rest of the Avengers, then the message is crystal clear: the Avengers will never be able to have children. Therefore, they won’t ever get a happy ending, because in Marvel, children and biological family = happiness and peace. (Then the Russos go and ruin that theme with Endgame. It’s fine that they didn’t watch this film. It’s fine. It’s fine. It’s fine. it’s. fine.)

The movie posits that Bruce and Nat’s only option for happiness together is to run away from their superhero responsibilities. But Nat can’t do that. She shows, time and time again, that she prioritizes the mission over everything, including her own happiness. Throughout all of these films, Natasha is the only one who sees the Avengers as a family (because she understands that this is a found-family storyline, dammit!). She’s the one who tries to unite the team in Civil War and keeps it going in Endgame. She sees herself solely as an Avenger and is the quickest out of all the teammates to stop pursuing any other end for herself. 

When Bruce later frees her from Ultron and suggests that this is their chance to finally run away, she says “The job’s not finished.” It’s her way of punishing herself, trying to get the red out of her ledger. Bruce then tells her, “You’ve done plenty.” He is the first person to ever say she is enough. She’s done enough. She can stop punishing herself. The tragedy is that she can’t believe him, and turns down the opportunity to “run with it,” and instead goes back to work. That was how she was programmed: Never abandon the mission. 

Tony (and Why Ultron is a Good Villain, Actually)

I said in my Endgame review that making Tony have a daughter, Morgan, is a poor choice because it undermines Tony’s arc. Tony’s arc has been about him feeling responsible for saving the world because he understands how much his mistakes have put it in danger. He didn’t need a child to make the fight personal and raise the stakes- it’s always been personal and the stakes have always been raised, which we particularly see in AOU. 

Yes, part of Tony’s arc has been trying to become a better father than his father was. But this isn’t happening through Morgan Stark, who, while she is his actual offspring, is not nearly the same foil to him as his first child-figure, which is Peter Parker. But even before we got Morgan or Peter, we got Ultron. Tony creates Ultron because after his vision from Wanda, he decides his Iron Legion fleet could be used to create “a suit of armor around the world.” Loki’s scepter finally gives Tony the power he needs to make this vision a reality with Ultron. 

After he and Bruce create Ultron, Ultron appears “in the flesh” at the Avengers’ dinner party, quite literally interrupting the most intimate, family-like setting we’ll ever see them in again for the rest of the MCU. This “birth” is chaotic, unplanned, and changes everything, and sets the stage for why the Avengers will never get families of their own. 

The movie consistently uses the language of father and son to express Tony (and Bruce) and Ultron’s relationship. During one of their first confrontations, Tony and Ultron have this exchange:

Ultron: Don’t compare me to Stark. He’s… a sickness!

Tony: Ah, Junior. You’re gonna break your old man’s heart.

Ultron: If I have to.

Later, Wanda tells Steve, “Ultron can’t tell the difference between saving the world and destroying it. Where do you think he gets that?” and in context she’s obviously talking about Tony. And maybe most explicitly:

Wanda to Ultron: I saw Stark’s fear. I knew it would make him self destruct.

Ultron: Everyone creates the thing they dread. People create… smaller people? Children! I lost the word there. Designed to supplant them, to help them end.

This is literally what happened with Tony. He tried to grasp onto the domestic dream, hoping it would help not only him achieve peace, but the world. And it turned against him, and ended his chance at ever being free from the burden of being a hero (until Endgame). He created Ultron, the thing he would come to dread. 

Bruce

Bruce’s arc here is less clear, as Bruce is more coerced by Tony into creating Ultron and Jarvis and therefore the film gives him much less responsibility in the matter. Despite this, there are fascinating implications of Bruce becoming, like Tony, a father of these two AIs. The best way is to see them is in a callback to a small moment in the first Avengers film.

In the scene where Bruce and Nat first meet, he touches a baby cradle (splattered with green) and says “I don’t every time get what I want.”

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Along with the looks of longing Bruce has as he watches Natasha interact with Clint’s kids, it’s clear that he had wanted children. So isn’t it just a bitter and yet darkly hilarious turn of fate that Bruce is then the “father” of both Ultron- a literal supervillain that reflects Bruce’s worst fears about himself, but ALSO Vision, the scientific, heroic Messianic figure who is worthy enough to wield Mjolnir? Bruce, a man of dual natures, creates two equally dualling forces. That’s-

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In this, we get a little pushback on the theme of the Avengers not being able to have children. Bruce’s arc here suggests that, sure, they might mess them up and be bad parents, but perhaps not. Perhaps children can truly save the family tree. But sadly, we’ll never know for these characters. 

Age of Ultron uses a complex metaphorical framework, in both its language and visuals, to explore ideas about family. It comes to the conclusion that family, both in a biological sense and in a team-sense, is impossible for these heroes. This conclusion questions many of the traditional worldviews and themes of comic book stories, making Whedon’s film more subversive then it may initially appear. 

However, like any good piece of art, there are multiple themes and interpretations within this one film. So let’s take a look at a few more things Age of Ultron has to say.  

The Gospel According to Ultron

Steve tells the team in the pre-final battle speech: “Ultron thinks we’re monsters. That we’re what’s wrong with the world. This isn’t just about beating him. It’s about whether he’s right.” The movie, by showing us the monstrosity of its heroes throughout and denying them a chance of redemption through a happy family ending, seems to fall, in part, on the side of Ultron. Our heroes are what’s wrong with the world, but they’re also the best we have, because there are no other saviors. And speaking of there being no other saviors:

Age of Ultron is an atheistic movie. It sure doesn’t appear that way at first. Even a non-religious viewer will probably notice the references to biblical scripture, the religious imagery, and Vision, the messianic Christ figure who is born of men to save them from their own sins, literally calling himself, “I am.” But context matters, and in AOU, only the villain believes in a God. 

Ultron, despite being only days old, is more biblically literate than some of the most seasoned Christians. Throughout the film he quotes Scripture. For example, when he finds the vibranium metal he quotes Matthew 16:18, saying, “Upon this rock [vibranium] I will build my church.” When he tells Wanda and Pietro of his plan to turn Sokovia into a meteor to destroy the world, much to the twin’s dismay, he offers the comfort that, “The human race will have every opportunity to evolve.” When Pietro asks if they don’t, Ultron responds, “Ask Noah,” directly tying his plan to destroy the world into God’s in the Biblical story of Noah and the flood in Genesis. Ultron furthers his point by saying, “Whenever the earth starts to settle, God throws a stone at it. Believe me, he’s winding up,” and the stone is obviously Sokovia/meteor, which makes Ultron into God.

Ultron took in the entire internet at the beginning of the movie, but out of all the religions he could choose from, he chooses Christianity. He’s not quoting the Qur’an. He speaks beyond the language of metaphor. He speaks with complete assurance that there is a God. Yet it’s clear that Ultron is less interested in knowing God then actually being God. He is using religious imagery and stories to justify himself, the way many people abuse Christianity to justify themselves and various atrocities.

When Ultron first recruits the twins, he meets them in a church in Sokovia, where he sits on what looks to be a throne. Then, in the climax of the film, we find out that Ultron has made his fortress/hideout in that church in Sokovia. That is where he has implanted the device that will destroy the whole world. The final fight then takes place primarily inside the church as the Avengers work to stop the device. 

In other words, the Avengers literally have to destroy the church to bring peace. 

I think Joss Whedon might have some issues with organized religion. 

Whedon is a self-proclaimed atheist and humanist, and his worldview pulses through this film with every scene. Ultron is not just a manic A.I. or the spurned child of Tony Stark. He’s a religious extremist, who uses religion as a coat for his own desire to play God, and misuses Scripture to justify his actions. Meanwhile, the heroes are the ones who believe there is no God and take it into their own hands to make the earth better. Religious people are the delusional ones who, if not using religion to suppress others, use it as an excuse for their apathy, while the atheists/agnostics are realists who will actually make the world a better place.

Vision, Ultron’s foil, then is the perfect expression of Whedon’s alternative to religion, which is humanism. This may seem strange; consider what I said before about Vision being a messianic figure who refers to himself with God’s title of “I am,” but these lines of dialogue between Ultron and Vision at the very end summarize the film’s thesis on humanity:

Vision: Humans are odd. They think order and chaos are somehow opposites, and try to control what won’t. But there is grace in their failings. I think you missed that.

Ultron: They’re doomed.

Vision: Yes, but a thing isn’t beautiful because it lasts. It’s a privilege to be among them.

In the end, Vision does not save humankind. He helps save the day, and he reflects the best of the Avengers, but crucially, he is made by them. Pluggedin reviewer Paul Asay writes in his article over the topic that Tony is dutifully punished for creating Ultron, a false idol and god. If the movie had stopped at this, then there would have been a very biblical theme of not “messing in the divine act of life-creation.” But then he goes and makes Vision, who “is, in a way, a New Testament savior pitted against a wrathful, Old Testament-like god—an intercessor to stave off Ultron’s ultra-doom.” No longer do we have a man (Tony) who causes harm when he tries to create a god, but we have a man actually succeeding in creating a god, and now the theme is about humans overcoming through science and technology, which again is a triumph of Whedon’s ideology. 

This is part of what makes AOU stand apart from other Marvel movies. While I don’t agree with Whedon in this area, I love AOU’s philosophical quandaries that I don’t believe any other Marvel movie, besides Black Panther, has truly had. DC movies, particularly Batman vs Superman, have had some similar religious tones in their scripts, but there were no coherent ideas presented there. 

“You’re Not the Only Monster On the Team” – or, Why Ya’ll Need to Pay Attention to SUBTEXT

This is it. This is the moment we’ve all been eagerly anticipating. We’re gonna think critically about that dang safehouse scene, the scene that gave us a hundred bad hot takes and made people say, “Joss Whedon thinks women who can’t give birth are monsters!” Guys, 

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The safehouse scene should only be watched out of context in Mark Ruffalo or Scarlett Johansson’s Oscar reel. That’s it. Otherwise, it has to be taken in context, because it’s crucial to understanding what’s happening. Remember: These are the characters at their worse. They have just been mind-controlled by Wanda and shown their worst nightmares about themselves. The entire team has been thoroughly beaten, and they are questioning everything. Everything the characters say should be taken with a grain of salt. 

We can infer between the movies that Nat, like Bruce, has come to see the Avengers as her family (she expresses this explicitly in Endgame). Revisiting her past, seeing the violent killing machine she was made into, shakes her entire trust in her ability to ever fit into the Avengers and be a hero. She tells Bruce in this scene: “I had a dream. The kind that seems real… that I was an Avenger.” 

Bruce only brings up the topic of children because he just saw Natasha interacting positively with Clint’s children. It’s not that he assumes she wants to be a mother because she’s a woman. He is caring about her needs and what he perceives to be her desires, so- and this is incredibly important- he brings up his infertility first. I can’t remember ever seeing a movie, much less a blockbuster, that treats a man’s inability to have children seriously and sees it as a tragedy, which is very much what the scene is about. We’re not supposed to just be sad for Natasha, we’re also supposed to be sad for Bruce. For both of them, because within the metaphorical framework of the film biological family means healing, and they literally can’t have it! He is being vulnerable, which gives her the space to be vulnerable. That’s a connection! That’s a relationship! That’s maturing and growing past their disgust with themselves and their inability to get over the past! That’s-

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I do think the placement of “you think you’re the only monster on the team” is ill-placed as it directly follows up Natasha’s reveal, and if it had been put maybe after another a line or two it could have avoided any ambiguity. But if you are watching the events as the film has presented them to you as- a moment where both characters are at their worst and are still operating out of deep-seeded self-destruction- then it makes complete sense!

Natasha is saying the Red Room made her into an assassin. Part of that process was being sterilized against her will, but that’s not what made her a monster. It was that she embraced and thrived in the role, and her vision suggests that she killed a lot of people to gain the favor of her instructors and become the top Black Widow. That’s why she is a monster. It’s because of the red in her ledger. 

Even in the least-charitable interpretation of the scene, if she was saying she’s a monster because she’s sterile, then remember that’s the exact same thing Bruce is doing. And also, if she did believe her infertility meant she was a monster or less of a woman, that is, unfortunately, a very real reflection on women who have been sexually assaulted and may take on blame or think it is their fault. I don’t think that’s what the scene is saying, but it could be read that way. Either way, both Bruce and Natasha believe they are monsters, and can’t come to forgive themselves. That’s why Bruce/Hulk leaves at the end of AOU and why Natasha sacrifices herself in Endgame. They are clearing the red in the ledger the only way they know how.

When Nat pushes Bruce off the cliff, she takes away his bodily autonomy, forcing him to become the Hulk and encouraging him to “go be a hero,” stating her faith that Hulk, like her, will find purpose in finishing the mission. But that shows a misunderstanding between the characters of the other’s core motivations. This could have been a great thing to explore and work through in future movies, but instead, they drop the whole romance subplot altogether because Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely are c o w a r d s.

In Conclusion

If you liked almost any other Marvel movie that came out after AOU, then you can thank AOU. Despite its mixed reputation and lower profile, it sets up more of the MCU then I think either Whedon or Marvel realized. 

There are so many other good reasons that this movie is the best besides all the ones I have laid out in excruciating detail. The quips! The great group chemistry! The action sequences are some of the more memorable for Marvel. It has one of the better scores that makes use of the international locales of the film. There are references for the comic book nerds (Helen and Amadeus Cho!!!!). Steve rips a log in half with his bare hands! This is when the Avengers still had distinct personalities and their senses of humor were different!

You don’t have to love Avengers: Age of Ultron now. But I do hope you reconsider it, and respect it. 

(And respect me. I’ve finally rested my case to the haters).

-Madeleine D. 

P.S,

It may be hard to believe, but there is a lot left on the cutting room floor of this essay. So wanna discuss AOU’s commentary on colonialism and America as the world’s policeman? Want to talk about how absolutely fantastic Downey and Ruffalo’s acting here is and the fascinating relationship evolution that takes place between Tony and Bruce? Want to know more about why I regularly cry during the Hulkbuster fight in Johannesburg? I also have a theory that what Bruce is listening to in the beginning,  “Casta Diva,” from the opera Norma, actually foreshadows the rest of his and Nat’s relationship in the movie! Want to get together and just rag on Jeremy Renner and Hawkeye? Let’s do it!

An Editorial Note:

This essay was finished before the first trailer for the upcoming solo Black Widow film was released. This trailer focuses on Natasha’s family (or does it???? It is about spies). I did not rewrite the essay to fit with the possibility of this because for one, we haven’t seen the film yet and don’t know to what extent biological family for Nat is examined, and two, it doesn’t change AOU and the arc Whedon gives Nat in it. I will be interested to see how this film handles the issue of birth family vs. found family, and if that will change how Natasha views herself and her role as a hero. I’m hoping the new film will not change the core components of Nat’s character that I’ve outlined here, but instead will simply be a further progression of her already complex character. 

We Live in a Society: Joker

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*Spoilers below

Why is Joker so divisive?

The new origin movie about Batman’s greatest villain has been the center of numerous controversies, and most occurring before the film was even released. 

I think more than anything, Joker and several other recent flicks (Captain Marvel, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Green Book, to name a few) prove that movies are still relevant in our culture because they are avenues for people to talk about deeper issues. Movies are mirrors, and people see different things in them. Joker sure seemed to want to be taken seriously as it marketed itself as a gritty, realistic, and edgy film.  

To help explain the wildly different reactions I’ve seen from people about Joker, I’ve come up with three main ways people are interpreting the film. These are generalizations, sure, but overall I think whichever interpretation you have of Joker will predict your reaction to it, and these may help you understand why someone else can see the exact same film and feel completely different than you. 

1. The world sucks. I hate my parents. The Man is out to get you. Life is suffering and pain. We need to take to the streets or something and get rid of all authority so we can all live free. People don’t care about you. Knock know, who’s there? Boom! Gunshot! You’re dead. 

Joker plays like the graffitied poetry under the desk of a 13-year-old edgelord who has become aware enough of the world to know there is suffering but is not mature enough to know how to engage with it or others. The film is self-absorbed and pretentious, wanting to be serious but ending up hollow and derivative. It’s dark but not deep. Director Todd Phillips and star Joaquin Phoenix have stated disdain for comic book movies, but what they have made is completely dependent on comic book movies, both for artistic precedent and the film’s box office. It is not as shocking or interesting as many of its peers. Some people have feared that Joker would provide rationale for violence, but the film is so half-baked that I don’t think that is much of a concern. We shouldn’t be giving Joker this much attention- it is embarrassingly shameless in its desire to provoke without actually questioning or confronting anything.  

The film shouldn’t even exist on principle. Joker is a character whose menace comes from not having a clear background or motivation. By rationalizing everything about him through an origin story, this core component of the character is destroyed. Also, this is the third feature-film adaptation of the Joker we’ve had in ten years, and yet it’s still in question if women or people of color can get their own movies. It’s exhausting that we can’t share the spotlight with other characters and properties. 

 

2. Joker is a much-needed wake-up call about our country’s mental health crisis and the marginalized in our society. We need to take care of our unseen citizens and be kinder to everyone we meet, or we can only be held responsible when things devolve. 

Todd Phillips uses comic book tropes and the genre’s current popularity to tell a story many people wouldn’t otherwise see or care about. Despite working within the studio system, this film really does speak truth to power. 

The film is set in the 1980s, but it’s extremely relevant to today. With the likes of President Trump, Jeff Bezos, and Elon Musk, the top 1% have too much power and influence our day to day lives, and it’s clear they don’t care about us. This goes for everyone from billionaires like Thomas Wayne to the talk show hosts who make fun of regular people who accidentally become viral sensations, usually for humiliating purposes. 

Joker shines a light on how mental health resources are being taken from people, how social services are underfunded, and the current trash problem in New York Ci- I mean Gotham. The human condition is explored unflinchingly, and by the end of it, it’s easy to see how this world could make anyone go mad, especially someone who is as vulnerable as Arthur/Joker. 

The plotline about Arthur maybe being Thomas Wayne’s son and therefore Bruce/Batman’s half-brother adds so much to their dynamic and cements this idea of them being two sides of the same coin. The only difference between them is their environment. Bruce grew up wealthy and privileged. Arthur didn’t, and like he points out in the film, that’s the reason that if he was lying dead in the streets, people would just step over him. It’s only when you’re wealthy and powerful do people care. 

The soundtrack slaps, Joaquin Phoenix is truly phenomenal here, and it’s exciting to see the DCEU (DC Extended Universe) continue to make films with an emphasis on auteur directors and their visions. Joker delivers on all fronts and will surely bring new blood into the superhero- or should I say supervillain?- genre. 

 

3. The most troubling thing about Joker is that it makes its titular character out to be the hero of the 99%, which, dear viewer, is you. In the eyes of the film you are either someone who has been screwed by the system and is righteously angry against it, or you are someone who is so led by pure aggression and hatred that you commit acts of violence and find a clown-faced murderer to be the symbol of your cause. 

The final protest scene in Joker, which is directly instigated by Arthur’s actions,  borrows imagery from various real-world protests, from the current ones in Hong Kong to the Black Lives Matter movement. In fact, the scene where Joker is laid on the police car reminded me of Starr’s climactic speech on top of a car in last year’s criminally underrated The Hate U Give. But what does this mean?

Yes, as Joker insists, he’s not political. He’s not the reason people are angry. But his actions are the tipping point. When protestors lay him, crucifixion style, on the police car, he becomes the symbol of the protests. 

If the protests are justified because people have been mistreated, then does Joker becomes absolved of all personal responsibility because he too has been mistreated and is simply calling out his oppressors? Is he some sort of folk hero of the marginalized? Is there a point where society can push you and mistreat you so much that it is to blame for your actions? 

But if this Joker is the truly monstrous Joker from Batman lore, then how do you feel that Todd Phillips aligns you, the 99%, with the Joker? That your protests, what you think is righteous anger, is really made of the same base, primal, chaotic urges that Joker acts upon? You are so easily manipulated. You are sheep. 

Perhaps most troubling of all is that Joker shows all the ways society fails people without offering any solutions or hope. 

Video essayist Lindsay Ellis points out in her piece about the 2005 Rent movie adaptation that, “A light, user-friendly sort of anarchy does not work in a narrative about the AIDS crisis because there is nothing noble about extolling the virtues of quietly giving in to your disease when there is a system right there that can help… but you reject it because f*** the man, I’m not a part of your system!… It reinforces a worldview in which the only way to rebel against a system is to reject it…It gives you a sense of power, in a world that makes you feel powerless. But in reality, the only thing it fosters is actual powerlessness. Because in rejecting the system, you are not only failing to tear it down, but you are forfeiting any voice within it” (42:44 – 43:54). 

This is exactly what Arthur/Joker is doing. At the beginning of the film, Arthur is trying to be a good person, even when it is difficult. He takes his medicine for his various illnesses that aren’t named (this decision is questionable in itself but that’s another discussion). But because of the events of this film he gives up and embraces the villain the world has made him be (in light of everything else that is revealed about his past, the events of the film don’t seem dramatic enough on their own to spiral him further down, but oh well). 

He stops trying to change the system or hold it accountable and instead gives into his psychosis, and advocates anarchy. And while it may not make him more powerless, as he is a fictional villian, it makes an impressionable viewer powerless. 

For a film that tries to diagnose society and rage against it, it ends up looking a lot like the society it critiques- passive, wallowing, angry, violent, and without any solution. Nihilism may feel rebellious and exciting, but it isn’t compelling. 

-Madeleine D. 

*A special thank you to my friend Shea, who has been my movie-going-buddy for years. Her thoughts are present throughout this blog, but especially here. Thanks for taking an hour-long walk with me after seeing this film to let me talk it out!

Everything You Need to Know About Marvel’s Phase 4 (Part 2)

May 2021- May 2022

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In October of 2016 I broke down the future of Marvel movies and my predictions for what then was Phase 3. I was right about some things, wrong about others. But now at Comic-Con 2019, Marvel Studios announced their Phase 4 slate of films and Disney+ shows (Disney’s new streaming service, coming November 12th). Unlike the Netflix-Marvel shows like Daredevil and Jessica Jones, the Disney+ shows will tie into the movie universe, making all of our wallets bemoan. 

If you want to know all you have to look forward to for the next few years (Phase 4 will cover 2020 to 2022 with ten projects in all), then I’ve done the research so you don’t have to. This is part two of two, covering the two films and three Disney+ show that will take us from spring 2021 though to the fall, and then presumably Phase 5 will start in spring 2022. 

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of MadnessImage result for phase 4 marvel logos

  • May 7, 2021
  • Directed by Scott Derrickson
  • Starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange and Elizabeth Olson as Scarlet Witch

Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness will come right off the heels of the Disney+ show WandaVision. Marvel Studios president Kevin Fiege has stated before that Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch practices the same magic as Doctor Strange, it’s just raw and untrained. With Elizabeth Olson set to co-star here, it’s presumable that Wanda may be Doctor Strange’s protege in his sequel- and maybe his villain, too.  

There is certainly precedent for this in the comics. Depending on the events of WandaVision, this movie could adapt Wanda’s two biggest comic book storylines. In the first storyline, Wanda has been driven mad from the loss of Vision (who you remember was recently killed by Thanos in Infinity War. Could all of WandaVision then just be an illusion, and in the movie Wanda is “woken up” from her dream and realizes Vision is truly gone?). Wanda is further driven mad by the loss of the two children she had created out of her magic. In her madness, she kills Scott Lang/Ant-Man, and Doctor Strange has to defeat her. The Avengers plan to get rid of Wanda for good, so her brother Pietro (played in the movies by Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who died in Avengers: Age of Ultron) convinces her to create an alternative reality she can live in instead, where her family and other mutants are rulers. 

This became the comic book storyline House of M, which ends with Wanda, thinking that being a mutant has caused all of the pain in her life, whispers her infamous phrase, “No more mutants,” and turns all of the world’s mutants into regular humans. This storyline is now possible with Disney’s acquisition of Fox, which has up to this point had ownership of Marvel’s mutant characters (Wolverine, Jean Grey, Storm, etc.). This could be the entry point for mutants into the MCU. 

It’s been promised that this will be Marvel’s first “horror film,” so hopefully they will keep their word and go for as creepy and horror-y as a PG-13 MCU movie can get. Director Scott Derickson is a horror director after all (The Exorcism of Emily Rose, Sinister), and I trust if he is allowed to, he can truly elevate the material. 

There have been hints of a multiverse in the MCU before, but the title sure indicates that this could be our first full-fledged multiverse movie. A multiverse would allow for other Avengers to show up, including dead ones, so if RDJ or Chris Evans are wanting to come back, this could be their chance. Suddenly this feels a lot less like a Doctor Strange film and more like Avengers 4.5. 

Loki Show

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  • Spring 2021
  • Reportedly 6 episodes, each an hour long
  • Rick and Morty writer Michael Waldron will be showrunner. 
  • Starring Tom Hiddleston as Loki, and hopefully some other people

The show will pick up at the point in Endgame when Loki steals the tesseract. It will follow his time-hopping adventures as he faces various foes. The show will premiere ten years after Tom Hiddleson debuted as the character in 2011’s Thor, so I hope the show will give the actor new ways to keep the charismatic trickster fresh. 

WHAT IF …? Show

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  • Summer 2021
  • A giant roster of actors will reprise their roles from the movies in the show through voicework
  • Number of episodes unknown, although I’ve heard rumors of ten. 

Based on the comic book series of the same name, What If…? will show pivotal moments in the MCU and present hypothetical outcomes for if things had gone a bit differently, a How it Should Have Ended in a way. The animated series will have voice work done by all of the same actors from the movies. The only episode confirmed so far is one exploring what would have happened if Peggy Carter had become Captain American instead of Steve Rogers. Two other rumored episodes will cover what would have happened if Loki had gotten Mjolnir instead of Thor, and what if Killmonger had killed T’Challa and become the permanent king. The series will be narrated by Watcher Uatu, played by Jeffrey Wright. Watcher Uatu has not been introduced into the MCU before. 

Hawkeye Show

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-Fall 2021

-Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye, presumably others 

In characteristic fashion, Hawkeye is last, here as the last Disney+ show of Phase 4. 

This series will be based on the acclaimed and fan-favorite comic book run by Matt Fraction and David Aja of the same name. This run focused on the relationship between Clint and his mentee, Kate Bishop, who takes up the Hawkeye mantle. In the comics Kate is a member of the Young Avengers team, so expect for Marvel to use her to introduce this team into the movies (or do it in a show, Defenders style). This show will probably show Clint handing over the bow and arrow over to Kate, and thus finally releasing Jeremy Renner from this franchise and into that sweet, sweet void

Thor: Love and Thunder

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  • November 5, 2021
  • Directed and written by Taika Waititi
  • Starring Chris Hemsworth as Thor, Tessa Thompson as Valkyrie, and returning after a two-movie absence, Natalie Portman as Jane Foster/The Mighty Thor

Taika Waititi will return after directing Thor: Ragnarok to write and direct Thor’s fourth solo film. Thor will become the first of the original Avengers to get a fourth film, with the others being regulated to, at most, a trilogy. But despite the title, Thor: Love and Thunder looks to be a lot more about its supporting characters than just Thor. 

For starters, Natalie Portman will return after a long absence as Dr. Jane Foster. Jane was Thor’s love interest in the first two films, then unceremoniously dumped offscreen before the third. Portman tried to negotiate changes to Jane’s role for the second film, Thor: The Dark World, and wasn’t given any, and her lackluster enthusiasm for the series by that film was obvious. However, she’s now being given a much juicier role as she gets to help adapt the comic storyline of Mighty Thor. 

Jane Foster’s Mighty Thor storyline is this: Jane Foster has a terminal diagnosis of breast cancer. Thor has become unworthy, so he’s stripped of the Thor title (his actual name is Odinson, and Thor is a mantle, like Captain America or Black Widow, which can be given and taken on by others. Hopefully his unworthiness in the movie is not connected with his weight gain from Endgame). Anyways, Jane Foster takes up the mantle, saying that “there must always be a Thor.” She is deemed worthy enough to pick up Mjolnir. Whenever Jane uses Mjolnir though, it heightens her cancer, literally killing her as she saves others. Talk about sacrifice. As for Thor/Odinson himself, he’ll be rediscovering himself and learning how to be worthy again and finding his identity outside of being king of Asgard. 

I’m excited to see this storyline adapted, and Natalie Portman is a fantastic actress who will be able to handle the dramatic parts (and physical parts, easy to see if you saw her performance in Annihilation) but my main concern is Taika Waititi. I love his other work, but he spent most of Thor: Ragnarok erasing all the previous Thor movies and streamlining the character to be like all the other Marvel heroes, which I did not love. How are we supposed to root for Jane Foster when she’s been out of the movies for a while now, and her absence has been mined for a few jokes? 

There’s some great potential here to explore what it is like for a human to take the role previously held by a god, the difference between a man and a woman in the same role, and how Thor and Jane interact in their new roles, especially since they are no longer a couple (in the comics they don’t get back together). But will any of that be explored? I’m worried it won’t be.

The Thors aren’t the only characters in the movie, though. Tessa Thompson’s newly-appointed king of Asgard Valkyrie will return. Thompson said in the comic-con panel that since Valkyrie is the new king of Asgard, she’ll need a queen, confirming that she’ll finally be able to make Valkyrie bisexual as Thompson has been campaigning for since day 1. There is no confirmation on who this love interest will be. And since Waititi is scripting this time, expect Korg, his character, to have a larger role. 

Beyond Phase 4

Feige also confirmed at the San Diego Comic Con panel that the Fantastic Four and the X-Men, now back at Marvel because of the Disney acquisition of Fox, will be coming after Phase 4, although in what capacity is still unknown. The mic drop of the announcement though has to go to Mahershala Ali being announced as the star of a new Blade movie. No further information about that property is known yet. At the D-23 Expo last weekend it was also announced that Moon Knight, Miss Marvel, and She-Hulk (finally!) Disney+ shows are in development, Black Panther 2 will come out May 6, 2022 with Ryan Coogler returning to direct, and Kit Harrington has joined the cast of The Eternals. 

Much of my research for both of these articles came from Grace Randolph from Beyond The Trailer.

Everything You Need to Know About Marvel’s Phase 4 (Part 1)

May 2020- May 2021

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In October of 2016 I broke down the future of Marvel movies and my predictions for what then was Phase 3. I was right about some things, wrong about others. But now at Comic-Con 2019, Marvel Studios announced their Phase 4 slate of films and Disney+ shows (Disney’s new streaming service, coming November 12th). Unlike the Netflix-Marvel shows like Daredevil and Jessica Jones, the Disney+ shows will tie into the movie universe, making all of our wallets bemoan. 

If you want to know all you have to look forward to for the next few years in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, aka MCU (Phase 4 will cover 2020 to 2022 with ten projects in all), then I’ve done the research so you don’t have to. This is part one of two, covering the three films and two Disney+ show that will take us from May 2020 to early spring 2021. 

Black Widow

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  • May 1, 2020
  • Directed by Cate Shortland 
  • Starring Scarlett Johansson as Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow, Rachel Weisz as Melina, Florence Pugh as Yelena, David Harbour as Alexei Shostakov aka The Red Guardian, and O-T Fagbenle as Mason/The Taskmaster.

Black Widow’s first solo movie and the MCU’s second female solo film will be a prequel, one of the MCU’s only. It will cover Natasha’s past, including what happened in Budapest, and the Red Room/ Black Widow Program, which we got glimpses of in Avengers: Age of Ultron

It looks like Natasha will be facing off against several villains. O-T Fagbenle’s Taskmaster has the power to completely replicate anything he sees, so if he’s fighting Natasha, he would be able to do every move she does, like she’s looking in a mirror. This leaves plenty of room for exciting action sequences. It was also confirmed that there will be a romance between the two of them, which…. whatever. 

Rachel Weisz’s role is Melina, and in the comics, Melina is also known as “The Iron Maiden,” a fellow graduate of the red room program who never is able to match Natasha and is overcome with jealousy. Weisz said in the panel that Melina goes through scientific experimentation in this film, giving her advanced powers that will make her a formidable foe to Nat. 

David Harbor is playing The Red Guardian, who is best known for being the Soviet Union’s counterpart to Captain America. Since Nat has such a good relationship with Steve Rodgers Captain America, there could be a lot of potential here to see her play with a similar dynamic with someone who represents her home country. 

Florence Pugh rounds out the cast as Yelena, who in the comics was a fellow Black Widow. Some fans think Yelena might take over the Black Widow mantle and take Natasha’s place. She’s a prime antihero candidate, and could possibly take a surrogate daughter kind of role for Natasha. 

While I want to be supportive of this film, it feels like too little too late. Johansson has waited patiently for ten years in the MCU, and she certainly deserves this, but the character has been so maligned for the past few films, and frankly, nothing here screams “unique!” I think going back to her roots will take us to femme-fatale Black Widow, like we saw in Iron Man 2, and I think that’s the worse version of the character. I don’t want to go back to that Black Widow, and despite the much more female-centric lense this one will be framing her in with a female director and Johansson in a much more powerful creative control, I’m sick of hot Russian spy action (I saw a good chunk of Red Sparrow through other passenger’s TVs on an airplane). Natasha has, despite her malignment, become a much more interesting character as of late, and this just feels like a regression. But I’ll try to stay optimistic. Having a prequel set the stage for Phase 4 seems like an odd choice, but it does fit in with the overall pulpier and riskier tone this slate of movies promises.

The Falcon and the Winter Soldier Show

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  • Fall 2020 (unspecified date). Filming begins this October.
  • 6 hour-long episodes
  • Malcolm Spellman (Empire) is the showrunner and all episodes are directed by Karl Skolang (Vikings). 
  • Starring Anthony Mackie as Sam Wilson/The Falcon, Sebastian Stan as Bucky Barns/ The Winter Soldier, Daniel Brühl as Baron Zemo, and Emily VanCamp as Sharon Carter. 

The show picks up soon after the events of Endgame, and presumably will follow Sam Wilson taking up the mantle of Captain America, and Bucky, just, I don’t know, nagging him? I’m not a Bucky fan. Mackie is incredibly charismatic and he and Stan have good chemistry. It should be a fun romp and maybe be reminiscent of Captain America: The Winter Soldier. It doesn’t seem to, like the other shows, tie directly into any upcoming movies. If it doesn’t feel necessary to watch in order to understand the movies, then this might not be compelling enough to get Marvel fans to subscribe to Disney+, in which case it seems like a poor choice to be the first Marvel show on the streaming service. 

The Eternals

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  • November 6, 2020
  • Directed by Chloe Zhao
  • Starring Angelina Jolie, Salma Hayek, Richard Madden, Kumail Nanjiani, Brian Tyree Henry, Lia Mchugh, Lauren Ridloff, and Don Lee. 

The Eternals is a relatively unknown property, but that hasn’t stopped Marvel from making bank before! This film’s biggest hurdle will be convincing moviegoers to be interested in something they’ve probably never heard about. Let me help Marvel out a bit then by giving you some backstory.

In the comics, the Celestials created the immortal race known as the Eternals. The celestials were briefly introduced into the MCU in Guardians of the Galaxy 2, where Ego (Kurt Russel), aka Peter Quill/Starlord’s father, was one of them. Think of them as similar to the Titans in Greek mythology, with the Eternals then being the pantheon of gods. 

In this film, the Eternals have been on Earth for thousands of years already, masquerading as humans. The movie will probably focus on the Eternals’ family-like dynamic and show them acting throughout history. 

All of the Eternals are immortal, have super strength, teleportation, telepathy, can fly, can shoot lasers from hands and eyes, and can make force fields. They’re powered by celestial energy, and if they run out of celestial energy, they become weakened. 

Salma Hayek will play Ajak, leader of the Eternals, and in the comics, Ajak is a man, making this a gender-bent role. Angelina Jolie will play Thena, who has ties to ancient Greece (get it, Thena, Athena?). Richard Madden will play Ikaris. Kumail Nanjiani is Kingo, a samurai swordsman turned Japanese superstar. Expect this to change, as Nanjiani is Pakistani. Brian Tyree Henry will play Phastos, an engineer and tech expert. Don Lee is playing Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh is known for meddling in human affairs and could be an anti-hero or villain. 12-year-old Lia Mchugh is Sprite, another gender-bent character. As an eternal child, Sprite is a prankster inspired by Puck from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Finally, Lauren Ridloff rounds out the cast as McCary, another gender-bent character. Ridloff is deaf and the character will become so too, making McCary the MCU’s first deaf superhero (Hawkeye is deaf in the comics but not in the MCU). 

I’m unsure as to how these immortal gods will change up the MCU as we’ve known up to this point, but at least we know Marvel’s penchant for star-studded casts won’t change!

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

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  • February 12, 2021
  • Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton (Short Term 12– such a great film!!!!)
  • Starring Simu Liu as Shang-Chi, Tony Leung as the Mandarin, and Awkwafina in an unknown role. 

China is a huge box-office market, the second biggest in the world behind the U.S. Shang-Chi is not only Marvel’s first Asian superhero, but also the studio’s first real effort to please Asian audiences. So far, though, it looks like there may be some problems. 

Shang-Chi is the hero son of villain Fu Manchu, who in the comics was a horribly racist stereotype and has a rough history. So the rumor is that in the film Shang-Chi will be the son of Tony Leung’s Mandarin instead (the real Mandarin, not the one from Iron Man 3). This already sets up a great dynamic- a superhero son breaking away from his supervillain dad. But here’s the catch: Tony Leung is a Chinese legend and incredibly respected action hero, and he’s the villain. Meanwhile, his hero son moves to America, making him Chinese-American (and Simu Liu, the actor, is Chinese-Canadian, his family having moved from China to Canada). In other words, the Chinese person that moves to the west is the hero, while the one who stays in China is the villain. As there are already sensitivities in China about Chinese people moving to America for better lives and education, this casting would seem to further this divide. Along with Awkwafina, who is American, and the director, who is American, all of the major players in this movie except the actor playing the villain are from the West. 

It’s a strange decision to cast Simu Liu, an unknown, as the hero when Marvel could have cast an actor from China’s film industry, who might still be an unknown to American audiences but would help bridge this divide. However, Liu is a great choice in other respects. He used to be a stuntman, ensuring some great action sequences, and has a great underdog story. He began campaigning for the role in 2014, tweeting Marvel multiple times since then asking for more Asian representation and offering himself up for a role. Shang Chi is a master martial artist and is in-tuned with his chi and his body, and doesn’t have a ton of other definable powers. I’m looking forward to seeing what Liu will bring to the role and how he does with the dramatic parts. 

Also cast is Awkwafina, who is on a major hot streak right now following her roles in Ocean’s 8 and Crazy Rich Asians with The Farewell. She could be playing Shang-Chi’s half-sister, Fah Lo Suee, or perhaps a love interest. 

The Ten Rings in the title refers to the terrorist group that kidnapped Tony Stark in the first Iron Man film, and have been alluded to in a few movies since. However, I expect this movie to move away from the terrorist angle and more into the “villainy” angle. The Ten Rings also refer to ten rings that the Mandarin wears, made out of alien tech and each having a different power. Sounds a little familiar… Infinity Stones, anyone? Despite some familiar tropes, I hope Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings will break new ground for Marvel, not only in representation but also in storytelling and filmmaking. 

WandaVision Show

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  • Spring 2021
  • 6-8 episodes, the whole series will be 6 hours long. 
  • Jac Schaeffer will be showrunner. Schaeffer is the screenwriter for the Black Widow movie and will write the pilot for WandaVision
  • Starring Elizabeth Olson as Scarlet Witch/Wanda Maximoff, Paul Bettany as Vision, and Teyonah Parris as Monica Rambeau

WandaVision will focus on the relationship between Wanda and Vision, which has been growing slowly throughout several movies but has a deep comic book history. In the comics, Wanda and Vision are a married couple, and Wanda creates for them out of her magic two children, Wiccan and Speed. Wiccan and Speed eventually join the Young Avengers team and are joined by Cassie Lang (Antman’s daughter, already introduced into the MCU) and Kate Bishop, who will be introduced in the Hawkeye miniseries. If the show introduces the two, we could be gearing up for a Young Avengers show or movie.

The biggest mystery in the show is the role of Monica Rambeau in all of it. Monica was introduced in Captain Marvel as the adorable daughter of Maria Rambeau (Carol’s best friend). Teyonah Parris will play her as an adult, who in the comics takes up the mantle of Captain Marvel. I can’t imagine she will be the same here though, so maybe she’s working for SHIELD? Or is doing some other kind of work that has her learning about/teaming up with Wanda and Vision? Or she could be her own fully-fledged hero, like she becomes in the comics under the name Photon.  

This show will take us straight to Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness in May of 2021 and to the final part of the Phase 4 slate, which I’ll be covering next week.

Go Big Or Go (Spider-Man: Far From) Home

Related imageSpoilers for this film and Avengers: Endgame!

Spider-Man: Far From Home picks up shortly after Avengers: Endgame. Tony Stark is dead and the world is mourning his loss and is trying to move on after Thanos’s snap and then the reverse snap, which is being called “The Blip.” Eager to escape the mounting responsibilities being put on him by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), Peter Parker (Tom Holland) joins his class for a summer trip to Europe, where his only concerns are enjoying himself and trying to tell MJ (Zendaya) that he likes her. 

Unsurprisingly, he is soon caught up again into superhero antics when a set of new threats called Elementals appear, but it seems Peter is not alone in fighting them this time. He meets a new hero named Quentin Beck, aka Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal), who may not be everything he seems. 

Far From Home is a mixed bag, but it is undeniably entertaining. The Spider-Man corner of the MCU continues to be at its best when it focuses on normalcy. The humor that comes from the class and vacation situations are by far the best parts of Far From Home. Martin Starr and J.B Smoove are particularly delightful as Peter’s teachers, and Marisa Tomei, Zendaya, and Jacob Batalon continue to be great as Peter’s inner circle who keep up the push-and-pull between Peter’s civilian identity and his role as Spider-Man. 

Beyond the humor, though, are some truly affecting dramatic moments. Similar to the tear-jerking part in Homecoming when Peter gets trapped under the rubble, or when Peter gets dusted in Infinity War, the scene where Mysterio first uses his illusions on Peter is startling because it emphasizes Peter’s youth, and it is truly disturbing to see him being manipulated and beaten down in such a brutal fashion. Holland has some solid dramatic chops, and he gets to use them again here. I applaud the film for not pulling any punches and letting this young hero get a true “dark night of the soul” moment. 

The film also lets Peter makes some terrible mistakes that make him look foolish at best and unworthy of being Spider-man at worst. It’s a touch of sophistication that is missing from many other MCU films that typically rely on the hero’s darkest hours coming from external forces and not from their own mistakes. In this regard, this second Marvel-Sony Spider-Man entry is quite ambitious. 

Far From Home falters, however, in part because of this ambition. It goes bigger, and it doesn’t hit the mark on everything. The multiple bombastic action sequences are bland because most of them are Peter against faceless entities of water or fire or drones, which result in no emotional connection to the audience and a CGI mess on the screen.

This ambition extends to the movie’s themes. The story seems relevant with its inclusion of fake news, drones, technological warfare, illusions, not being sure what is real and not, and an undercurrent of what I can only describe as Gen-Z Anxiety™. All of those things are relevant, but the movie never quite gets around to saying anything meaningful about those things. Peter defeats them through his superpowers, so what does that mean for those of us who don’t have superpowers? Ultimately, just because the movie has timely elements doesn’t make it so, because it fails to understand what makes these things timely in the first place. 

This brings us back to Mysterio, who, like Michael Keaton’s villain Vulture in Homecoming, is a regular man who feels like he was cast low by Tony Stark and decides to retaliate by becoming evil. But while the film, and the MCU at large, seems to want to give some commentary on Tony’s problematic aspects, by making his critics evil maniacs, the wind is taken out of any serious arguments against Tony and instead just affirms him. His critics are all evil, and he saved the world, so in the end, he must have been in the right. 

Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) does say late in the movie that Tony was a “mess” and “always doubted himself,” which is true and is in line with the character’s development in losing his self-assuredness and gaining humility. But then moments later Happy makes an explicit connection between Tony and Peter, and since Peter is our heroic protagonist, any legitimate criticism of Tony is once again undercut in favor of the MCU’s RDJ-worship. All of this renders Mysterio a promising character played well by an underused Gyllenhaal, who never quite gets to shine as he should.

In the end, Far From Home confirms what some other recent MCU films have been showing, which is that Marvel is getting bolder and riskier, but still doesn’t quite have it in them to either go all the way or have the proper execution. I’m glad they’re trying, but they’re still far from a home run.

-Madeleine D.

Avengers: Endgame Spoiler Review

Avengers-Endgame

The culmination of 22 movies. A cinematic universe built over the course of eleven years. One of the biggest franchises of all time. Some of the greatest actors ever. Avengers: Endgame is upon us.

I’m supposing you’ve seen the movie, so I’m not going to go over the story. I care as much about the technicalities and logic of the time-traveling plot elements as the film does, which is to say, not that much! I’m here for seeing what happens to my favorite characters. And boy did I get… some happenings.

There’s a lot of fanservice here. While I think most of it is deserving, there is also some fanservice that feels a little too self-congratulatory (no, Marvel, you are not the patron of feminism). It’s a delicate balance, one I think Endgame barely passes through.

Alas, even with all the fanservice, I didn’t get much of what I wanted, which makes this film a little more difficult to review. I think it ultimately boils down to the fact that I love Joss Whedon’s vision of the Avengers. I think his films contain the best characterizations for most of the characters, have the most interesting themes, and are the most dedicated to creating small, intimate, human moments.

However, for the past several years the Russo brothers have been in charge, and we’ve seen their vision come into view. There are some great things that they do; their action sequences are often excellent and they do an admirable job balancing the large casts they are given. But, as Richard Brody of The New Yorker put it, “The Russos have peculiarly little sense of visual pleasure, little sense of beauty, little sense of metaphor, little aptitude for texture or composition; their spectacular conceit is purely one of scale, which is why their finest moments are quiet and dramatic ones.” These weaknesses are particularly potent in Endgame. It struck me while watching just how ugly the film is visually. There are very few things happening under the surface for the characters. Everything they feel and think is shallow and plot-related, which strips the film of all the subtext and metaphorical layers the medium of film is so richly capable of. When it comes to the Russos’ vision, I can’t quite get on board.

Yet, as Cap says, we need to move on, and so I’m going to try to do so for the rest of this review. Because this is less of a movie and more of a ten-course meal where you keep getting things put on your plate that you aren’t sure you wanted but feel compelled to try, I’m going to list five of the things that worked, and five things that didn’t in Endgame.

The Good

  1. Tony

RDJ brought it home. A beautiful ending for a hero who has been growing and developing in complexity over the last ten years. Ever since Tony’s vision in Avengers: Age of Ultron, where he saw the threat of Thanos, he’s been trying to convince the other Avengers to believe him and to see the greater danger. It was beautiful to hear Pepper recognize that and tell Tony he could finally rest. He finally saved them, as he had always been trying to do.

  1. Avengers 2012

The first Avengers movie was a marvel. Despite that movie feeling small in comparison to these newer films, it still holds up and has a sweet place in my heart, so I loved the time traveling bits back to the Battle of New York. Everything in that scene could be interpreted as gratuitous, but I think it was a delightful and well-deserved recognition of just how much of a pop-culture milestone it was. And props to all of the actors who showed up to have miniscule cameos in these films. Thank you for recognizing the importance of this franchise and their impact, whether you ended on a bad note (Natalie Portman) or clearly have no clue what is going on (Robert Redford).

  1. Return of the King

This movie is not on the level of Return of the King, but when all the Avengers came into the final showdown with Thanos, I felt like I did when I first watched the Battle at the Black Gate of Mordor. And when Cap said, “Avengers, assemble,” I felt the same shiver go through the theater as when Aragorn said, “It is not this day.” The final battle, for all of its chaos, replicates reading a comic book perfectly.

  1. Sam Wilson as New Cap

Anthony Mackie has been grossly underused since his turn as Sam Wilson/Falcon in Winter Soldier, but I’m so glad he’s finally getting the attention he deserves. Sam has the bravery, leadership, and heart of Cap, but without the self-righteous hotheadedness and with a more nuanced sense of duty. And while I doubt the MCU will do too much with it, having a black man take up the mantle of Captain America does mean something (quite a lot, actually).

  1. Old Cap

I think Cap also got a nice ending. Poetic, sweet, a good sendoff.

What I Wish I Could Snap Away

  1. Natasha’s Ending

In Age of Ultron, there’s a scene near the end where Natasha is standing with Steve on the edge of the destroyed Sokovia. She says that if they were to die there, it wouldn’t be so bad, as “there are worse places to go.” This ties into Natasha’s overall development in the MCU. She has red in her ledger, a past full of sins and debts. Characters try to convince her to forgive herself. She herself encourages self-forgiveness in others. But she can never give it to herself. After being the only one to try and keep the Avengers together for so long, she sees the opportunity to die for the Soul Stone and takes it. Her death wish, her final sacrifice, her payment, is finally complete. It’s an active choice she makes after a life of being a pawn.

So unlike some of the hot takes out there saying this death was unjust, I actually think it was the logical conclusion to her arc. I wish she had gotten a more redemptive arc, but it makes sense from a storytelling perspective. My problem with all of this, though, is that 1) she died in the place of Hawkeye, the objectively worst Avenger, and 2) the death is barely acknowledged in the movie. She gets no funeral and only one scene of visible grief from the other Avengers. Excluding the Edward Norton Hulk movie, Black Widow was the second Avenger introduced into the MCU, yet she never gets that credit. It’s always Iron Man or Captain America. For all the crap Scarlett Johannson has had to put up with to pave the way for other female characters, her character deserved more of a recognized legacy.

  1. Use of a Biological Family as Shorthand for “Making It”

In the MCU, having a biological family is a sign of a character succeeding, being relatable, and having a greater purpose. It’s presented as an ideal life. This motif has been used to great effect when it is corrupted and shown as an idol that holds certain characters back from accepting themselves and their potential. But more often than not, it is used as a narrative shorthand that devalues the relationships between characters we actually know and care about.

This becomes clearly apparent in the choice to give Tony a child. Now sure, Morgan Stark is adorable. But we already know Pepper and Tony love each other- we don’t need offspring to confirm it. Second, Tony’s fatherhood arc has been happening through Peter Parker, and I would argue that arc is more compelling because he chooses Peter despite his fear that he may corrupt Peter and be like his own father. He looks at Peter as a younger version of himself and wants him to do better. This is active character growth. Having a young biological child takes away this arc because a non-superhero toddler doesn’t reflect Tony Stark like a superpowered young adult does. Having a biological child for Tony also shortchanges Peter’s return and his grief over Tony. This compelling relationship is cut short.

True, having a child does create high stakes. But in the case of Tony, the stakes are already incredibly high, and we know Tony acts out of a desire to protect everyone, not just his own family. So, really, introducing Morgan was intended to give the sense that Tony had finally “made it,” achieved peace, and had all he needed. This is a blow to the found-family dynamic the Avengers have always had. The whole situation also feels extra awkward when you consider that the other Avenger who died but didn’t have a funeral and is constantly taken for granted is…. a childless Natasha.

Besides Scott Lang’s family, the other main biological family is Hawkeye’s family. We know next to nothing about them, but when they are snapped away that is supposed to be an emotional moment, because they’re a family, and he’s teaching his daughter to shoot a bow and arrow, and his wife is making lunch. It’s the American dream! Maybe I’m just heartless, but this barely registers. The audience has to fill in the emotions. Why not use the relationships Hawkeye already has with other established characters to make his turn to depressed vigilante more compelling? Oh, wait, except for Black Widow he doesn’t have any other established relationships with any of the other characters. Which leads me to…

  1. Hawkeye Continues to Be a Drag on All Possible Levels

Hawkeye as a character continues to make less and less sense in this franchise. He has no ties with any of the other Avengers. He never quite proves why his skillset is needed; in fact, the film works hard to avoid showing him in the final battle because his abilities are useless. In the first Avengers, maybe the everyman character was endearing and there were only six other heroes so an archer could make sense. But now, when we have seemingly hundreds of heroes on screen in a battle, and several everyman characters and all much more unique? #ShouldHaveBeenClint

  1. Thor

Thor has been through a lot in these past few films. While I didn’t think his PTSD and trauma would be given a lot of heft, I did think the MCU was past making it into an unbearable fat joke. Thor’s depression weight gain/alcoholism being treated the way it was is distasteful, unfunny, and lame. This article by Sylas K. Barrett is an excellent look at the way the movie frames these symptoms.

And yes, I know it was also poking fun at Chris Hemsworth’s sex appeal and Marvel using it. But while I don’t think reverse-objectification is progress, the Thor movies (for several reasons) have been the most female-friendly corner of the MCU until Black Panther. So making fun of that just didn’t sit right with me. Thor has been getting more comedic as of late, but you can be comedic and still have your dignity, which this movie takes from Thor. And speaking of stripping a character of dignity…

  1. Professor Hulk

One of the most devastating moments for the MCU was when Taika Waiti (who I have a lot of respect for in all other areas) looked at three-time Oscar-nominated dramatic actor Mark Ruffalo and said, “Hey mate, do you want to do some comedic improv?” And Mark, not wanting to get fired and full of hubris, said: “Sure why not?” Thus the downturn of a great character and performance.

In theory, bringing in Professor Hulk could have been a nice way to bring Bruce’s character arc full circle. We start in The Avengers with Bruce thinking he controls Hulk (“I’m always angry”). It is quickly revealed that no, Hulk still has a mind of his own and is making choices without Bruce (like flying away at the end of Ultron). The two are in conflict throughout Thor: Ragnarok and Infinity War, and finally, here the two are in sync in a way that embraces Bruce’s true superpower, which is his brain and heart.

The problem is then like Natasha’s: poor execution. Hulk looks so much like Ruffalo that it creates an uncanny valley effect, the movie continues with making him the comic relief without any of the character’s core melancholy, and it gives him no conclusion. Another example of so many missed opportunities.

If you are invested in the MCU, then you probably can view these movies as a timeline of milestones. I remember my intro being when I saw Captain America: The Winter Soldier on a whim with my dad, never having seen any other Marvel movie. I was instantly intrigued. I got caught up on all of the other movies, and by May of 2015, I remember lying in bed and praying to God that whatever he ordains is good but please just don’t let me die before I see Avengers 2. Suffice it to say he accepted my proposal and I got to see the film with some new friends, which was a triumphant way to end a lonely and difficult school year.

I have reviewed all of the Marvel movies on this blog since 2016 with Civil War. With an average of two MCU films a year, a few months apart, these reviews can give me insights into my own growth as a writer. These are also where I have battled out my own inner struggle of figuring out how to be a critic and a fan. I may never find peace between these two, as I will never find complete peace with this movie or the MCU’s legacy as a whole. And that’s okay. I can reevaluate the past, but as Cap says, I have to move forward. And all in all, despite some disappointments, I think Endgame is the best conclusion we could have realistically gotten (without Joss Whedon’s and my creative input).

-Madeleine D

It’s Just Okay! Captain Marvel

Capt Marvel

To the tune of “God Bless the U.S.A” by Lee Greenwood, starting at the second verse:

Brie Larson won an Oscar, and one of the directors is a girl

So all of the problematic lady stuff, from Marvel will become unfurled

From Natasha to Wanda, and Okoye and Shuri

There’s pride in every fangirl’s heart, and it’s time we stand and say

That I’m proud to be a woman, for at least I know I’m free

To punch a man in the face, Carol gave that right to me

And I’d gladly stand up next to her, to defend our right to say

Don’t tell me to smile, she paved the way

It’s International Women’s Day!

If you were singing something along those lines going into Captain Marvel this weekend, then you were exactly where Kevin Feige and Marvel studios wanted you to be. Promoted as the response to Wonder Woman and a form of self-flagellation for the fact that Marvel has made 21 movies, 11 of which star white guys named Chris, it’s still sad that the studio is only now is getting around to making one with a woman. However, it hasn’t been easy. Captain Marvel has been plagued by online trolls, misinterpreted statements by its outspoken lead actress, and a boycott, not to mention ridiculous expectations put on it by critics and fans alike.

So after all of this build up, how is Captain Marvel? Is it our new modern third-wave feminist The Feminine Mystique? Does it give me any clues to which superheroes will and won’t stay dead during Avengers: Endgame so I may finally find peace? Will seeing Carol Danvers fly finally inspire me to live my life to the fullest and/or hit the gym?

Well, I am here to report that Captain Marvel is: fine. Hooray!

Ok, let’s break this down. To begin with, the epidemic that I’ve been growing weary of for a while now is that all Marvel heroes have the same personality. They’re all cool, calm, collected, and witty. If you watch the first Avengers film, sure, all the characters could be funny, but they were funny in different ways. And their personalities and values were different. Now, if I read the script of Avengers: Infinity War with the character names missing, there would be too many times I would guess a line was said by a different character because everyone’s dialogue sounds the same.

Captain Marvel aka Carol Danvers (Brie Larson) here is witty, cool, collected, and calm. She is hyper-competent, which is now a requirement for all heroines, and her personality is so limited to what the plot requires of it that it’s hard to imagine what she would do on a free Saturday night. There are quiet moments in the film that give Larson something to play with, but they are too small and infrequent to make me feel that I’m not watching Captain America with a side of Tony Stark snark.

Counterbalancing this, though, is an excellent and vibrant supporting cast. Samuel L. Jackson and Brie Larson have excellent chemistry (this is their third film together), and I particularly liked Lashana Lynch as Maria Rambeau, Carol’s best friend. Their friendship was sweet on screen, and at one point in the movie, as Carol is having a moment of personal doubt, Maria reminds her who she is, affirms her, and then they hug. And I realized that this is the first time I’d seen this kind of female friendship in an action superhero movie before. Hugging my girlfriends and affirming them is something I, and many women do, every day, but I finally got to see it on screen. And it was just as awesome as seeing Carol burst into flames and save the world, which was also pretty cool.

On a more technical side, while I don’t usually point out editing, I have to talk about it here. Marvel movies, at least ones not directed by the Russos, generally have quick and choppy editing in the fight scenes. But here, it feels extra insulting, not just because the action scenes are poorly cut to the point where it feels like the directors just didn’t want to think of more action for the character to do, but because Brie Larson trained nine months for this role, is ripped, and did most of her own stunts, and you can barely tell here. #GiveUsGratituousShotsOfBrie’sRippedArms.

The plot is convoluted, which causes the movie to have whiplash pacing and become distracted from being a character study. For example, one of the darkest aspects of the film is the fact that Carol was, basically, abducted, gaslit, and brainwashed to be formed in her captor’s image. While addressed in the film, what could have been an intensely emotional moment and a defining trauma for Carol, her Uncle Ben if you will, is handled with such stoicism and almost casualness that the revelation barely qualifies as a turning point for Carol, and is a completely missed opportunity because instead we gotta spend time setting up alien characters for future movies.

Ultimately, the most disorienting thing about Captain Marvel is that it tries to go two different directions, and ultimately does neither. The first is that it wants to be a very obvious “girl-power” movie, but it contains very little of the female experience. It tries to have some, like Carol being asked by a random man to smile, (a ridiculously perfect foreshadowing of  what was to come) and her being told she’s too emotional. But these things feel much more like Womanhood 101, and not very deep. The second is that it is a very standard Marvel movie that doesn’t drift from formula. If it had committed to being a Marvel movie that could, in theory, have been played by a man and been exactly the same, then that could have been an interesting statement on why we put emphasis on female superheroes at all. It would have answered the immortal question of, “Hey, why shouldn’t women have a mediocre superhero movie to call their own?”

In the end, we have a movie that is neither an interesting examination on how being a woman would make one a different kind of a superhero from a male one, nor do we get a superhero movie that could be led by any of, say, the Marvel Chrises. We get something that’s pretty mediocre. So to be honest, I’m disappointed. There were plenty of scenes and things I liked, but it adds up to a movie I probably won’t remember the majority of in a few weeks. But despite that, I still think it’s worth seeing if you keep up with the Marvel movies, or even if you have already decided you want to see it. It stands alone well enough that you can enjoy it without needing to have any previous Marvel backstory. I want it to do well at the box office, mostly just to spite trolls.

Near the end of the film, Carol says to an antagonist, “I have nothing to prove to you,” which may ultimately be the best way to think of the movie. It doesn’t need to be a roaring success to justify its existence. Carol Danvers has nothing to prove, and neither do female-led superhero movies. So let’s raise the bar for everyone, without using it to keep others down.

-Madeleine D

December Round-Up, Part Two

To the tune of “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina”

Don’t cry for me, my dear readers
The truth is, I never left you
All through my college days, my mad semester
I kept my promise
Returned with vigor

Here are five of the biggest movies, box-office and awards-wise, that have recently come out.

Bohemian Rhapsody

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I didn’t know much about Freddy Mercury before seeing the film, so for the first half, I spent it thinking, “Rami Malek sure is overacting. I don’t know why he’s being nominated for so many awards.” And then I realized this was just the character, and then it got better.

Bohemian Rhapsody is ambitious in recreating famous Queen performances but never decides if it is a character study of Mercury or a celebration of the band and its music. It ends up trying to do a bit of both, and therefore doesn’t do either full justice. It’s a competently made, standard biopic, but there are enough glimmers of greatness here that makes its by-the-book approach feel like a big let-down.

For someone like me, who didn’t know much about Queen beforehand, I was disappointed that the film didn’t change this fact. It is so focused on Mercury that it 1) pushes the other band members aside, and 2) doesn’t tell me why Queen was so revolutionary in its day. It never explains how this band appeared and delighted the wider public. In that way, the film is claustrophobic and doesn’t have much of an outside perspective. But if you like Queen, it sure wouldn’t hurt, and it does do a good job recreating the feeling of seeing a great concert.

Roma

Image result for roma movie2018

A black and white foreign language film about a maid in Mexico City in the 70’s is, frankly, not what I usually want to watch. It was a bit of a chore psyching myself up for it. And it might be the same for you, too, but I think you should watch Roma anyway, even if you don’t love it.

For one, it’s a masterclass in filmmaking. Every beautiful shot is deliberate, and every scene breathes. The movie is excellently paced, in a way that tests the audience’s patience but with purpose. There’s not really a plot, but the stakes are raised so excellently that it never feels aimless.

It’s not a film I would want to rewatch, but I marvel at its craftsmanship. And further, it makes a movie star out of someone who represents a group that is never considered worthy to be a movie star, and there is something precious within that itself. It makes the trials and trivial of life feel epic in scope and worthy of attention, which it is. Life, and every life, is worth paying attention too, and that humanity makes Roma a special film, even if it isn’t the most entertaining or poignant film of the year. And it’s on Netflix! There are no excuses.

Mary Poppins Returns

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Mary Poppins Returns is technically a sequel, but it certainly feels like a remake. It hits the original movie beat-for-beat with most of the songs carefully crafted to be one-to-one remixes of songs from the original. I want to fight against the chronic “safeness” of most of the recent Disney movies, but for this film, I can’t. I fell for Mary Poppins Returns.

It probably helps that I don’t have any nostalgia or feelings towards the original. I’ve seen it, but it was never a favorite of mine or a part of my childhood. For those who do love the original, this movie will either be heresy or a delightful reworking. For me, it was a lovely film that was truly able to be a magical way to end the year. It’s not revolutionary, but it plays to its strengths and is propelled by excellent performances all around. It’s the perfect family film.

Aquaman

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Aquaman can be best described through a scene near the end of the film, so mild spoilers. Arthur Curry/Aquaman goes into the den of a monster to retrieve an important trident. He approaches the monster and begins to talk to her.

Before this moment, Arthur tells another character how he grew up only using his fists and hiding his feelings. So when he began to talk to the monster, I started to get excited. Is this going to buck the trend of superhero movies ending with a big battle? Is the day going to be saved through communication and empathy? Is Arthur Curry going to be an example to young men that coming of age doesn’t have to be tied to acts of violence? Are they doing the same ending as Moana?

Arthur begins saying he is Arthur Curry, son of a lighthouse keeper and Queen Atlanna of Atlantis. He’s a nobody, and that’s what makes him the rightful ruler. I started getting more excited. Wow, the story is going to be about our worth coming from our identity, which empowers us! I looked over at my dad next to me. This could be a sermon illustration or something!

Then Arthur finishes his speech by saying to the monster: “and if you don’t like it, then screw you.” And then he grabs the trident and goes to fight in the big battle that ends the movie. So much for diplomacy and empathy.

I applaud the ambition and complete sincerity that director James Wan and the rest of the cast and crew go about making this movie. They go for it. I never felt a single emotion in the entire film, except for disappointment and lethargy, but they go for it. Perhaps I’m just not the right audience. I don’t care for Aquaman, I don’t know the mythology, and the worldbuilding (which is done with excellent special effects) didn’t interest me. That doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be fun for someone who is invested in the character. It’s just a shame it didn’t hook a new fan.

Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse

Image result for peter parker into the spiderverse 2018 scenes

Into the Spiderverse feels very much like Incredibles 2, except with a completely different moral to the story. Both are beautifully animated films, appeal to both children and adults, and are about superheroes. Both build off previous films, and both came out opposite another superhero movie. And both are the only real competitors for animated movies for this year.

From a story perspective, both get bogged down with plot details and villains who are underbaked and feel more like obligations than actual additions to the story. Particularly in Spiderverse, there are scenes that can feel extremely tedious. The real strength lies in the character interactions. Incredibles 2 makes the most of the family dynamic, while Into the Spiderverse gives a delightful deconstruction of Peter Parker and introduces us to a fantastic new hero in Miles Morales. The scenes that highlight their mentor/mentee relationship are some of the best of the year.

Thematically, the two films are opposite. Incredibles 2 tries to say that every person is responsible for being their own superhero, but undercuts its own message by not having any regular people do anything super. In that way, it feels more of a story about exceptionalism, and how to handle being the exception.

Into the Spiderverse, on the other hand, is all about inclusivity. Everyone can wear a mask.  Everyone can be a superhero. Every race, gender, nationality, and age can be Spiderman. Just check out the #spidersona on twitter to see how this is already inspiring people to imagine themselves as heroes.

Musing on this, I came to an epiphany. It’s no secret I love Marvel films. But by this point, those movies have zero interest in inspiring heroism in the audience. MCU movies are melodramas, fueled by the storylines of the characters. The entire franchise is a big soap opera with lots of episodes. You aren’t supposed to see yourself in Tony Stark or Steve Rogers, you’re supposed to see them interacting with each other and reckoning with their own powers. And that’s great, I love watching superhero drama.

But Into the Spiderverse refocuses the genre. It brings the attention back to the audience. In this way, it is the best tribute to Stan Lee, who created these characters to inspire and teach readers. It’s an excellent film with groundbreaking animation that I would highly recommend if you aren’t completely fatigued with superhero faire. It shows there are still new places to go with comic book stories.

-Madeleine D

Just Say No To: Teen Titans GO! To the Movies

Image result for teen titan go to the movies*Major spoilers for Incredibles 2

Exactly 364 days before Teen Titans Go! To the Movies was released, The Emoji Movie was released. A film that was so disgusting, I offered to babysit any child for an hour and a half in exchange for them not to see the film.

While I cannot offer that currently, I wish I could, because Teen Titans Go! To the Movies isn’t deserving of your child’s affection.

Granted, it’s not the worst movie made for people who believe kid entertainment should lack any element of sophistication. And I’ll give it this- the songs are catchy. Most kid movie songs aren’t very catchy.

Now I want to stress that I actually like the TV show this movie is from. I have watched quite a few episodes on Cartoon Network of Teen Titans Go! while babysitting. I understand why it’s popular. The twenty-minute episodes are full of superhero deconstructionism, goofiness, creative visual gags, and appealing characters done by great voice actors. As someone who didn’t know who the Teen Titans were in DC comic lore before the show, I have a better appreciation for the characters and understand why this team has such staying power. If there was an eighteen-year-old sitting in that movie theater by herself that was ready to give this movie a fair shot, it was me.

But some things that are twenty minutes are not meant to be stretched to an hour and a half. Just like emojis are not meant to shoulder a full-length commercial, Teen Titans Go! was not meant to be both Deadpool for kids and a “we read your internet complaints” message from Warner Brothers.

The basic premise of Teen Titans Go! To the Movies is that every superhero has a movie except Robin and the Teen Titans (consisting of Starfire, Beast Boy, Cyborg, and Raven). Robin, in particular, wants a movie and will do anything, even find a supervillain and abandon his friends, to do so.

And that’s the whole plot. And it’s stretched ttthhhhiiiiiiiinnnnnnnn. To be fair, it avoids feeling as episodic in structure as many TV shows-turned-into-movies are, but still. The only things moving this story forward to the inevitable moral conclusion are dance numbers and jokes about Batman V Superman. There are a few good gags, and excellent voicework all around, but it’s not enough.

While watching the third fart joke of the film, my mind started to wander, and I decided to reflect on the philosophical implications of Teen Titans Go! To the Movies. The villain, Slade, has an evil plan that, not to spoil anything, basically involves using screens to mind control people, including other heroes like the Justice League. He gains control of people’s screens through superhero movies, and because superheroes are too busy staring in these movies, they aren’t around to save people.

That is actually an interesting idea, that we spend too much time consuming media about superheroes but not actually enacting the morals they are supposed to teach us. And at the end of the film, Robin decides that it is better to be a superhero with his friends than a movie star.

However that message is defeated by the fact that this is a movie, and half of the runtime is dedicated to selling how cool superhero movies are. So kids are probably not going to walk away thinking- I should consume less superhero media and instead live out the values I have learned from them so I may serve my neighbors and community. I’m pretty sure they’ll be thinking, Robin and the Teen Titans are so cool! I want to watch more of their show! I wish I could be a movie star!

But you know what other movie has a villain with this exact same plan? Incredibles 2. In that film, Screensaver/Evelyn Deavor uses screens to control superheroes. She believes the existence of superheroes makes the public weak and passive, believing someone else will save them. So she uses mind control to make the superhero’s fail publicly, and ruin their reputation forever. She believes this will force people to become active again.

The “who did it first” argument doesn’t really matter here, although I’m going to give it to Incredibles 2, considering that Teen Titan Go! To the Movies looks like a rush job. The point is, we have two children’s films where the main question is: do superheroes (and superhero movies) make us more passive, easier to mind-control? Teen Titans does very little with the premise, ultimately burying it under the goofiness and flippant style of the film. Incredibles 2 thinks through it more clearly and ultimately comes to the conclusion that it’s on us to be superheroes, although we should let superheroes share their gifts. Both films suffer by having only the superheroes save the day, when thematically it would probably be better to get some human people in there, but Incredibles 2 gets to the heart of both the problem and appeal of superheroes, even more than the meta-Teen Titans Go!

And plainly, Incredibles 2 is a much better film. It is for both kids and adults. So why not see that? Unless you are a strong Teen Titans Go! TV show fan, this movie will feel like a chore. It’s a bummer there aren’t more animated movies out this year, but there are plenty of classic family movies to rent or stream. In a world with so many movies, why pay to see this one? Or watch a few episodes of the TV show instead. The Teen Titans may be going to the movies, but you don’t have to.

-Madeleine D

Movie Minute: Ant-Man and the Wasp, Leave No Trace, and Mamma Mia 2

July has been a hectic month, but nothing can stop me from seeing movies, so here is what you need to know about these three new releases.

Ant-Man and the Wasp

After Infinity War, Ant-Man and the Wasp is somewhat of a palette cleanser. Not from any of the Marvel formula, but from even pretending to have stakes. It sheds the foreboding nature of Infinity War and relishes in simpler times, by redoing jokes from the first film and being just as pleasant. I had a great time watching it, but I struggle to remember much, and while things technically happen in the lives of the characters, there aren’t any far-reaching consequences for the MCU as a whole, nor is there anything thematically to take away.

It does make a few improvements on the first film. The villain, Ghost, played by Hannah John Kamen, is not only a visually arresting character but one with twisted motivations who gets a surprising ending for an antagonist. Evangeline Lilly and Paul Rudd continue to make a charming pair, and seeing them work together in a way no other pair of superheroes have in the MCU is exciting to behold. And Michael Peña continues to steal the screen and our hearts. But all of that isn’t enough to make it a necessary film. And while you may ask, are any of these movies actually necessary? within the story the Marvel brand is telling as a whole, Ant-Man and the Wasp is a pleasant romp but very forgettable, and when the other Marvel films are going in an exciting new direction, this feels like a step back.

Leave No Trace

Image result for leave no trace film

Leave No Trace struck me in a place I haven’t been struck since my favorite film of last year, The Unknown Girl. Both films tell small stories about people struggling with messy, complicated ethical decisions, who ultimately bring out the best in other people and themselves through conviction and will. This slow and enchanting Debra Granik film never goes where you think it will, and ends with a startling conclusion that works perfectly with its compassionate, melancholy, yet hopeful, story of a father and daughter struggling to keep out of a society they cannot rest in. Watching the coming-of-age of daughter Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) and her realization that her desires might be different from her fathers is both heartbreaking and empowering, told with the nuance of experience by Granik. I won’t say more, because the less you know the better, but I would say it’s a must-see.

Mamma Mia! Here We Go AgainImage result for mamma mia 2

If you liked the first Mamma Mia, then you’ll like this one. Case closed.

It’s an accurate description though! Mamma Mia 2 is exactly like the first one, good and bad in all of the same ways. It has a flimsy story and weak characters, and everything is in paradise and beautiful and is the ultimate wish fulfillment (primarily for women. It is a film made for the female gaze, and honestly, it feels nice to be catered to in such a way, albeit superficially). It’s a joyful movie that celebrates family, friendship, and motherhood (and free love and deep pockets, but that’s beside the point). Abba’s music is infectious, and the cast, young and old, is having so much fun that it’ll wear down the sourest of souls. Fittingly, my feelings are as they sing in the film:

I tried to hold you back but you were stronger. Oh yeah! And now it seems my only chance is giving up the fight. And how could I ever refuse? I feel like I win when I lose!

-Madeleine D