Age of Ultron Review

Last week, I finally saw Age of Ultron. It is the first Marvel movie since Thor that I missed going to see in theatres, so I have been anxiously awaiting its DVD release. Now, after a week of thinking about it, I’ve finally managed to compile my thoughts into a mostly coherent review:

Is it a terrible movie? No, of course not. But it’s deeply flawed. I might be able to overlook the film’s problems, or some of them, anyway, if they weren’t evidence that Age of Ultron just doesn’t fit in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU).

One problem is the film’s script. Now, I’ve always been a Whedon fan, but the Age of Ultron script sounds more like selected scenes from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which just did not work for me. The bubbly lines contrasted sharply with the darker tone of the film and of the MCU’s Phase Two overall, the theme of which is that the enemy is closer than these characters realize. All the Avengers films from Phase Two confirm this: the Mandarin in Iron Man 3 is smoke and mirrors, while Aldrich Killian is the real villain; Loki is shown to be the bigger threat in Thor: The Dark World; and seeming allies like Alexander Pierce and Brock Rumlow are the baddest of bad guys in The Winter Soldier. The plot of Age of Ultron aligns with this theme, since Tony is the real enemy, but the quippy, fast-paced humour of the dialogue was terribly jarring.

The more frustrating problem with Age of Ultron is related to the dialogue, but it goes beyond that. To put it simply, Age of Ultron is not about the Avengers as we’ve come to know them. It’s a film about strangers. They look familiar, but they’re like parallel Avengers, pulled from different source material. All the other problems that the film has (and there are many) can be traced back to the fact that these are different people than they were in their own movies. It feels like Age of Ultron (and the first Avengers as well, to a lesser extent) exists in its own bubble, and, to enjoy it, you have to turn off the part of your brain that wants to connect it to the “bigger universe.” The problem, of course, is that Marvel’s goal is to create a sprawling, cinematic universe where everything is connected; therefore, the fact that Age of Ultron is about different versions of the Avengers is unforgiveable.

Let’s start with Iron Man. I buy that Tony Stark wants to protect the world and therefore creates Ultron. In fact, that makes so much sense to me that I am willing to forget that Ultron was actually a creation of Hank Pym, a pacifist. Age of Ultron does a good job in connecting that dot: Hank Pym isn’t here, so the film takes part of Pym’s motivation — world peace — and combines it with Tony’s anxieties. The result aligns with Marvel canon. For instance, in Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, Iron Man gets bewitched by the Purple Man and the result is more or less the same.

But that version of Iron Man/Tony Stark doesn’t really exist in the MCU. Or rather, he doesn’t exist anymore. In Iron Man 3, Tony became too protective, built a ton of dangerous technology, and it blew up in his face. He learned from that experience. He grew. He changed. For him to build Ultron, therefore, feels like a big step backwards, like the film hit rewind and went back to a version of Tony that shouldn’t exist anymore, or it created a new Tony Stark entirely.

I get that Tony makes a mistake in Age of Ultron. That part fits in with the MCU’s Tony Stark: he’s always making mistakes. But the film never accounts for why he’s suddenly forgotten the way he grew as a person, and as a superhero, in Iron Man 3, where he seemed to learn not to make mistakes like this. (It also really bothered me that Age of Ultron offered no explanation as to why Tony has at least one suit after destroying all the others, or how the suits are powered without the reactor in his chest.) In sum, this Tony Stark isn’t the Tony Stark we know.

Next, let’s look at Natasha Romanov. There have been a lot of well-deserved negative reactions to Age of Ultron’s treatment of this character, and I could probably rant about it all day, but I’ll keep my remarks short and to the point. Aside from being quite sexist, the film’s characterization of Natasha is another item on the checklist that proves that Age of Ultron does not fit into the MCU that we have come to know and love.

Up until this point, she has been the only female character not slotted into a romantic plot — and when Tony tried that, it didn’t end well. In fact, she has been consistently viewed by the films and pretty much every character in them as aromantic. Note: not asexual — she is a femme fatale, after all, and I have no problem with that.

I don’t even have much of a problem with the fact that she’s pursuing a relationship in this film. The problem I have is with the way that the film frames her choice to pursue a relationship: it becomes the only thing interesting about her as a character, which is ridiculous. Natasha, a woman of formidable skills, is suddenly defined solely by her relationship to a man. Her affection for Bruce Banner is established in the very first scene of the movie as being the most valuable contribution she can make to the team, and that’s a huge problem. It just doesn’t jive with the Natasha that we’ve come to know because, up until this point, the MCU has not contained a Natasha Romanov interested in being defined by a romantic relationship.

Then there’s the infertility thing. A lot of people a lot smarter than me have already discussed this at length, so all I’m going to say is that Age of Ultron, with its sudden revelation regarding Natasha’s inability to have children, creates a version of Natasha that we have not seen before. This Natasha is focused on the fulfillment of some heteronormative dream and devastated that she cannot have it; these additions to her character feel very out of place. Certainly, infertility is devastating for many women. But to have this woman suddenly defined by what the film solely views as a lack — and to suggest that her success thus far is proof that there is something wrong with her — is to create a new Natasha, one that calls herself a monster.

I’m not saying that the past trauma of her forced sterilization isn’t a feature that could have been added to her character, but the film’s handling of it was so clumsy and sexist (defining a woman only by her relationship to men and by her biological function as a childbearer) that the movie begins to feel like a retcon, a rewriting of the character we’ve come to know over the last five years. Like with Tony Stark, this is a version of the character that doesn’t exist outside this film. On a related note, I’m very curious to see what Civil War does with Widow; back in the Russos’ hands, will she be the Natasha from Winter Soldier or will the Age of Ultron version win out?

Finally, we come to my hero, Captain America.

The only thing that saved this film for me was Chris Evans’ remarkable performance as Steve Rogers. It was not surprising — this guy has been doing incredible things with the role for four years now — but Evans’ performance in Age of Ultron subtly contradicts the film’s attempts to rewrite the character. The first Avengers featured a simplified version of Cap as well, but Age of Ultron’s characterization of Steve neglects the emotional turmoil we saw in The Winter Soldier, which was a huge mistake that the script makes again, and again, and again… To be blunt, Cap’s lines are terrible:

Language!

I miss the days when the weirdest thing created by science was me.

Elevator’s not worthy.

But I digress. My point is that he just didn’t sound like Steve Rogers — or rather, the Steve Rogers that we spent so much time with in Winter Soldier — and this would have had disastrous consequences but for Chris Evans. What stopped me from turning the film off was waiting for the next moment where he would do something that made me say, “Oh, Captain, my Captain! Thank God, you’re still in there.” In moments when he wasn’t talking, Evans lets us see the “real” Cap.

For example, Sam asks, “You found a place in Brooklyn yet?” and Steve answers, “I don’t think I can afford a place in Brooklyn.” Sam replies, “Yeah, well, home is home” and the look on Steve’s face in the few seconds of silence that follow is heartbreaking. It’s like he’s thinking, “No, Sam. Home is not home. I have no home,” which is, of course, a sentiment that ran through Winter Soldier. Evans’ subtle performance here creates the impression not only that Steve’s sad about still not having a home (no Brooklyn, no Bucky, no Army, no SHIELD), but also that he can’t/won’t say something about what he’s feeling, whether it’s because he doesn’t want to deal with the fall-out of being that honest with Sam (we all know Sam wouldn’t let a remark like that slip by), or whether he’s just doing his stiff-upper-lip thing again. I’m inclined to believe that what’s running through Steve’s head is some combination of the two sentiments. Just before this conversation, when Sam makes a casual reference to “chasing cold leads” in his hunt for Bucky, Steve gives that subtle twitch that he did so much in Winter Soldier, that little movement that says “Nope, don’t want to talk about that.”

Must’ve freaked you out, coming home after the whole defrosting thing.
It takes some getting used to. Good to meet you, Sam.

Note, in the image above, the way he reacts physically to Sam’s question and how his first impulse is to bail. Evans does this in Age of Ultron, too, and it’s heart-wrenching.

Evans broke my heart again when he picked up Quicksilver’s body off the ground. For a few seconds, there was something in Steve’s face that screamed soldier, team leader, captain — the one who knows that the bodies of his teammates are his responsibility. He has had to carry them before, and he will have to do it again. And that’s a powerful, pain-stricken side of Captain America that the film’s dialogue  unfortunately glosses over.

I find it remarkable that Evans can project so much into silent moments. Like I said, he saved the movie for me. Overall, what struck me most about Age of Ultron was that little struck me about Age of Ultron. It is probably the only Marvel movie that feels forgettable. Regardless, these glimpses of Steve Rogers haunt me.

Age of Ultron had a lot to live up to, and it tried to do a lot. It tried to be dark and deep, and bring in the characters’ inner demons (at least I think that’s what it was trying to do), but the flashes of Winter Soldier Steve Rogers are the only times that it worked, and they feel accidental, organic. Maybe they weren’t. Maybe they were written into the script, but frankly, as I said at the beginning of this piece, I don’t give the script that much credit.

Any film that is a part of a connected series of films needs to fit into that series or account for its deviation. Age of Ultron does neither. Here’s hoping that Civil War gives us back the characters we’ve come to know and love… before they all start trying to kill each other.

Advertisements

Some Thoughts on Katniss Everdeen and Female Emotion

Originally published on Big Tall Words, January 5, 2015

*Spoiler warning for The Hunger Games trilogy*

Oh, the tears.

There are probably reasons why these novels and films hit me so hard. I just finished a class about happiness (or the lack thereof) in Romantic literature led by a professor who feels so acutely that many members in the class tear up at his words. (No, really. The man has some kind of aura around him. I thought it was just me, but he has this effect on many.) Trauma, sadness, pain, and depression figured largely in the class; we read a lot of psychoanalysis and novels about characters who waste away and/or commit suicide. Needless to say, the class was not all that uplifting at times, and it has certainly had an effect on my own state of mind.

I tried to remember this while sobbing my way through the novels. I tried to remind myself that I was reading too much into the novels by thinking of them as stories about recovering from trauma. I tried to remind myself that there was going to be a happy ending because there often is in post-apocalyptic fiction, especially young adult post-apocalyptic fiction. When all this failed, I tried to tell myself: GAWD IT’S JUST A BOOK GET A GRIP! (It didn’t work.)

The thing is, I don’t think I am reading too much into the novels to say that they are about recovering from trauma. Katniss’s world is a damaging place where the odds are never “in your favour”, where bad things happen to good people, where death is often hasty and meaningless. Though she survives this world, she cannot (and does not) emerge unscathed.

At the beginning of The Hunger Games, Katniss’s father has died, and the burden of ensuring her family doesn’t starve to death has fallen on her shoulders. She has grown up too fast, learned too quickly that death is inevitable, that the price of survival is almost never too high. Take Buttercup, for instance. On the very first page of the first novel, Katniss tells us matter-of-factly: “He hates me. Or at least distrusts me. Even though it was years ago, I think he still remembers how I tried to drown him in a bucket when Prim brought him home. Scrawny kitten, belly swollen with worms, crawling with fleas. The last thing I needed was another mouth to feed” (3). How many 16-year-olds would be so cavalier about the need to drown a kitten — the very picture of innocence — because they understand that the resources of the household cannot stretch to accommodate it? This is a young woman hardened too soon by too much trauma.

Prim, of course, can afford to be innocent. She can beg and cry to keep the kitten because she doesn’t know its true cost. And Katniss works very hard to let Prim keep the cat, though she has no love for the creature herself. In fact, Katniss’s description of her own relationship with the cat sounds to me like she is incapable of the innocence that loving it would demand: “Sometimes, when I clean a kill, I feed Buttercup the entrails. He has stopped hissing at me. Entrails. No hissing. This is closest we will come to love” (4). Prim is about the only person she trusts enough to love; she feels shame that Peeta’s act of kindness gave her hope when she was younger, and anger at her mother’s grief.

These early passages make it clear to me that Katniss has dealt with trauma long before she steps into the arena for the Hunger Games. Afterwards, of course, she is a shell of who she was, and terrified to trust another enough for love to develop. In Catching Fire, when Gale confesses his love for her, she replies, “I can’t think about anyone that way now. All I can think about, every day, every waking minute since they drew Prim’s name at the reaping is how afraid I am. And there doesn’t seem to be room for anything else. If we could get somewhere safe, maybe I could be different. I don’t know” (97). Here we have Katniss confronting the unknowability of the future; the uncertainty as to whether she will ever be able to move past the trauma (the loss, the hardship, the adversity) that has plagued her.

Katniss 3

In Mockingjay, the final novel, Katniss’s grief comes to a head. Like Haymitch, she becomes addicted to a painkiller; like Annie, she acts like a lunatic, screaming and throwing fits and blacking out. This part of the novel made me wish for an exterior narrator. But the fragmented present tense captured something of the raw emotion Katniss deals with after everything she’s been through. Her home has been destroyed; she is constantly a pawn in a larger game, the rules and players of which she may never fully grasp; her closest companion has grown into a ruthless military tactician; the cause she tries to support resembles l’Ancien Regime more and more each day; her mother shuts her out again; and worst of all, Prim is killed, possibly in one of Gale’s engineered bombings. Of course she murders Coin. Of course she becomes a morphine addict. Of course she shuts everyone out. Who wouldn’t?

What I love about the series and its final installment is what some readers really hate about it. It goes to dark places. Katniss suffers. Good people die for no reason. Some readers (particularly Goodreads reviewers) claim that certain characters “deserved better” or that the final novel’s epilogue feels tacked on. Some (again, Goodreads reviewers) protest that Katniss isn’t strong anymore, she isn’t in control in the final novel, she’s messed up and no one wants to read about that. Movie Bob from The Escapist said something similar in his review of the latest film, stating sarcastically that everyone wanted to see the characters “moping around” for two hours.

Sigh.

The Hunger Games is based on a philosophical problem as old as humanity itself: why do bad things happen to good people? The simple answer is because we are not in control. We live in an absurd world where chaos reigns. Katniss is never “in control” at any point in the series. Even when she’s kicking ass, she’s doing it because she is a cog in a larger machine. Anyone who thinks that she was strong early in the series and weak later must have fallen for her propos because she was never as strong as she seemed; she only had people watching her for signs of weakness. Katniss is a hunter. She knows that weakness means death, and strength means survival. So she performs for the cameras. But, more than any of the other novels and films, Mockingjay shows us Katniss away from the cameras. And yes, she cries. Yes, she faints and vomits and hides and blacks out and panics. She suffers. Mockingjay shows us that no one can live in the world without suffering, though some may be better at putting up a brave face.

So why is it that, when Katniss starts to visibly suffer, people accuse her of being weak? Or they accuse the series of losing its appeal because its main character is just “moping around”?

Because Katniss is a woman.

In his review of Mockingjay Part 1, Movie Bob claimed to understand how significant Katniss is as a female protagonist. He claimed that she is an excellent role model for young women (better, he states, than Bella Swan, though that’s saying very, very little). He claimed that he understood why people loved her and loved the books, and loved the series, but he — poor defenceless film critic as he is — just wants to know why they can’t make a better movie, why the final installment had to be divided in two even though it means that the first film is filled with the characters moping around.

I would reply that Movie Bob understands jack about shit when it comes to Katniss as a female protagonist, and he wasn’t watching the film very closely to conclude that it is useless because she was “moping around” the whole time.

In the latest Hunger Games film, President Coin is played by Julianne Moore. I thought this was a bizarre casting choice, since I read Coin as a very hard woman, and Moore is, well, soft. (At least, I always thought so.) The filmmakers added a scene, however, that justifies their decision. In this scene, Katniss breaks away from the crowd, and Coin finds her. The two converse a little, and there is an unprecedented moment of connection between them. Katniss is grieving her losses, and Coin opens up a little about her family being murdered by the Capitol. She concludes by telling Katniss that in difficult times, people like the two of them find something inside that pushes them onward. It is an emotional moment, and both actors give the scene the emotional gravitas that it deserves. I was quite impressed. Here was the film justifying its own focus upon the emotional deterioration of Katniss Everdeen. What I got from the scene was that Coin was telling Katniss, it’s okay to be an emotional wreck; you can be both strong and emotional.

A great woman once said, “My emotions give me power.” This great woman suffered hardship: saddled with responsibility beyond her years, willing to give her life multiple times for the ones she loved, she sacrificed everything for her younger sister, lost a parent before she felt capable of being on her own in the world, became a brick wall that shut out those who loved her, and cried when no one was looking. This great woman also said, “The hardest thing in this world is to live in it.”

buffy 3

And people called her whiny.

Too frequently, I think, texts with female protagonists rely on their leads embodying so-called masculine traits to be “strong” (i.e. physical strength/ stamina, leadership, assertiveness, independence/cutting emotional ties, a tactical mind, technical mastery of a skill or weapon, etc.). Katniss fulfills many of these traits; ironically, Movie Bob pointed this out in a different video, claiming that the reason she is strong is because she is hardly perceived as “female.” Though this may be true of the first installment of the series, as it develops, the weight of Katniss’s trauma becomes greater, and she becomes more visibly emotional (which is, of course a stereotypical female trait). Catching Fire and Mockingjay show us a Katniss who is suffering, who is both emotional and strong, perhaps even strong because she is emotional. This is an unusual stance, and I think very highly of The Hunger Games for taking it.

I know why it is unusual for texts to take this stance: to do so risks being associated with essentialist thinking that claims that women are emotional while men are not. Even what I wrote above may approach the essentialism line. But I think it is possible to say that women are emotional because they are socialized to be able to show emotion more than men because they are expected to be weaker, and emotion is a sign of weakness. Therefore, to have a female protagonist who draws strength from perceived signs of weakness is an accomplishment, in my mind.

Yes, Katniss spends some of the movies and books “moping.” But I encourage those who criticize her for it to think of the Careers — the tributes brought up to fight in the Games. They don’t “mope,” but they are also ruthless human beings, capable of murder and torture. Katniss remains human, which is why she gave Rue such a moving send-off and wanted to save the wounded in the burning hospital. As readers and viewers, we should be pleased that Katniss can feel, that she draws strength from those feelings, that she can heal, rather than complain about having to go with her through the slow and painful healing process.

The beauty of Mockingjay is that Katniss does heal. Slowly. Painfully. Imperfectly. Some readers hated the novel’s epilogue, claiming that she settled for a certain way of life, but I loved it. I thought it was a movingly simple coda: the continuation of life in the face of ongoing hardship. In the novel’s conclusion, Katniss becomes the mockingjay: “A mockingjay is a creature the Capitol never intended to exist. They hadn’t counted on the highly controlled jabberjay having the brains to adapt to the wild, to pass on its genetic code, to thrive in a new form. They hadn’t anticipated its will to live” (Catching Fire 92). In the final novel’s epilogue, we see this symbolism embodied (though it’s admittedly on-the-nose). She has adapted to the wild; she has healed, passed on her genetic code, and survived (though I would not say thrived) in a new form. She still has nightmares; Peeta still has flashbacks. They still suffer. But they survive. The world has become a better place, but pain lingers.

Here is a woman who manages to be strong while still in touch with her emotions despite unspeakable hardships. Here is a heroine.

Oh, and P.S. The Hunger Games is NOT about a love triangle. It never was. (Anyone who thinks that the tension of the first two novels was driven by Katniss’s choice of boyfriend needs to go back to the Twilight fandom where they belong. I’m looking at you, Goodreads reviewers.) I have many, many more thoughts on the misreadings of the series, and when I’m not busy writing for my MA, maybe I’ll share them here.