Looks Like I’m Talking about Superheroes Again.

I went to see The Avengers: Age of Ultron. Boy howdy do I have a lot to say about that movie now. And I think I need to say a few things about the genre as a whole, but I’m going to separate those out into two separate blog posts, because I really don’t think I’m going to get through it all in one.

The problem is, there is a whole lot I want to talk about. I could easily devote about fifteen blog posts to this movie, but I’m also pretty sure this will get boring by then. I don’t want to review the movie, either – I’m not sure adding a value judgement to these comments is going to accomplish anything worthwhile. So I’m going to devote about three posts to this: A quick, dot-point list of thoughts about the movie, in no particular order, then I’m going to talk about the tone and themes and how the superhero genre seems to be going with those, then I’m going to look at the structure of the Avengers movie web because YOU GUYS CANON UNIVERSE MOVIES.

Keep in mind through all of these that I have seen the following movies from the recent Marvel extended universe:
Avengers 1 and 2
Thor 1 and 2
Iron Man 1, 2 and 3
Edward Norton’s Hulk
But neither of the Captain America movies (more because I’m lazy than because of any particular desire to not see them).

Major plot spoilers will be marked, but avoided if possible:

First, the opening scene basically made me imagine Romanov and Clint playing Halo together, and I’m not sure that I’m entirely upset about this. This was exacerbated by the enemies’ glowing purple arm-things looking a heck of a lot like Needler darts. But most of the scene felt very weightless. The rest of the fight scenes were excellently done, so I’m not really sure what happened here, but I wasn’t feeling any force or impact in the movements. Who knows.
On a similar note, the movie would probably have been half the length if they’d taken out all of the slow-motion scenes.

This movie did something that I think was really important – the main characters in Avengers 1 were Steve and Tony, with special extra mention going to Thor. Sure, everyone else played important roles, but really, Avengers 1 was their movie. Avengers: Age of Ultron belonged to Natasha, Clint and Banner. Sure, Cap’n, Iron Man and Thor played huge roles in the plot; it is a movie about the group. And it’s not like we didn’t get to look into their psyches. But they were secondary characters to the other three here, and I think that was very important. Avengers is ultimately a franchise about a team, after all, and even if Steve, Stark and Thor are fan faourites, the others need their moments to shine, too.

It’s especially important because I don’t think you can pull off a movie all about the Hulk. That’s really not how things work. Banner works best as a supporting character, a hindrance to teammates when he doesn’t want to be, and that’s his best conflict. A movie all about Banner himself is … possible, but it’s going to lack external context for its inner conflict. A teammate Hulk is always going to have more facets, and therefore carry more emotional weight than a lone wolf Hulk.

Let me preface this next point with a quick disclaimer: I love the way they’re playing Natasha. I like that they’re allowing a female character who is strong in so many stereotypical ways to also be vulnerable and not letting that vulnerability take away from her ability to kick ass and take names along with a group of people who include tricked-out genius billionaire inventor, two genetically modified superhumans and the closest thing the franchise is going to see to a literal god. While I wouldn’t mind a couple extra female Avengers, I do like the one we have.
This next part will be a huge spoiler for character development, though not necessarily for plot. Please scroll down to the next paragraph break if you do not want to read it.

When Natasha is talking to Banner, I cringed very hard when she explained that she’s been sterilised, and then says “I guess you’re not the only monster”.
I love that she’s emotional about this. I’d love to see this played up in other movies, because it’s a genuinely complex situation that not enough media treats with the weight and consideration it deserves.
But why, for the love of all that is good WHY would you take a character whose black list was referred to in the previous Avenger’s movie and implied to be such an obvious sticking point for her that Loki tried to use it as the most obvious path of emotional leverage, who is an ex-assassin trained out of many forms of human interaction, and who very obviously has her emotional baggage left out all over the shop, but emphasise the fact that she can’t bear children as the reason she thinks she’s a monster? One of a list of reasons? Go for it. It’s a big issue for a lot of people and I’d love to see it addressed. But why not address her insecurities about her suitability for motherhood as well? What about the rest of the training and her life up till this point?
I don’t know, maybe I’m being a little too uptight about this – other than that she’s got a lot of depth and it’s clearly not the only thing going on in her life. I just wish they’d emphasised more than that one facet in that scene. I wish they’d made it another part of her character, not a Special Bombshell to be dropped and never explored.

Spoilers over for a bit. This movie also continues the trend of complicated character development, which is great to see. I’m actually not sure I would have been so behind the movie’s portrayal of Stark if I hadn’t seen Iron Man 3; his characterisation stems very heavily from his internal conflict in that movie. I’m forced to assume the same of the Captain, because he seems to have taken a bit of a detour. Actually, a lot of the characters have: Since Avengers 1, they seem to have all taken a bit of a left turn on Dark St. and paused to look at a map on Gritty Ave. This was a much less lighthearted movie than the first, which explored issues but wasn’t necessarily so bleak about them. This leads to a sort of Flanderisation effect where each character seems to be the sum of their worst flaws, rather than a combination of their best and worst. It doesn’t detract from the humour, and it’s not a movie-ruiner, but I would have liked to see more of the balance that the first one struck.

Then the villain. Oh the villain. The villain is great and hammy and wonderful, but I can’t help feeling like the movie crew realised they’d hit on the perfect foil to the Avengers with Loki, and were now trying to replicate the formula without having to reuse the same villain. And it’s true – Loki is basically the worst enemy the Avengers can possibly have: their greatest strength is teamwork, and he is a villain with the ability to remove that from them, at least temporarily. This is really also what Age of Ultron’s villain represents, too: A force that can split up the Avengers. I mean, there are two villains in the movie who represent this power. The writers clearly realise they’re onto a good thing here.
But the reality is, the Avengers can’t face this specific threat every time they’re in a movie together. Eventually, they’re going to have to find another way to seriously mess up the team. I dunno what they’ll do – a villain with the raw power to threaten them even when they’re working together would be a change, but it might not necessarily be interesting. A villain who makes them work as a team towards the wrong objective might be cool. Same theme, different spin. I’m just saying that they’re not going to want to run the line of making the Avengers not a team before they can be a team and Win for too many more movies (maybe one more at most – and that’s if they put a new spin on it).

As for themes, well, they did a fairly good job on those, but there were a couple (juxtaposition of teamwork ideals in particular) that felt like they were just left hanging. They popped up one or two times, but were never addressed deeply or given weight to them, and kind of arrived at the end of the movie without being examined in the meantime, like they’d just remembered that this was a thing they’d said and should follow up on.
But to its credit, Age of Ultron is much, much better about this than Avengers – it seemed to have fewer, more streamlined themes. Obviously, the movie is gargantuan already, so a lot had to be left on the cutting room floor, but there were still a few loose ends that probably should have been cleaned up.

OK, these next two are going to be spoilers again: one for Banner’s character development and one for the plot, in particular the ending few scenes. If you do not desire spoilers, skip to the last paragraph.

We good?

Cool.

Once again, they really didn’t do enough with Banner. I had a problem at the end of Avengers 1 where suddenly and without adequate explanation, Banner was in control of the Hulk for the final scene, attempting to avoid civilian casualties and everything.
And then at the beginning of this movie he’s back to rampaging death-monster with zero control and inability to distinguish friend from foe – they’ve even begun developing Hulk Counter-measures because they know he’s a liability. He spends the whole movie worried about whether or not he is an irredeemable monster.
But then he’s OK for the last fight scene again and all, and sure he has a reason for this – Natasha – but it’s a very rushed change. It really felt like there was a penultimate piece missing from this characterisation. But of course, by then, the pacing has to be roughly Formula 1 car or higher, so there wasn’t enough time to fit in absolutely everything.
Let it just be known that if the next Avengers rolls around and the Hulk is back to angsting over whether he can be trusted rather than knowing there are ways to trigger the change without … well, Hulking out and trying to figure out how to make it work, I’m going to be very upset.

And finally, the decision to bring in a new crop of Avengers. Obviously, not everybody is gone, but they’ve removed a couple of solid fan favourites (Clint, Stark) and have brought in four new characters. Now, from the end of Avengers 2, I’m hesitant to rule Thor and Banner out of Avengers 3, and I’m truly sorry to see Clint go, but I have hopes for cameos in coming films. I actually like that they’re mixing up their heroes: Iron Man technically has six movies now and he was definitely coming to the end of a crisis point character arc, especially after Iron Man 3. So it’s no surprise that he’s tapped out of plot, though if they wanted to reboot the character they can always bring him back after a few years of therapy. Clint I’m more doubtful that we’ll see again, but I think there’s a really good opportunity missed in his character growing into a mentor figure for the team. Maybe it would have muscled in on Steve’s territory, but he could really have been the emotional centre of the new group and I’m a bit sorry we’re going to miss him becoming a really integral part of the team, rather than an important auxiliary member.
Thor will likely come back, unless something drastic happens in Thor 3, and with the plot hook they’ve set up, I’m sincerely doubting that Banner will stay away forever. But I’m also very glad to have a rotation of characters going, to give new stories, new conflicts and new characters a shot and keep the movies fresh and interesting. That, I think, is a decision that will ultimately keep the franchise going long after the original characters would have become stale. More on that later.

And there you have it: My thoughts, scatterbrained and somewhat briefly expressed, on The Avengers: Age of Ultron. Let me know if there’s anything I’ve missed, or gotten completely wrong. I’ll be back for thoughts on the franchise and superhero movies as a whole later.

Guillermo Del Toro on the Brain

So, I only kind of knew who Guillermo del Toro was until a few weeks ago.  I had seen Pan’s Labyinth, and both the Hellboy movies (which I still enjoy and usually watch while studying.  Yes, I acknowledge they’re not great cinema.  No, I don’t really care.  Even about the second one).

And you should also know that Monster, by Naoki Urasawa is one of my favourite manga and anime of all time.  Tied for favourite, with one or two other series depending on my mood at the time.

Now, it’s really difficult to find a copy of Monster on DVD, mainly because a DVD version was only ever released for the first 15 episodes (this may be only in English, I’m not sure about Japanese).  And then Siren Visual bought it, and will be distributing it in Australia at the end of the year.  When I discovered this, the noises I made cannot be described either with letters or with most parts of the human vocal range.  I bounced around my friend’s lounge room squeaking for a full ten minutes.  I’m not proud.  I’m also not particularly ashamed.

With that news (which I found here: http://www.sirenvisual.com.au/News/201305/345.php#comments) , came the link to the fact that there will be an HBO series released.  And it will be directed by Guillermo Del Toro.

Great, I thought.  I liked his work.  But reading more, he seems like the kind of person I should watch more of.  Let’s check what else he’s done.

And then I found ‘Don’t be Afraid of the Dark’ for hire on iTunes.  I watched it quite late at night.  People who know the movie (or the movie it is a remake of) will probably be laughing at me right now, because that was possibly the silliest thing a girl who’s not particularly well-versed in horror films could do.

But what else can you do in this day and age but blog about it (apart from freak out on Facebook, which I assure you I did).

Let me begin by saying that I really loved the movie.  In actuality, it wasn’t as bad as I’m making it out to be.  I can actually sleep in a dark room, for one thing.

So, into the overanalysis.  The structure really intrigued me. As I said, I’m not that much of a horror fan, but still, I could pick out every cliché in it (the child who believes she’s unloved, so falls prey to the creatures, the groundskeeper who knows all about it, but refuses to tell the family more than ‘it’s dangerous’, the fact that anyone in a bath in a horror film is about to have their shit ruined).  But the movie still kept me in.  I attribute this to the characters.  Sure, I was kind of left wondering how many darkened rooms a kid can walk into before she realises it’s a really awful idea to walk into another one, but she was still believable.  Her father, at the beginning, was slightly neglectful and clueless while never really being unsympathetic, because you could see why he thinks the things he does.  You can tell he’s trying to do the best he can, but the girl is just not having any of it.  He’s under a lot of pressure from his job because he’s in an unstable financial situation, so you can see why he’s distracted by that.  Later on, he gets a little more towards the unthinking idiot side of the equation, but for the most part, well done.  The girl, too, had an amazing actor (Bailee Madison), who I’m seriously hoping goes far in her career, because she’s got so much talent for it.  She sold the little girl better than many adult actors.  So, even when I could see what was coming, I still cared about the characters enough to not be completely thrown out of the story.

It’s not really surprising that I could see a lot of del Toro in the cinematography, either.  Part of what I adore about his films is the rich mythology in them, and you can certainly see it here, from the history of the homunculi to the description of the koi fish, to the ring of fairy mushrooms the groundskeeper kicks away.  For a while, I admit, I played spot-the-film – the Tooth Fairies also make an appearance in Hellboy II, in an early scene where they’ve devoured everyone at an auction.  Same thing – small, many of them, they eat teeth.  There are some differences (like DBAotD’s tooth fairies being confined to one place, having more explanation, and eating exclusively teeth), but the concept is the same.  Also, the hedge maze with a water feature in the middle, which appears again in Pan’s Labyrinth.  I find this actually quite cool, because it gives me a better idea of how he uses each of these motifs to flesh out a story, by seeing the role they play in different narratives.  Plus, it’s fun.

However, I did find that, once the homunculi were revealed, they suddenly became far less scary to me.  They were still threatening, but no longer terrifying like they had been at the beginning.  There is something about not being able to see the monster that is far more awful than not being able to see it.  So, once they were visible, the fear had to come from elsewhere.  Del Toro pulled this off excellently (oh god, why do they have access to sharp objects??), because this was quite close to the final scene, so the movie’s tension carried the fear the rest of the way.
On the topic of things not being as scary as they should have been, I must admit being very ambivalent over the deep-voiced homunculus.  Most of them spoke in a very high-pitched, breathy voice that just made me want to mute the television because nope, nope, all the no. But one of them (implied to be the old man from the first scene) spoke with a far deeper voice.  And this really threw me.  It wasn’t comical coming from the small creature, but it wasn’t intimidating like the breathy whisper on the edge of hearing was.  It was just kind of a voice.

Other than that, the first and final scenes were just marvellously done, and there was a lot to love in the middle.  These are just the things that really stood out for me.

Currently waiting with glee for the live action Monster series, because it’s going to be absolutely marvellous.