The Avengers vs. my increasing ennui re: superhero movies

Posted: May 14, 2015 in Pop Culture Posts, Reviews
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I finally saw Avengers: Age of Ultron this weekend. Read: spoilers ahead.

I saw it after some apprehension. I waited to see the movie because the week it came out, I wasn’t especially in the mood to see cities reduced to smoke and rubble (Hello, Baltimore. Hello, Nepal.) Because I waited, I got to see the vast social media discussions (see: arguments) about various aspects of the movie–in particular the love story between Bruce Banner and Natasha Romanov.

Great, I thought. Am I going to leave this movie angry?

I didn’t leave the movie angry. I didn’t even leave the movie feeling particularly disappointed. I liked Avengers: Age of Ultron. Some bits more than others. But I liked it.

But I also didn’t leave the movie feeling excited. I didn’t leave bemoaning the long wait before Avengers 3. I didn’t even really leave wanting more.

I don’t think I came into Ultron with particularly high expectations. I knew it was a superhero movie. I knew there’d be plenty of “Hulk smash!” and explosions and daring escapes. But even though I didn’t consciously have many other expectations, I left the theater wanting something different. There were parts of the movie where I could only think: “Oh, this again? Oh.”

There were times, too, when I thought Ultron might indeed go somewhere else. I particularly loved the party scene toward the beginning of the movie that showed the ways in which the Avengers had grown comfortable with each other in some respects–and not comfortable with each other in others. I loved Hawkeye’s hidden family and the stunned reactions of his teammates (Auntie Nat, of course, excluded). I loved Bruce’s inability to say no to Tony’s desperate enthusiasm and bid for normalcy. I loved Cap’s ongoing rediscovery of himself, despite his grandma tendencies and in the face of his immense loneliness. I loved the eerie, dystopic feel of the Iron Legion’s appearance at the beginning of the movie. I loved the fears Scarlet Witch triggered in all of them and the way they remained shaken by those nightmares throughout the film. I loved the twins’ storyline in general, although I thought their obsession with Tony in particular felt like a misstep, like too much of a shift back to Iron Man. Why not all of the Avengers? Or S.H.I.E.L.D.? Or both? You don’t need a Stark Industries bomb to send someone into the arms of Ultron.

But those kinds of missteps sadly characterized the movie for me. There would be a flash of something really truly interesting and then it would fizzle. We would have another action sequence instead or a ham-handed joke about Bruce and Natasha boning.

It didn’t bother me, by the way, that they had a love story. In part because it actually seemed very fleeting and tenuous. And because Natasha seemed so clearly to be the pursuer and it didn’t  affect her ability to fight or make difficult choices or be Black Widow. What did bother me, however, was the way that it halted all of her other fascinating relationships with the remaining Avengers, with the exception of Hawkeye. Suddenly dialog about Natasha became about Natasha and Bruce solely (the reverse is not true, by the way, which is another issue). It felt like the movie was constantly trying to remind me that this was a thing. Remember? It’s a thing. Natasha and Bruce are a thing. Natasha and Bruce. Bruce and Natasha. A thing. GET IT?!

In other words, something that could have felt very organic and natural and subtle just…wasn’t.

I was intrigued by the revelation about Natasha’s training and the “graduation ceremony,” which expanded on what we already knew from Agent Carter. I don’t think the scene of her explanation was handled with an overabundance of grace, writing-wise–but then, little was in regards to her character. But the content in itself remains interesting, as do her feelings about herself. This echoes the beginning of the movie when she refuses to try to lift Thor’s hammer, the immediate suggestion being she knows she’s not worthy. (Although, we’ll note that Thor had to go through extreme tests of his own to lift Mjolnir.) It’s telling, too, I think that while her fellow Avengers’ dreams reflected their horror of the future, only she and Steve were most frightened of aspects of their pasts. In fact, Natasha’s fears were extremely specific to an event and relayed as memories, not the more surreal, stylized presentation of Steve’s fears.

Basically, despite the bad writing mentioned above, Natasha Romanov emerges from Ultron just as fascinating and dynamic a character as ever, largely due to Scarlett Johansson’s excellent portrayal.

But that returns us to my issue with the movie, which is that it forced me to wonder how much longer I want to keep seeing Marvel movies or superhero movies in general if they don’t seem to be making much progress, as much as Ultron seemed to occasionally lean in that direction. And if at times I find them boring. All this particularly when still none of them are  made with women in mind–much as we might enjoy them, we must enjoy them in spite of the fact that the studios who make them don’t see us as significant members of their audience.

It begs the question: as a fan, what percentage of a work ought you to find satisfying before you stop carefully picking out the things you like and give up? How much effort should you need to invest to imagine a version of a film or show to make it work for you? How long do you wait?

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