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Terrible Reviews: The Avengers, Infinity War (On Protagonism)

There’s a lot to be said about Infinity War that can’t be said without spoiling some of it. Based on the state of my local movie theater on Sunday morning at 10:30, it’s a little hard to swallow that anybody with a serious interest in seeing the movie hasn’t already seen it, but surely these people must exist.

I have thoughts that must be thought about the movie, though, so here’s the obligatory warning: here there be spoilers.

Furthermore, in the interest of not turning this post into a 3000-word monster, I’m going to break it up. Here, then, is the first installment. With extra spoilers.

On Protagonism:

Let’s get one thing clear: the movie is a thrill-ride. It’s hard to look away (and harder still to walk away, for example when your six-year-old in attendance has to go to the bathroom for the third time just when you feel yet another climactic battle looming) for fear you will miss something, and miss something important. The film is eminently watchable.

But from a narrative perspective, I found myself getting frustrated. Every time you start to settle into the groove with one of the bands of heroes (and the fact that there are multiple bands of heroes is maybe the first indicator that trouble is afoot), you have to cut away for an update on the other bands of heroes. There are at least three — and sometimes four — groups of heroes doing different things in different places until the final battle. And this is a Marvel movie, mind you, in full swagger, using every tool they’ve honed over the last ten years — every subgroup is rife with internal conflict between its members, cheeky one-liners, and hilarious deadpan.

In short (too late!), as an audience member, I am fatigued with protagonists. Who am I supposed to root for and identify with? Banner and his performance anxiety? Thor and his abs? Stark and Strange trying to out-Alpha each other? Captain America and his beard? I’ve seen almost all of the movies at this point, and each of these characters is lovable, so I want to root for all of them — but there just isn’t time. Because the cast is huge and the plotlines are tangled and far-reaching, the film is paced like a coked-out cockroach skittering for the sugar bowl. You can’t identify with a protagonist, you barely have time to recognize them in their shiny new duds (seriously, it’s like every superhero gets a costume upgrade in every sequel) before the movie is shuffling you off to the next thing like an overbooked tour guide. Character development? Forget about it. There are no less than a dozen heroes here — it’s enough work just to remember who’s doing what.

Very frustrating.

Until you shift your perspective.

There’s no consistency to be found amongst the heroes. Some are all business while some crack wise, some concoct elaborate schemes and others wing it. The movie even seems to shift in tone based on who you’re following at the moment. No, the consistency comes from the bad guy.

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Lurking behind everything that happens is the swollen, ill-proportioned face of Thanos. And once I realized that this movie is pulling a fast one on the audience, I became much more sanguine in my thinking about it.

Thanos is the villain. He’s also the protagonist of the movie.

Thanos hogs the screen time. Thanos has all the character development. Thanos chews on the scenery for every shot he’s in, and thanks to the magic plot devices, he’s literally hiding around every corner. Thanos, in other words, takes the hero’s journey in this movie. Every twist and turn that happens in the movie is centered not on the Avengers — a kicked anthill is as frantic and as useful as they seem to be in the movie —  but on Thanos.

He hears a call to action when his home world is plunged into strife, and goes on a quest to deliver the same peace to the entire universe (just, you know, not in the way we’d prefer). He meets a mentor character who helps him in his goal (Red Skull, we hardly knew ye!) He and his band of villains have all the try/fail cycles. (Didn’t get the time stone there, didn’t get it there — third time’s the charm.) He has to make sacrifices to meet his goal. And the final victory brings him within an inch of his life.

Thanos is the protagonist of Infinity War. And the filmmakers know this: in the closing credits, where we usually get the grim but reassuring message “The Avengers will return,” we get instead “Thanos will return”. That’s not just a cheeky jab to drive home the stake in the hearts of all the Loki fanboys (and fangirls. And the fanboys/girls of Spiderman. And Groot. And Black Panther. And and and YOU GET THE POINT). It’s an acknowledgement that this movie is not about what — or who — you thought it was.

Once you’re down with that, the movie becomes a lot easier to digest, narratively speaking. The quest we’re on is Thanos’s, and the Avengers — legion as they may be — are but speedbumps on the residential suburban street leading to the eradication of half the population of the universe. Our favorites are cannon fodder — occasionally seriously inconveniencing the real protagonist, but ultimately never really standing a chance. Which is the posture of all the villains in every other Marvel movie to date.

I’ll point out that this trick of the light only works because the filmmakers have pulled the cinematic bait-and-switch of turning the Infinity War story into two movies. When Thanos receives his comeuppance, as he must in the next chapter, Thanos’s current arc, which is riding the hero’s trajectory, will come crashing back down to reality.

But once you engage with the movie on its own terms (and failure to meet a story on its own terms is basically the biggest source of strife, not just in Marvel movies, but in any cinematic universe — I’m looking at you, butthurt Star Wars fans), it starts to make a lot more sense.

Is Marvel Bloat Reaching Critical Mass?

I’m not going to give a full review on Civil War today, but I just want to pose a question.

Is Marvel bloat reaching critical mass?

The obligatory: There are spoilers ahead. Minor ones, but spoilers nonetheless. If you’re that type of person, make sure you see the movie before you read on.

Okay? Okay.

In recent years, the film franchise has been growing and growing in popularity, not just among comic books nerds or even geek culture at large, but among perfectly normal members of the perfectly normal populace. For example: my wife. She hates most nerdy things I love (Doctor Who, Orphan Black, Mythbusters) and can at best be said to tolerate geek monoliths like Star Wars. But she’s fully on-board with the Avengers franchise.

Problem is, the Avengers isn’t just about the Avengers movies. Now there are tie-ins with other films, shows running in parallel, characters appearing in other characters’ individual franchise films … okay, I get it, that’s how the comic books work, and that’s probably fine for comic books, but I don’t think the movie-going public is fully on board for the films bloating out in the same way.

The newest Captain America film has been billed as Avengers 3, and with good reason: it features the entire cast of Avengers 2 minus Thor and the Hulk. And the events of Civil War, without getting too spoilery, leave things in a pretty precarious place for the Avengers going forward. Which is … okay, great, but it basically means that if you want to get the most mileage out of your viewing of future Avengers flicks, you have to be up to speed on the Captain America films. And that leaves the door open for saying the same of all the other films.

Which is a problem, I think. Because until recently, you could enjoy the Avengers franchise without necessarily watching the Thor films, or the Captain America films, or whatever. But if a Captain America movie can be a canon tie-in, then a Thor movie can be necessary viewing, and a Black Widow movie (hey, I hear it’s in the works!) can be necessary viewing, and and and … hell, this movie brings Ant-Man and Spiderman into the mix as well, so … where does it stop? That’s a whole lot of ancillary films to watch, when all I really wanted was more Avengers.

Which brings me to a second point. It’s pretty clear at this point that Marvel is becoming a self-perpetuating nightmare machine, using its established films to drum up audiences for its lesser-known properties and vice-versa. As I said a moment ago, Civil War brings Ant-Man and Spiderman into the middle of an Avengers conflict. I’ll disclaim that I don’t know anything about the comic books, so I don’t particularly know or care whether this is accurate or justified. The problem is that in the story that the film tells, the inclusion of these characters is completely unjustified.

Captain America needs a bit of help, so he brings in a fanboying Ant-Man … for exactly one battle. Iron Man also wants a bit of muscle on his side, so he hunts down a somewhat reluctant Spiderman … for exactly the same battle. Now, I’ll admit that as far as that set piece in the film goes, it’s spectacular cinema. Tons of fun to watch. Great stuff. Problem is, if you remove Spiderman and Ant-Man from the film entirely, the narrative thrust of the film is completely unchanged. (Not to mention about fifteen or twenty minutes shorter, which wouldn’t be a bad thing.) Having a dead weight character in your book is usually narrative suicide, so why are they there?

CGI eyes were pretty creepy, though.

Easy. That one shot in the preview — Spidey with Captain America’s shield — was geek gold, and the battle with an enormous Ant-Man made an otherwise pretty stock battle in an Avengers movie unique and hilarious. It also doesn’t hurt that Spiderman has built-in cred as one of Marvel’s most well-known and well-liked characters ever, and Paul Rudd turned Ant-Man from a joke into a sort of culty curiosity.

And, oh, by the way, Ant-Man just had a pretty successful run this last year, and …  isn’t Marvel sending up some new Spiderman films in the near future?

It’s a little too convenient, a little too blatant, a little too obvious. Ant-Man gets shoehorned in because audiences really enjoyed Paul Rudd, and why not bring him in? Spiderman gets tossed in because audiences love Spiderman already, so let’s get them excited about the new Spiderman.

The first Avengers movie was a fantastic thrill-ride that stood entirely on its own without cameos by the X-Men or whatever other heroes or backstory from a dozen subsidiary movies. Avengers: Age of Ultron was much the same, though I felt a bit in the dark as to the whole SHIELD v HYDRA conflict (fleshed out in other properties, maybe?) at the beginning.

But if you go into the next Avengers without seeing this installment of Captain America, you’ll be completely in the dark as to what brought them to their new starting point. I didn’t dislike Civil War, but I don’t like at all the precedent Marvel is setting by not calling Civil War an Avengers movie. This is an Avengers movie masquerading as a Captain America movie. Which means any future movie featuring any one of the Avengers could go the same way.

Man, am I thinking too hard about this? These little hangups are ruining my enjoyment of what was in all truth a pretty good movie.

No Girls Allowed – Why Marvel Needs to Take the Next Step

My wife and I went to see Avengers 2 this weekend, which is unusual. It’s a rarity for us to go see a movie in the theater in the first place (young kids and all), let alone on opening weekend, but the hype was sufficient, we enjoyed the original. Further into the mix, we are both big fans of James Spader ever since his stint as the inimitable Alan Shore on Boston Legal a few years back, so… well, there we were.

And the movie’s great. Exactly what it says on the tin: a good time, tons of action, more than a few explosions, not too heavy on the brain. Good stuff. I pointed out, more or less in jest, to my wife after the fact that for all Marvel’s trying to make itself more female friendly (see the new Thor for example), their biggest franchise in the Avengers doesn’t pass the Bechdel test. (If you can’t be bothered, the Bechdel test is a rule-of-thumb, exceedingly low bar for a film to pass to qualify as not-entirely-chauvinistic-in-its-portrayal-of-women.) Now, you might argue, and you might be right, that the films’ primary audience is men. But you don’t have to look far to find female fans of not just the Marvel universe, but of comics in general, and of popular cinema for that matter. My wife and I are perfect examples; I don’t think I’ve ever cracked a comic book and I’d bet dollars to donuts that my wife hasn’t, but we love the recent spate of superhero movies nonetheless.

So we go home, and my wife discovers the “news” story that Mark Ruffalo tweeted at Marvel calling them out for the lack of gender equality in their Avengers merchandise. Not in so many words. He simply stated that it would be nice for his nieces and daughters to be able to find their favorite figures from the films in the toy stores and on the t-shirts they’re buying. Now, that surprised me, except that it didn’t. Because as much as Black Widow has become a face of the franchise, and as much as Scarlet Witch impacts the new story, they are still girls.

Right? Sure, you say, they’re girls, but only until a certain point. Black Widow single-handedly tames the Hulk, for example, and becomes one of the trainers for the newly reformed SHIELD unit at the end of the film. Not to mention the numerous asses she kicks along the way. Her kung fu is strong. Scarlet Witch manipulates the minds of virtually everybody in the film, including a demigod, for goodness sake, and then is solely responsible for the defense of the MacGuffin at the end of the film, dispatching baddies to the left and the right with little more than a flick of her brain stem.

And that’s awesome!


Black Widow is still exceedingly feminine, in that she tames Hulk with the calming, gentle gestures that only a woman (in the world of this film) could effect. And her primary arc at the end of the film shows her as a lovelorn, heartbroken woman after the Hulk takes off. She’s a badass, but her badassitude is mitigated in no small part by the fact that she still plays into the roles we expect.

Scarlet Witch, too, as part of a genetically-modified duo together with her brother, falls into the same trap. You’ve got twins granted superpowers through some undisclosed don’t-ask-questions science thing. One gets super speed, the other gets the ability to manipulate minds… which one do you think goes to the boy, and which to the girl? You could have just as easily gone the other way and let the girl have the super speed for once (looking at you, The FlashSupermanNightcrawler, etc) instead of making her a master manipulator (and there’s nothing woman-phobic in that, promise), but no, we’ll make her eyes turn red and give her these mind powers.

Okay, okay. I don’t mean to deconstruct the film. Fact is, Marvel is trying, and the further fact is, they are succeeding in a lot of ways at giving their female characters depth, realism, dark sides, and the unpredictability that we expect from its male characters. They’re still women, but they’re not “women” the way women are women in movies.

But why, then, are they not embracing the female fans in their audience? Or the males who (rightly) think a character like Black Widow or Scarlet Witch has something admirable or worthy of emulation about her? Sure, we can put those characters front and center when it’s time to put together a promo spot, but let’s not monetize those characters. Who would want that?

Except they don’t even make the ladies front and center. Look at how far from center the women are in this promo! Not one, not two, but three slots away from the place your eye goes to when you look at the picture. They’re there, sure, but they’re so removed from top billing they’re almost an afterthought.

There’s a problem here, and it’s a self-fulfilling problem. The problem is that Marvel thinks they’re not going to make any money on the sale of merchandise that features its females (and let’s not argue that it’s about anything other than money; if they felt it would sell, they would be overflowing the shelves with it). So they don’t make the merchandise, which of course ensures that they won’t make any money on it. And they market the hell out of the male-centric toys and apparel, which ensures that girls buying the stuff are an outlier rather than a focus. But is the problem a real problem, or is it a problem they assume is true? Maybe the audience has evolved; maybe there’s more market than ever for female superheroes, but we’d never know it, because we’re holding onto an outmoded way of thinking. Make hulk hands and replicas of Thor’s hammer and Iron Man gloves so that little boys can pretend to be those guys, but if a girl wants to imitate her favorites, well… send her to the Barbie aisle, point her at the Disney Princess outfits.

I’m reminded of Field of Dreams. Guy gets the idea to build a baseball diamond in the middle of nowhere — and, yeah, the idea comes from a disembodied voice in a cornfield, but you know, roll with it — but nobody supports him because there’s no market for it. Nobody’s going to come to a rinkydink baseball diamond on a farm. But in true hollywood fashion, he builds it anyway, and lo and behold, people start to come. Sure, the ghosts of dearly departed baseballers coming to noodle around on the field helps. But the point remains: he didn’t accept the way things were, he insists on at least trying his idea before he’ll take no for an answer.

I have a feeling that we’re having that If you build it, he will come moment here, except it’s a lot bigger than one person — it’s a whole gender. The whole town (the existing industry) is telling Marvel that it doesn’t make sense to market the female superheroes, but I have a feeling that if they can have the courage to build a baseball diamond in the cornfield (roll out some female-targeted merchandise), the consumers will come. And let’s be honest. Marvel has the money for this gamble.

All they need is the courage to phone up a bulldozer and knock down some corn.

Cold Fury

This week’s Flash Fiction Challenge: Literary Mash-Up.

There’s no sense pretending on this one. I loved (no, let’s not even hide it, love, present tense) Frozen. So when my random selection gave me a mash-up of The Avengers and Frozen, it felt like Christmas coming around again.

I took the mash-up a little bit more literally than perhaps the challenge is meant to be taken, but I don’t care. I had more fun writing this than anything I’ve written in recent months.

Here’s Cold Fury, in 960 words.




Cold Fury

Get out of the ice business, they said. Market’s crashing, they said.

But what the hell was I supposed to do? I’m just an ice jockey from the sticks. No formal education, no particular skillset to speak of, outside of chopping ice, shaping it, transporting it, preserving it. Who am I kidding? It’s not like you couldn’t teach a rock troll to do what I do. The reindeer can practically do the job without me; he just can’t hold the icepick with his hooves. But that’s hardly the point.

Point is, the world is getting way too strange for somebody like me to make sense of it. I mean, one day I’m hauling a load of prime-cut crystal down from the peaks, and BANG, like magic, there’s this freak snowstorm out of nowhere. To say it’s a few months early is to overstate the obvious. Granted, weather can get weird up in the mountains, but this stuff settles in. Goes on thick, like marshmallow paste, and heavy, like reindeer dung; it’s not going anywhere anytime soon, and I might as well be dragging a sledful of sunlight in the summer behind me for all the good this ice is gonna do me. Pity, too. It’s a beautiful haul, but off it goes down the mountainside; no sense tiring out the reindeer. And I’m wondering what I’m going to do with myself for the foreseeable future when I remember there’s this shack back down the mountainside a stitch. Maybe I can ponder my troubles with a mug in my hand, away from the cackling of the jerks back in town.

I’m within sight of the shack when this guy steps out from behind a tree. Out-of-towner. Whatever he was doing out there is anybody’s guess, but I wasn’t gonna ask him. He’s got this leathery coat flapping like mad around his knees in the mountain wind, and a gleaming bald black head atop these massive, don’t-mess-with-me shoulders, and he’s staring hard at me like I stole his lunch money twenty years ago and he’s here to pay me back. Or maybe he’s just looking at me, and it’s the eyepatch that makes him look all ominous.

He tells me he needs me. That there’s this girl coming up the mountain, and she’s in trouble. That I should look out for her, help her find her sister. That he needs me to help “bring the sister in,” whatever that means. I ask him what’s in it for me, and he asks if I’ve ever wanted to be a prince. And I’m about to tell him to take a flying leap off the bluffs over there — seven hundred feet straight down. Then I stop. It’s not like I have anything better going on. Endless blizzard and all.

Looking back on it now, I don’t even know if he was real. All I know is, I turned to ask what he was gonna do for my reindeer, you know, to sweeten the deal, and when I looked back, he was gone… and behind him, in the distance, I see this girl lurching up the mountainside toward the shack. Tiny. Frail. Freezing. Then it gets worse. I follow her in, and she turns out to be gorgeous. Weird thing going on with her hair, this pale streak mixed in with all the red, but a face that’s cute like about a dozen baby reindeer and… well. I try to play it cool, but my brain is doing backflips trying to figure out how that angry eyepatch guy knew about her.

We talk. She needs a ride; I could use the money she offers me for giving her a ride. Next thing I know, it’s talking snowmen and imperial guards and a chase back down the same damn mountain we just climbed up. Oh, and her sister? Yeah, turns out she’s some sort of witch or something, and she’s all icicles and snow and eternal cold and… look, I’m not the guy to ask about everything that went down, all right? To be honest, the talking snowman gave me the screaming willies, and now he’s got his own room in the castle and he’s somehow still a snowman despite the fact that summer has come and gone six or seven times now. Ice Witch, right? Anyway. Sister and I get married, do the happily-ever-after thing, and the Snow Queen or whatever you call her rules in grace and splendor and all that good stuff. And then it hits me like an avalanche.

Eyepatch was right. I’m a prince now.

It’s too good to be true, right? Me, the ice-chucker from nowhere marries into the royal family. For years I don’t say anything — don’t look a gift reindeer in the mouth, right? — until one day I’m heading down for breakfast in the lower dining hall and I hear that voice. I go running in and see the guy, eyepatch and shiny head and all, sitting down talking with the queen. And he’s spouting all this stuff about parallel dimensions and ancient artifacts of untold power and how the world — no, the universe — needs her. Before I can even get my wife out of bed (she sleeps like a yeti, that one) the queen goes and gets on this — what can I call it? Like a boat, but made of steel, and flying, just floating over the ground like a hummingbird, if you can believe that — and leaves with the guy. And I try to explain, but my girl just goes into this… this FURY, you know?

Anyway, my wife and I rule the kingdom now while her sister, the Frost Fairy or whatever, is off fighting the evils of the universe, or something. And that’s how I became King of Arendelle.



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