Thursday, May 21, 2015

The Aging of Ultron

It's been like half a year since I last blogged about the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), so we're due for more. This spring has an interesting pair of offerings, with Joss Whedon’s long-awaited Age of Ultron and Netflix’s relative dark horse, Daredevil. Now people are already hyping up for Civil War. Even as a self-professed Marvel zealot, I'm starting to experience some fatigue with their project, and I can't help but wonder how much longer less-dedicated audiences will last in Marvel's ambitious (read: insane) media campaign.

Of the two projects, I actually prefered Daredevil, which once again breaks new tonal ground for their shared-screen universe. Not terribly surprising, given my fondness for dark, vigilante-flavored brooding and hardcore violence.

Stellar fight choreography and production values are enough to carry the show. The corridor fight scene in episode two that pays homage to Old Boy is absolutely brilliant. The brutality has been dialed up to 11, and that does a lot to delineate the show from Marvel's tamer network offerings, or the fanciful CGI brawling of the Avengers et al. There are times where it feels excessive, and it pairs oddly with the show's prudishness. We can watch a man's head get pulped by a car door, but god forbid we see naked people. Admittedly, that is consistent with comic book ethos (and most of American entertainment) but disappointing for somebody who is hoping our society can get over its crippling fear of sex. Rosario Dawson is also excellent at being naked. I'm just putting that out there.

It's not without its faults. My buddy Brian Solloway pointed out the characters are quite weak in the first few episodes. Foggy is likable but initially very one-dimensional (even compared to Arrow's broadly drawn supporting cast) and Karen is even more straightforward and often downright annoying. Matt is a little more interesting, but kind of... under-developed. While the flashbacks do a good job of explaining why he loved his dad, his violent crusade to protect Hell's Kitchen is essentially presented as a cure for insomnia. He puts people in the hospital because he can, and it's cathartic. At best, he comes across as a high-functioning psychopath. That's an observation made about Batman all the time, and Daredevil's own writers have made the comparison, but there are meaningful distinctions. In particular, I would have liked to see is a deeper exploration of the dichotomy between his life as a lawyer and a vigilante. Something to suggest a more complex character arc to be had here.

Especially since the show's villain, Wilson Fisk, seems to have a much more realized and complex vision for the city. In the comics, Kingpin was a generic gangster, even by Marvel's mustache twirling standards, but Vincent D'Onofrio breathes nuanced, menacing life into him. He may be the best villain Marvel has put to screen yet, surpassing even Hiddleston's Loki, Redford's Alexander Pierce, and Spader's Ultron. He has this child-like vulnerability to him that pairs well with explosive rage, but its offset by calculated obsession and chilling megalomania. Each of his scenes are compelling, and unlike most TV villains, his character has a fully realized arc that runs parallel to the hero.

So I'm definitely on-board for season 2. My guess is Electra will make an appearance, but I am more interested to see how this will pair with Kristen Ritter's Alias show. That's a tough project. The show has to start with her as a has-been hero, and she hasn't appeared in the MCU to date. The trades have already talked about cross-overs that may segue into a Defenders series which...agh. You can only stretch this so far, guys. Consolidate a little.

I'm also very curious to see if it will feature Asa Butterfield's Spider-Man, who is also undoubtedly active in other neighborhoods of New York City, but my guess is that he will be largely relegated to the big screen. On that note, I'm disappointed that Sony and Marvel aren't taking Miles Morales or Spider-Gwen out for a big screen spin. Asa is great, and I think he will make a good Peter Parker, but we've seen that guy (and his origin story) twice now in the past 15 years. Age of Ultron had an opportunity to just introduce him with the stinger, and totally punted it. I mean, come on Joss. You don't need to actually show Spidey or have him talk; just a close up of a New York window suddenly "thwipped" with webbing. Let people know he's there, and already active. This fan-made thing goes above and beyond. Perfect execution.

On the whole, I enjoyed Ultron. This one felt more Whedony, which is what I wanted, but somehow it ended up on par with the first film for me. Big fights. Fun dialog interspersed. But we’ve seen that movie a couple times now. There is nothing that changes the status quo, compared to say, Winter Soldier, or even the battle of New York in the first Avengers. Nothing that expands the tonal range of the universe, compared to Guardians or Daredevil. I'm really mixed about how Hawkeye was handled too. I much prefer Clint as the fallible (failure-prone, even) Avenger. He does upstage Ultron by delivering the best speech in the movie, which does double-duty as a snarky meta-commentary of the MCU as a whole ("Look, none of this makes any sense...") and a truly awesome "it’s time to be a hero" speech. It also felt fairly in-sync with his comic persona.

As for the criticisms of how Joss handled Black Widow... I mean, Jesus Christ. Are we really arguing that Natasha having a love interest prevents her from being a strong character in her own right? Because that doesn't seem very feminist to me. Also, my word choice was deliberate: Banner is Natasha's love interest. She does all the brave stuff, courting him broad spectrum without seeming desperate. Meanwhile, he is timid and conflicted throughout. Her romantic interest doesn't diminish her stature on the team. And if you want a romantically aloof female character, look no further than Maria Hill. As a writer, it's really disheartening to see, because there really doesn't seem to be any winning where feminism is concerned. Only cannibalism.

That said, I don't think Whedon taking his ball and going home was the best play. I understand it. Death threats are appalling and nobody should have to put up with that kind of treatment. But quitting social media won't stop it. His reaction strikes me as very generational, which is weird to say about somebody whose writing has always been so hip and with it.

Personally, I don't think the "quiet place" he talks about is a thing anymore. For better or worse, Millenials have been groomed to crave constant contact and assessment, to ceaselessly produce content and respond to it. That interplay informs my writing process. Sure, it may be vain--toxic even--but that makes addressing that system more important. Admittedly, I know not of what I write. I don't have many readers (let alone legions of fans), and they are generally personal friends and family.

Getting back to the film, Spader has some fantastic lines and the perfect voice to deliver them. I think he would have shined even brighter with some more screen time but when you factor in all the big names in that cast, we get pretty well-acquainted with his genocidal tinhead. Aside from the creeping feeling of an aging brand, I think the biggest disappointment with the movie was Vision. There wasn't enough time to make him feel like something other than a literal deus ex machina. His power set could be described as "playing on godmode." Thanos ain't no thang with this dude around.

Even though I'm getting a little worn out by spectacle upon spectacle, I'm still gonna see Ant-Man, if only to hunt for traces of Edgar Wright's vision of the film. Expect more commentary then.

NOTE: (spoiler warning) my friend Kat Eason pointed out most of the criticisms about the handling of Black Widow related to her calling herself a monster because she was sterilized. I assumed that comment referred more to her being trained and forced to murder people at a young age, but the conversation could have been articulated more clearly. Given the envy she seemed to have for Clint's family, it's possible she felt broken, or monstrously disfigured. Or maybe it was just another way to relate to Banner. Given his socio-political track record, it's absurd to think Whedon believes that barren/sterilized women are monsters, but disappointing that he didn't consider how that conversation might come across.

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