This piece by Sady Doyle describes a problem she sees in too many Marvel films: a willingness to nearly forego characters in service of fights and set-pieces.
Character arcs aren’t negotiable. They’re not highbrow or pretentious or complicated. Character arcs are essential to the success of any story in any genre. To understand why all this matters, look at the Hulk’s arc in the first Avengers, which many people consider to be the most successful part of that movie. I would argue that it’s actually the most successful element of any Marvel movie to date. In the first Avengers, the Hulk (1) hates being the Hulk, (2) encounters a situation that can only be resolved by becoming the Hulk, and (3) embraces being the Hulk. Simple, right? Stupid simple. Yet it landed like a ton of bricks in the theater, because that’s what stories are. Stories use cause and effect to dramatize a process whereby a person is forced to change.
Hulk’s arc, simple as it might be, was a cause-and-effect process that dramatized a universal human problem: You might not always like yourself, so you can identify with someone who doesn’t like himself, and therefore,you will experience catharsis when a story gives the both of you permission to love yourselves. When he goes on that final rampage and slams Loki into the floor, that’s not just a cartoon causing some corporate-mandated violence: That’s you, loving your body despite being the “wrong” size, or making feminist points in a conversation without worrying that someone will call you a buzzkill, or being proud of your art despite the fact that it’s been rejected, or deciding that you can leave your abusive relationship because you are worthy of respect. Hulk smash inner self-loathing, and thereby becomes the most powerful force in the universe.
So finally, our hero, a suicidal man who has spent the whole movie telling himself he’s worthless and intrinsically inferior to other people, encounters Loki, an arrogant, sneering, hyper-critical, hyper-verbal character — a character who mysteriously chooses that very moment to begin a monologue about how worthless the Avengers are, and how inferior they are to him — and suddenly, Loki hits the floor. Hard. And every time Loki hits that floor, all over the world, the theater erupts with screams of joy. There is a release that goes beyond the rational or the personal, here: The noise of hundreds of strangers united for just one second in the realization that deep down, despite all the pain, despite all the shit they put themselves through, despite the endless cruelty that inner critical voice subjects them to, they don’t have to let it keep talking. Deep down, they are not ugly or stupid or unlovable or bad or worthless. Deep down, they are strong. They are heroes.
Speaking of heroes, here’s Joseph Campbell: “Atonement consists in no more than the abandonment of that self-generated double monster — the dragon thought to be God (superego) and the dragon thought to be Sin (repressed id).” When the superego’s judgment is no longer powerful enough to annihilate us (puny God) and the id is accepted by the ego without fear (I’m always angry), our wholeness is restored, our place in the cosmos is found, and we are free. It hits us so hard, all we can do is scream.
Don’t let anyone tell you that silly popcorn movies don’t matter, or that they can’t be smart or beautiful or profound. A silly popcorn movie can change your life. All it has to do is create characters with identifiable, human problems, and let them work out those problems over the course of the story. Stories are about change, and about people, because ultimately, they are about you, the person sitting in a dark theater, working out your baggage by projecting it onto CGI cartoons of overly handsome actors.
Here’s another way to put it: The extent to which a movie invests in character-based, character-driven storytelling is the extent to which it recognizes, appreciates, and honors the humanity of its audience.
So when Age of Ultron doesn’t invest — when it goes by the assumption that the formula, and the formula alone, is enough to appease the popcorn-eaters — it says something pretty bad.
And Doyle describes how short-cutting a story means the story relies on cliches and stereotypes:
But when the character-based screenwriting breaks down, so does the feminism. Black Widow is just as ill-served as every other character in that story, but because she’s a woman, it’s politically offensive as well as aesthetically offensive.
Let’s take a moment to recognize that, given the paucity of time for character work in Age of Ultron, nearly all of the character development is done with shortcuts. I’m talking real hack stuff, like “each character has a hallucination establishing his inner conflicts and backstory,” or “we know this character is old-fashioned because he doesn’t like swearing” (brought up so many times that I get the sense it was meant to pay off, in the same way the constant questions about Banner’s “secret” paid off last time — was there a climactic F-bomb from Steve that got cut for the rating?) or even “the circle of life is established by naming a baby after the dead guy.” (This, aside from giving me flashbacks to the infamously terrible ending of Harry Potter, is especially egregious because the baby’s mother never met the dead guy — and, if she ever knew that the dead guy existed, which is highly debatable, she knew him as “that guy who’s trying to murder my husband.” She names her baby after someone she never met, on the premise that her husband once slightly got along with him for about two hours. Stirring!) Jokes get underlined by characters explaining them and noting that they were humorous. Some characters just walk into a room, announce their backstory, and leave. (“How are you, Sam?” “I AM HAPPY PURSUING OUR MISSING PERSONS CASE IN DC.”) Nothing ever really gets written, or earned, just vaguely outlined. It’s a whole script made of placeholders.
But when you’re doing all your character work with shortcuts, and you have to write a shortcut for your female character, what do you come up with?She’s that one dude’s girlfriend, obviously, is a time-honored shortcut, used or teased by every Marvel writer who’s put Black Widow in a movie — as a woman, she’s an Other, and a sexual object, and therefore must be deployed as a potential or actual sexual reward for a male viewpoint character, rather than being a viewpoint herself. But that’s the same problem you find with every woman in every Marvel movie (Gamora, Agent Carter, Pepper, whatever Natalie Portman’s name is supposed to be) except for Maria Hill, who is clearly saving herself for her one true love, Exposition. If you want to deepen your female character past being a sexual object, in a movie that has no time or patience for anything resembling “depth,” what conflicts do you give her? Well, women have babies, right? Women want babies. Okay. She can’t have babies. She’s sad because she can’t have babies. There you go! Depth established!
I mean, it’s disgusting. Defining your female character’s motivation solely around the Betty Crocker axis of “wants boyfriend” and “wants babies” is 100% disgusting. But if you look around, all of this is disgusting, because all of the characters are exactly this vapid, because [“Avengers: Age of Ultron” writer and director Joss] Whedon can’t get more than five or ten minutes to establish or complicate their motivations, because Marvel is mandating that he not waste screen time on things like the characters’ motivations when he could be shooting ads for their other movies, because Marvel doesn’t care about men, women, or anything except getting you to show up in a few years for the next installment of Avengers.
I never thought I’d be the kind of person who believed that a crime against feminism was less important than a crime against storytelling, but in this case, they’re so interconnected that it’s hard to tell the difference. When you can’t write, you can’t write women.
And Doyle is concerned that maybe there’s a more depressing reason for the poor character development:
There’s an alternate interpretation for that Hulk-slams-Loki scene in the first Avengers. I try, very hard, to believe it’s not the correct one. Because it’s an evil message, which cynics will tell you is at the heart of every comic book movie. It is: Punching is better than talking.
It happens in a lot of big, commercial movies, right? There’s a guy who talks a lot, thinks, plans, tries to get somewhere by thinking. In the end, that guy is evil, because thinking is bad. He has to be subdued by the heroic brute: The guy who’s just “normal,” who’s more like you, more pure, because instead of thinking and analyzing, he just feels and does. Loki thinks he can get somewhere with a monologue, but surprise! Giant biceps trump clever monologue, every time.
So there’s your other interpretation, the thing I think is at the core of Marvel’s contempt for people: Punching is better than talking. Doing is better than thinking. Instinct is better than intellect; big is better than smart. We don’t need to understand the Stormtroopers; we don’t need to talk to them. That’s thinking, which is boring. We just need to kill: They don’t have names or histories or families or feelings, and by slaughtering them, thousands of them, we prove that we can do.
The audience doesn’t need dialogue or character or psychological growth. The audience needs explosions, because they’re animals, and all they want is blood on the floor. The audience doesn’t need to be surprised or challenged with a new story. The audience wants the old story, because they’ve bought it ten times already, and at the end of the day, we just convinced these f*cking yahoos to wait three years and pay us twenty dollars so we could tell them to come back in four years and pay us $40. Now you think they want personal growth? Give me a break. They’re barely even people.
I mean: You pump this message out into the atmosphere, and then you’resurprised when the biggest fans are ready to send death threats to a director to save the Almighty Brand? Punching is better than talking, rage is better than understanding, conflicts are resolved by annihilating the other person without feeling bad about it: You just told them that. Over and over, and made them pay for the privilege of hearing it. You can’t possibly be surprised that they believe it’s true.
It kills me that I am so bothered by this. I understand that these movies are power fantasies for nine-year-olds: At the end of the day, accepting that they’re stupid is probably smarter than wishing for them to be smart. But this is the epicenter of pop culture. Everyone is expected to share power fantasies with nine-year-olds now, and worse than that, to take them seriously; to make them into a lifestyle. The Marvel virus has already overtaken movies; now, it’s infiltrated a new host, TV, and is hollowing it out from within.
The aim is not one or two bad movies a year, it’s a total lifestyle regimen of bad pop culture: In order to keep up with the Avengers, you need to keep up with Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor, and in order to keep up with those, you should probably be watching Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., which will really help you keep up with Ant-Man, Doctor Strange, Captain Marvel, andGuardians of the Galaxy, and in order to make sure you’re on top of these nine essential movie franchises and able to make sense of their plots, you’ll need to keep a constant stream of Marvel product in your life, so make sure to tune in for Agent Carter, Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and, of course, the forthcoming Hulu triumphs, Ant-Man’s One Weird Friend Gary and Guy Running Away From Explosion In Panel 17.
The problems with Marvel’s storytelling will be the problems of narrative storytelling for the foreseeable future. Once this is over, we’ll be dealing with a generation raised on this stuff, who believes it’s how storytelling ought to work: Harry Potter came out when I was in high school. I’m in my thirties, and I still haven’t seen the end of the “serialized YA fantasy” onslaught. Something this big sticks around.
I love stupid popcorn movies. I do. I believe they can be emotionally resonant, mythic, that they can do the same thing all stories are meant to do — speak to the soul; challenge us to be more and better than we were — and can use big, fantastic elements to tell big, human truths. I also believe that Marvel has no investment in doing so; that, even if they manage to grab a director who is capable of doing those things, the prioritization of the brand and the formula over individual creators will ultimately sabotage the attempt.
Avengers: Age of Ultron wasn’t just bad. It was, to me, proof that Marvel movies, even at their best, can only be bad. And that they are going to get worse. The human mission has been lost: these are faceless Stormtrooper movies, unleashed in waves upon the presumed-to-be-faceless Stormtrooper audience. Stories are an affirmation of our human value; they teach us what life means, make and keep us human. Marvel, by removing the human from its storytelling, may be bringing about the end of story altogether. F*ck Ultron: Marvel Comics has built the army of machines that might really end the world.