Wednesday, May 20, 2015

"Everybody Plays the Fool" or Eternal Childhood and the Works of James Gunn

The Fool in The Tarot
[This post contains plot spoilers and discussion of explicit content!]

The "man child" trope has a derisive name, but I don't think it's automatically a bad character within the realm of fiction. I go to books and movies because I want a satisfying story and stories usually need a character to learn something. With this trope, we tend to start with someone naive, which could mean anything from emotionally stunted to frighteningly optimistic, who needs to be kinder, better, or more self-aware. While rarer in popular entertainment, this "man child" has shown up as a female character (see: Amy Poehler in Baby Mama [2008], Cameron Diaz in Bad Teacher [2011]). So if we're talking more classic, gender-neutral archetypes, this person would be closely related to The Fool, someone usually more clever than smart and unable to see the big picture.

I'm most interested when this character a) is a fictional entity with whom I don't have to interact with in reality if I choose not to and b) does immature things that have consequences.

Frank (Rainn Wilson) in Super (2010) gets to don a mask, defeat the bad guys, and save the girl, but he has to shed a great deal of blood in the process. Jimmy in James Gunn's first and only novel, "The Toy Collector" (2000), focuses on drugs and his collection of toy robots to the exclusion of family and friends. Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) in Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) can play Han Solo as long as he wants, but he has to fight to put together a family that resembles the love and support he has before leaving Earth as a child. The through line of all these works is both the celebration and deconstruction of the eternal childhood. Director/writer James Gunn gives us characters who live the power fantasy problematized by real world outcomes.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

[SPOILERS for Avengers: Age of Ultron] The One, Exceptional Woman

Promo featuring Scarlett Johansson in Age of Ultron
Why Black Widow's Character Development in Age of Ultron is Sexist

1. It isn't.

2. See one.

Okay, yes, a female character becoming romantically attached, thinking about reproductive issues, or getting captured can absolutely all be sexist. In the context of just this film, though, I don't believe it is. Black Widow spends her screen time doing the things she's always done, fighting robots, maneuvering motorcycles and bulldozers, rescuing people, and being indispensable to the Avengers in and out of battle. She's funny, vulnerable, brave, has clearly spelled out desires and motivations, and is more fully realized as a character than in any of the previous Marvel films. Her characterization left me refreshed and hopeful.

Age of Ultron's Natasha also felt true to the information we have regarding her past and personality. Like Winter Soldier, she remains a character defined outside of her romantic interests...even if she has them. Her other primary relationships on display are platonic. A good chunk of her screen time is devoted to her kinship with Hawkeye and his family. Alyssa Rosenberg from the Washington Post has described this development as “more subversive, at least by the standards of contemporary filmmaking: Natasha and Clint are what they say they are, not soulmates in denial but the best of friends.

And yes, I maintain the interpretation that the reason Natasha calls herself a monster in her conversation with Bruce is because she’s been trained to be a “killing machine,” not because she can’t have children. I understand why others have come to different conclusions as that scene has questionable editing if not outright bad juxtaposition. It is not, however, at the core of the conversation they're having, but ancillary to it. Even subtextually, they seem to be talking about isolation. Natasha is comparing her loss of autonomy to Bruce's. (Insert gif of black-clad ballerinas binding their hands behind their backs here.) As Katie Hasty writes, the scene isn’t about “lovers sussing out the logistics of family planning, but a woman mourning the loss of an option.

Boiling down Natasha Romanov to her romantic life and traumas is not just reductive as an interpretation but outright reactionary. 

Now, what is sexist: Black Widow’s the only female character on the core team up until this point. "The one, exceptional woman as good as the men" has been built into the choices of the Marvel Cinematic Universe from the beginning. 

No Wasp is there as a founding member for the Avengers; this world, as far as we've seen, doesn't have Sue Storm and the Fantastic Four. Because of this, Black Widow has to be perfect and only flawed in minor ways because “what are you saying about your female fans otherwise?” She’s the potential cipher for every female fan. Her fertility is suddenly not about her, it's somehow about all women and their fertility.

This has been lopsided since day one, an issue of patriarchy coded into the DNA of just about every film the studio has produced. The apple has had a worm in it from the beginning.

She’s not the only female character, of course: there’s Wanda Maximoff, Maria Hill, Jane Foster, Pepper Potts, Laura Barton, and Dr. Helen Cho. They’re all enormously competent and aren’t given as much screen time (or, sometimes, any) and development as the protagonists of the films so far. It’s a problem the end of Age of Ultron tries to rectify by bringing in Scarlet Witch to the team.

It doesn't change that so far in the MCU, being female is a deviation from the default hero.

I know exactly why Black Widow’s characterization has received the heat it has, and the reason why has less to do with Natasha saying, “I was forcibly sterilized” than the fact there’s no Captain Marvel movie out yet and no plans to make films for She-Hulk, Squirrel Girl, or even an interesting, conflicted character like Phyla-Vell. In a market where female roles in action films are usually limited to romantic interests, Marvel Entertainment needs to do better as a company. We can afford to have super powered women expressing different interests, abilities, and desires, fight the conception of what the default hero is, and make more films with female protagonists. 

I remember attending San Diego Comic-Con 2011. There was a Marvel panel promoting a film I had just learned about called Avengers.

During a Q&A session, a woman came up to the mic and said something along the lines of, “We have movies for Iron Man, Hulk, and Thor. Are we going to get a film about Storm from the X-Men?”

I recall one of the panelists looking concerned when she asked this. Instead of saying Sony still had the rights to Storm, he said, “We have to concentrate on other characters first.”

That decision has come back in an ugly way. Placing importance on what the studio assumed would do well--popular and male heroes--has caused a very specific, critical reaction to a primary female character. Guardians of the Galaxy proved a film with virtually unknown properties can still endear audiences and make money.

This problem runs deep, certainly deeper than Black Widow’s personal life. It's a problem of patriarchy and assumed defaults. To the people who have felt betrayed by Age of Ultron's depiction of women, I think I know where your anger is coming from, but I also know where it should be directed.

tl;dr The system is broken. Natasha isn’t.


Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Infinite Glass Slippers: Thoughts on Cinderella (2015)

Cinderella by Valentine Prinsep (1899)
I've embraced the newest film adaptation of Cinderella from Disney with more enthusiasm than I thought I would. Glossy frames, detailed sets, and expert editing can sell me on a whole lot in a visual medium. I embrace this Cinderella with hesitance, yes, but an eye toward the need for foundations.

The twist on this adaptation for Cinderella is that there is no twist. Lily James' turn on the character isn't Drew Barrymore's forward-thinking tomboy in Ever After. She's not the boastful, pixie-cut Leslie Caron in 1955's tongue-in-cheek, The Glass Slipper. She's not the flustered, conflicted heroine of Rossini's opera, La Cenerentola (1817).

Speaking of which, unlike the various adaptations of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella, while Cinderella sings in the film's climactic reveal, there's no big production numbers featuring Whitney Houston.

Lily James is dewey-eyed and insurmountably uncomplicated. Her worst offense is earning the disdain of her stepsisters by chatting happily to mice when she doesn't see anyone else around.

Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella (1997)
Kenneth Branagh's re-write is a softening of the character in the broader scope of live action adaptations, dismissing much of the agency she's been endowed with in previous incarnations. Her role is so deeply passive, rather than be given the chance to get the prince's attention when he arrives at her house, she sings "Lavender's Blue" during the film's climax. She does so by accident; the prince's retinue don't hear her and see she's locked away until the mice open the window for her. Barrymore's Danielle unabashedly saves herself but James' Ella isn't given the same chance.

At least Branaugh adds more definition to her than Disney's 1950 animated Cinderella, the one with which this film claims kinship. The animated main character of that feature is perfectly likeable the way Daphne from the original 1969 Scooby-Doo is likeable. Both are capable and nice (or at least, as Jessica Rabbit would purr, "drawn that way") but neither are designed to express much opinion outside the demands of the plot. They're charitable and kind because we never see anything denoting the contrary. They're pretty designs with a negative space where a character would be. Lily James' take is more animated than her cartoon counterpart.