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A Diamond in a Haystack

I’m always looking for the cream of the crop–a diamond you might say. It’s during this pursuit that I encounter mostly what you would call good efforts but not quite enough to earn high praise. It’s the only way I can describe my seeking of the rare unicorn that is what we would call a true masterpiece. That I have to dig through the sand to find these gems is just a natural part of enjoying art while trying to develop a refined taste for the good stuff. This isn’t to say I’m complaining. The truth is someone took time and care to create these substandard works that are meant to elicit an emotional and intellectual response. I say this ideally because there are definitely products that are devoid of this craftsmanship. They’re usually created with dollar signs in the eyes of the supposed artist, the classic get rich quick without putting in much effort. I begrudgingly call this shit art because of my own view of the word, but I can understand why someone can make the claim that it is in fact not. Just don’t get me started on why you’re wrong.

The most recent and glaring example of this type of hackery is Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, a film so devoid of any intellectual thought it made me write a click-bait article on how to fix it. The ill-advised attempt at would should have been a relatively straight forward creation is why I can confidently say either Zack Snyder has no idea what he’s doing or else he was trying to make the Inherent Vice of superhero films. Honestly, I’m not sure if I like either, but at least I felt like I was stoned with Paul Thomas Anderson’s hippie noir. Unfortunately, BvS‘s failure only confirms my suspicions of the superhero genre.

You might disagree with that. I can already hear the word “Marvel” roll off your tongue. And yet I would challenge your one word response. Marvel Studios in my estimation has released exactly one masterpiece, a few pretty solid films, some so-so ones, two maddening letdowns, one bland hero driven and sexist franchise, and one absolute bottom of the barrel entry. But more later.

I’m going to pick on the Marvel Cinematic Universe because they’re truthfully the only substantive studio releasing superhero films worthy of being considered. Outside of this juggernaut, I can think of only four other films worth discussing: Spider-Man 2, The Dark Knight, Watchmen, and the mostly unseen masterpiece Super. I would confidently elevate those four films up to what I would call the diamond tier. They inject humanity, intelligence, and voice of a generation that sadly has been ignored by mainstream film criticism. There’s no use discussing them because I’ll only end up gushing over them. I don’t think you’ll disagree.

The real discussion worth having is over the ever popular MCU, a genre-defining universe that is in no need of praise. Nor is it deserving of being eviscerated. Keven Feige and co. are geniuses who have honed and mastered a studio system to perfection, something that hasn’t been achieved since the late 50s. And that’s genuinely not a problem. There were plenty of diamonds to come out of classic Hollywood. Casablanca and most films by Hitchcock come to mind.

I shit you not, this essay started out as a review for One Republic’s middling album Dreaming Out Loud. In the what never was to be, I was going to write about how the song “Apologize” is the diamond on that album–the best pop song of the last decade even–and is surrounded by one other hit and and fewer radio friendly pop songs that are mostly forgettable. But somehow I got into superheros (I always do), and as I revise this, I can only say I had no idea what I was writing about till the end of this essay. And weirdly enough that’s usually how it goes with my blog entries. All the English degrees in the world can’t teach you how to improvise and make shit up as you go. It just takes experience and having no real idea what you’re talking about. I’m just confident enough to let the world see, and really, I don’t care what others think.  

 

1. The Masterpiece: Guardians of the Galaxy

I’ll start with the good. I from the bottom of my heart truly consider Guardians of the Galaxy to be one of the best populist films to come out this decade. It has the perfect blend of humor and heart, so simple and yet poignant. The only comparable film I can think of is the aforementioned Spider-Man 2. Both directors of these films wear their hearts on their sleeve and toe the tricky line of being earnest without being too delicate, and being funny without being corny.

I can’t tell you how many times I saw this film and still felt the hair on my arms raise when I saw the closing shot of Batista’s show stealing Drax petting Rocket as the sun goes down. That is heart if I ever saw it. There’s so many levels of greatness in this film I feel like a schoolgirl talking about it. Chris Pratt’s Starlord is a star making performance reminiscent of Harrison Ford, if he was only a tad bit more comical. Drax is a miracle. Ditto for Groot. You want a hyperbolic praise? Vin Diesel deserves some kind of award recognition for his work here and Iron Giant. That dude is the greatest meisner actor that you’ll ever actually know of. Then there’s Zoe Zaladana’s tough but still vulnerable Gamora. Look, I’ve heard Comic Book Girl 19 complain they strip her of her badassery from the comics, and I won’t argue with that critic I repsect, but what she lacks in fierceness she makes up for with humanity. Yes, she’s filling the role of the women who needs help, but she’s given her own fight with her own villain, and that alone is pretty remarkable for a Marvel flick. 

But all of this criticism is swept under the wrong because of how these characters are written in the context of the narrative. There’s chemistry between this odd team of actors and CGI characters that is truly amazing. I sincerely loved these people and was legitamely moved by Groot’s death, even though I knew he would grow back. This film is just silly enough to charm but really strokes your heart strings because it acknowledges this silliness and embraces it with open arms. Everyone goes on and on about The Avengers, and I always get frustrated because I just don’t see what’s so special. Those heroes are jerks to each other, and if wasn’t for Black Widow and Captain America I would have walked out of the theater.

But characters is not what makes this film so special. It’s the complete subtext running through it. Every character is pretending to be a macho he-man (and he-woman) while hiding their inner feelings. This is perfectly captured with the opening of the film, where we see a young Peter Quill watch his mom die of cancer. It’s a harrowing moment, one that would have been cheap and exploitative in lesser hands, but here is magical opening that immediately earns our trust and hearts. Our gang of b-grade heroes are all escaping their pains in pursuit of the McGuffin that is the infinity stone or whatever it’s called. I honestly don’t care. I was so moved by this film that I had to come back to the theater a week later with my my little nephew just because knew it’s something he’ll never forget, and hopefully will learn from. WE all need to accept one another no matter how irritating we may be. Months later I got the little guy the Blu-Ray copy of the film for his birthday. I was devastated was when my brother told me he lost it (he found it later behind the television stand).

That this film exists is a testament to Marvel’s trust in it’s filmmakers (unless your name is Joss Whedon or Edgar Allan Wright). And I respect that. James Gunn, the director and screenwriter, found a way to work within the Marvel studio system and create something both profound and entertaining, a complete work of an auteur at the top of his game. Hitchcock would have been proud.

 

2. The Pretty Good Ones

The next tier below the masterpiece tier are the top shelf films: films that are good but just don’t have what a diamond film should. Namely, these are Iron Man, Iron Man 3, Captain America: First Avenger, and Captain America Winter Soldier. I generally enjoyed these films but while I found them entertaining was a little disappointed in because they only skirt around the edges of emotional stimulation.

 

i. Iron Man

Take the first Iron Man. Roger Ebert once remarked in a interview (that I’m still trying to find as of this publishing–I’ll be sure to update it when I do) it one was of the greatest superheroes films when it was released in 2008. It’s was a telling statement of Marvel’s success right out of the gate but there just weren’t many made back then for that claim to hold any real weight.  A more appropriate adjective would have been influential, because that’s all Iron Man is. It was the first superhero film outside of Spider-Man 2 that felt alive. Batman Begins was dark and dour–a term I don’t use to imply bad however–to really even consider a superhero film. None of the Nolan Batman films are. Then there’s Blade, a slick and thrilling action film that pre-dated X-Men and could be argued was the spark the genre needed to get off the ground, but that felt juvenile with every character saying “fuck” and its many iterations just to secure an R rating (and everyone thinks Deadpool was the first “adult” oriented superhero film). And don’t even get me started on the lazy plot twist and rushed ending. These films are good stuff, yet hollow. Which is what Iron Man is. I’ve seen discussions in comment boards about how the film is a treatise on the weapon industry and how Tony Stark’s transformation from weapon developer to superhero is a reflection of that. I disagree. Tony follows his ego throughout the film and never changes. He sees an opportunity in selling weapons to foreign enemies and when that blows up in his face he finds opportunity in creating a suit that can save his ass.

It’s no secret fans liked the film because of Robert Downey, Jr.’s cocky performance and the groundbreaking CGI. Which isn’t a bad thing in itself; Marvel’s biggest strength has always been their strong characters and special effects, to the point where their films live and die by them. It’s just that everything else takes a back seat.

And if we’re being candid, I find the lack of feminist criticism of the film in major film outlets to be somewhat odd. Tony starts off the being interviewed by an attractive–in the impossible supermodel way that is supposed to make men raving dogs–reporter who appears to be earnest and intelligent. But all of this is a gag to show how much pull Stark has, cleverly implied by a quick cutaway from the scene where’s she asking intelligent questions and almost defying the audience’s stereotype of her, to a shot of her and Stark getting it on, relegating her to the butt end of a sex joke. Which, okay, is funny in a juvenile way, but let’s face it: if that film had been released after Twitter there would have been a firestorm over that scene.

And worse, the next morning, the reporter has to go through a walk of shame in front of Stark’s personal assistant Pepper Potts played by Gwyneth Paltrow (the start of a nasty trend of wasting Oscar nominated women who are cast as glorified girlfriends). My jaw dropped re-watching this last year when they start dishing out insults. I would have loved this when I was 16. Now, it’s mind boggling Ebert didn’t pick up on this. Nor anyone other critic I read at the time.

All of this stereotyping and juvenile sexism could have been swept up under the rug if they had just addressed the issue. But no, Stark never stops being a womanizing pig, and Pepper just has to become a love interest when there is absolutely no spark between the two (which again, is the start of regressive trend with talented actresses). It’s as if we’re allowing these two to hit it off because it panders to the men (who happen to make up the majority of mainstream film critics and audiences for this genre) that would have loved this film as long as it was cool and fun. That Stark is a hero in the comics has the making of great complexity, but that isn’t shown here. He might as well be called James Bond. What audiences seem hesitant to critique is and that sobering reality that Stark is an asshole, which is odd because he’s the exact type of guy many nerds would hate. No matter how engaging and charismatic Downey is, it doesn’t rectify this flaw.

People give it a pass because his Stark is an all time performance and equally because it was a resurrection for the once Oscar nominated actor. He had just had a string of controversies over drug use and alcoholism and was considered used goods. But people love an underdog, and man did Downey swing for the fences. It’s a great performance, and it’s rightfully earned him some major haul as far getting paid goes, but it’s odd to see people cheering for what is a narcissist, which the character will spell out in the sequel. I don’t get it.

 

ii. Captain America: First Avenger

This same hollowness can be felt in the other three films I listed. Of those, Captain America: First Avenger is by far the most emotionally satisfying however. When first released, critics dismissed it as a film merely created to set up the inevitable onslaught of the Avengers film, and while this claim was no doubt true, it nonetheless was a surprisingly emotionally engaging tale about Marvel’s supposed boring hero Captain America (which he’s not, but more on this later). What I appreciated the most about that the film is that it completely eschews the trappings of superhero conventions and ends up being a delightful little war film that is framed by the small arc of an overachieving wimp and his best friend.

Bucky was always going to die in this film, because for the longest time, he and Uncle Ben share the dubious honor of being those who never come back. And that really is what robs the film of it’s of the impact of what should be a complete surprise. Even as a non comic book fan, I kind of just shrugged when the dude fell off the train. I don’t know what it is, but I just can’t take this stuff seriously when there’s dudes who wear capes and are essentially invincible keeping law and order.

But it doesn’t matter, because nerds knew he was going to die, and they might have spoiled it for some of us ignoramuses, so there you have it. Just stay dead Bucky. It’s unfortunate his death doesn’t land as much of an emotional punch as it should, much like the new Star Wars failure in making Han Solo’s death any meaningful. This should be bringing me to tears, but instead I simply mutter “meh” (I can’t believe I just used that fucking term). But despite the odds, it does a pretty damn good job, and I appreciated the effort.

Moving on–the film is also succinct. It  doesn’t feel too long nor too short. It just hits that sweet spot where I can catch it on TV after work and kick back on the couch and not have to put much effort into the experience. And above all else, I’m thankful that the film employed a very well welcomed use of montage to gloss over what would have been endless fight scenes that contribute nothing to the narrative.

What ultimately knocks this film down a notch is that it just doesn’t have the expert craftsmanship that Guardians does. It’s a 4 start film posing as a 3.5 star (I don’t even know if that makes sense). What I mean is that there’s  better film buried in there that just isn’t brought out.  I’ll be honest, this is a matter of taste, but I just can’t call it a masterpiece. Kiss kiss.

 

iii. Captain America: Winter Soldier

As you can see though, there’s a pattern starting to emerge. Despite how entertaining the films in this tier are, they’re lacking any real depth. Winter Soldier comes the closest out of all of them to actually making a profound statement, but the last third of that film completely abandons any real dealings with it’s supposed critique of government intrusion and spying in order to satisfy fans who want to see Captain America fight while CGI rendered destruction porn plays out in the background.

And remember how I mentioned Bucky’s death was lacking much emotional investment? Well that only weakens this film because most audience members have absolutely no reason to share the Cap’s torture at finding out his best friend is now alive and the bad guy (why couldn’t you just stay dead Bucky?!). This problem is only exacerbated by how little the film makes of Bucky’s ties to the silly organization known as Hydra (how the hell no one saw this coming for over sixty years is comical but I’ll give it a pass). We see a quick scene that shows how Bucky has been programmed, but nothing is made of it. I wager much of this would have been shown in the comics, but the film unfortunately pays lip service to it.

Despite this, what carries the film is how the directors create a visceral punch with the action. The Russo Brothers have crafted a gripping narrative that is just plain exciting. The car chase alone is enough to make me want to watch the film again. Plus there’s that cool one take where Sebastian Stan flips the knife up in the air and catches it with a cool motion with his arm (I really hoped that dude worked his ass off for the shot). And Chris Evan’s stuntman Sam Hargrave absolutely brings a whole new dimension to Captain’s fight style. His work in the elevator sequence is the mark of a professional through and through. He deserves an Oscar if they ever create one for the undervalued dudes who put their life on the life for what are essentially popcorn flicks.

Also adding to the mix is the flirtatious play between Black Widow and our titular hero. It’s sincere and friendly, and while I entertained the thought of them making the perfect couple, I was relieved that the filmmakers never succumbed to the urge. It is not hyperbolic for me to say that Scarlett Johansson’s subtle humanization of this character is the greatest depiction of a woman in any superhero film. Which is devastating because Marvel won’t give her her own solo film. By the time Phase 3 is finished Johansson will be just at the age where’s she old enough to be relegated to playing Peter Parker’s aunt (I had to). It’s a welcome miracle that the Russo brothers absolutely nail the relationship without having to hold our hands with scenes explaining how they formed this bond. By not resorting to time wasting exposition, we can satisfyingly deduct through the subtext how close the two have become between The Avengers and this film.

Equally impressive is Captain America’s relationship with the Sam Wilson, aka Falcon. It’s obvious the actors playing these roles get along well in real life, and it’s simply comforting to see them have a healthy relationship without fighting each other. If there’s anything that annoys me the most about comics and superhero films, it’s that these supposed good guys are always fighting each other, which simply baffles me about why I should be rooting for them in the first place.

But again, this film on the surface appears to be about something meaningful, but is really just an entertaining vehicle to move the chess pieces forward towards the culmination of phase two. We need to create a motivation for the Captain America’s and Iron Man’s beef in Civil War, and what should be a film that ends with more exploration of Bucky’s Winter Soldier instead shoves it off to the next film. And Hydra? They never play a major role in these films again except for an the opening of Avengers: Age of Ultron. So much for building towards a unifying narrative. Make what you will of Nolan’s Batman trilogy, but those films told a complete and unified tale that justified it’s sequels. I don’t sense this with the MCU.


iv. Iron Man 3

Now, before I go any further, let me be honest. I watched Iron Man 3 on my iPad during a four hour flight from Detroit to Florida, and I’m pretty sure if I rewatched it on my TV in the comfort of my house, I probably would find it enjoyable. No matter how much I might enjoy it though, it absolutely grinds my gears in it’s exploitative use of PTSD.

Again, I’ve seen comment board users argue that this the film is a meaningful portrayal of the mental disorder. But let me ask you, how can it be meaningful when it has no consequence or effect on Stark? He’s still able to defeat the bad guy without getting any treatment for it other than having conversation with a kid, and worse, somehow loses the ailment altogether by the time he appears in Avengers: Age of Ultron. This really bugs me, and the only reason I put it in this tier is because I trust the opinions over at Birth.Movies.Death. enough to give this film another shot. But to say it is enlightening examination of the disorder is an insult to anyone who suffers from it. If you’re going to pull this card, follow through with it. Don’t just make it a one and done deal.

Which leads to my next point and tier. None of these films have consequences that bear out and other films. For example, at the end of Winter Soldier, Nick Fury has thrown in the towel after SHIELD has been disbanded. But just one film later in Ultron he’s now back with a new carrier, magically appearing for the action. And by the end of that film, a new SHIELD like organization has been formed. There’s no narrative weight at all in what happens. Just like the comic books, nothing is set in stone. I can’t wait till Marvel inevitably starts striking out and makes the decision to kill off and revive characters just to ramp up the stakes (oh wait…). 

To the writer and director Shane’s Blacks credit, this auteur at least gives Pepper a role in the stakes of this film. I watched Comic Book Girl 19’s review of this film and could not get past her complaint about this narrative device. I don’t want another damn damsel in distress, and it’s just rewarding to see an Acadamey Award winning actress get her own fuck yea moment. Sorry Tony, but you’re a dick and this is Paltrow’s moment to shine. So for the second time in this behemoth of an essay, I have to hesitantly say CBG19 is wrong. Even if she knows a lot more about comics and films than I do. There, I hope she doesn’t read this.

It’s a fun movie that smartly shatters audience’s expectations in regards to the Mandarin, but they waste that twist on a forgettable villain in Guy Pearce, who has the dishonor of being the rich white guy who has a vendetta against Stark over pretty petty shit. And let’s be honest, when Guy Pearce is wasted, we’re all sad a little inside.

Strangely enough, this film has the makings of what should be a great action flick, but it just fucks it up with using PTSD syndrome as a character device for Stark. Will he still have PTSD in Civil War? He sure as hell didn’t in Age of Ultron, unless you considered being mind fucked by the Scarlet Witch to be a symptom, in which case everyone suffers from it in that film.

 

3. The Disappointments

Which brings us to this next tier that is all about shortcomings. This category is comprised solely of The Avengers and its sequel Avengers: Age of Ultron, both written and directed by the brilliant Joss Whedon, a filmmaker whose name should be up in the masterpiece tier. What should have been a mind blowing breakthrough in the superhero genre, ends up being a crowd pleasing and critically unengaging junk food.

Before I take a dump on these films, let me be clear: I am a Joss Whedon fanboy. Buffy the Vampire Slayer is fun and a revelation in its embracement of feminism, but it’s really his masterful sci-fi flick Serenity that sold me on his work. That film has just the right amount of heart, humor, and characterization that makes me completely ignore it’s wobbly effects and TV look.

To a slighter extent I’m also a fan of the related show Firefly, of which Serenity is based. The show’s pretty good for what it is, a smartly written sci-fi adventure serial that hinted at the possibility of being something really special. It only lasted one season but it feels like the perfect vehicle for Whedon to flex his muscles and in my opinion is his best show.

What I can say about his second best show Dollhouse is that it’s a work of serious thought and intellectualism, but ends up butchered by Fox’s mishandling of it. Much like Serenity, it was killed before it had a chance. And while we eventually got the better film Firefly, Dollhouse will forever be a handicapped horse on display for everyone to weep at. What is painful about being a fan of Whedon’s work is that so much of it has been hampered by moronic studios and and networks. Dollhouse has one hell of an intriguing premise. Imagine if corporations created a technology that could allow a person to live through another person’s body. It’s thought provoking and opens up a world of possibilities, but sadly was mandated to be a serialized Charlie’s Angels style flavor of the week.

The show lasted two seasons, getting abruptly canceled midway through the it’s second year. However, the creators were able to squeeze in a planned future three seasons of story lines into about five episodes, and it drives me to insane to see what they were going for and instead getting a messy and rushed finale. But they pulled it off, and that makes what is a very flawed show his second best achievement.

But let’s get to my absolute favorite work of the master. Whedon’s magnus opus is a small and intimate adaptation of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. It’s hard to make an actual good adaptation of a play by the Bard. There’s just not much you can do to get out of the way of his words. And yet, Whedon finds a way to craft a visually engaging adaption that compliments the verbosity of the play. Just look at how funny it is when Beatrice falls down a flight of stairs while eavesdropping on friends or by cleverly switching Conrade’s gender to create a whole new sexual dynamic between her and Don John. Whedon had the correct instinct to make a screwball comedy out of a screwball play by intelligently stripping down the film to its bare essentials, greatly exemplified by shooting it in black and white. Shakespeare and Whedon were meant for each other, and I can only wish for the latter to write a play one day.

All of which makes the Avengers films absolutely maddening. Just watching them I can see the struggle that Whedon had with Marvel play out. And while I have grown accustomed to this scenario with his work, I still can’t get over it. These films have the superficial traits that Whedon’s known for, mainly his use of quips that audiences laugh at and surprise deaths by characters who we aren’t expecting to die. But this is all window dressing. These films are so hollow that the only thing that makes me appreciative of them is that Whedon finally got paid and received mass recognition for his work. I hope he gets a pass to make whatever inkling wants to now. He deserves it.

 

i. The Avengers

Let me explain, because a lot of people like these films, especially the first Avengers. I’ll concede, the characterization of this team of heroes is spot on. These guys have egos and they play off each other like jocks. But I don’t get the appeal. Which is why I struggle to keep reading comics for periods of time. I don’t want to see superheroes fight. It’s beneath, well all of them but Thor, and worse it’s redundant. Why can’t two superheroes just bump into each other and say “Sorry, my bad.” It’s funny, so many nerds hate sports, and yet they cheer on guys who might as well be boxers or football players. But this is just me ranting. My beef is that there’s absolutely no narrative weight at all to them. They exist just to move the chess pieces towards the respective phase 2 and phase 3. This is more egregious with the first film. The majority of running time is spent trying to get this HGH laden group of egotistical heros to align as a team. And that’s it.

Oh yeah, they have to save the world, because superhero, but really, there’s nothing even remotely meaningful in this film. Which is absolutely not what Whedon would do if this was his singular vision. Even worse is how little heart there is. Whedon is cut from the same cloth as James Gunn. Sometimes he has so much heart that he gets sappy. This has none of that. It’s just a gathering of heroes who have a cool CGI fight and some satisfying chemistry that I find annoying.

 

ii. Avengers: Age of Ultron

Fortunately, Age of Ultron does have some meat to its bones, although I think Whedon and/or Marvel muddles it up. In this film, there’s lip service paid to the nature a superhero’s role in war and achieving peace. The is exemplified by Tony Stark’s accidental creation of Ultron, which kinda does and doesn’t make sense. Ultron is made from Stark’s psyche or some mumble jumbo, and I honestly, I couldn’t care less. It’s all there to set up the forthcoming Captain America: Civil War. But the film does try. And I appreciated the effort of injecting heart into this mess, however misguided both attempts may be.

First is the reveal that Hawkeye has a family out in the country. It’s a well meaning gesture, but is unfortunately a characterization of Whedon’s one true flaw. He tends to go too broad and into cliches to create familiarity with his characters, and here it’s just completely tone deaf. Part of the this failure can be attributed to Jeremy Renner, who is a stiff actor who has absolutely no chemistry with his homely wife played by my personal favorite Linda Cardellini. A maybe better way (I really hate trying to suggest what a professional filmmaker should do) they could have represented Hawkeye would have been by taking inspiration by Matt Fraction and David Aja’s run on the Hawkeye comic series. Renner would have been perfect for that characterization. Instead we got this cliche of a farm and family life and blah. Whatever.

The second ill advised attempt, and this is a big one, is to make Bruce Banner, aka the Hulk, the love interest of Black Widow. Yes, there’s a genuinely moving moment when we see Black Widow carefully hold out her hand to the Hulk’s massive mitten. But that doesn’t mean they had to make the two sleep with each other.

On a purely idea level, I have no problem with the relationship. It’s really the lack of development. I mentioned how I liked the friendly flirtations between Widow and Captain America. Well that was just one film prior to this one and now, again, Scarlett Johansson has to be part of a relationship that starts to give the impression that she’s only defined by the man she’s associated with. Don’t believe me? Besides these two films, she’s also defined by her friendship to Hawkeye in the first Avengers flick, and is the sexy femme fatale who exists only to play off Tony Stark–who is obviously aroused by her–in Iron Man 2. It’s just degrading by the point. Black Widow is a badass, and Scarlett Johansson is a badass, so why are we wasting her in a pointless relationship?

Again, this is Whedon’s worst trait. He goes too broad and uses a cliche to try to get us to relate to his characters. Much furor has been made by Black Widow’s admittance that she feels like a monster because, depending on how you interpret her words, she a) she was sterilized and can no longer have children, thus less of a woman, or b) less of a human because of she was brainwashed to be a killer and therefore has lost her humanity, which is what the sterilization is thus a metaphor for. Many people have chosen option “a” as their interpretation–most notably by the sometimes film critic Matt Zoller Seitz over at RogerEbert.com in his backhanded positive review–and charged the characterization as sexist. Which is odd because Whedon is a self declared feminist and created one of the most beloved female superheros of all time in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. These critics clearly don’t adhere to the auteur theory.

I actually see it both ways, but don’t fall into the uncritical trap of calling it sexist. Whedon is clearly trying to show how damaged Black Widow is, especially in the light of her feelings for Banner (which by the way is the only attempt made to convince the audience these two have an any interest to be involved with each other). Even if you believe in option “a”, many women share this sentiment. There’s nothing wrong for a woman to say she feels less of a person because she can’t have kids. Believe or not, some people view children and family as something they should define themselves by. And to get mad that Whedon is attempting to draw empathy using this angle is just wrong and misguided.

The truth is, all of this confusion and problematic areas could have been avoided, because this romance is completely unnecessary. It’s such a lousy cliche and shortcut that doesn’t work. The emotion doesn’t land, and I definitely don’t buy into this relationship. Tell me how we can have all these damn films, and yet we don’t even get to see her relationship with Banner grow throughout time, but rather are forced to accept that between films they hit it off? That is a huge missed opportunity, and much like how we’re supposed to empathize with Bucky and Captain America’s relationship, this is and undercooked relationship that in my opinion sours the film. It’s supposed be the beating the heart of it, and instead sinks it.

Sure, there’s other problems. There’s the baffling pool scene with Thor, the CGI shitfest at the end, the terrible Russian accents from what are American actors but should be Russian actors. But this is all surface complaints. The reality is that both Avengers are bloated and hampered by Whedon’s worst tendencies, which might have been brought on by Marvel. I honestly don’t know, but I certainly don’t want to watch them again to find out. They are simply put, wasted material. And damnit, just like these Oscar nominated actresses, this Oscar nominated writer deserves better.

 

4. The In-Betweeners

I should add that while I wanted to focus solely on the Avengers films, I also must mention the other two that I was on the fence about. Consider the films Iron Man 2 and Ant-Man somewhere between “The Disappointments” tier and “The Pretty Good Ones” tier.

 

i. Iron Man 2

The first film, Iron Man 2, gets what I believe is a bad rap. Fans of Marvel have called it the worst of the Marvel films, which completely baffles me. The film is in no ways a crowning achievement, but the complaint that it’s just there to introduce us to the world of SHIELD and the Avengers is, while true, something that can be charged with all the Marvel films to some extent. I honestly believe that this film is purely carried on the back of Robert Downey, Jr., and despite its banality of a blot, is rather enjoyable. Maybe it’s my Ocean’s 11 of the Marvel films in that there’s no real reason for it to exist and yet I’m completely enamored with it. The only problem is that it genuinely lacks real heart, which is why I can’t put it into the same ballpark as the brilliant Captain America films. Plus, it relegates Johansson to a non speaking role and sexist deprection as the hot secretary. Yes she’s hot, but that woman is more than just eye candy. ‘Nuff said.

 

ii. Ant-Man

Along these same lines is the film Ant-Man. Part of me feels this film got a lot of sympathy because of the whole Edgar Allan Wright fiasco. Critics went in expecting this film to tank, to finally be the straw that broke the camel’s back, and instead were treated to a somewhat delightful little fun and satisfying film. You know it did something right when Wesley Morris, formerly of the ahead of its time Grantland, admitted it exceeded his expectations and was kind of surprised by liking it.

The problem is, this film has some a few character flaws that really knock it down from “The Pretty Good Ones” tier I want it to be in. Namely, its acknowledgement of and while at the same time openly sexist treatment of Hope van Dyne, who is set to become the superhero Wasp. The ever charismatic Evangeline Lilly is given absolutely nothing to do in this role other than be a plot device to move Paul Rudd’s bored portrayal of Scott Lang (serious, people praised the performance but he looks he doesn’t want to be there–he had more energy in Anchorman 2) forward as a hero.

Even more insulting is a throwaway scene at the end of the film that shows van Dyne and Lang making out. Again, like Age of Ultron, here’s a romance that we’ve never seen develop. And worse, it’s completely unnecessary. Why are the so few female superheroes always thrown into romances with men in these films? That this gets a pass is just disheartening when here is a real sexist problem–unlike in Age of Ultron. Supposedly the filmmakers perform a mea culpa of sorts via a post credit stinger where we see van Dyne discover the Wasp costume and say,”It’s about damn time.” No, it was about time when Johansson came on the scene, now it’s just spinning wheels. Why the hell wasn’t that in the movie and not in a stinger that a small part of the audience would not see? That would have given her misused character some real shape and could have been injected into the plot. Instead van Dyne is reduced to a love interest who doesn’t even get a chance to develop the romance.

You want to see a master filmmaker use Lilly to great effect then watch the Hobbit films. She’s given agency, she’s given her moments to shine, and she even is attracted to a male character but isn’t tied down to an unnecessary romance. For all the crap the those films get, they actually improved on the material by giving a woman a meaningful role from a book that doesn’t have a single female character. Yes, the films that everyone love to hate aren’t all that demeaning to its female character. I don’t get it.

This might seem like minor quibbles. The film has a very welcome humor to it, no doubt a product of both the leftovers from Wright’s abandoned script and the comedic hand of director Peyton Reed, who I’m not familiar with but have heard good things about. More so, this film is small and doesn’t end up with our hero trying to save the world. I appreciated that it was a heist film. It’s a smart movie. It’s just that this film is not up to par with the Captain America and Iron Man films. Much is to be made about Scott Lang’s failings as a father and attempt to reconnect with his daughter, but it is undercooked, and much like Tony Stark’s PTSD, is a cliche used to inject familiarity with these characters.

But let me be be fair about all of this; I’ve only seen the film once in theaters, and would definitely want to rewatch it. I don’t know if my opinions would change, but I definitely think it’s possibility. Hence, why I’m hesitant to put in either tier.

 

5. The Ugh Category

Which brings us to the next tier, or as a I like to say, the Natural Ice of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. You don’t want to watch them, but in a pinch they will do. These slogs are Thor and its sequel Thor: The Dark World.

Remember when I said Marvel lives and dies by it’s characters? Well, it’s this very reason that makes the Thor films so bland. Non-comic book readers claim Captain America is the most boring Marvel superhero. I’ve never understood this because he is the freaking embodiment of the American values. Imagine if they had made George Washington into a superhero. Well guess what, they did and his name is Captain America. That my friends is one hell of a character. We, and by that we I mean US citizens and to an extent all citizens of the world, could do right by following the patriotic but definitely not jingoistic hero who almost naively stands up for an idealism we can only wish to have a sliver of. That’s not boring. That’s the embodiment of the mythos of the founding of this great nation.

Thor, on the other hand, is boring. Yes, he’s a god, and while that should be interesting in itself, has the same problem that DC superheroes fall into. They’re supposed to be revered and all powerful, but this is often comes at the expense of any real development. Which is why I absolutely loath the thunder god. He’s essentially a meat head, and worse, never really earns our admiration nor respect for him during the course of these two films. Now, I’ve never read his comics (I’m an X-Men and Howard the Duck kind of guy) but just from these films, I can only say they absolutely assume we should root for him because he has a cool hammer and man does he have some chiseled abs.

Which pleasantly enough, is what these films do best. They show a handsome hero from the female gaze. It’s as if the filmmakers know women like comics. And just as men want to see women such as Emma Frost prance around in panties in a bra, woman want to see Thor shirtless and cut. Hell, I was turned on by him.

 

i. Thor

But that gesture is not enough to make these films work. As much as they cater to a female audience, they also backhandedly insult them with the completely unnecessary romance between Thor and the woefully misused Natalie Portman’s character Jane Foster. Foster is a woman who finally seems to have a meaningful career and independence, and really should have been a standout example of progressiveness in the behind of times (or maybe of its time, sadly) use of women in film. She’s a kick ass scientist, and has a female friend and coworker who’s a pretty engaging character herself. The two even have a conversation that passes the banal but sadly low bar that is the Bechdel test. So why is she forced to be in a romance with a dude that is a stereotypical jock without much redeeming qualities other than his brother is a bad guy, so naturally he must be the good guy?

To his credit, Kenneth Branagh–a director I admire immensely–attempts to exploit these shortcomings into an display of camp in the first film. And honestly, he might have succeeded here just as he did with his sadly underrated adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Both are not ashamed to embrace their stupidity and go for broke with their broad takes on these myths. And Branagh is an absolute expert at this, a guy known for directing numerous Shakespeare adaptations (now that guy understood camp and schlock), but his film is sunk by Thor the character.

Addding fuel to the flames is the actor portraying Fabio. This is going to sound harsh, but I just don’t think Chris Hemsworth is a charismatic enough actor to play a leading man. Look at his films he’s starred in: Snow White and the Huntsmen, Red Dawn, Blackhat, In the Heart of the See. I’m tempted to throw Rush in there because it’s a Ron Howard film but I’ve haven’t seen it and I’ve heard the sports guru Bill Simmons praise it on his podcast The B.S. ReportMaybe this is just a result of being in bland films, or maybe it’s reflection of his talent. It’s an unfair argument to make, and to be honest, I want this guy to succeed. Because despite his own meat head persona, he has shown to be quite endearing when this trait is exploited in service of the narrative. Specifically, what comes to mind is his role in era-defining horror film Cabin in the Woods (which just happened to be co written by Whedon–man that guy is good). I could see him being the next Keanu Reeves–which he actually sort of was in Blackhat. So yeah, he technically on paper is a good fit for Thor; it’s no doubt the reason he was cast for the part.

But like I said, Thor is boring.

To wit: in the first film he really does not have a redeeming arc. In the film, Thor is set to take over his father’s kingdom to the dismay of Loki, an adopted son and therefore not worthy successor. Thor, naturally, doesn’t even deserve this honor. Yes, he’s heroic, but he lacks compassion and thoughtfulness that should be a requisite for the position. Instead of King Arthur, he’s William the Conqueror. And while in the past that might have been fine, is quite regressive for this kingdom in this day and age.

And I get it. This gives Loki’s turn as a bad guy some much welcome ethos. Many would argue he’s justified. It’s a great plot development, but wouldn’t it be better to see Thor fight him and gain some intelligence from this battle? He’s like Tony Strark, a guy that doesn’t earn the right to be the hero or get the girl, but does so because he’s an alpha dog. Again, maybe if Thor hadn’t been thrown into a romance with the brilliant scientist Jane, I might have given this a pass. Instead, I get to see a jock win when he doesn’t deserve it. They could have exploited this inevitable plot development by creating a moral and message from it. But instead, Thor wins, and Jane now has to quit her job to be a housewife. Actually, that would have been kind of a happy ending. Instead Thor leaves her to go back home and doesn’t even have the decency to bring her along in the Avengers films. I guess Marvel can only handle one woman at time.

 

ii. Thor: The Dark World

As redundant as this is, the character Thor is what sinks Thor: The Dark World. I’ll admit, the sequel is way better than the first film, but its still painfully obvious that Thor just isn’t a commanding presence that I want to spend an entire film with. I don’t how he got his own franchise when Black Widow is hanging out with all the other dudes in the Avengers. I certainly don’t want to root for the jock. Which is why it is a breath of fresh air by allowing Loki to be a quasi-good guy in this film. He’s by far Marvel’s most engaging villain, just beating Ultron by a mile, and it’s great to want to root for his success. However, he get’s killed off two-thirds of the way into the film, and we’re left with Thor battling a villain who’s had no development whatsoever.

The film is not a completed failure by any means. There’s a nice dose of humor, and while not to the level of camp that Branagh so wisely injected, feels modern and welcoming. The women in this film are given to something to do. Kat Denning’s comedic side is allowed to shine in her portrayal of sidekick Darcy Lewis. Like I said, it’s as if these filmmakers understand women like watching these films. But that does not excuse their complete waste of Foster. Why is an Academy Award winning actress being relegated to supporting role in a D-level superhero film where she isn’t the superhero? Portman should be freaking Captain Marvel and is instead girlfriend number #301. Which begs to me also ask: why are these films that are clearly considering the female audience–who by the way happens to make up 51% of the population–not bold enough to cut out the romantic wish fulfillment and instead full on embrace this female character? Why can’t Foster be the one to teach Thor a lesson, to be the instigator of change, to be the one who must make Thor earn her love, thereby making Thor a better man?

 

iii. Thor (again)

I said this film was better than its predecessor, but the more I think about it, Branagh’s effort might have been the more modern thinking of the two. Despite its banal romance, there is definitely an audience, and I don’t mean the female audience now, that would cherish this film. I’m talking about the gay community, who certainly might celebrate its camp undertones and embracement of the male figure. Just think about that for a second. Thor might be the only Marvel film that caters to the LGBTQ community. Just go to a drag show and watch the audience get swept up in the full on display of shameless but I don’t give a fuck entertainment, and compare it to how shameless Thor is with its display of macho men and scene chewing performaces by all but winking actors such as Anthony Hopkins. God almighty, Asgard might as well be a disco club with it’s flaming rainbow bridge and new wave/futuristic/retro/anachronistic/I don’t know how to describe costumes. I think Portman might have even picked up on this current in the film, with her hilarious delivery of the line”wow” when she sees meat head in all his glory. If Branagh hadn’t made Frankenstein this thought would have probably never entered my hand. But I think he might have been on to something. Just don’t let Ted Cruz know. 

Holly hell, after typing this I’ve decided I need to watch Thor again. It just might make me move it up a couple of tiers. Oh wait, they wasted Idris Elba… nevermind. Fuck this film.

 

6. And Then There Was One

Which brings me to the final tier– which is unworthy of a nickname–which is filled by the one film that most MCU fans don’t even consider a proper entry in the universe. I’m talking about The Incredible Hulk. It really is not worth discussing; it’s just bland and has a protagonist even less engaging than Thor.

It’s amazing, after all the incarnations of the Hulk, the de facto performance of Bruce Banner comes from a low budget TV show in the 70s and 80s. Bill Bixby (just beating out Mark Ruffalo) plays the defining portrayal of Banner (who’s first name has been changed to David for the most childish reason). He is the embodiment of a tormented soul, who we always see walking alone at the end of each episode, a stranger in a country he should call home with not a friend in the world. It’s a portrayal that spoke to a generation of men in similar positions. America had lost the Vietnam War, and vets came home to the scorn of the WWII generation. Whereas beatniks such as Kerouac celebrated the life on the road and the adventure of the unknown, this drifting lifestyle was instead a predicament veterans now saw themselves in. So many would end up homeless or later without proper healthcare.

I realize now that I haven’t talked about the official Marvel adaptation. In all honestly I have no reason to. Edward Norton is completely miscast in the role and it ends up being an all out CGI rendered battle once again. It’s amazing that a low budget TV could create something far more meaningful with just a few tricks of the trade: thoughtful writing, eanest acting, and a bodybuilder wearing green body paint and a terrible wig. And it is the complete antithesis to the modern superhero film. Hell, the Hulk doesn’t even fight super villains in it. There would eventually be a couple of TV films that show him team up heroes such as Thor (which by the way, is the de facto portrayal of the character) but even these were grounded in reality and focused more on the characters rather than spectacle of the fights.

I swear it with the bottom of my heart that the TV is show by far the greatest adaptation of a MCU superhero. It has meaning, resonance, real character arcs and interactions. Banner always does the right thing, even when he knows it put him at a disadvantage. And unlike most serialized entertainment, it kept me wanting to come back for more. The show was a staple of my brother and my childhood in the 90s, and now I see my brother’s nine-year-old son watching it and wanting to be the Hulk, a full 20 years after I first watched it, and that makes my heart sing.

 

7. A Diamond in a Haystack

People love the Marvel films. I’m simply not one of them. I like them, I respect them, and I certainly want more of them. They’re fun and well constructed. I’ve watched all of them just as you have. But let’s be real: none of these films outside of one outlier truly resonate on a real human level. And that is perhaps my biggest disappointment with them.

I have a love hate relationship with comics because so many of them are trash. For instance, two of the worst is Brian Michael Bendis’s run on the Uncanny X-Men and Frank Miller’s accidental masterpieces that is complete in a modern critque. And those are just two! I won’t even get into the mega crossovers that drag on for six months and could be told  in  week. Just let this sink in: the Days of Future Past plot line in X-Men, considered one the best in all comics, is two freakin’ issues! That would have two months in2016.

I’m not even talking superheroes comics anymore. Try to find a great graphic novel that hasn’t been written by Alan Moore or Charles Burns. I go to the library often, and always grab a random graphic novel from the small selection they have, and I’m just away by how bad they are.

Fortunately, while there’s just not that many, the few diamonds I have found are as follows: Neil Gaiman’s run on Sandman, Chris Claremont and John Byrne’s masterful soap opera that was the Uncanny X-Men for two decades, the recent Hawkeye series by Matt Fraction and David Aja, Charles Burn’s Black Hole, and of course Watchmen, hopefully now Ta-Nehisi’s Coate’s run on Black Panther (one issue in and I’m already started to sense something great here).

But like I said, there’s hundreds of thousands of comics just in Marvel’s database alone. I guessing the same with DC. And we’re not even getting into the smaller guys and independents. This art form is expensive to be looking for gold, and you could end up committing to a comic series for months only to find disappointment. Everyone sells the soap opera, few buy the literature. I don’t want to shit on superheroes because there is most definitely diamonds out there to be found. But yet I sense a paradigm shift coming. Studios are trying to get in on the shared universe building. Films, while remaining ever entertaining, are getting dumber. At least major studio releases are. And while I remain positive that there will be another Dark Knight Returns, or more hopefully Spider-Man 2, I feel there’s going to be a hell of a lot more shit to shift through to find them. 

I felt I was wrong to post an article a while ago complaining that I think Marvel is collapsing under its own weight. I thought I was I was shooting from the hip then, mostly writing to get a few hits for my old blog that I left for this one, but now that I write this, I kind of am glad that I made that claim early on. Because the truth is, there’s going to be a tipping point where none of this is fun to follow anymore. Shoving character after character into a film only dilutes the enjoyment.

Tell me, how can you create a meaningful character when only a small portion of the screen time can be spent with them? You can’t. The only way you can get around it is by using shortcuts, cliches, and off camera character developments. When Whedon can’t make a singular take on what should have been his dream project outside of the X-men–he actually had a budget this time and slam dunk property–because he has to move pawns and knights out of the way, you know there’s a problem.

Which makes Gunn’s achievement on Guardians all the more remarkable. I called the film a masterpiece, and it is, but it has some glaring flaws. There’s a villain that isn’t developed, Gamora and Nebula’s feud is nonexistant until it has to matter at the end, and the ever present stuffing of those damn infinity stones into every nook and cranny just to remind us that yes, Thanos is coming. But you know what? I’ve read the Infinity Stones miniseries thanks to Marvel’s fabulous unlimited app (imagine a Netflix for Marvel comic books), and it’s just page after page of emptiness. Characters talk about emotions and there’s drama in the fight for the fate of the world, but all said done, it’s all sound and fury. There’s no real stakes and worse no real sense of literary structure. There’s plenty of characters, some who actually get a line in. It’s funny, I read Avengers vs. X-Men a few months ago, and I swear there were dudes in those comics that were there for one panel and then disappeared.  And that is what I fear will happen with the next Avengers film. Do we want glorified cameos? Hell, I’d rather be Thor or Stark’s girlfriend and at least get more screen time. Do these characters have real chemistry or are we just projecting what we assume they should have onto the films?

Not to beat a keep banging out the same drum beat, but this is what separates Guardians from the pact. Just take the relationship between Gamora and Quill. It’s clear as day that these two will hook up, but Gunn does what other Marvel films don’t, and that is show their relationship develop. There’s a moment in the film where Gamora puts on Quill’s headphones, and we anticipate they’ll kiss, but she snaps out of the moment and pushes Starlord away. That is great character development. I’m sure there’s a sexist argument that can be made out of this film, and honestly, I don’t want to entertain the thought. When there’s so much blandness and bottom of the barrel entertainment, I will defend this film to any snob who belittles superhero films.

We’re all looking for the diamond in the haystack. For many comic fans, they’ve found theirs in this this universe, and I’ll respect that even if I may politely disagree. Literature snobs have had a 100 years of enjoying their classics represented on the big screen. It’s only fair that comic readers get their turn. I’m of a rare breed that doesn’t stick to one genre. I’d watch porn in a movie theater if I thought it could be the next Dreamers. Same way with comic books. I read a few, but I do not have the time or energy to plow through the thousands of issues that so many fans have. Marvel’s and DC’s comics have gotten to the point where you have to have a knowledge of fifty years worth of material, a big enough wallet to catch up the incessant crossovers, just to understand the story. I’m almost 30 and I don’t know what’s going on half the time in modern comics. How the hell is a kid who just wants to read the X-Men supposed to know what is happening? It’s insane. And I’m convinced that’s what caused readership to go from an average of 120,000 copies per issue twenty years ago down to a measly 10,000 orders in this today. And I think this might end up being a problem in the films now. 

Fortunately, the Marvel films are still fresh and upcoming. But we’ve now had three Iron Man films, two Thor films with one on the way, two Captain America films with one on the way, and two Avengers films with a two-parter on the way, and while we’re they’re adding new faces, I wonder if those films will be able to have standalone and self contained narrative or whether they’ll just be another cog in the machine.

I feel like I need some happy pills. I don’t even know what my point was in writing this essay. I just wanted to write about “Apologize” and describe the joy in that song. Instead I ended up ranking every Marvel film in just over 10,500 words. I haven’t written this much since I wrote my honors thesis back in college, and half of that dreadful piece of shit was plagiarized. I’m just mad because I can’t enjoy these damn films like other every human being on the planet can. And I claim to be the guy who has a gracious and ever accepting palate. I used to run a blog called Positive Reviews Only for crying out loud! But apparently I’m a connoisseur of superhero films. Well, I guess someone has to do it. So to make my closing remarks: I’ll always be looking for a new diamond in the haystack. Yeah, I know the expression isn’t that inventive but it works for me. And I’ve found mine. It just took me 30 pages and 10,000 words to realize they are a cheap children’s TV show  from the 70s and a space fantasy from the same guy who brought us Slither. Oh, did I mention that he also directed Super? How the hell does Whedon not have one on this list?

 

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