Let’s start with the obvious, shall we? I’m a girl. Of course, my definition of “girl” is female human somewhere between the ages of three and 203. Before that, you’re in “baby” range, and after that, well, you’re probably a little too rusty to be sassy enough to be a proper girl. (I have a similar definition for “boy,” just so you know. Equal opportunity offender, that’s me.) I’m also an American film buff. You can read that either way, really. I was both born in the US, and I appreciate US films. OMG! I LURV the summer blockbusters. Big, esplody, and corny = AWESOME!!!
As you can imagine, I was really looking forward to Avengers: Age of Ultron. I mean, really really. Marvel has been doing a fantastic job with the franchise! (Except for that whole no-female-super-movie thing. And now the no-Black-Widow-merchandise thing. What’s up with that???) Finally, finally! The complex characters that have evolved over generations of comic book culture are being treated with the respect they deserve.
The first Avengers was phenomenal, having been helmed by one of my favorite active directors in Hollywood today: Joss Whedon, who had a rocky start in film, shot to amazeballs while writing and directing for TV, and has steadily climbed the Hollywood ladder since then. Of course, one of my favorite elements of his body of work is his consistent track record of strong, kickass, female characters– characters, which I felt were starkly missing from Age of Ultron, also helmed by Whedon. (?!?!?)
It was shocking, really. A bit of a slap in the face. In the first Avengers movie, Black Widow, a mere-human assassin/femme fatale, has the training and know-how to go toe-to-toe with the strongest meta-humans Marvel has introduced to our world. Like, she is a serious threat to anyone who crosses her; she’s even able to outwit the wiliest of trickster gods. And in the second movie, she is fairly firmly in the role of Girlfriend. I mean, you know, a Girlfriend who has a kick like a mule and rides a motorcycle and isn’t scared of facing the end of the world. But really, her role in the movie was Girlfriend. Where was her Kickass Moment?
I left the theater feeling sad for my missing Black Widow. And quite frankly, in the entire movie, there was very little character evolution at all (male or female), which is a necessity. (You can stretch that shit out way longer in a comic book, but even in those stories, characters grow and change.) Dare I say, the most interesting character to watch evolving is the crazy robot. And, you know, James Spader is AMAZING, so his robot was amazing, but when the bad-guy-robot is more interesting than the heroes, somebody needs to check into a storytelling 101 class.
But I don’t blame Joss.
Let’s take a look at history.
1. Joss has always written strong story arcs about strong women. Even in his ensemble pieces, women are just as strong and capable as the men. They are part of the team; they have never needed to be coddled. Buffy, Willow, Tara, Anya, Cordelia, Fred, Zoe, Kaylee, Inara, River, (do I have to mention Echo?), and Black Widow from the first Avengers: even the girliest of these girls knows how to kick some serious ass and can hold her own in male-dominated professions. Joss has been promoting the strong female character since the beginning of his career! Hell, that is the cornerstone of his career. He is NOT the enemy.
2. Age of Ultron is the first Marvel movie that is, as Honey puts it, soup-to-nuts under the Disney banner. Disney has a very long, sordid history of minimizing the roles of female characters, even when the whole movie is supposed to be about her: Look at Snow White, who saves herself by cleaning house for seven smaller men, and finally getting kissed by a powerful prince. Or how about Cinderella, who saves herself from her awful life by wearing shiny shoes. (Let’s not even get into the erotic symbolism of a man sliding a shoe onto a woman’s foot, thereby turning her from a scullery maid to a princess.)
They have gotten better in recent years. Calhoun and Vanellope from Wreck-It Ralph are getting there, but even still: Calhoun is a gun-toting, testosterone-laden soldier, who ends up marrying someone significantly shorter and more effeminate– like they wrote a male character and decided to switch the gender at the last minute. Vanellope is a tomboy and a child, with an inference that someday she’ll grow out of this phase of hers and take her place as a beautiful and proper princess. Disney seriously doesn’t know how to write kickass females.
3. The studio system does NOT give final cut to the director. Like, ever. And let’s face it, while I don’t know the particulars of this deal, most of the time, the producer and/or the studio gets the final cut for the theatrical release. Not the director. That’s why it’s such a big deal to get a DVD or Blu-Ray of director’s cuts. Hello, does anyone remember the Bladerunner debacle?
4. It took Marvel months to tell the original Age of Ultron story. Months! Across multiple titles. And here they are, trying to jam all of it into two hours. It couldn’t all fit. But they tried…. I feel like this movie was a reverse Hobbit, which was one-and-a-half movies too long for its story. Ultron would have been a stronger story if they had taken a little bit more time to tell the tale right. You know, like how Joss would spin a yarn across a season of Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, or you know, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., rather than the way Disney jam-packed so many wacky moments into Alexander and Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day that they forgot to story.
5. There are rumors that Joss has a director’s cut which adds at least an hour and a half of deleted material. How much you wanna bet that’s the other half of the movie, which knits everything together and fills in some serious character gaps for, you know, all the characters?
What it comes down to is that a known control-freak studio, which consistently ruins good stories and turns every female into a simpering version of herself (Brave was Pixar, which was NOT owned by the Mouse House at the time of its production, remember), had full power to wipe its weird, four-fingered gloves all over this movie.
Now, explain to me again why we are blaming Joss?