Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Joss Whedon, The Black Widow and Why You Shouldn't Care

SPOILERS AHOY! I will ruin the movie for you if you haven't seen it yet. You have been warned.

Sure, it's big and loud and crowded.
Did you see the other one? Why
even bring something like that up?
Just look at the poster.
I was too busy this weekend hosting the Avengers: Age of Ultron premiere at my movie theater to get online. It was more fun to hand out Thor’s hammer, Cap’s shield, and my vintage Hulk hands for people to pose and play with as we snapped pictures in supplicated offering to the Great God Social Media. Everyone at my theater had a grand old time, as the pictures attest to, and everyone loved seeing their children and friends on Facebook.
Now, I’ve got this sour ball of ire in the pit of my stomach. It started on Monday when I learned that Joss Whedon deactivated his Twitter account. Then I read the messages he was getting, and I understood why. If you don’t know what this is about, you’re very lucky, and I’m probably going to ruin your day. Here’s the list of some of the tweets Whedon got all weekend. Feel free to scroll quickly lest some of the bile spew onto you. 

Whedon has since come back on to say that the rumors he was forced offline by the barrage of hatred and threats was, and I quote, “horseshit.” Okay, Joss, whatever you say. But he did get a few licks in on his detractors before he resumed media silence. You can read those shots here, and he’s one hundred percent correct:  The crack about the snake eating its own tail is very prescient.

With the Interwebs in flames, I had to know myself what was going on. So I checked it out, and not only ran afoul of this poisonous group of outraged people, I ran into a second group of poisonous people: the Geek Critics who are now throwing super hero movies under the bus.  The whole thing has turned into “The Black Widow Controversy” and it has mired me in dark thoughts and anti-internet screeds for two days. 

I’m going to try and parse this out as succinctly as I can. Bear with me. There’s three levels of problems that need to be addressed, here. There’s the real world level of problems—the world you and me are walking around in right now. Then there’s the fictional world level of problems. This is stuff in the movie that may or may not make your collective tumors throb. Finally, we have the meta-fictional level—the commentary about the thing that we’re talking about. I’ll start with that level, first, as it’s the easiest one to understand.

We’re eleven movies into the Marvel Franchise, and fifteen years down the road from the invention of the modern super hero film. What’s now a part of the “tentpole” strategy to prop up the summer, these movies cost ridiculous amounts to make and generate ridiculous amounts of revenue. It’s not a fad, anymore. It’s a thing. It’s a given. And being that it’s a given, super heroes (and even comic books) have lost a lot of their outsider status in the wake of millions of new fans who never had to justify their reading habits from inside a high school gym locker. For some, that’s unacceptable. For others, it’s perfect time to employ the Contrarian Flip, the signature finishing move of the modern Urban Hipster. Now that everyone else likes it, I have to pick it apart to keep my Indy cred. 

This article by Slate Magazine writer Andrew O’Hehir is the encapsulation of that attitude. And while this piece is steeped in a puddle of self-loathing and smug, squinty asides designed to show just how Above-It-All he really is, he’s not alone. Most of the actual film critics are calling the movie problematic but still entertaining. Meanwhile the rest of the critics who eschew violence in movies, who don’t like anything with a car chase or an explosion, are dog piling on the film’s perceived problems.  

What else is new? Go pick any big movie from the last ten years—no, last twenty years. Go look at Titanic, if you must. Read the reviews. There’s always that guy, writing for the East Haverbrook Free Weekly, who has to point out historical inaccuracies and claim that if Cameron can’t bother to do his homework, then the movie deserves to fail. Nowadays, there’s literally hundreds of the East Haverbrook Free Weekly Movie Snob. And they all have very specific axes to grind when it comes to action/adventure movies, horror films, science fiction movies, super hero films, martial arts movies, or any other sub-genre of the Blockbuster Movie category. 

Who listens to them, anyway? It’s all static. It’s white noise. It’s Star Trek Enterprise Conduits—GNDN. Goes nowhere, does nothing. But, you know, by pointing out the absurdities of modern cinema excess, they’ve done their part, fighting the machine, and blah blah blah blah blah… Yeah, whatever.

So, what’s the fix? If you’re a critic, do us all a favor and just stop reviewing the thing you hate, especially when what you hate is popular and you aren’t part of the crowd. 

If you’re a consumer, just stop reading and watching reviews for the big blockbusters. Cut them all out. You know your mind already. You’re smart. You’ve seen the trailers, maybe read some news online. You already know if you’re going to see any given blockbuster movie, and whether or not you’ll be inclined to like it. You probably know within thirty seconds of seeing the trailer for the first time. Why listen to intentionally negative criticism? The world moves too fast to collect boat anchors.

Now, about these…well, I’m going to call them feminists, I suppose, but I’m not entirely convinced they are who they say they are. I think they THINK they may be feminists, but I’m very leery of hashtag activism because it’s way too easy to just jump in without thinking and get caught up in the swirl of the digital mob. It’s the online equivalent of a feeding frenzy, and I never want to be in the middle of one of those, either. Anyway. Let’s see if I can correctly summarize their concerns about Age of Ultron and Joss Whedon’s portrayal of Black Widow in the writing and directing of this movie.

I admit it, I had my doubts about
Scarlet Johansson. But she won me
over and is now one of my favorite
characters in the franchise.
1. Black Widow should never be kidnapped, because that’s misogynist, lazy writing.
2. Black Widow referring to herself as a monster and implying that she can’t have kids undercuts the entire basis of the character. By implying she’s not human because she can’t reproduce, that’s misogynist, lazy writing.
3. Black Widow is now the mother of the group, tending to Hawkeye’s wounds, calming the Hulk down, and picking up Cap’s shield, with a comment to match. By forcing her into the traditional role of caregiver, that’s lazy misogynist writing.
4. Black Widow would never be attracted to Bruce. Not with Hawkeye and Cap around! Come on, that came from left field. It’s not lazy, misogynist writing, but it’s just dumb because I wanted her to be with (fill in the blank), not that she needs that to define herself as a woman, or anything. Um, yeah. So.
5. Tony Stark’s rape joke. Whedon put a rape joke in the movie. By writing a rape joke into a movie, that’s misogynist, lazy writing. And you’re an asshole, Joss Whedon.

Okay, that’s about the size of it, I think. There were also a few comments about him being a racist, too, but mostly, it's about Black Widow. Those are the big complaints. Starting with number five, and working backward, let me confess something: I’ve seen the movie twice, and I missed the line they are talkingabout completely. It zipped right by me. Then, when I saw the term, I had to go look it up. I know a lot of weird, useless information, but that archaic term was new to me. And I’m a smart, well-educated person.

Let me assure you, if I had to go look up the term, then no one in my audience got the term or even understood its meaning. And so I say it across this great big stupid country of ours. In the Buzzfeed article above, there’s a snippet of the scene with a different line, and does it work better? Yeah, sure, but let me make this clear, here: that’s all in-character banter that is completely in context with the scene and the characters. No one, not the imaginary characters, nor the real actors and director, are advocating for the return of the monarchy. To suggest otherwise is naive at the very least, and willfully cognitively dissonant at the most. 

You didn’t like the way Black Widow and the Hulk nearly got together? I don’t have an answer to that, except maybe that’s what fanfic is for these days; redressing those supreme wrongs and claiming some kind of ownership of the characters for yourself. I thought it made good sense, since she’s obviously the one who did the Manchurian Candidate-style programming to calm the Hulk down to the point that it triggers the change. Of COURSE she’d be the one to administer it, just as she’d be the one to program Banner. That’s what she does as the super spy and master manipulator. Whedon has her explain her attraction to him and it works just fine—maybe a little bit rushed, but we are three to six months past the first Avengers movie at the start of the film. And really—WHO CARES? It doesn’t come to pass, anyway. Talk about a non-issue.

Black Widow isn’t the mother of the group. I think she’s decidedly a Jill of all Trades. Performing field triage on her best friend isn’t mothering. It’s good soldiering. Recovering Cap’s shield to help him regain the tactical advantage is good teamwork. And let’s be clear, here: she wasn’t “kidnapped.” She was captured after making the sacrifice play that allowed the Avengers to pry the Vision away from Ultron. As soon as she got to where she was going, she sent a message to Hawkeye telling the Avengers where she was. You know, master spycraft stuff. 

That crack about being a monster? Please. Her jacket is red, she says in the first movie. She was a Russian assassin for years. The fact that she was sterilized meant she didn’t have any distractions, like kids. If anything, it was an attempt to rob her of her basic empathy, her humanity. Killing without any remorse is what makes her a monster. 

At least, that’s how I see it. Then again, I have a blog, where I can type a complete thought using more than 140 characters. One of the huge problems I have with hashtag activism is that a great many of these subjects require a more complete thought in order to be discussed in a meaningful fashion. 

But some of these reductive, black and white statements about the movie ignore the other ten Marvel films that came before this one, and also especially the other movies in which Black Widow is featured. There’s no audience goodwill, no context regarding the character’s arc. No mention of the new Avengers at the end of the film, where Cap is suddenly the minority player on a team that includes two women and two black men. None of that is even alluded to. There’s only this weird, vicious pile-on because you didn’t like something—wait, scratch that—because you CHOSE to interpret something in the most narrowly-defined, reductive, and insulting way and that offense has spilled out across the Internet in the form of hate-speech and threats. Talk about seriously undercutting your own intentions. 

He's probably thinking about how he can most effectively
piss off a huge swath of his own fans in one fell swoop.
Oh, and I’ve said this before, though I never thought in a million, billion, trillion years I’d need to say it about the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer: putting a sexist remark in your work does not make you a sexist. Writing misogynistic dialogue in a scene doesn’t make you a misogynist. And showing violence done to women onscreen is not an endorsement for rape. In what high school or university are young people being taught that plot, characterization and dialogue all speak to authorial intent? It’s so weird how people miss the subtext inherent to a scene and simply invent their own, based on a literal reading of the dialogue. Who does that? Please, tell me how that is now a thing. Regardless, if you go through life expecting only to consume fiction and popular culture in all of its various forms that only conforms to your internal barometer for what you consider to be good and right and fair and just, let me tell you, you're in for decades of rage and disappointment. Sooner or later, you're going to have to learn how to deal with something you don't agree with.

We used to play this game in the 1980s—during the time when the ultra-right-wing of the church was actively campaigning against heavy metal music, Dungeons & Dragons, and Warner Brothers Cartoons. There was this dictum that Pat Robertson used to employ that boiled down to, “if it’s not For God, then it’s against God.” We got pretty good at taking anything commonplace and by the transitive or associative properties of language and numbers, proving that it was, in fact, satanic. Jello? The most popular color is red. Red is the color of the devil. It jiggles when you shake it. Much like how the body shakes while committing sin. But the real proof? How many letters are in Jello? Five. How many letters are in Satan? Five. That can’t possibly be a coincidence. Thus, if you like Jello, that’s Satanic. 

It’s a fun game. You should try it. Maybe some of you already have. Instead of Satan, look for misogyny. Or racism. Trust me, if you want to find it, you can. 

 Avengers: Age of Ultron does have its share of problems. Of everything on the list above, I think the Stark line of dialogue about being a firm but fair ruler is better than his line about Prima-Whatever and will likely be changed for the DVD. It’s problematic. And yeah, I agree, there should be room for a Black Widow movie of her own. It’s conspicuous by its absence. The romance certainly felt a little rushed. And yes, Jeremy Renner’s apology for calling Black Widow a slut was douchey and not at all helpful and it was obvious he wasn't sincere. All valid points of criticism and certainly worthy of rational discussion.

So what’s the fix? I think it’s imperative to redirect the conversation onto firmer ground. I also think it’s probably a good idea to assume people aren’t trying to put you in manacles with their movie project. I think everyone needs to take a deep breath and a step back. We’ve lost some things in this politicized, polemic world. We’ve lost context, and weirdly, also nuance. I don’t know if this comes from living and consuming pop culture both ironically and also sarcastically, but it’s an epidemic. 

Reducing everything to 140 characters isn’t better speech. It overlooks gobs of information. This need to slap a label, to pigeonhole, and worse, to damage with terms like racist and misogynist, is a trend borne from anonymous cowards and we need to seriously consider why we’re online—to what purpose—and if Twitter is taking up that much time in your life, I’d look at that as something to work on.

Catwoman and the minion approve of Natasha's Heel Toe Technique.
Finally, we get to the real world problem. This is a picture of my Black Widow action figure. I have it displayed in the big case in my theater. It’s a cool figure. Here, you can see she’s stomping the hell out of some Hydra goon. And it looks like Scarlett Johansson, too. This was a figure that came out last year, with very little fanfare, as part of another toy line. Thankfully, I got it from a retail store, instead of on the collector’s market, where female action figures fetch a higher price because there is always only one per case. That makes the figures harder to acquire, naturally.

The stores are full of Avengers toys, again, and some of them are pretty cool. In addition to the action figures and Legos, there’s the clutch of “role playing toys.” Cap’s shield, Hulk fists, Iron Man gloves and helmets, even Hawkeye’s bow and arrows. These kids today are pretty lucky. If there had been an Iron Man helmet I could wear as a kid, I would never have taken it off.  But you know what they don’t have on toy store shelves? 
You guessed it: No Black Widow wrist rockets, no Black Widow light-up Electro-Sticks, no Black Widow on motorcycle toys, no Black Widow anything. It sucks. It’s stupid and short-sighted. And do you know why (oh, you’re going to love this one). It’s all because of Disney.

Yep. They really don’t think that girls want to play with boy’s toys. I’ll let that statement sink in so those of you who are angry can shift focus. Disney did this with Gamora during the Guardians of the Galaxy merch-blitz last year. Now they are doing it with Age of Ultron. There’s a token figure of the Scarlet Witch, but of course, all of the collectors are pouncing on them and so you won’t find them if you have kids who are fans. Not without paying that collector’s premium. 

The reason why is the part that makes me legitimately angry, and if there was ever a need to rally the troops for a concerted campaign, it’s this: Disney bought Marvel because they wanted to sell product to boys. They consider Marvel a “boy’s line” and the “girl’s line” of characters is, of course, the Disney Princesses. That’s the danger. That’s the great Satan at work, right there. 

This article is a great call to action that succinctly explains what’s going on in retail right now.  I think it’s incredibly important that these characters, these stories, this fandom—which is an American art form and should be treated as such—deserve to be all access. We need to be okay if boys like Wonder Woman. We need to be okay with girls liking The Hulk. They are characters. Stories. Fantasy. American Myth. And now those myths, those ‘intellectual properties,’ are in the hands of lawyers who consider them to be dollar-generating concepts that they control. Where’s your Internet outrage now, Twitter? There’s the fight. There’s the opponent. Let’s go get them! Let’s start talking action and activism! Let’s change the landscape! 

Of course, in order to do that, you’d have to stop texting “Fuck You, Joss Whedon” and complaining about the Hulk/Black Widow relationship. That may be asking too much of some people. I heard the term Manufactured Outrage and while I don’t think it’s always the case, BOY do I think that about this particular instance. Someone put a little blood in the water, and everyone’s nictitating membranes slid right down over the eyes so that they could feed without getting blood in their eyes.  

Maybe Whedon made some choices you don’t agree with. Okay, fine. But remember this: that film was made by committee, and you have no idea what forces were in play during all of it. The fact that Whedon is taking a break because he’s physically exhausted should say something about the process of dealing with Disney. Anyone who chooses to take a line of dialogue so seriously that they flip out like a ninja on social media needs better priorities in their life. 

But the threats? The Name-Calling? That's not acceptable. It wasn't acceptable during GamerGate, and it's sure not acceptable now.  You're doing it wrong.

There, now that everything is all sorted, here’s another article on another website about movie criticism. It’s a cogent, well-articulated call to action. For those of you wanting things to change on the meta level, this is a very good place to start.