Archive for May, 2015

The Sansa Betrayal

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What? More fanboy nonsense? When, oh when, you ask, will you write something literary again! I’m sorry, I’m sorry! All those energies are still being poured into my novel, which is in revision E now, but between drafts/edits, I play Destiny and watch geeky stuff. 

Last night’s episode will go down as one of the most gut wrenching episodes in a series that is known for such turns. But, as the roundtable over at the Atlantic points out, this time it’s entirely different. Last night was arguably the worst episode ever for Game of Thrones, and not just because of the lame Xena Warrior Princess fight choreography ending the laughable rescue-the-princess from safety and adoration subplot. No, it disappointed for far greater reasons.

Obviously, spoilers abound from here on out…

The other painfully memorable moments in the show’s history like the beheading of Ned Stark and the Red Wedding were, unless you’d read the books, shocking because they caught the viewer off guard.

Last night’s horrific scene in which Ramsey Bolton deflowers Sansa Stark in a humiliating fashion after their arranged wedding is in stark contrast. We all saw it building with a sick inevitability, all hoping that this would not come to pass. It lacked the shock value and affected the emotions in a far less seemly way. Unlike the jarring events of seasons past, it left the audience sickened and repulsed, with many considering their attachment to this series in a new, dimmer light.

The Twitterverse rightly erupted with moral outrage following the scene, with a few people telling the rest of us that it might have been worse.

Apparently in the books, Theon gets in on the action despite his lack of genitalia (again, thanks to Ramsey). But of course, in the book it is not Sansa Stark who is subjected to this horror. It’s a completely different character never introduced to the series.

Which means this time, instead of being traumatized by George RR Martin, it’s show runners Benioff and Weiss who are to blame.

And “blame” is the word, because they have, indeed, betrayed this character, and the audience.

Yes, Game of Thrones takes place in a brutal world, one where we are cautioned again and again to snuff out our expectations for rosy outcomes. But shock value ultimately is not all that rich a currency and I for one would not urge the show runners to continue striving for “Holy Crap” moments like the duel between the Viper and the Mountain or the Red or Purple weddings just for the sake of that shock value.

But the problem here is that the scene they cast Sansa into lacks narrative value as well.

We know Ramsey’s a sicko. We gain nothing in our understanding of his human depravity by having to sort of witness him raping Sansa.

Sansa, though, has been on an arc, growing into a player in this game. Earlier in this same episode, she chides Ramsey’s lover, telling the girl that she is not afraid and that she belongs in Winterfell.

This is a character coming into her own, finding power.

And then they just have her roll over for Ramsey. When Ramsey insists on letting Theon watch their consummation, she says nothing.

When he starts barking sadistic orders, she does not resist.

This is not the same character we’d seen in the lead up to this episode.

Why would Sansa not show the same spine she showed with Miranda in the bath scene, when she was literally naked but armored in the Stark’s birthright all the same?

Why would Sansa not say to Ramsey, “No, I am not one of your stable girls. I am Sansa Stark of Winterfell. Your father did not arrange this marriage so you can toy with me and then grow bored. Go back to that chamber girl if that’s what you need. I am your wife now.”

Where did her strength go?

Now, none of us know where Sansa’s storyline is going. I’m told that in the books, she just stayed at the Vale. But even if Sansa is not destined to retake Winterfell and rule as Queen in the North–no, especially if she’s not, her mistreatment at the hands of Ramsey (and the writers) serves no purpose.

Is it going to melt Theon? Who cares! He might just as easily have been inspired by seeing her stand up to the man who broke him.

There’s been a worrying trend this season as Game of Thrones‘ strong female characters have withered. Dany putts around and missteps in Mareen. Whats-her-face Sand launches a lame non-plan for vengeance on behalf of Oberan. Cersei plummets toward self-destruction in King’s Landing. (Duh, when you are the mother of a king born of incest and former lover to your own cousin, you should not empower a bunch of Puritans, moron!)

Sansa was the exception. The last known Stark growing wiser and stronger in the North.

Now, though, she’s been brutalized and victimized without purpose. Whatever resurgence we might see next week will be cold comfort.

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The Case For Black Widow (or, will you give me a freakin’ break already?)

Recently, I posted a quick review of Avengers 2, but then I read ten other things that said everything I’d said better than I’d said it, so I just took it right down.

Now, though, I’ve got to weigh in on the controversy brewing in the geekosphere over one particular aspect of Black Widow’s role in the new Avengers movie.

Now, there’s been all sorts of hoopla about Black Widow, as played by Scarlett Johansen, in the media. For one thing, there was a Jeremy Renner and Chris Evans’ interview where they called her characters a “slut” as a joke–and then had to promptly apologize. Then Renner stupidly doubled down on the joke, revealing that he completely doesn’t get what’s offensive about the word “slut.” (For the record, Mr. Renner–’cause I’m sure you’re reading this–it’s offensive because it is almost universally leveled at women to shame female sexuality, perpetuating the double standard by which men and women are judged for their sexual activity. So, even if she did sleep with four of the Avengers, most feminists would still not be okay with you calling her a “slut.”)

Then there was the disheartening fact that Black Widow didn’t get any toys. A fact that has been rectified and now little girls and boys can play with Black Widow along with the rest of the team.

There was also the long-standing problem that she was the only female Avenger, which has also been put right through the addition of Elizabeth Olsen’s Scarlet Witch to the ensemble. This one never trouble me much, because, duh, did you see the first movie? She stole it.

Now, though, the feminist critique of Black Widow’s role in the Marvelverse has gone too far.

People, when you’re laying accusations of unfeminism at the feet of Joss Whedon, you should know you’re barking up the wrong tree.

Mixed metaphors aside, some viewers–like Meredith Woerner and Katharine Trendacosta over at iO9–are arguing that Whedon’s script does the character a disservice because “we get the character who feels ruined by her barren womb.”

You see…oh, wait, um, SPOILERS! There’s a scene in which Black Widow confides in Hulk that part of her original assassin conditioning included sterilization. Apparently for nasty KGB people, it makes a femme fatale more flexible not to have to worry about such hindrances.

This is, I must say, a pretty heinous misunderstanding of the character arc in this film. For one thing, the moment in question that is the center of Woerner and Trendacosta’s critique is a scene in which she shares her infertility with Bruce Banner, aka Hulk.

“Shares,” being the operative term. It is Banner who is first upset at the prospect of a life without kids. In fact, he is more troubled by it than Black Widow. This is pretty much the crux of equality, here, folks. They are connecting over a common alienation from something that is pretty central to the human condition.

Woerner and Trendacosta complain that they wanted further development of the “red ledger” comment from the first film. I’m surprised they remember that line, since they’ve forgotten another important moment in the first Avengers, that Black Widow and Hulk’s scene together calls back to.

When they first meet, there’s a great moment when Bruce Banner happens to be saying “I don’t every time get what I want,” as he, seemingly, casually pushes a baby’s swing-mounted crib.

Get it?

This is a through-line for the Hulk character, and the scene Woerner and Trendacosta are fixated on is more about him than Black Widow. The dream-like flash back that sets all this up, revealing elements of Black Widow’s original training, seems to set the foundation for the “red ledger” line in Avengers pretty clearly.

Did Woerner and Trendacosta miss the man, hooded and bound before the young girl. Did they think he was there for a dance recital?

This is the character development Joss promised us. We know Black Widow killed a lot of people. As she told us in the first movie, “it’s simple.” Seeing her do so would not have given us any new dimensions to her character.

On the other hand, seeing her as an assertive woman, unafraid to pursue the man she is interested in, able to cope with the limitations of her past, and strong enough not to be broken by disappointment in the end is character development. And that’s quite feminist if you ask me.

You know what else is: showing men as equals–capable of sensitivity and need, too–just as Whedon’s Banner is revealed to be in this film.

I’m all for feminist critique, my friends, but I think it’s possible to find offense everywhere if we unhinge ourselves from reality–even if we are talking about a very, very unreal world. We need to keep our eyes on the real issue here. Whedon himself recently lamented how, “Every breed of feminism is attacking every other breed, and every subsection of liberalism is always busy attacking another subsection of liberalism, because god forbid they should all band together and actually fight for the cause.”

Sci-Fi Connoisseur: Avengers Age of Ultron

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Expectation shapes judgement. When Marvel’s ongoing experiment in a broad, interconnected cinematic universe reached its first crest with The Avengers, audiences were primed for a big, big movie, but it became clear that the scale of Marvel Studios’ and director Joss Whedon’s success surpassed all expectations. Certainly the monumental box office draw was a pleasant surprise for parent company Disney. So, while expectations weren’t exactly low, The Avengers owes part of its success to the simple fact that audiences weren’t quite prepared for the epic scale that this Marvel mash-up could offer. 

This principle, though, is a bit of a double-edged sword. Flash forward a few years and we find ourselves on a completely different cinematic landscape. Now, the success of the Marvel enterprise has inspired every other studio to pursue its own “shared universe,” from the ill-conceived grim and gritty DC films in the pipeline to a laughable proposal to somehow expand the Transformers franchise–which has yet to do anything but recycle one plot in three awful sequels. Today, everyone expects greatness from Marvel, the studio that cannot fail.

I tried not to generate any such expectations for this summer’s presumptive box office champ, the Avengers sequel Age of Ultron. In fact, I made an assiduous effort to avoid all promotional material for the film. When a trailer came on, I would beeline out of the room. At one point, while seeing another movie in the theater, this required hanging out just outside the doors, waiting for the coming attractions to end.
That may sound extreme, but this was a film that, given my fondness for these Marvel movies, I knew I wanted to see. All trailers might do was ruin key plot points that I might otherwise find refreshing–if I wasn’t expecting them.
Of course, I couldn’t go in without any expectations. For one thing, I inadvertently gleaned some details of the story beforehand. I was familiar with the basic Ultron story line from reading about past Marvel comics and I saw some headlines here and there that gave away other details–like the introduction of new mutants, er, “enhanced” characters Quicksilver and Scarlett Witch, and the inclusion of Vision. That last one gave me pause, as it seemed a really difficult character and plot line to shoe-horn into an already crowded superhero movie. But, of course, my expectations were also shaped by my inestimable faith in the man at the helm, Joss Whedon. I said before that only he could have made a movie as crowded as Avengers work as well as it did, and so if anyone could make me believe that Tony Stark’s computer butler could come to life as a super-powerful sentient android, well, it’d be him.
And, not much surprise, Whedon really does create a hell of a fun movie in Avengers 2. I am told now that a lot of the early trailers for the film looked dark, and given the title, I assumed the world of the MCU was in for some serious apocalyptic mayhem. As it turns out, though, Ultron didn’t have much of an “age” to reign over.
In fact, Whedon seems to go to great pains to make sure that this film is the anti-Man of Steel, which was heavily criticized for its wonton destruction of Metropolis barely registering with the man in tights himself (a criticism of tone that apparently fell on deaf ears, judging by the fiercely underlit trailer for the follow-up). When battling Ultron’s army of, well, Ultrons, the Avengers go to great pains to try to protect innocent lives, even when the stakes heighten and the world hangs in the balance–well, it’s actually a floating city that hangs in the balance, but if it falls then…
It would have been hard to muster Marvel’s trademark humor had the world actually been conquered by Tony Stark’s android oopsy daisy. As in all Marvel endeavors, that humor is a huge part of the formula’s success. Avengers 2 doesn’t skimp, offering more yucks than the first film, even as it ups the action quota several fold.
Without the need to set the stage for the assembly of the Avengers themselves, this film is able to leap right into that action. We meet a team that, after the fall of SHIELD in Captain America: the Winter Soldier, has apparently been busy cleaning up Hydra’s various nests and dens (that’s news to fans of Agents of SHIELD, which thought that burden was being carried by its scrappy protagonists alone).
We jump right into an ongoing mission where our heroes are taking out Hydra baddies left and right, charging in effortlessly until they encounter two “enhanced” characters under Hydra’s wing, the Scarlett Witch and Quicksilver. Fans of the comics knew that these two would not likely stay enemies for long, and sure enough, after being used by Ultron through the middle of act two, they come to realize they’re playing on the wrong side.
These new characters come across pretty well, even if their accents grate on the nerves a teensy bit. As with the first movie, though, it’s the characters who never get their own movies who steal the show. Scarlett Johanson’s Black Widow was a real scene stealer in Avengers and in Winter Soldier, and with a budding romance with the Man-Who-Would-Be-Hulk, Bruce Banner as played by Mark Ruffalo, she is similarly compelling here. In the movie’s myriad battle scenes, she also gets to (improbably) hold her own with the robotic minion-selves of the titular villain.
Ultron himself is easily the best Marvel villain since the much beloved (and solitary stand-out) Loki. James Spader’s voice work infuses a quirky psychology to a character bristling with rage. The only problem is, though, that Ultron appears on the stage unbelievably fast. The audience has barely heard of Stark’s idea for the peace-keeping droid and, BAM! he’s real and on the loose with designs on “pacifying” the Avengers themselves.
This psychology is established in exposition, but just barely. I really feel like we could have been eased into his emergence a bit more gently, given time to process what it is that “mad scientists” Stark and Banner are creating–and given space to contemplate the ways in which it might very, very quickly go wrong.
Instead, Ultron just explodes onto the scene, setting the Avengers and their different agendas at odds with one another. The “we’re not a team…we’re a time bomb” vibe from the first film is here repurposed. The team dynamic fraying again is a bit of a hard sell, given the stakes, but it does provide our extensive cast with enough plot points to each have their own character moments.
So it works, but there’s no denying that it is a busy, busy film. There’s so much going on compared to the relatively simple trajectory of the first Avengers team up. Again, I doubt many directors could have kept the balls in the air on this one, so if Whedon occasionally looks like he’s about to drop one or two, I’d say it’s a forgivable necessity of what Marvel has dictated this bloated film must do.
And what it must do, according to Feige on high, is set us up for Avengers 3, a two-part film slated for 2018 and 2019 that will bring Marvel’s “Phase 3” to its apex. In fact, those films will represent a crescendo in the symphony of fanboy geekgasm that Marvel has been orchestrating since the very beginning, when Iron Man rolled into theaters back in 2008.
Titled “Infinity War,” these next Avengers movies will borrow a comics storyline involving the Mad Titan Thanos, a purple baddy we’ve only met in glimpse in Guardians of the Galaxy and post credit scenes in the Avengers movies, that will tie together all the threads of Marvel’s cinematic universe.
And therein lies the rub, and maybe the problem. The mythology of the MCU is getting really, really crowded. This is essentially what has happened to Marvel and DC comics, too. I’ve never been a comics reader, but when my son showed an interest during the run of Smallville on TV, I thought we might read them together–and hopefully get him reading more. What we discovered, though, is that the world in comics is an interconnected horde of characters and plotlines, many of which literally span multiple universes.
It’s a confounding storytelling landscape, and the more that the Marvel MCU starts to look like the comics that inspired it, the harder it’s going to be for mainstream audiences to enjoy these films. So far, Marvel has pulled off this deft balancing act, but the landscape ahead leading to Infinity War looks more treacherous.
In the comics, both DC and Marvel periodically must wipe the slate clean and reboot their entire universe of comics continuity with some kind of cataclysmic multiverse “event” that gives them breathing room to reinterpret characters and try to tell fresh stories.
At the end of Avengers 2, Tony Stark is slinking off into semi-retirement, leaving younger Avengers (played by actors demanding smaller paychecks) to take on the challenges of the future. Throughout the film, he was looking for an end, a way to wrap things up and call the mission complete.
As viewers, we may soon find ourselves wishing for something similar. There’s no denying that the MCU is an epic feat of movie-making, as unique and revolutionary as what Peter Jackson achieved in Lord of the Rings, though undeniably (and unbelievably) broader in scale. So far the imitators in Hollywood look like sad second fiddles and hopefully they will soon abandon their copy cat ambitions for some bold ideas of their own, but even if only Marvel prospers by this strategy, I for one hope that it rests after Infinity War, putting this monstrous thing to bed and, dare we hope, finishing while they’re ahead–maybe way, way ahead.

 

Draft D Ready for Human Eyes

  

Soon, the querying begins…