Saturday, May 9, 2015

9-11, the Marvel Industrial-Complex, and a Mystery to Be Endured: a Film Class Conversation about The Avengers: Age of Ultron

FDr: "Many of you liked The Avengers: Age of Ultron, didn't you? How many of you thought it was better than Casablanca or Citizen Kane? [the students didn't want to generalize that way]. Okay, let's start with Citizen Kane."

[8 out of 10 students liked it better than Citizen Kane]

FDr: "8! Orson Welles just had his 100 year birthday recently, so you all are mean." [In comparison, Casablanca held up reasonably well.]

W: "I don't really know why I liked Age of Ultron."

FDr: "It's hard for me to remember hardly anything in it. I've seen a bunch of superhero films before, and they all merge in my head. I tend to forget the movie even before it ends."

J: "I liked the aesthetics of the movie."

FDr: "Which characters were you drawn to particularly?"

J: "Ooooh, Captain America."

FDr: "Oh really?  Some people would say he's one of the blandest ones."

J: "I know, but I enjoy him. Hello, Chris Evans." [laughter]

E: "I liked the humor and the sarcasm in the movie."

B: "A lot of people thought it was just another dumb superhero movie, but in a lot of ways it is totally different from many of them."

FDr: "How?"

B: "When Iron Man and the Hulk fight, we're starting to see that they have to turn against each other. Now that Shield's done for there's nobody who can control the Avengers. They are the most powerful thing on earth. That brings about the major questions that the Watchmen started like who's watching the Watchmen?"

J: "There's a civil war film coming out that this movie sets up--Captain America: Civil War" [to be released on May 6, 2016].

E: "They're fighting against each other."

FDr: "Okay, do you remember the scene in which the Hulk battles Iron Man and then ends up destroying a building? Did you notice any references after the building fell?"

E: "9-11."

FDr: "Yes, and I believe everyone was meant to walk away from that scene getting the reference, people getting covered with dust and dirt fleeing the destruction. People died in that scene, correct?"

E: "Uh-huh."

FDr: "Given that the Hulk and the Iron Man arbitrarily fight here, isn't that a massive trivialization of 9-11?"

B: "The filmmakers might have also taken some inspiration from Man of Steel, because there the final battle is between Zod and Superman. They just level the entire city. It shows how strong these people are and the effects of their actions. In other movies, Hulk may thrown a tank a great distance, and no one would die, but here there's actual consequences for their actions."

FDr: "Do you feel it? Or do you just sit there and say, cool, building falls over. Wow. Punching. Ooooo, Action."

E: "I liked the way The Avengers: Age of Ultron makes a point about how the people hate them. People are scared because they know that there can be consequences."

FDr: "Where are ordinary humans in this movie? Some of the Avengers are human, such as Hawkeye, Black Widow, and Tony Stark. Much of the time it seems like regular people are around just to be concerned with at the last second when the superheroes realize that they need to save them all. So, they pause to save a little boy in a cheap manipulative fashion. Meanwhile, who cares?"

B: "I think the whole point of them destroying a building and causing so much collateral damage is that so there will be a reason for the legislation to be passed in Captain America: Civil War. It's the same thing that you get in Batman Vs. Superman. Batman needs a reason to take on Superman for the plot, and it's for the same purpose, because Superman's destroying too much and becoming something like a God."

FDr: "How can Batman take on Superman? How can Batman last two seconds with Superman?"

D: "Superman's main enemy for a long time is a billionaire who can obtain Kryptonite so he can screw him over, so Batman will just get some Kryptonite. Problem solved."

FDr: "What do you make of the fact that we visit Hawkeye's house for awhile? He turns out to have a cute little family, and Thor has to be careful about stepping on his toys, another product placement for Legos. That also struck me as a Transformers moment, given Michael Bay's penchant for middle American homes with golden light."

L: "I thought the filmmakers should have killed Hawkeye. He was one of the few human characters, and it would have been devastating to see his family react to his death."

FDr: "I might've actually felt something. That's my basic problem with these kinds of movies. I don't feel anything at all."

E: "I only felt anything when they said J.A.R.V.I.S. is dead. I felt sad for like .2 seconds, but it didn't matter when anybody else died."

FDr: "That's my basic problem--I get so desensitized, I really profoundly don't care. Everybody, all of the Avengers could die, and that would be pleasantly different, but it wouldn't be good for Marvel studios. Does that make any sense to you all? There's too much money riding on this movie to take any creative risks, too much iconography that interferes with characterization. Meanwhile, the Marvel Industrial-Complex expands exponentially. The studio puts all of their money in to this, and it's got to work. And then every week this summer, the tentpole films will be relentless in trying to claim your attention. Don't you find that a little bit depressing?"

B: "Did you see the forecast for all of the Marvel movies coming up?"

FDr: "There's going to be like 25 more at least in the next five years. It's going to go on and on and on, 2020, 2025, 2030. It's like the one genre the studios think is a guaranteed success. The studio executives are sure these films are going to make a bunch of money. You would hope that there's going to some day be a massive revolt, I hope, where everybody agrees over social media that no one should go see this film."

LR: "There was a commercial for Ant Man." [laughter]

W: "It's going to be like the changeover with westerns. Hollywood cranked out many westerns over a long period of time, and then it ended. It will happen with superhero films too."

FDr: "Let's hope so. Meanwhile, the critics claim that the villain Ultron is so good, which I don't understand because he's just a robot without a nose."

D: "I thought the villain was just a total trope; another robot built for peacekeeping purposes is now bent on the destruction of humanity. When talking to friends about it, I called it Transformers: Age of Ultron at least 20 times."

B: "I thought that Ultron was a pretty bad guy overall."

FDr: "Why?"

B: "We live in a technical age, and this is like a computer program that can go anywhere. If you think about it, if J.A.R.V.I.S. wasn't there stopping him, Ultron could have just nuked the entire world in 3 seconds. The movie doesn't show him to be as powerful as he could be."

E: "What really bothered me about Ultron is that the man who provides his voice, James Spader, is also on The Blacklist show, and basically he plays the same character in both the show and the movie."

D: "Last year in an English class, we studied a quote from Flannery O'Connor that says "Evil is not a problem to be solved but a mystery to be endured." The only superhero film that addresses that properly is The Dark Knight, and in all of the rest of the superhero movies you find just another villain trying to kill all humans that needs to be dealt with."

FDr: [I go off a small diatribe about the new laws in France that resemble the Patriot Act, and how Richard Brody compares Ultron to the N.S.A. [See my previous post.]]

D: "It would be cool if Ultron was taking advantage of other robots and things, but in the end he's just a figure."

W: "One of the things that I liked was the way Ultron shows a little fear towards J.A.R.V.I.S. earlier on."

FDr: "A little bit of emotion there. Where is there any emotion at all in this movie? There was a scene that reminded me a little bit of Casablanca, when a formally dressed Natasha talks with Bruce over cocktails in a bar."  

L: "I hated that scene."

FDr: "Why?"

L: "The action of the movie was good, but the romantic writing felt flat for me. They could have done so much more."

FDr: "I think of the movie in terms of nerd emotions. You don't normally have romance in these kinds of movies at all. When you say you like Age of Ultron better than Citizen Kane, you are saying that you don't want anything that's intellectually challenging at all? You all just want, like, breakfast cereal, something that's very sweet, candy-like, and full of violence that you can munch on? When you compare this movie to what is considered classic, can you sense the difference?"

J:  "Well, the biggest difference lies in the amount of explosions."

LR: "Watching this movie helped me appreciate the other movies that we watch in class more, because we usually examine all of the interesting techniques. Ultron, in comparison, just didn't have that many. It has CGI and all that, but otherwise it's boring."

W: "The classic movies we've seen either use film techniques really well or by using them in a different way, but in the case of Ultron, the filmmakers throw a bunch of special effects at you so that you enjoy it."

L: "I missed the caliber of the writing and the talent in the older movies, like Singin' in the Rain. The actors are so much more talented than the actors we have today. I mean, Robert Downey Jr. is great, but besides that I don't really think so."

FDr: Chris Evans. [laughter]

J: "He's nice to look at. There's a lot of action even from the very beginning of the movie."

FDr: "Yes, it begins in medias res as in the first Indiana Jones film. You have this shot here [see my last post]. The one film technique I noticed is the tendency to try to have as many superheroes as possible in the shot simultaneously fighting. There's another similar shot late in the movie when everyone's battling all of the robots at once. Then there's also the statue of them all fighting in a frozen tableau."

E: "It bothered me that at the beginning you have no idea why they're fighting. They take on an enemy that didn't even go on throughout the rest of the movie. Here are these two twins that want Loki's scepter."

FDr: "You've got to get the Loki scepter to get the little glowing thing out of it. How much are we supposed to take seriously the five rocks?"

W: "They're in all of the Marvel movies."

FDr: "They are?"

D: "Yes, and then the twins take away from the characterization of the others when you have 8 superheroes."

L: "When you see the twins, his power is so much less cool than hers. Scarlet Witch can control things with her mind."

JH: "I really liked the flashback scenes, because it helps give a greater depth of the characters. It adds more layers of meaning, instead of more action."

FDr: "I agree, but aren't those flashbacks more like dream visions?"

E: "They were like fears."

B: "The Thor one is like telling you about the next Thor movie."

FDr: "Meanwhile, Thor ends up going down to the earth with his scientist buddy. My wife and I were totally confused by it. You can call that intellectual or just incoherent."

B: "It had something to do with Norse mythology."

FDr: "I like the way you say the Scarlet Witch has cooler superhero powers, because that seems typical of superhero aesthetics. I personally can't stand Thor. He is insufferable, because he's a God and he's inherently boring for that reason."

E: "I noticed that small kids at the theater got restless quickly. Any scene that didn't involve a lot of fighting, they got really bored and were running up and down the aisles."

FDr: "One could say modern-day superhero films are designed for adults who think like children, people who play video games into their 30s and 40s--that's the ideal audience? Sort of like permanent immaturity, permanent nerdiness endlessly and commercially affirmed forever?" [Somehow, we shift to discussing Vision.]

LR: "I found the whole idea of Vision a little bit too convenient. All of a sudden they can create this perfect guy who can just happen to pick up Thor's hammer and fulfill a purpose for the plot."

B: "Vision is pretty much just exactly Deus Ex Machina. The comic books explain that he's completely human but he doesn't have a flesh and blood body."

FDr: "I just recognized Paul Bettany in all of that red and blue makeup, and thought 'Oh good. He's got work. I'm glad to see he's employed.' [laughter] So, to conclude, what can you say in the movie's defense that I'm ignoring?"

B: "It's just a great movie. It takes on a serious theme where people are dying, and cities are being destroyed, and there's going to be consequences for the Avengers' actions throughout the entire arc of the upcoming movies. The humans are about to pass legislation that gives them all of the power over all of the superheroes. And it starts a war."

FDr: "Good point. Other last thoughts?"

J: "The movie accomplishes exactly what it needs to do, get you from the first movie to the third one."

L: "Still, you take away the flashiness and the actors and the story, and you don't have much left."

E: "I confess I got tired of watching the movie's continual emphasis on the many ways in which you can destroy a robot."

LR: "On a surface level, the movie succeeds, but if you're looking for something deeper than that, then you're not going to get much out of it."

FDr: "Thank you all."

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