Avengers: Age of Bechdel

imagesI was a little surprised when I saw the first Avengers movie and realized that it did not pass the Bechdel test. What’s the Bechdel test? You ask. It’s kind of like the Turing test but it tests for gender equality in movies. There are three requirements. 1) There must be at least wto women with speaking roles. 2) They must speak with each other. 3) The conversation must be about something other than a man. It’s harder to pass than you might think, especially for comic book movies. None of the Iron Man movies pass. Man of Steel doesn’t pass. Batman Begins and The Dark Knight don’t pass (haven’t seen The Dark Knight Rises). I wouldn’t have been shocked if Marvel’s The Avengers failed to pass the test. Knowing that Joss Whedon wrote and directed it, however, changed my level of expectation. Joss tried. I know he did. He got really close too. The fact that Maria Hill and Black Widow can be on the helicarrier at the same time and not have 3 lines about, say, security, only makes it a more glaring example of how difficult it can be to get good female interaction in major studio movies.

I was worried, given The Avengers’ failure, that Age of Ultron might also fail to live up to my feminist expectations. Fortunately, it turns out that I had nothing to worry about. Age of Ultron only one more speaking woman than The Avengers but had 3 Bechdel-passing conversations. The problem with the Bechdel test, however, is that is does not guarantee that a movie is feminist. That is why it is important to examine the nature of the conversation. After all, as a friend pointed out, “Becky look at her butt. It is so big” from Sir Mix-a-lot’s one hit wonder passes the Bechdel test.

First things first, let us get to know our players.

Natasha Romanoff (played by Scarlet Johansson), trained to be an elite spy and assassin since childhood, is an ex-member of the KGB and the only female Avenger to appear on screen. Ever since her shaky first appearance in Iron Man 2, Black Widow has been the champion of comic book movie feminists and more than a few are upset that Captain Marvel is getting a movie before Black Widow. Most recently, Natasha was spotlighted as a victim of slut-shaming when Jeremy Renner, who plays her best friend in the movie, had a very offensive response to a question from an interviewer that highlighted how prevalent casually misogyny can be.

Maria Hill (played by Cobie Smulders), first appeared in The Avengers as Nick Fury’s right hand woman. Since S.H.I.L.E.D’S dissolution in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Maria has been working, presumably, at the top levels of Stark Industries.

Dr. Helen Cho (played by Claudia Kim), is a cross between an engineer and a surgeon, having invented a process of synthesizing tissue that makes stiches obsolete. She has a lovely amount of screen time for her first showing in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Woman Three (played by Julie Delpy) is a spoiler. If you do not to be spoiled about one of the character’s backstory then you should stop reading.

Woman Four (played by Linda Cardinelli) is a spoiler. This character is also extremely significant for a major character’s backstory. She does, however, have one of the best Bechdel-related conversations of the movie that very subtly gives away Whedon’s humor.

Wanda Maximoff (played by Elizabeth Olsen) is also making her first appearance in the MCU. She is not a mutant, since Marvel Studios aren’t allowed to say “mutant” in their movies, but she does have super powers including telepathy and telekinesis. She is also very much defined by her relationship with her twin brother, Pietro. The two are orphans in a former warzone in Eastern Europe and it has been them against the world ever since their parents died.

Conversation Number One

This conversation involves Maria Hill, Dr. Cho, and Natasha Romanoff. The boys are involved in this conversation as well and it centers on the movie’s villain, Ultron, and what the A.I.’s motives are. The women are active participants, helping to piece together the puzzle and figure out what the team’s next steps should be. I love this conversation because of how utilitarian it is. This is not meant to reveal some key character development. This is not Whedon making a statement. He is just using all of his talking pieces to move the story forward.

Conversation Number Two

This is a memory of a conversation between Natasha and one of her early instructors in the art of spying and killing. The scene is revealed to us when Wanda “bewitches” Natasha in the Avengers’ first battle against her and Pietro. In it, Woman Three and Natasha discuss a graduation ceremony. It is intercut with shots of a young Natasha practicing ballet, handling firearms, and getting out of chokeholds. Natasha later reveals, in a very touching conversation with Bruce Banner that this ceremony involved a very invasive procedure, one that I am not sure a lot of children watching will understand.

Conversation Number Three

This is actually a trick conversation between Woman Four and Natasha. Pay attention or you will miss it.

What does it all mean?

There are some who believe, despite this clearly passing grade, that the movie is not very feminist and that Joss Whedon might not even be a feminist. This is an old criticism http://www.themarysue.com/reconsidering-the-feminism-of-joss-whedon/. Bizarrely enough, some point to the romance between Black Widow and Hulk as someone making Natasha less of strong character. Strong women don’t get to have love interests? What? Then there is the fact that Black Widow spends some time as a captive who needs rescuing. She does do a little bit of work aiding her escape. Unfortunately, the only other character Ultron could conceivably hold hostage is Clint Barton and Joss was already making up for how poorly he treated that character in The Avengers.

So let’s consider some other moments. As I was faithfully waiting for that first moment a woman actually a conversation with another woman I saw Tony Stark and Thor start to wave their man sticks around. Of course instead of competing intellectually or physically they compare their women. This began when Maria Hill asked the logical question at a mission after-party: Where were Jane Foster and Pepper Potts (Thor’s and Iron Man’s romantic interests respectively)? If Joss Whedon is such a feminist why did he not put all the female characters in the movie? Probably because actors cost money that Disney wasn’t willing to pay and the story has almost too many characters, any. Still, watching these men compete arguing who has successfully wooed the better woman put a sour taste in my mouth every time I watched the movie. Until the third time when I finally heard what Maria Hill cough-said at the end: testosterone.

And I have to go back to conversation number three. That one gets me every time.

Are there flaws with Whedon’s feminist perspective in the movie? Perhaps. Are there filmmaking flaws in the movie? Definitely. Is it a fun movie and worth showing to little girls around the world? I think so.

p.s. Hawkeye would kick the ass of anyone who sluts-shamed Black Widow.

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Daredevil. Or, “Not the one Ben Afleck was in”.

maxresdefault1.jpgThese are some thoughts I had about Daredevil. It was going to be a Facebook post but it got too long.

The thing about Daredevil is that it possessed the most “gritty” and “realistic” tone out of all the Marvel live action properties and I make a distinction between the television and cinematic universes because of rumors that they are not so simpatico. Then again you may acknowledge that Netflix shows are not quite like regular tv shows. They are presented in episodic form but they are designed for binge-watching, presented as something of a whole story rather than being forced to restrict every segment to being available only once a week.

Back to the thing about Daredevil, though, it started of dark not just in tone but in the visual style itself. Think of that famous fight scene in episode two, so clearly inspired by Old Boy (The original not the Spike Lee version since I haven’t seen that). As awesome as it was watching the beat down that went down in the hallway, being left to wonder what was happing in the side rooms when you could only hear the fight. It also forces the viewer to acknowledge, that really, fighting is exhausting. Even boxers have to take breaks. Even the darkness of Matt’s Catholicism rears its head. He is haunted when he asks, given that God has some grand plan, “why’d he put the devil in me?” Our hero believes he has an evil source fighting to control his behavior and that he really could become as bad as the criminals he is fighting…

And then you have the man whose name “we don’t say.” Until we do say his name. Fisk. Wilson Fisk. He’s not the Kingpin, not yet. He’s just a maybe psychopath who has amassed quite a bit of wealth about the town as well as influence with members from all walks of life. He’s in partnership with Mafia’s and a crooked accountant. Yet, he really seems to want ultimate make his city better.

But the show transforms. It begins a transition which has yet to be fully realized. This transition would be fairly considered a dark to light metamorphosis. It becomes more “comic-bookey” and with that comes the ultimate judgment that comic book movies are not considered art, at least not to some in the Artistic community (I’m looking at you Inrarritu).

it is also fair to say that Daredevil loses something towards the end of the of the season. The story becomes, not only unnecessarily long but also a little too predictable. This can be seen in the uniform change. I think that was a bad idea. He was so cool in his ninja costume! Then there’s the “cowl” that covers the whole half of his face. If I were a criminal I’d be a little freaked out by the vigilante who doesn’t need to see to fight.

The thing about Daredevil is that it also represents a shift in Marvel’s live action story-telling. Contrary to what Marvel’s movies might be, in the comics world Marvel characters do not spend all their time crossing over. Even SHIELD has it own storyline that is affected by the movies yet has no effect over the movies. (SHIELD. Oh SHIELD. There is a comic book show that had a hard time finding its mediocre legs. It taught me not to have high hopes.). But the movies have spread the notion that these larger than life characters, these icons that have been constantly reinvented into new storylines, can, in fact, show up in other movie “universes”. Heck, even E.T. cameoed in Star Wars (ha! +2 to geek cred).
The thing about Daredevil is, I don’t think he belongs in the MCU. AThe movies have a very particular and frankly, very family-friendly, style to them. They appeal to most generations. Avengers: Age of Ultron is so appealing it’s almost certain to break the record for biggest opening weekend. You know who currently holds the record for biggest opening weekend? The Avengers.. Daredevil is not this happy go lucky, not at all. The Avengers are super soldiers, aliens so goddamn weird they have the names and personalities of there Norse mythological counterparts on Midgard, and genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropists. They are not generally blind orphans. And there are no hyper-real 10 minute long fight scenes. There is a lot of blood and I kept my eyes closed for several gory moments.

For the most part, in terms of entertainment and story value, I think Daredevil satisfies my requirements. I love what the tone says about the archetype of this character. But I like it where it is. Certain stories need to be restricted to a long form method like Television. Breaking bad for example. A clever someone cut it into a two hour movie but I think it was perfect as a several year-long transformation archetype switch.

And I like where The Avengers are as movies. I am exited to see if/how Avengers: Age of Ultron affects the coming Infinity War. I hope that it passes the Bechdel test. That’s another place Daredevil failed miserably. As my friend Dick Powis remarked with not a little sarcasm, “I like this Daredevil show. It’s about time someone portrayed women in roles as nurse and secretaries.” IBut the fact is that it doesn’t mesh with Daredevil’s bone-crunching bleakness. And Daredevils conflicted view of the good vs/ evil battle does mesh with the pretty clear lines about who are the good guys and who are the bad guys. Maybe that’s what it comes down to. The struggle between fantastical, larger than life characters in one and the other focuses on how personal demons shape one’s identity. One has Superheroes and Super Humans doing battle with Alens and A.I.s and the other has a vigilante who has kind of a hard time figuring out how to compete with gentrification.

The thing about this show is the difference between the man in the black mask, the devil of Hell’s Ktichen, and Daredevil.