Monday, July 27, 2015

On Ant-Man ... (but mostly really the Marvel Cinematic Universe)

Today was actually intended to be a review of Jurassic World, because I'm trapped by my own backlog, but that's not what is calling to me. Yesterday, I finally got my sorry butt to the theater and saw Ant-Man.

I know what you're wondering right now, "Did he think Ant-Man was that much better that he'd ditch his favorite childhood series just to talk about it."

Or you're wondering, "Wait, this isn't the link I clicked on." 

But I implore you, don't flip to another tab just yet. 

I might be an anonymous internet geek, but I think I have something pretty worthwhile to say, and if you agree, you should totally pass this on. I mean, I'd love to plug my blog, but really, I just want to get this out there.

1) I love Marvel's films.

2) I don't think Marvel is telling good stories.

So this will be less of a review of Ant-Man so much as a retrospective on continuing repetitive mistakes made in this shared universe. I want to talk about some basic storytelling structures that Marvel is skimping on, to their detriment, and I want to inform o' yeh three people reading this blog what those are.

One of my favorite professors ever had a favorite saying during her lectures, “The only journey in fiction is the journey from ignorance to self-awareness.” I'm going to take a moment and let you ponder why I'm bringing this up.

And now I'm going to explain. These characters? They're journeys are all out of wack. They don't really progress in any meaningful sense. The Marvel Universe is one long string of establishing origin stories. The Marvel movies hint at character development post-introduction, but the majority of it seems to happen elsewhere. Take for instance, Captain America acclimating to the modern world. When did he actually acclimate? As far as I can tell, he did it between The Avengers and Captain America: Winter Soldier, and we only ever hear about it in spurts. 

What about the red in Black Widow's ledger? That could have dominated its own entire movie (complete with toy-line you sonsabitches, hint-hint), but instead we get a strong establishment of it in Avengers ... and by Avengers: Age of Ultron, she's ... over it? Also, quick side-note, I could do an entire post about the mistreatment of female characters (and Black Widow especially) in the MCU, but maybe that requires a post dedicated solely to itself.

I don't even really need to point out that Thor hasn't progressed since his first outing (which was by all accounts rushed character development anyways), so what about Tony? Well ... it's haphazard at best. I mean, really try to map his character arcs from story to story. They fluctuate all over the map. At times it feels really strong, like in Iron Man ("I must take responsibility") or Avengers ("sacrifice is required"). I personally think Age of Ultron flubbed it at the midway point when they had Tony solve the problem of the psychopathic killer murder-bot by creating another AI. He solves the problem he created the same way he created it. That's ... not really development. Tony didn't learn anything about his fallibility as a human with a massive ego. 

But what about Iron Man 3, you might ask? Well ... he has a journey. He has panic attacks. He solves them by remembering that he's Tony Stark, and that Tony Stark fixes things .... Resounding.

So what is my point? How does this relate to Ant-Man? Well, Scott Lang falls into the same pattern, actually. He's exactly the same at the beginning of the film as the end. He never has to win his daughter's affection. She loves him already, to the point where I felt sorry for the step-father. So is it Scott's relationship with the law? Not really, because at the end of the film, the step-father (who's a cop) let's him go scott-free because ... he's a superhero now, so he's above the law. And we've successfully done away with risk.

Makes me miss the first season of Arrow.

The takeaway from this is that Marvel refuses to develop their characters, because if the characters grow and develop and change, then there is a chance of alienating audience members. It's the old Star Trek model. If you saw one episode with Kirk and Spock, then you've seen them all, for the most part. Any character development over the course of an episode would be rewritten by the next, to maintain the interchangeability of the episodes. Marvel has succeeded in doing the same thing. You don't need to follow the films to understand what is happening. Either the character is exactly as we left them, or whatever changes they've gone through happened, ala Greek Tragedy, off screen and is relaid to us here in the moment to catch up anyone who didn't see the others.

And that is not how you build engaging character-driven stories. It's not. And I think it's starting to show. These movies are revolutionary because they changed the way film franchises are done, no doubt. But there is almost no chance that these movies are going to engage in the long run, because individually, they don't offer anything above fluff. Not in terms of character development, and spoilers, that's the part people connect to.

And I haven't even gotten to the villains!

But I can do that in a much shorter time. 

Beyond the fact that Marvel's villains are woefully underwritten, there's another point I think that is often missed. They oftentimes have zero, and I mean, zero relationship with the hero beyond the circumstantial.
  • Luke and Vader?
  • Buffy and Angelus?
  • Magneto and Xavier? 
These are characters who, if you removed the powers, or plot, would still have the basis of a powerful story, because they have strong relationships. We're not interested in Luke and Vader because of their powers. We care because we're fathers and sons. We're all part of families, and good and bad, we have an investment. Buffy and Angelus? We've all had a relationship destroy us, or a friendship that caused us devastation when it disintegrated, like Magneto and Xavier's. 

But in the Marvel world, we get Yellow-Jacket and Ant-Man who, as George R.R. Martin pointed out, have the same powers, and it's boring. I disagree. I think the similarity of the powers is immaterial. What I find unforgivable is the fact that Cross and Lang have NO relationship. Neither did Peter Quill and Ronan, or Maleketh and Thor, or Captain America and Red Skull. Sure they're diametrically opposed on the moral spectrum, but they have no personal investment in one another. Ronan and Star-Lord don't even come into contact with one another until the climax of the film.

And suffice it so say, this is not how you build character relationships. A villain is meant to test a hero in every possible way. Ultron might have been bogged down by a cut-running time, but at least he engaged the heroes early in the film and utilized different tactics to achieve his goals. 

That's more than can be said about most Marvel villains.

So Marvel, here's what I have to say, cool it on the world building and in-universe connections. At this point they'll happen organically, I promise. Start focusing on telling a complete character arc without worrying about what you'll do next time. If the characters survived decades of comic books, I'm sure you have enough to work with for half-a-dozen movies (before the actors refuse to renew their contracts anymore). Give the heroes a specific goal per movie, a challenge that they can learn about themselves through overcoming. Oh, and I beg you, develop villains with relationships to the hero before you do anything else. Then let the cool bits come to you. Even if the action is meh, the emotions will underscore the story more than anything else you can do. You've got some Shakespearean themes to play with. Run with them. 

Case in point.

PS, where did Yellow-Jacket get the lasers? Is that common in the MCU? During Iron Man 2 they couldn't recreate Stark Tech, so was Cross using Hydra's Tesseract weapons? Seriously, someone help me out here. 

PPS, I'm like ... so excited about DC's Suicide Squad, and Fox's Deadpool movies, because they look like they might actually break the mold, which would fill me with all the happiness.

1 comment:

  1. I agree wholeheartedly. Thank you for putting into words why Avengers and company felt oddly hollow. Also, I finally was able to see The Force Awakens this afternoon, so that fight scene clip made my night.