The Meddler: Adding a Post-Credits Gag to Age of Ultron

The makers of Age of Ultron did their best to get the word out that there would be no post-credits gag at the end, merely a mid-credits teaser. Nevertheless, I’m sure that many non-fandom moviegoers didn’t get the memo, and stuck around for naught.

So let’s try to grant them some belated satisfaction! Yesterday, I mentioned that I could weary of Whedon’s preference for subverting our pre-established narrative expectations instead of creating new ones, but, being in that mode, I found myself cooking up a Whedon-esque post-credits bit that might have offered some satisfaction.

One thing I admired about the movie was that Ultron was totally defeated, without an “I’ll be back” moment, (After all, we know that Marvel has bigger fish to fry), but given that we do have that expectation, I thought it might be fun to play with it:
  • After the last credit, we cut back to a shot of the final Ultron head lying where the Vision left it in the forest. As ominous music builds, we slowly track in on its dead eye socket…Then, just as blackness fills the screen, a glowing red eye flickers on! 
  • Then BAM! Thor’s hammer smashes it to smithereens, abruptly ending the ominous music.
  • THOR: Thou were right, Vision. ’Tis good we kept watch.
  • VISION: I told you so.
SMASH to black. Lights come on, curtains close.

Rulebook Casefile: Turning Phrases in Age of Ultron

I really did like Age of Ultron, honest, though I seem to do nothing but nitpick. To wit…
I like a lot of Joss Whedon’s work, but I’ve always found his public persona fairly irksome: too eager to hoard credit and diminish the contributions of his co-workers. Typically, he’s dropped hints in the press that the stuff you like about Age of Ultron was all his and the stuff you didn’t like was all Marvel.

But I disagree, as some of the things that irked me were classic Whedon problems:
  • The story was at times more interested in subverting our pre-established narrative expectations than in creating its own expectations.
  • Too many different characters employed the same kind of quippy postmodern jokes.
  • Too much of the dialogue consisted of characters reversing their own turns of phrase, or reversing each others’.
I don’t have the script, and I didn’t take notes, but even just visiting IMDB’s quotes page, you find two examples:
  • Tony Stark: Banner and I have been doing research...
  • Steve Rogers: -That would affect the team.
  • Tony Stark: -That would END the team.
And later:
  • Ultron: THIS is the best I can do.
Neither of these is that bad, and you can pull this stuff off occasionally, but it quickly wears out its welcome, because we can never totally ignore how unnatural this is. As I discussed before, we don’t listen very well to each other, and different minds have different built-in syntax, so we’re unlikely (and probably unable) to neatly reverse anyone else’s turn of phrase.

Later, we have a better example of how to pull off a rousing dialogue callback:
  • Tony Stark: How do we cope with something like that?
  • Steve Rogers: Together.
  • Tony Stark: We’ll lose.
  • Steve Rogers: We do that together too.
Steve repurposes his own language, which sounds far more natural, but achieves the same clever callback feeling which gives dialogue both more fizz and more resonance.

What’s the Matter with Superheroes, Part 3: The Villain Problem

I’ve tried my hand at writing a superhero movie from scratch, and quickly found that it’s a lot harder than it looks. One of many problems you have to solve is this: where do the villains come from? It’s hard enough to dream up a situation that would create and motivate a super-hero, but now you have to create an equally powerful super-villain and quickly smash them together. There are, of course, short-cuts that will get you there, but those short-cuts create their own problems.

Let’s start by looking at the different types of super-villain origin, pro and con:

Completely separate origin from the hero: Superman, All three of the original Spider-Man movies, Captain America 2, Iron Man 3, Fantastic Four 2
  • Pros: The hero is in the clear morally. Somebody would have needed to stop this bad guy, so it’s good that the hero was there.
  • Cons: If it’s the first one, it takes an awful long time to set up two origin stories (think Green Goblin in Spider-Man 1), and even later it distracts from the story a lot (think Sandman in Spider-Man 3)
Same incident creates both: Superman 2, Fantastic Four 1, the new “Flash” TV show, “Smallville”, all six X-Men movies, Captain America 1 (the Red Skull, that is. The rest of the Nazis are in the previous category), The recent Spider-Man reboot
  • Pros: Much easier to write and more streamlined.
  • Cons: It’s all a bit of a wash, isn’t it? One part of the problem wipes out another part of the problem. Civilians still would have been better off if the whole mess had never happened.
Villains creates himself or his weapon using the good guy’s stuff: Superman Returns, Iron Man, Incredible Hulk
  • Pros: Ironic. Fairly streamlined.
  • Cons: Even worse than the previous category, because now the hero deserves blame for leaving his stuff around. The villainy results from his negligence.
Hero flat-out creates the villain: Avengers 2, Green Lantern (his organization, anyway)
  • Pros: It’s ironic, it’s painful, it speaks to our fears of power spinning out of control.
  • Cons: So many! Not only is every death in the movie is the fault of the hero, but each of those deaths has to be subtracted from the tally of lives saved in all the other movies featuring that hero! (There’s a reason why the body count in Avengers 2 was so low!)
Okay, so let’s look at the super-villains’ plans, pro and con:

Street crime: Daredevil movies and TV, most Batman movies 
  • Pros: We all understand it. It’s an independent threat that would have happened anyway, so the hero is really a hero for stopping it.
  • Cons: It has to be big enough to justify super-hero-ing, or else it will make the decision to put on a costume seem really weird.
Big evil plan that has nothing to do with the hero: Superman, Spider-Man 2, Captain America 2, Iron Man 3
  • Pros: The hero is in the clear morally, and he has a fun mystery to solve.
  • Cons: It requires a bit more plotting, but there’s very little downside. This is the way to do it. There’s a reason that those are four of the best.
Just attacking the hero, civilians get in the way: Spider-Man 1, X2, Man of Steel, Dark Knight Rises, Thor, Fantastic Four, Iron Man 2
  • Pros: Much easier to write. The heroes don’t have to go on patrol, or track anybody down, or summon up any motivation—they just have to defend themselves against the enemies who show up on their doorstep.
  • Cons: They aren’t actually heroes anymore. In fact, they’re just the opposite: they’re needlessly endangering civilians just by being around them.
I never understood why the villains were doing what they were doing: The Avengers, Dark Knight Rises, Thor 2
  • Pros: If you move fast enough, audiences won’t care!
  • Cons: And hour later, they’ll say “Wait…What??”
Ultimately, super-villains have to be the flip side of the hero on some thematic level, but if they have the same origin, or it’s just a grudge match, then you’ve lost the “hero” part. As I said before, action movies require civilians…and ideally those should be civilians that the hero didn’t personally endanger!

Obviously, this was one of the biggest problems with Avengers 2, but to a certain extent that was by design: it helps that this is the middle movie in a trilogy, and it’s clearly supposed to be a low-point. Still, it would have been better if Tony Stank had suffered real consequences and/or guilt for causing all this evil, instead of the car-commercial final scene he had.  Presumably, the consequences will hit later. 

What’s the Matter with Superheroes, Part 2: “This is Not A Good Concept” Cannot Be the Concept

For years, people have waiting for the superhero backlash to hit, but that day of doom has been continually delayed. I think people were really primed to hate Marvel Phase 2, but there was just one problem: the movies were too damn good. I can tell you that I personally was ready to bite the heads off of Iron Man 3, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Captain America 2, but dammit, I loved all three!

Now, however, the push back may be arriving: The reaction to Avengers 2 has been more mixed, the accompanying trailers for Fantastic Four and Ant-Man seem unpromising, and the trailer for Batman vs. Superman is downright despised.

I actually like Avengers 2 a lot, but I thought that one of the major storylines was a big problem, and connected to the big problem with that BvS trailer: You can’t call attention to the fact that this concept makes little sense.
In the original “Avengers” comics, Hawkeye was a cocky, wise-cracking jerk who just inserted himself into the team and then justified his existence at times when you least expected it. The movies, however, chose not to go with that version of the character, instead using the version from an alternate “realistic” version of the Avengers called “The Ultimates”. This Hawkeye is a humble, untalkative civil-servant, assigned to the team by the government to provide his vital archery skills.

This, of course, makes no damn sense --Why would they need an archer?? So if you’re Joss Whedon, how do you handle this non-sensical situation? Unfortunately, he did the worst thing: called attention to it, over and over.

This is a much bigger problem with BvS. The whole trailer is based on the idea that, “Hey, wait just a second, if Superman was real, we’d all hate and fear him.” That’s true, and it’s an interesting angle to take, and a natural one, but ultimately it’s not what the public wants to see.
I’ve been coy about it over the years, because it’s such an unpopular opinion, but close readers of the blog have probably guessed I actually disliked the original Dark Knight movie with Heath Ledger. Quite a bit. Here’s something I wrote about it in an email to friend:
  • There are no superheroes in the real world. Because superheroes wouldn’t make any sense in the real world. And that’s fine. When you write a superhero story, you get to create your own world. One where super-heroes do make sense. And why not? It’s fair. It’s allowed. After all, superheroes are just a metaphor. A metaphor for the will-to-power. But stories like this do the opposite. They keep asking niggling nit-pick questions like, “Yeah, but what if there was some psychopath who was so obsessed with you that they threatened to kill random people until you took your mask off? Then what would you do?” Well, of course, then, logically, you’d take the mask off. But we all know full well that’s not going to happen in the movie, so what’s the point, other than to just rub the whole unreality of the “masked vigilante” premise in our faces? It’s an ugly, sadistic and utterly false premise. Writers only use it point out to the reader/viewer that they’re smart enough to have figured out that superheroes don’t actually make any sense. Well congratulations, Einstein. But you get paid the big bucks to dream up situations where they do make sense, not ones where they don’t.
Last time, I talked about how “Daredevil” teased us with the possibility that he was just demented, then tried to make his actions logical after all, which disappointed me. Likewise, I think that Hawkeye only works if he’s a bit of a nut. The more you try to make his presence on the team make sense, the bigger of a hole you dig for yourself.

What’s the Matter with Superheroes, Part 1:The Klan Problem

A week of posts on the problems plaguing America’s most popular genre…

So I really liked the first two episodes of Netflix’s “Daredevil”, then disliked the next two, then skipped to the last one, which didn’t make me want to go back and watch the others. (I know, I know, I’ve been told that I missed the best stuff.) It seemed like this series was Marvel’s attempt to merge their sensibility with Christopher Nolan dark, gritty superhero-realism, and it worked far better than it had any right to, but ultimately failed for me.

The problem is this: Both Batman and Daredevil seem on first glance like ground-level heroes who can be given a more realistic treatment, but you quickly run into big problems, both logically and thematically.

As I watched the series, it just so happened that I was reading “The Wars of Reconstruction: The Brief, Violent History of America's Most Progressive Era” by Douglas Egerton, and it made watching the show into a queasy experience. Quick Quiz: Who’s talking here?
  • “The corrupt authorities allow a ‘criminal element’ to act like they own our cities and endanger our loved ones, but we’re going to use vigilante action to stop them—Luckily, our enemies are cowardly and superstitious, so we will wear scary masks as we hunt them down in the nighttime, then leave them dangling in public places with notes pinned to their chest warning others of the same fate.”
If you guessed “Daredevil and Batman”, you’re correct! And if you guessed “the Reconstruction-era Ku Klux Klan”, then you’re also correct!
Both the Nolan Batman films and the Netflix “Daredevil” series demand that we constantly ask ourselves, “What would I do in that situation? What’s the next logical step?” The problem, of course, is that the answer they end up with is not one that any sane person would arrive at. So either you have to show that the heroes are insane, or you have to put them in such an extremely evil world that their actions make sense. Unfortunately, the world you’re creating is uncomfortably similar to the world that exists in a Klansman’s head.

One of my favorite moments from those first two episodes of “Daredevil” was a flashback to Matt’s childhood in which his father encouraged him to take a swig of whiskey. That takes a big load off the story, because it opens up the possibility that this guy was simply raised wrong, which allows his actions to be less logically-motivated.

But I felt like the show’s biggest mistake came when DD finally graduated to a real superhero costume at the end and they felt the need to explain that it was simply necessary body-armor...with horns, for some reason. Ugh. Please don’t pretend that this is logical. Ultimately, there’s only one good reason to wear a superhero costume: Because of course you would. That’s it. Either you live in a world where costumed heroes make sense, or you don’t. But if you try to make it make sense in our world, you have to make some very unpleasant assumptions.

More on the dangers of superhero-realism next time…