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Sunday, May 13, 2012

Assembled (Avengers spoilers)

 Five things I liked about The Avengers:

1. Black Widow's expanded, one-hundred-percent-unfiltered-badass role. I liked Natasha  well enough in Iron Man 2, chiefly because I enjoyed watching her and Pepper Potts get shit done while Tony broke things and made an ass of himself, but Whedon and Johansson magnified her greatness by a thousand for The Avengers. Her opening fight scene was my favorite fight of the movie. It's still wonderful for me as a woman viewer to watch a movie where no comments about characters' sex are made. Not one person says anything to Natasha or Maria about them being women, and when Loki trades on what he perceives as Natasha's weakness, he learns part of why she's an effective spy. Also, it's a nice change to see a woman rescuing a man, and rescuing him for reasons other than "I love him!"--Clint and Natasha's relationship may have a romantic component (it would be canonically accurate), but there's more to it and Natasha places a premium on atoning for her sins (a favorite Whedon theme).

2. The team dynamic. Whedon's chief strength is making ensemble pieces coalesce, and that is the sticking point of this film--if the team's interactions hadn't worked, the film wouldn't have worked. The Avengers is a team of opposites and clashing personalities who manage to work together despite themselves. It was fantastic to see that brought to the screen. There are no weak links or bad performances here.

3. Mark Ruffalo's performance. Yes, you may recall how I feel about Ruffalo as an actor, but he did a bang-up--as it were--job as Bruce Banner and the Incredible Hulk. I'm not real interested in the Hulk as a character (I'd rather see either or both the She-Hulks on screen), but he is an integral part of the Avengers team and had much more depth here than I'm used to reading for him in the comics. I venture that many people loved the "let's do science!" bromance of Tony and Bruce.

4. Whedonisms. Despite his shows' flaws (and they aren't perfect), I'm a Whedonite--I try not to be the super-annoying brand. This film is a treat for Whedon fans: the snappy dialogue, which I found particularly suitable for Tony, especially in how it came out in his nicknames for everyone; the WHEDON'D death (?) scene of a beloved character; and creating Maria and Natasha as important, well-rounded characters are great hallmarks of Whedon. There's also the matter of a bunch of people fleeing as a city caves in behind them...

5. Equal-opportunity asskicking. Related to points #1 and #4, the heroes in this team all get to kick about equal amounts of ass. I don't understand how a viewer could come out of the film wondering about the usefulness/efficacy of Black Widow and Hawkeye (yet these viewers exist), because every Avenger gets to pound evil dudes into the ground (literally in the case of the Hulk, in a scene which had the audience in my theater roaring). It's more obvious when Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, and the Hulk kick ass, because they have giant muscles and serious weapons, but the Widow and Hawkeye are no less capable and get their fair share, which is as it should be.

Two things I didn't like about The Avengers:

1. Sort-of-whitewashing Maria Hill. Cobie Smulders is a great actress and she did a wonderful job as S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Maria Hill (AND I really liked the film's development of her character, especially when compared with her on Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes), and I would be totally in favor of an Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. film wherein she, Coulson, and Fury supervise Clint Barton and Natasha Romanoff as they kick All The Asses (in Budapest, perhaps?), but Maria Hill's ethnicity is unaddressed in some media and Hispanic in others, and I would have loved to see a Latina actress in that role. More broadly, of course, I would have wished for more heroes of color on the team, but that's a wish that's about eight years past being able to come true for this particular franchise. I do hope that perhaps a future Captain America film will feature Falcon (and I nominate Isaiah Mustapha for the role), and that maybe with the incredible success of The Avengers, Marvel might look into other team properties such as Heroes for Hire or The Defenders.

2. What are you doing, Loki? I found Loki's parts of the film somewhat weak. This is a minor nitpick, but I sense that if a viewer hadn't seen Thor, there might have been some doubt as to what exactly Loki's point was. It's definitely not Tom Hiddleston's fault, as he was as slinky-evil in The Avengers as in Thor, but the Chitauri were run-of-the-mill cannon fodder and Loki's relationship to the Other somewhat underdeveloped. for my money his most threatening scene was the one discussed in my final point below--he was never more frightening to me than that, maybe because his power in this film was tied to that Staff of Destiny watchamajigger, and he can apparently be effectively thrashed into the ground by a Hulk like a cat playing with a toy.

One thing I'm still undecided on about The Avengers:

1. Quim. In case you didn't hear Loki/aren't well-versed in outdated British slang terms/have never seen Elizabeth or read Chaucer, "quim" is basically an older version of "cunt." Loki refers to Natasha as a "mewling quim" in his showdown with her when he's inside the Hulk cage. At the time, I thought vaguely that I'd heard the word before (read it in Chaucer at some point) and couldn't remember exactly what it meant, but even still, it's pretty clear that it's a gendered insult. Which...it is. So the question becomes, why is this word here? It's Whedon, so the Cynical Fan part of me says that he was playing his old game of "slip naughty words past censors" which he did in Buffy and Firefly/Serenity. But it's not a naughty word like "fuck" is--it's a specific, gendered insult for which there is no male equivalent. The Let's Examine The Character part of me thinks that Loki would indeed say something like this; he makes a veiled sexual threat toward Jane Foster in Thor, so it's not completely out of character for him to speak to or about women this way, AND he's a villain whose power flows from his words, so he wouldn't be above saying whatever he thought was necessary to grind a person down. The scene itself is also one in which he loses control without even realizing it, since Black Widow is playing him like a harp, and "cunt" is definitely a word that people--usually men--use when they feel out of control. 

The Tired Of Gendered Insults part of me thinks that the scene would have been pivotal enough without use of a word like this, and that having the line be "mewling mortal" or something would have jibed perfectly fine (especially since Loki prefaces his final insult with a lengthy diatribe about how he's going to force Clint to kill Natasha, with threat of sexual assault implied). The Let's Talk About Sociolinguistics part of me thinks that if Loki had called Hawkeye  or another male character a "mewling quim" the meaning would have been changed entirely (to "pussy" rather than "cunt"), which adds another level to the dynamic of the scene. The Take That, Misogyny! part of me sees Natasha hear him, presumably understand his meaning if not the word itself (although who knows, her brain is a magical place), and still go in for the kill, because that is just how little she gives a shit, it isn't the first time she's been called a cunt and it won't be the last. The Whedonite in me thinks that, all else being equal, Loki's conversation with the Widow is the most compelling and frightening segment of the film, the best indicator of Loki's evilness, and signifies that his threats against her (all sexualized ones) are the worst that a villain can bring to bear.

So...I'm not sure how I feel about this word, being in this film.  I am not real bothered by "cunt" itself, but when a person calls me that, it isn't the word that is trying to hurt me, it's the feeling behind it. Having only previously encountered "quim" as a quaint, har har, term for female junk, I'm not sure I WAS aware that it could be connotatively similar to "cunt," but of course that's Loki's (or Whedon's) goal. Erring on the side of optimism, if what this scene gives us IS solely Loki's misogyny and not Whedon's flippancy, I would think the creator might still be aware that the US is not quite ready for that conversation. Context as ever is key, since in some erotic scenarios we have "cunt" being used as an endearment (Lady Chatterley's Lover comes to mind as the classic example) and the same is true of "quim," which is largely cutesy in Chaucer, as I recall. For me as a consumer of culture "quim" was on level with "minge" prior to this movie. I can believe both that Whedon wrote the line intending for it to tell us something about Loki's character AND that Whedon should know that it isn't as cut-and-dried as all that. Ultimately, the line was written and signed off on; ironically I think it would be much more clear-cut if "cunt" had actually been used--and yes, I am one of those who think MPAA ratings for language are absolutely fucking idiotic. Regardless, there's a discussion to be had, and as always, Cleolinda has a thoughtful analysis and a lot of great comments.


MamaMunky said...

I loved this post. Great thoughts on the Avengers and Whedon. You reminded me of a quote by him. He was asked "Why do you write such strong female characters?" and he said "Because you are still asking that question."

Diana said...

Thanks! I love that quote--it really says it all, both about the people asking and the person answering.

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