Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Tim + Alex Get TWATD #4.2: Triple Trouble (feat. Michael Eckett)

This time round, a third handsome face appears, as we are joined for night one only by special guest star Michael Eckett. Aptly enough, Michael is here to writing about Urðr, she who is three-in-one, kicking off a fans-and-creators special here at Tim + Alex Get TWATD.

Spoilers up to the very last drop of The Wicked + The Divine #11 below. Read that, then come back and read this. Please come back. Please, it gets so lonely in here...
Triple Trouble
                  
Three Cheers for Sweet Remorse
Michael's face Time to sound entitled.

There are elements of performing that can be profoundly awful. Moments that go beyond making you want to throw in the towel and become a data analyst; ones which fill you with the dread that either you or the world is broken and you’re not even sure how to distinguish. It’s not the moments you’re prepared for, like trying to do a show whilst a stag party loudly plans what buffet they’re going to, or performing to a room of four people, whilst a snow storm goes on outside, only to be interrupted by a fire alarm. (Always stay in character, even if that character is the personification of an abstract concept. Or a tree.) The times that really break you are the ones can be the times when people cheer.

Issue #10 sees Cassandra, now one of the Norns, finally taking the stage with a willing audience ready to hear her message, that truth which she sees and has been dying to deliver. The moment is chilling and stark as their performance shatters the riot and their words cut through the silhouettes. Then there’s a beat. And then the crowd cheers. And we’re left with a broken person who cares too much.

Urdr Performance

In the past I’ve written plays with my suicidal thoughts and depression as metaphor, and people have laughed and clapped. I wasn’t sure how to react. I’ve made shows philosophising about life and death with monologues of existential angst and ennui because I’ve been lost, confused and scared and the only way I knew how to process it all or get help was reach out and hope someone else felt the same way. And they fucking cheer.

Writing can mean spending months contemplating how to craft the nebulous feelings into something simultaneously true and entertaining. It’s hard to go out and speak personally and vulnerably, hoping to connect to people because you have something important to say (whether that’s because it’s important to you or Important because you’re going to save the world).

The pain that follows the cheers is a selfish one. It’s hard to be too angry with a crowd who have been conditioned to show praise in a certain way, or who are polite and interested enough to ask what you’re doing next. (Turns out you can’t say “I just did a thing. You saw it. I poured myself into it and it nearly killed me, isn’t that good enough for you?”) But you have adrenaline pumping through you and at the same time you’re berating yourself for not being good enough to get the message across. Caring hurts, trying is hard and your successes can feel as bad as your failures. You feel like a prick for wanting more from people.
 Urdr

But sometimes you have something to say and you truly believe in it, and all you can do is hope that someone will hear it. The moment where Laura consoles Cassandra/Urðr works really well; there’s some excellent composition and framing and the message is sweet and true. Some people get it, sometimes a critic will treat your comedies seriously and will nail your themes and reference points, and sometimes your piece will inspire someone to write an essay because of how it made them feel.

I guess I write so that people can understand me better or to show that I could understand them; for a while it was all I had and there was an urgency to it. A performance isn’t necessarily entertainment – and even when it’s didactic, it’s mostly an attempt to connect.
                  

The Crowd + The Congregation

When I read Issue #10 and the moment that Michael describes, I was also struck with a desire to write about it, although from a very different angle.

Everything Michael says is true. I’ve been on his side of the equation, although not in kind of public way that someone writing, directing and performing in a play has. I’ve known the feeling of laying yourself bare only to have people not ‘get’ it, or to be blandly appreciative in a way that makes it impossible for you to tell if they actually engaged with the emotions and ideas you were putting forward. It’s frustrating and saddening in a way that can make you question everything you’ve been doing. But I want to talk about the other side of the interaction – the audience.

So far in The Wicked + The Divine, we’ve seen a variety of audiences, but they have all tended to act as a mass. From the initial waves of ecstatic adoration at the Amaterasu concert to the goth riot at The Morrigan’s underground gig. At Dionysus’ rave, we find a crowd literally made one, united by the spirit of the god and surrender to the beat. Even more recently, we’ve had the Glastonbury-style gathering at Ragnarock that so disappointed Urðr and the writhing mass of bodies that comprised Inanna’s residency.

Ragnarock
In each instance, the crowd is a single entity, with only Laura’s insights there to give us an occasional individual perspective. It’s both a telling element, and a truism. Anyone who’s been swept up in the euphoria of a great night on the dancefloor, chanted along with thousands of others or been carried on the waves of a mosh pit will concur – sometimes you cease being a person and become part of an audience. In those moments, considered nuance is surrendered to visceral reaction, and thought to instinct.

When, in issue #10, Urðr/Cassandra despairs that “they fucking cheered”, it begs the question, what else could they do? I’ve been at gigs where artists have poured their hearts out on stage, in songs about heartbreak, depression, suicide and loneliness, and at the end, when the last chord fades, the question stands. How do I show my appreciation for this act? How do I relay to this person that I have felt what they felt, that they have spoken of my pain in words I could never find? But then the crowd instinct takes over, and all you can really do is clap.
Urdr Crowd 1 Urdr Crowd 2
Like Michael said, we’ve been conditioned to show praise in certain ways, and at most situations where a crowd is involved, you have clapping, cheering or shouting in the hope you are heard above the din. None are particularly subtle, nor do they carry the weight of feeling we sometimes need them to.

There are some interesting exceptions to the rule though. Let us wander away from the realm of pop music and comics briefly, and consider the other great art form of the 20th century – professional wrestling.

Crowd reaction is a huge part of pro wrestling. One writer once described it as “a LARP where the wrestlers are playing athletes and the audience is playing the audience, and everybody’s in on it”, which gives you some insight into both the theatricality at work, and the importance of interacting with, and playing to, the crowd.

In pro wrestling, the lines are very clear cut. You cheer the faces and boo the heels. While that’s simple once they’re in the ring, entrances (often the best opportunity for a wrestler to convey their persona or hook) can complicate this – and one in particular, Bray Wyatt, is a great example of this, and how a crowd has adapted to it.


Wyatt, like many wrestlers, has cycled through a number of different roles, but currently plays a sort of demonically-possessed Southern preacher character. Most definitely a heel, but an intimidating, awe-inspiring villain, rather than an ostentatious one you could easily boo. His entrance consists of him walking slowly into a darkened arena, the only light a gas lantern he is holding aloft, while Mark Crozer (formerly of The Jesus and Mary Chain) plays.

It’s a fantastically atmospheric bit of showmanship, but not one that easily lent itself to the crowd showing their appreciation. Booing didn’t fit it, and while slow, measured claps worked for a while, they also took away from the power of the moment. Then, at some point, fans realised that if they held their mobile phones aloft in the darkness of the arena, they looked like a sea of fireflies, a silent mark of respect for a great wrestler, and entirely in-keeping with his character. Of course, before too long, the WWE were selling tiny plastic Bray Wyatt lanterns that lit up in a slightly more ghostly manner (and earning them some nice merchandising money), and the entrance was entirely transformed.

Of course, this sort of evolution of fan behaviour is dependent on the way professional wrestling works – the serial nature of character building, the ritual of the entrance, and most importantly the central nature of the crowd to the whole event. But maybe, just maybe, we can find some way to import some of the ethereal majesty of a spectacle like this into how we react the next time we’re in a crowd.

Or maybe we’ll just have to rely on something like this…
                  
Material Girl
As we're talking about the relationship between audiences and performers this time out, I thought it was time to focus on The Wicked + The Divine's main point of intersection between the two: Persephone.

We only get a dozen panels of Persephone before [SPOILER REDACTED], and most of what's communicated about her in time relies on the comic's visuals.

The cigarette she's had between her fingers all arc finally flares into life, phosphorus-bright. It's a vivid realisation of Laura's story-long dream but implying, pages before the other boot drops, a sudden end. It's not the kind of flame that fades slowly; it's the kind that burns out.

Persephone 1
It's another great McKelvie design, obv, and those few panels have inspired an explosion of fan-art tributes. But her look is less cohesive than most of others in the series, in a way that feels intentional. Our Persephone is a patchwork god, her influences showing through in this first performance.

Not in the way some of the other gods are, cribbing from real-world pop stars – there's a dash of FKA Twigs in there, particularly her nose ring, arguably a pinch of Madonna in a certain mode,
but no direct reference point – but from the Pantheon themselves.

The white streak in her hair recalls Inanna. The heavy black boots and the skulls strung on her necklace tie her to the Underground gods, Morrigan and Baphomet. The asymmetrical triangle of markings on her face refers back to her Amaterasu-inspired make-up in the first issue, mixed with the harder angles of Morrigan in her Badb form.

The cigarette, of course, is a link to Luci – a bad habit picked up from a bad friend – but it flares with the trademark purple-pink of Inanna. In fact, the colour run through her entire outfit, having apparently become Persephone's own trademark, possibly in the wake of Inanna's departure a couple of pages earlier. (Is that too cruel even for Team WicDiv? I actually hope I'm reaching here.)
Persephone 2
But at the same time, Persephone is very recognisably still Laura. The lettering and colour of her speech bubbles stay the same – something that was par for the course with the initial gods, but not true of the last four we've met – and her physical transformation is less marked than the other before/afters we've seen.

Her asymmetric hair remains almost exactly the same as the one Laura wore pages earlier, except flipped from left to right, and with that streak of white. It's not the haircut one she started the series with, notably, but the one she picked on her way to godhood. Along with the make-up and the cigarette – symbols she's picked up along the way – perhaps this is a sign that Laura's has been a gradual transformation, rather than leaping fully-formed from the brow of Ananke.
                  

Next time on Tim + Alex Get TWATD: Shit, the next arc's nearly here! The format of the story is changing, so obviously we'll be following suit.

For more of Michael's handsome face and words, find him on Twitter @meckett. The plays he mentioned were put on through Sigil Club, the production company he co-ran. He's not writing at the moment, as far as I know, but if Grant Morrison taught me anything about sigils, it's that sufficient focused masturbation can solve anything. So get wanking. For Michael.


You can find Tim's blog at trivia-lad.blogspot.co.uk, where his piece on the semiotics of TW+TD's finger snaps first gave us the idea for this whole thing, on Twitter @trivia_lad, and even, if you think you can handle the sexiness, on Tumblr.

Sunday, 14 June 2015

Alex's Adventures in Internetland, April-June 2015


The past month or two, the blog's been a little quiet because I've been busy writing things for other publications (apparently there are other sites out there on the internet – I know, I know, it came as a surprise to me too). 

Anyway, just in case you're craving a fix of my wordy nonsense, I thought I'd do a quick run-down of the best bits. Which is this. The blog that you're reading now. No, a bit further down the page...

Daredevil's Corridor Fight: A Breakdown of the Smackdown

You've watched the Daredevil series on Netflix, right? Then you'll no doubt have fond memories of the second episode's corridor fight scene, for my money one of the greatest action sequences in TV history. For ComicsAlliance, I picked apart why the scene is so damn effective, and what it nicks from the comics:
The increasingly weary movements of Cox and Chris Brewster, his stunt double, build on the foundations of the character the show has been establishing over the past two hours. Daredevil starts out moving like a superhero, quick and acrobatic, but the fight gets slower and slower as it grinds on. He leans on nearby walls for support, catches his breath while he waits for the next bad guy to rush him. It’s not a fighting style I’ve ever seen in an action movie. Cox fights with the moves of a backstreet brawler or, even more aptly, like he’s in the final round of a boxing match.
Read all about it here.

Every Superhero Needs Their Theme Music

In May, bearded blog-comrade Robin Harman curated Cover Versions, an exhibition of music-themed comics art (which I covered for ComicsAlliance here).
 
For the Cover Versions blog, I interviewed Kieron Gillen – a man whose works I've spent a lot of the last few weeks writing about (see below)  – about the playlists he creates to accompany his comics, how they help the writing process, and the true meaning of Justice vs Simian's We Are Your Friends:

“It has this weird element of, ‘you’re never going to escape us’. It actually sounds like a curse. Originally when I conceived Dionysus, the only thing I said was he wasn’t sleeping. The twist that, ‘oh yeah, he’s in a hive mind, he can’t be alone in his head, he’s never going to be alone again’ – the awfulness buried in that Justice record made me realise that about him. It had been on the playlist for a while, so I must have subconsciously known what the song was really saying.”
Read the full interview here.

Sci-fi & Fantasy Football: The Cookie Cup

The last few months, I've been part of a weird little game called the Cookie Cup, combining Facebook, spreadsheets and FIFA 2000 to create a fantasy football league which pits teams of fictional characters against one another. I wrote about it for Rock Paper Shotgun, and what it taught me about my relationship with sport:
In the back room of a pub in Norwich, a small group of people are excitedly shouting things like: “Buffy Summers! 390 points!” “Virgil!” “The one from Devil May Cry?” “No, from Dante’s Inferno!” “210 points!”
This is Draft Day at the Cookie Cup, a fantasy football league with an emphasis on the fantasy.
Read the rest here.

Why The Wicked + The Divine is Worth Losing Your Head Over

Oh look, it's that Gillen bloke again. His and Jamie McKelvie's The Wicked + The Divine is my favourite comic of the moment – or at least, the one I'm most wrapped up in – so with its latest
story arc just wrapping up, I reviewed the second volume for ComicsAlliance.

I can't take credit for that excellently cruel headline. That was the work of CA editor Andrew Wheeler, so please direct any hate-mail his way.
It’s probably not a coincidence that the front cover for the upcoming trade collection of Fandemonium is illustrated with an all-access pass – that’s exactly what we get in these issues, with gods who are much too willing to open up to Laura, often revealing that they used to be fans too. Inanna is a sexy M.F. now, but before ascending to godhood, he was a quiet enthusiast lurking at the back of convention halls. Superstar DJ Dionysus was part of the crowd at an earlier Morrigan gig. We even see resident skeptic Cassandra jump the fence from critic to creator, with her transformation into Urðr.
Read! Read! Read!

There! Those were the things! Congrats, you found 'em! ...A prize, you say? Oh, it's one of those 'success is its own reward' deals I'm afraid. Sozzz.

Saturday, 13 June 2015

Tim + Alex Get TWATD #4.1: Anananananke! Spinning Around! Wickedpedia!

90 days have passed. The first year of The Wicked + The Divine is very much over. But Tim + Alex Get TWATD is still going strong, and both authors still have their heads attached. This volume: Fate & Death. Circles & Cycles. Questions & Answers (or ...& More Questions, to be honest).

Spoilers for every inch of The Wicked + The Divine #1-11 below. Avoid if you haven't read. Everything is going to be okay. (I promise)


                  

Burn Out or Fate Away

Issue #11 changes, or at least challenges, so many of our fundamental assumptions about The Wicked + The Divine that it’s hard to know where to start. But let's start with Ananke, who has been fundamentally reframed from the series' Basil Exposition to its Big Bad.

Killing the current protagonist just after she achieves what she’s been chasing the whole time, and then murdering her parents for good measure, is not the sort of thing you can justify or seek redemption for, certainly not in the eyes of the readership. So if Ananke is the villain of the piece, what exactly do we know about her?
Ananke 1
The truth is, very little. We know she’s been alive for a long time (at least as far back as the 1920s) and doesn’t appear to age beyond her already elderly appearance. We know she’s powerful enough to kill other gods and turn their abilities aside with little effort. And we know she can cause the gods to manifest, in numbers beyond the established twelve. Beyond that, the origin that she details in issue #9 could well be a carefully constructed lie, as could much of the other information that she gives. We can fairly safely assume she arranged the attack on Luci in issue #1 and killed the judge, starting the sequence of events that led to her ‘justified’ execution of Luci. But the question of why has barely been touched upon.

Perhaps the answer lies in Ananke’s role as an agent of fate. The Wicked + The Divine is a book about death, its awfulness and its inevitability. The gods are fated to die within two years. The rest of us are fated to die, full stop. Ananke tells Baphomet that a death god is capable of extending their life by killing others – and what greater representation of death is there than the idea of fate, the inexorable advance of time and the tightly woven network of nature, nurture and predestination?

Ananke 2
Another interpretation comes from Ananke’s mention that Graves’ The White Goddess is based upon her. In Graves’ essay, the eponymous goddess is the font of all poetry, religion and culture, until she is supplanted by the male Judeo-Christian god. If the gods of the Pantheon are artists, inspiring humans to new ideas, new inventions and new ways of thinking, perhaps Ananke is culture itself, monolithic and eternal, consuming art and artists to fuel herself.

I’m sure there are answers coming at some point in the future, but for now it’s clear that the Ananke we have known so far, and the answers she has given us, are no more substantial than the lace masks she wears, covering up her true self and keeping her intentions cloaked in shadow.

                  
Like A Record, Baby

Saying that circles are a visual motif in The Wicked + The Divine is a bit like pointing out that there are a lot of skulls in the comic, or that the creative team seem to have some affinity for exploding heads. If you've got eyes, you've probably noticed it already.

But seriously, there are a fuckload of circles in The Wicked + The Divine.

Let's do a quick recap, in rough chronological order: the twelve-god cycle of the title page, itself made up of smaller circles; the table the 1920s gods sit around; the eclipses in Amaterasu's eyes; eyes, in general; the occasional break-out panel; the holes Luci burns in her cell; the halo effect when the aforementioned heads explode; Dionysus' smiley face badge; speech bubbles, if you want to be like that; the layout of the Valhalla throne room; the magic circle of people in Ananke's flashback; the speaker-stack monoliths at Ragnarock '14; the stage and skylight at the church where Inanna performs; Baphomet's cross-inverting Sith Lord hand gesture; the rings in Persephone's ears and nose. The 'every ninety years' conceit. “Once again we return”. The whole bloody plot so far, if you've been paying any attention.
Circles 3

To be incredibly simplistic about it, 'Laura meets a god who becomes her guide to the world of the other gods, who she meets one by one, including a god only just manifested, before finally her guide dies at the hands of another god' could describe either of the first two volumes of The Wicked + The Divine. As the comic goes on imagery, dialogue and plot-beats get recycled wholesale, to the extent that almost nothing we see in the last issue is entirely new. The appearance of Ananke in Laura's back garden might be unexpected, but it echoes Luci's origin in issue #2. This is actually the third time we revisit the visual, thanks to a scene in Laura's garden at the start of the previous issue.

Once again, Baphomet lurks over a performance, realises he can't do what he was planning to, and summons the devil onto his shoulder. The dialogue with his anti-conscience is almost exactly identical to the previous issue (“Him or you/You or them?” “No choice at all.”) adding to the sense that it's a rote catechism, that killing doesn't come easy to Baph.
Baph Circles
Laura's tumbling transformation into Persephone is another visual we've seen twice before (issues #2 and #9, number-fact fans!). Ananke repeats the familiar words – “You will be loved. You will be hated.” – and, with the same hug for the newly-reborn god, “I've missed you.” It's a well-practised ritual, for both Ananke and the comic itself, and Gillen almost seems to be baiting the reader to dismiss it as needless repetition.

But suddenly (and it's worth noting that, as Ananke's grasping hand makes it way into the frame, forming into that Chekhov's finger-gun, the dread in the collective pit of our stomachs again relies on repetition – we've seen the gesture twice before, and understand what it means) the scene proves itself very different to its predecessors.
Circles 1

That rough plot structure I mentioned, with the pay-off of Laura's guide dying? This time round, it was just a distraction. The echoes multiply, one voice becoming two, and the repetitions suddenly get tighter and quicker, like reverb.

The same white-on-black text that marked Luci's death – “I guess I'm grateful”. The parents look out from the house into the garden, like last issue, like Luci in her origin, and see something supernatural. Ananke dispassionately apologising, again again again. An exploding building, just like the one that opened the series, and the one that echoed it earlier this issue. “It was never going to be okay,” a phrase whose echoes have argued with themselves throughout the past eleven issues.

This is a comic very deliberately eating itself, head becoming tail becoming head until there's nothing left but the circle. Not so much a mic drop as a guitar left propped against an amp, feedbacking long after the band have exited the stage. There will be no encore.

...Except there will be, which raises the question: what's next? With the series' main three characters all dead as disco, it's kind of hard to say. But it seems sensible that The Wicked + The Divine will become a comic about breaking free from those cycles. Its plot structure will almost certainly have to, so maybe the question becomes: can the gods break free too?
                  
The Wiki + The Divine

So who killed that poor judge in issue #1?
Tim: Ananke makes the most sense, but part of me thinks we'll never get a solid answer.
Alex: The Y: The Last Man approach? It certainly seems like that part of the story is over now.
Tim: It depends a lot on who takes up the mantle of protagonist now. If it's Cassandra, I can see her keeping on at it. If it's Baphomet, I doubt he'll care.

Who the hell is our main character now?
Tim: Tara!
Alex: I think the options that make most sense at this point are probably Baal and/or Baphomet
Tim: In all honesty, I'd like it to become even more of an ensemble story than it has already been. I want more insight into everyone.
What's going on with this 'thirteenth god' business? Is it a one-off, or are there always more than twelve gods?
Tim: Well, if we work on the theory that Ananke is doing this to prolong her life – as the god of fate, she is arguably also a death god, and thus capable of using the loophole she told Baphomet about to extend her own life – there would have to be way more than twelve gods. But that's all conjecture at this point.
It would explain why some pantheons have different gods: those were the ones that Ananke lets gain the spotlight that time around. And if she's been at this for a long time, it explains what happened to the "missing" pantheons.
Alex:
I think it's interesting that at the end of the issue, the twelve-god cycle diagram remains the same as it's been all series. Does it only represent the gods that the public know about – a sort of public face for the Pantheon – or something else entirely? It's worth noting that, for as long as Persephone's brief flame is lit, it disappears entirely. Can a diagram be an unreliable narrator?

Prometheus 2
The Prometheus Gambit – is it actually real?
Tim: Introducing the idea seems like an odd thing to do if it doesn't turn out to work in some fashion. You don't need to bring up the Prometheus Gambit to introduce the whole 'death gods extending their life', and I think that part is legit – or at least it seems to explain Ananke's motivations.
Alex: Or it could be a tool of manipulation for her. As you say, this mythology has developed over the centuries, and Ananke's been there the whole time – possibly propogating the Myth?
Tara already got her own cover, but we've still never met her – what the hell's going there?
Tim: It seems odd that Tara has remained off-stage – she's not exactly underground like Dionysus was. The fact that we haven't seen her is almost directly opposite to how she's treated in the story: posters everywhere, people sick of hearing about her.
Perhaps it's been a function of having Laura as our window on the world? She never seem particularly interested in Minerva either, who we haven't seen much of... But then we know she liked Sakhmet, who hasn't been explored much yet either.
Alex: I get the impression Tara isn't in the UK – is she the one god doing the whole World Tour thing? It'd explain why she hasn't been around, at least, and help to differentiate her from everyone else – because after all this build-up, I wonder how different she will actually prove to be.
If we see a different mix of gods every Recurrence, how do they get picked?
Tim: Well, if the gods function as inspiration to humans, something clearly dictated that this 90 year cycle was necessary. Maybe the same thing determines what gods are necessary to inspire that particular generation of humankind? Like, in order to bring about the Industrial Revolution, you needed Susanoo, Coyote and Thor, but for today you need Baal, Lucifer and The Morrigan.
Alex:
To be honest, I'm starting to become suspicious of the entire idea of 'every 90 years, twelve gods, for two years'. It's reminiscent the 27 Club, the Voice of a Generation, that 11-year sunspot cycle thing that Morrison's into – and those maybe aren't the healthiest myths to be telling ourselves.
They've got something in common with the stuff David Blake was saying at the last Ragnarock. As the oldest non-parent member of the cast, I think he's got something in common with Ananke, and he's telling these limiting narratives: “vintage pantheons”, “cycles and precedents”. What if the whole idea of the Recurrence is just another one of those myths old people tell kids, like Authenticity and The '60s Were the Peak of All Culture?
Is everyone really going to be dead by the end of the two years?
Tim: I think so. Even if nothing else of the central concept remains, that will. Whether they are genuinely destined to die within that period is another thing, but I don't think anyone's getting out alive.
Alex: I'm starting to wonder if it's all self-imposed. Look at the '20s – it's a group of kids being convinced they have to end themselves, because That Is How It Must Be, they don't just spontaneously combust. As I said earlier, I reckon the rest of the story has to be about trying to escape the cycle. The plot has broken from its groove, can the characters do the same?
Tim: Yeah, I think that's the happy ending on the horizon now. But, given what we know about the series' themes, whether the plot is actually headed there is another matter entirely.

EXPLOSION

                  

Next time on Tim + Alex Get TWATD: We'll be back sometime next week, ignoring the actual text and talking about ourselves – just for a change.

You can find Tim's blog at trivia-lad.blogspot.co.uk, where his piece on the semiotics of 
TW+TD's finger snaps first gave us the idea for this whole thing, on Twitter @trivia_lad, and even, if you think you can handle the sexiness, on Tumblr.

Sunday, 26 April 2015

Disassembled – Avengers: Age of Ultron

The below is my initial thoughts on Avengers: Age of Ultron, pulled together into some vague order. Warning: It's pretty damn' spoilerific.
AoU 3

Let's start with the kind of brash prediction I have absolutely no business making: Age of Ultron will not break the same box office records as its predecessor.

As I understand it, the only way a film makes as much money as The Avengers did is from people going more than once, more than twice, to get another hit of whatever emotional reaction seeing it elicited in the first place. Age of Ultron just isn't that kind of film. In fact, much like Thor and Loki, the film is more or less the opposite of its older brother.

Back in 2012, I wrote about my search for meaning in the original Avengers. My feeling then was that while the movie was a remarkable achievement of craftsmanship – bringing together at least four disparate universes and styles and transforming the rote last-half-hour punch-up of the Marvel formula into one my all-time favourite action scenes, the dopamine hit I reckon brought people back to the scene over and over gain – it wasn't the piece of art I was hoping for.

Age of Ultron, on the other hand, is full of meaning and metaphor and all that good stuff, but (at least on a first viewing – and let's get two disclaimers out of the way here: 1, that the first Avengers only really came together for me on the second watch, though frankly that's not something to commend it for, and 2, that the cinema screen we watched the film in had the house lights on throughout, and horribly muddled sound, so thanks for that Streatham Odeon) the plot is borderline incomprehensible.

AoU 12

I often found myself adrift, lost among the mass of plots and characters. The origin of the Vision, whatever the hell Thor was up to for the majority of the film's running time, Ultron's evil plan – each of these seemed to require its own synopsis. Worse, there aren't as many jokes.

Much of Age of Ultron is leaden in this way, like the film hasn't yet completed the alchemical process of editing, like it has been presented to us still halfway through transmuting into gold. But there are still plenty of nuggets which shine through.

I often found myself with mouth open and eyes wide, drinking in the sheer childhood-fantasy-realised spectacle. The moments of superheroes leaping into action, the emotional arcs that the film manages to find for an impressive (though not total) number of its gigantic cast, Ultron's philosophising soliloquies – each of these landed perfectly. There still aren't enough jokes, though.

AoU 2

These two halves can co-exist in a single scene. I remember a point during the climactic brawl, my internal monologue (rarely a welcome presence in the dark of the cinema) still trying to work out how exactly we'd gotten to this point, while in the other half of my cerebellum, something was shifting.

The shape of the entire film fell into place. Not the plot, unfortunately, but the patterns of everything we'd been shown, how the stories of various characters cast shadow and light on one another – what I would call, if I wasn't trying to convince you this was actually a fun read about a blockbuster superhero movie, the subtext.

This is the stuff I really love about the film, and so with all the caveats already mentioned, I'd like to talk about the ways Age of Ultron tickled my brain, and the shape I saw in that moment. Which, to borrow the pithy tweet-sized thought that popped into my head then, is:
Age of Ultron is the biggest-budget movie about how hard it is to make a big-budget movie I've ever seen.
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Let's start with Hawkeye.

After a difficult first film (mind-controlled, bed-bound) that had Jeremy Renner reportedly threatening to quit, this time round he gets a role that you could argue makes Hawkeye not only the primary protagonist of  Age of Ultron, but an author surrogate for Joss Whedon himself.

Let's grab a quote from the recent Buzzfeed profile of Whedon, which I read a few days before sitting down in the cinema and, honestly, heavily influenced my thinking on the film:
By March, as he sat down to dinner near Disney’s Burbank, California, studio lot, where he had been living as he worked with two editors to finish Age of Ultron, that guilt was weighing especially on his mind. “I didn’t feel it was right to spend that time away from family, even before I had kids,” Whedon said. “I felt like if it wasn’t the headline experience, that I was being self-indulgent in being there, and it was frustrating.”
Around halfway through Age of Ultron, Hawkeye takes his teammates to a safe house, where it's revealed that there is a Mrs Hawkeye, and two baby Hawkeyes, and a third on the way. A family that live, in secret, away from the kinds of cities where those big super-hero/villain battles tend to take place. A family that, Black Widow excepted, none of his work friends know anything about. A family that he rarely sees because he's so busy Avenging.

Those dots aren't exactly hard to connect. But if Age of Ultron was entirely a autobiographical story about how hard it is to be a writer, it would have failed its audience dramatically. Luckily, I think the film stretches itself much wider than that, reaching for something we can pretty much all relate to.

See, for Hawkeye at least – and this is something he explicitly references a few times in dialogue – being an Avenger is a job. (And this is part of the difference between the character's solo films, where they combat problems that threaten them personally, and their appearances in the Avengers.) It's an unusual job, for sure, but one with a familiar challenge: balancing it with the rest of your life.

The revelation that Hawkeye has a family raises the stakes for the character, making every bullet headed in his direction a genuine, wince-inducing threat. As the film goes out of its way to point out, though, he isn't the only one with a reason to get home safely at the end of the day.
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Like, for example, the other character vying for the title of Age of Ultron's main protagonist: Tony Stark. The whole film is about Stark's attempt to retire, to make the world safe enough that he can leave behind the business of being Iron Man.

Whether retroactively or by design, this creates a perfect arc for the character across the five films. While he first wore the armour like a thrill-seeker, Stark has worked from remove himself. Iron Man 3 is filled with moments that separate Tony and the armour, and Age of Ultron builds on that with a legions of Iron Man drones driven by Jarvis, and the gigantic 'Hulkbuster' armour, able to lose and replace an entire arm without the man inside being harmed.

Part of this transition is practical, as both Stark and Downey Jr are getting too old for this shit, but it also seems to be personal. Tony has a seemingly stable relationship with Pepper Potts, who never appears in Age of Ultron except by name, in an adorable 'my girlfriend does...' brag-off with Thor, which also serves us to remind us she is CEO of Stark Industries – representing an alternative way for Tony to keep on saving the world, while also holding onto his own life.

It's a similar story for Natasha Romanoff and Bruce Banner – we'll get back to them later – and for Thor. As mentioned earlier, Thor's role in Age of Ultron is one of its biggest weaknesses, but the characterisation we do get hits similar beats as every other core Avenger. In fact, he's torn between three lives: 1, being with Jane Foster, the aforementioned girlfriend who Thor wants to make absolutely sure you know is a Nobel prize-winning astrophysicist; 2, being in Asgard to fulfil his duties to his family; and 3, being the best movie Avenger most underserved by the films he has actually appeared in.

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There is one major exception. The man who, by the proclamation of his own movie's subtitle, was the first Avenger, and the boss of a team with abilities that put his own firmly to the left of the bell curve: Captain America. What makes Steve Rogers such a perfect Avenger is the lack of any real life to compete with his work. Thanks to Rogers being put on ice for the best part of a century, his best gal is now in her nineties, and his former best pal (and potential love-interest, if you buy into that reading of Winter Soldier) is an on-the-run cyborg assassin.

Unlike Iron Man or Thor, Cap's only real relationships are with his work friends, and it's even hinted in his telepath-induced nightmare sequences that, even if he hadn't been frozen, Rogers would have struggled to find a life after the war was over.

If you don't think there's someone in your office that fits that description, you're probably the Captain America of your workplace – or, if you'd prefer, the Black Widow.

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In her previous appearances – and unlike most of the boys she has only ever appeared in other people's stories, forever on the job – Natasha 'Black Widow' Romanoff has been characterised that fits everything I said about Cap above. But Age of Ultron introduces a new wrinkle to her life, in the form of a budding relationship with Bruce Banner. It's an office romance but, vitally, Natasha wants to escape the world she and Bruce work in.

This relationship is the aspect of the film I'm most unsure about. A little because the softer scenes with the Hulk evoke Peter Jackson's eternally rubbish King Kong, but mostly because of what it means for Black Widow as the team's lone female. Romanoff is left to stand in for the story's attitudes to women in general, so it's a little problematic that she becomes a default love object. (Ignoring Scarlet Witch, who may provide a point of contrast in future but – as with all the film's new recruits – never quite finds her place.)

Eventually, though, my sheer affection for the two characters won me over on the issue, which meant that when the two characters are forced in two opposite directions at the end of the film, it stung.
This leaves Romanoff with no one again – but as Cap's pep talk reminds her, that just means she's ready to throw herself into the job again and have all-new adventures. Are we meant to pity her, or envy her?

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Age of Ultron isn't the 'dark' installment of the MCU saga, except chromatically speaking. Thank Odin. Tonally, I'd say it's more... downbeat.

The film it reminds me of most is Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg's The World's End – a writer/director and cast that I love, stepping away from what they've been doing for the last decade and working out all the difficulties of that in the process. Age of Ultron is Whedon's final word on the MCU – despite this only being the second Marvel films Whedon has directed, he's had his finger in a whole bakery's worth of pies both televisual and cinematic during his tenure as Marvel Studios' creative consultant.


In both cases, the resulting film is a bit of a bummer. This is the story of someone walking away from a job he loves because it's eating his life, both on the screen and on the set, and for that reason I don't see people wanting to rush back into the cinema to see Age of Ultron all over again.

Personally, though, I'm eager to see it again, mostly because I still have no idea whether I like it or not. If I was pushed to give Age of Ultron a rating, I'm not sure which end of the spectrum it would fall on. Maybe that will change with a rewatch, maybe not.

...And that's about as neat a resolution as we're going to get, I'm afraid. This blog has been an attempt to process how I feel about stuff, and trying to be entertaining along the way. Much like Age of Ultron itself, I think.

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Videogames, film, music, comics: feed them into the Alex-Spencer machine and out come neat little articles. Like the ones you're looking at here.