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Avengers: Age of Ultron: 5 STARS

*So it’s been a while, dear internet folk, but I have returned. I’ve been stressed out with work/in Japan since last we spoke but I’m back and I just went to see the new Avengers film so let us forget the time we’ve spent apart and enjoy this, our reunion. Let’s also try and forget that Birdman won the best film Oscar, even after my review, I know it’s been as difficult for me to accept as it was for you*

(SPOILERS. I mean I’m not going to go crazy but there will probably be some plot talk, if this offends you read through your fingers or be ready to shut your eyes really fast. TW/CN (which seems to be what people are doing these days, I mean I go to Japan for 2 weeks and the internet etiquette changes) enforced sterilisation)

“I am always picking up after you boys” – Natasha

So, not an obvious choice for me to review really. From a feminist perspective this is pretty middle of the road, nothing horrible, nothing great. It does however show us both how easy it is to get some stars/treat the ladies in your films right whilst highlighting the many pitfalls that lie in the road to this modest goal. In case I get carried away with my deep and childish love for this film later let’s start with two fundamental facts. On the one hand there is only one female avenger, and she, in a very Lara Croft vein, seems to have no need for female companionship so Boys Boys Boys would not be an inappropriate subtitle. On the other hand no women are tortured or sexually threatened, there is definitely more male than female flesh on show and the ‘damsel in distress’-ness is kept to a minimum, though not eradicated. This, as Ultron, or indeed Jesus would say, is the rock on which I shall build my church.

The Bechdel Test

– Developed female relationships

(There is one arguable conversation between Natasha and Laura Barton aka Mrs Hawkeye. It consists of 1 line for each woman and is definitely less than 30 seconds. I would love to count this as a conversation because it involves Natasha calling an unborn baby a traitor for being a boy but sadly it is too short to be considered as such. Other than that Scarlett stands alone. There is of course the improbably named Wanda aka the Scarlet Witch, Dr Helen and Maria Hill aka that lady who seems to actually run the Avengers and the massive – and now SHIELD is gone slightly inexplicable – team who back them up/do their recon/come to their wrap parties. None of them speak to each other. They all speak, form relationships, casual or otherwise, but none of them interact. Herein lies pitfall number one. It is not enough to have some lady scientists and business women and super assassins (although it is a damn good start) You’ve got to value them for more than their ability to flirt with and support and be saved by your male characters, all of whom interact with one another in meaningful ways. However I have high hopes for the next film on this front because some Scarlett/Scarlet interaction could well be on the cards (you were warned there would be spoilers and I made that as cryptic as possible so I want to hear no complaints from you anonymous internet reader))

STAR: Non- stereotyped Female Characters

– STAR: Developed, prominent female characters

(So the ladies mentioned above give us some breadth of female experience. This is not a film about women (see above Boys Boys Boys comment) but Natasha holds her own, has an adequately explored (if horrifying) backstory and is given rather a lot more depth and screen time than her love interest. Also she does some cool shit with a motorbike, which, while not being character development per se definitely still goes in the category of GOOD. It is my opinion that the scene where Natasha reveals that assassins at her academy were sterilised on graduation was handled well. It could have been jarring and horrible and instead it was humanising. Her pain was taken seriously and yet she wasn’t somehow transformed into a scarred and ruined ex-woman. True she refers to herself as a monster and in retrospect that doesn’t seem great but would this be a more feminist scene if she was just unfazed by it, if she hadn’t internalised any of the rhetoric about femininity depending on fertility? That is a genuine question I will leave to you guys to decide for yourselves)

STAR: No excessive air of misogyny

– No rigid adherence to gender norms

(So despite having a lady super hero we cannot say that gender norms are not adhered to. For one she gets kidnapped and locked in a cage. Why does Ultron do this? (ok why does Ultron do a lot of the things he does, he does not have his shit together to be honest) It basically serves no narrative purpose, apart from some throw back DID shit (that’s damsel in distress for those of you who haven’t just watched Hercules) To redeem this she does kiss Banner and then push him into an abyss to bring out the Hulk. I like a damsel who pushes her rescuer into an abyss in order to make him as bad ass as she already is. If this was just about Natasha we might then say that gender norms were defied, however Dr Helen also has an at-risk/’thank you kind captain for bending over my broken body’ moment and the Scarlet Witch is both picked up by her brother a lot and heavily patronised by our good friend the shittest Avenger, bowboy. Just because the lady’s young you don’t get to imply that because you pushed her out of the way of an explosion one time you have been babysitting her and she is a massive burden who should probably sit out the rest of the fight if she doesn’t man up quick. She can literally control your thoughts man maybe you better watch yourself if you don’t want the realisation that the Avengers really really don’t need you brought home to you very hard thus shattering your tiny birdy mind)

STAR: No Excessive Female Exposure or Sexualisation

– No objectification of the female body

(I once read a review of the first Avengers film. It was written by someone who seemed to think the idea of superheroes was unutterably childish. What they thought they would get out of watching a film about a team of superheroes was unclear. Anyway they, incredibly unfairly in my opinion, wrote ‘Scarlett Johansson seems to be starring as ‘boobs”. Now at this point I could go into a whole thing about how women with large breasts are continually described as being more sexual than women with small breasts, as though breast size reflects a woman’s sexual availability or sex drive or basically anything apart from how big a bra she needs, but I think we know what this reviewer was trying to say. However not only does Natasha now have a back story and some emotional depth she also wears costumes that, while tight and made mainly of leather are no more revealing than those of her co-stars. Don’t get me wrong this is not a sensible gender neutral look but Age of Ultron has dispensed with the lingering shots of her body and the ‘cocktail dress strapped to a chair’ look she used to rock. We see Chris Evans in far more revealing clothes than Ms Johansson which moves us to a place where the Avengers glories in the beautiful bodies of all of its cast members regardless of gender which, in terms of short term goals, seems like a pro)

STAR: No Gratuitous or Trivialising Scenes of Rape or Male Violence Against Women

– No threat of male violence against women

(There is violence. Scarlett Witch gets whacked in the head and visibly hurt by, guess who, yes it’s no one’s favourite super hero the bird eyed man. Dr Helen also takes a sizeable wallop and Natasha gets in plenty fights. However this is not sexual violence, it is not torture and there are fierce fighting ladies in this, so basically the violence is as mitigated as it’s going to get)

5 stars and 3 Bonus points. 1 for Dr Helen and her Korean heritage 1 for women in the abstract masculine role of ‘fighter’ and 1 for discussion of feminist issues. Maria Hill gets drunk at the Avengers work party and basically says ‘where my ladies at?’ and then implies that bragging about your girlfriends’ achievements is testosterone driven nonsense. To this I say bravo. Although if my girlfriend was going to win a Nobel prize I would brag about it too. And having girlfriends who are too busy to show up to the apocalypse because they’re such high fliers is a nice change of pace to the standard, our wives and girlfriends are staying home cooking tea while we save the world thing. I imagine that was a thing in super hero teams of an older generation. I don’t want to conclude with any kind of definite stance either way on this one. I think you’d be well within your rights to take a cynical SNL (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j_5KgpN38hM) take on Marvel where you bemoan the fact that there is no Black Widow movie and that Whedon felt the need to develop her plot by adding a love story. You may also think that the Avengers is no time or place to discuss forced sterilisation and that if they’re going to have a character called the Scarlet Witch they’d better not make her a teary eyed and near silent exotic lady of the east. You would be right to raise these issues and I would fight right beside you but if considered as a stand alone film the Avengers:Age of Ultron does not, in my opinion do the central bad things that Hollywood cinema is so often guilty of. It is perhaps not much to brag about but an absence of sexist jokes, an acceptance of women as highly skilled professionals, a certain levelling of the playing field when it comes to sexualisation of heroes’ bodies and not a single scene that made me wince is a definite step forward. This film is obviously of a lower quality than such highly praised films for grownups as Birdman in many ways but despite its lack of sophistication it really does, by and large, treat its women far better. There is nothing radical going on here but there is nothing horrible either. This is the base point, the inoffensive ground zero which we should never stoop below and which we should hope to raise above. I hope that Hollywood considers it as such.

*A note on Joss Whedon. I don’t think Joss has distinguished himself in either of his popular guises here. He does not appear as First Feminist Ever, creator of Buffy and all that is good and pure, nor does he appear as Enemy of All Free Thinking Women Everywhere, creator of Buffy and objectifier of everything he sees. Probably this is closer to the truth of what Joss is ‘really’ like, clever enough not to be too awful but too aware of his own cleverness to escape awfulness altogether. The point about Joss is that deciding whether he’s a feminist or not is an endless task and you’d probably be better off just watching Buffy and glorying in her wonder, You should also watch Firefly because although it’s not about a teenage girl who beats up vampires it is still cracking*

I leave you with this link to the best article you will ever read about the Avengers. All hail the Toast ad infinitum – http://the-toast.net/2015/02/09/avengers-pretty-busy-right-now/

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