Sunday, June 21, 2015

More Feminist Reviews: Age of Ultron & Insurgent

Last Thursday we reviewed the awesomeness that is Mad Max: Fury Road. Today we get two more films, for better or worse, under the feminist microscope.

I never expected Avengers to be a panacea against the male-dominated hero tale, nor a pantheon of superpowered heroines, though they could be. I don't even expect them to change the all-straight line-up, even though statistically at least one person in the cast is gay. (It's practically handed to them with Captain America. Steven and Bucky are just friends? Please. People have 'shipped them since forever.)

I'm also not going to run around saying Joss Whedon isn't a feminist, because I've seen Firefly. I've seen Buffy. You can't tell me the guy who created a superstrong reincarnating heroine to save earth from demons, or the mind-reading girl genius who uncovers the Alliance's greatest secret, or one of the first gay women on TV, or the prostitute who likes her job and isn't a slut...isn't a feminist.

But Age of Ultron let me down a little.

It started with the idea that a woman surrounded by men cannot survive until she has fallen in love with at least one of them. Previously, Natasha Romanov had somehow escaped this fate. In Captain America: The Winter Soldier, I loved that Black Widow and the Cap are just friends. Finally we can have opposite-gender sidekicks without hearts throbbing.

Likewise, she and Hawkeye are partners who will do almost anything for each other, without turning into lovers.

But in Age of Ultron, all of a sudden she's in love with Bruce Banner, without any lead-up or hints from previous films (9 movies and 2 shows). Because there was no investment or depth to the romance, it came off as rather cheap treatment of the only female Avenger: yet another movie telling us women can't exist without falling in love with someone.

(Perhaps Black Widow was too #DistractinglySexy to stay single.)

Watching the film, I tuned out the romantic parts and just paid attention when the screen turned back to the fighting. But there was one part I couldn't miss.

During their DTR, the Hulk tells Widow he's a monster, she shouldn't love him because he's untrustworthy, he should always be alone...standard hero talk. Black Widow returns with her own sob story: "I'm a monster too because I can't have children."

I get that her reaction is taken straight from the comicbooks. I get that there are women who feel this way as a result of their inability to produce kids.

But this narrative was put forth without any contradiction from Hulk or anyone else. Even if these are just Natasha's feelings, nobody comes along and says, "You're not actually a monster for being sterile and childless." Nobody reassures us these are just feelings. The comment hangs there unrefuted.

For the record, you're not a monster for not having kids, either from inability, situation, or lack of desire. Being a nurturer is about a lot more than little ones, nor is it a requirement to being female, either. You can be a career-driven superheroine and not feel guilty about your life choices. It's a valid option.

Today, 20% of women choose not to have kids. Of all the women who I thought would understand that demographic, Black Widow is one of them. Not that assassins can't be moms, but I generally thought she liked her job more than anything else (even romance, though I was proved wrong about that one). She could have been a representation of the woman who likes a childless life.

Instead, she's angry and upset, feeling her life is incomplete. Okay, that's valid. But the scene where she tells this to Bruce was Joss' moment to shine. Countless childless women are shamed by their culture and told the constant message that they're not real women. This movie could sing a different tune. Instead, while the plot resolves, Natasha's shame doesn't, leaving us to assume her monster-because-childless feelings are justified.

If we could somehow ignore this, the weird romance, and the scene where our capable woman warrior suddenly becomes unequal to the task of saving herself and must be rescued by her semi-love-hunk, this movie could be good. It had action and stakes and superheroes. That's what I showed up for.

Lastly, we have Insurgent, second in the Divergent trilogy.

The main thing that struck me as a feminist was the fade-to-black sex scene between Tris and Four. It was the heroine, not the hero, who initiated and took control of the situation, with the awkward, uncertain flavor of first encounters. There's no explicit giving of consent, but Tris makes her wants clear. It's rare to see a straight woman making sexual decisions without heavy persuasion/questioning from her male counterpart.

Moreover, Tris' motivations were more than love, desire, hormones, etc. She's wracked with guilt over various things she's done and wants to both atone for it by giving Four a perfect moment and say goodbye in a way that hurts him the least. I found this extremely realistic: sex isn't something humans do just because the urge pounces, but also as a way to negotiate relationships and affect our and others' emotions.

I was also surprised that Theo James (Four) can actually act. In the first movie I thought he was just a pretty face for Tris' sidekick. But he did well as the plot developed the intrigue between his character, Four's abusive father, and the mother who neglected him. I'm looking forward to the resolution of that family drama.

Final verdict: Mad Max was fantastic, Insurgent was good, and Avengers was okay. The first one is still in theatres and definitely worth the ticket!

Word count: 938.