Monday, May 6, 2019

In Defense of Hulk Dabbing

The embargo against Endgame spoilers has officially lifted so here's my take on it.  If you haven't yet seen it and are trying to avoid spoilers, I would duck out now.

For those not in the know, Endgame is the long-awaited sequel to Infinity War.  It's the culmination of a 22-movie megaverse.  If you haven't seen any other Marvel movie, Endgame is probably not the movie you want to start with, because it won't make sense, contextually, without the prior 21 movies.

For the last decade, Marvel movies have been a major, if not primary, source of comfort, excitement, and guidance for me.  So naturally I had a lot of vested interest in Endgame.

I saw it thrice over the course of a weekend and my opinion wavered.  My initial reaction was one of dumbfounded disappointment.  Visually, it was stunning.  And certainly its construction could be said to be a masterpiece.  But the characterization had gone off the deep end.  And for me, a story is ultimately all about the characters.  The characters are the vehicle for the story, not vice versa; stories reveal fundamental truths about humanity, and if your human characters are weak or unrelatable or inconsistent, the story itself falls apart.

By the third time I'd seen it, I had a case of what might have been the emperor's new clothes, and I had determined that I liked it more than Infinity War.  Putting aside the characterization for a moment, it was a whirlwind of familiar references and air-tight choreography and dazzling special effects.  The fight scene at the end alone put this movie in a class of its own.

But this blog isn't about writing glowing reviews, so I'd like to dive in to the flaws that prevented me from loving this movie as much as I might have.  And then, in what is probably a hilarious ironic inconsistency, explain why it's actually totally okay.

Let's start with Tony.  Tony Stark is my favorite character.  A swaggering, selfish, emotionally stunted billionaire playboy with a guilt complex and a drinking problem, Tony's whole schtick in this movie is that he's transformed into a family man.

Granted, people change.  Granted, after a massive world genocide and a dozen traumatic battles, maybe someone like Tony actually would settle down with his One True Love and have an adorable, precocious daughter.  Personally, I don't like Family Man Tony.  It doesn't mesh with the character I fell in love with, who has always been a contradiction.  A selfish superhero, a narcissistic do-gooder, a self-important altruist.  I liked the old Tony, who got hungover and screamed at his secretary, and had foursomes with girls introduced to him by the Wu-Tang clan, and probably smoked cigars in elevators like a dick. 

Then v. Now

But since the Disney acquisition it's been clear to me that they were going to lean into a more (literally!) "family-friendly" version of Tony.  I braced myself for his life as a family man, willing to turn a blind eye to the fact that his no-nonsense businesswoman lover would even accept his proposal in the first place.  I readied myself for the inevitable fan service, for the softer side, and yes, I readied myself for Tony's inevitable death.

His martyrdom was a long time coming and it was better for him to go out in a blaze of glory than to quietly fade into old age and obscurity, things Tony would never abide.  Plus, the actor made it clear that he was ready for something different and was exiting the franchise.  So, Tony's death didn't bother me.
He was getting boring; they've been subtlety hinting at it for years.

What bothered me was the total abandonment of every other character trait that made him.  Tony, the urban tech mogul, is suddenly living in a bucolic lake house decorated with lace doilies and furniture from Pier 1 imports.  Where's his lab?  His fancy cars?  There's mention that he's building his wife a suit (for reasons completely fucking unknown and never explained) but we see virtually no technology.  Not even a dishwasher.  There's a whole sequence where billionaire Tony Stark is washing dishes by hand.  You know, because he's so domestic now.  Look, I don't care if you want to make him soft, but you can't just rewrite fundamental character traits.  Tony grew up in cities, lived in cities, basked in technology... his weird little cabin house is not him.  You might as well make Clint into a samurai, or Steve into a frail old man.

Speaking of which...

Like many, I was horrified at Captain America's ending.  It was supposed to be sweet that Steve went back in time but it raised far more questions than it answered.  First of all, how did Steve return to the same timeline as an old man?  The Ancient One already explained that when you fuck with a timeline, it creates a new timeline, a divergence.  (This totally new and original concept was the central theme of Divergence.)  If Steve went back and at any point affected ANYTHING, shouldn't he have returned to a different timeline entirely?  How did he know he would end up back with "his" Sam?

The passing of the shield was nice, although Bucky is inexplicably gone for the scene where Falcon becomes the new Captain America.

Maybe this was to distract us from the reality that, if Steve went back in time, that means he was abandoning Bucky to life of torture.  That, while Steve was dancing with Peggy in the 1950s, Bucky was being held captive by Hydra, who were torturing his brain into mush.

In fact, Steve's decision to go back in time arguably goes against Steve's two main tenants.  Steve's catchphrases are: "I can do this all day" and "Till the end of the line."  And suddenly he decides he's tired and wants to grow old in peace?  Steve is a soldier for Christ's sake.  Even if he wanted to go back to civilian life, there's the question of, can he?  Armed with a high school education from 1935 and some basic doodling skills, I'm not sure what the hell Steve planned to do once he decided to give up being a soldier; it's all he's ever known.  Abandoning Bucky for Steve would be like Tony abandoning his lab and his suits and... oh wait...

There's also the uncomfortable reality that Steve going back in time means that Captain America indirectly caused pretty much every tragedy from then until now by not preventing it.  His wife, Peggy, was a SHIELD agent, basically an FBI agent on steroids, so how is it we still had, you know, 9/11?  Bad Steve!  *sprays with water bottle*

Also, how did no one notice Steve was Steve, exactly?  Wouldn't Steve going back in time have irrevocably reversed history?  Peggy and Howard were pals; did she lie to Howard for fifty years about her husband, or did she and Steve go over for dinner and Howard just somehow didn't notice that her husband was Steve, who he had been looking for since 1944?  Steve was sort of famous in his own time; people would probably notice Steve if he came back,  Especially people like Howard who had, you know, already fucking known him.

Happily, some of my closest friends and writing partners agreed that the characterization of Steve and Tony bothered them, too.  On the bright side, Thor got an incredible character arc.  My only complaint is that his self-harm was played up for laughs.  Thor getting fat because he's sitting around all day playing video games and drinking beer isn't funny; it's tragic.  And his reaction to Steve bringing up Thanos was one of the most emotional parts of the movie.  His discovery that his net worth remains unchanged despite years of self-neglect was beautiful; the "I'm still worthy!" line was as perfectly in-character as Steve's ultimate yeeting-himself-into-the-past was out of character.

There were a few moments of awkward fan service that made me wince a little.  The part where someone asks how Captain Marvel was going to get through enemy lines, followed by the Girl Squad arriving and saying "She's not alone!" made me want to cringe myself into orbit.  Good news, Captain Marvel... Okoye is here with her spear!  I didn't like Captain Marvel, either, which was a bland, utterly forgettable origin story that felt out of place in Phase 3 of the MCU.

The thing I disliked about Captain Marvel was how inoffensive it was. It didn't feel like it was taking any risks. So many Marvel movies try to do something different. Thor: Ragnarok is a great example of a movie that went in a very unusual direction with a very unusual director; that gamble paid off. Captain Marvel was trite and predictable. Its biggest merit was that it hit everyone over the head with fan service... the whole bit about Nick Fury losing his eye to Goose was pointlessly dull to me. They sacrificed Nick Fury's badass past for some cheap laughs and an adorable kitty-cat sidekick.  I felt like I was actually watching someone in a Funko! Pop boardroom asking how to shoehorn in a "cute" character that would sell a lot of merch.  The worst part is that whenever I try to say how much I disliked Captain Marvel, people turn it into a gendered issue. It's not at all a gendered issue. 

If anything, it's a writing-and-directing issue. The writers and directors did a huge disservice to the character and to the audience by delivering something so boring and color-by-numbers.  Halfway through watching, I literally turned to my partner and whispered, "Is this a DC movie?"

I digress.  The third time I watched Endgame, I was sitting in the theater, preparing myself, and the guy beside me mentioned that he had first seen Iron Man when he was 8.  Now, 18, he was seeing the final installment as an adult.  The movies had grown with him.

I didn't like Endgame.  But I looked around the theater and I saw kids with their parents.  I saw young men clutching each other's hands and tearing up.  I saw groups of friends in costume who had literally only just met each other and were bonding over a shared experience.

Endgame wasn't just a movie.  It was a cultural phenomenon.  And what I came to realize was that the reason I didn't like Captain Marvel was that it wasn't made for me.  In the months following, I remember seeing a crayon drawing done by an 8- or 9-year-old.  It featured the female cast of the Avengers, easily over ten women, and included the words "Girl Power!"  It was sweet and childish and clearly lovingly done.  A lot of attention to detail, if lacking the fine motor control and technical ability to distinguish Black Widow from Scarlet Witch.

When I was a kid, during Disney's golden era, your best bet for a female role model was a hapless animated princess, not a warrior or a fighter pilot.  And guess what?  Looking back, a lot of the franchises I loved at the age of 8 were awful.  They were inoffensive, trite, and predictable... you know, like Captain Marvel.

I got my movies, in Phase 1 and Phase 2.  Phase 3 was never made for me.  It was made for the next generation.  I outgrew Marvel movies.  Now, the next batch of fans are just discovering it.  And they love it.  And good for them.

They're going to grow up with Rescue instead of Iron Man, with Falcon as the Captain instead of Steve, with the stupidly over-powered and frankly one-dimensional Captain Marvel as a role model... and that's okay.  I got my moment in the sun as a comic fan; Marvel movies checked all the boxes for me.  And now they're catering to a slightly different audience, one that loves what they're doing. 

Fundamentally, the messaging is the same, so what do I care?  Tony Stark had a good run.  Now it's someone else's turn.  I'd rather have a little girl grow up idolizing Captain Marvel than pretty much any of the Disney princesses.

Thinking back on it, the Russo brothers sort of planned this.  It's not a coincidence that we see dabbing and Fortnight featured in Endgame.  For the next generation, that shit is dope.  A lot of people said they found these elements a little forced.  It was a cheap laugh that probably won't age well.  But I think there were two ulterior motives to simply being a joke.  First, it was signaling to the next generation that these movies are for them, that these movies are keeping up.  Second, it was spoiler insurance.

When I joked that my favorite part of Endgame was the Hulk dabbing and Thor playing Fortnight, everyone chuckled.  It sounded fake.  The whole plot was so ridiculous that it was immune to being spoiled, at least for a little bit.  And Marvel culture has always been heavily anti-spoiler.  

 "No, seriously, he's dressed like the Big Lebowski, but it's actually super sad."

The whole anti-spoiler thing is its own cultural phenomenon.  Hell, even this entry began with a spoiler warning.

Personally, I love spoilers.  I always seek them out.  I want to know how the movie ends.  But I never give out spoilers.  The reason is that I can't guarantee, once I've given them out, that they won't float off through a chain of people, some of whom won't be considerate and will purposely spoil the movie for someone who doesn't want spoilers.  No, the buck stops here.  One of the most obvious indications of the Marvel movies as a cultural force is their social pressure against spoilers.  The "Thanos demands your silence" campaign was nothing if not a lovely example of the way social pressure, even more than legal pressure, can drive people to action.

I was recently kicked out of a group on Facebook for disagreeing with a moderator who stated, in a conversation about spoilers, that releasing intellectual property without the creators' knowledge or consent was illegal.  (We were talking about some leaked set photos from Umbrella Academy.)  Taking pictures of a set and distributing them actually isn't inherently illegal (though it might be a breach of contact, if you work on set) (this is what I was kicked out for stating).  But even if it were, it's tricky to try to prosecute people for distributing spoilers.  Social pressure plays a much bigger part in tramping them down; cultivating a sense that protecting spoilers is a personal or civic duty seems to have been much more effective in protecting the movies than legal recourse ever was.

This is the power of the superhero movie.  It's not giving us new laws or rules or anything so authoritarian.  Rather, it's a parable.  It's shaping society through gentle example.  The messages of Marvel movies have always been ultimately uplifting.  For Steve, the message was always about loyalty; for Tony, accountability; for Thor, worthiness removed from ego.  Steve and Tony have moved on and left up with a dabbing Hulk, but somehow, I can't say I'm saddened by it.  We heard their message; they gave us what they could, and now their time is over.  Now, it's time for the next batch of stories to teach the next set of spongy little kid brains what society expects of them.  If the vehicle from which they learn morals happens to be a dabbing Hulk, well... the more important thing is that they're being inspired to greater things.

No comments:

Post a Comment