The Difference Between a Storyteller and a Character: on Joss Whedon, Age of Ultron, and the Problem with Twitter

Joss Whedon quit Twitter a few days ago. He hasn’t said exactly why, but I think we can all use some educated guessing and rampant speculation to assume that it is because everyone on Twitter was shouting at him. You see, there are some people very angry about his new movie, Avengers: Age of Ultron. They are so angry that they have made death threats against him, because I guess that’s what the internet is for these days, and therein lies the problem with Twitter. It’s beautiful simplicity of 140 characters or less simply does not allow for drawn out and well structured opinions. Unless you run a series of 60 tweets, you are stuck with “Screw you @JossWhedon! You suck!” And how can one possibly respond to such a thing on Twitter, when there are so many things you want to say? You can’t. You must quit Twitter. And if you have a bunch of stuff you want to say to these people, you must write a blog post about it instead.

Let me start by saying that I know there is a fine line. There are things that we just want eradicated from our society, and so any portrayal of them at all is troubling. In some ways we don’t want to acknowledge that they exist, and we certainly don’t want our major entertainment to come off as endorsing them in anyway, so I get that sometimes we try to just remove them entirely. But that has to be the artist’s decision, otherwise it is censorship. For instance, Marvel comics decided a few years back to eliminate smoking in their publications. They didn’t want any kids seeing any characters, good or bad, smoking cigars or cigarettes and somehow thinking it was cool. We know different things now than we knew in the 60s, so rather than feature a 6 part mini-series called “The Thing Quits Smoking,” they just took it out. You will no longer see that character with his trademark cigar.

On the other hand, it can be the artist’s prerogative to have bad characters do bad things. It can be their choice to have good characters do bad things, and in fact this generally makes them more interesting characters. But we have to be very careful about distinguishing between the storyteller and the character. They are intertwined, to be sure, but they are not the same. One of the two reasons that “The Liberal Tea Party,” as Patton Oswalt called them, pounced on Joss Whedon was because they felt that he was making a “rape joke” in the new film. Having seen most everything else that Joss Whedon has done, I can assure you that this is not the case.

VERY MILD SPOILER ALERT: In one of the scenes in the movie, Tony Stark has a line in which he mentions in passing that if he were king of the world, he would bring back prima nocta. For those of you who have no idea what that is, it is the ancient, and possibly mythical, right of kings to take the virginity of brides the night before their wedding. So, not cool. BUT! Does Tony Stark saying it mean that Joss Whedon was saying it? Because actually, it fits Tony’s character perfectly. We have seen in the previous Iron Man films that Tony Stark has little to no respect for women and that (Pepper Potts notwithstanding) he comes from a place of extreme power and privilege where women are treated as disposable objects. Tony Stark is a flawed character. Tony Stark says this line during a moment when he is trying, and failing, to prove himself the most worthy man in the room. The character clearly means it as a joke, and no one else in the movie laughs. No one in my audience laughed. It was not a funny joke. But it was a perfect example of a bad joke that someone in Tony’s position might blurt out. As the stage is being set for Captain America: Civil War next year, a movie that will pit Iron Man against his former teammate, it is not hard to see why they make Tony a bit of a villain in this film. Yes, Ultron is the “villain,” but is Tony Stark also the villain? And does this line actually brilliantly showcase why?

That being said, you may be of the mind that any mention of prima nocta, like Marvel’s mentions of smoking, ought to be off limits for anyone to say ever. But again I say to you, it is okay for Marvel to make that decision, and it is one I support, but it is not okay for you to make the decision for them. The movie is PG-13 and, even though everyone ignores ratings anyway, it is not a movie for little kids. My children are 5 and 8 and they would LOVE to see it. I’m not taking them. You can make your own decisions, but don’t be angry when a flawed character says something you find inappropriate. Be more angry when a flawed character says something out of character that indicates bad writing. Which bring me to the second problem.

People are mad about Black Widow. They say that she became a damsel in distress. They say that she insulted a whole category of women. They say that she was poorly written and out of character. And to those of you who say those things, I have this to say to you: You are the worst. No, seriously, you suck. You are why we cannot have nice things. You are why movies cater to lowest common denominator. You lack nuance. I am angry at you.

MEDIUM SPOILER ALERT: Black Widow reveals that she was sterilized at the end of her red room training to become an assassin, and that she is as much of a monster as the Hulk.  So let me tell you what has happened. In the first Avengers movie, we got a kickass Black Widow that only displayed emotion to manipulate people, usually bad guys, and we got some kickass shots of her, ummm, second half of that adjective. I cannot deny that she was awesome, but she also had no emotional depth as a character. I know, I know, we don’t go to summer blockbuster movies for emotional depth. But we could! We could have explosions AND emotions and character development! Or at least we could have, until you ruiners showed up, whining about Black Widow.

As in the comics, we are never going to get huge story arc progressions from the big names with their own franchises. Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America all have their own movies to go back to where they can learn and grow and change. They are in the Avengers movies (and comics) to hang out, fight bad guys, and be awesome. Where we can get into the real work of the characters is in the folks who aren’t going to have their status quo upended by another solo film in the fall. Black Widow. Hawkeye. Hulk. These people can actually develop in a movie like Age of Ultron, and Joss Whedon takes advantage of this. Hawkeye gets a backstory. Hulk and Black Widow allow us access to a more intimate and vulnerable part of themselves, and this makes them soooooo much more fascinating. Just because someone feels that they have done monstrous things does not, in any way at all, imply judgement on other people in slightly similar situations. It was not her barrenness that made Natasha feel like a monster; that fact was only the capstone to the years of abuse that turned her into a murderous assassin. And just because someone shows weakness doesn’t make them a damsel in distress.

You know that getting captured by the bad guys is par for the course. Hawkeye spent the whole first movie under Loki’s control. The Guardians of the Galaxy were in prison for half of their movie. Iron Man started this whole crazy franchise off with being a “damsel in distress.” I know our culture has issues, and that seeing a female person in trouble can trigger something inside of you, but please, please, take a step back and see that it is more like equality. Not always, and certainly not everywhere. But in this movie, by this director, Black Widow is just like everyone else. It would suck if Joss Whedon was unable to have Natasha do things specifically because she was female. I mean, let’s face it, there are only two non-powered people on the team to get extra beat-up, and Hawkeye took it all in the last movie. I don’t want to live in a world of either extreme: either she must get beaten up because of her gender, or she mustn’t get beaten up because of her gender. Both points of view are sexist and extreme.

So you are allowed to have your opinions, and I am allowed to have mine, but I do wish for all of us that our opinions be informed. Try to understand the difference between writers and their characters. My first voice teacher once had to play a truly evil, villainous opera role, and he told me that he was feeling very uncomfortable doing so. But then he came to realize that if he could truly show the world that evil on stage, it might awaken in them a hatred for it, and might end up doing some good instead. Such is the power of art. You just have to be able to separate what you are saying yourself, from what the person you are portraying is saying. They can be quite different, and we as audience members have a responsibility to know the difference.

Oh, and also, if you ever feel the urge to tell anyone to kill themselves on Twitter, please do us all a favor and delete your account. I guarantee you that your violent messages are not the solution to the problem. Thanks in advance.

(and if you want to read Joss’ take on why he really left Twitter, click here.)

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Posted in Avengers, Captain America, Iron Man, Joss Whedon, Marvel, Movies, Smoking, Twitter.

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