What a Character!

Last week, Collin and I went to see a special sneak preview of Doctor Strange. We’re both big fans of the Marvel superheroes. Why? Because they don’t take themselves too seriously. There’s a lot of action in their movies, but also a healthy dose of humor. And their characters are people first, superheroes second. Their movies have some of the best characterization I’ve ever seen. Their heroes are flawed, men and women with questionable pasts, dark sides and emotional issues.

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Dr. Stephen Strange is a brilliant, arrogant neurosurgeon who believes only in himself and his skills as a surgeon–until a career-ending accident puts him on a path to a world he could never have imagined, and a life in which he could save millions rather than one life at a time.

In Captain America: Civil War, the Avengers are divided when a tragic mistake made during a mission causes the deaths of many civilians. It pits genius Tony Stark (Iron Man) against Captain Steve Rogers (Captain America). Tony has daddy issues–he never felt loved by his father, Howard. “My father never told me he loved me, he never even told me he liked me,” he says. By contrast, Steve had a close friendship with Howard back in the ’40s, when Howard assisted Dr. Abraham Erskine in creating Captain America using his super soldier serum for the US  military. Tony remembers hearing Howard talk about Steve over the years, and there’s clear resentment there. For Tony, it’s akin to sibling rivalry. Steve had a relationship with Tony’s father that Tony never had. When Tony discovers that Steve’s best friend, Bucky Barnes–the brainwashed assassin Winter Soldier–killed his father and mother twenty years ago, he realizes their deaths weren’t an accident, as Tony had been led to believe–and that Steve knew the truth.

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Tony is a complex character. He’s always been terrible at relationships, even when he really wanted them to work. He was deeply loved by his mother but felt rejected by his father–a fact that shaped all of his interpersonal connections.

Actor Chris Pratt, who portrays Guardians of the Galaxy‘s Peter Quill, describes the character as “emotionally stunted.” Peter’s mother died when he was just a boy, and he never knew his father. Add to that being abducted by aliens the night his mother died, and it makes sense that Peter would miss the maturity train, so to speak. He grew up a thief, part of a group of intergalactic pirates called Ravagers, but something deep within him yearns to be the hero, the Star-Lord his mother nicknamed him. It takes him twenty-six years to open the package she gave him on her deathbed. She told him not to open it until she was gone. Perhaps somewhere in his subconscious, he doesn’t open it because as long as he doesn’t, she’s not really gone?

Marvel’s got some well-developed villains as well–Loki, for example. The second son of Odin, King of Asgard, he grew up in the shadow of his older brother, Thor, heir to the throne. When he discovers he’s not Odin and Frigga’s biological child, that Odin found him during a battle with the Frost Giants, having been abandoned, left to die, Loki concludes this is why Odin always favored Thor. Even when Loki does his worst, fans relate to him. They get him. When an angry Odin tells him his birthright was to die, the fans feel for Loki.

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Zemo is another interesting bad guy. Having lost his entire family during the Avengers’ battle with Ultron, he seeks revenge. He knows he can’t destroy the Avengers, but with the right push, they can destroy each other. “An empire destroyed from outside can be rebuilt,” he says, “but one that is destroyed from within is dead forever.”

Throughout his quest for revenge, Zemo is seen listening to a voicemail message. It turns out to be the last message he received from his wife before her death.

When I started writing, I was focused on plot. I was young and lacked the life experience to understand the importance of well-developed characters. One editor I knew used to call me “The Master Plotter.”

Now, I prefer more character-driven stories.

Movie Review: Avengers: Age of Ultron

I went into this film with some decided disadvantages–I was tired after a day that had been much too long, dealing with a nuisance of a cold and blood pressure that was entirely too high. But there was one big advantage: I love Marvel movies. No matter how badly I felt, there was no way I was going to miss the first showing. They have all three of the elements I look for in a movie–action, humor, and strong characterization. Some are better than others, but in the end, I love all of them. They’re not just movies–they’re events. People wait in long lines for hours to see them. They often come in costume. They buy the merchandise (Collin and I wore Age of Ultron T-shirts and, thanks to special lanyards supplied when we presented our tickets, came home with a couple of pretty cool Avengers popcorn tins!

Ultron posterAge of Ultron opens with intense action–there were so many explosions, I started to wonder if Michael Bay had directed it. They’re doing battle with HYDRA, the same insidious organization that went rogue on Hitler during World War II and caused the collapse of SHIELD in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, as they search for Loki’s scepter, a lethal weapon containing one of the six Infinity Stones (one of them, the Tesseract, figured prominently in the first Avengers film; the second, called the Aether, was the cause of a battle between Thor and the Dark Elves in Thor: The Dark World; and a third, undesignated gem nearly caused the destruction of the planet Xandar in Guardians of the Galaxy).

Iron ManThe scepter is recovered, and Thor (Chris Hemsworth) plans to return it to Asgard, where it can be safely contained–until Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) asks for three days to study it. Tony and his partner in science, Dr. Bruce Banner/the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), are trying to restore a dormant peacekeeping program to aid the Avengers in protecting the planet–but as often happens in scientific experiments, things go awry fast. While the Avengers host a party at the Avengers Tower (Stark Tower in the first movie), the program takes on a life of its own…and decides the Avengers are killers and must be eliminated.

partyThe party scene is one of my favorite parts of the film. The banter between the characters is great–dialogue is one of the things writer-director Joss Whedon does best. At one point, Thor and Tony debate who has the better girlfriend–neither of whom are in attendance. Tony’s best friend, Col. James Rhodes/War Machine (better known as Rhodey), repeatedly tells a story no one seems to get. Thor challenges his fellow Avengers to lift his mythical hammer, Mjolnir–though none of them manage to rise to the challenge in that scene, before the film is over, one Avenger will prove himself worthy.

Then Ultron (voiced by James Spader) crashes the party, accompanied by several of Tony’s Iron Legion.

UltronFrom there, things start to move pretty fast. Ultron decides the only way to have real peace on earth is to bring about the extinction of mankind (given the current state of this world, he may be right). But as malevolent as he is, Ultron is capable of out-snarking Tony, the reigning King of Snark (think The Blacklist‘s Red Reddington as a psycho robot). Taking up residence in an old church in the fictional country of Sokovia, he has as his followers the Maximoff twins, Wanda/Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and Pietro/Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), who have superpowers resulting from HYDRA experiments–and who blame Tony Stark for the death of their parents. In one scene, Wanda describes bombs going off and hiding under a bed with her brother, watching one bomb that failed to explode. She remembers one word on the device: STARK. Only when the pair realize that Ultron has deceived them do they switch sides and join the Avengers.

Quicksilver and Scarlet WitchThe team also gets one more new member: the Vision (Paul Bettany, who previously had been the voice of Tony’s personal AI, Jarvis). Unlike Ultron, Jarvis is not a robot–and his power comes from the Infinity stone that had been in Loki’s scepter. The Vision understands Ultron as the others can’t, but knows he must be destroyed. He also knows he and the Avengers can only do it together.

Cap and ThorThere were some disappointments, unfortunately. The script fails to address some pretty major events from past movies and the TV series, Agents of SHIELD.  Why do the Avengers still not know that Agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg), killed by Loki in the first Avengers film, has been brought back to life using alien DNA? He could sure use their help in dealing with “real” (yeah, right) SHIELD leader Robert Gonzales. What happened to Captain America/ Steve Rogers’ search for his best friend, Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), last seen as the Winter Soldier? Did he just forget the whole thing? The biggest disappointment for me was the truth about the relationship between Hawkeye Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner) and Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson). It’s been hinted that they were more than just friends. In Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Natasha wears a necklace adorned with a tiny arrow, presumably a reference to her close relationship with Barton. To find out they’re not romantically involved was a big let-down. The intimate relationships they do have are so out of left field, they felt contrived. To see the Black Widow moping around like a lovesick puppy was out of character–and what was that “lullaby” bit for? It came off as silly and unnecessary.

Black WidowIn the end, one Avenger will die and another will be MIA. Stan Lee makes his usual cameo appearance in what could be his best yet. It’s hilarious–almost as funny as the other Avengers’ reaction to Steve Rogers’ use of profanity. And for the most part, the movie works.

Note to Marvel and Disney: audiences have become accustomed to those famous end credits scenes. Not having them could get you guys into big trouble. As we sat in the theater last night, watching everyone wait expectantly, I thought, “They are gonna be soooo pissed.”

They were.