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As with so many of my fandom things, this post started with Tony Stark’s house.
Flash back to one year ago, the heady post-Avengers days, when I watched everything Youtube could find for me about this movie, and I stumbled over the Making Of special they did for Iron Man. From it I learned that they had done pre-work on the set designs, including the cliffside house. Then they cast RDJ to play Tony, and the set designers looked at what they had and decided that it didn’t really fit him, that he had this vulnerable quality they wanted to reflect in the movie’s main set. They took out all of the right angles, and I believe the word “womb” was used. This stuck with me both because I had no idea that this kind of thinking even went into set design, and also because “vulnerable” is not an adjective that one often hears applied to men, let alone superheroes.
Flash forward to my comics reading project. I’m up to 1970, and the characters are still all flat and horribly written. There are a few sparks of potential, though, and I realize that they consistently come in the form of characters who show vulnerability.
I want to take a moment to distinguish between vulnerability and a weakness. A weakness has a specific area of effect. In the Silver Age comics I’ve been reading, Thor’s dependence on physical contact with Mjolnir is a weakness; it limits his ability to act in certain circumstances. Captain America’s guilt over Bucky is a weakness; he will fall for the robot imposter every freaking time. The classic example of course is Kryptonite.
Vulnerability, on the other hand, is pervasive. 616!Tony Stark’s heart condition affects every aspect of his life. Spiderman has no physical weaknesses, but his socioeconomic circumstances and family duties render his state consistently precarious. The X-Men have powers, but they also live under constant threat from a society that fears their mere existence.
A weakness is a plot device; vulnerability is a characterization tool. A character with a weakness can stand alone, given that they keep a careful eye on that one weak point. A vulnerable character is either totally isolated, in which case you have no story, or has to navigate their vulnerabilities as part of their dealings with the world, which gives infinite story scope. An invulnerable character may amuse or excite the audience, but it is impossible to form a lasting bond with one.
As they do with so many things, inexperienced writers here tend to mistake the spice rack for the buffet, and so we get woobiefication and the entire genre of hurt/comfort, which can go to the extreme of outright wallowing in helplessness. Treated carefully, however, vulnerability is a powerful point of connection between a character and the audience, and it can be the root from which a character’s strength grows—or it can be a thing they fear and reject.
This is an area in which I think the Marvel movies have gone a light-year beyond the characters’ early incarnations, and where they also shine brighter than your average blow-things-up big screen fare. Too often, if action movie characters even bother to show vulnerability, it is in some pat and cliched fashion — a sex scene to show us that Manly McStudmuffin has Human Needs, or a Pet the Dog moment (I will not link to TV tropes; if you want to spend all day there, it’s on you :)). It fills in a check box but has no effect on the story. The MCU does it better.
The early years of the Hulk are hands-down the worst writing I’ve encountered in my comics project, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that The Incredible Hulk is also the weakest of the Phase 1 movies. The Hulk is inhuman and invulnerable. The audience’s route of connection must be through Bruce Banner, but the writers don’t seem to know what to do with him until we got to The Avengers. Whatever you think about Joss Whedon, this is a writer who knows how to do vulnerability; there is a clear and direct line between the flash of remembered agony on the helicarrier and the character’s present-day actions.
The early Captain America comics are likewise formulaic and poorly written. It’s difficult to endow a super-soldier with vulnerability. (Writing him as constantly feeling sorry for himself is not the way to do it.) The movie did a smart thing in using the entire first act to make us friends with the physically vulnerable pre-serum Steve, in making well-drawn emotional relationships with other characters the core of the story in CA:TFA, and in sparing allusions throughout The Avengers. He may be physically super-human, but his experience of loss is one we relate to, and as a motivator it is both powerful and understandable. (I gather that they tried to do this with Superman, with questionable efficacy.)
One could argue that vulnerability is not a quality appropriate to alien warrior pseudo-divinities, but one would be wrong. The Thor movie again got smarter with its story-telling than those early comic books. The majority of the plot concerns his experience of not only physical but emotional vulnerability. He is genuinely shaken when Loki tells him that Odin is dead. We see an echo of his experience of fear and doubt in the field after he falls from the helicarrier.
Speaking of Loki, Tom Fucking Hiddleston took this character from a one-dimensional chewer of scenery to an actual masterpiece of characterization. The vault scene with Odin is capable of softening even my generally-indifferent heart.
Even Hawkeye, brief though his screen time was, gets a moment to be something more than a guy with a bow, to contemplate his shattered identity.
Black Widow hasn’t really come into her own yet in the comics that I’ve been reading, but her movie version demands consideration as the only woman in the main cast. A number of people complained, post-Avengers, about her scene with the Hulk. This really demands an essay of its own on the Strong Female Character, but I want to throw this out for consideration: for some of the audience, the fact of being a woman is sufficient vulnerability, or even too much, all by itself, and any evidence of the trait beyond that takes her beyond the pale. I don’t think that way myself, but I suspect it may underlie some of the reactions to her.
Which gets us back to Tony Stark. Four minutes into the first movie of what is now Phase 1, he’s on the ground and bleeding; in the penultimate scene, the light of the reactor flickers and fails. How many Tumblr posts were written post-IM3 by people living with anxiety conditions, expressing amazement and often relief at seeing their own reality given this expression? (A few people thought the movie went too far in that direction.) The entire multi-movie story is built around someone who is absolutely vulnerable in a number of ways, but who is not stopped by it.
I sometimes think they should give all of those billion dollars to the lighting directors who work on the bottomless wells of emotion that are RDJ’s eyes, and thank all the gods of Hollywood that they didn’t cast Tom Cruise.
Stark spangled banner + thor <3
…. Stark Spangled Banner Hammer?
Stark Spangled Banhammer.
^ Best ship name ever. :D
When someone reblogs something from WAY back in the dark corners of your blog.
How did you even find that?!
you gotta be one hard core bitch if you can stand on a laundry line in heels and shoot a fucking arrow
Top that, Hawkeye! (If someone wrote a fic wherein he tried this, I would probably die laughing.)
do you know how nice it is when someone asks you questions about something you like and are interested in and you get to talk about the thing and they seem genuinely interested in what you have to say about the thing
it’s very nice
Why is it that I can happily sit and read a whole 70,000+ word fanfic without stopping but when it comes to anything else I have the attention span of a gnat on acid?
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