Incomplete Statements – Joss Whedon’s Take on Character Suffering

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As all you Marvel fans know, Joss Whedon’s Avengers: Age of Ultron will be hitting American theaters May 1, 2015. From the beginning, Mr. Whedon has stated that “death will play a part” in the sequel to his and Marvel’s 2012 SMASH (pun intended) hit that was Marvel’s The Avengers. But, on a side note, for those of you who for some reason hate Hawkeye and want to see him dead, Renner has some disappointing news for you.  According to Renner, the World’s Greatest Marksman is not going to get the axe in Age of Ultron. So unless Whedon has snipers trailing the actors and actresses who performed in the film, I do not see exactly what Renner would gain by lying about Hawkeye’s escape from the chopping block.

Okay, that being said, why am I writing this post? To start to answer that question, allow me to put up a couple of quotes from Joss Whedon, the Writing Jedi Master himself:

 

You’re known for your strong female characters, but often they meet ugly ends. Is there a disconnect there? If I create a strong female character, I’m going to want her to go through things. I’ve killed off characters, male and female, willy-nilly. I have a reputation for it. But if I’m not giving them real pain and hardship and tragedy, I’m not a storyteller. – Joss Whedon to Time Magazine June 17, 2013

 

When asked if he will kill an Avenger: “I’m always joking about that. Um…maybe?… But I’d have to have a really good reason, a really great sequence for [Marvel executives] to go, ‘We’ll cut off a potential franchise, that’s fine!’ They know as any good studio does, that without some stakes, some real danger, how involved can we get? We don’t just rule it out across the board, but neither is the mission statement ‘Who can we kill?’ We try to build the story organically and go, ‘How hard can we make it on these people?’ You go to the movies to see people you love suffer – that’s why you go to the movies.” – Joss Whedon on Avengers: Age of Ultron

 

First and foremost, let me say that I think Joss Whedon is a great storyteller. If we ever met and began talking, we may not agree on much, but I still think he is a great storyteller. Does this mean that, in the case of the quotes I cited above, I believe he is wrong? No, I would not say that. What I would say is that Mr. Whedon did not seem to carry through on his statements.

I believe that the above accounts are only half the answer to the questions posed to him. He is correct when he says that the audience goes to a movie expecting to see the protagonists endure trials. And yes, sometimes the protagonists die at the end of their stories. This is totally acceptable, even if it is hard for some of us to swallow.

But the point I believe Mr. Whedon failed to make – perhaps because he was constrained by the amount of time the interviewer had, or the interviewer trimmed his response for some reason – is why the protagonists, the heroes and heroines of these films, suffer at all.

Why? That is the question we wrestle with, even in real life. Why does bad stuff happen? Why does it have to be so hard? Why do we – and therefore the characters we come to care about – have to get hurt?

I have a theory. Here are a couple of new angles on suffering that might make my theory clear:

Angle #1: Do you know how swords were made, readers? For centuries what one needed to make a sword was a forge, fire, metal, an anvil, and a large hammer, as well as a long set of tongs. I am not clear on all the particulars of sword forging, so I may be mistaken on certain points of the procedure. But from what I understand, once the smith had a rough, properly shaped piece of metal to work with, he had to strengthen the metal so that the sword would not break at the first thrust in battle.

This meant two things had to be done. One, the metal had to be plunged into the fire in the furnace and left there for some amount of time. Two, after the metal was hot enough, the smith pulled it out of the fire, laid it across an anvil, and began beating it into shape.   This process not only refined the shape of the sword, it strengthened the metal. Depending on when the smith – or the man who hired him to fashion a sword – wanted to finish a blade, the process I have just described could take hours, days, or even weeks and months. At the end of that time you had one durable, deadly weapon.

Angle #2: Everyone around the globe has been engaged in constructing something at one time or another in their lives. Whether it is a birdhouse, a human house, a car, a loaf of bread, or even something as simple and small as a homemade thank-you card, we have all shaped something at some point in our lives.

Think for a moment, readers, about the effort that goes into making the items I just listed. Birdhouses are often made of wood, which requires their builder to acquire the proper sized wooden boards, sand that wood down, and cut a hole in one of those wooden boards that is the right size to attract the bird species he wants to nest in the house. Then he has to nail the entire contraption together.

More effort must be expended in putting together a house for humans, or a car, and to make bread one needs to mix the ingredients together to make dough, which must then be kneaded. Even a child’s homemade thank-you card involves tools and effort. Fashioning such a card will most definitely require paper and scissors – and depending on how the child decides to embellish the card, their parents will need any number of items!

So what do these many separate things have in common? What does sword forging have in common with building a birdhouse, a human house, a car, bread, and a thank-you card? Answer: Each activity leads to inanimate objects being beaten, hammered, or cut into the form the shaper wants. And so it is that hardship shapes, or “forges,” characters – real or fictional.

Imagine that you are the sword I was speaking of a few paragraphs earlier. Think about what it would feel like to be thrust into a furnace for what seemed an agonizing eternity. Next envision being hauled out of the fire, feeling relieved that the hellish heat is gone. Then you realize that you are being put on an anvil, where the smith begins to pound you with a large, heavy hammer. And this goes on and on and on, until you are certain the torture will never end. But it does, and suddenly you are back in the fire in the furnace. Just like in Edge of Tomorrow, the process simply repeats and repeats, leaving you with the impression that it will never stop.

But at the end of all the “pain” in the forging process, what would it feel like to be a completed weapon? In some sense, I would think it would feel fulfilling. If you were a newly completed sword, and you looked back on the grinding process that made you what you were, you might think, “Well yeah, it hurt, but just look at me now! WOW!! This is so cool!”

So why do characters have to suffer during a story? Why do we, the people living and suffering in the real world, have to suffer?

In the first case, dealing with characters, on some intuitive level the audience understands that the pain the characters suffer depends in part on their choices and in part on factors outside of their control. The audience also knows that the trials a character experiences can make them stronger. For instance, the “fire” of Loki’s invasion “forged” the Avengers; it brought them together and made them an amazing, bad-guy “SMASHING” team. But we all know that the “forging” process was a painful one – especially for Avengers Bruce Banner, Thor, Tony Stark, and Hawkeye.

Banner had to learn that he had some control over the Hulk before he could truly join the team – but that was not an easy or fun lesson for him to ‘study.’ Tony and Thor each had to grow up and realize that they have limits; sometimes there are things one cannot prevent, people one cannot save. Tony learned he could not save everyone after Coulson’s ‘death.’ And getting stabbed in the gut by Loki finally taught Thor that maybe – just maybe – his “little brother” did not want to be brought home.

Hawkeye, arguably, endured the hardest and most grueling test. Loki took him apart from the inside out and left him to glue himself back together after Black Widow freed him. After being tortured like that, others might have taken the “easy way” out of learning that lesson by the simple expedient of putting a permanent halt on their breathing. Hawkeye did not; he faced it and he learned from it – and just what he took away from that experience will probably be revealed in Age of Ultron.

Now to the second case: why we suffer in the real world. Just like the characters we love, we suffer the consequences of our choices and we suffer because of things outside our control. There are two ways that we – and the characters we care for – can look at suffering. We can look on it with hate and disgust, becoming bitter and unbearable goblins in human skin – or we can look at in the way that a new sword might look back on its forging, “Yeah, that hurt. But I’m ready for the next challenge now! Come and get me – if you dare!”

That is why we watch the characters we love suffer in the stories we enjoy. To see whether they will get through the pain and how they will react to it. Some will become bitter and hateful, but it must be remembered that this is an initial reaction which can later be overcome. After all, Hawkeye was furious at Loki when he joined the Avengers in the first film. It was a natural reaction and completely understandable.

But did he stay that way? Doubtless, Loki had better hope he never meets the archer again anytime soon. But from what little we know of the sequel, Hawkeye has not allowed his anger and pain to poison the rest of his life. A hateful person, after all, would not have been quite so courteous in tone – if a little rude in words – when challenging Thor’s surety of the worthiness enchantment on his hammer. And it has been reported that the manner of his challenge to the Thunderer was as a friend, not as an antagonist.

This is why we watch the characters we love go through hardship. Because we feel solidarity with them on some level, and it helps us weather our own ordeals.

Now whether or not Mr. Whedon would agree with my assessment of his statements I do not know.   It may be that his declarations, as expressed in the quotes above, are his views in a nutshell. Whether they are or not, they set me to thinking, and this post is the result.

This post cannot contain all my views, of course – I am still being “forged.” My views will change as impurities are burned off or hammered out; but the opinions expressed in this post are, at least, a step toward becoming a completed “sword.” It is a long, arduous process that will take time – perhaps all my time. I have no more knowledge of what awaits me at the end of my life than a sword in the furnace or under the hammer does. I will have to wait and see.

Makes life exciting, doesn’t it?

Until next time!

The Mithril Guardian

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About The Mithril Guardian

I like stories.  Whether they’re on film, in song, or in print, I always remember a good story.  They remind me of paintings.  People cannot see them without learning something.  So it’s a good idea to look at a story from as many angles as possible.  I can watch the same movie a million times and still I will learn something that I did not know before.  Thoughts on the Edge of Forever is where I get to focus on what I learned from stories; what was not obvious the first time, the second time, or the umpteenth time. Earlier posts are written in the form of letters, usually to specific characters, to point out what I saw in a particular story or heard in a piece of music. Some of those letters, though, are like letters to the editor. Why did someone write a story this way and not another? Would the story have turned out better if the writer had done something different? These ‘letters to the editor’ will probably never be answered by the writers - the characters certainly will not answer anything - but their contents are still up for debate. After all, unless you ask a question, you will never get an answer. Still, civil ground rules apply. Any foul language or other form of abuse will not be tolerated in Thoughts on the Edge of Forever. I mean, who wants to be around the guest at the dinner party who is being nasty? Practically nobody, since people go to a party to have fun, not to hang around a grouch. So let’s have fun! The Mithril Guardian
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