Tag Archives: Suffering

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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Into Darkness

Kirk and Spock

Heigh-ho, DiNozzo!

Yes, I am finally going back to Star Trek Into Darkness!

I found it a very enjoyable movie.  It strikes me as more ‘Trekian’ than the previous J. J. Abrams’ Star Trek film.  I think this is because of the details added to this movie, which I listed way back in my post ‘The Little Things.’  Then there are all the little character touches added to the “Enterprise Seven” – but we’ll get to those another time.

Have you ever seen that picture – you know, the one of a snake eating its own tail?  Yeah, that one.

Do you know what it symbolizes?  I believe it shows the folly of evil.  Evil is like a snake eating its own tail; it is self-defeating.  How long can the snake survive when it is consuming itself?  Not very long, I would think.

During Into Darkness, Kirk and Spock are thrust into the depths of loss and extreme pain.  Kirk sees the man he has come to respect as a father, Admiral Christopher Pike, murdered.  We all know that Kirk is no stranger to death, but this is the first time (that the audience sees) when he has watched someone close to him die.  And it tears him up.

Spock also gets thrown down this well.  He mind melds with Pike as the old captain dies, experiencing again the emotions he felt as he watched his home world Vulcan annihilated (seen in the previous movie) – emotions he is desperately trying to avoid ever feeling again.

As he later learns when Kirk ‘dies,’ he may as well quit breathing.  Emotions do not have an off switch; they only rule a person who does not make them subservient to reason.

In the case of Star Trek’s ‘dynamic duo,’ both Kirk and Spock come to the brink of the abyss of evil.  At this threshold, they have a choice: fall or fly.  What I mean by this is that they have a choice between good and evil.  Will they give in (fall) to their “anger,” and their “fear,” (thank you, Master Yoda) and hatred?  Or will they let these emotions go and rise (fly) above them?

The two come very close to falling.  Kirk first single-mindedly hunts down Khan to get vengeance for Pike’s murder, only to learn that he has endangered his whole crew when Admiral Marcus arrives to “tie up loose ends.”  Kirk’s desire for revenge then appears to transform into a death wish, which is finally overcome when he chooses to sacrifice himself to save the Enterprise – and San Francisco. 

Speaking of which, they pick on Marvel for wrecking New York City every few months.  J. J. Abrams has now attempted to destroy San Francisco twice, and I haven’t heard anyone complain.

It is after Kirk’s ‘death’ that Spock reaches his precipice.  Since Vulcan’s destruction, Spock has decided that he wants to feel nothing before he dies.  Vulcans, as every Star Trek writer enjoys reminding the audience, feel far more deeply, passionately, and keenly than humans do.

And boy does Spock live up to that aspect of the Star Trek legend in this film!  If you thought you saw the penultimate Vulcan temper flare when Kirk baited Spock in the previous movie, that was nothing compared to the fury that Spock exhibits when Kirk ‘dies.’  

Giving in to his rage, pain, and the fear of being without his best friend for the next fifty of his two hundred years (the average lifespan of a member of the Vulcan race), Spock pursues Khan through the streets and airways of San Francisco.  Even Spock’s vaunted Vulcan strength does not give him the upper hand against the genetically engineered Khan.  Only when Uhura arrives and begins firing on Khan is Spock able to pin him.  At which point he begins beating the villain with a piece of the freighter the three are riding on.

I suppose Spock might have eventually killed Khan.  But when Uhura manages to get it into Spock’s rage-benumbed mind that Khan can save Kirk, Spock pauses.  The viewer can see by the expression on Spock’s face that he is very tempted to simply finish Khan on the spot.  Even dead, his blood might have saved Kirk.

But Spock does not kill Khan.  He rises above the brink of evil.  He takes the handle from the freighter and knocks Khan out in one smooth blow.  Very cute move; I hope he did it hard.

Subsequently, Kirk is revived to become a stronger, less cocky (maybe…), starship captain.  He has seen evil again, not just outside of him but inside as well.  And he has defeated that blackness every human has in their heart.  He hasn’t permanently wiped it out, but Kirk has withstood this siege and won.

Spock similarly stands stronger than he did at the beginning of the film.  Having come to understand that emotions are without an on/off switch, he accepts the position they hold in his being and moves on with his friends.

This triumph is in stark contrast to the movie’s two antagonists.  I will begin with Admiral Marcus.  When Marcus arrives to destroy the Enterprise (commanding a ship named – surprise, surprise – Vengeance), we learn that he has been preparing Starfleet for war underneath the public’s and the politicians’ noses.

Marcus has distorted Starfleet’s mission; instead of seeing the Fleet as a force for peaceful exploration, and defense if the explorers’ way of life is threatened, he sees it as a war machine.  Very typical of the military/industrial complex Hollywood enjoys harping about.

That aspect aside, Marcus has ‘fallen’ Into Darkness.  He is planning, the Enterprise crew and the audience learn, to start a war with the Klingons.  His excuse for doing this?  War is coming anyway.  The Klingons are preparing for it; so should Starfleet. 

To make certain the Federation has the upper hand in this coming, glorious battle, Marcus has awoken the twentieth century menace Khan Noonien Singh.  And, much like the sorcerer who summons a demon to devour his enemies for him in old fairy tales, Marcus himself is destroyed when Khan turns on him.

For his part, Khan has also ‘fallen’ Into Darkness.  But he has been sailing that black sea far longer than Marcus.  A genetically enhanced human who wrought havoc on earth during the Eugenics’ Wars (in Star Trek history, this took place in the 1990’s); Khan and his remaining seventy-two crewmembers look down on all non-enhanced people as inferiors.

In a way, this was what always made Khan so pitiable.  Khan was a brilliant man who could have done great things but instead let his pride run amok, as it does here.  You know what they say about pride going before a fall.  Through Into Darkness, Khan gives viewers a good idea of what it is like when someone bows down before the all-consuming fire of pride.  And in the three hundred and some years since he fell to his knees before it, Khan has lost all of the humanity he ever had, demonstrated when he brutally breaks Carol Marcus’ leg and then kills her father – right before her eyes.

Now, I know I have sounded extremely (cough) dark here, so I will try to end this on a happier note.  I think that the best way to do this is to make a small mention of the ending for the film.

At the end, Kirk gives the eulogy at a funeral; I believe it is Admiral Pike’s.  His words do not mean very much (until he recites the familiar lines from ‘Space, the final frontier…’).  What does mean a great deal, however, are the images that accompany his speech.

The day of the funeral is overcast, justly somber as the Federation mourns its dead and those who died to pride (Admiral Marcus).  Meanwhile, other members of Starfleet are shown putting a re-iced Khan and his remaining crew in deep storage, away from even the misty grey of a sad day.

In a way, Khan and his people are also being buried.  Oh, they are alive in their stasis pods, their bodies still function.  They are not physically dead.  But if the other seventy-two are anything at all like Khan, they are dead spiritually.  So although they are technically imprisoned in dreamless sleep, in effect they are being entombed the same way that any actual dead men would be.

Meanwhile, Kirk and his crew still walk, talk, and feel; they are very alive despite the pain they have all experienced in this ordeal.  And they get to go on living.  They get to go on the famous, five year deep-space mission.  They get to walk among the stars.  That’s more than Khan will get to do for a long, long time.  All because he gave in where others resisted.

Maybe that was not a particularly chipper ending to this note, but it is the best I’ve got at the moment.  I will try to do better next time. 

See you around, Tony!

Later,

Mithril