Say hello to his little friend: Genius and thief Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) in his new role as a superhero discovers that among his superpowers is the ability to communicate with ants, a ridiculous comic book concept used to delightfully understated comic effect by director Peyton Reed in the heist movie that also happens to be a superhero movie Ant-Man.
That's not a hard distinction to achieve. Hollywood makes very few pure comedies anymore. The studios turn out movies they call comedies, but they're mostly one of two different things.
Romantic comedies, which are really sentimental dramas about slightly eccentric or lovably quirky people who say a lot of funny things and do some goofy stuff on their way to mawkish and unearned happy endings, and farces, which are to true movie comedy what insult humor, whoopie cushions, sneezing powder, and open manholes are to wit.
Farces are about how ridiculous everybody is. The better of them are about that, anyway. The routine ones are about how ridiculous everybody else is. Comedies are about how people struggle to find joy in a tragic world. Farces make us laugh at their characters' pain and suffering. Comedies make us laugh in sympathy and recognition as we watch the characters triumph, at least momentarily, despite their pain and suffering.
Pain and suffering are key, along with sorrow, heartbreak, and death. They must be real and they must be a probable consequence for a movie to be a comedy. Farces make those things unreal. They distance us from them. In effect, they help us wish them away. The best farces make us uncomfortable by making it very hard if not impossible to laugh it all off. Comedies don't ask us to laugh it off, just to laugh to keep from crying.
By my definition, then, a movie doesn't have to be a jokefest be a comedy. It just needs to end with joy ascendant.
A comedy can be any sort of movie telling any sort of story.
The hero can even die at the end.
For the record, the best comedy I've seen since Stranger Than Fiction is The Grand Budapest Hotel.
One of Wes Anderson's career long themes has been how to find the humor in a life full of pain, disappointment, and death, which is why The Grand Budapest Hotel would be unbearably tragic if M. Gustave weren't such a witty hero.
Actually, why it almost is, even so. Gustave is defeated in the end, after all, or, at any rate, deprived of his own happy ending.
Rocket Raccoon isn't just being his hardboiled self when he tries to boo-hoo away Drax's grief with the line "Everybody's got dead people." The movie opens with a death that's never undone and the pain of which is never lessened. But just about every scene once the story gets us and Peter Quill into outer space contains at least one good laugh.
It's also thrilling, suspenseful, and exciting. Besides being a good comedy, Guardians of the Galaxy is also a good pirate movie.
Ant-Man is a good heist movie, and in outline a fairly typical one.
Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), a computing, engineering, and technical genius, not to mention a skilled cat burglar, gets out of prison, determined to go straight, after serving time for a spectacular crime against a corrupt corporation. All he wants now is to reconnect with his seven year old daughter (Abby Ryder Fortson) and contribute his fair share to her support and raising. His ex-wife (Judy Greer) and her police detective fiancé (Bobby Cannavale) are all for that. They both like him and believe it's a good thing for father and daughter to be part of each other's lives. But their tolerance goes only so far.
Scott has to prove he can be a responsible adult.
That means getting and holding an honest job, which, as an ex-con he has trouble doing.
He gets fired from the one job he manages to land, working the counter at a Baskin-Robbins, when it's discovered he lied about his record on his application. "Baskin-Robbins always find out," says his sympathetic manager as he reluctantly lets him go, as if Burt Baskin and Irv Robbins are still alive and personally keeping watchful eyes on each of their individual employees.
This puts Scott in the desperate situation the heroes of all heist movies find themselves in---the need for one final, big score.
Fortunately, his former cellmate Luis (effervescently played by Michael Peña) an unshakable and somewhat manic optimist with excellent taste in wines and modern art, presumably cultivated while stealing the stuff, "knows a guy."
Who knows a guy who knows a guy who knows...
Knowing a guy is a running gag that runs right through into the end-credit scene, so sit still and wait for it and don't be fooled by the mid-credit scene into thinking it's ok to leave right there.
Luis tells Scott a story, the first of several sequences director Peyton Reed uses to break the fourth wall with a visual cleverness that are as much graphically as cinematically artistic. In fact, these sequences are the most like comic books brought to life that I can remember from any superhero movie.
You can see the scenes drawn and colored and laid out over several pages in interlocking and overlapping frames.
The job is to break into the home of a reclusive millionaire who the guy Luis knows who knows a guy etc. says has a basement safe full of loot. The heist is on, and the heist movie begins to unfold.
A team is recruited---Dave, an unflappable getaway driver (played by rap star T.I.), and Kurt (David Dastmalchian), an equally unflappable Russian tech wizard with strong opinions on movies that lead to little Pulp Fiction-like exchanges on contemporary pop culture between him and Dave. Luis is, not improbably as it might first appear, the muscle.---the job is planned, although not as carefully as it could be, then the team goes to work. And thanks to Scott's resourcefulness and technological genius, they pull it off.
More or less.
They meet with a couple of problems.
First problem is there's no loot in the safe. Just a suitcase containing what looks like a spacesuit costume from an 1950s science fiction movie.
The second is Scott gets caught by the cops.
Did I mention they didn't plan as carefully as they could have?
Turns out, though, it wasn't just the lack of careful planning that caused the problem.
The job was a setup.
By the reclusive millionaire himself who turns out to be the genius billionaire scientist, engineer, and Stark rival---Howard Stark, that is, Tony Stark/Iron Man's father---Hank Pym.
And Pym (a stern and saturnine Michael Douglas) arranged the setup as a test for Scott.
He has a job for him. A real heist with a real payoff. A big one. But it's going to be very dangerous with life and death consequences, not just for Scott and the team but for the world, if they fail.
This is still a superhero movie along with being a comedy and a heist movie, after all.
So we go through the steps again. The plan is laid out, this time more carefully since Pym is in charge, the necessary equipment is assembled, the chief piece of which is that crazy spacesuit, which Scott has to be trained how to use by Pym with the help of his somewhat estranged daughter---because there has to be a love interest---who is a brilliant scientist in her own right but has good reason to resent and distrust her father---because there has to be a good guy with a dark past even if this wasn't a superhero movie---and which, as it happens, gives its wearer the power to shrink down to the size of an ant while obtaining super-strength and superspeed.
Thus, Ant-Man is born or reborn, as the case may be, and Ant-Man becomes mainly a superhero movie---without stopping to be either a comedy or a heist movie.
So, you might be asking at this point, as a superhero movie how does Ant-Man fit into the Avengers saga?
It's not made as if it does. There are references to the Avengers as people who are out there doing superheroic things but only two short scenes directly connecting Ant-Man the movie and Ant-Man the superhero to any of the other movies---one sets up the other which comes at the end of the credits, so, like I said earlier, sit still and don't be fooled by the mid-credit scene into thinking it's over. An indirect connection is made through a direct connection to the TV series Agent Carter, but you don't have to get that to follow what's going on here.
Ant-Man does two things aesthetically for the Avengers movies that might seem mutually exclusive at first glance: scales things down and opens up space.
With the stakes so much lower, the fights, stunts, and special effects can all be ratcheted down in speed, intensity, and duration. We're left more at ease to pay attention to just the actors and what they're doing, allowing us to remember that, more than anything else, the actors and what they're doing have been the keys to the artistic success of the other movies as well.
Agent Carter and Netlfix's Daredevil, as character-focused as opposed to special effects-dependent stories, have contributed to this too.
Reed deserves credit for not trying to overcompensate. In fact, instead of doing more to try to make up for Ant-Man's comparative triviality---I mean breaking into a place and stealing stuff compared to saving cities from complete destruction---he does less. Whatever can be downplayed, Reed doesn't just have downplayed, he calls attention to what he's not doing that he could have done instead by milking the contrast for a laugh.
Another good one is when Scott puts on the Ant-Man suit for the first time and, as one does, strikes a heroic pose or what would be a heroic pose if he wasn't standing in a bathtub.
My favorite, though, is when members of the team need to make a getaway the scene in their van if the heist without calling the cops attention. There are no screeching tires, there's no stunt driving. No high speed chase with multiple car crashes and bystanders diving out of the way ensues. They just put the van in reverse and back out of there, slowly, very slowly, in a long shot that Reed holds for what seems like a full minute.
Oliver Mannion reserves special praise for the way Reed handles what has unfortunately become the superhero movie requisite scene of mass urban destruction.
On the other hand, the way opens up space is by making more of less. Most of Ant-Man takes place indoors and in small rooms. Much of the wide open spaces in the other Avengers movies is filled with explosions, crumbling building, flying machinery often flying into many pieces, and armies of enemies. Reed leaves the little space he has around the characters he has to work with not empty exactly but neat and clean. He does fill in with lots of extra business, frenetic comings and goings, and other visual activity. In fact, often he has the action taking place off camera.
The result is the suggestion that the whole of the Marvel cinematic universe isn't completely crowded with superheroes in constant battle with alien invaders, demon robot armies, and battalions of supersoldiers equipped with weaponry so high tech they might as well be alien invaders or demon robots. There's room for ordinary people to go about their business without worrying about things falling down on them from the sky.
It happens that in Ant-Man people's ordinary business involves breaking into places and stealing stuff and, incidentally, shrinking down to the size of an ant.
This opens up the niche wider for future entries in the MCU in which the emphasis will be---or ought to be---on the heroes' personal struggles and not as much on their super-exploits as they save the world, like Black Panther, Doctor Strange, the third and counting Spider-Man, and possibly even Captain Marvel, who has that woman doing a man's job theme to work through both as a character and as a brand.
But it should, I hope, serve as a reminder to focus on the saner, calmer, and more character-driven and -centered aspects of all the movies as what makes them good and fun movies.
You don't have to be a fan of the other movies or have seen any of them to follow and enjoy Ant-Man. The movie works as what's known to readers of novel series as a stand-alone. And for fans, it might be even better if you don't think about the other movies and let it entertain you on its own separate merits.
Now, getting back to Ant-Man as a movie with its own separate merits, I'm going to bring back in Guardians of the Galaxy, with which it shares two virtues, besides being a comedy.
Both accept the ridiculousness of their premises without apology. In Guardians of the Galaxy we get a talking raccoon and a walking tree but so what? In Ant-Man we get a guy who can shrink down to the size of a bug and talk to ants and again, so what? Big deal. Or little deal. That is little deal is made of it. Reed knows it's ridiculous but he doesn't try to compensate with angst, drama, or attempting to overwhelm us by going overboard on the special effects and CGI. In fact, even when he's wearing the Ant-Man suit, Scott spends little time ant-sized, so there are few scenes of him running around Land of the Giants-like sets among oversized props, and most of those scenes are played for laughs.
And both feature fine casts of supporting, secondary, and minor characters who are interesting as characters in their own rights and not simply for their functions in the plot, starting with the perpetually smiling Pena, the very warm and winsome Greer, and the always dependable Cannavale, who once again demonstrates that the Bobby Cannavale type is an Everyman and can be any sort or condition of human being, blue collar or white collar, slob, schnook, schmuck, or mensch, loser or hardworking average Joe, idiot, smart guy, or wiseguy, good guy, bad guy, thief, thug, crook, or, as he plays here, decent, honest, well-meaning, and intelligent cop.
Too bad, though, that Evangeline Lilly and Corey Stall, as the little too reminiscent of Lex Luthor in more ways than just the absence of hair mad genius villain, have nothing much more to do than try to make their clichéd characters less obviously clichés.
Lilly, at least, has two clichés to work with and against: Rebellious because she's really desperate for parental approval daughter and love interest who starts off disliking the object of her desire but learns to see and appreciate his superior virtues (basically she plays the main character from a romantic comedy wandering in from another movie to where she's not really needed. But at least Reed doesn't use her as eye candy).
Stoll, however, just gets to play the jealous sorcerer's apprentice while barely repressing a maniacal laugh.
But then there’s T.I. and Dastmalchian giving matched hilariously deadpan performances as Dave the Driver and Kurt the tech wizard, and Stan Lee makes another fun and integral cameo while Garrett Morris---for you whippersnappers for whom Tina Fey and Will Farrell are grizzled veterans, Morris was one of the original members of the cast of Saturday Night Live---shows up to do that necessary work of reminding us that there's more to life in the Marvel Universe than superheroes battling to save the world.
And then there's Michael Douglas.
Another smart choice for Reed, which was actually made for him and which must have been so obvious to the producers at Marvel Studios that it wasn't really a choice, was to make Scott Lang, the current comic book Ant-Man, the hero and not Hank Pym, who was the original Ant-Man and, with his girlfriend and later emotionally and physically abused wife the Wasp, one of the founding members of the Avengers, along with Thor, Hulk, and Iron Man.
Cap came later.
If they'd gone with Pym, the movie would not be a comedy.
Pym is not a comic---as opposed to comic book---hero. He's practically not even a tragic hero. He's almost a tragic villain.
Pym has a past so dark and so many tragic flaws and character failings that it's almost as if he was created with the express purpose of making Tony Stark look like a saint. He's even more vain, more arrogant, more selfish and self-centered, and more mad scientist ambitious than Stark without any of Tony's compensating wit, charm, compassion, or self-doubt.
In the comics, Pym is the one who creates Ultron.
Very little of this backstory makes it into Ant-Man the movie, but there's enough that as it plays out it becomes clear that one of the characters, if not the most important one, Scott, our comic hero, is there to save by giving a happy ending to is Pym.
Michael Douglas is entering old age with the dignified portliness and sardonic gruffness of a John Housman with hair that makes it hard to imagine he was ever young. But he was. And he more or less started his career as a lean and athletic action-adventure hero on Streets of San Francisco and came to movie stardom as an Indiana Jones avatar swashbuckling to the rescue of Kathleen Turner in Romancing the Stone. But rather than conjuring up images of his own younger self, he seems to be channeling his father, Kirk Douglas, in the ambitious, arrogant, reckless, self-destructive and anti-heroic angry young men roles in the career-making movies from his early prime, Out of the Past, Champion, Young Man With a Horn, Detective Story, and, particularly, Ace in the Hole---we can see the young Hank Pym as that ruthless and amoral in the pursuit of his goals although able to tell himself those goals are lofty and noble.
He paid a terrible price for what he's come to regard as a tragic mistake and Douglas lets us feel the pain and regret he's carried ever since.
He also makes sure we see that Pym is repentant but not entirely reformed. He has one more step to go.
Even though he's set it up, he has to learn, as tragic as his past was, this isn't his story anymore and he's now in a comedy.
Enter Paul Rudd.
Rudd is probably best known to movie audiences as a star of romantic comedies and farces and his casting as a superhero surprised many fans of the Avengers movies and the comic books. But he's a classically trained actor with some Shakespeare on his resume and he knows how to play a character as well as how to play for a laugh. More key here is that he knoes how to play for a laugh by playing the character. His Ant-Man is at his funniest not when he's delivering a one-liner but when he's quietly reacting to the absurdities of his situation.
And he brings an essential and winning modesty to the part. At no point does Scott seem impressed with himself, either as a genius, a superhero, or a super-thief, which is right given that none of those are what he truly wants to be and because as far as he sees it the qualities that allow him to be those things have brought him pretty much nothing but trouble.
More than any other Marvel movie hero except Captain America, Scott is in the superhero business just to do the right thing. But his ambitions are far more modest than Cap's. For him, doing the right thing simply means making the people who are counting on him most, his friends and family, happy.
Cap's job, as uneasy as it makes him, is the grandly noble one of saving the world. Scott's job is saving the few people it's in his power to save from ending up in a tragedy.
That’s the main job of a comic hero. He or she can have other jobs. They can be agents of justice, they can be out to right wrongs and relieve suffering, they can save people, cities, and planets from a villain's dastardly deeds, they can even be on personal missions of vengeance or fight for truth, justice, and the American way. But ultimately what they must do is pull others away from the tragic abyss.
This, as true fans know, is the dynamic of the friendship between Batman and Superman. Clark Kent's job is to save Bruce Wayne from the Batman's tragedy. Judging by the gloomy and dreary trailer for Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice, it looks like once again director Zack Snyder is missing the point, but maybe an apparently tragic Superman is just a set up. We’ll see.
As for Ant-Man and future Avengers movies: Based on what I could tell from Avengers: Age of Ultron, in the now-filming Captain America: Civil War, Cap's mission is going to be saving himself and Iron Man from Tony Stark's tragedy. This will present a big problem because although Cap was born to be a comic hero sice waking up from his seventy year nap in the ice as a man out of tome and out of place he's become a potentially tragic hero.
To remain in a comedy, he's going to need help.
Fortunately---minor spoiler---his pal the Falcon knows a guy. _________________________________________________
Ant-Man, directed by Peyton Reed, screenplay by Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish, Adam McKay, and Paul Rudd. Starring Paul Rudd, Michael Douglas, Evangeline Lilly, Corey Stoll , Michael Pena, Judy Greer, Bobby Cannavale, Hayley Atwell, John Slattery, T.I., David Dastmalchian, Martin Donovan, Garrett Morris, and Stan Lee
That damn war tore us apart every which way, in big ways and small.
The three-day gathering in Washington culminated in a candlelight march on the evening of November 14, each of tens of thousands of silent silent protesters carrying a small flame and the name of an American soldier killed or a Vietnamese village destroyed in the war; on the following day, 325, 000 people gathered around the Washington Monument, the largest political protest in the history of the United States.
On the night of the candlelight march, three of Kissinger's staff were down in the basement of the White House working late on another speech about the war. One of them, William Watts, stepped out of the Southwest Gate one flight up to light a cigarette. He looked out at the silent line of illumination in the street. He saw his wife and three daughters, holding candles, marching against the war. He thought, "I am on the inside, the enemy."
Mammoth tusk on display at the Cape Cod Museum of Natural History. Photo by Lance Mannion, paleobiologist for a day. Thursday. July 12, 2007.
Once upon a time, when the Cape was a bump of rock off North America and a string of islands of glacial till waiting to be connected by sand thrown up by the sea, wooly mammoths lived out this way.
Mammoths lived out a lot of ways, way back when. They were a hardy, prolific, and well-travelled species, until whatever killed them off killed them off. Combination of climate change, disease, and human beings who were very handy with sticks with sharp points, scientists figure. Mammoths lived on every continent except South America and Antarctica (although who knows what bones are below the ice cap) but until today I'd never thought of them as living here when there wasn't much of a here here then. But they did.
The tooth of one of them was thrown up when the Cape Cod Canal was being dug 90-odd years ago and that tooth now sits in the Cape Cod Museum of Natural History in Brewster where I took its picture today and where a guide told me it's very much like an elephant's tooth and elephant's teeth, I learned, are interesting.
Elephants have 24 permanent teeth, but only two on each side are at work at any period in an elephants life. As those teeth wear down they are pushed forward in the jaws until they fall out. The teeth behind roll forward to replace them, and when they wear down, they fall out. This goes on throughout the elephant's lifetime until its last teeth are gone, somewhere around the age of 65 and then, the guide told me, without its choppers the elephant can't eat and it starves to death.
Same thing probably happened to mammoths.
The guide was a tall, trim man, in his 60s, with a white mustache that turned up at the ends. His two rings were turquoise and there were turquoise insets in the big silver band of his wristwatch. When he saw me studying the mammoth tooth, looking for the best angle to take its photograph from, he asked me if I was a dentist. He was very excited when, being a reflexive sort of wiseguy, I said I was indeed a dentist and I thought I'd found a cavity, and he was disappointed when, being also no George Costanza and not prepared to fake my way through a pretend career on the spot, I quickly told him I was kidding. I guess he goes into the museum every day hoping to talk about that tooth with a real dentist. If you happen to be one and are in these parts and have time on your hands maybe you could stop in and make his day.
Nice guy. He could have held my being a wiseguy against me and walked off and I'd have had no post tonight. But he stuck around and taught me about an elephant's dentition and gave me some words to wrap around my pictures.
Mammoths disappeared from the Cape and everywhere about 4000 years ago. Other species vanished from the Cape more recently.
The great auk was hunted to extinction, someone bagging the last one in 1844. And the heath hen was wiped out in 1932, the last one dying on Martha's Vineyard in 1932, despite the fact that as early as 1790 people were trying to protect and conserve it. One of the first animals Americans tried to save.
Codfish are in trouble now.
But striped bass are making a comeback, along with piping plover, and wild turkeys.
Question posed, question answered, photo taken, and beer imbibed by Facebook friend Lee Wolf. Lee says the beer was an IPA but he can't remember the brand, which I take as a normal memory lapse and not an admission he sampled too many to keep track of. Anyway: At the Gulu-Gulu Cafe. Somewhere in the wilds north of Boston. July 31, 2015.
In case you might not have been keeping up, or if for some inexcusable reason you don’t follow the Mets, the baseball news going into Friday afternoon as the trade deadline neared wasn't just what hitter the Mets would get or not get or how miserable was Thursday night's nearly washed away in the flood loss to the Padres. It still included Wilmer Flores' tears.
Wednesday night Flores wasn't traded to the Milwaukee Brewers. Thing was, nobody told him. Instead, somebody told him he was traded. During the game. Flores loves being a Met. He's been with the organization since he was sixteen. The news surprised him and broke his heart. He got as he said "emotional." People watching said he was doing what there's supposed to be none of in baseball, crying. On the field. I wasn't watching, I was listening, as usual. Pop Mannion, who was watching, told me later it didn't look to him like Flores was actually crying but he was clearly upset and there were tears in his eyes. I guess it depends on your definition of crying, then.
Whatever you call it, the wonder was that his manager Terry Collins didn't see it and send someone out to check if he was ok. But the real baseball question was if Flores had been traded why did Collins leave him in the game? Which raised another question. Had the Mets GM forgot to tell Collins?
Nope. Turns out the trade fell through. Flores' tears were for naught. Except that they made him beloved among Mets fans. They loved him for how much he loved being a Met.
But then, people asked, how much longer that would be. Was he still on the block? The Mets couldn't be giving up on making some trade for the big bat they desperately need for the playoff drive. He wasn't in the lineup Thursday night and that made me suspect another trade involving him was nearly a done deal.
The Mets made a trade. An excellent one. An even better one than the one they tried to make with Milwaukee. They picked up Yoenis Cespedes from Detroit in exchange for some minor leaguers. The trade deadline passed with the Mets making no further moves and that left Flores a Met going into the big series against the division-leading Washington Nationals, with the chances being he'd remain a Met the rest of the season.
Way Mets fans were feeling about him, they'd have liked to see him signed for the next twenty years so he could play out his career in orange and blue.
Way fans are feeling about him right now, they'd like to see him signed till he’s a hundred and ten.
So, tonight: Matt Harvey's pitching, doing his usual Matt Harvey job of pitching a great game after a series of Mets losses, taking a perfect game into the sixth inning. And the Mets are doing their usual job when Harvey's on the mound of not scoring any runs.
Or almost no runs.
Bottom the first, Flores comes up to bat.
Fans had already given him a standing ovation. In the top of the inning, when, playing second base, he dove for a ball hit far to his left and took what looked like a sure hit away from the Nats' Yunel Escobar. So here he is in the batter's box, with a runner, Juan Uribe, in scoring position on second, and the fans are on their feet for him again, and...whack.
Sharp single to left right through the Nats' shortstop's glove.
Old man Uribe kicks it into gear and motors home. Mets up one-zip. And that may be enough, Harvey being Harvey, and all. And it almost is. Like I said, he's perfect through six.
But Collins leaves him in one inning too long. Harvey struggles to start the eighth. Two outs, two strikes, and Escobar, knowing better this time than to tempt the baseball gods, smacks a grounder through the infield but well away from Flores, and in comes the tying run.
Harvey's gone. But reliever Tyler Clippard does his job and the game stays tied.
It stays tied through the bottom of the inning, as the Nats' reliever does his job.
And through the ninth. And the tenth. And the eleventh. And going into the bottom of the twelfth.
You can guess who leads off the inning
You can guess what happens, because there are baseball gods who make these things happen.
(I'm sorry, I tried, but to watch what happened, you'll have to click on the photo, because MLB.com won't let me embed the video.)
Updated Sunday morning: I'm glad the Mets got Cespedes. I'm glad they didn't trade Flores. But the best move they made this past week was getting Lucas Duda for Lucas Duda.
Duda, who’d forgotten how to hit for a while, has suddenly remembered. He’s had nine hits in his last seven games. Eight of the nine were home runs. The ninth was a measly double. A game-winning measly double.
Lucas Duda homers twice as Mets beat Nats, 3-2, and move within one game of first place
Duda drove in three runs with two home runs and his go-ahead double, which came after Nationals manager Matt Williams inexplicably intentionally walked Cespedes to pitch to Duda. He has eight home runs in his last seven games and 20 for the season. His last eight hits before the double were home runs.
More notes from the virtual vacation. One of my favorite things to do on the Cape is go to a ballgame. Anglers lost this one, though. 7-2. Tuesday night. July 21, 2009.
Chatham Anglers have a first baseman who likes to talk. Chats it up with all and sundry whole game long. Has conversations with the umpires, the other team's first base coach, every opposing player makes it down to first, even the ones who are only there in passing, on their way to second or on their way back to the dugout. Outgoing, you would say. And I wonder if that's a general trait for first basemen, along with being tall and quick and left-handed and able to hit with some power---chattiness. After all, of all the players on the field, first basemen get the most company. There can be crowds at third base sometimes, but runners don't spend a lot of time there usually, and at any rate when there's a runner on third, the game is at an intense moment and the runner and the third basemen need to focus.
But a runner can spend a good ten or fifteen minutes hanging around at first. Three long at bats that end in strike-outs or lazy flies and the runner and the first basemen will have lots of time to really get acquainted. Get the umpire and the first base coach involved, call down to the second basemen from time to time, and you've got a party out there.
So I wonder if it's common for first basemen to be gregarious types, natural born hosts, as it were.
At any rate, Chatham's first basemen seems a friendly guy.
He's something else too. Tricky.
Other night, Falmouth had a man on, fancied himself a base-stealer, probably because he was. He had the Ricky Henderson thing going on. A batting glove flapping from each back pocket, taking long leads in a low, low crouch with his legs spread wide. Give him a chance and he's going, all the way to third, he sees his way clear. So there he is, big lead and a big lean towards second, and the Chatham first baseman's playing well off the bag behind him, deep in the hole towards second, not bothering to hold the runner on, because Chatham's up by a few and there's two outs, who cares if he runs?
The first baseman breaks for the bag. You can hear the ball whipping over, smack into the first baseman's mitt. The runner's caught flat footed. He snaps his head around, frantically looking for the first baseman, loses his balance a bit as part of him takes off for second and another part tries to make it back to first, and a third just stands there saying, What the fuck!, which is the part of him that knows all of him is out by a mile, whichever way he goes.
Then it dawns on him. The pitcher isn't looking at him. The pitcher's looking in at the catcher. The pitcher's still holding the ball on his hip. The runner turns and glares at the first baseman, who's grinning from ear to ear, lazily punching his empty glove.
I'll bet he's been perfecting that trick and the sound effects since his first year of little league.
Back in the day, when I was young punk of a college professor teaching at a state college in Indiana, my first semester there, in fact, I had a smart, talented, conscientious student who was a skinhead. Came to every class in full uniform. Black t-shirt, black jeans, cuffed, over black boots with red laces. Point is, he came to every class, prepared, and took part in discussions. Always on point. And fortunately, in class, he kept his political and racial views to himself.
Not in his first essay assignment, though.
For their first essays that semester, I had the students write an introduction to themselves, focusing on one thing in their lives they felt made them who they are, excluding God, family, and love and sex. I figured that those subjects might produce confessions too intimate to grade objectively. In his essay, this kid set out to explain what being a racist associated with a lot of other racists known for winning political debates by stomping on their opponents with their red-laced boots meant to him.
He argued that white people needed to show pride in their race. They should follow the example of black people, in fact, and celebrate and identify with the achievements of famous people of their own color. For whites, that would include scientific geniuses.
Like Albert Einstein.
It was my practice---and still is---to meet regularly with students to go over the first drafts of their essays in one-on-one editorial conferences. When he came to my office for his, I pointed out to him that Albert Einstein was Jewish and as a neo-Nazi he might have a problem with that.
He thought that over.
“So I should change it to somebody else?” he asked.
With what I thought admirable patience and tact, I said that that wasn’t exactly my point. My point was that the fact he identified with Einstein, someone who as a skinhead he shouldn’t count as a member of the white race, suggested that the question of just who belongs to what race was an open one and that maybe the answer is everybody belongs to just the one human race. A good starting point, for him, I suggested, would be to achieve something on his own, take pride in that, and leave the rest of the white race to worry about themselves. And that’s about as far as we went with that topic because in the next part of his essay he’d written about one of his favorite activities as a skinhead.
He and a friend liked to drive around black neighborhoods in the friend’s car on Saturday nights, with a case of beer between them on the front seat, and shout insults and throw their empty cans out the windows at people they passed.
Of course, I was horrified. But I was also scared for him.
“You do realize that black people have Second Amendment rights, don’t you?”
That seemed to shake him. Apparently, he and his friend hadn’t considered the possibility they were risking making someone mad enough to want to shoot them.
I didn’t get into the other thing about the way he spent his Saturday nights that worried me.
His friend was thirty-five years old.
I didn’t ask him if he’d ever thought about why a middle-aged man would be spending his Saturday nights alone with an eighteen year old boy.
A South Bend, Indiana man who was shot while flying a “huge” Confederate Flag from his truck and driving through a black neighborhood last Thursday didn’t mean to provoke a racial incident, insists his friend.
It’s not my student. Too young. This jamoke was born just around the time my skinhead wrote his essay.
But I’m not surprised this sort of idiocy is still going on in Indiana. Then, I’m not surprised it’s going on anywhere. We have an idiot in town here in Upstate New York who drives around in his pickup with a large Confederate flag flying from a pole bolted to the back of the cab.
The pickup’s white, in case anyone might miss the point.
But Indiana is still the place with the most outspoken and unashamed racists I’ve ever lived, and I lived in Boston.
New York Mets shortstop---as of this posting, at any rate---Wilmer Flores in a more cheerful mood than he was in last night. Photo by Steve Mitchell of USA Today-Sports, courtesy of USA Today-Sports, via nj.com.
Mets have a young infielder, Wilmer Flores, about to turn 24. Shows promise. Haven't watched enough games---I listen on the radio, an old fashioned way to say I have an app on my iPad---so I haven't seen him play the field and can't say how good a glove he has. Mets have been using him mainly at short but also at second. As a second baseman he has a 1.000 fielding average, but he's only started 22 games there. At short, where he's started 71 games his FA's .966. Not great. And he's been charged with 10 errors, which isn't awful. At the plate he's shown he's been eating his spinach. Not tearing up the league. Only batting .249 but he has power. 10 home runs, 14 doubles. And he's driven in 40 runs. Respectable. For the sake of comparison: Milwaukee Brewers' center fielder Carlos Gomez, two-time All-Star, has driven in 43 runs with 8 home runs and 23 doubles. But he's only played in 74 games.
There's a reason I'm comparing an infielder to an outfielder and this particular infielder to this particular outfielder. You may already know it.
Like I said, Flores shows promise. Makes him the kind of player, for a team with a star starting shortstop or not in a pennant drive and looking at the trade deadline coming up, worth giving the time to to see how he develops. Mets don't have a star shortstop. But they are in a pennant drive and in need of a hotter bat. That makes Flores something else.
He's the kind of player a team that's out of it and already looking ahead to next year and shopping around for young talent to help them rebuild might want to take a chance on.
Team like the Milwaukee Brewers.
You're ahead of me, aren't you?
Yesterday the Mets traded Flores along with pitcher Zack Wheeler to the Brewers for...Say it with me. Carlos Gomez.
Except that they didn't.
Except that they did.
The trade was apparently contingent on Wheeler, who's recovering from Tommy John surgery, passing a physical, and the educated guess is the Brewers weren't satisfied with the doctors' report. Trade fell through
Or maybe just put on hold.
Nobody seems to know.
Thing is, last night somebody told Flores he'd been traded.
During the game.
He didn't take the news well, and you can't blame him. Who wants to leave a contending team in mid-season especially to go to They'll be lucky to finish ahead of the Reds and thank God at least we're not the Phillies club like the Brewers. But it seems he likes playing for the Mets or in New York or both and it broke his heart to hear he wouldn't be anymore. Made him cry. On the field. Copiously. And for a long time. With the game going on.
You'd think his manager Terry Collins would have noticed his shortstop was out there bawling and gone out or sent somebody out to find out what was wrong or at least tell Flores there's no crying in baseball. But, nope.
You'd also think Collins would have pulled him from the game, tears or no tears, for the very practical reason that Flores' new team would have been a bit peeved if he'd gotten injured playing for a team he technically no longer played for.
But it appears that whoever told Flores he'd been traded, didn't also tell Collins.
Or it may have been Collins had been told the trade hadn't gone through and it didn't occur to him that Flores might have heard otherwise.
Whatever happened, everybody watching the game on TV got to watch Flores crying his heart out.
But besides the unnecessary crushing of Flores' feelings and his public humiliation, there's a baffling baseball angle here. What were the Mets doing going after Gomez?
He's good but he's not the truly dangerous hitter the Mets desperately need, and they already have a star center fielder. A Gold Glover. Juan Lagares. So good last year people began to call the outfield area he patrolled Where extra base his go to die. He started this season on the same track, getting to balls only Willie Mays in his prime could have reached, making the highlight clips night after night with spectacular catches. At one point, the Mets left fielder, Michael Cuddyer, said Lagares had gotten so sure of himself he was calling Cuddyer off balls hit to left that were headed straight into Cuddyer's mitt. Then something went wrong.
He turned human.
He wasn’t catching up with balls even average centerfielders would have had little problem with. Wasn’t gunning them back in the way he used to.
He’s been in and out of the line-up. Lately, mostly out. But not because of his arm. Because of his bat.
Now the concerned speculation is the Mets have soured on Lagares because he doesn't hit like teams want a centerfielder to hit.
Doesn't matter how many Gold Gloves he wins over the years, he can't catch everything and the Mets’ great young pitchers aren't giving their outfielders many deep flies to catch anyway. Collins is probably tired of saying to Harvey, deGrom, and Syndergaard before every game words to the effect of “You know what would really help? If you throw a shut out."
Explains why the Mets would want Gomez.
Meanwhile, Mets fans online----and probably off---have taken Wilmer Flores to their hearts. He's maybe the most popular Met right now since Jose Reyes. Maybe since Mookie Wilson.
We'll see how long the moment lasts.
By the time I post this he may have been traded again.
Inside baseball inside-joke for longtime, long-suffering Mets fans: Last night, while Mets fans on Twitter were going full-tilt on Flores and the trade that didn’t happen, a tweet by Matt Clap showed up in my feed that said:
Sources tell me that the Carlos Gomez deal to Mets held up by Brewers' unwillingness to eat any of Bobby Bonilla's contract
Churches had always made Will nervous, perhaps beginning when he was just a tad and saw his mama and papa become completely different people in church from the drunk and the shrew they were in the rest of the week. He didn’t know what churchgoing was for except for people to pretend to be better than they were, and it was that pretense that frightened him. From this his idea grew along with him and now, looking around, he saw the same open mouths and glazed eyes of singer but knew they not only pretended but wanted to be better people than they were. But this was a no more comforting insight, given the war that was going on which meant no matter what people wanted, or thought they wanted, they would still go and do what they had always done, finding different ways to sin against their Lord and then going to church to buy some repentance that would clear them for a while and then building up the sin again and coming back for another installment of repentance, and so on…
Another post card from the virtual Cape Cod vacation. One of only three places on the Eastern seaboard where you can watch the sun set over ocean water. Rock Harbor. Orleans. That’s fourteen year old Ken Mannion on the left, eleven year old Oliver on the right. Saturday evening. July 21, 2007.
Newburgh Waterfront. 7:10 a.m. 70 degrees. Pleasant but you can feel the heat building. Friday dropped Mrs M off at the ferry so she could catch the train at Beacon and saw that a tall ship was docked among the speedboats and cabin cruisers at the marina. Didn't have time to investigate but went down this morning to see what it was, thinking, probably one of the two replicas that ply this stretch of the Hudson, the Half Moon and the Onrust, both of which visit here regularly. Whichever it was, it was gone. No tall ships in view but there was a type of craft I haven't often seen along here. A rowing scull.
Not really a surprise. The colleges nearby, upriver and down, which include Marist, Vassar, and Bard have crew teams. Probably some high schools and prep schools do too. This was a four man boat---or four women. Couldn't tell. The rowers were silhouetted in the glare off the water.
The scull was accompanied by a small speedboat with a coach standing up behind the pilot, both of them also hard to make out in the glare. The boats were drifting, the rowers leaning on their oars and listening to the coach whom I couldn't really but whose voice I "heard" anyway, probably because I knew it was there to be heard. When the coach finished, the rowers grabbed their oars and pulled and the scull shot away, headed north towards the bridge. The speedboat held steady for a count of ten and then motored after the scull, catching up with it about a quarter mile upriver where it was waiting, the crew having been apparently told how far to go.
I moved up along the waterfront to the parking lot of the Blu Pointe seafood restaurant, hoping to get a photo and found a good spot but the glare was still too blinding. But now I could really hear the coach's voice, although I couldn't make out his voice, and he was a he. The rowers were still silhouetted but they looked big, a lot bigger than I think women rowers are. My friend who rowed for the women's crew at BU was five-eight and although not nearly the tallest on the team there were only a few taller and the tallest was barely six feet. But who knows. They're building them all bigger these days, men and women.
That's the whole of this story. I know. A Thomas Eakins in words I'm not. The coach finished talking and the crew set to work again. The scull took off and I ran out of room to chase after them anymore. But if I could have, I might have followed them the whole nine miles upriver to Poughkeepsie if that's how far they were going, it was that thrilling to watch and that pleasant to be be outside and if not on the water then at least by it.
Sunday night. 11:20. Out on the front porch but reporting from a different porch 283 miles to the east and five years back in time, as the virtual Cape Cod vacation continues. Wednesday night. July 14, 2010.
Out on the porch. The coyotes are long gone. The little yapping dogs have settled down. For a while there were no sounds but the brief barking of a couple of teenaged boys debating about how much a particular brand of fireworks was worth as they passed by on their bikes and then the chirping and peeping of what sounded like three different species of birds. Was probably just one species, though, and one bird, a mockingbird. Mockingbirds are the night owls among songbirds which often makes them literally the songbirds among night owls.
Now, coming up on eleven, there is only the pattering of rain in the leaves in the dark in front of me and, from inside the darkened house behind me, the chuckling of Young Ken Mannion reading something funny before he heads up to bed.
Shwangunk Grasslands National Wildlife Refuge in winter. Not exactly just down the road but close enough. If all goes well, I’ll be reporting on a walk around here in August. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
That’s not a date stamp on the post. That’s a date I’m looking forward to. Friday, August 7, 2015. That’s the day I’m going in for the procedure that’s supposed to fix up my back. Two shots of steroids straight to the spine. If it goes the way it’s supposed to, I’ll be up and walking normally by that afternoon. Then watch my smoke!
First thing I’m going to do is take a walk in the woods.
Or through the meadow.
Or along the river.
Or over the hills and far away.
Or just around the block.
All my life I’ve been a walker. Not a hiker. Not a stroller. Though I’ve done a fair share of both. I’ve simply gone for walks.
At all times of day. For whatever length of time it takes me to get there and back, wherever there happens to be. Sometimes I walked with a purpose and a specific destination in mind. Sometimes I walked just to see where I’d end up. Often I walked just to walk, to be outside and in motion.
But at all times, wherever I walked, for whatever other purpose I walked to pursue, I walked to think.
It’s been frustrating not being able to get easily from here to there, even when here is the kitchen table and there is the living room. It drives me nuts that I can’t walk to the store for a loaf of bread or down to the library to return a book. It’s depressing and humiliating having to hobble with a cane into the bookstore or the movie theater or the supermarket, wincing every painful step of the way. I keep telling myself how many people have it so much worse. Doesn’t make me dread running an errand any less.
Running an errand! Good one, Lance.
And for over two years now I’ve been convinced that not being able to take walks has been making me stupid and crazy…because for two years I haven’t been able to think.
A lot of what’s called thinking isn’t having thoughts but arranging them, putting some together with others, pulling thoughts that had been together apart, sorting them, storing them, throwing some out. I used to do all that while walking.
I’ve tried to do it while sitting. I can’t. When I sit and try to think, I end up brooding or dreaming. Whichever I do, it’s a piling up of more thoughts that need arranging. The arranging doesn’t happen. Those thoughts remain unarranged. Disarranged. My mind’s a jumble.
It’s a wonder to me that I can teach. I’m told I’ve been doing a good job. I believe it’s my students who are doing the good job. They’re honors students. They think at the drop of a hat. All I have to do is sit there and smile encouragingly and they’re off to the races.
Back when I was young and truly a good teacher, I did all my teaching on my feet. Walking back and forth. You can call it pacing. But I walked at least a mile every class.
It’s even more of a wonder I have been able to write.
I don’t feel like I have been able. Not the way I used to. I know there’s been a significant fall off in the numbers of new posts to the blog. That may be a good thing. I suspect there’s also been a decline in quality, although no one’s been straight-forward enough to say so and many kind readers have assured me it’s not true. But tell you what I am sure of. There’s been an important loss in subject matter.
There haven’t been any reports from my walks which used to be a regular feature of the blog.
So the first post after August 7th is going to be a report from a walk. Might just be a walk around the block. But I’d like it to be here, the Shwangunk Grasslands National Wildlife Refuge. Which is not too far from here, although a little too far to walk along busy roads or across private property with cows and horses and dogs guarding the paths. Believe it or not, I’ve never been there. I didn’t even know it was there until a couple of years ago when, driving one of Oliver’s friends home after some event at school, we drove past it. A couple of years ago, you’ll note, is when my back gave out.
Anyway, that’s the plan, to go out there and take a walk as soon as I can after I’m up and walking. And if taking a walk works on my brain the way the shots are supposed to work on my back, I’ll get my thoughts arranged again. Maybe I’ll even feel somewhat sane again too.
Like I said. Not walking in the woods or in a meadow or along the river or over a hill has been driving me nuts. Which I didn’t need this New York Times article to tell me. Still, it’s always reassuring to have the New York Times tell you you’re right about something.
A walk in the park may soothe the mind and, in the process, change the workings of our brains in ways that improve our mental health, according to an interesting new study of the physical effects on the brain of visiting nature…
…Various studies have found that urban dwellers with little access to green spaces have a higher incidence of psychological problems than people living near parks and that city dwellers who visit natural environments have lower levels of stress hormones immediately afterward than people who have not recently been outside.
But just how a visit to a park or other green space might alter mood has been unclear. Does experiencing nature actually change our brains in some way that affects our emotional health?..
The article, by Gretchen Reynolds, goes on to report an attempt to answer that question. It also has some pertinent things to say about brooding. You can read the whole piece, How Walking in Nature Changes the Brain, at the New York Times.
Another post card and some more notes from the virtual vacation, both from Tuesday morning, July 9, 2007.
Preparing Ocean Lady to go to work.
Busiest place is town at six-thirty in the morning is often the fish pier.
One or two fishing boats getting ready to put out or coming back in with nets full can stir up more noise and activity than you'll encounter on half a city block, and that's not even including the flocking sea gulls whose calls and whole purpose in life were brilliantly summed up by whoever wrote their lines in Finding Nemo: "Mine? Mine? Mine?"
Took my coffee down there this morning and drank it leaning on the rail of the observation deck half a story up from the water and the docks. Unable to see far to the east because of the hot glare of the low sun or to the north where haze hid Pleasant Bay.
Turns out it's a quiet morning. There's only boat tied up at the pier on which there are any signs of life. The Lady Ocean. And from the looks of things she has unloaded her catch and is preparing to finish for the day. But off to my left a man appears from out behind the prow of the Coast Guard patrol boat wading out to a buoy. He unhooks a line and drags a small skiff in. A few minutes later he reappears at the tiller of the skiff, riding standing up.
The man is about 40, with a thick head of graying blond hair and a bulldog chin. He's wearing narrow shades and a weathered pink t-shirt over olive shorts and sand-colored waders. Husky guy with a big gut. He pilots the skiff around the fish pier and over to the dock on the far side where his partner waits with their gear. Red pickup the partner's unloaded backed up onto the dock. Partner looks a few years older, thinner but bald on top, with his own prodigious gut. Gray hair on the sides of his hair cut very close. Wearing a red t-shirt, khaki shorts, same style and sand-colored waders as his friend.
The first man ties up the skiff and climbs onto the dock. Walks---his walk part waddle and part swagger: a swaddle? A wagger?---his stubby arms swinging, over to the pick-up to move it into the lot where---I'm not kidding, I counted---twenty-six other pickups belonging to the fishermen and clammers already out on the water are parked. The second man climbs down into the skiff and starts pulling gear from the dock to him and lowering it into the skiff. Gear includes two big black chests and a channel marker on a long aluminum pole with a four-bladed anchor on the end with a sharp point that makes it look like a combination missile and harpoon, as if designed for hunting whales from a fighter plane. As far as I can see the gear does not include clam rakes or fishing rods. They're probably headed for their boat and I'm guessing they're lobster men about to spend the morning pulling traps, because of the channel marker and the fact there are only two of them. I think a trawler needs a larger crew.
Ok, thanks for sticking with me because here comes the point of this sketch.
Loaded up the men set out in their skiff and it's the skiff itself that is the whole reason I paid such close attention, because it was the ugliest, most beat-up, most unseaworthy-looking craft I've ever seen---rusted, pock-marked, dented and scratched and scraped, fore to aft, and...
It had no prow.
I mean the front end of the skiff was gone, ripped away as if a bite had been taken out of it by Moby Dick!
I don't know how it stayed afloat while tied up. The only reason I could see that it wasn't taking on water as they rode out is that their weight in the stern kept the bow end lifted several inches.
Neither man seemed to be worried. The first man back standing at the tiller and the second man standing just ahead of him, both staring straight out to sea, and looking, and for all I know feeling, proud and determined as whalers of old putting out from their ship into a pod of bowheads, they rode out towards where their lobster boat waited and I lost sight of them in the glare.
Frankenstein and his monster: Robert Downey Jr as Tony Stark (Iron Man), begins to doubt he’s done the right thing in trying to bring about “Peace in our time” by creating the artificial intelligence software Ultron in Iron Man 4. Wait. I’m sorry. I meant Avengers: Age of Ultron.
There’s a very simple story at the center of Avengers: Age of Ultron. A very simple and very old and very true story. The story of an idealistic but vain scientist who, seeking to conquer death, creates a monster in his own likeness whose monstrosity lies in its---his---being at the same time more than human, less than human, and all too human. The monster escapes his creator’s control and runs wild, revealing himself to be not a conquering of death but a bringer of it. But the real horror is in his having a mind of his own and desires of his own that mirror his creator’s. The creator is forced to look in that mirror and see himself for what he is, a monster of vanity and ego, who has unleashed his own evil and set it loose upon the world. It’s a story, then, about how what we take pride in as being the best in ourselves can turn out to be the very worst.
This re-telling of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein with Tony Stark as Doctor Frankenstein and Ultron as his monster---Did you think I meant Bruce Banner and the Hulk?---might be easy to lose track of in the noise and confusion of the overlong and repetitive battle scenes amidst crumbling cities, the irrelevant inclusion an underwritten subplot that amounts to little more than a set of teaser-trailers for the Not-Coming-To-A-Theater-Near-You-Until-November 2017 Thor: Ragnarok, the clumsy attempt to work in the Hulk and Black Widow movies that will never be made, and the overly-insisted upon group angst about whether or not the Avengers will ever be a true team---a question I thought got asked and satisfactorily answered in the first Avengers. When Age of Utron hit the theaters back in May, the whole movie and not just the Frankenstein story got a little lost for many fans in online arguments over whether or not director Joss Whedon had betrayed Black Widow as a character by making her sad about not being able to have babies and whether or not that’s actually what was making Black Widow sad and then by fan outrage when Whedon closed down his Twitter account in what they took as his response to their complaints and criticisms, followed by a further debate over whether or not that was in fact the reason he’d done it and, if it was, did he have the right to shut fans out that way. [Editor’s note: I revised this paragraph a bit after input from longtime reader and blogging comrade Gary Farber. See his comment.]
But I think the problem---which is probably only a problem for me---is caused by Age of Ultron’s having been mistitled as an Avengers movie and not as what it is.
Iron Man 4.
But then I don’t think Marvel Studios really has an Avengers series unfolding. They have two parallel stories of individual heroes that are on their way to merging in a dual tragedy. Steve Rogers’ and Tony Stark’s---Captain America’s and Iron Man’s.
Before I get into that…
Marvel has been either lucky or brilliant in the casting of its leads and supporting players in most of its productions, which now include Agent Carter,Daredevil, and Ant-Man, all three of which feature excellent leads and supporting players. (The less said about Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., the better.) I’m particularly (and sentimentally) impressed by Chris Evans as Captain America. I think he’s done a wonderful job of putting the lessons of Christopher Reeve’s Superman to work in playing a hero too good to true and making his goodness believable, likeable, sympathetic, attractive, and---the truly super feat---fun. But Robert Downey Jr is still the best of the lot. Evans is good in Age of Ultron and James Spader is better, stealing most of the showwith his amazing voice work as Ultron, but Downey is never blown off the screen---except when Iron Man is literally blown off the screen, which happens a lot, maybe too much. Like I said, the battle scenes get repetitive, but never mind. Spader has great fun with his monologs, making well-written lines sound like brilliant ones and brilliant ones sound like Shakespeare. (I think I’d better explain that below.) But Downey matches him easily, filling his every sentence with an essential Tony Stark-ness. Which is to say, that just about whatever he says, no matter how witty, charming, and smart is tinged with competitiveness, ego, jealousy, selfishness, and…insecurity.
A good example is in an apparent throw-away moment, Cobie Smulders as former S.H.I.E.L.D agent Maria Hill---who, unfortunately, is turning out to be the Avengers’ Girl Friday instead of Agent Coulson’s replacement as Nick Fury’s Right Hand and heir apparent---addresses Stark as “boss” and he immediately corrects her.
“He’s the boss,” he says, meaning Captain America, “I just pay for everything, design everything, make everyone look cooler.”
It’s beautifully delivered but a great deal of its beauty is that it contains all those qualities I mentioned: wit, charm, smarts, competitiveness, ego, jealousy, selfishness, and self-doubt.
Downey makes it plain that Stark accepts Cap as the team’s leader and knows that that’s how it ought be but also that he also help feeling that he could be the leader and can’t help letting Hill know that too and know why and know why she should be impressed with him, as if she wouldn’t be already and would be more if she didn’t also know what an overgrown brat he can be, a fact he knows and has come to dislike about himself but which he can’t seem to correct.
These qualities, with the emphasis on the wit, charm, and ego, have defined Downey's characterization of Tony Stark since the first Iron Man. And that characterization is thematic. Running through all three Iron Man movies and now both Avengers movies is the question Who is Tony Stark and what does he want? and all those qualities mixing up together make that a hard question to answer.
The first Iron Man ends with Tony announcing “I am Iron Man.” But that turns out to be a problematic statement because while it's true in the most obvious way, it's also a declaration that he’s a superhero and Iron Man 2 calls that into question. In fact, in Iron Man 2, Nick Fury decides Tony's not a superhero, or at least not up to being one of Earth's mightiest heroes, and although he doesn't kick him off the Avengers project, he demotes him, from hero to technical support. Tony earns a second chance, but in the first Avengers he has to prove he deserved it, that he is a hero and not, as Cap accuses him of being, just a big ego operating a suit of armor that does all the real work. Tony proves it---to the team, but apparently not to himself. That's what Iron Man 3 is about. Tony becoming a hero in his own eyes.
Now we find out that there's a problem with that.
Tony developed a real hero's heart. He did not lose any of his vanity. He did not learn, like Cap did long ago, humility.
It's not enough for him to be a hero. He has to be the hero.
Which brings me to the other part of the answer to who is Tony Stark and what does he want?
He's Howard Stark's son and he wants what he cannot have. His dead father's approval.
Specifically, he's the son of a brilliant and successful father who was, Tony feels, aloof, overly demanding, overly critical, and whom he has in significant ways surpassed. All his life he has been in a competition he can't win for a reward he can't have. Howard Stark wouldn't acknowledge his son's genius while he was alive and now he's not around to applaud his success and achievements---and admit he’s been bested. Add to this that Tony has given himself the mission of making up for his own and Howard's mistakes and sins, something that comes back to haunt him and the other Avengers in Age of Ultron, in the persons of Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch.
If all that sounds neurotic and even juvenile, it's mitigated by Tony's having nobler ambitions. He sincerely wants to fix everything and save everybody.
Like I said, he wants to be a hero.
Unfortunately, like I also said, vanity is still a problem.
Tony wants to be the one who saves everybody and fixes everything.
He wants to be the hero.
He says he built Ultron so that the Avengers won't be needed anymore. But he does it in the belief that he doesn't need the other Avengers to help him. (He enlists Bruce Banner but pretty much relegates him to the role of Igor.) Basically, he believes that the world already doesn't need the Avengers. It just needs him.
In an argument with Cap, Tony defends what he was attempting to do in creating Ultron, prevent war forever or, as he says, thinking he’s being cute and ironic, bringing about “peace in our time.” Cap won’t buy it. “Every time someone tries to stop a war before it starts,” he snaps. “Innocent people die. Every time.” A line that might inspire anti-war liberals with Iraq in mind to cheer, but which is really kind of a strange thing for a veteran of World War II to say. Wouldn't it have been a good thing if Hitler could have been stopped before? (Leaving aside the question of whether he actually could have been stopped.) But there's an answer, which Stark doesn't give, because this is an action-adventure movie not a novel by Tolstoy and there isn't time or space for philosophic and historical debates. Innocent people die in wars, many innocent people, so isn't trying worth it anyway, if only on the chance that maybe only fewer innocent people will die?
Again, no time or space in the movie or in a movie review even on this blog. But quickly. Stark's mistake is that he has already had this debate with himself and made decisions by himself, leaving everybody else out of it. He has assumed knowledge, wisdom, responsibilities, and power that Cap, a conventionally religious man of his bygone time, would probably say belong to God.
Like I said. Frankenstein.
This is where the stories of Iron Man and Captain America begin to converge in a way that, for me, turns the Avengers saga into a side story. The real story, now, is leading into the next Captain America movie, Civil War.
Of course I don't know what's coming. But this is what I see being set up. Tony Stark is going to bring about what he says he created Ultron to do, put an end to the Avengers.
To put it in mythological terms, he's going to bring about the breaking of the Round Table.
In my review of the first Avengers, The Romance of Tony Stark, I said that if you see the Avengers as having parallels to the stories of King Arthur and his knights, Tony is Lancelot. Not in personality but in the potential role of tragic traitor. He and Lancelot share the same tragic flaw, a willingness to put their own desires above what they know to be right. In Lancelot's case, it's his love for Guinevere that undoes him. In Tony's, it's his need to be the hero.
In my review, I said that I didn't see Captain America as King Arthur. But Winter Soldier changed my mind about that.
S.H.I.E.L.D. turned out to have been based on the premise that “Might Makes Right.” Cap doesn’t just believe like King Arthur in “Might for Right.” He believes that Right Makes Might. His ambition isn’t just to make the world safe. It’s to make it right.
He dreams of Camelot.
With this in mind, you can guess which scene in Age of Ultron I got the most kick out of: the scene at the party celebrating the Avengers' defeat of the last remnants of Hydra. The guys---Clint (Hawkeye) Tony, Rhodie ( who, thankfully, has given up calling himself the Iron Patriot and gone back to being War Machine), and Steve Rogers---take turns trying to lift Thor's hammer. Of course, they can't try as they might. As we know, only he---or she. I've been following what's going on in the comic books.---who is worthy can wield the hammer. The guys know this and they don't really expect to succeed. But they've had a few and they are guys, after all. They're showing off. But once they get going, Tony's competitive juices start flowing. He becomes determined to lift the hammer.
It's not to prove he's worthy. He doesn't take that part seriously. (Downey tosses off a couple of great one-liners on the subject of how he will treat his subjects when he takes Thor's place as ruler of Asgard, and, again, the lines are witty and charming but tinged with vanity. He's in effect telling Thor he's not impressed with his being a god and hero-king.) What he wants to show is that lifting the hammer doesn't prove anything except that you've mastered the trick of lifting it. And he's convinced there's a trick and equally convinced that if there is he's the one who can figure it out. That's his main job as an Avenger.
But when it's Cap's turn, we see Steve approach the task with a bit of reluctance. He's doing it mainly to be a good sport. But he gives it his all and...
The hammer moves.
To Thor's shock and consternation---Chris Hemsworth does a terrific double-take here.---and to Steve's own, well, fright. He gives it one more mighty tug but his heart isn't in it and, as we know from The First Avenger, it's his heart that gives him his strength. The super soldier serum only worked on him because he had a good heart. Then he gives up and the implication is that he does because he doesn't want to know.
Not that he isn't worthy. He already knows he's worthy. That's what makes him Captain America. He doesn't want to know he's worthier. He doesn't like being as worthy as he is. He’s weighed down by the responsibilities and filled with self-doubt. He doesn't like what being worthy has made him. Sad and alone, out of time and out of place. A misfit. A freak. A monster, in fact. In yet anther Frankenstein story, one he explicitly tells about himself in this movie, the kindly Dr Erskine who invented the super-soldier serum is Frankenstein and he, Captain America, is the Creature.
Chris Evans, working with some beautifully understated dialog, makes Cap almost as witty and charming as Downey's Tony Stark, but he gives Cap a kind of reverse vanity. While just about everything Downey as Stark says is a form of boasting, just about everything Evans' Cap says is self-deprecation.
I don’t recall any specific moments when we see him reacting to Cap’s modesty, but it probably drives Tony nuts.
Here's where it gets messy.
Like it hasn't already, Lance?
If a big part of who Tony Stark is is Howard Stark’s son, then in his eyes Steve Rogers would naturally be something of a stand-in for his father.
That’s how Tony first came to know of him, as his father’s good friend and war buddy. He grew up listening to his father talk admiringly about Cap and from that he learned to resent him. Doesn't matter what Howard said or how often he said it, what Tony heard was an incessant criticism: Why can't you be more like him?
In other words, Tony would have grown up thinking of Captain America as the son his father wished he had instead of him.
It's no wonder that when he meets him in the flesh, Tony's filled with jealousy and an intense spirit of rivalry that would be hard to overcome even as the two became good friends.
Which they have. With not a whole lot of interaction, Downey and Evans make it clear Tony and Steve like each other, have fun together, and rely on each other. The spirit of rivalry never goes away, though, and it's felt on both sides, because more than they are friends, they are, spiritually, brothers.
We all know how things tend to go between brothers in literature. (And in movies. If you want to push it---and I'm always ready to push these things---there are parallels between Steve and Tony and Thor and Loki.) Steve, even though he's younger---discounting the seventy odd years he was frozen in the ice---is in temperament and in effect the older brother, as well as the favorite son.
All right, maybe all that's too mythological. But superheroes are often said to be our new myths---mostly it's said by fans of the comic books and the artists who make their livings creating them. If it's true, however, it's only when they've escaped the comics and other mass media where they have their origins and enter the collective unconscious to the point that they resonate with the very many people who don't read comic books, play video games, or watch the TV shows and go to the movies. That's happened with Superman and Batman. You can geek out for days debating which others have achieved Superman and Batman's mythological status.
Obviously, for me, Captain America is part of my personal mythologies.
But if these stories were truly myths, they would have endings. And the endings would all be the same. The heroes die. That actually happens to the mythological Thor.
It can't happen to the comic book heroes.
Well, it does all the time. But I mean they die and stay dead. They don't, as Cap advises in Age of Ultron, walk it off.
Their stories have an end which no stories told about them can go past. As far as I know that's only happened to Barry Allen's Flash.
Don’t tell me…
At any rate, there’s too much money riding on the popular heroes’ immunity to mortality.
Now, the heroes of the movies can die and stay dead. And that could happen in the Avengers saga. If the twinned stories of Iron Man and Captain America are truly myths, Civil War will be a tragedy that ends with the breaking of the Round Table, Lancelot's self-imposed banishment, and the death of Arthur.
It could happen. It doesn't appear to be in the offing. Avengers 3 and 4: Infinity War I and II are in the works. The intriguing thing is that as things stand Downey won't be in them. I haven't heard for sure about Evans. He may not be. That doesn't mean Iron Man and Captain America won't be.
There's precedent for recasting.
Look out! Here comes the pesky Spider-Man!
But to get down to it at last, this is why I saw Avengers: Age of Ultron as Iron Man 4 and why, as far as I was concerned, after the scene with Thor’s hammers all the Avengers except Iron Man and Cap could have disappeared from the movie until the inevitable climactic battle. Thor, for all intents and purposes, does.
Like I said, mostly what he does between the hammer scene and the final battle is show up in interpolated teasers for Thor: Ragnarok.
As for that final battle, and all the big battles, I could have done without them too. For one thing, the cgi work is too detailed. Watching all those buildings crumble into dust, all I was thinking was “Who’s going to clean up that mess?” (Note to stickler fans: I know who’s going to clean up that mess. The point is I was focused on the mess.) But mainly, what I wanted and what I think the story needed was a final confrontation between Iron Man and Ultron, and, even better than a good fight, a good scene between them like the one between Tony and Loki in the first Avengers.
As for watching a good fight, it’s interesting that the one good one between Ultron and an Avenger is between him and Captain America. I took that as symbolic.
The battles themselves are well staged. I’m sure Whedon had other things on his mind but they play like he was saying to Man of Steel’s director Zack Snyder, “This is how you do it.” Whedon keeps the focus on his characters as characters---that is, they are always being themselves as they run, jump, dodge, duck, fly, and fight. He doesn’t just use them as avatars in a video game. And he makes sure that we see that most of their efforts go into saving people. We see and feel that there are actual human lives in jeopardy and that it matters if even one person in the crowd dies.
And as for the characters…
Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Quicksilver and Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch aren't given much to do. He's cocky and she's angsty. As the movie goes along, he gets cockier, she gets angstier. But pretty much they're here to save on time spent on exposition in the next Avengers movies.
I'm glad Whedon let Paul Bettany, who's been doing charming work as the voice of Jarvis, Stark's computer sidekick since the first Iron Man, appear as another new Avenger, the Vision. He's a little too much of a vision for my taste, but he's a needed calming, civilizing, and distancing presence. It's a relief to have a character who has some perspective and who can think clearly about what is happening and what the Avengers ought to be up to. I don't expect that sanity to last. This is, after all, the Marvel cinematic universe.
Even though I didn't need to see them in this movie---as opposed to in those movies of their own that will never get made---it was good to see Jeremy Renner do more than take aim convincingly while cracking wise, Mark Ruffalo do something other than wrestle with his rage, although he still does a fair share of that, and Scarlett Johansson show yet another side of Black Widow, even if that side is that of the good-hearted bad girl who, to paraphrase Valerie Perrine as a variation of the type in Superman, doesn't get to get it on with the good guys.
Chris Hemsworth’s underused, again. Whedon gives a supporting female character a line that lets us know that he knows which of the Avengers most female fans---and gay male ones, I presume---want to see the most of and then doesn’t give it to them. Instead, proud and unabashed dork that he is, he lingers on Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner, and makes him the focus of the longing female gaze. Ruffalo’s good, of course, but he’s nowhere near as pretty as Hemsworth and Banner is, after all, a dork. Hemsworth, though, makes do with what’s given and it’s important to notice that most of his best work is silent. He’s a natural comic actor and all he needs is his eyes.
Spader, as everyone acknowledges, is the stand-out star. When I said he turns his dialog into Shakespeare, I didn’t mean flowery or poetic. I meant that he makes the words alive to the character saying them. Ultron’s listening to himself. Choosing the words carefully. Writing his own script. Writing himself into being. Hamlet does this. Falstaff does this. Iago and Rosalind do it. Ultron knows himself to be performing. He’s literally making himself up as he goes. And not only is he creating himself in his own eyes, he’s forcing others to think of him as he thinks of himself.
I probably need to come back and rewrite that.
That’s it. Time to wrap this up. But one more scene before the credits roll.
Whedon has been given a lot of credit for shaping the Avengers saga and giving the movies their tone and spirit. But I think what he deserves the real credit for is recognizing what was already going on, accepting it, liking it, and running with it. The first and most credit, I think, should go to Jon Favreau, and I was happy to his name show up in the credits of Avengers: Age of Ultron as an executive producer.
It was Favreau, as the director of the first Iron Man, who set the tone and gave the series its spirit and sensibility. And the best thing he did to do that was fight to get Robert Downey Jr cast as Tony Stark.
Avengers: Age of Ultron, written and directed by Joss Whedon. Starring Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Bettany, Cobie Smulders, Don Cheadle, James Spader, and Samuel L. Jackson. Rated PG-13. Still in some theaters.