I finally got to see the Avengers today, and a fine romp it was too. I’m still chuckling now about the encounter between Loki and the Hulk, and the movie has much to recommend it. It has good characters, excellent explodiness, very snappy dialogue, and some very smooth cultural references. I know nothing about the Marvel universe, but I really like the Incredible Hulk and I think he’s done very well in this movie, as is the Stark guy. Thor was a bit bland, and Hawk Eye both incongruous (a bow? really?) and a little weak, but Black Widow was excellent, and even Captain America had charm despite his obvious inherent blandness. So that’s four good characters, an excellent script, some genuinely awesome action scenes, and a plot that mostly made sense. I’m willing to forgive Joss Whedon the flying aircraft carrier madness because a) it’s pretty cool and b) it was probably some Marvel stupidity anyway, so whatever. Though FYI to super-spy agencies planning on building a massive flying double-decker invisible aircraft carrier: more than four rotors is a good idea. Try eight. Also, maybe there’s a new truism of movie-making here: plots that occur on a massive flying invisible aircraft carrier will be a bit silly, because I thought the whole shenanigan in that part of the movie was a little unbelievable. I don’t in general like it when the bad guy’s scheme is so devious that it relies on 88 layers of mistakes by his otherwise intelligent opponents (“I know! If I get myself captured and trick them into taking away my weapon and placing it in the dungeon right next to an unstable ammunition supply, and then they simultaneously build a hoverbike in the same room – which I know they’ll do – and the hoverbike relies on beta-particle generating fusion power for its locomotion – which I know it must – then surely the resulting chemical reaction will kill them all and free me from the indestructible prison I know they will put me in!”)

But otherwise it was excellent. Though I must point out that the wiggly monster-thingy from the preview that appears in the final battle, though 78 spiny shades of awesome, does appear to be a bit of a copy of a certain monster from a Final Fantasy movie I watched. But as Chumbawumba said, there’s nothing new under the sun, and provided it explodes in sufficiently technicolor glory I don’t care. And anything that gets punched by the Hulk does, so all’s well that ends well (unless you’re the spiny beast from beyond space and time – it doesn’t end well for them).

I was reminded while watching, however, that a while back I put up a post about Game of Thrones passing the Bechdel test, and that this post was inspired by the observation that the Avengers fails the Bechdel test, so having finally had a chance to see the movie, I’m in a position to make a judgment about this burning cultural issue. As a reminder, the Bechdel test requires that two female characters must have a conversation about something other than a man.

In this simple sense the movie fails the Bechdel test, but this is for a very simple reason: there are only three female characters in the movie, only one of them is a significant lead, and they basically don’t meet. Most assuredly, it fails the “where have all the chicks gone?” test, but there’s a very simple reason for this: it’s set in the Marvel Universe, a comic book world designed for teenage American boys, and so there are very few lead characters who are female. The only chance for any woman to interact with any other woman in this movie is in the first half of the movie when Black Widow is on the bridge of the USS Stupid Flying Invisible Aircraft Carrier, and there is one other female agent who might be able to engage with her – but that agent’s role is so tiny that she gets maybe three speaking parts and is largely irrelevant through most of the movie.

I think a more relevant question is whether Joss Whedon should have considered putting women in more secondary roles – e.g. Agent whatisface who gets killed, or the physicist guy who does something. Alternatively, and more radically, Whedon could have considered making one of the five core cast members a different gender. I’m not sure how Black Widow could be made a boy given her name, but Captain America and Hulk are both gender neutral names. Come to think of it, a female Hulk would be fascinating on so many levels of feminist inquiry, it would make the average teenage nerd’s head explode. It would probably also lead to the movie being shit-canned as “too politically correct” before it even got to the funding stage. And Marvel would no doubt not have supported it.

I guess the moral of this is that the Bechdel test really only applies to movies set in genres which allow women to have meaningful roles.  That pretty much rules out much of the super-hero genre and a lot of sci-fi too. Bechdel tests are an irrelevant second order concern when women can’t even be portrayed in strong roles in a genre, and in fact the female characters that Whedon did put in this movie really shone: Black Widow was awesome, and the nameless female agent on the bridge was very competent and cool. Sadly, everyone else was a bloke. So, more important than giving Black Widow the chance to workshop her mass-murder issues with a couple of her girlfriends, is actually giving her female colleagues. Once the American comic universe has risen to that level of sophistication, we can upbraid Joss Whedon for not having the all-female murder crew talk about something other than the men they’re going to kill…