3. Iron Man 2 (2010)

This post is part of a series I am writing on the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe from Iron Man to Endgame. There will be spoilers for the entire series of films.

Iron Man 2 (2010) Poster
How do they follow up on “I am Iron Man”? By making Tony Stark a rock star.

Iron Man 2 picks up 6 months after the first film, and sees Tony at the height of his flashy, attention-grabbing antics, flying in as Iron Man to a stage filled with Iron Man-themed dancers to deliver the opening speech for the Stark Expo, the MCU’s answer to the World’s Fair. We learn that not only has Iron Man made him more of a celebrity than ever, it’s also been responsible for a period of relative peace – where the first film compared Tony’s weapons tech to the atomic bomb, now the existence of the suit is spoken of as a deterrent. Other countries have tried to replicate the technology, but no one has come close.

The US government tries to force Stark to hand over the technology, but he isn’t giving in. The scene where Tony attends a Senate committee hearing is one of the highlights of the film, and also introduces us to some of the characters who’ll be playing a major role. Most significant is Don Cheadle as James Rhodes, a recasting of the character played by Terence Howard in Iron Man. Cheadle brings a different energy to Rhodey, and though I have nothing against Terence Howard, I find myself more convinced by Cheadle’s portrayal of the old friend who eventually gets frustrated and pissed off when Tony’s behaviour gets in the way of what he believes is the responsible thing to do, as a member of the US military. Rhodes has gotten short shrift in the crossover films over the years, being something of a second stringer alongside the main cast, but Cheadle’s been consistently good in the role. Avengers Endgame gave us no hints where the character might go next, if he continues to appear at all. Let’s hope they make some use of him.

The other major character we meet at the Senate hearing is Justin Hammer, played by Sam Rockwell. Hammer is a knock-off Tony Stark; he’s who Tony was before Iron Man, but without the charisma – constantly in second place, trying his hardest to do everything and be everything Tony Stark is. Rockwell is a brilliant actor, and it’s the subtleties of his performance that make this character work. He can deliver a speech with all the braggadocio you’d expect from a Stark-type billionaire entrepreneur, and yet leave you with the sense that something’s missing, like he lacks the confidence to back up his words. Where Tony can get away with being an asshole because of his charm, Hammer just comes across as a creep.

There are two main threads to the plot in Iron Man 2; one in which the Russian Ivan Vanko, aka Whiplash, attempts to knock Tony Stark off his pedestal by demonstrating he is not invulnerable as Iron Man, and a second in which Tony is dying because of the arc reactor in his chest, and must find a replacement element before it kills him. The film tries to tie these together through a connection to Tony’s father – Ivan Vanko is the son of Anton Vanko, a soviet defector who helped Howard Stark design the original arc reactor, but was deported once Stark discovered he was selling secrets; and the solution to save Tony’s life eventually comes from looking back at something his father built. The two threads rarely cross, however.

Vanko is aware that Tony is dying, but Tony has no idea Vanko is still alive and working with Justin Hammer after his first attack and arrest in Monaco. The solution to Tony’s problem comes not because of anything Vanko does, but because Tony’s self-destruction in the face of his mortality is halted by a falling out with Rhodey and the intervention of Nick Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D.

Fury informs Stark that his father was one of the founders of S.H.I.E.L.D. and that the arc reactor was “only a stepping stone” that Howard always expected Tony to follow up on. He gives Tony a box of Howard’s old stuff that just happens to contain a recording of the pep talk Tony needs to shake him out of his selfishness, and indirectly leads to Tony finding a secret map in a diorama showing the composition of a new element that would be perfect for his arc reactor. The element would be “impossible to synthesise” according to the AI J.A.R.V.I.S., but Tony manages to do it by… uh… building a particle accelerator in his basement which he… uses to fire a laser… at a bit of metal… turning it into the new element?

clearelderlyhadrosaurus-max-1mb

This sequence is one of the dumbest things I have seen in a major blockbuster movie.

I could almost forgive them for not really caring about realistic science, except that this is the culmination of the entire second act. Apart from the fight between Tony and Rhodes in the Iron Man suits, the second act is all plot, no action, and it’s all building up to this ridiculous nonsense science. This one thing is the reason I had never rewatched the movie until this week.

From here, the film proceeds in a pretty straightforward manner through the third act: Tony finds out Vanko is alive and at the expo, he goes there, Vanko hijacks the Hammer drone suits to attack Tony, there’s a big robot fight, and finally Vanko himself shows up in a giant Iron Man suit of his own. This last part is where it kind of falls flat. Iron Man already fought another bigger copy of himself in his first movie, so this was something of a retread in that aspect, and from Ivan Vanko’s perspective he shouldn’t have any reason to go after Tony Stark again. He’d already made his point by showing Stark was vulnerable, and although he’d been humiliated by Hammer for not delivering the designs he wanted, he hadn’t learned anything to suggest he needed to hit Tony Stark again – he doesn’t know Tony has cured the poisoning that was killing him.

All in all it’s a very small, traditional action film, compared to the first. Some of the improvisational humour is still around, but it’s altogether more conventional. Tony has had a pretty straightforward arc at this point: in Iron Man he learned he had to take matters into his own hands if he wanted to protect people; in Iron Man 2 he learns to accept help from the people around him and not isolate himself so much.

The film is probably most significant in the work it does to establish the wider Marvel universe. This was the third movie in the franchise, and came two years after the previous films; it had to do most of the heavy lifting on its own. Hence the use of S.H.I.E.L.D. much more heavily this time round, although I think it did come at the cost of a potentially stronger middle act.

This was the first film in which Samuel L. Jackson played a significant role as Nick Fury following the brief cameo at the end of Iron Man, and it’s interesting to see him and S.H.I.E.L.D. used mainly as a plot device to force Tony to get over himself and get to work, instead of having his falling out with Rhodey and Pepper Potts cause any kind of self-reflection. Even then, the house arrest they place him under ends up meaning nothing as he freely pops out to visit Pepper at the Stark headquarters and returns with the aforementioned diorama, with S.H.I.E.L.D. barely acknowledging he went anywhere.

This is also where Scarlett Johanssen first appears as Natasha Romanov, the Black Widow, here undercover as Stark employee Natalie Rushman. While she does have a decent fight sequence near the end of the movie – in which Johanssen performs most of her own stunts, having trained pretty heavily for the role – her character has no personality whatsoever here. With Natasha being one of the characters who only gets to show up in ensemble movies, we never really get to know her as a character, and this is probably the least amount of work any of the films has done to establish her, despite her being present for a significant portion of the film. The lack of time given to characters like Black Widow and Hawkeye is part of the reason their storyline in Endgame ends up falling flat, as the series hasn’t done the work to earn the emotional payoff they strive for there. Natasha in Iron Man 2 is cool, sexy and badass, but it’s all about how she looks on screen; there’s nothing to care about as a character.

Tony Stark is the core of the Marvel universe because for most of its early years he’s all they had. The other films didn’t work out so well, and the characters they introduced in secondary roles – like Black Widow and Hawkeye – weren’t fleshed out. It helps that the Iron Man films were also a lot better than the others they were making, of course.

I realise this post has gotten long and pretty unstructured, but there was one final thing I wanted to add here that I’d forgotten to mention when talking about Iron Man: the music. Looking back on it from our current perspective, the first movie doesn’t sound like a Marvel movie. It has a guitar-heavy soundtrack that often doesn’t sit quite right with the feel of the film – it draws attention to itself a little too much. In Iron Man 2 we find the guitars are still there – the soundtrack even includes two AC/DC tracks where the original used one – but it’s within an overall more traditional score, and it’s one aspect where it feels like Marvel was beginning to find its footing in this film.

The final teaser in Iron Man 2 was, of course, for the next film they had lined up: Kenneth Branagh’s Thor, which was due for release in 2011. Iron Man 2 was the last time Marvel would have more than a one year gap between releases.

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2. The Incredible Hulk (2008)

This post is part of a series I am writing on the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe from Iron Man to Endgame. There will be spoilers for the entire series of films.

The Incredible Hulk (2008) Poster

The Incredible Hulk kind of has an unfair reputation as one of the “bad” Marvel movies. It’s certainly no masterpiece, but it’s… fine. I enjoyed it when I first saw it, and for a long time it was the only Marvel movie I owned on DVD.

I also don’t have a problem with Edward Norton as Bruce Banner. It seems unlikely that Norton would’ve been a good fit for the MCU in the long run (particularly with his need to have a hand on the script), and as it turns out he didn’t want to stick around, but I don’t think he did a bad job at all, and I suspect his rewrite was an overall improvement of this film. The problem I guess is that he just doesn’t really stand out in the role – his performance certainly isn’t as interesting or memorable as Mark Ruffalo wound up being.

And that might be the problem with the whole film. It isn’t bad, but it isn’t trying to do anything particularly interesting with the character. It lacks the humour of Iron Man, and the plot ends up being a pretty generic comic book story. There were some good decisions made: not rehashing the origin story, instead having it happen in a montage over the opening credits, let us get straight to business with the actual story. The first act is pretty decent, with Bruce in hiding in Brazil, controlling his anger and trying to find a cure, until he gets discovered and is forced into the open. Once he returns to the USA, however, the rest of the film is pretty by-the-numbers as he meets up with his love interest, gets caught out by the military for a (fairly good) action scene, escapes and manages to get the cure, only to have to bring the Hulk back to stop the film’s villain, Abomination.

Tim Roth feels miscast in his role as Emil Blonsky, who becomes Abomination in the finale. I like Roth but he doesn’t quite seem to fit. The character’s rivalry with Hulk is also entirely one-sided; while they do cross paths a few times, I really doubt Banner has any idea who he is when he finally goes in to fight Blonsky’s final, monstrous form.

It all just feels like a “comic book movie”, of the kind we used to get before Marvel Studios and their winning formula. It’d perhaps be less out of place beside Fantastic Four than Iron Man.

It’s also a really ugly film. Almost every scene is dark, and the teal and orange and green colour grading make the entire film look kind of sickly. The design of the Hulk, too, has this ugly texture and colouring; they were going for monstrous, and it’s well animated, but not at all visually appealing. I just don’t want to be looking at this guy for an entire film. The redesign of the Hulk from Avengers onwards is a huge improvement, both looking more like the comic character and conveying so much more of the actor beneath the effects.

I’ve seen a few different explanations of why the Hulk never got another standalone film. It was something brought up repeatedly but never followed through on, and eventually one of Hulk’s best stories was cannibalised for Thor Ragnarok instead. Sometimes we’d be told they thought they needed to hold back one of their characters so that people would have a reason to go see the ensemble movies; more likely than that is that Universal Pictures reportedly held on to the distribution rights for all future Hulk films. But it doesn’t seem to have been because they thought this film was a failure.

In terms of the larger Marvel universe, the film doesn’t really have much of an impact. Thor Ragnarok calls back to the scene where Bruce jumps out of a helicopter, and William Hurt has reprised his role as General Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross several times, but that’s as far as it goes. Betty Ross might as well never have existed for Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner.

Ultimately, between the recasting of Banner and the lack of a sequel it tends to feel like this film has been forgotten, both by Marvel and the fans alike. I don’t blame anyone for forgetting about it, though. It’s a pretty forgettable film.

1. Iron Man (2008)

This post is the first in a series I’m writing about every film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe from Iron Man to Endgame. They will contain spoilers for the entire series of films.

Iron Man (2008) Poster

I don’t think Marvel knew exactly what they’d be getting with Iron Man. At the beginning, the idea of the shared universe and the Avengers seems to have been an amorphous thing, an idea more than a plan, and there doesn’t seem to have been a strict roadmap of how the individual character films would get there. These days people tend to talk about Tony Stark as the centre of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but Iron Man was kind of a fluke.

Iron Man director Jon Favreau approached making the film with a very improvisational style, and star Robert Downey Jr shared that attitude to the script. The film was shot mostly in continuity, dialogue written and rewritten immediately before shooting a scene and altered further through on-set improvisation. They had a story, but the individual beats evolved and changed to fit what the creators brought to the work.

As Favreau said himself in a live commentary recorded with Downey in 2008, this approach to the script meant many of the major plot beats were given less significance than might have been expected, with the core of the film instead forming around the smaller character moments that came out of their improvised conversations. Shooting in continuity also meant that small things they came up with during production could be built upon and paid off as they worked through later scenes, from running jokes about a fire extinguisher robot, to major events like Tony using the spare arc reactor Pepper Potts got framed as a gift (an idea Favreau had for a nice character moment for Potts) to save his life in the third act. It also had long lasting implications for the entire shared universe: Downey’s famous improvised line, “I am Iron Man”, left us with a world of heroes who rarely keep secret identities.

And the thing is, it all works. The dialogue feels natural, the relationships feel real, every actor in the film is at the top of their game. They made a solid film, beginning to end, and if some of the action is a little rote, the stuff around the action makes up for it.

This is the film that went on to define the tone of the MCU, which is no surprise when follow-ups The Incredible Hulk and Thor didn’t quite live up to expectations. Modern Marvel films might not be so loose in their production, but they’ve largely kept the same level of fun and humour established in the first film. (And knowing how Iron Man was made, the decision to give the struggling Thor series to director Taika Waititi for Thor Ragnarok makes a lot of sense.)

And it was Robert Downey Jr as Tony Stark that made Iron Man work, so no surprise again that Marvel Studios built their franchise around him. He was their best asset, and by the time they were ready to make Avengers they knew it. The last decade of blockbuster superhero films would be very different if it wasn’t for the pairing of Jon Favreau and Robert Downey Jr.

Tony Stark, billionaire playboy philanthropist superhero, has appeared in 10 of Marvel’s 22 films (one of those being a minor cameo), and his character has been remarkably consistent throughout. Having seen the impact of his weapons first hand, he seeks to stop their production, only to find none of the people around him – who, because of his area of business, are all in the military or arms manufacturing – are willing to help, so he has to take on the job himself of protecting the world from his own creations. This was the plot of his first film, and it’s been his story throughout, as he goes further and further to protect the world, constantly trying to make up for his own failures.

This is why Captain America is wrong, in Avengers, when he says Tony is not the type to make the sacrifice play. He may have been arrogant at times about what he can achieve with his technology, but he’s been putting his life on the line since he first built the Iron Man suit. He did it in Iron Man when he told Pepper to overload the arc reactor even with him hanging directly above it. He did it in Avengers with the missile, and in Infinity War going toe to toe with Thanos. So audiences weren’t really surprised when he was the one to make the ultimate sacrifice in Endgame.

But that’s all in the future here. In 2008 Iron Man was a surprise win for the brand new Marvel Studios. Now the creators were left with the question of where to go next with the character – what happens after the hero reveals his identity to the whole world?

But before I get to that, the studio already had different film in production…
the-incredible-hulk-poster

Starting soon: A Marvel Retrospective

I’ve decided to rewatch every Marvel movie. And to justify that to myself, I decided I should try to write a whole series of blog posts about them as I go, looking at the individual films in the context of the decade-long saga they became, how they built up the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and how Endgame brought that all together.

Jokes about “the most ambitious crossover in history” aside, this series of films really has been a major accomplishment: 22 films over 11 years all sharing a mostly consistent continuity and characters despite going through the hands of many different creators, and without having a single major flop (though a few of the films are not so good, the overall quality level is impressive).

I don’t know exactly what this is going to look like on here. I’ll be figuring it out as I go, starting with my post on Iron Man (2008). But I can at least lay out my expectations going into this.

First of all, I have seen most Marvel movies more than once already, except for these which I’ve only seen once when they came out in cinemas:

  • Iron Man 2/3
  • Thor: The Dark World
  • Ant-Man/Ant-Man & The Wasp
  • Dr Strange
  • Black Panther
  • Captain Marvel
  • Avengers: Endgame

So I already have a good idea in mind of what most of these films are like. The common wisdom seems to be that The Incredible Hulk, Thor: The Dark World, and Iron Man 2 are the “bad” films in the series, and I’m not sure I disagree, but I also feel like we don’t give the films a lot of credit for the baseline of quality we get from Marvel: a bad Marvel movie isn’t as bad as a bad DC movie, for example. It’ll be interesting to see how I feel about the ones I haven’t seen in a long time.

On the flip side of this is the idea of the MCU as one big interconnected decade-long saga, what is now being referred to as “The Infinity Saga”. There may be a lot of planning going into the big crossovers now, but that wasn’t always the case. A lot of the success of the early Marvel movies seems to have been a happy accident, and one of the things I’m looking forward to as I go through it is seeing how all these little decisions by individual creators have added up to the big mess of continuity we have now.

I am, of course, a big fan of this series of films. I wouldn’t consider doing something like this if I wasn’t. If I have any goal with this project it’s to enjoy myself and indulge my inner fanboy, but hopefully I can offer an interesting perspective as well*.

The first post should be up in the next day or two, then I hope to have a new one every few days until I’m done. This will take a while.

(*Let’s be real, it’s mostly the self-indulgence thing. Nobody reads this blog anyway.)

Read in 2018

I didn’t read a lot of novels this year – in fact I kind of stopped reading entirely for a few months. Here’s what I did get through.

Prose

It’s been so long since I read most of these that I look at this list and think “Wait, that was this year?”

Winterglass – Benjanun Sriduangkaew
Tales from Earthsea – Ursula K. Le Guin
The Other Wind – Ursula K. Le Guin
The Refrigerator Monologues – Catherynne M. Valente
Provenance – Ann Leckie
Binti: The Night Masquerade – Nnedi Okorafor
The Stone in the Skull – Elizabeth Bear
The Only Harmless Great Thing – Brooke Bolander
Strange the Dreamer – Laini Taylor

Audiobook

I’m no longer walking to work every morning so my regular audibook listening has come to an end for now.

Fool’s Assassin – Robin Hobb
Fool’s Quest – Robin Hobb
Assassin’s Fate – Robin Hobb
Tigana – Guy Gavriel Kay
Goldenhand – Garth Nix
House of Shattered Wings – Aliette de Bodard
House of Binding Thorns – Aliette de Bodard
How To Survive the End of the World – Aaron Gillies
The Calculating Stars – Mary Robinette Kowal
The Long Way To A Small, Angry Planet – Becky Chambers
The Fated Sky – Mary Robinette Kowal
Children of Time – Adrian Tchaikovsky

Comics

I have fallen behind a little on comics this year.
Once again I will apologise for not crediting everyone below – some of these collected volumes have 20+ people contributing and there just isn’t the space or energy for that.

The Wicked + The Divine vol 6-7 – Kieron Gillen, Jamie McKelvie, Matthew Wilson, & Clayton Cowles

The Wild Storm vol 1-2 – Warren Ellis, Jon Davis-Hunt, Steve Buccellato, Ivan Plascencia, John Kalisz, Simon Bowland

Giant Days vol 6-7 – John Allison, Max Sarin, Liz Fleming, Whitney Cogar, & Jim Campbell

Batwoman: Rebirth vol 1 – Marguerite Bennett, James Tynion IV, Steve Epting, Stephanie Hans, Renato Arlem, Jeromy Cox, Adriano Lucas, & Deron Bennett

Injection vol 3 – Warren Ellis, Declan Shalvey, Jordie Belaire

Rocket Girl vol 2 – Brendan Montclare & Amy Reeder

Black Bolt vol 1-2 – Saladin Ahmed, Christian Ward, Clayton Cowles

Planetary Omnibus – Warren Ellis, John Cassaday, & many more

Saga vol 8 – Brian K. Vaughan & Fiona Staples

Bitch Planet: Triple Feature vol 1 – Various (sorry I am lazy)

Lady Killer 2 – Joelle Jones & Michelle Madsen

Ms. Marvel vol 8 – G. Willow Wilson, Marco Failla, Diego Olortegui, Ian Herring, Joe Caramagna & Travis Lanham

Porcelain: Ivory Tower – Benjamin Read & Chris Wildgoose

She-Hulk vol 2 – Mariko Tamaki, Julian Lopez, Sebastian Carrillo, Georges Duarte, & Pierfrancesco Gaston

Kill or Be Killed vol 3 – Ed Brubaker, Shaun Philips & Elizabeth Breitweiser

The Mighty Thor vol 4-5 – Jason Aaron, Russel Dauterman, Matthew Wilson, Valerio Schiti, Joe Sabino, and many more

Bingo Love – Tee Franklin, Jenn St-Onge, & Joy San

Shade, The Changing Girl vol 2 – Cecil Castelucci, Marley Zarcone, Ande Parks, Marguerite Sauvage, Kelly Fitzpatrick, & Saida Temofonte

Crosswind vol 1 – Gail Simone, Cat Staggs, & Simon Bowland

X-Men: Grand Design 1 – Ed Piskor

Wormwood, Gentleman Corpse: Mr Wormwood Goes to Washington – Ben Templesmith

Head Lopper vol 2 – Andrew MacLean & Jordie Belaire

Paper Girls vol 4 – Brian K. Vaughan, Cliff Chiang, Matthew Wilson, Jared K. Fletcher

Lazarus X+66 – Greg Rucka, Eric Trautman, & many more

Motor Crush vol 2 – Babs Tarr, Brenden Feltcher, Cameron Stewart, & Aditya Bidikar

Strong Female Protagonist book 2 – Brennan Lee Mulligan & Molly Ostertag

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl vol 7 – Ryan North, Erica Henderson, Rico Renzi, & Travis Lanham

Giant Days: Extra Credit vol 1 – John Allison, Lissa Treiman, Caanan Grall, Jenn St-Onge, Sarah Stern, Jeremy Lawson, & Jim Campbell

Tehanu by Ursula Le Guin

I originally wrote this post in 2013, and then shelved it after some feedback led me to conclude it was fundamentally flawed. Its presence in my drafts folder has been nagging me for years. Following the recent death of Ms. Le Guin, I decided to finally revisit and complete it. It’s not exactly what I would have written today, but it completes the thoughts I wanted to share five years ago.

Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea Quartet, as it was known at the time, was one of the first fantasy series I read, after things like the Chronicles of Narnia (which always feels to me like something everyone must have read as a child, though I know that’s not true). I must have been only about 10 years old the first time. I read the four novels several times, and The Tombs of Atuan, for some reason, was always my favourite. I never quite got into Tehanu to the same extent; I think it bored me, in fact.

It was with those childhood impressions in mind that I decided to revisit the series for the first time in at least a decade. And I was a little surprised. You see, Le Guin stands as almost a mythic figure herself – one of the greats of science fiction and fantasy literature, known for works like The Left Hand of Darkness, which explores the idea of gender through a world where the binary does not exist. In that context, then, A Wizard of Earthsea struck me for one big reason: Where were the women?

That first Earthsea novel was surprisingly conventional, at least from the perspective of an adult reader in 2013. It deals with some interesting themes, particularly that of facing the darkness that exists within one’s own self, but these days the story of a young man learning to become a wizard is nothing exceptional. And the story is all about men. Ged, the apprentice wizard; Ogion, his first master; the Masters and Archmage of Roke; Ged’s rival, Jasper, and his friend, Vetch. There are, as far as I recall, five female characters in A Wizard of Earthsea. All are small parts, there for a chapter or so – some not even that – and then gone.

The second book, The Tombs of Atuan, goes some way to redress the imbalance. The main character is Tenar, known as Arha, Priestess of the Nameless Ones. She lives in an enclave of priestesses and eunuchs, where men are not allowed. Tenar is, technically, one of the highest authorities in Kargad, but she comes to realise she has no actual power, and the other two high priestesses only have power so long as the God-King chooses to keep to the old traditions. It is only when a man, Ged, arrives that Tenar is able to break out of the restrictions placed upon her. When Tenar, through Ged’s aid, ultimately departs from the Tombs, they are destroyed – along with what are seemingly the only positions of authority, however limited, for women in all of Earthsea.

The Farthest Shore once again gives Ged’s story, this time as an old man, as Archmage, as he sets out with the young nobleman Arren. They journey to investigate a dark power that is causing Mages to forget their True Speech, and to place a king on Earthsea’s vacant throne. The Farthest Shore is a story about confronting and accepting death, and it, too, is a story about men.

In those three books, what Le Guin created was a world in which men held all of the power; in which women could have some magic ability, but only as witches who were shunned, or sorceresses in service to dark powers. “Weak as women’s magic; wicked as women’s magic” is the saying on Gont. And she created a world where these things were seemingly unquestioned.

How did someone who is known as a feminist writer end up creating such a sexist world? As it turns out, this is something Le Guin herself was very aware of. This was a male dominated genre, one in which it was often felt that writers must centre male characters in order to sell books. She spoke a number of times in interviews about the slow process of learning how to shed this preconception, such as in this interview from 1994:

All my early fiction tends to be rather male-centred. A couple of the Earthsea books have no women in them at all or only marginal women figures. That’s how hero stories worked; they were about men. With the exception of just a few feminists like Joanna Russ, science fiction was pretty much male-dominated up to the 1960s. Women who wrote in that field often used pen names.
None of this bothered me. It was my tradition, and I worked in it happily. But I began coming up against certain discomforts. […]
I gradually realised that my own fiction was telling me that I could no longer ignore the feminine. While I was writing The Eye of the Heron in 1977, the hero insisted on destroying himself before the middle of the book. “Hey,” I said, “you can’t do that, you’re the hero. Where’s my book?” I stopped writing. The book had a woman in it, but I didn’t know how to write about women. I blundered around awhile and then found some guidance in feminist theory. […] It taught me that I didn’t have to write like an honorary man anymore, that I could write like a woman and feel liberated in doing so.

That’s the problem when you come upon the work of an established author long after they began their career – it’s easy to forget that decades of work was involved, and that their own understanding of their work may have changed in the process.

For the Earthsea saga, that’s where Tehanu comes in. Published eighteen years after The Farthest Shore, this is a very different book, and in many ways serves as a feminist response to the world that Le Guin had created.

In this slower, darker, and more domestic novel, we once again have the point of view of Tenar – older, and living on the island of Gont; a mother whose children have left, and a wife whose husband has died. Since she was last seen in The Tombs of Atuan, she’s lived an entire life.

At the opening of the book, a young girl is found beaten and burned, and is nursed back to health by Tenar and the witch Ivy. Tenar takes the child in as her own, and gives her the name Therru. Tehanu takes place at the time The Farthest Shore ended: In that book, we were told of how Earthsea still did not have peace because there was no king on the throne; now, a king has been found, but his influence is yet to be felt. Gont is no longer safe for travellers, as vagrants and thieves are on the roads. It was vagrants such as these – the girl’s own parents and one other man – who had beaten Therru and left her for dead.

Part of what makes this one book remarkable out of the four is Tenar’s position in the story: as a woman and mother with no special power of her own, threatened by men who wish harm on her and her child. When she travels, she is wary of every person she passes on the road. Her fears are not fantastic in nature – they are those of an ordinary woman faced with the abuses of evil men. The dangers she faces are mundane, and very real.

Much the same is true for Ged, when he returns to Gont. Having lost all of his magic at the end of The Farthest Shore, he is no longer a mage, but an ordinary old man, one who has never lived as an ordinary man before in his entire life. Accustomed to facing down dragons, now he is as helpless as Tenar. His loss of purpose serves another theme of the novel – that of what people do when what they believed was their role in life has ended. Tenar has been a priestess, a celebrated hero, a mage’s apprentice, a wife, and a mother; Ged has spent his entire life a mage. For both, these roles are behind them at the novel’s opening, and they must try to make a new life for themselves.

Most of all, though, the book talks about power. The men in this story almost universally hold power over Tenar and Therru. Some are friendly – the sorcerer of Valmouth is helpful; the King and Master Windkey from Roke offer her every courtesy thanks to her fame and her friendship with Ged. Ogion the Silent, mage of Re Albi, sees her like a daughter. The wizards who visit Re Albi at Ogion’s death, however, do not trust Tenar’s account of his last words; the Lord of Re Albi’s sorcerer, Aspen, in particular proves to be an evil and hateful man. The man who injured Therru may only be a vagabond, but he nevertheless holds power over them, through memory of the pain he caused, and the threat he poses later, when he gathers friends to attack Tenar at her home.

Along with sharing a position of power over Tenar, most are in some way dismissive of her, simply because of her womanhood. The Master Windkey is searching for clues as to who will be the next Archmage, following a prophecy that said only “A woman on Gont”. But neither he, nor any other Master of Roke, has considered that the woman in question might in fact be the Archmage. They believe the woman will guide them to the man they seek. While she talks with him, Tenar realises that the Master Windkey will never grasp what she tries to say. “How could he, who had never listened to a woman since his mother sang him his last cradle song, hear her?”

Ogion had told Tenar to teach Therru magic: “Teach her all. Not Roke.” Beech, the wizard of Valmouth hears this, and decides immediately what was meant. “‘He meant that the learning of Roke – the High Arts – wouldn’t be suitable for a girl,’ he explained. ‘Let alone one so handicapped.'” What Ogion must have meant, he says, was the same thing he had suggested: that Therru become a witch. “He pondered again, having got the weight of Ogion’s opinion on his side.”

It’s one of the book’s many examples of men mindlessly following what they know to be the way of things. “His kindness was, Tenar thought, innocent.” Even Tenar’s own son, Spark, when he returns from years at sea, immediately expects his mother to wait on him and defer to him as head of the household. “His father had always been waited on by his mother, wife, daughter. Was he less a man than his father? Was she to prove it to him?”

But women, too, have power. A story early in the book tells of Ogion’s meeting with an old woman who he first mistook for a dragon. This woman told him a story of a time in Earthsea’s beginning when humans and dragons were one and the same, and how they came to choose different paths and become separate beings. In this, and in the culmination of Therru’s story, it is women who hold a deeper understanding of the mysteries of the world. So too with the subtle implication that it may be Therru who is destined to be Archmage, the one who leads the wizards, the Masters of Roke – and her accession would be sign of a fundamental change in Earthsea.

There is a hint of gender essentialism regarding magic in the novel – particularly in a conversation between Tenar and the witch Moss, about the difference between men’s and women’s power.

‘Ours is only a little power, seems like, next to theirs,’ Moss said. ‘But it goes down deep. It’s all roots. It’s like an old blackberry thicket. And a wizard’s power is like a fir tree, maybe, great and tall and grand, but it’ll blow right down in a storm.’

On a certain level, such discussions of the difference in power seems to lend legitimacy to the model that has put wizards alone into the School on Roke, and confined women with power to petty witchcraft. But beside the rest of the novel, and coming from a character that has had to live within that structure as a witch herself, it’s easy to forgive.

Ultimately, Tehanu calls into question all of the patriarchal structures of Earthsea’s culture as established in the original trilogy, simply through its use of the perspective of an ordinary woman attempting to live an ordinary life. Tenar sees through the obstinacy and foolishness of the men around her, but it is only Ged, who has lost his former self and has to learn from nothing how to be a man, who is able to hear her.

In 2018, I finally completed the Earthsea saga by reading Tales of Earthsea and The Other Wind. With the short stories in particular, Le Guin expanded on these discussions of men and women’s power, of the exclusion of women from magic in Roke, and how the segregation of men and women in magic came about. The series concludes with events that turn the entire system of magic in Earthsea on its head, leaving the future unknown and open to all kinds of change. And it is women, and the men who are willing to listen to them, who are instrumental in bringing this about.

Tehanu no longer bores me. It is powerful, moving book, and my favourite of the entire Earthsea series. I’ll end this with a passage from late in the novel, a conversation between Ged and Tenar which I think exemplifies well what Tehanu has to say about men and women. I almost wish I could quote the whole few pages.

‘Haven’t there been queens? Weren’t they women of power?’
‘A queen’s only a she-king,’ said Ged.
She snorted.
‘I mean, men give her power. They let her use their power. But it isn’t hers, is it? It isn’t because she’s a woman that she’s powerful, but despite it.’
She nodded. She stretched, sitting back from the spinning wheel. ‘What is a woman’s power, then?’
‘I don’t think we know.’
‘When has a woman power because she’s a woman? With her children, I suppose. For a while…’
‘In her house, maybe.’
She looked around the kitchen. ‘But the doors are shut,’ she said, ‘The doors are locked.’
‘Because you’re valuable.’
‘Oh, yes. We’re precious. So long as we’re powerless… I remember when I first learned that! Kossil threatened me – me, the One Priestess of the Tombs. And I realised that I was helpless. I had the honour; but she had the power, from the God-King, the man. Oh, it made me angry! And frightened me… Lark and I talked about this once. She said, “Why are men afraid of women?”‘
‘If your strength is only the other’s weakness, you live in fear,’ Ged said.
‘Yes; but women seem to fear their own strength, to be afraid of themselves.’
‘Are they ever taught to trust themselves?’ Ged asked, and as he spoke Therru came in on her work again. His eyes and Tenar’s met.
‘No,’ she said. ‘Trust is not what we’re taught.’


With thanks to ussussimiel and LuciMay for their input; it took me 5 years to act on it, but I did listen.

Read in 2017 – Comics

My comics reading kind of ground to a halt toward the end of the year, and I now have a sizeable pile of books that are waiting to be read. I’ve been thinking about cutting back, to be honest; I’ve already mostly stopped buying DC, and I’m figuring out which Marvel titles I want to keep up with. While I do enjoy these comics, I sometimes feel like I’m reading them simply out of continued habit.

    Ms Marvel vols 6 & 7 – G Willow Wilson, Adrian Alphona, Takeshi Miyazawa, Mirka Andolfo, Francesco Gaston, Ian Herring & Joe Caramagna

    Clean Room vols 2 & 3 – Gail Simone, Jon Davis-Hunt, Walter Geovani, Sanya Anwar, Quinton Winter & Todd Klein

    Patsy Walker, a.k.a. Hellcat! vols 2 & 3 – Kate Leth, Brittney L. Williams, Megan Wilson, Rachelle Rosenberg, & Clayton Cowles

    Moon Girl & Devil Dinosaur vols 2 & 3 – Amy Reeder, Brandon Montclare, Natacha Bustos, Marco Failla, Tamra Bonvillain, & Travis Lanham

    Secret Six vol 2 – Gail Simone, Dale Eaglesham, Tom Derenick, Jason Wright, Rex Lokus, & Travis Lanham

    Paper Girls vols 2 & 3 – Brian K. Vaughan, Cliff Chiang, Matt Wilson, & Jared K. Fletcher

    Vision vol 2 – Tom King, Michael Walsh, Gabriel Hernandez Walta, Jordie Bellaire, & Clayton Cowles

    The Mighty Thor vols 1-3 – Jason Aaron, Russel Dauterman, Steve Epting, Valerio Schiti, Matthew Wilson, Mat Lopes, Rafa Garres, Fraser Irving, & Joe Sabino

    The Unworthy Thor – Jason Aaron, Olivier Coipel, Kim Jacinto, Russel Dauterman, Esad Ribic, Frazer Irving, Matt Wilson, & Joe Sabino

    Batgirl Rebirth vol 1 – Hope Larson, Rafael Albuquerque, Dave McCaig, & Deron Bennett

    Black Panther vol 3 – Ta-Nehisi Coates, Brian Stelfreeze, Laura Martin, Chris Sprouse, Karl Story, Goran Sudzuka, Walden Wong, Roberto Poggi, Scott Hanna, Matt Milla, Larry Molinar, Rachelle Rosenberg, Paul Mounts, & Joe Sabino

    Welcome Back vol 2 – Christopher Sebela, Claire Roe, Jeremy Lawson, & Jim Campbell

    Jessica Jones vol 1 – Brian Michael Bendis, Michael Gaydos, Matt Hollingsworth, & Cory Petit

    Unbeatable Squirrel Girl vols 5 & 6 – Ryan North, Erika Henderson, Will Murray, Rico Renzi, Zac Gorman, Clayton Cowles, & Travis Lanham

    Mockingbird vol 2 – Chelsea Cain, Kate Niemczyk, Sean Parsons, Rachelle Rosenberg, & Joe Caramagna

    Kim & Kim: This Glamorous, High-Flying Rock Star Life – Magdalene Visaggio, Eva Cabrera, Claudia Aguirre, & Zakk Saam

    Lazarus vol 5 – Greg Rucka, Michael Lark, Tyler Boss, Santi Arcas, & Jodi Wynne

    Bitch Planet vol 2 – Kelly Sue DeConnick, Valentine de Landro, Taki Soma, Kelly Fitzpatrick, Clayton Cowles, & Rian Hughes

    The Wicked + The Divine vol 5 – Kieron Gillen, Jamie McKelvie, Matt Wilson, Clayton Cowles, & Kevin Wada

    Skim – Mariko Tamaki

    My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness – Nagata Kobi

    Delilah Dirk & The Turkish Lieutenant – Tony Cliff

    Delilah Dirk & The King’s Shilling – Tony Cliff

    Motor Crush vol 1 – Brendan Fletcher, Cameron Stewart, Babs Tarr, Heather Danforth, Aditya Bidikar

    Giant Days vol 5 – John Allison, Max Sarin, Liz Fleming, Whitney Cogar, & Jim Campbell

    Monstress vol 2 – Marjorie Liu, Sana Takeda, & Rus Wooton

    Shade the Changing Girl vol 1 – Cecil Castelucci, Marley Zarcone, Ande Parks, Ryan Kelly, Kelly Fitzpatrick, & Saida Temofonte

    She-Hulk vol 1 – Mariko Tamaki, Nico Leon, Dalibor Talajic, Matt Milla, Andrew Crossley, & Cory Petit

    Kill or Be Killed vol 2 – Ed Brubaker, Sean Phillips, & Elizabeth Breitweiser

    The Multiversity – Grant Morrison & so many more people than I could list here

    Sex Criminals vol 4 – Matt Fraction, Chip Zdarsky, & Elizabeth Breitweiser