Friday, May 08, 2015

Review: The Avengers: Age of Ultron

[Spoiler alert! If you haven't watched The Avengers: Age of Ultron, I cannot guarantee that spoilers will not follow. Proceed at your own risk.]

As I came out of The Avengers: Age of Ultron, my initial reaction was that I was both overstimulated and underwhelmed. I enjoyed the movie, and I will definitely see it again, and I definitely appreciate what Whedon was trying to do and what he ultimately accomplished, but I also agree with the general feeling among critics and moviegoers that something was slightly amiss. It seems that even Whedon himself might be slightly disappointed with the film, as his original cut was significantly longer and he has indicated in interviews that making this movie drained him, leading him to bow out of directing the next Avengers movies.

As I have considered what I watched and read the general critical analysis of the film, one fact has stood out: it's not so much about the movie itself, but it's about the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Much of the analysis has included or even revolved around this fact, and I have realized that many of my issues with the movie were not with Whedon's vision for the film but in the overarching narrative that is being attempted with the MCU. But in order to really understand this point, we need to return to what things were like Before Joss.

The world before The Avengers

It's a slam dunk now to make all of these movies, but let's be honest: superhero movies were not always the immensely successful enterprise they are today, and the formative years were bipolar at best. X-Men and Spider-Man and their immediate sequels were huge successes, but those early years (2000-2005) also featured Ang Lee's Hulk, Daredevil, Elektra, and Catwoman. The next few years (2005-2008) featured more experiments, some of which were successful: Hellboy and Batman Begins chief among them. Of course, for every success, there was a Ghost Rider or Fantastic Four (or 2) or X-Men: The Last Stand or Spid-Emo (AKA Spider-Man 3). In short, nothing about superhero movies - even their possible profitability - was entirely assured when Marvel started its Phase 1 in 2008.

That brings us to 2008, the year that superhero movies changed. Iron Man established Marvel itself (not the Sony or Fox versions) as a power player, and The Dark Knight established the new ceiling for superhero movies (a ceiling that has yet to be exceeded critically and commercially other than by The Avengers' domestic gross). There's a lot of talk now about "Phase 1", but without Robert Downey Jr. and Iron Man hitting big, the MCU as we know it doesn't work. And here's what's really interesting: Marvel's Phase 1 was actually not that great. The Incredible Hulk was middling, Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger had some serious drags and lags, and Iron Man 2 was mostly a mess. Despite the relative commercial success of the films, there was reason to have some significant doubts about The Avengers, save for one important factor: Joss Whedon.

The Avengers was far from a sure thing when it was being hyped in the lead up to its release in 2012, and it was really questionable whether it would work to put all of these characters together. But Joss made it work, and although fans of Buffy, Firefly, or even Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog believed he could do it, everyone still had some doubts that it just might not work. So when The Avengers worked fantastically, between Loki's antics, a Hulk that erased all memories of previous attempts, Joss' pinpoint-sharp dialogue, and a rollicking good time, it erased all memories of any misgivings that had come in the five years leading up to it and expanded the Marvel (and superhero) movie universe to the sprawling behemoth we know now.

Phase Two

Since then, we have been treated to an increasingly labyrinthine series of sequels that have continued to build the world with the inexorable pull toward The Avengers: Age of UltronIron Man 3, Thor: The Dark World, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier mostly served as lead ups to this summer's showdown, and my viewing of those three films was driven at least in part by a sense of inevitability rather than intrinsic desire to see them, though Iron Man 3 and Winter Soldier were at least entertaining on their own. Thor: The Dark World, on the other hand...

The only notable exception: Guardians of the Galaxy, which had the privilege to do what it wanted in the way it wanted with having to worry only minimally about being part of the MCU, its main nod to the primary storyline a somewhat abstract line about infinity stones that works on its own in the movie's cosmic context. The appeal of Guardians was what had been appealing initially about The Avengers; it gave us a chance to experience something that felt new and fresh, and we didn't know how it was going to work out. This brings us to Age of Ultron and its seemingly (and ultimately) impossible task: to take something that has started to feel tired and bloated and to make it feel fresh again. Spoiler alert - it didn't exactly work.

Reviewing Age of Ultron

Unfortunately, Ultron succumbed to the temptations of the MCU, which is what I imagine had Whedon feel burnt out and leaving its confines after this movie's completion. As I mentioned earlier, the problems were not with the story itself, nor were they with the villain Ultron, as some critics have asserted. The problem was with this insatiable need to make the whole thing fit together like some sort of inscrutable jigsaw puzzle that will not be fully visualized for another five years. I suppose it is possible that we could look back on Ultron after Civil War and Infinity War and see how the whole thing was meant to work, but it's just as likely that the general current malaise about the film will continue to pervade and perhaps even influence the way in which the future entries are received.

The bottom line is that Ultron is a bit of a mess. It has half a dozen scenes that don't seem to fit in the context of the rest of the movie, it has plot lines that seem to go nowhere, and it raises more questions than it gives answers - and not in an entirely satisfactory way. I counted two dozen different characters to track in this movie, and some of those were references to movies that will not be released for three years. That's a long time to wait for what will ultimately amount to more than glorified easter eggs for many of these one-off scenes. It seemed that there was almost as much time and attention devoted to things outside of the movie as there was to those in the movie. With that said, I think that the future will be kinder to this episode, especially once the extended cut that Whedon had originally intended is released on the home video release. There are a lot of great moments visually, narratively, comedically, and in regard to character, and many moments worked well despite being hamstrung by the needs of the MCU.

The future of the MCU

"There are two ways Marvel can go from here. As the MCU sprawls out, it could become a gangly mess of plots, characters, and themes that intersect only when it's convenient for Marvel and its creatives - you could consider this the comic-book approach, in which there's a huge amount of room to fill. Or Marvel could make a heroic effort to keep it tight, requiring tremendous amounts of coordination and overlap that could constrain the movies to a degree that eventually suffocates the life out of them; this appears to be more or less the reason why Edgar Wright left Ant-Man. That's the point at which these films would really start to feel like products instead of porous, shapeshifting things; it's a line they've been walking from day one."
- Kevin Lincoln ("Masters of the Universe: Marvel's Unprecedented Storytelling Gamble"), Grantland, May 6, 2012)

When The Avengers was released in 2012, there were no specific plans for the future. It was known that there would be another Avengers movie and that Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor had sequels coming up, and there was rampant speculation about the Winter Soldier and Civil War and the Infinity Gauntlet, but none of that was finalized before The Avengers. This time around, Marvel has their schedule set for the next five years: Ant-Man (July 2015); Captain America: Civil War (2016); Doctor Strange (2016); Guardians of the Galaxy 2 (2017); Thor: Ragnarok (2017); Spider-Man (2017); Avengers: Infinity War Part 1 (2018); Black Panther (2018); Captain Marvel (2018); Avengers: Infinity War Part 2 (2019); and Inhumans (2019).

Civil War in and of itself seems like it will be as significant - if not more so - than The Avengers movies have been, with well over a dozen characters making an appearance and the movie itself feeling like an Avengers movie. Between the integration of the movies and television, the MCU is only becoming increasingly (and arguably unnecessarily) complicated, and it's too much of a cash cow to shelve any of the heroes for any amount of time. If Ultron is proof of what's to come - and there is little reason to believe that it isn't - the next several years will feature even more intricate efforts to integrate all of these stories, and those efforts will succeed with varying levels of success.

A personal perspective

As for me, it seems most likely that I will continue to alternate between being perplexed and enraptured by what the MCU is trying to do, much as I was by moments of Age of Ultron. What remains, however, is that I am not really frustrated as I might have expected to be at one point; I'm actually rather indifferent to the whole enterprise (though the number of words I have used in this explanation may otherwise belie that fact). I think that the years of inundation with superhero movies have numbed me beyond the point of being outraged, as I was at one point by Spider-Man 3. I think that Ultron is an example of what the future holds. Despite my misgivings about where the MCU may go, I'm still in for the ride. I'll probably increase my distance from its confines, continuing to eschew it on the small screen, but I'm still interested to see where it goes. I'll probably watch Age of Ultron again, maybe even in theatres; heck, I'm even tempted to give Ant-Man a chance.

After all, the seeds of my interest in the MCU goes back to when I was eight years old and my collection of Marvel cards started to shape my interest in the whole Marvel universe. I suppose that childish fanboy tendency will never truly fade away, and that, as indifferent as I might be (or try to convince myself I am), that there is a part of me that wants this whole thing to work, and that, like Whedon, there is probably a part of me that is disappointed or even heart-broken when it doesn't - the eight-year-old part of me, perhaps. Age of Ultron was good, but it could have been great, and my hope is that the kids who grow up watching these movies know there could be even more possible.

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