What I set out to write as a straightforward review quickly metamorphosed into something else. The result is mostly a reaction to the other reviews I’ve been hearing and reading and an exploration of the shift in storytelling style that Marvel’s cinematic universe (MCU) is undergoing as it moves more fully into a long-view, semi-serialized format. Consequently, this post doesn’t have all that much to say about my personal likes and dislikes. I may return to those in the future, but feel free to ask about particulars using the comment box below if you get curious in the meantime.
More than any of Marvel Studios’ other films to date, Avengers: Age of Ultron (AoU) unapologetically embraces its superhero comic roots and both triumphs and falters because of it. With serial-style storytelling, soap opera, and weird science aplenty, it is the four-color, paneled page writ large more faithfully than I ever imagined a mass market audience would find appealing. That might begin to explain, then, why early reviews of this installment offer so many mixed reactions and qualifications. To be fair, the theatrical release as it stands is densely compressed—the film needs more room to breathe and center its seemingly scattered narrative focus—but it’s difficult to condemn it outright on any other grounds. Most of the criticisms I’ve heard are in fact tentative and nit-picky, fumbling attempts to articulate a general dissatisfaction born of superhero movie fatigue and the MCU’s necessary shift from the typical but brightly-colored, one-and-done, Hollywood action/adventure formula toward the serialized, operatic melodrama that has always characterized the source material. In other words, the comic-bookish…ness…ism…ty of AoU is at once my favorite thing about the film and the root of most of the criticism it receives. As far as I can tell, opinions tend to boil down to expectation. For instance, the central Ultron plot occasionally receding in prominence is not necessarily a lack of direction on the part of Joss Whedon so much as a result of the fact that the movie is not about the villain himself. Sure, he gets a mention in the sub-title because we need convenient nomenclature to distinguish one film from the other, but the big letters at the top of the banner still read Avengers. If one goes in expecting a movie about Ultron, one will be disappointed; Marvel’s films, as the comic series they replicate more and more closely, are ultimately about their heroes. The personal journeys of Cap and crew and the relationships between them are what define the team. And those journeys are not bounded within this single story. The studio has kicked its serial (read: comic book) approach to storytelling into high gear, so don’t be terribly surprised to see character drama and world building trump individual plots now and again. Marvel is playing the long game, and it may take the critical public a little time to adjust to this new way of approaching stories on the big screen. Similarly, the multitude of minor story threads and sequel setups weaving their way through the narrative has been a stumbling block for some. I’ll be the first to admit the film’s theatrical cut leaves some of those pieces distractingly fragmented, Thor’s pursuit of the clues in his vision the most obvious example. (The additional forty minutes included on the Blu-Ray release hopefully will remedy some of these issues.) On the other hand, I’m not so sure the movie can be criticized too harshly for doing exactly what it sets out to do. AoU was never going to be simply Avengers 2. The first film in the franchise was a conclusion of sorts, a fulfillment of the stories told up to the that point within the MCU. While it offered a small tease of what was to come, that anticipation was secondary to the focused story of the team’s formation. In AoU, however, that buildup/payoff cycle is superseded by an ongoing comic-style nesting of subplots. Ask any reader of classic Claremont-era X-Men comics, and they’ll explain that a given issue of an engaging superhero comic series not only advances its primary story, but also sows the seeds of future stories that may not germinate for years. It appears to me that the creative leads behind the MCU are very intentionally mimicking that structure. An argument can certainly be had over whether a proper balance was struck between the A and B (or C, D, E, etc.) plots, but to censure the film outright for chasing subplots to the detriment of the core story is, it seems to me, to misconstrue the interconnected serialization that defines it in the first place. All that said, by far the most obvious evidence of a transition into comic book storytelling is the absolutely outlandish genre content. Think back with me to Marvel Studio’s first film, 2008’s Iron Man. High-tech battle armor and macguffiny arc reactors aside, the team behind that movie made every effort to keep it as grounded in the real world as possible. Since then, step by step, the studio’s projects have stretched the bounds of believability. An ultraterrestrial prince from a realm that shaped the myths of humanity. God-like artifacts with the power to destroy planets and reshape reality. A human intelligence housed on the tape whirring through a bunkerful of networked Cold War super computers. Walking trees and talking raccoons. Bows, arrows, and a giant frisbee capable of fending off an alien invasion. The MCU is now populated by all these things and more. But with AoU, the bottom has dropped out completely, and it seems that the sky is the limit. (How’s that for mixing metaphors?) The acme tech, weird science, miraculous powers, and pseudo-scientific hogwash of the comics are in full effect. Super speed and hex bolts. A central hub for the internet. Cities flying under the gravity-canceling magnetism of a fictional wonder metal. A vibranium-infused organic synthozoid directed by cosmically-empowered artificial intelligence and brought to life by the mysterious lightning of a Norse deity. Nothing is out of bounds. I used to wonder how the ritual sorcery and spiritual realms of Dr. Strange would fit into the established cosmology of the MCU, but now the point seems moot. How could they—or any other outrageous pulp or sci-fi trope—not? AoU could never recapture the magic inherent in the novelty of the first Avengers film. I don’t think it tries. Instead, it plays the role of one of Marvel Comics’ big event stories (like this summer’s “Secret War”): it embraces what has come before, presents a new challenge emerging from that past, evolves the status quo, and lays the groundwork for another year of divergent stories. Where the first Avengers movie was a climax, a straightforward culmination of the promise of the Phase One films, AoU is a stepping stone and foundation upon which to build. It may not be as complete a standalone cinematic experience as its predecessor, but it serves remarkably well as a chapter in the ongoing saga of the Avengers—a tale that honors the stories that came before it and points forward with excitement to the grander stories still to come.