Assembled Again, With Extra Parts

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On Avengers: Age of Ultron and the state of the Marvel Cinematic Universe

In the three years since its release, it has become increasingly clear that The Avengers is one of the most significant movies ever released. Its impact on the modern film landscape has been massive, and what began as a nifty experiment by Marvel Studios eventually became a behemoth that caused every other studio in town to come up with their own “shared universe” properties. The most direct competition will come from DC Comics and Warner Bros., who jump headfirst into the game next year with Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad. There have also been attempts from Sony and 20th Century Fox, and there’s even been talk of a new Universal Monsters franchise. But try as they might, thus far, no one has come close to matching Marvel’s dominance.

This dominance has also had a considerable effect on how Marvel goes about its business. In 2012, the whole idea of their cinematic universe still seemed novel, and Joss Whedon’s authorial guidance gave The Avengers a feeling of spontaneity, and the studio’s larger vision never seemed to get in the way of the movie he sought to make. In the years since, however, Marvel increasingly seems to be about nothing but their own big picture. At one point, it might have been able to describe itself as the little guy. Now it is a behemoth with both film and television properties and a detailed cinematic schedule that reaches all the way to July 2019. It’s a bit difficult to fully invest in the present when Marvel is expending so much energy getting you to care about the future.

This also doesn’t particularly mesh with the way Joss Whedon operates, and you can feel this tension throughout his sequel Avengers: Age of Ultron. Where the first film felt like an effortless victory lap, experiencing Ultron is like watching Whedon juggle 18 balls at once while running at top speed on a treadmill. That it works at all is a considerable achievement—and it does—but this is a film that has a metric ton of plot to get through in not that much time. This is the rare 150-minute blockbuster that might have been better off being twice as long, but even amidst the overcrowded chaos, it’s still a blast more often than not.

The primary conflict concerns an idea that seems to be finding its way to theaters every other week these days: artificial intelligence. In this case, it is Ultron (voiced by James Spader), initially designed by Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) to be a sentient, all-powerful protector of Earth. Since this is an action movie, Ultron’s big idea for saving Earth is the elimination of the human race. (Funny how that works.) So, it is now up to our favorite Avengers to try and stop him, all while quipping their way through a series of protracted action scenes.

As always with Whedon, it’s abundantly clear that he’s less interested in the action than he is in who these heroes are as people, which makes him unique among today’s cinematic superhero filmmakers. Even more impressive is how thoroughly he seems to understand them, and he goes out of his way to give them each substantial, character-building moments. The most obvious of these is an extended stop at a farmhouse in act two, where the audience learns much more about supporting players such as Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson). Sequences like these are when Whedon is most comfortable, and the way he is able to play all these characters off each other in ways both amusing and poignant is one of his greatest assets.

Of course, leave it to the long arm of the Marvel law to get in the way. In one of the film’s most frustrating sequences, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) meets up with his old friend Dr. Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård) to go visit some cave so he can hop in a pool and hallucinate some nonsense about the infinity stones and what they might do if they fall into the wrong hands. Unsurprisingly, it’s been revealed that this is Whedon’s least favorite part of the film as well, but it was kept in because Marvel wanted it in. It is one of a handful of sequences that adds nothing to the business at hand, but it’s only there because Marvel’s obsession with its own mythology dictates that it be there. We are seeing this more and more with Marvel these days, with the most notable instance being the departure of Edgar Wright from the long-gestating Ant-Man. As long as Marvel is hell-bent and putting its master plan above all else, the quality of the individual products is going to suffer. Screw your “vision,” we have an infinity war to tease.

For that reason, I spent much of Age of Ultron thoroughly enjoying myself, but also fearing for the future of these films. This is a universe on its way to becoming too crowded, too busy, and is already too devoted to its own serialization. Even in a fun movie like Ultron, not that much ultimately changes between the beginning and the end. Where we leave the characters when the credits roll isn’t terribly different from where the were at the start. And, of course, one of the final exchanges is about all the crazy stuff that is still to come down the road. When Marvel gets its way, more time is spent teasing than telling compelling stories, and that comes at the expense of the here and now. Sure, S.H.I.E.L.D. may have collapsed in last year’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier, but nothing about the environment seems to have been altered in any significant way. It’s hard to buy into promises of future excitement when the films have yet to alter the status quo in any significant way. But no, next time they mean it.

Nevertheless, it’s a formula that has yet to let Marvel down thus far, and audiences are consistently buying what it is selling. However, if you were to put a gun to the head of creators like Joss Whedon, I’m sure he’d tell you he’d much rather tell his story than have to do that and wrangle all the other nonsense that his studio throws at him. He handles it admirably in Age of Ultron, but by the end, it becomes clear that he was dangerously close to being swallowed alive by the very monster he helped create. He lived to fight another day, and this behemoth is now somebody else’s problem. It may well continue to thrive without him, but for the first time, there are visible cracks in the foundation.

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