Avengers: Age of Ultron and the Evolution of Superhero Movies
This would normally be a post where I write a review of Marvel's latest blockbuster, Avengers: Age of Ultron. While I'll get around to doing that here, this post will be about something that I find equally fascinating--namely, the critical and fandom responses to this new movie. Some have argued that between the new Avengers, the upcoming Ant-Man and Fantastic Four movies, and the pending releases of DC's Batman vs. Superman and Suicide Squad, we have reached (or are reaching) a point of superhero over-saturation at the box office. On the other hand, I think that what we're seeing is pop culture's confusion over what Marvel is trying to accomplish and whether the critics and fans appreciate how this can improve superhero films in the long run. Read on ...
Personally, I loved Avengers: Age of Ultron. It's everything that the first movie was, but more: more characters, more story arcs, and more ambitious action sequences. It's funny without being campy, charming without being cloying, and dark without being portentious. If anything, the new movie reminds us that almost each Avenger is broken in his and her own unique way; in contrast, there is also something delightfully absurd about knowing that the most normal and well-adjusted member of this superstar superhero team is a Norse thunder god. Yet what really impresses me the most about this film is that it could have collapsed into an incomprehensive mess under its own gargantuan weight but writer-director Joss Whedon keeps it all running smoothly, just as he did the first film. No matter how many super-human abilities are put on display in the Avengers movies, the real super power at work here is Whedon's knack for telling engrossing, complex stories with an ensemble cast of talented actors and a blockbuster budget.
In addition to watching the Avengers sequel, I've been monitoring the responses from both critics and fans. Even though the overall reception tilts towards the positive, details in the reactions are all over the place. Some think that Whedon's aim to produce a good sequel was quashed by too much CGI and Marvel's ambitions, while others believe that the movie relies too much on superhero cliches to be anything but just another superhero film. There's one critic who believes that Marvel's movie empire has somehow "outgrown" Whedon's talents by this point in time(!), while another felt that he had to see the film twice to "form an opinion" about it. (Yes, he watched the same film twice to just have an opinion about it--what does that say about movies he has only watched once?) One fan has even published a voluminous "hater's guide" within days after the film's premiere in the U.S. for viewers who didn't like the sequel.
This isn't the first time that so many people have had so many different opinions about the same film and it won't be the last. Although for a film that has been hyped so heavily for months and is fueled by so much fan anticipation, reading these reviews gave me the impression that both critics and fans are struggling to comprehend what the new Avengers movie is actually intended to do. To put it another way, Age of Ultron is a sequel but not a usual sequel like most sequels.
Most sequels are written off by critics and fans as opportunistic cash-ins on successful movies, and the overwhelming number of sequels that have been produced over the last few decades support that assumption. There are some sequels that do build upon their predecessor(s), but there is already such a bias against sequels that whether these narrative expansions will be recognized as such by the masses is not guaranteed. The default attitude towards sequels seems to be a sequel should be able to stand alone as its own movie, even if viewers won't be able to fully enjoy the movie without seeing the previous movie(s) in the series.
On the other hand, there's Age of Ultron. It isn't just a sequel to the first Avengers movie; it's also a sequel to three other movies (Iron Man 3, Thor: The Dark World and Captain America: The Winter Soldier), and it features plenty of connections to other Marvel properties (e.g., Agents of SHIELD, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Agent Carter). Movies don't normally do this; book series and their cinematic adaptations don't normally do this either. Fans of Marvel comic books might understand this, but I think that many movie critics and superhero movie fans don't.
The Avengers movies do for Marvel live-action titles what the published Avengers series does for Marvel comic books: They act as points of narrative overlap between other series that focus on individual characters. The goal here seems to be that Marvel isn't just bringing its characters to movies and TV--it's bringing the Marvel superhero narrative style away from the printed page and into live-action mediums. As such, the Marvel movie and TV properties will continue to develop in this way, with many stand-alone series overlapping in blockbuster movies. For fans who eagerly collect multiple Marvel comic book titles, this is an exciting experiment in entertainment; however, for movie critics and fans who don't care much for superheroes and have never collected comic books that tell stories that span across multiple series, this could be an extremely trying experience.
Question: How many comic book series and issues does it take to tell a superhero story?
Answer: As many as the publisher wants it to be.
Because Marvel's plan doesn't conform to the expectations that were applied to previous movie and TV franchises, I think that we're starting to see the frustrations with such expansive, tapestried storytelling in the collective response to Age of Ultron. How this will play out over time remains to be seen. I'm guessing that more critics and fans will be more open in the future about their dissatisfaction over Marvel's multi-platform storytelling approach; on the other hand, if Marvel can maintain a sizable fan base for its movies and TV shows, then these complaints probably won't matter.
On the other hand, my estimation does not take into account the significant differences between writing, drawing and publishing comic books and producing and distributing movies and TV shows. If Marvel stubs its figurative toe in any of its major movie releases, it remains to be seen if Marvel can recover its winning streak after such a setback.
This also raises some interesting questions about what DC plans to do with its superhero properties. So far, DC intends to keep its movies and TV shows separate, with the characters only interacting with other characters in the same medium (e.g., the characters in the Arrow and The Flash TV series can interact with each other, but none of them will be seen in any of the upcoming DC movies). This more modest approach may work better for DC, which hews closer to most critical and fan expectations for the movie and TV mediums and may help it recover faster from any major flops. However, a less ambitious plan could leave DC in Marvel's shadow for many years to come.
For an additional analysis of how Marvel's publishing philosophy impacts its approach to film production, check out "The Limits of Marvel's Comic-Book Storytelling" over at The Atlantic.