Warning: This article contains major Avengers 2: Age of Ultron spoilers.
Avengers 2 reviews can be summed up as, “Pretty good, but…” This “but” represents a larger problem within the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Comcastro presents several reasons why the Age of Ultron is the beginning of the end of the golden age of comic book movies.
1. Who’s the main character?
Protagonists are generally the most important person in stories. Through their eyes we see the fictional world unfold. Their struggles, insights, and successes create emotional bonds for the audience. This helps us to identify with the main character so that we care about the outcome of the story. Luke Skywalker, for instance, is a prototypical protagonist. The young, bored farm boy is whisked away on an amazing adventure and led through a series of escalating struggles by a wise old man until he’s forced to confront an incredible challenge all on his own. By the end of A New Hope, the audience identifies with Luke’s growth from rural boy to fledgling adventurer.
The Phantom Menace, in contrast, lacks virtually all of these qualities. Who is the protagonist of TPM? It’s not Qui Gon. It’s not really Obi Wan. It’s certainly not Anakin. Darth Maul wasn’t the main character. It’s just a mess. The movie’s a mess on several levels, but this is among the key problems with it. It fails to satisfy basic narrative necessities.
Unfortunately, Avengers 2: AoU shares a little bit in common with TPM. There are way too many characters with separate needs and desires to create a cohesive narrative. Thor has his own motivations, Captain America has his own path, and Iron Man wants to create a suit of armor for the world. The end result is a disorganized narrative that flies all over the place. There is no real protagonist in the movie. Tony Stark is arguably the most important character to the plot, but what do we make of the whole Hawkeye foray with regard to his wife and kids? Hawkeye’s not the main character, so why distract the audience with a needless exposition into his past?
Joss Whedon is too talented a writer and director to allow the AoU to fall into the crapitude of The Phantom Menace, but the second Avengers film definitely suffers from trying to do too many things. A tighter narrative focusing on fewer characters or more on the villain’s motivations might have corrected some of the issues.
2. Crossovers put money ahead of art.
Crossovers are fun. Once upon a time Dracula met Frankenstein. The Three Stooges met the Mummy. The Jetsons met the Flintstones. We love watching our favorite franchises meet up. Studios love crossovers because they print cash for the business.
Regardless of crossovers’ popularity, they’re difficult to make work from a writer’s point of view. What purpose did Nick Fury have in AoU other than to remind us that SHIELD used to be a thing? Did Thor really need to go off to England and walk into the lake, or was that a shoehorned reminder of an upcoming Thor sequel?
Crossovers present tough challenges for the writer because it’s hard to think of reasons for everyone to hang out. Creating a super big bad guy like Ultron helps out a little bit, but this takes away from some of the other stories. In order to accommodate these crossovers the writers end up confined by the need to bring characters back into the overarching story.
So, if a writer thinks of a great Thor story that involves a godkiller we haven’t seen before on Earth, then the writer will either have to seamlessly filter the story into the rest of the Avengers universe or just jettison the idea altogether.
This problem isn’t unique to the Avengers universe. Neil Gaiman ran into the problem when writing The Sandman. At one point in Sandman, Dream runs into Batman’s villain, Scarecrow, for a minute. They discuss things and the plot moves on. It always felt a bit strange to me that Scarecrow, of all villains, was the choice for a crossover. Turns out that Scarecrow wasn’t meant to be in there. He originally wanted the Joker to speak with Dream, but it turns out that the Joker was thrown to his “death” in the most recent Batman issue.
Nail protested, saying, “Well, he’ll get better.”
DC replied, “Yes, we know Joker will get better, but he’s dead for now. So use someone else.”
From that moment on the Sandman declined to play with the majority of the DC universe. Keeping track of so many separate narratives creates real hurdles for the best of writers.
3. Comics have baggage.
Marvel deserves kudos for managing to bring comic stories to the big screen. Unfortunately, this means that we now have comic book stories on the big screen. Never forget that Superman, Spider-Man, and the rest have all been in publication for decades. Each story leads to another story. So, when Wolverine finally defeats Sabretooth, his victory is cut short by learning that it was really Apocalypse behind the evil plans all along! Mwa ha ha! Or maybe it was Sabretooth’s clone and the real Sabretooth is still at large causing problems.
Comics are little more than soap operas for nerds. The stories are written to go on and on and on. This is the exact opposite of American cinema, which traditionally provides a similar experience to a symphony. You go in, sit down, view the entertainment, and leave with a sense of closure. Cliff hangers are generally better suited for TV and periodicals.
The Marvel movies insist on using each movie to set up another movie. While this may serve to keep certain groups of fans excited about the next movie, it also provides an unsatisfying ending. If we just beat Ultron, can’t we rest for a minute? The victory feels hollow if it only serves as a launching pad toward another battle even bigger than the last one.
Avengers 2 is not a bad movie. It’s very good with some flaws. These flaws represent larger problems with the comic book genre. These issues will likely be even worse with the upcoming Batman v Superman feature film due out next year. I continue to have high hopes for that movie, but it really doesn’t look all that good. Comic book stories require a skilled hand to keep them from dissolving into schmaltz.