Contains spoilers for Age of Ultron.
FLIPFLIPFLIPFLIPFLIPFLIPFLIPFLIP. The sound of flipping comic book pages, wooshing down to reveal the bright red-and-white Marvel logo. As a kid, I’d get a rush of excitement every time I heard that flipping, because it meant this wasn’t just any movie. This was a movie about an icon. A legend. A Marvel, if you will.
I hate to play the jaded old fanboy, but…those flipping pages used to MEAN something, man.
Last week I, like many Marvel zombies, staggered to the cinemas for the studio’s latest cinematic page-flipper, Age of Ultron. I liked the movie overall, and you will probably too if you’re a fan. But there’s something we’ve lost along the nearly twenty-year journey starting with 1998’s Blade. Marvel movies have taken on a life of their own, becoming parts of an unstoppable corporate machine churning out movie after movie, year after year. These are no longer films, they’re puzzle-pieces, big two-hour teasers for the next movie. Here’s a challenge: attend a screening of Age of Ultron and count how many times you hear someone whisper “THANOS!” at the very end of the movie.
Marvel are not so much adapting the works of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby as they are remaking them. And (cue Anchorman voice) I don’t like it.
Pieces of a Puzzle
Chief among my complaints with Age of Ultron was just how dense it was. Instead of simply being a movie about the Avengers fighting Ultron, in many ways, it played like a studio checklist of characters and locales they want to establish for future films. Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch? Check. Wakanda and Ulysses Claw? Check. Infinity Stones? Check. As a result, principle characters, subplots, and essential quiet moments are all squashed under the weight of a plot that’s being rushed along to make way for the next movie. And how distracting it is, to know that all the while, every other fanboy around you is already stickying their trousers in anticipation for that next one.
Still, Joss Whedon certainly deserves praise – not many other directors could juggle so much and maintain an element of escapism. He tries some interesting stuff with Scarlet Witch, using her powers to reveal to each member of the team their innermost fears. Yet the trauma is never re-explored; how could it be, with so much ground to cover for this film, and so much groundWORK to pave for the next one? The juggling act doesn’t see Whedon drop any balls, but when we can see him shaking, sweating, precariously balancing them, perhaps even that’s enough to ruin it.
It’s this idea of forced connectivity that’s keeping these movies from living up to their potential. We saw director Edgar Wright depart Ant-Man because Marvel would’ve forced him to insert a flashback sequence to S.H.I.E.L.D. and Agent Carter. And you’ll see that much of Age of Ultron will tie into 2018 and 2019’s two-part Avengers: Infinity War featuring Thanos and the infinity stones. It’s irritating, like we’re watching a commercial for a movie that hasn’t been made yet. Wasn’t that primarily what derailed X-Men Origins: Wolverine? And when was the last time we saw a Marvel property NOT make reference to a “man in an iron suit” or a “thunder god”? Can we not go one movie or TV episode without, metaphorically speaking, setting up a big, multi-colored banner in the background reading, “HEY GUYS, THOR AND IRON MAN ARE HERE, RIGHT NOW, IN THIS WORLD, FLYING AROUND SOMEWHERE, WE JUST CAN’T SEE THEM!!”
To be fair, the source material guilty was of this as well, leaving little editorial notes directing readers to the latest issue of Daredevil whenever the current issue of Spider-Man referenced his whereabouts. Yet isn’t film a little more sophisticated an art form than that? It’s both frustrating and distracting when you’re trying to thrill to the adventures of Thor and characters are constantly referencing the “invasion,” “Avengers”, or “New York.” I get it, those things happened. Moving on.
In turn, there just isn’t time for the films themselves to live and breathe on their own merits. The title antagonist in Age of Ultron, played via motion-captured James Spader, could’ve been a scene-stealer, yet there’s no scenes left for him to steal. He doesn’t feel like a unique enough villain because he isn’t given enough time to wallow in the spotlight. And it certainly doesn’t help when death means so little in this universe – we had no doubt that Nick Fury would return after his “assassination” in 2014’s Winter Soldier. Perhaps planning these movies and announcing them years in advance isn’t such a good idea, because then the stakes for the characters can only be as high as when their actors’ contracts are up.
That seems to be one of the many reasons why Netflix’s Daredevil works so well, because it is only tangentially connected to the Marvel universe on film. It’s refreshing, to see a great character with a great history like Daredevil be allowed his own sandbox to play in. Not to mention, that even after being fully cemented beneath the shadow of the mouse ears, Marvel still has it in them to produce great, adult stories worth standing the test of time.
So why the homogeny on the silver screen?
Doing Directors Wrong
Again, I challenge you to find a Marvel movie without a color-by-numbers hero’s journey, a doughy-eyed love interest (with sass!), a shirtless scene, or a sense of winking self-awareness in its own absurdity. Why does nearly every Marvel movie, and in turn every great Marvel character adapted from the comics, feel so…interchangeable?
Simple: the lack of a discernible directorial identity for each film.
Early on, Marvel and its producing studios chose some great names to direct their films – Sam Raimi, Bryan Singer, Jon Favreau, Kenneth Branagh, even Joe Johnston, all auteurs given the freedom to craft their own visions for each character and universe. That all changed following the Disney acquisition – auteurs became too much of a liability for Marvel’s agenda (see: Edward Norton, Jon Favreau, Patty Jenkins, and several others). Disney and Marvel instead began hiring no-names, newer directors who hadn’t yet found their voices, to do their handiwork. The Russo Brothers and Alan Taylor are prime examples – coming from the world of TV, they are far less willing to fight for the material and far more willing to execute the company’s vision. After all, there’s more money to be made sticking to a tried-and-true formula than potentially going off the map and risking something that’ll polarize people.
Edgar Wright was perhaps the most unfortunate casualty of this policy change – having developed Ant-Man in the era of Raimi and Favreau, he’d assumed he would still be able to make the film on his terms. But the Marvel universe on film had changed, and Disney no longer saw the viability in a property that wasn’t just setting another piece of the puzzle, as opposed to delivering a product that MATTERED, that had its own rhetoric, that was UNIQUE despite its existence in a larger world. Hell, Marvel is now casting actors and plotting films years in advance rather than letting the actual filmmakers and artists even have a say in where the story goes. To the company, it doesn’t matter who they get behind the camera, so long as it’ll sell tickets and deliver the same old shit we’ve been getting since the late 00s.
It’s a critical mistake that will eventually prove Marvel’s downfall – new voices and new visions are the lifeblood of these movies. Take Superman, a character that has lived for nearly 80 years. He hasn’t lived that long because he’s continued to break into homes and beat up wife-beaters as he did in Action Comics #1. It’s because he’s grown and evolved over the ages, changed with different authorial perspectives. Keeping things fresh in such a way is the only thing that’s going to keep audiences from getting tired of the same old shit.
I’ve already touched on Marvel’s lack of courage to take risks and create something not merely geared towards selling toys. That involves getting great directors to make something challenging, something that’s going to rustle people out of their expectations, and above all, let the characters dictate where the story goes rather than the corporate heads.
Iron Man 3 was a film riddled with problems, namely taking the character’s greatest nemesis the Mandarin and turning him into a bumbling, unfunny punch-line. The movie was a failure, albeit an honorable one. However, instead of picking up and moving on, Marvel couldn’t stand its ground, putting out a short film hinting at the existence of a “real” Mandarin still out there. It’s a cop-out, a retcon to assuage fans, proving the company will readily go back on its ballsier moves just to appease the masses.
You might remember how earlier in the Age of Ultron press tour, Robert Downey Jr. walked out of an interview after being questioned about his history of drug and alcohol abuse. It’s understandable, given his bosses at Disney don’t want negative press for their movie, and having someone who is now considered an icon for children speak about being a former jailbird ain’t great press. Nor, I suspect, does Downey particularly want to answer questions about his past during a mindless summer promotional tour.
But I’ll tell you what would make a compelling case for an Iron Man 4…adapting Demon in a Bottle. Think about the subtexual benefits of having a recovered alcoholic playing a man suffering from alcoholism. This is a movie that writes itself, and what a great acting exercise for Downey, to channel his past into arguably his best character and make for a potentially career-defining performance. Yet it stands to reason (and IM3 director Shane Black confirms this), Disney doesn’t want to explore this part of the character’s history. Because having the greatest enemy of a hero be himself and his addiction doesn’t exactly sell toys or thrill children.
And that sucks.
Instead, we get bland movies like the one Ant-Man is proving to be, emphasizing the more marketable arc of redemption rather than his uniqueness as a criminal-turned-shrinking hero. The line, “Is it too late to change the name?” screams, “We have no faith in this character and we’re not taking too big a risk with this.” How about, is it too late to change the director?
Unmistakably, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has evolved into its own entity, completely independent of its comic book inspiration. In fact, the market is changing so much that the movies are now influencing the creative decisions in the sagging comic book market, hoping viewers will go straight from their local cinema to their local comic book shop. But the MCU shouldn’t be just another alternate earth, it should strive to ADAPT, take the essence of its source and produce something special that makes us feel just like how we feel when we read the comics.
Joss Whedon recently commented that Edgar Wright’s original draft for Ant-Man was “pure Marvel.” Which is exactly why it wasn’t produced by a corporation concerned more with placing Ant-Man as a chess piece in an endgame rather than an independent player in a movie with a vision.
Age of Ultron is a fun time. I recommend checking it out. But demand more from this company, which has over the years created some inventive, fresh, exciting new flavors of superheroes with long-lasting shelf lives. A this rate, these films won’t live nearly as long, because film wasn’t meant to be made in a machine; it’s meant to be made with heart, with soul, with blood and sweat and tears. Marvel has made so many great childhood memories of me and of many. They can saturate the market with movies all they’d like, I’d just prefer they do it with quality as well.
So those flipping pages can MEAN something again.
Images: comicbook.com,timeinc.net, flickeringmyth, cdnds.net