Expectation shapes judgement. When Marvel’s ongoing experiment in a broad, interconnected cinematic universe reached its first crest with The Avengers, audiences were primed for a big, big movie, but it became clear that the scale of Marvel Studios’ and director Joss Whedon’s success surpassed all expectations. Certainly the monumental box office draw was a pleasant surprise for parent company Disney. So, while expectations weren’t exactly low, The Avengers owes part of its success to the simple fact that audiences weren’t quite prepared for the epic scale that this Marvel mash-up could offer.
This principle, though, is a bit of a double-edged sword. Flash forward a few years and we find ourselves on a completely different cinematic landscape. Now, the success of the Marvel enterprise has inspired every other studio to pursue its own “shared universe,” from the ill-conceived grim and gritty DC films in the pipeline to a laughable proposal to somehow expand the Transformers franchise–which has yet to do anything but recycle one plot in three awful sequels. Today, everyone expects greatness from Marvel, the studio that cannot fail.
I tried not to generate any such expectations for this summer’s presumptive box office champ, the Avengers sequel Age of Ultron. In fact, I made an assiduous effort to avoid all promotional material for the film. When a trailer came on, I would beeline out of the room. At one point, while seeing another movie in the theater, this required hanging out just outside the doors, waiting for the coming attractions to end.
That may sound extreme, but this was a film that, given my fondness for these Marvel movies, I knew I wanted to see. All trailers might do was ruin key plot points that I might otherwise find refreshing–if I wasn’t expecting them.
Of course, I couldn’t go in without any expectations. For one thing, I inadvertently gleaned some details of the story beforehand. I was familiar with the basic Ultron story line from reading about past Marvel comics and I saw some headlines here and there that gave away other details–like the introduction of new mutants
, er, “enhanced” characters Quicksilver and Scarlett Witch, and the inclusion of Vision. That last one gave me pause, as it seemed a really difficult character and plot line to shoe-horn into an already crowded superhero movie. But, of course, my expectations were also shaped by my inestimable faith in the man at the helm, Joss Whedon. I said before that only he could have made a movie as crowded as Avengers
work as well as it did, and so if anyone could make me believe that Tony Stark’s computer butler could come to life as a super-powerful sentient android, well, it’d be him.
And, not much surprise, Whedon really does create a hell of a fun movie in Avengers 2. I am told now that a lot of the early trailers for the film looked dark, and given the title, I assumed the world of the MCU was in for some serious apocalyptic mayhem. As it turns out, though, Ultron didn’t have much of an “age” to reign over.
In fact, Whedon seems to go to great pains to make sure that this film is the anti-Man of Steel
, which was heavily criticized for its wonton destruction of Metropolis barely registering with the man in tights himself (a criticism of tone that apparently fell on deaf ears, judging by the fiercely underlit trailer
for the follow-up). When battling Ultron’s army of, well, Ultrons, the Avengers go to great pains to try to protect innocent lives, even when the stakes heighten and the world hangs in the balance–well, it’s actually a floating city that hangs in the balance, but if it falls then…
It would have been hard to muster Marvel’s trademark humor had the world actually been conquered by Tony Stark’s android oopsy daisy. As in all Marvel endeavors, that humor is a huge part of the formula’s success. Avengers 2 doesn’t skimp, offering more yucks than the first film, even as it ups the action quota several fold.
Without the need to set the stage for the assembly of the Avengers themselves, this film is able to leap right into that action. We meet a team that, after the fall of SHIELD in Captain America: the Winter Soldier
, has apparently been busy cleaning up Hydra’s various nests and dens (that’s news to fans of Agents of SHIELD
, which thought that burden was being carried by its scrappy protagonists alone).
We jump right into an ongoing mission where our heroes are taking out Hydra baddies left and right, charging in effortlessly until they encounter two “enhanced” characters under Hydra’s wing, the Scarlett Witch and Quicksilver. Fans of the comics knew that these two would not likely stay enemies for long, and sure enough, after being used by Ultron through the middle of act two, they come to realize they’re playing on the wrong side.
These new characters come across pretty well, even if their accents grate on the nerves a teensy bit. As with the first movie, though, it’s the characters who never get their own movies who steal the show. Scarlett Johanson’s Black Widow was a real scene stealer in Avengers and in Winter Soldier, and with a budding romance with the Man-Who-Would-Be-Hulk, Bruce Banner as played by Mark Ruffalo, she is similarly compelling here. In the movie’s myriad battle scenes, she also gets to (improbably) hold her own with the robotic minion-selves of the titular villain.
Ultron himself is easily the best Marvel villain since the much beloved (and solitary stand-out) Loki. James Spader’s voice work infuses a quirky psychology to a character bristling with rage. The only problem is, though, that Ultron appears on the stage unbelievably fast. The audience has barely heard of Stark’s idea for the peace-keeping droid and, BAM! he’s real and on the loose with designs on “pacifying” the Avengers themselves.
This psychology is established in exposition, but just barely. I really feel like we could have been eased into his emergence a bit more gently, given time to process what it is that “mad scientists” Stark and Banner are creating–and given space to contemplate the ways in which it might very, very quickly go wrong.
Instead, Ultron just explodes onto the scene, setting the Avengers and their different agendas at odds with one another. The “we’re not a team…we’re a time bomb” vibe from the first film is here repurposed. The team dynamic fraying again is a bit of a hard sell, given the stakes, but it does provide our extensive cast with enough plot points to each have their own character moments.
So it works, but there’s no denying that it is a busy, busy film. There’s so much going on compared to the relatively simple trajectory of the first Avengers team up. Again, I doubt many directors could have kept the balls in the air on this one, so if Whedon occasionally looks like he’s about to drop one or two, I’d say it’s a forgivable necessity of what Marvel has dictated this bloated film must do.
And what it must do, according to Feige on high, is set us up for Avengers 3, a two-part film slated for 2018 and 2019 that will bring Marvel’s “Phase 3” to its apex. In fact, those films will represent a crescendo in the symphony of fanboy geekgasm that Marvel has been orchestrating since the very beginning, when Iron Man rolled into theaters back in 2008.
Titled “Infinity War,” these next Avengers movies will borrow a comics storyline involving the Mad Titan Thanos, a purple baddy we’ve only met in glimpse in Guardians of the Galaxy and post credit scenes in the Avengers movies, that will tie together all the threads of Marvel’s cinematic universe.
And therein lies the rub, and maybe the problem. The mythology of the MCU is getting really, really crowded. This is essentially what has happened to Marvel and DC comics, too. I’ve never been a comics reader, but when my son showed an interest during the run of Smallville on TV, I thought we might read them together–and hopefully get him reading more. What we discovered, though, is that the world in comics is an interconnected horde of characters and plotlines, many of which literally span multiple universes.
It’s a confounding storytelling landscape, and the more that the Marvel MCU starts to look like the comics that inspired it, the harder it’s going to be for mainstream audiences to enjoy these films. So far, Marvel has pulled off this deft balancing act, but the landscape ahead leading to Infinity War looks more treacherous.
In the comics, both DC and Marvel periodically must wipe the slate clean and reboot their entire universe of comics continuity with some kind of cataclysmic multiverse “event” that gives them breathing room to reinterpret characters and try to tell fresh stories.
At the end of Avengers 2, Tony Stark is slinking off into semi-retirement, leaving younger Avengers (played by actors demanding smaller paychecks) to take on the challenges of the future. Throughout the film, he was looking for an end, a way to wrap things up and call the mission complete.
As viewers, we may soon find ourselves wishing for something similar. There’s no denying that the MCU is an epic feat of movie-making, as unique and revolutionary as what Peter Jackson achieved in Lord of the Rings, though undeniably (and unbelievably) broader in scale. So far the imitators in Hollywood look like sad second fiddles and hopefully they will soon abandon their copy cat ambitions for some bold ideas of their own, but even if only Marvel prospers by this strategy, I for one hope that it rests after Infinity War, putting this monstrous thing to bed and, dare we hope, finishing while they’re ahead–maybe way, way ahead.