Beginning with the first Iron Man movie, each concurrent film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been a one-upper of visual spectacle and character cameos, and are becoming less niche on the pop culture spectrum to the now full evolution of theatrical extravaganzas. Avengers: Age of Ultron, the latest in the MCU canon, is crammed with action-packed set pieces and enough stars to make any red carpet blush. The production values are on full display here more than any other film before, and more than any Marvel film before, it is brazenly obvious that the film’s creator was working with both arms tied behind his back at the constraints and wants of the producers. Instead of being treated to the biggest and best of the entire franchise, we merely walk out the theater asking “well, what’s next?” And that is exactly what Marvel wants.
Avengers Assemble was the culmination of four years worth of story-line, divvied by introducing the individual member of the team with individual movies. But, really, it was more than that. Avengers Assemble was the endgame of Marvel’s Phase One and a critical point to the future of comic book films. It delivered on all fronts, there’s no sense denying it’s success. Joss Whedon made it work. He took what was available to him and made his own film. Using Whedon was a bit of a risk for Marvel even though he was already beloved. They had to give him the apparatus and like every parent, just have trust in their baby.
Subsequent MCU sequels have been tools to tell small perspectives of a full story. Villains come and go; characters are introduced for movies releasing a decade later; Marvel, whether you like them as a film company or not, are essentially taking the irreverence and oft convoluted stories found in comic books and transfiguring them to the big screen–you have to commend them for that. This does not have to come at the expense of creative teams that eventually want to try something.
That is the basis of art, as it were; going against the grain is a driving force of imagination, otherwise it becomes formulaic. Marvel seems to be at a happy medium: they figured out what people want, have saturated several markets (toys, videogames, clothing, etc.) and they continue to make Scrooge McDuck-ian profits. Marvel is no longer a company; they are the sublimation of creative arts becoming an industry unto itself.
Joss Whedon is the mastermind behind both the Avengers Assemble and Avengers: Age of Ultron movies as well as creator of cult TV and film classics. He is an idol of nerdom, a visionary, and a lover of Shakespeare. Avengers: Age of Ultron is terrifically Whedonesque at times, particularly scenes where the whole cast is doing nothing but hanging with each other. It’s what he does best–he brings to earth these godly (and actual God) figures and provides characters that viewers can relate to without need of our own capes. But the film takes no risks; he kills Agent Coulson in the first film. There’s no “I can’t believe that happened” moment because killing a character ruins the canon and their financial value. With Marvel’s contracts running several years long with several zeros scribbled above the dotted line, filmmakers must adhere to stringent possibilities of future projects involving these characters.
This creates the essential problem with Avengers: Age of Ultron as a film: the plot that could have been there is pushed aside to make room for introducing a new character, and then another, and then we bring back one to enforce the fact that they’re really still hanging around in the background somewhere. Then we meet another character. This takes takes up precious time from what should have been a conclusive story. Marvel wanted to show bits from their next crop of films in this one at the expense of a single story. A notion that seems like no big deal, but this is the Avengers, burdened with immense expectations and financial promise.
Dropping anchors and threads (strings) all over this movie took away from the story, it’s plain to see even after one viewing. Whedon’s penchant for writing is still unchanged; the script is funny, dark (bordering on terrifying) and thoughtful. Comparing to the first as well as his efforts outside Marvel, Avengers: Age of Ultron feels mechanical. Captain American and Iron Man share a majority of the screen time, together and singularly; Marvel seemed unabashed at their excitement to set up Captain America: Civil War and the “rebooting” of the MCU with all fresh faces.
His departure from Marvel is with the expiration of his contracts (the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. contract ending this summer), but from interviews and rumors, it is clear that not everyone was on the same page. And Marvel has already taken care of replacing him with the next best directors of an MCU film, the Russo Brothers. The overt casualty to this was the titular villain; Ultron saw little screen time even though his scenes are some of the most engrossing. He’s imposing, spiritual, immature, and headstrong. One could see Whedon writing his relationship with Marvel into Ultron’s and Tony’s uneasy relationship: Stark being the controlling idealist who can’t see the forest for the trees. Ultron’s quote “No Strings on me,” Whedon is at the same time self-aware and self-deprecating.
Whedon’s discomfort will making and–absolutely undeserved–post-release criticisms are a shame because the blame should lie with Marvel. The film feels forced and wonky to the point of vapid in the last act, a result of putting too many plot points into a sensibly long action film. There will be moments people will talk about, true enough, and the expectations for this were astronomical, nigh insurmountable. In the end, it was disappointing to see a director be shackled to restrictions beset by the producers in lieu of creative filmmaking.
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