With Guardians of the Galaxy and now Avengers: Age of Ultron, Marvel Studios is starting to redefine what successful superhero films can be. Guardians of the Galaxy plays heavy into the bizarre and eclectic of superhero comics while Age of Ultron serves as a critique of the superheroes.
After successfully swarming a Hydra base and recovering Loki’s staff, the Avengers examine the mind gem within. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) receives a vision of horrible things to come and Captain America (Chris Evans) is skeptical of its power. Despite such reservations, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) examine the structure of the stone and discover a mind so brilliant they believe they can use it to create a powerful AI that can protect the world. What is birthed instead is Ultron (James Spader), an entity that believes machine, not man, is the future of life on Earth.
This setup accentuates how the flaws of the character often bring trouble upon the world. Most apparent is Tony Stark/Iron Man’s hubris to believe he can use his reinvisioned industrial military complex to protect the world. It’s as if he missed the events of Captain America: The Winter Soldier. And even in his failure, he believes he can repurpose Ultron to his ends.
But it’s more than just character flaws, the film accentuates the brokenness of these characters. Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Bruce Banner/Hulk, struggle with their dark histories of rage and the psychological scars it has left them. Unlike the other characters in the story, Hulk is Bruce Banner’s weakness, a powerful creature of rage unable to control who or what is destroyed in his wake.
The film is at its best when it explores these moments. A celebration party after the raid on Hydra is a reminder of how writer/director Joss Whedon is one of the best creative minds when it comes to dealing with the dynamics and tensions between characters. One of the highlights of the film is when other members of The Avengers take a crack at trying to lift Thor’s hammer. The opening action scene is far more memorable for its banter during the mission.
And this is where Joss Whedon’s limitations begin to show. As a writer, he’s astounding and he knows how to film a conversation. But when the fighting starts, everything quickly becomes colored blurs swinging at greyish blurs. Whedon uses the long panning shots of The Avengers climatic fight quite a few times in this film and the result only accentuates the artifice of what is being watched. It might not be entirely his fault as the addition of even more characters makes for action scenes that become more and more logistically unwieldy.
Likewise, beyond Whedon’s control, is Marvel Studio’s overall vision to build towards future films. The addition of Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) only serve to burden the film as they’re sourly underdeveloped. Likewise, additional moments with characters like Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders), Falcon (Anthony Mackie), War Machine (Don Cheadle), and Vision (Paul Bettany) only serve to further get away from the core of what makes the film work so well. Each of these characters is still given a solid moment or two, but they add to the film’s bloated runtime.
As Marvel attempts to expand and grow its cinematic universe, it’s worth contemplating whether or not this is a feasible medium. One of the strengths of the comic book medium is it allows for long-form stories that can be as epic as an artist’s imagination. In film form, CGI budgets and the limitations of runtime become legitimate factors. In a lot of ways, TV might be a better fit. It wouldn’t be able to sustain nearly the level of action on display, that’s been one of the weakest factors of Marvel’s films for a while now. Shows like Flash, Arrow and Daredevil show that long-form superhero stories can work on the small screen.
One of the benefits of television is that it has to sustain more of its runtime on the strength of its characters instead of action setpieces. Age of Ultron works the best when it’s teasing out small character moments or simply having two characters converse. As soon as the action starts, Age of Ultron becomes a blurry mess. Film just might not be cut out for Marvel Studio’s vision.
© 2015 James Blake Ewing