Note: This article was first published under the now defunct blog Positive Reviews Only. It has been reposted here for preservation.
It’s starting to feel like too much of a good thing. First there was the announcement that Sony and Marvel had reached a deal that would give Marvel the rights to use Spider-Man in their universe. Everyone jumped for joy, most in disbelief that the so-called miracle had happened. There was even talk that Spidey would make an appearance in the next Captain America film.
Then there was the release of a film you probably hadn’t heard of. A small little work called The Avengers: Age of Ultron. Just in case you decide to go, it’s worth noting that this was the culmination of the Phase 2 for Marvel, all part of a three phase plan. There’s a moment in the film, when Thor, having split off from the rest of the Avengers, ventures off to do something that involves water and lightning, but don’t ask me what the hell it was about. The film is full of these moments, where every damn character has to be jammed in, just to make the plot move forward. And Spidey will be next. Suddenly everything is starting to feel a little crowded.
Maybe it’s too soon to forecast the state of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. After all, it’s been a smashing success, to put it mildly. The word on everyone’s tongue is superheroes. They’re the new westerns, a genre dominated by vigilantes wrestling with good and evil. All very fun stuff. And Marvel has been the backbone to all of this, providing hit after hit, each breaking new records at the box office. Each getting a fair share of critical acclaim.
It began with Iron Man*, that film that kicked off Phase 1, where all of the avengers would be first introduced with their own solo titles. The culmination of all these films would be The Avengers. It was the perfect plan.
Roger Ebert called Iron Man one of the greatest superhero films. It racked up $300 million at the box office. And above all else, it single handedly legitimized Marvel Studios. This was a gamble, with everything resting on Robert Downey Jr.’s performance. Their gamble paid in spades. Downey hit a homerun with his narcissistic attitude and quips. The seeds were planted for the universe would come.
After this came Thor, a film that I found disappointing but that many still praised, and the historical flick Captain America: The First Avenger. It was the latter that the overcrowding started kicking in. First it was the Tesseract, a bluish material that gave Red Skull his power. There was little talk of what the Tesseract actually was, but it would pop up again in The Avengers, this time in the Loki’s scepter.
And it was with The Avengers, regardless how fun it was, that really started to jam in characters and plotlines with little explanation for what was going what or what was up with these stones. But these were minor quibbles. The Avengers went on to near universal claim and became the second highest grossing film, second to only Avatar.
But the question began to be asked: When is Marvel going to stumble? Surely, they couldn’t keep on batting .1000. But they did. Iron Man 3 was a success. Captain America: The Winter Soldier turned out to be a masterful spy thriller, and Guardians of the Galaxy was the out of nowhere homerun. But with all this call more stories, more characters. Bigger plans.
Which gets us to the newest Marvel film, The Avengers: Age of Ultron. The film is a mess, to put it bluntly. There’s so much plot and characters, that the film is devoid of any real character development or dramatic weight. Sure, it awkward lets us in on Hawkeye’s home life, but this is mere window dressing on a film that is just doing too much (one of my major critiques of Whedon’s writing is that he often takes shortcuts to infuse characterization, such as Black Widow’s out of nowhere romance with Bruce Banner). It’s like watching a chess match, passively peering on as a pawn is moved forward to make way for the bishop to move. The plot of Age of Ultron twists and turns to squeeze in an exposition dump about the infinite stones, something that Marvel has been paying lip service to but done little by the way of actually explaining what they are. But no matter, this will all come to fruition with the next mega Avengers film.
Granted, Age of Ultron is a good film. It contains many thrills and does a great job of evoking images from a comic book. But this can’t hide the fact that it is all superficial. Characters do things in the film that have little or no motivation. For example, why is Ultron evil? The film kindly sidesteps his real motives, brushing them aside as something he inherited from Stark. As little sense as that actually makes, it’s completely mishandled by how quickly his character is introduced, just so we can get to point B. Bishop takes the knight.
The only problem is, this maneuriving is robbing each individual film of a feeling of completeness. Each entry always ends winds the promise of a new adventure. This is really evident with Vision, who’s character is just taken for granted. He finds human curious, and sees Untron as a threat, but we never get any time to so spend with him. How can we care when we’re just being spoon fed exposition, just to the move the plot forward.
These flaws haven’t gone unnoticed. Age of Ultron currently holds a score of 75% on Rotten Tomatoes, a huge step down from the first film. Some critics have called the film a failure. And yet, it will no doubt shatter the box office. But the results are starting to show. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has the hints of becoming a case of diminishing returns. Doubt me? Just look at how massive the upcoming Captain America and Avengers films will be. There nature seems to be more, when films like Guardians of the Galaxy and Captain America: The Winter Soldier proved a self contained film is far more rewarding. It’s why movies aren’t treated like ongoing issues of a comic book series, but rather individual works of art. So far Marvel has succeeded at this, but as they continually up the stakes, the room for failure grows larger as well.
This is perhaps best evidenced by a shot at the end of Age of Ultron. Nick Fury is standing in the new Avengers compound, and yells. “Avengers assemble!” As he does this, we see new and old characters turn and face the camera, among them, Falcon, Scarlett Witch, and War Machine. None of the big dogs mind you. War Machine had a brief appearance. Falcon wasn’t even in the flick. Imagine a film where all these characters go toe to toe. Oh yeah, don’t forget Spider-Man. Like I said, it’s starting to feel overcrowded in here.
*Technically it was with The Incredible Hulk, but no one counts that film.