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Avengers: Age of Ultron and the problem with the Marvelverse

Ever since reading Mark Harris’ epic piece for Grantland at the tail end of 2014, I haven’t been able to look at superhero films in the same way. In the piece Harris considers, in great detail, the overall predicament of our contemporary franchise phenomenon and how exactly this highly calculated, steroidal version of 80s nostalgia has come to dominate our collective screens and dreams. A revolution in writing, Harris’ articulate and clear piece cast doubt on the strategies of studios and crystallised our concerns with regards to climate these films create. All one has to do is overhear any fanboy conversation about these films and their respective universes to see this spill over effect in action. Discussions about the construction, worth or impact of any of these films have been sharply derailed by hyper soapbox diatribes about specific characters that appear (or, heaven forbid, don’t appear), arguments as to whether Superhero A is better/faster/stronger than Superhero B, detailed adaptation errors and so on and so forth. The anticipatory culture of action/superhero movies has become so dependent on immersion, spectacle and marketing that the end result is distraction and disassociation.

The Avengers is a point of culmination for the Marvelverse. A film that positions itself as the collective effort of a handful of disparate character journeys all conjoining into one enormous, sarcastic celluloid Voltron. It’s the cream of Marvel Studios’ crop, the centre point of their superhero calendar, and that upon which most of their value and worth are measured. When Joss Whedon was announced as the director of the first film there was a rumble of anticipatory glee that shuddered across the internet, and, if I recall correctly, I thought it was an inspired choice. That was back when Marvel Studios appeared to be cherry picking directors with a strong vision or voice for their projects, a factor they still rely on today, although you’d never know it as the studio has become incredibly adept at stifling any auteurist bent in their films. Kenneth Branagh’s Thor, Joe Johnston’s Captain America, James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy; watch any of these films and witness their homogeneity, as these famed directors force their way into a multi-million dollar cookie cutter.

Joss Whedon was different though. The man who helmed two of the 90s’ most progressive and entertaining shows – Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, in case you aren’t keeping up – with a history of rejecting the cultural normativity of television, Whedon managed to cut through the formula and stamp red ink all over Marvel’s contracts. The Avengers was lightning in a bottle, an entertaining and exciting venture that stemmed from a director who understood his audience and the politics of blockbuster filmmaking. Sure, it’s not the kind of film that’s going to radically alter your worldview, but for what it was it was certainly a great time at the movies. Others seemed to agree, and the film went on to be one of the highest grossing of all time.

Three years later and we have now arrived at the inevitable sequel, a project that almost broke Whedon, Avengers: Age of Ultron. To preface my opinion here, I must concede that Marvel Studios lost this film fan around about the time that the original Avengers film was released. As Marvel hype became its own new language on the internet, apparently impenetrable to impartial criticism, the culture around these films morphed into something sinister, a point solidified in Harris’ article in Grantland.

This time around, Whedon’s penchant for smarmy, sarcastic humour leaves a taste of bitter uncanniness, the action and special effects appear superfluous and the stakes, although having risen to astronomical heights, produce a strange numbing effect rather than excitement, awe or wonder. Much of this has to do with the way in which these series of films have morphed themselves into a serialised format, with each film feeling like a stepping-stone onto the next, big battle. There’s a reason that those post-credit sequences produce such glee in their audience: it’s because the images that preceded it feel like a TV dinner, substantial but not satisfying.

I’m not going to delve into the particulars of this narrative, as I’m sure the drip fed information leading up to the film’s release has already informed you of what’s going on, but I will attempt to discuss exactly what makes Avengers: Age of Ultron an interesting instalment in the Marvel Studios oeuvre, even if it feels as uninspired as its brethren.

Yes, the Avengers are back together, but this time there is dissent in the ranks, as Tony Stark and Bruce Banner, after stealing Loki’s scepter, implement the artificial intelligence technology it wields to create the defence program Ultron. Stark and Banner conceive Ultron in an effort to protect the world from alien invaders (in so many words), and while their intentions may come from a place of purity, their values are oddly xenophobic and militaristic. When Ultron develops sentience and a mechanised body and army, its binary logic determines that it’s humans who are keeping the world in a state of flux and seeks to eradicate them all. Joining forces with two new Baltic superhero twins named Pietro (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen), Ultron’s evolution begins to occur at a rapid rate as his pursuits of Earthly destruction become more sharply realised by the minute.

The most fascinating thing about Age of Ultron is Ultron himself, an enemy that has no real physical self and manifests itself as the collective societal fear of the digital engulfing the physical. The obvious parallel is between these ideas and our weariness of the internet of things, a panic that has unfurled in many a film before this one. However, with the Avengers being avatars of American ideals and foreign policy, Ultron can also be seen as an acknowledgement of the ways in which digital terrorism creeps into our reality, both internally and externally. We can witness this in the effortlessly global affairs of the film, as our caped crusaders jump from South Africa to Seoul, as well as in the sub-story of Pietro and Wanda, two siblings who have set their targets on Stark due to his weaponry being responsible for their parent’s death. Even the Avengers themselves are torn over which is the most earnest ideological pursuit, a conflict that lies at the heart of the film, with Banner and Stark on one side and everyone else on the other (for the most part).

This is what elevates Avengers: Age of Ultron above its contemporaries: its acceptance that these films are essentially a mirrored reflection of society’s collective fears, in the same way that science fiction films were during the Cold War of the 50s and action films were during the Cold War of the 80s. Whedon knows this, and his film reflects it. It’s just unfortunate that it happens to be within the constructs of a Marvel film, something that appears to reject risky but necessary commentary on such a large scale. Which inevitably means that Avengers: Age of Ultron will never crystallise its ideas, and unfortunately never does. It certainly offers some interesting insights and concepts, but can never follow through or present a radical idea to an audience who probably needs them. It’s an unfortunate paradox, but it’s not the kind of paradox Marvel Studios will ever be interested in.

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