Seven years into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I’m still surprised that the thing works at all, much less that it’s the single biggest Hollywood franchise of all time. It almost feels like a scam or a cult—how else do you explain the unprecedented success of a series of movies about a Norse god, Robert Downey Jr. in a flying suit of high-tech armor, and a World War II supersoldier? And that doesn’t even include the TV tie-ins featuring a blind lawyer/gangbuster and a team of rogue superspies.
In the past couple of years, the scope of Marvel’s ambition has become apparent, with a release schedule running to 2019 and featuring obscure (but still pretty awesome) second- and third-tier characters like Black Panther, Captain Marvel, and Lockjaw, the giant cosmic bulldog. It’s a paradise for Marvel nerds, but how much longer will regular people line up two or three times a year for these increasingly complicated and interconnected capers? Every step forward from here on out, starting with Paul Rudd’s star turn this summer as Marvel’s microscopic mighty mite Scott Lang, aka Ant-Man, seems like a potential commercial pratfall.
Avengers: Age of Ultron is the nerdiest entry in the series so far. It is, in fact, a parade of fan service; where character development and a coherent storyline should be, it’s stuffed full of clever references, not terribly subtle reveals, and plot setups for phase three of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But it still earned $191 million at the box office during its opening weekend—the second-highest total ever, behind the first Avengers in 2012.
So apparently there’s not much to worry about. Anyway, by 2019, when Inhumans is scheduled to open, the concept of a secret race of genetically altered superbeings and their heroic royal family should be familiar, thanks to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. We’re all nerds now.
Age of Ultron, though, is still a minor disappointment, and in direct proportion to the level of comics geekery it unleashes. Instead of a streamlined summer blockbuster fit for the whole family, director Joss Whedon aims this one straight at the nerd gallery. The hardcore fans—and I’m one of them—get new characters like the Vision and Pietro and Wanda Maximoff and teasers for the upcoming appearance of Black Panther, the Civil War storyline that will pit Captain American against Iron Man, and the Infinity Gauntlet, which will (probably) connect Star-Lord and the Guardians of the Galaxy to Marvel’s superhero universe.
But it all comes at the expense of a movie that doesn’t make much sense. Age of Ultron feels a lot like the annual comics crossovers that promise to change everything—until the next crossover event a few months later. The thrill of recognition—“Hey! That’s the country T’Challa comes from!” or “I wonder if Hulk is headed for Sakaar?”—trumps the visceral thrill of a typical high-quality action blockbuster. It’s an exercise in trainspotting. I enjoyed it quite a bit at the time, but the pleasure is more like solving a crossword puzzle than watching Die Hard. Once you’ve seen it, there’s little reward in seeing it again.
All of which makes Ultron, admirably voiced by James Spader, a letdown. The design, with the tusks and flaming eye slots, misses the mark. More importantly, in the comics, Ultron is the Avengers’ greatest, deadliest, most unkillable foe, a supreme artificial intelligence housed in armor made of adamantium—the same metal that Wolverine’s claws are made of—and motivated by a bizarre Oedipal complex. He is fearsome and tragic, tortured and soulless, possessed of a cold nobility but frighteningly unredeemable. Here he’s just another international security threat, equal to every other MCU villain, from Obadiah Stane and the Red Skull to the Chitauri invasion. (With Ultron, though, there is always the possibility he’ll be back.)
Marvel is obviously doing almost everything right. Compare the company’s approach to that of its archnemesis, DC. Zack Snyder and his associates seem determined to defy fans’ expectations and to wallow in the grim-and-gritty sewer of vigilante violence spawned by Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, Watchmen, and Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy. They’re comic-book movies made by people who don’t seem to like comics books very much. Marvel, on the other hand, remains faithful to its source material and continues to turn out state-of-the-art thrill-powered blockbusters—on schedule. Sometimes they’re a little too faithful, though—the formulaic elements of their winning formula are starting to show.
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