Avengers: Age of Ultron was both better than I expected (my expectations had been lowered by what I had been reading and hearing about it) and is a harbinger of worry for the direction of film. That’s not to say I didn’t have fun watching it; I did. I liked the humor even if it was predictable and a bit repetitive. While convoluted and disjointed, there were the makings of a story in it; with a little squinting you had yourself an overarching narrative. The action was terrific; the visuals and sound were amazing. So, fun. Should a popcorn action movie do more? Yes, and we’ve seen it done. We’ve even seen it done by this director (Joss Whedon) in this franchise (The Avengers). The best piece I’ve seen discussing this is Sady Doyle’s Age of Robots: How Marvel Is Killing the Popcorn Movie — Medium. While I suspect that Ms. Doyle and I don’t share a common worldview, her arguments are compelling. I highly encourage you to go read it; read all of it to get its full meaning even if you don’t agree with some or all of it. It’s an equally moving piece about story and story’s importance in our lives as it is a commentary about Marvel’s potentially deleterious influence on movie making. Go ahead, I’ll be right here when you’re done.
It’s a little embarrassing that I’ve come to expect an outline instead of a genuine story out of popcorn movies. It’s a little like, once upon a time, we all expected baked chicken with rosemary, were led to lightly peppered chicken strips using breast meat and have succumbed to eating processed nuggets. I think it’s OK to have an occasional nugget, but Ms. Doyle suggests that we’re heading into a world dominated by the cinematic equivalent Chicken McNuggets.
I enjoyed watching Age of Ultron, I even like the bad guy more than most, but, upon reflection (and with a little nudge from Ms. Doyle), I see the emptiness of that meal. I wouldn’t worry at all if this were a one-off, but I do see the concern that the Marvel franchise will unduly influence filmmaking. I agree with Ms. Doyle that, even in the most popcorn crunching summer adventure film, we should always demand genuine story. It doesn’t have to be some angst-ridden François Truffaut film, but it does need to have a narrative arc that makes sense.
Now, we certainly know that Joss Whedon can tell a story in the midst of action and fun. But let’s think about how this plays out. It’s not in explanatory monolog. It’s not in long dialog. We’re not talking about Waiting for Godot. No, it takes place in those interchanges constantly occurring between characters in the midst of action. It builds over time. It happens at the end during those moments in Firefly episodes where they meet at the dining table and reflect their adventures. We consistently see two things happen: characters are developed and the narrative is moved forward. “Reveals” come organically through the action and dialog and directly tie into the current story as well as foreshadow future events. Ms. Doyle points out that this is missing from Age of Ultron because future movies are foreshadowed with no tie to the current movie (embedded advertisement), characters are not developed either explicitly or through the action and dialogue and short substitutes are used for doing this work. Now every medium has its benefits and limitations. For example, Firefly was able to develop character and story lines over a longer length of time due to the serial nature of the TV series. For all the wonders of the movie Serenity, that really wasn’t available in its time frame. Nicely enough, it was mostly busy tying up loose ends or killing off favorite characters (Wash, we hardly knew ye). The salient point, however, is that a 2 ½ hour movie does not a TV series make. Similarly, visual medium, be it TV or movie, cannot develop characters and story with the same richness as those in a book. A lot of this simply has to do with the narrative space available to paint your characters and build your story. Books have the most and movies have the least. So, when you take an already limited media and further limit it through formulaic storylines and embedded commercials, you’re left with very little canvas on which to paint. (Of course, it’s not just length of time, as we saw with Deathly Hallows I & II and The Hobbit I, II, & III.) That’s the concern; the Marvel influence on the industry will push more formulaic stories (as if we needed more) and more embedded commercials than ever before. This road is especially tempting when the cost of producing these things is astronomically high with the requisite amount of risk of seeing a return on the investment equally high.
While I love books more than movies and TV, I still love those media. I hate to see a further degradation of story presented visually and sonically as only movies and TV can do. Each type of media has its place, but there is a minimal expectation for story no matter the media.
Long live the narrative! We have seen time and again that audiences appreciate stories and characters (think original Star Wars as opposed to prequels) over mere visual glitz. As is often the case, Hollywood may find itself playing the safe card only to lose in the long run.