Some time into Avengers: Age of Ultron, I came to the realization that the comic book movie genre is going to go through major, major changes in the next several years.
I am going to share a lot of varied opinions on the genre here, some complimentary and others negative. Because of that, I’m going to come outright and say this; I fucking love comic book movies. Love them love them love them. I look forward their releases, and more often than not I have a fun time watching them. Speaking frankly, as someone who grew up as a comic book fan and also vividly remembers the pre-Iron Man era of the genre, I couldn’t be happier that they have reached such a level of popularity and, for the most part, consistent quality. Because, not long ago, comic book movies as a whole were simply awful. They were either MTV-reject dreck such as Daredevil and Ghostrider, unbearably corny offerings like the Fantastic Four series, or overly stylized music videos like 300 (if you’ve never seen 300… please, do yourself a favor and do not watch 300). The genre has grown tremendously since 2008, with Marvel offering a cohesive cinematic universe of fun popcorn movies, Fox giving out some truly exciting and emotionally resonating films with X-Men: First Class and last year’s excellent Days of Future Past, and DC giving us The Dark Knight. Even some of the missteps, most notably the fascinating mess that was Man of Steel, still offer some glimpses at the potential of director-driven superhero blockbusters; just imagine if DC had given the same amount of artistic license to an actual visionary director, and by that I mean someone who is not Zack Snyder. The point is, we live in a time where comic book movies are more often than not good movies, a concept which was unheard of ten years ago.
Avengers: Age of Ultron, a movie that I saw with friends on opening day as a birthday present to myself, is indicative of what I believe the next wave of superhero movies will be. I personally found the movie to be great silly fun, which is certainly Joss Whedon’s strong suit, but not without its flaws; and how Marvel (and, subsequently, the other major studios) reacts to both its merits and its drawbacks will strongly influence the coming tide of superhero titles. I will start with what the movie does well – character, team dynamics, memorable quippy dialogue, and action with clear regard to collateral. The characters are all portrayed very well here, and many of the minor Avengers get some much-needed development (most notably Hawkeye, who is fleshed out much better here than he was in the film’s predecessor, and ends up being the unexpected heart and soul of the movie). The teammates all have great interplay and interactions, showcased best during a party sequence early in the film which I believe is the best scene altogether. A majority of the jokes land, and the movie’s sense of humor keeps it from taking itself too seriously for its own good. Finally, something which was a major relief to me, the climax does not forget that superheros are supposed to save people first, punch bad guy second. Perhaps as a response to the oft maligned destruction-without-consequence that made up the last 45 minutes of Man Of Steel, the Avengers are clearly shown to be taking the safety of citizens as their top priority, focusing on evacuating the city before concentrating all their efforts on stopping RoboSpader.
However, this movie is not without its faults, and I bring them up because some of them point to trends in the genre that stand in the way of overall growth – overstuffing action at the expense of character, over-reliance on outside media, and problematic story elements. While there are quite a few excellent character moments throughout the film, it often feels like those moments are struggling to share screentime with the Big Bombastic Setpieces; and it is easy to see why that would be the case, since the rigid formula that Marvel movies (successfully) adhere to essentially calls for a Big Bombastic Setpiece every 20 minutes. Whedon has gone on record that about an hour has been cut from the film, most of it being character scenes, in order to keep the movie under 3 hours and make room for all the action; this is problematic because, while I am a big fan of athletic actors punching face, ultimately it is character that drives story forward, not action. The movie begins and ends with exciting, elaborate action sequences, and I cannot help but feel that there could have been action in between those parts that could have been trimmed down in favor of more character development; I look forward to seeing the Extended Cut that is supposed to be released with the Blu Ray, to get a better grasp on what exactly was sacrificed for the action. Beyond that, the major problem that specifically Marvel Studios suffers from is their reliance on outside media to patch up and explain story elements in their movies; to name a specific example from Avengers, apparently the Hellicarrier that Nick Fury resurrects in the finale is explained on an episode of Agents of SHIELD. I do not watch Agents of SHIELD. I do not have an interest in ever watching Agents of SHIELD. I should not have to watch Agents of SHIELD to get background information on a moment that should have been explained in the movie that it occurred in. A cohesive cinematic universe of movies and television series is a fun idea, but these projects should all work as standalone stories without having to rely on outside stories to explain other elements.
The third big problem in the newest Avengers, and a problem with the genre as a whole, is the aforementioned problematic story elements. I am not going to devote the rest of this article to feminism – no, that is a conversation for a different day. I am, however, going to touch upon it briefly, because feminism is: A) Important to quality storytelling, character development, and the future longevity of the superhero genre, and B) Something that this genre, and Marvel Studios in particular, has had problems with. I will start off by saying that, for the most part, Black Widow is a very engaging, fun, and well written character in this movie. Joss Whedon is not perfect in his representation of female characters despite his good intentions, but he remembers one thing that many, many screenwriters forget: Women are human beings, writing human beings as well-rounded characters is essential to writing a good story, therefore writing women as well-rounded characters is essential to writing a good story. However, he still includes two instances in the film which are problematic in their representation of women; the first is the now-infamous “Monster scene”. While revealing to Bruce Banner that she cannot have children, a moment that was otherwise a very sobering and effective piece of character development, Black Widow ends her revelation with the sentence “So I guess you’re not the only monster here,” a line that is absurdly offensive and ends the scene in very, very poor taste. Do I think Whedon actually believes that sterile women are monsters? Of course not, that would make him a horrible man, and in my experiences he is a very well-intentioned person who would never view women through such an antiquated and frankly misogynistic lense. But Whedon’s personal views do not detract from the fact that this scene comes off as abhorrently sexist, nor do they absolve him from writing it. This line pushes the age-old belief that women who are unable to carry children are “incomplete” or “not real women”, and it completely sours the scene by taking a moment that could have been very empowering toward women who cannot have children, and turning it into a scene that instead looks down upon them. This is why I look forward to seeing the extended cut; perhaps there is a scene at the end of the film where Black Widow comes to terms with her sterilization and realizes that not being able to have children does not make her a monster. I dearly, dearly hope there is such a scene.
The second moment occurs in the third act, wherein Black Widow is taken hostage by Ultron and Bruce Banner comes in to save her. Not only does this scene feel completely unnecessary due to the fact that Act 3 has a perfectly fine amount of action without it, it also pushes the Damsel in Distress trope, another sexist storytelling device that paints women as helpless victims who need men to save them. In addition, it’s so weirdly out of character for Black Widow, who has always been portrayed in these movies as being more than able to hold her own and certainly able to escape a metal cage without the help of her boyfriend. These two moments are very frustrating because, if they were taken out, Black Widow would have otherwise been a very refreshingly well-written female character; by all accounts, throughout the rest of the movie she is just as engaging, likable, and fun as the rest of the team. I bring this up because this inconsistent treatment of women – which, to be clear, is also a major problem with blockbusters and movies as a whole, so it is not just specific to comic book movies – is something that, if not improved going forward, could be a severe danger to the overall longevity of the sub genre. Women make up approximately half of the audience for superhero movies, and if these inconsistencies in their representation don’t improve as time goes on, these films might very easily lose that audience. Perhaps this is the optimist in me shining through, but I feel we are definitely heading in the right direction in regards to women in superhero movies; characters we have now such as Black Widow and Gamora from last year’s Guardians of the Galaxy are much better written than the women in older superhero movies (just compare Gwen Stacy in the recent Amazing Spider-Man series to Mary Jane in the Spider-Man movies from ten years prior; Stacey is leaps and bounds better as a character), and between the announcement of upcoming female-led superhero movies like Captain Marvel and Wonder Woman, plus the fact that Selma director Ava DuVarney is currently being tapped to direct an upcoming Marvel Studios project, I believe the future of the genre bodes well for the cinematic treatment of women.
Moving on from the newest Avengers outing, the not-too-distant future of comic book movies is going to face another obstacle to overcome; overcrowding. Marvel’s Phase 3 bracket is already packed, with a whopping total of 10 films planned between now and 2019. In addition, we have DC jumping into the fold, putting their own cinematic universe into full swing next year with David Ayer’s Suicide Squad and Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, a movie that I don’t have to come up with a dumb sarcastic title for because it already did that for me. On top of that, we’ll have Fox putting out more X-Men movies, Deadpool coming in 2016, and whatever the hell Sony’s doing. That’s roughly 5-7 comic book movies per year. That’s a lot. This will either end two ways: A) All of these studios continue with their successful formulas and story structures and visual aesthetics and the general public gets burned out by around 2018 and the genre implodes, or B) The increase of products forces each studio to take more risks, switch up their familiar formulas, and we get 5 more years of truly different and exciting comic book movies. The comic book fan in me wants this genre to continue as long as possible, but the film fan in me knows that in order for that to happen we absolutely need more diversity, more genuine risks, and more legitimate attempts at making these movies grow rather than remain stagnant.
Perhaps it’s the optimist in me speaking again, but I genuinely believe these studios will pick the second option.