Yesterday I came across a rather vituperative rant on Wired about how awful Avengers: Age of Ultron was. You can go and read it yourself if you like. The author brings up a lot of interesting points, although they are in many ways diametrically opposed to what I took away from the movie.
This isn’t the start of an attack on that reviewer, or anyone else who didn’t like that movie, or otherwise have different opinions than mine. That’s part of what art is, this dialogue with the audience, and everyone has their own, very personal, interaction with the art. But I think there’s one thing missing from every critique of Avengers: AoU in particular, and comic book movies in general — from longtime fans and completely new folks alike. I myself didn’t even realize it until I was working out my reactions to the Wired article on Twitter.
A Unique Structure
Basically, comic book movies are telling comic book stories. Comics have storytelling conventions that no other media can really match. Marvel in particular seems to be trying to do a very direct translation of how they do comics.
We have been expecting these movies to hew to moviemaking conventions — and I’m no expert, but I guess the individual movies have been doing a decent job of that. But Avengers, as Dunny very aptly puts it, is a crossover series — a Summer Annual Special Event. You can get your character growth in the individual series — Avengers is less about the characters and more about the broader universe, the threats and consequences. Because that’s what you’re expecting of these big, spectacle-laden affairs.
We are conditioned to expect movies to always have these character beats and arcs, or it’s bad/dumb/exploitation or whatever. But it’s because that movie (or trilogy, at most) is the only opportunity a movie has to tell its story. So it has to be tight. It has to tell all the story it can.
In a shared universe, that goes right the hell out the window. Just like in the comics, you can have the 64-page brawl with a paper-thin plot, just for the fun of watching Our Heroes kick the living shit out of a deserving foe. We can get the angsting in their individual titles (and we are even seeing that, most notably with Iron Man 3).
Similarly, there’s been a lot of complaints about paper-thin villains, and while I don’t disagree, I think their characterizations have been fairly accurate to the handling of villains in comic books.
Yes of course they could do better — but these stories are, without exception, the hero’s story. They’re told from the hero’s point of view, even when you have cut scenes of Ronan tantruming at Thanos (those are “Interludes” in the comics). These villains are threats to be taken down, a staple of comics since Day One.
It’s only later, when the bad guy returns, that attempts are made to understand their motivations, to flesh out the character.
If I had to guess, I’d say this is because comics writers were throwing everything at the wall to see what would stick. A popular villain would be brought back and then came the opportunity to flesh them out. We’re seeing this exact pattern play out with Loki — without question the most popular Marvel bad guy.
I won’t deny there are holes in my theory. Such as Loki actually getting a fairly distinct arc in Thor. I would argue that’s because people who are used to doing movies over comics have been trying to bend the narrative to movie conventions — with spotty results.
Also, I’m not even suggesting that this is The Only Right Way to Do It. I do think it would be nice if we had a movie from the bad guy’s POV for a change, and otherwise to give them more to do than feast on scenery.
Anyway, I figured the notion was interesting enough — and seemingly overlooked by one and all — that I thought I’d bring it to the Odeck to pick apart.