In 2015, cinema has reached an oversaturation of comic book movies to the point that even the very best are suspect to consistent criticism. But the question is raised: what makes a great comic book movie? Is it the ability to mold itself into high art, or is it to stick to the stylized universes of which these stories take place on a page? It seems harder than ever to distinguish between the two, especially with director Joss Whedon's The Avengers: Age of Ultron, which is his swan song from the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In a way, it is high art and style shoved into one film with uneven results that are at times too stuffed. However, Whedon once again puts out a challenge to everyone else by showing how to make a comic book movie that can have depth and still be extremely exhilarating.
Three years and four movies later, Age of Ultron picks up almost without context as the original gang is fighting crime in Russia. Within the first five minutes, the energy peaks and rushes around a forest of action that features funny quips and some boggling action sequences. It is the start of a film that will use action to the biggest excesses that it could. However, the moment clicks because there's something special about watching them destroy villains together, often tag teaming in ridiculous ways. This alone may be well choreographed and directed, but it is only the core of what makes this film interesting. Captain America: The Winter Soldier had equally daring set pieces, but lacked integrity. Here, it all matters because the characters do as well.
However, this film is also about the deconstruction of the Marvel Cinematic Universe as well as superhero films in general. The film's conceit is about public safety and emphasizes it constantly. So while there's some soaring scenes that combine characters from the past 10 films into dazzling action, the peril isn't just about which one of them will die, but if the audience surrogate - now literally civilians will survive. This sounds easy enough, but considering the conflicts to follow, the results aren't easy. This is a technophobic action film for 2015 that chastises technology with a modern retelling of Frankenstein in which scientist Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is Victor Frankenstein and his robot Ultron (James Spader) is his creation, unleashed onto the world as a hideous, uncontrollable monster. The threat lingers further because Ultron has the personality of the somewhat destructive Stark.
There's a whole slew of characters that are introduced and the universe continues to expand beyond intelligible distances, but what makes it work is that in between the action is a whole lot of character moments. Former sidekicks Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) get back story that humanizes them and The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) gets some of his best moments as the film becomes a moralistic study of anger management. There's conflict within the staff and while Age of Ultron goes for moments as over the top as its predecessors, it keeps it in check by making us care first. For those invested, it is refreshing to see the story expand like it has. For those burned out, it likely won't get its due as a greatly crafted blockbuster that challenges everyone else to make something that is both silly and complex. It isn't quite the high art of The Avengers, but it doesn't stop it from being insanely watchable.
While the direction never hits the heights of the opening, the film ends with a more dour and complicated understanding. Characters now have acknowledged conflicting relationships and the new faces fit right in. The hierarchy may have changed, but their goals remain the same. This is a story, unlike Man of Steel, that wants to prove that superheroes aren't self-involved. The final act may be laborious and ridiculous at points, but within it are small moments that are tragic, funny, thrilling and commenting on the role of heroes. For a film that can easily be lobbied with the word "overstuffed," it does so with the best of intent in ways that Marvel will likely be unable to maintain with Whedon's exit. It is even evident in the other films he has produced that nobody gets how to make a comic book movie without turning it into serialized narration.
It will be difficult to really assess how comic book movies will look in 20 years when (presumably) Marvel Cinematic Universe has shut its doors and the new fad has started. It has been ambitious and extremely hit and miss. However, it has also elevated the art of the film as well as marketing. It has made ridiculous ideas such as intergalactic talking trees into household names. That is no easy feat, considering where the studio was even 10 years ago (Elektra anyone?). We may reach excess and maybe great films will be ignored, but if more of these popcorn films sought to be even as ambitious, maybe things wouldn't be so bad. While it isn't better than The Avengers, Age of Ultron is a cocky, overambitious middle finger to those that think that this genre has been zapped of all the creativity. It may be an exception, but what an interesting one it turned out to be.