Lesser Whedonia 2: Age of Corporate Directives
LATER-THAT-NIGHT UPDATE: I hadn’t realized when I wrote this how strongly it was influenced by the great review of Captain America 2 that Ryan Vu wrote for us for Science Fiction Film and Television, but reflecting on it a few hours later I really see Ryan’s review as the clear precursor to this. Look for his review in a few months! It’s really smart.
In my five-sentence Avengers review from a few years ago I wrote:
Of course I deeply enjoyed The Avengers, but my sense is it’ll be up to The Avengers 2: Avengers Reveng’d! to salvage the series from the scrapheap of Lesser Whedona. … Though certainly funny and engaging, and on occasion very clever, The Avengers is more or less superheroes completely by-the-numbers, almost entirely lacking in the deconstructive self-awareness that characterizes more artistically ambitious Whedon creations like Buffy, Firefly, and especially Cabin in the Woods and the too-neglected Dollhouse. The film has zero critical purchase on its genre, and precious little Whedonesque irony about itself.
In short, The Avengers is what Buffy would have been, if it were only fight scenes and quips.
Age of Ultron, like The Avengers before it, is fine, though if anything the film actually doubles down on the hollowed-out anti-cinema of the first film: it’s even fightier and much, much quippier, with very little heart (the paltry attempts at character development are exhaustively cloying) and excruciatingly little self-awareness about the genre it is participating in (it really pales in comparison to Captain America 2 on that front, as you knew it would).
A film like this seems to me to defy either aesthetic or political response. What is there to say about it that it isn’t already screaming at maximum volume? Even the film itself can barely muster the energy to care about its own setup or execution, breezing over the only character choice that has any genuine stakes (the initial creation of Ultron) in the span of five or so minutes (and then assiduously refusing to return to it under any circumstances).
The only really interesting thing about the film, to me, is its metatextual participation involving the endless shifting around of pieces in the MCU for a climax that will never arrive. When I watch Age of Ultron my major critical response is in trying to reverse engineer the corporate directives that Whedon was handed when he started to break out this story, and then trying to imagine other ways he might have tried to move the pieces into the proper places instead. What else could he have gotten away with? What did they make him rewrite or reshoot? What was allowed, and what was forbidden?
Of course this is always fantasy franchise-running, but we can be certain that the #1 directive here was “clear the decks.” The primary point of this film is to get rid of characters who won’t appear in the franchise until the next Avengers film at the end of “Phase 3.” In this sense Age of Ultron culminates “Phase 2,” like The Avengers culminates “Phase 1,” but here the climax is more like a toilet flushing than a fireworks spectacular. The central narrative concern here is to remove the blockage of investment in characters played by too-expensive actors so a new crop of rather less famous stars can run through their own four- or five-picture contracts in due course.
What else, besides that? I’d wager Whedon was given orders to soften the surface anti-Americanism of Winter Soldier, perhaps combined with a stick-a-thumb-in-DC’s-eye directive to “do something that will force reviewers compare this movie favorably to the ending of Man of Steel whether they want to or not.” Other than that: Give us some action figures? Make sure you leave some narrative gaps for the video games and the tie-in comics and Agents of SHIELD to play with later? Make sure that you complete the narrative return-to-origin so utterly that, even within the terms of your own diegetic universe, it’s as if the film never happened at all? There’s really hardly anything here, as (again!) perfectly enjoyable it is for the two hours it is on the screen.
It seems to me that Age of Ultron exemplifies a new type of narrative in this kind of media. First we had the franchise film; then we had the prequel trilogy; now every film is a prequel to a film that hasn’t been written yet, a film that will itself merely set the table for the fantasy of still another sequel or series or reboot or tie-in down the line. The real climax, the real pleasure, is permanently deferred, always another greenlight away.
To me a film like Age of Ultron invites speculation about Marvel/Disney’s thirty-year-plan to the exclusion of all other criticism or critique. We need a new theory of artistic creation to explain how films get made in this mode. It isn’t auteurism, it isn’t even really in the hands of individuals at all: it’s a kind of automatic, autonomous process using the combination and recombination of preexisting building blocks, almost on the order of an algorithm, or an artificial intelligence. We have this intellectual property that we think we can monetize more aggressively than we’re monetizing it currently; we have these and those prior narrative elements; now, JARVIS, build me a story.