Gerry Canavan

the smartest kid on earth

Lesser Whedonia 2: Age of Corporate Directives

with 7 comments

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.

7 Responses

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  1. A PS: Didn’t find a way to work it in, but I’m amused by my conclusion that the film passes the Bechdel Test depending on if the Vision is a man.


    May 2, 2015 at 7:28 pm

  2. [Spoiler Warning]
    Wordpress ate my comment and I had to re-type it. Hopefully I can make it make sense a second time.

    So for me the biggest narrative pull of the movie was not the actual narrative, but the meta-drama of Whedon trying to resolve his own trope-rules with the trope-rule of his franchise. By the third act we know:

    1) Whedon has to kill somebody, because his major principle is “there must be consequences for tension and plot to mean anything, blah blah.” Also he raised a giant flag in act 2 reading “I’M GONNA KILL SOMEBODY.”
    2) But he can’t kill the four core Avengers because Disney. Probably Black Widow either.
    3) But he also can’t kill Scarlet Witch for the reasons you identified.
    4) But he also can’t kill Quicksilver because we have no investment in Quicksilver and that’s a weak excuse for a consequence.
    5) But he also can’t kill Hawkeye because he already killed off the everyman “normal guy hanging with supers” once with Coulson, and doing it twice would be absurd, and anyway it didn’t even stick when he killed Coulson (probably lampshaded by the “if you get killed, walk it off” line).

    So he worms out of this by telegraphing pointing the gun at Hawkeye for two acts, pointing the gun at Hawkeye, pulling the trigger, and then having Quicksilver run in and take the bullet, “borrowing” our investment in Hawkeye for his own death. As narrative, totally meaningless. As a way for Whedon to squirm through a trope maze of his own making, somewhat entertaining.

    Though, as I write this, I sort of want to be very generous and posit that maybe, the dialog given to Spader’s film-stealing Ultron about “being afraid of change” is a commentary on the corporate stasis the film itself enacts. Whedon, held hostage by his dump truck full of money, blinking out “this is kinda bullshit” in morse code.

    But that’s probably me being too generous…

    Andy Famiglietti

    May 3, 2015 at 8:48 am

    • This was his swan-song at Marvel, right? I had a few moments of “hmmm” like that too, often in Spader’s dialogue.

      My wife was convinced that he wrote or filmed a Hawkeye death sequence and they made him change it to Quicksilver. I thought it was what you said: Joss has to kill someone, so he telegraphs the Hawkeye death to “get us” with the Quicksilver one. But I’m surprised they let him kill Quicksilver either — he seems way more valuable to them as a new toy and a new comparatively low-cost Avenger, and they’re going to have to have the Scarlet Witch around anyway so why not QS too? It’s weird. Maybe Disney/Marvel thought QS functioned as viral advertising for THE FLASH and/or the X-MEN Quicksilver and they wanted him gone for that reason?


      May 3, 2015 at 9:21 am

      • Also, for posterity’s sake, my argument about the Scarlet Witch was:

        @afamiglietti I think they decided they need the Vision to play the Adam Warlock role in defeating Thanos, and need SW b/c Vision.
        @afamiglietti So QS comes along for that ride bc SW, but has no real function in the narrative except for backstory necessity, so…


        May 3, 2015 at 9:22 am

      • Quicksilver’s narrative is so bonkers though: he hates Tony Stark for murdering his family, but loves the helicarrier, then is killed by it… They don’t even bother to give him the obligatory “hmm, maybe I was wrong” monologue that SW gets! And of course Tony is never brought to justice either despite war crimes large and small.


        May 3, 2015 at 9:27 am

  3. reposting my facebook comments at blogger’s request:

    on how these movies are critic-proof: i thought of saying “it’s like trying to review a roller coaster” but we’re past spectacle for its own sake now, and “like reviewing an episode of a TV series” but that’s not quite right either. it’s like reviewing one of those corporate events where they roll out new products and give consumers their vision of the future. its pleasures are the pleasures of brand synergy & the display of wealth & resources. and maybe this chapter (haven’t seen it yet) is where they try to prove that they’re bigger than their own stars. there’s a distinct sense in which despite the surplus of plot, narrative really isn’t the point, which is in line with how blockbusters have worked since the ’80s – if plot used to be an excuse for big explosions, in the age of CGI explosions plot is a means toward establishing transmedia hegemony.


    May 3, 2015 at 1:26 pm

    • Yeah, I just thought the comparison to the Apple press events was really solid: that’s the best parallel I can think of, right down to the sense of mandatory boosterism (or at least anti-haterism) that pervades most discussion of these kinds of mass cultural events. (There’s something like a theory of the retcon in the constant revision of features, interfaces, etc, too, especially when loved features completely disappear…)


      May 3, 2015 at 2:23 pm

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