Avengers: Age of Ultron

I owned thousands of superhero comics when I was growing up, and for a long time I really loved their ridiculous tales of adventure and daring. Eventually, however, I reached a point of absolute frustration with them and once I kicked the habit I never looked back. My main problem with the medium was that most superhero stories seem to have a very unhealthy love/hate relationship with the idea that actions should have consequences. Comic book writers want to tell epic stories and epic stories require epic conclusions - you can't finish off a story about a man who is trying to conquer the universe with a polite tea-time chat. No, you have to pay that story off with deaths and explosions and generalized mayhem, and unfortunately, it's only logical that those types of serious events would cause serious side effects.

Unfortunately, comics aren't prepared to deal with those side effects seriously because they are a serialized medium that has to keep giving their audience exactly what they want over and over again. That means that comic publishers can't afford to let popular characters stay dead, or to let things that got exploded remain as rubble, or to let the mayhem stop even for a second, because their audience doesn't want a dose of reality. They're trapped between an "everything must seem important" rock and a "nothing can ever permanently matter" hard place. Their solution has been to try to ignore the fact that their stories have no stakes and no consequences and to hope that their audience doesn't notice that every tale they tell is predictable, repetitive and ultimately trivial.

Fortunately for me around the time that I'd had it up to here with reading comic books CGI technology had advanced enough that Hollywood could start making good comic book movies, and those movies scratched my itch for ridiculous stories without making me put up with too much serialized nonsense. The superhero movies that pre-date the birth of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (i.e. pre Iron Man in 2008) were more like traditional movies than they were like comic books. By that I mean that they fudged things but only within normal action movie limits. The hero would be put into a situation where by all rights he should die, and of course he wasn't really going to die, but we all knew that. No, dying is for the villain, but once the villain kicks the button he's gone forever and ever. The end!

Unfortunately, the birth of the MCU has shifted some of comics worst habits onto the silver screen. Now Marvel movies are pulling the same stunt where they want to everything to be both epic and inconsequential. It goes far beyond the fact that the dead stopped being truly dead in these movies. (Although that definitely started happening and it was annoying.) They've developed a bad habit of depicting world changing events and then failing to change the world. For example, it was revealed that the entire American government was full of terrorist Nazi spies in Captain America 2. You would think that this revelation would cause a major overhaul of our entire political system, but apparently not - to the best of my knowledge once the bullets stopped flying everyone kind of forgot about it.

Actually, it's not that much better when they do remember to bring up the serious traumas that these superheroes have inflicted on us - the only evidence that New York City was completely destroyed at the end of the Avengers is that every now and then a superhero might make an off hand reference to "what happened in New York". I find the flippancy with which these characters treat an attack that was basically equivalent to ten 9/11s to be pretty frustrating. When real people talk about traumas like that we do so with a lot of gravity, and popcorn movies like this aren't prepared to do that - so why even bother?

Overall I am not enjoying this downward trend. The good news, however, is that the Avengers: the Age of Ultron - the most recent of the Marvel movies, which just came out on Friday - is one of the first MCU movies to try to treat the laws of cause and effect seriously, and that makes it one of the best Marvel movies in years.

The entire plot of Age of Ultron is an extension of events that happened in previous Marvel movies. At the end of the first Avengers movie Iron Man was traumatized by the knowledge that there were alien forces in the universe who were coming to attack Earth and that there was a good chance that we wouldn't be able to defeat them in battle. This made him want to create an artificially intelligent robot named Ultron that could hopefully help defend Earth against an extraterrestrial attack. However, the instant that the robot achieved sentience it decided that it didn't want to follow Iron Man's agenda, and that in fact it would prefer to destroy all of the Avengers before obliterating the entire Earth.

This plot is not a particularly insightful exploration of the consequences of that alien attack; it's not interested in the existential implications of living in a world where constant annihilation is a real fear, nor is it interested in exploring how the world's social and religious institutions would respond to definite proof of the presence of aliens and Gods on Earth's soil. But even if Age of Ultron is only interested in the events that took place in the first Avengers movie because it allows it to set up a series of insane action set pieces - well, that's better than nothing. The discussion that Iron Man has with his fellow Avengers in the lead up to Ultron's birth is the first serious attempt that these movies have made to grapple with at least some of the real world consequences of their actions, and huzzah to that.

Even more importantly: Age of Ultron treats it's own internal actions with some degree of integrity. Of course, that doesn't mean that they clean up their messes - the Hulk isn't going to stick around and re-build the buildings that he's smashed. It does, however, mean that these characters have some self-awareness around the fact that innocent civilians don't enjoy watching their cities get pulverized by superheroes, and that in turn serves to motivate them to try to be more responsible in how they fight the monsters that they have unleashed upon the wold. The final battle between Ultron and the Avengers takes place in an fictional Western European city, and before the fight gets hot and heavy the Avengers take serious pains to try to evacuate the city. They don't save all the civilians, of course, but they do try as hard as they can, and that meant something to me.

Naturally, all of this stuff is on top of the sort of popcorn movie thrills you would expect from a summer blockbuster. I'm not glossing over Age of Ultron's action sequences because I didn't enjoy them. In fact, I particularly enjoyed the climactic showdown between Ultron and the Avengers because it felt a lot less generic than the aliens-attack-a-random-big-city ending of the first Avengers. In my mind the real question about a given Marvel movie is not "is it going to have insane mayhem rendered in solid CGI detail?" - you can safely assume the answer to that is "yes". No, the real question is "will this movie turn out to be more like an action movie (a thing I like) or more like a comic book (a thing I can do without)?" Avengers: Age of Ultron makes a solid case that the MCU might have turned a small corner away from it's most annoying attributes and towards being solid cinematic entertainment. But will that change stick? I hope it will, but I somehow doubt it. After all, these stories aren't generally known for their ability to stick to their guns.

Winner: Me

Avengers: Age of Ultron on IMDB