28 October 2014

White Trash of the Week: The Avengers: Age of Ultron

It's a trailer joke!

I'm talking about the new Avengers: Age of Ultron trailer. White trash.

Let's move on - I never do this. Like, I never ever talk about trailers. I hardly even watch trailers. See? But something about this just necessitates discussion. Maybe it's that ultimate nerd laying deep down inside me that will watch virtually whatever this studio puts in theaters regardless of quality, which has been FAR more hit and miss than most of the Internet would indicate to you. Or maybe that when a film like the The Avengers (2012) steps up and changes how studios make big movies forever, it's worth talking about.

Seriously - in ten years everyone will realize that The Avengers was a more important film in the history of cinema than JAWS (1975). It's created this entirely new discussion of how people should be drawn to theaters and it's spawned this need for studios to throw ridiculous amounts of money at shared universe pics that aren't going anywhere. No, Dracula Untold (2014) should not be the impetus for a modern Universal Studios Monsters Shared Universe. No, Ghostbusters should not have a "Marvel-style shared universe." Why am I hating? Because these idiots don't know what they're doing.

Marvel does. You better believe that in 2006, when these cats were plotting Iron Man (2008) they had a conceptual idea for how to forge the next ten years of their releases and build a cinematic universe that truly replicated their dense interlocked source material. It's just worked out for the best that since these things make crazy money, that universe has attracted top-to-bottom talents in the industry in directors, writers, and actors, along with a sustainable and reliable game plan for future developments. Marvel didn't set out to change the game, they just did what they wanted to do with their properties.

That isn't the case with a Ghostbusters series of movies, or a Sinister Six movie. You know, it's funny, there have also been Sinister Six (2016...or is it '17?) announcements made this week, but no one gives a shit. Look at the websites reporting them. A Google News search for "Marvel" yields headlines from CNN, IGN, and the Huff Post. Not the Franchise Herald. Other studios don't seem to quite understand what it takes to pull this off - you can't just cram a bunch of mildly popular heroes together and wait for the cash to roll in. At first glance at only The Avengers, that's what Marvel seemed to do. But The Avengers isn't just The Avengers. It's Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), THOR (2011), and a pair of down and up Iron Mans that all did pretty well. It's also a franchise that never backed down from its purpose, and yeah, all the Avengers set-up in Iron Man 2 (2010) bogged that film down a ton - but ultimately, Iron Man 2 wasn't Marvel's endgame. It was a $200 million advertisement to go see another movie that made $1.5 billion. Sound investment, even if the movie sucked.

Now, I often think to myself, as a lover of film and a being of sound mind, how can I actually say this? How can I sit here and excuse a movie as terrible as Iron Man 2 that did exactly what its creators wanted it to do, which was really just manipulating an audience into seeing a marginally better movie? I guess I don't care. As long as it's not winning Oscars, The Avengers isn't the death of cinema. Oh fuck please don't let any of these films win an Oscar. I think there will always be adult fare out there that can make us think.

Or fuck it - let's have more Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) which is the perfect paradox - a space opera based off a doofy comic intended for children that pulls off some of the best character work of the year with a soundtrack that had no right ever to reach #1 on the Billboard 200. So that's an old debate I have with myself all the time that I don't think a lot of other people get - a movie doesn't fail if it does what it was trying to do.

The Avengers was trying to make money, which it did a nice job of doing. It was also basically an extended proof of concept to demonstrate that this shared universe idea, never before done on this sort of scale, was a feasible idea. In this regard, it also succeeded. That's a good thing, because as a film, it utterly failed. Let's check out that trailer again:

Isn't that the most typical trailer, ever? There's no real sign of demonstrable conflict or stakes beyond "Loki is bad and ESPLOOSION!!!" I hate that song, too, NIN's "We're In This Together" is just so on the nose, and the trailer tends to skip over the challenging metal-y parts anyway. It's an attempt to go super, super-broad and fill as many seats as possible. Okay, it succeeded there, too, but The Avengers was so frustrating. Hang with me - let me explain why and then why also that's not a bad thing:

Whedon is known for a few things: 1) strong female characters, 2) heartfelt character moments, 3) little concern for character safety, and 4) High-Quality nerd deliverance. He teases us with all these parts within The Avengers, but then pulls the rug away before they're really delivered, which is again, an attempt to fill seats. Scarlett Jo's Black Widow has a nice bit of agency until you realize that the film doesn't pass the Bechdel test and still confines itself mostly within a white dude's world. There's strong character moments that are really just excuses for characters to fight each other. We get a truly powerful death in Agent Coulson, which is reneged in the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. TV show. And let's talk about the king of all nerd moments - Thanos.

My biggest issue with The Avengers is this scene. See, Loki and Stark were Marvel's two most interesting characters up to this point, and two of the biggest reasons why The Avengers was so successful in the first place. The Avengers roll call is really more of a trailer moment, but Stark has a point. In addition to stalling for time, the scene is really all about him trying to understand what the hell Loki is thinking. Why is his plan so terrible? Loki's a smart guy, it doesn't make sense.

That is, until the end of the film, when it's more apparent that this isn't Loki's plan at all, but rather that of Thanos, who couldn't care less about Loki's thirst for power and is much more into just pleasing death, which he got in spades by trying to invade Earth. The Loki/Stark scene is a frustrating made more so by the fact that you have to spend a lot of time reading comics in the dark to actually understand what the hell the entire point of the plot of The Avengers is. A film that relies on nerdism to understand is inherently incomplete.

Again, again - what's the point? The Avengers was a placated film that sought to amuse the lowest common denominator of people, everything about it was designed to fill seats, etc, blah blah blah. Well, the point is now. RIGHT NOW. Look at how bad all the Phase One Marvel movies were. Be honest. You've got Iron Man, but after that we tend to get all these cookie-cutter kind of superhero origin tales. I kind of think of that "Meet the Howling Commandos" bar scene from Captain America that isn't really a scene that belongs in this movie, but is instead a scene that belongs in movies like this. It's crossing checkboxes. That's Phase One.

Slowly, and by slowly, I think I mean today, the brilliance of this dawned on me - because now with all these people on board in the broadest, blandest way possible, Marvel is able to really stretch outside the box with Phase Two. I don't think it's a coincidence that I'd consider Marvel's best films to be Iron Man 3 (2013), The Winter Soldier (2014), and Guardians. They're by far the three boldest, most unique, memorable, and outstandingly produced films in the studio's canon, and they could only really exist that way (while still making a ton of money), if they owe their existence to the bland yet surface-level dazzle of what came before it. The mere fact that these films keep getting better and better by way of their encouragement of daring talent at this point is only fueling the positive energies of Marvel's brand. How did they launch Guardians to such success this year? Because despite its boffo premise, people trusted the brand, and it delivered. It's the opposite reason why Green Lantern (2011) plummeted a few years back.

Speaking of DC...nevermind. I'm not sure it's even worth it. DC is so far behind. It must suck seeing a rival like this do so well while you shuffle around like an idiot. Not only that, but I love how as this article puts it, Marvel announced their slate of films at a private yet hyped event for fans and press. DC announced theirs at a Warner Bros investors' meeting. Who's the jackass?

Now, I suppose I should ask forgiveness, because I'm finally getting to that trailer. With the knowledge of all the preceding behind you, take a gander at this:

What do you see? I see thematic consistency! Who the hell dug up that creepy version of a fucking song from Pinocchio (1940) is amazing. An obscure, tonally-efficient song that's also relevant in expressing a metaphor for the origins of the film's most important new character? That's damn efficient marketing! Now, only if Ultron will turn into a donkey after drinking Stark's beer! Meh, I have a feeling the extent of a Stark/Ultron Pinocchio-relationship will be more like this.

So while I'm jazzed up about this trailer and the hope of a Marvel future that already has its seats filled with fans who will see whatever crap they tell them to (see? Broad early = good. Now all those fans don't have to be won over and they can be exposed to more creative storytelling, which [and holy shit] - gets a more mainstream platform than ever before. Fuck I hope I'm right), I'm less jazzed for the future. The unfortunate thing is that more and more studios will attempt to imitate the studio's monumental efforts without laying down this groundwork or earning its fanbase.

I also find it curious to glance upon that just-announced release slate, particular the notion of The Infinity War (2018 and 2019, apparently) being presumably the big culminating coup-de-grace of this whole endeavour. For one is the simple fact that there's suddenly all these "What Are the Infinity Gems?" posts out there, which got me thinking - do we really need a movie based on a great comic that's freely available and has been for twenty years? Actually it wasn't even that great. It's just significant in-universe. And don't those big comic crossover events work mostly because there's no need to delineate equal storytelling time to dozens of different characters at once when you can publish across ten different serials simultaneously? And spend as long as you want on each page, soaking in each panel and taking time with your favourite characters all afternoon? Aren't comics far better suited, by the nature of their medium, to telling this kind of story?

As I think more and more about this, I'm torn. I really do think that comics are the best way to tell these nutty outrageous stories with tons of characters and crazy stakes, not because of any defining or inherent goodness or badness to one medium over another, but by the simple fact that a particular medium may be better suited to telling these kinds of stories, and that medium has been pumping away with great success for years now. Just because we can doesn't mean we should, although that advice in Hollywood is taken as often as the "Maybe we shouldn't rely on Ryan Reynolds to anchor this blockbuster" advice is taken.

I'm mostly thinking about this more and more, because by that point, if it's indeed an ultimate, culminating-style Marvel film, the Guardians need to run into the Avengers. And no one's going to get screentime. The only way this will actually work is if the movies ARE exactly like the comics - like, literally if Captain Marvel (2018), The Inhumans (2018), and Infinity War all tell facets of the same grand battle with different characters filtering in here and there across all four movies. Will this make them four good movies? Who knows. My guess is that they'll each have their necessary focus. But until then, I'm just going to read comics and be pretty happy.

And to be honest, I still contend that this shared universe / team-up anticipation genre all actually originates in a small film called The Fast and The Furious: Tokyo Drift (2006). I'm done.

1 comment:

  1. And this has never been more relevant: http://www.hulu.com/watch/692453


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