AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON certainly had the big opening that was expected, but it didn’t do nearly as well at the weekend box office like the first Avengers movie did two years ago. It also failed to receive as many glowing reviews. Sequels seldom do get the same acclaim, as they tend to go over the same material and characters, or they fail to expand the continuing narrative far enough to make the new chapter seem essential, but at least they often make more moolah. Not the case here, though Marvel has nothing to complain about really.
We do though. The movie wasn't great. In fact, it was kind of "Meh." This Avengers sequel had a lot of problems, from repetitive action sequences to little character development to no new arcs. Especially troubling was its reliance on CGI once again and the whole second half seemed almost like a TRANSFORMERS movie. It all felt very, very familiar.
And the new Avengers movie even has similar stakes as the last one. The location isn't New York this time, but a city is still decimated by all the action. Even more familiar is how the characters work together, as well as carp at each other. There's little new depth of character explored beyond Hawkeye and his family and some romantic moments between Dr. Banner (Mark Ruffalo) and Natasha (Scarlett Johansson). Unfortunately, the Hulk puts the kibosh on that opportunity by abandoning Black Widow at the end to go and brood on an island somewhere. "Hulk sulk!"
The Hawkeye storyline works decently enough. He's a mortal who doesn't have super human strength so his vulnerabilities are apparent. And he's never had a solo outing so there is still plenty to find out about him. But all the other players feel a bit old hat. It’s probably good that this cast of characters will likely not be teaming together again for more Avenger battles because the franchise needs some new blood and certainly some fresh air.
And because of their incredible success, Marvel Studios has a whole slew of new movies waiting to be filmed in the coming decade. Some of their new solo movies will be introducing new characters and that's great, especially with the upcoming ANT MAN. He's a one-inch superhero rather than a larger-than-life one, and it looks very different and quite compelling.
Then there's the upcoming CIVIL WAR movie due in 2016 that promises a lot of character-driven conflict throughout as its storyline deals with superheroes being forced by the government to come out from behind their masks and go public. That comic book storyline was a real barnburner back when it premiered in 2006. It also polarized fans as much as the sides being taken up in the narrative. You'll remember that the irreversible rift at the core of the story was between Captain America and Iron Man. Cap was against the government registration of superheroes, while Tony Stark was hellbent on doing whatever it took to provide checks and balances. This theme was even set up in the Ultron film with those two exchanging a lot of insults. There's a lot to look forward to with that one.
Marvel needs more conflict like that in its slate of films. When you have superhero leads, there's not a lot of arc for a character as their story usually consists of being asked to save the world again. As director David Fincher has complained, such characters can't die or change too much since they're the franchise, and that means very limited returns. With that in mind, it would behoove Marvel to take a hard look at what their pending slate of movies hold, and see if there's more opportunity to create something that stretches narrative, not just visual effects.
The filmmakers need to ask themselves the following question - What does my hero have to lose here? With that in mind, here are five things that Marvel can do, and should do, to make their upcoming slate of films truly worthy of our Cineplex dollars.
MAKE CHARACTER KING
One of the things that DC does so well on TV with its superhero franchises like ARROW, THE FLASH, and GOTHAM, is that they make character king. Episodic television schedules and budgets don't allow for expensive CGI companies to take months crafting eye-popping special effects and titanic action sequences. Thus, the needs of delivering 15-20 hours of television a season must rely on other things to hold the audience's interest - namely character. Detective Jim Gordon on GOTHAM has dozens of relationships with both good guys and bad guys and the show explores them thoroughly. He's vulnerable, flawed, and interesting. Same with DC's other heroes. Granted, a movie is only a couple of hours long, but it still could stress character building like these TV efforts do.
The earlier Marvel based films did just that. It's there in the first few X-MEN films and those first two SPIDER-MAN movies starring Tobey Maguire. Marvel needs to show us more of who the people are behind the mask, outside of the oversized physical theatrics and ginormous set pieces.
STOP DESTROYING CITIES
Marvel needs to ensure that their films don’t become just big, dumb, city-wrecking extravaganzas, especially because there have been so many movies defaulting to such tropes for a while now. The destruction of a city was used as the climax of the first Avengers movie too (Yawn!) as well as the big ending of STAR TREK: INTO DARKNESS, MAN OF STEEL, and just about every TRANSFORMERS movie that has come down the pike. If Marvel can’t kill its leads because they’re indestructible, and they’re hesitant to accumulate a big civilian casualty account, then property damage is likely all they have left, but it's become boring. They need to find something else at stake other than real estate.
FIND THE CHINKS IN THE ARMOR
Tony Stark builds a virtually indestructible suit of armor, but there’s still a flesh and bone person underneath. You'd never know that though from the way he gets tossed around these days with nary a scratch to show for it. He needs to be much more vulnerable in battle. All of these superheroes should be. Even the Hulk. Bullets can’t stop him, nor can bombs, and the big green galoot can even run through buildings and smash everything in sight, all while barely breaking a sweat, so what can stop him? Even Black Widow gets bounced around in these movies, and yet barely dirties her black leather cat suit. That's silly. Where's the vulnerability?
The ANT MAN preview is so exciting because it’s zigging while the others zag. Not only does Paul Rudd go against anyone’s version of a superhero, what with his ‘James Garner-esque’ silver-tongued coward qualities, but they’ve got him playing a man who’s shrunk down to barely an inch tall. In such a world even a tennis ball could become a boulder worthy of the one that rolled after Indiana Jones in RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. Placing heroes in a physical world where they’re vulnerable on every level, emotionally and physically, will give audiences more to invest in. They become more relatable and fallible people. I love Thor but I can’t relate to him much anymore. Most gods are out of reach that way, right?
MAKE SUPERHERO MOVIES WITH WOMEN LEADS
Black Widow could have her own movie, couldn't she? What others are there in the Marvel universe? There are dozens potentially. Or would Marvel ever consider creating a new character exclusively for the screen, male or female? One that doesn't have an iron suit, juiced muscles or a god's immortality. Or testosterone, for that matter. Must they all come from the comic book pages, or is there room for a new character that's developed for the movies?
Marvel has truly enjoyed ginormous success on the big screen, and if it ain't broke, well, you know the rest. But fortunes can change in a moment. SPIDER-MAN was once the sure thing franchise but now it's got a host of issues. At least Marvel doesn't have the DC big screen problems. Lots of breath is being held to see if Batman can breathe some life into DC's Superman franchise. But Marvel shouldn't rest on its laurels, no matter what their fortunes are. They need to give us characters and stories that we can truly marvel at. And that doesn't need to involve leveling cities.