Avengers: Age of Ultron Review (Of Sorts)

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When I went to see Avengers: Age of Ultron last Thursday night, I fully intended to sit down on Friday and write a review. But, as I walked out of the theater, I realized that this movie had given me a tool to talk about something much more important and interesting than just if Avengers: Age of Ultron was a good movie (it was), or whether or not people should go see it (they should), or whether or not it’s better than the first Avengers movie (it isn’t, but, to be fair, The Avengers had been something of a miracle). No. None of that is as interesting as the fact that this movie showed me what it is that Marvel just gets about making super hero movies that Warner Bros doesn’t: that is to say, an unabashed faith in their source material, and the understanding that super hero movies should be fun.

Look… Comics are fun. That’s why we read them. Sure, every once in a while you get a truly great piece of literature in the form of a comic book, but not every comic can be Maus or Y: The Last Man (which, actually is ALSO fun). Most super hero comics are there to entertain us and to give us a great ride every month or so that gives us a break from the stress of everyday life (yes, even 8-year olds have stress). That isn’t to say there isn’t good writing in comics. Now—certainly more than around 25 years ago when I started reading comics—there is some GREAT writing, but the first job of a super hero comic is to entertain its audience. That should be the first job of a super hero movie as well. This is why the Marvel movies have been so successful. They get that, and, more importantly, they get that comic books are GOOD at entertaining people. They don’t feel like they need to be “better” or “more realistic” or “more grounded” than their source material in order to make a good movie. Avengers: Age of Ultron reminded me just how good Marvel is at this, and really highlighted for me why I haven’t been excited about any DC movie in recent years. Let me explain.

Spoiler Note: These aren’t very big spoilers, I don’t think, but from here on out I am going to talk about very minor things that happened in Age of Ultron and some major things that happened in some older comic book movies that you may or may not be aware of to varying degrees. If you really want to see Age of Ultron fresh and haven’t seen it yet, go ahead and stop reading now and come back here when you’ve watched it….

There’s a scene in Avengers: Age of Ultron when The Vision first shows up. It’s a great scene. He has a great monologue and it ends with a wallop of a joke/commentary. I loved it, but you know what I loved most? We didn’t need a huge long explanation of how and why he works. We didn’t dance around his name. He was “the vision” of another character, and he came to life. So it felt natural to continue to call him “The Vision.” Compare this to Man of Steel, which, I am not exaggerating, uses the first TWENTY MINUTES of the movie to explain the political climate on Krypton (a planet that is going to blow up), the reason why Kal El has to be sent away (besides the planet is blowing up, which, you know, should be enough of a reason), the reason why he has an “S” on his chest, the reason why his powers work, the reason why General Zod is pissed off, the reason why General Zod is still alive, and the reason why Krypton is blowing up (which is very nearly the dumbest explanation I have ever heard, but that is another post for another day). Warner Bros feels the need to explain every last detail of this, because they don’t trust their audience to buy it otherwise. They forget, though, that it’s a comic book movie. We don’t need an insanely intricate backstory for Superman. Nor do we need an insanely intricate backstory for The Vision, because we have already bought into the fact that this is a world where radioactive rays can turn a guy into a giant, invincible, green monster, an alien from another planet can call down lightning from the sky with a mythical hammer, and a serum can be injected into a 90 lb kid and turn him into Chris Evans (and also give him super strength. But, really… it’s the turning into Chris Evans part that’s impressive). “He’s an android and has cool powers” is enough of an explanation for The Vision. We buy it without a second thought… but there’s another reason why we buy it… We want to. It’s fun. Buying this fact entertains us, and people will do a lot to continue to be entertained. You know what isn’t fun? Watching Superman live through an angsty nomadic life of Hulk-like proportions. You know what I had trouble buying?… Bingo.

But I’m not here to bash on Man of Steel. I want to explain what works about Marvel movies that DC movies are missing, partly so I can understand it myself. The secret is partially just making them fun, but I think a lot of it comes down to trust: trust in the source material, and trust that the audience will buy into what you are doing. Marvel trusts its source material. That isn’t to say there aren’t differences between Marvel movies and comics. There are PLENTY of differences, but they know how to find the core of these comic book characters and have faith in that core. There’s a running joke in Age of Ultron that Steve Rogers doesn’t like harsh language. It’s funny, but only because it’s true to his character. He’s Captain America. He’s a boy scout with uncompromising ethics, and that is part of what makes him an interesting character, because he’s unlike the rest of the team in that regard. Every time someone tells me how hard it is to make a Superman movie, I say “Marvel did it.” Chris Evans’ Captain America manages to stay true to those core character values and still be interesting. That’s what Superman is like at his best: interesting BECAUSE of his strict moral code, not in spite of it. I feel like Warner Bros is afraid of their source material, so they fight it, rather than embrace it. And that’s a shame, because they have an advantage that Marvel doesn’t. They have all of the DC characters. They can do whatever they want with all of those wonderful intellectual properties, and yet, they choose to do the same dark, grim, angsty plots and characters with the same washed out palettes every time. It’s not the casting. In fact, the casting is often very good. For example, I love the idea of Jason Momoa as Aquaman. I think that’s great. I love the idea of him being Polynesian, and it adds some well-needed diversity to the justice league, but…

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Yeah… that image screams “we are scared of comic books.” I think the Polynesian tattoos are a nice touch (and badass that they are actually Jason Momoa’s tattoos), but what would have been wrong with putting him in the orange scales? They’re too weird? Too comic book-y? This is the kind of thing I’m talking about. They need to trust the material. There’s a moment in Age of Ultron where the Avengers walk into this sort of idyllic farmhouse, and I won’t say why. But that image really stuck out to me, because it’s all of them walking in there in costume, including Thor in his full armor and flowing bright red cape. And I just thought, “This shot would never make it into a DC movie. It looks too much like a comic book.” And that was kind of enlightening to me. DC movies don’t look like comic books anymore. They look like sci-fi action-dramas. That’s a shame. I love DC characters, and DC has produced some great TV shows and cartoons, where I guess they feel more comfortable embracing the source material, but when it comes to movies, they freeze up. They want to make things dark, serious, edgy, and grounded in reality.

That’s not to say dark and edgy stories are bad, or even that they make bad comic book movies (or comic books, for that matter), but some initial trust in the source material is key. Superman isn’t dark. Superman is a boy scout like Captain America. Superman has the most unshakeable moral compass in comics. He will find a way to do things the RIGHT way. He is a good person first and an alien superhero second. Does that mean that a dark superman film like Man of Steel can’t work? No. It means you have to lay the ground work first. This is another thing that Marvel seems to understand about this cinematic universe business. They have the time. We all know that Captain America: Civil War is on the horizon. And we all know (or a lot of us do anyway) what that means: it means Captain America and Iron Man being on opposite sides of a major conflict. If this was the first Captain America film, it would have been a disaster. It’s too dark of an introduction for a character that is supposed to be THE moral standard of the Marvel universe. But Marvel laid the foundation down first. There are some moments of tension in Age of Ultron that tease at a rising conflict, and we know that Steve Rogers is a good person at this point, because we’ve seen it in action. So we will be more inclined to be on his side when he is butting heads with Tony Stark and whoever else Tony has on his side of the war. Man of Steel was a bad choice for a first movie. Warner Bros had a cinematic universe in mind. They could have done this as the second Superman movie, and it might have worked. Have a movie establishing Superman as a character. Have him fight a clear evil and prove to the world that he’s a beacon of righteousness. Show him refusing to take the easy, morally ambiguous route. Have him take the bad guy to some planet to live out his days in solitude or to a prison or something. Then have a movie like the second half of Man of Steel where General Zod attacks, and it’s a great big Kryptonian romp with cool fights…

SPOILERS: Okay. I am about to spoil the end of Man of Steel here to make a point, and since I am about to do that, I would like anyone who will be upset about that to stop reading.

And then we have the ending where Superman kills him. Superman’s broken, because he failed to adhere to this moral code that we have seen him stick to before, even when it seemed impossible. THEN in Batman V Superman, we see him act like he does in the beginning of Man of Steel, wandering from life to life trying to be a good person, but occasionally getting angry and destroying a guy’s semi-truck. Then Batman shows up and says “You’ve got to cool your shit,” and we have a confrontation, and then they work it out and form the Justice League. When you have the advantage of a cinematic universe, you have the ability to do set-up like that while still making the movies enjoyable and still being faithful to the characters that you are so lucky to have the rights to. Marvel gets that, but WB/DC doesn’t.

Anyway, this went way longer than I expected it to, but if you’ve read until the end, thanks. If you really liked Man of Steel, sorry I spent so long bashing it (I actually think the last act of the movie is pretty good. The Kryptonian fight scenes are great). I just wanted to make a point or maybe discover a reason why I look forward to every Marvel movie (even ones I am not sure about, like Ant-Man), but I dread every DC movie release. On the actual review front, Age of Ultron is great. You should go see it. It’s funny, Hawkeye steals the movie, and it works great as both a capstone movie for phase 2 and also as a set up for phase 3. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I would probably put it at number four or five in my “Movies in the MCU” list. I’m excited for what comes next, and I’m especially excited for Civil War. I just wish I could be excited for Batman V Superman, too, that’s all.

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