Sunday, May 3, 2015

Stop The Universe, I Want To Get Off (Age Of Ultron, Age Of Nope)

Months back, after thinking about how well Marvel Studios gambled to great success in 2014, it felt to me as if a great gamble had finally paid off. After decades of marginal adaptations, false starts, and years of self-conscious film production, it certainly felt as if the superhero film had finally come into its own. Every MCU film post Joss Whedon's The Avengers seemed to herald something of a salad period in which the comic book film could finally exist in all its pulpy, soap operatic glory. Gone were the notions of spandex-questioning team members, and overt grit-ification of once larger than life serial landscapes. Marvel had finally cracked the code to making films that could not only satisfy the most die-hard devotee, but also rake in droves of new action and adventure lovers the world over. It's a mix generations in the making, and as such Avengers: Age Of Ultron, feels like the final culmination of that dream.  

Which brings me to the reason for this quasi-review. As a lover of all things cinematic, as well as someone with a love for breadth of storytelling, observing the major studios and their wishes to each hone together their resources toward creating successful shared universes with which to better compete with Disney's caped juggernauts, has led me to come to a singular conclusion that may sever me from a generation that seems to be experiencing something of a cinematic renaissance - A wish to step off the shared universe concept, and to seek newer means of enjoying myths without feeling like a once powerful business' last refuge. As much as these filmmakers have been doing some impressive work, and what was once considered a shelter for young admirers of fantasy, is now considered monstrous commodity, there is something truly telling within Age Of Ultron that shares a solid, sobering message; that saturation and lack of variety are the death of vitality in all forms of communication. It's ultimately a blandening mechanism for not only business, but for art as well.

While the second chapter in what is Marvel's flagship series, Tony Stark's discovery of this deeply complex programming, leads him toward a path which places his fears at odds with his comrades. The Ultron Program, which on the surface promises a more secure world, not only from those who would threaten the Earth and its occupants, but from this increasing population of empowered beings who threaten to cause as much damage and suffering. Naturally, this doesn't fare well at all, leading to what is easily one of the most jaw-tearing grand action spectacles ever filmed. The cast travels from one end of the globe to the other as allegiances are shattered and formed, and comic book soap opera reaches the pinnacle of its form in under two-hours plus. And as impressive as it sounds, Age Of Ultron suffers largely from not only an event heavy storyline, an endless parade of characters, and a pace that stumbles rather than flows, the film grinds when the form should coast.It practically beats us into pure indifference.

Also a casualty of the form reaching this milestone; a threat to focus and memorability. Ever since Return Of The Jedi, filmmakers have been steadily piling on the multi-battle storytelling form to diminishing returns. Where once three separate battles could make the head spin, but miraculously maintain focus between character beats and dramatic pace, Ultron leaves so much underfocused, and little to actually absorb. Character moments shine, and rekindle interest, where action events are often pulling the brain apart, vying endlessly for attention. For all the technology we have to finally visualize the most astonishing visions of apocalypse, and derring do by beings that can easily resemble gods, it isn't terribly compelling, nor nearly as fun as it could be if it were mounting with something more mathematical in mind. Gone are the days of simple set pieces like the truck chase in Raiders Of The Lost Ark, where we had simple stakes, clear choreography, and editing and music that truly sell the stakes.

Which leads me to another casualty of this new paradigm..Music.

This has been addressed before elsewhere, but it couldn't be more damning a notion. That with mass production comes a lowering of standards in one section or another, and in the case of these Marvel films, there has yet to be a single truly memorable score. Considering the action pedigree that these films often pay homage to, the lack of a driving, effectively emotional orchestral score is a stunning vacuum to consider. Whether it be the work of recent composers like Henry Jackman, Brian Tyler, and even Alan Silvestri, there has yet to be the kind of consideration made for the sonic spirit of the film. Without it, and with music that often feels like temp tracks for a generic action reel, all one has is the spectacle to drive matters. Which would be fine if the stakes actually felt palpable.

So in short, once we have multiple characters with their own separate film series combining together every few years, we are pretty assured that the drama will not threaten the future. And in doing so, what our film experience is, is nothing less than episodic television. That is the end game of the shared universe model. We are ostensibly paying to watch hundred million dollar episodes, where very often the dramatic stakes (along with the music) must represent the general overhead in that they cannot reach past a certain ceiling. Which only serves to undercut the drama of what we are actually watching. This, is poisonous to the filmgoing experience to some, myself included. It simply isn't encouraging enough to enjoy another adventure of a favorite action hero, there needs to be something these characters could lose beyond a simple two hour running time. Like emotions and money, investments remain a vital part of the moviewatching experience for me, so without the feeling that there is something to lose from the drama unspooling before us, it feels very much like being treated like a creature of habit. Like a junkie. Like an ATM.

And far be it from me to determine what others should place value in, habit should not be one of them. Having been a longtime fan of anime television series, I know what it is to be taken for a ride from a serialized work that seems to offer no real dramatic stakes let alone a finite path. After a while, it feels like nothing more than a means to stay employed. It becomes a paycheck. And when routine sets in for any form of art, cracks begin to show in realms of passion. It's just inevitable. We see it in all forms of creativity whether it be punk rock, typography, and even diets; once we make the revolutionary the norm, blandness sets in, and so does the rot. It simply isn't all things to all people. Where only the addicted stick around. Again, this is perhaps a bit presumptuous, but Age Of Ultron smacks to me of the beginning of said atrophy. As Joss Whedon walks away from these megapictures, as do I. As fun as it has been, it serves the soul a great deal to seek more than mere distractions. The world is far too vast a place to spend it cycling toward infinity.

It happened to the slasher film. It happened to the simple sequel.

It will happen to the shared universe.

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