Saturday, May 2, 2015

The Issue with Age of Ultron

At this point, I think there's more or less a consensus on Age of Ultron. As a collection of action sequences and jokes, it was a lot of fun. But as a cohesive story, it falls flat. That was certainly my take, and - based on a quick glance at the blurbs on Rotten Tomatoes - it seems to reflect what most critics thought.

Since I saw the movie, I've been thinking a lot about where it went wrong, and I've come up with a surprising conclusion. The way I see it, the main problem with Age of Ultron wasn't actually in Age of Ultron. I think it started in Iron Man 3.

Age of Ultron was too busy. It had too many characters and plot points to introduce, and it wound up stuffing two movies' worth of content into a single film. The thing is, they had a lot more than two movies to work with. Phase Two of the Marvel Cinematic Universe consisted of five movies (six, counting the upcoming Ant-Man), two seasons of Agents of SHIELD, and mini-seasons of Agent Carter and Daredevil.

Building an interconnected world on this scale requires multi-dimensional story telling. A Marvel movie needs to work as a self-contained chapter, as well as a part (or, in the case of Age of Ultron, a culmination) of one or more larger stories. Ideally, Age of Ultron would have worked on at least three different levels: a stand-alone story about established characters, a conclusion to "Phase Two", and the middle chapter of the Infinity War story. Oh, and might as well wrap up an arc encompassing Phase One and Two.

I'd argue it was a better cap to Phases One and Two than two alone, and it didn't really deliver a satisfying self-contained movie. Whether it works as a chapter in the Infinity War Saga remains to be seen, but it certainly seems to have pulled its weight in terms of set-up.

But if they'd played their cards right from the start, I think the studio could have managed it all. They had plenty of space to develop the concepts they wanted to tell without it feeling cramped, but they didn't use their screen time to its fullest.

Iron Man 3 was the biggest missed opportunity. Without changing anything substantial, they could easily have used that film to introduce Ultron as a concept, simply by replacing the small army of AI suits with a small army of AI Ultron units. Change the "House Party" protocol to him activating a swarm of Ultron bots, and you could have set up the concept - and even the character - of Ultron two years before he turned on Tony. The whole Ultron thing wouldn't have felt nearly as rushed, leaving them with more time to expand the twins and Vision.

In their defense, Marvel was making Iron Man 3 before Avengers came out, so they can be forgiven for wanting to hedge their bets on the strengths of their shared universe. The first movie that started production after Avengers's success was Winter Soldier, the one movie in Phase Two that integrated qualities of both the shared universe and stand-alone movies. Based on what we've heard about Phase Three, Winter Soldier is probably going to be the template for stand-alones based off of established Avengers characters.

There was another missed opportunity, and that revolves around Agents of SHIELD. After a rough first season, the series has hit its stride. The episodes are pretty consistently fun, the characters are strong, and the writing is sharp.

This is a good show, but it's kind of wasted. I can understand why Disney didn't want them giving away the Hydra reveal before Winter Soldier came out, but for the life of me I can't fathom why Baron Strucker wasn't the season 2 villain. His bit part in Age of Ultron could have carried some weight if he'd been used in the show. Instead, he came off as an Easter Egg.

There's a lot of potential in Agents of SHIELD: the team clearly has the talent to turn out great work. Marvel should let them play a bigger part in the connected universe.

Phase Three's in a good place, even with the issues at the end of Phase Two. This is all new territory for film, and Marvel is still ahead of the curve. I just hope they learn from their mistakes, because they've certainly made a few.

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