Are you one of the millions of Americans who helped propel Joss Whedon’s Avengers: Age of Ultron to the second biggest domestic movie opening of all time this weekend ($187.7 million)? And if so, did you like it?
I did not like it. It felt like the cinematic equivalent of treading water. There are too many characters given too little to do so as not to upset the balance of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which is currently scheduled to extend to July 2019’s Inhumans, the franchise’s planned 22nd movie. Between now and then, we’ll get Captain America: Civil War (2016) and a possibly climactic two-part Avengers: Infinity War (2018 and 2019). That’s a long time to be treading water. Everyone’s arms are getting tired and it shows.
Age of Ultron had the loud, ultimately disorienting action sequences we’ve come to expect, as well as some threadbare character development: Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) feels caught between his job as a superhero and his family, Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) is more self-invested than ever, Captain America (Chris Evans) said a curse word, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) still has a very heavy hammer, and Black Widow (Scarlett Johannson) finally has a man to serve (Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk). Finally, I’m sure she feels complete.
These movies have the entitlement of a Twitter power user. “You care about what we’re doing here deeply,” they all seem to say, and the resulting output is as underwhelming as someone whose greatest lines are reserved for self-praise. The episodic, umpteenth-part nature of this series is reminiscent of a TV show or comic book series (duh), rolled out excruciatingly slowly. But before you ask, “Wait, what happened last time?,” realize that nothing happened last time. None of the Avengers died, their characters were further shaded in ever so lightly, if that, and they saved the world again. Got it?
Almost all movie franchises have expiration dates (with the exception of, weirdly enough, The Fast and the Furious, which is more profitable than ever). If this franchise is able to command attention through 2019, it will achieve the unthinkable. Sustaining attention over time is a Herculean feat for which the greatest superheros are no match, hence the perpetual rebooting and reconfiguring. Maybe it’s an obvious prediction that the Avengers series will fall out of vogue before its scheduled finale, but it’s only now that I’ve noticed other critics growing weary of this universe that they have to have a position on because the Avengers are pop culture.
“Marvel universe’s perpetually delayed epic convergence, is starting to get a little tiresome,” wrote Richard Lawson at Vanity Fair. “You wind up with the distinct impression that, if there was anything to understand, it wasn’t worth the sweat,” said The New Yorker’s Anthony Lane. “It’s hard to muster the attention span to care about Earth’s Mightiest Heroes when we know they’ll just be back to do it all again in a few years,” is how The Daily Beast’s Jen Yamato put it. Similar sentiment was expressed by Indie Wire, Forbes, The Wrap, and EW, whose Chris Nashawaty sums up how I’ve been feeling about this franchise for years:
My real beef with these movies—and this one in particular—is how same-y they’ve started to feel. Each time out, everything is at stake and nothing is at stake. Someone wants to destroy the world, but none of our heroes is ever in any jeopardy. With sequels already lined up for the next decade, how much danger could any of them be in? They’re too valuable to the bottom line. And where’s the excitement in that?
One thing that has distinguished the Marvel cinematic universe, besides obscene box office receipts, is critical acclaim. Avengers: Age of Ultron has a healthy 75 percent at Rotten Tomatoes, but that’s 17 percentage points below Whedon’s 2012 original. Is the tide turning? Are you sick of these movies, or are you willing to swallow whatever lame jokes and bombastic action they throw at you as they do little more than neatly make way for the next installment, which will in turn neatly make way for the installment after that? (Caveat: When the franchise deviates from the Avengers path, takes risks and gets weird as it did in last year’s Guardians of the Galaxy, magic is possible. Even though I don’t generally like these movies, I always enter the theater hoping I will. For those two reasons, I’m excited for Ant-Man.)
Or maybe these are just big, dumb, vaguely humorous action movies that you enjoy in full knowledge of exactly what they are, not expecting anything richer or more exciting, and not being disappointed when you are delivered yet another mostly heart-free chapter that serves to merely extend the story and keep you coming back. That’s OK too, I guess.