I saw Age of Ultron last night and like much of the Internet, I have Some Thoughts. But I thought that instead of doing a straight up review, this could be a Learning Moment ™ for all of us. Of course those thoughts ballooned and now this post is nearly five thousand words, so in the interest of time, I’m going to split this up. And there are massive, massive spoilers throughout for Avengers: Age of Ultron and the movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Let me begin this Teachable Time by saying that I actually did enjoy this movie. I laughed a lot, which is usually a good marker for my relative opinion. I began writing this post because the issues I had with A:AOU were, I think, avoidable. And given the general tone of the reaction I’ve seen, I’m not alone in this.
I think it’s at this point that I should also say that, up until now, I didn’t have a boeuf with Joss Whedon, nor did I have a deep understanding of the Marvel Comics Universe beyond what Wikipedia and tumblr have taught me about the various storylines. So I am not coming at A:AOU from the standpoint of a Whedon hater (or superfan) or as a slavish fan of the comics. In this post I will refer to decisions made in the writing/plotting and I will attribute them to Whedon; since he’s the grand poobah of the Avengers as the universe exists now, I’m assuming that he either wrote or approved of the writing of all of the things that happens. So if this is an incorrect assumptions, I’m happy to look at receipts and correct myself. I’m not here to bury or praise Whedon, or the larger Marvel universe, or even Avengers: Age of Ultron;
I’m just a girl, standing in front of a movie universe, asking it to give her narrative and emotional consistency.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe is a textbook example of how to keep audiences engaged in a wider universe while preserving engagement in individual story lines. Over and over Marvel has demonstrated that they can take comics characters who- up until the recent past, I would argue- didn’t have the most immediate cultural cachet*, and not only give them life onscreen, but make the audience care about them at every level of fan engagement, from the casual viewer to the writer of epic fan fiction. Since we live in a mid- or – post MCU world now, it’s hard to look back to that time in 2008 when everyone was scratching their heads going “Iron man? Is that the best tone to set? Also, RDJ? Doesn’t that guy do crack?” But there was that time. And then we got Iron Man, one of my favorite all-time movies. We got Iron Man 2, which I wasn’t big on at the time and look more fondly on in hindsight. And then we got Thor, which shouldn’t have worked but did, and then Captain America. These movies told strong individual stories for characters that audiences weren’t familiar with from comics unless they were hardcore fans. (And made Marvel a bucketload of money.) The first Avengers brought these storylines together against a common villain (Loki) who enlisted a weapon from the wider Marvel universe (the Scepter, the Chitauri ostensibly sent by Thanos).
So when I say that A:AOU was muddled, people might say that the first Avengers movie, which imo was a triumph of world building cohesion, only had what- five movie threads to integrate, and therefore it is unfair to compare the two. After all, in the time since Avengers we’ve had Thor 2, and the “death” of Loki; Tony Stark removed the Arc reactor from his chest at the end of Iron Man 3; Steve Rogers destroyed Shield (and Hydra) in Cap 2 while discovering the horrifying truth about his friend Bucky Barnes; and that’s not even mentioning Guardians of the Galaxy and the introduction of the Infinity stones and the (re)introduction of the Mad Titan Thanos as part of the larger Marvel universe.
That’s a lot of ground to cover, not even counting the introduction of the Scarlet Witch, Quicksilver, and Vision. But I argue that the inconsistency in A:AOU isn’t the result of the huge cast, but the result of choices made with the existing cast that undermine the narrative tension and make the audience less engaged with the new characters. Time to define some terms!
POINTS OF CARE
This is a question I ask my authors a lot during revisions. If you looked at the comments in documents I send back and forth, half of them are either “But Why?” or “But how does he feel/how does this make her feel?” Those are the questions that matter to me as a reader, and though they can’t be answered directly in a movie without sounding robotic (“You turning into a rage monster makes me feel sad”), the principle still stands- I want to know how events are making a character feel, even if they don’t tell me in words, and I want to know why something is happening.
To that end I would like to talk about something that I’ve been calling “points of care,” which I know sounds like soulless corporate speak. But hear me out! Each character on screen is a point of care for the viewer, who has to decide, given the information presented to them by the plot/story, how much care and emotional involvement to invest. And the characters themselves have points of care in the other people sharing the screen with them- and this web of relationships affects the viewer’s points of care and vice versa, letting the circle be unbroken.
There are a number of points of care that the MCU has established over what feels like ten movies. I’ve made a list here of who I am counting as the major points of care for the Avengers as previously introduced by the MCU, in relative order of closeness:
Tony Stark- Pepper Potts, Rhodey, JARVIS
Steve Rogers- Bucky Barnes, Peggy Carter, Sam Wilson
Black Widow- Clint Barton, Phil Coulson **, Nick Fury
Bruce Banner- Betty Whatsherface, Tony Stark I guess?***
Clint Barton- Natasha Romanov, Phil Coulson, Nick Fury
Thor- Jane Foster, Loki, Erik Selvig
In A:AOU, instead of maintaining and strengthening those points of care, entirely new relationships are introduced (sometimes with entirely new characters) and others are completely ignored. There’s an economy of storytelling in a movie like this- we expect the movie to be long, but for the payoff to be that we learn new things about the characters we care about and, if we are introduced to new characters, for them to be people we want to stick with. If the movie was muddled and baggy, it’s not the fault of all the new stuff that Marvel forced Whedon to incorporate—it’s because Whedon made dumb choices with the characters he already had on hand. He was being a bad story economist!
ECONOMY OF STORYTELLING
The word “economy” has two meanings.
First: the wealth and resources of a country or region, especially in terms of the production and consumption of goods and services.
Second: careful management of available resources.
In this sense, there is an economy of points of care in the Marvel Cinematic Universe – the relationship wealth of a group, and how that wealth changes. And every economy has to be managed, which gives you the second definition – you don’t want to waste your region’s wealth.
So this brings me directly to the Barton Home on the Prairie, Or: The Great Squandering. A:AOU massively wastes the web of points of care that the MCU has built up for Clint Barton, already the most underdeveloped Avenger. Instead of seeing him deepen his relationship with Natasha or his new teammates (beyond banter) we get a family that comes out of fucking nowhere. Where was the wife when he got compromised by Loki? When he came out from under mind control? In the aftermath, as they send Loki back to Asgard in chains?
This family might as well be one of Scarlet Witch’s hallucinations for all the relationship it has with Barton’s story so far. According to A:AOU, Fury helped Barton set up the safe house as a condition of his joining SHIELD when he was recruited. So Clint, a man we know little about, but who helped murder hundreds of agents on the Helicarrier and countless more on the ground in the Chitauri invasion, who inadvertently caused the death of his handler, who in the comics was a homeless circus attraction orphan, not only has a young family, but seems to be the most well-adjusted member of the team in the aftermath of the Battle of New York.
According to this interview in Buzzfeed, Joss Whedon is gleeful that “Hawkeye’s dark secret is that he doesn’t have a dark secret.” I’m going to go and punch something, but in the interest of keeping this informative for everyone, I’m going to do it off the page where you can’t see.
Now, it’s fine that Joss Whedon wants to do things he thinks are “cool” with characters. And in another situation, I might think that this is indeed a cool move – that Barton is the steady one in a sea of weirdos. But here’s where the economy metaphor comes in – it may be a cool move, but it wastes the fucking resources.
What do we know about Clint Barton’s points of care, according to the MCU? Phil Coulson’s shaken little message to Natasha- “Barton’s been compromised”- has inspired legions of fan fiction speculating on the relationship between these two characters. Whedon was able to inspire that with one line (and one performance from Clark Gregg). What made that moment even more compelling was the relationship that we saw unfold between Barton and Natasha after his “cognitive recalibration.” He asks how many he killed- she tells him not to go there, that this was “magic and monsters, nothing we were ever trained for.” And later in that conversation, Clint wonders that she has decided to become a soldier by fighting with the Avengers. This conversation tells us two things: that he is disturbed by his acts during his time as Loki’s puppet, and that he and Natasha have a long history with one another and with Shield.
Notice who didn’t come up in this conversation? A WIFE AND CHILDREN, WHO NATASHA APPARENTLY KNOWS AND IS FOND OF. “Are my wife and kid ok?” It doesn’t take much. No, we get the hints about Barton and Nat fighting in Budapest, and we get their mocking (unheard but implied) banter as Loki is led away in chains.
So this is the information we have- Clint and Natasha are very close, and he has at least a working relationship with Coulson. And given how underutilized he’s been up until A:AOU, it’s understandable that they’d want him to have more screen time. But this much time? And at the expense of the relationships that have already been developed? To put it simply, the audience doesn’t give a shit about Clint Barton’s random wife and kids because it’s completely unearned in the context of the MCU emotional economy as we know it so far.
- A casual fan resents the time that is spent developing this storyline at the expense of action.
- An intense fan of the movie universe resents the time developing this relationship at the expense of established relationships
- A fan of the comics might resent the fact that if you were going to give Hawkeye a low-key background, there are way more interesting ways to accomplish it while still remaining slightly rooted in the comics. (Hawkeye is a shambling yet lovable landlord! Who adopts a dog!)
Another example of the squandering of established points of care is the complete absence of Pepper Potts from A:AOU. Now, film scheduling being what it is, maybe they just straight up couldn’t get Gwyneth Paltrow for this movie. (Or Natalie Portman.) But it is a fact that when Stark gets Scarlet Witched, and sees all his friends laid out by the Chitauri, Pepper isn’t among the dead. (Is Rhodey there? I’m pretty sure he isn’t, but correct me if I’m wrong.) The only mention we get of her is when he and Thor have their dick-measuring contest about which of their girlfriends is more awesome. I will address this part later in the post, because, oof. Pepper doesn’t come into Tony’s calculations at all while building Ultron or fighting him. And since during Iron Man 3, when Pepper caught a bad case of Extremis and is now literally a fire monster, wouldn’t you think she’d come in handy in the fight against Ultron?
OK, I’m going to go breathe deeply into some wine and remind myself that there were things I liked about this movie.
So, what is the takeaway from this, writing-wise? (she says, into her nth glass of Pinto Grigio.) Whether in a long-running series or a single book, the reader can’t just forget what they’ve read up to this point. So when introducing new relationships and points of care, it’s important to balance those new relationships against what the reader knew abut the characters before.
SPEAKING OF ECONOMY OF STORYTELLING
What the hell is all this Ultron is in pain nonsense?
*takes another giant swig of wine*
I think that Ultron’s campaign to wipe out humanity was meant to be a manifestation of Tony Stark’s fear and anxiety- which, fine, but we have already had the Tony Stark Anxiety Hour- it was Iron Man 3, and it was one of the best character entries in the MCU. So I was not overjoyed that Whedon went back to this well. And the larger MCU handed Whedon a way to tie in both the recent universe history- the destruction of Shield and the Macguffinage of the Infinity Stones: why not have Ultron be more of a product of Hydra, more influenced by Hydra’s philosophy? Hell-bent on bending the world to Hydra’s will through the infinity stones?
Hear me out. Hydra was attempting to build a robot powered by the infinity stone inside the spear, which is what gave Tony the idea (even if he didn’t know the stone was there.) So instead of giving Ultron a half-assed “the world sucks and I just need to rule it” chaos philosophy, we could have had a philosophy informed by MCU events in combination with Tony Stark’s fear.
I’m not even sure if that last part made sense, but really, neither did Ultron’s motivation. He felt… bad about humanity? And this brings me to something else: Did anyone notice that Ultron was basically Dr. Horrible? “The world sucks, and I just need to rule it” might have been compelling enough for Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, but it was not enough for the motivation of the villain of an Avengers movie.
What’s the takeaway here for writers? I think that movies like A:AOU and probably the upcoming Infinity Wars might be suffering from the belief that the danger always has to be the physical destruction of the world. One of the most interesting facets of the Hydra storyline is that it capitalizes on what’s happening in society today– the paranoia of the surveillance state, the privatization of world security, the sacrifices we’re willing to make in order to keep ourselves “safe.” There are a number of world-ending scenarios present in those ideas that don’t involve the dropping of a giant chunk of Eastern Europe on an unsuspecting Earth, killing billions. When the physical consequences become so huge, they become abstract – if you asked me to summarize Tony Stark’s plan to stop the giant chunk of city from killing people, I’m not sure that I could. What do we sacrifice when we say, yes, I accept this monitoring, knowing that its in the common interest? What kind of world are we creating?
I’m not sure if Whedon et al think that these kinds of stories are too small – or maybe they’re facing too much pressure from the Marvel honchos to incorporate certain storylines, I don’t know. But when thinking about plotting the overall arc of a series, especially one with epic scope involving lots of characters, the stakes don’t always have to be the physical end of the world. And if there’s going to be a physical threat, the basis and motivation for that threat is always stronger if it taps into an emotion that has at least been suggested by what has come before.
So that’s nearly 3,000 words right here and I haven’t even talked about Black Widow, the Hulk, or Steve Rogers, or- wait, I’m sorry, I have to go take some blood pressure medication.
I hope this has been interesting and Part 2 is coming soon!