The Avengers: Age Of Awesome (I mean Ultron) and How Marvel Changed Storytelling
Welcome back! And today, we’re talking the about Avengers. And, for real, do I have to put the “spoiler alert” on this? Seriously? I gave you 2 ½ weeks—you know I was in the theater the day before it came out—okay, fine, I’m probably gonna fuck it up so if you haven’t seen it don’t click on blogs that talk about it. Got it? Good.
Waaaaaayyyy back in 2008, when the Honey Badger was in love with My Little Pony, not boys, Marvel, a fledgling comic book company, decided to get into the movie business to try and stave off bankruptcy. They didn’t have much–$50 million and a dream, the most popular superhero (who they didn’t have the rights to), and a crazy idea: bring the serialized, episodic storytelling approach of monthly comic books to the sliver screen. They made a gamble on a second-tier character and cast some unknown actor (Roberty Downey Jr—you might have heard of him but don’t go crashing IMDB to figure out who he is now). The gamble paid off and now, 7 years down the road, they’ve unleashed 11 movies (including the 3rd and 4th highest grossing of all time), branched into both primetime and streaming television, and changed the nature of cinematic storytelling.
And that’s the thing: Marvel changed storytelling onscreen. We’ll get there in a sec.
I’m not gonna do a review of the movie because there’s really too much and I want to talk about something else but let me hit just a few items:
- “Please be a secret door, please be a secret door – Yay!”
- Ultron’s birth captures the essence of the character immediately: “Where is your body? This is weird. Give me a second.” And then, “Why do you call him a sir?” In James Spader’s voice you get a unique take on the villain right off the bat. I’ll have to do a separate villain review—do you really think I wouldn’t? Come on, it’s me
- Thor’s face when Cap moved the hammer. Priceless.
- I mean, Hawkeye? For real? Yeah, Hawkeye.
- Ultron ripping that dude’s arm off—“Ooohhh! I’m sure that’s gonna be okay.” He RIPPED HIS ARM OFF! I couldn’t stop laughing.
- You know I’ve watched the lightsaber fight between Anakin and Obi-Wan in Episode III plenty of times. It’s visually stunning and has some pretty emotional overtones. But guys, tell me, does it get better than the Hulk vs. the Hulkbuster? “Go to sleep, go to sleep, go to sleep!”
- The Vision! Let me pause here: in Spider-Man 3, there is a really beautiful scene when the Sandman comes together for the first time. There’s no words, just a soaring score and we watch this sand-creature try to pull himself together to grab his daughter’s picture. It’s honestly the best scene in the film. The Vision’s origin is pretty similar in effect. I loved that scene, a violent birth, then peace, floating in that window looking at his reflection. Becoming himself
- “Oh, for God’s sake!”
- Nick Fury is a beast!
It’s that last one I want to talk about. Nick Fury is a beast. Nick Fury has been the audience proxy through the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe (Guardians of the Galaxy excepted), walking us through the characters and providing connective tissue to a larger story. At the end of Iron Man, he actually tells Tony “Mr. Stark, you’ve become part of a bigger universe.” Fury recruited Tony Stark, sent Tony to get the Hulk, sent Coulson to debrief Thor, found Captain America, and manages Hawkeye and Black Widow. That’s 10 movies and 3 television shows connected through this one proxy, not only introducing us to the world but pushing the narrative forward.
Marvel isn’t the first to create a shared universe. Universal did it a long time ago with their monsters and the whole Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman and Abbott & Costello nonsense. The closest, and best, example of this is Star Trek—the 5-year mission of the starship Enterprise spawned 4 television shows and 9 movies across 3 different centuries and 2 different time continuities. Connection isn’t what makes Marvel unique.
Marvel didn’t make a connected universe; they made a cohesive one. A single story, made up of multiple vantage points and points of view; one story that looks both past and present. You might think you’re watching the combined story about how Tony Stark as Iron Man and Bruce Banner/Hulk and Captain America and Thor and SHIELD got together over 5 movies to battle Loki and the Chitauri. You’re not. You’re watching Thanos trying to get the Infinity Stones and witnessing the repercussions of his machinations on Earth. You’re not watching Agent Carter breaking sexual stereotypes 60 years in the past; you’re watching the fall out of the pursuit of one of those Infinity Stones on Earth and the organizations that rose to fight for and against its use. You’re not just watching Matt Murdock whop on thugs in Hell’s Kitchen (though he beats the living shit outta people—for real, you see him beating them Russians in the hallway?), you’re watching the rise of a vigilante in the shadow of a city torn apart by the Avengers when they fought Loki and Chitauri, which we now know is really the repercussions of Thanos trying to get the Infinity Stones. You get all that?
Age of Ultron is really just the next chapter in the story. That’s the biggest complaint everyone has about this movie and they’re right. It is an advertisement for what’s coming. But it always has been. It’s just the 2-hour Friday night Law & Order crossover event. It doesn’t change the overall story but it does alter the narrative trajectory of our principal characters.
Marvel has been telling one story that traverses time and space and each episode uncovers another layer to that one story. By the time they’re finished with this one story, they will have released 21 films and 7 television shows. In 12 years. And they’ve made $8B in the process.
And they did it all through 2-minute button scenes after the credits began to roll.
That, my friends, is how you change storytelling.