[I wrote this the Monday after the movie opened, then forgot it was in my drafts folder. Since it’s doubled the Chinese box office of the first film in one week, and has yet to open in Japan, it looks like it might hit $1 Billion overseas. But not $450 Million in the U.S. Anyway, I know the beginning of the blockbuster season was an eternity ago, and forgotten like every other Marvel event, but since the Marvel Cinematic Universe is an ongoing money-making machine, this is still relevant.]
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Enter a Messenger
Thou comest to use thy tongue; thy story quickly.
Sunday afternoon [May 4], I sat and watched Avengers: Age of Ultron with friends. We waited in line, but it wasn’t very long, and we got decent seats. Even though I paid $15 to watch, I did enjoy the movie, but I was sorely disappointed overall.
Here’s how I would have pitched the movie:
- Following the success of the multiple “Marks” in Iron Man 3, Stark International markets “Iron Legion” androids.
- The first “real world” test during the raid of Strucker’s lab is less than stellar. Instead of A.I., the IL bots are drone soldiers, remotely controlled by soldiers far away. Then Tony sees his nightmare vision, and decides to create a better A.I.
- Ultron gains sentience during the cocktail party, processes a million scenarios in a microsecond, and instantly disappears into the Internet.
- A year passes. Secrets from the Battle of Midtown surface, including the decision to nuke Manhattan. Public opinion begins to turn against SHIELD and the Avengers. (See: DC’s “Legends”) (Include the current Zeitgeist of online harassment and “preaching to the choir”.) NASA reports that it has lost contact with a Lunar rover during landing.
- Nobody notices that Sokovia [Latveria?], an isolated postage-stamp country in eastern Europe has had a regime change… their media is closed (a la North Korea), and the images released are, of course, CGI’d by Ultron. Meanwhile, its factories are converted to producing more armored robots. (Remember how Hitler rearmed the Rheinland right before the Second World War?)
- A suitcase nuke explodes at the Ka’aba during the Hajj. Pakistan retaliates, and the Avengers have to once again deflect a few nuclear missiles, this time from Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. As the missile detonate high in the mesosphere, Earth is hit with a worldwide blackout. Y2K15. Computer systems are offline. Substations and energy plants suffer extensive damage. There are a few nuclear plant meltdowns, most are self-contained. Did the Avengers cause the blackout via the nuclear missiles? Some think so, and voice their opinions online, and in public protests, and via talking heads.
- People begin acting strange. Hydra? Extremis? Organic nanites replicating in human hosts are the cause, affecting the brain chemistry and neuron passageways. Some people, unaware of the tiny robots, suspect this is another symptom from the nuclear bombs. [Reference the strange health symptoms from Ground Zero.]
- People become cyborg zombies, and Ultron activates a backdoor in the Stark robo-soldiers, turning them into Ultroids. The U.S. and others go to DefCon 1, as everything goes south very quickly. Minutes after Cheyenne Mountain is locked down, meteorites from the Moon begin to pummel the region, and other parts of the globe.
- A team of Avengers is sent to the Moon to take out the rail gun built by Ultron’s nanites. Micro-gravity, lack of atmosphere, are the dangers, including Ultroids. [Tease the Inhumans and the Blue Area of the Moon.]
- While humans outnumber the Ultroids on Earth, the Ultroids are repaired by nanite swarms. The Deus Ex Machina? Iron Man himself. He uploads open-sourced armor schematics that anyone can build. (From Mark XL models similar to Tony and Rhodey, to simple Kevlar suits and “Iron Chariots” built from subcompact cars.) Lots of human casualties, a la Stalin. Maybe you add some visual teasers of other heroes fighting. (This gets the fans on your side. “YOU can be a superhero!” Maybe it’s like the 501st. Maybe it’s guys modding cars like people build Batmobiles and droids.)
- Eventually, Ultron is cornered, but escapes by broadcasting himself into deep space. The world starts to recover, but doubt remains. Did Ultron mirror himself? Is there Ultron code hibernating online? What about those nanites?
- In the end credits, we hear Ultron speaking with Thanos, as we learn that Ultron (along with Loki) was just one part of Thanos’ plan to acquire the Infinity stones.
This then leads into Captain America 3: Civil War
Public opinion immediately turns against Stark International. Class action lawsuits are filed. Tony Stark goes into protective custody as the United Nations immediately coordinates global recovery efforts, overseen by SHIELD. Faced with technical and extraterrestrial threats, a global government is created with great oversight powers, allowing countries sovereignty unless they threaten the peace. [See: Squadron Supreme miniseries.]
Stark International is “internationalized” as part of SHIELD, in return for protection against all lawsuits. Tony becomes a modern-day Howard Hughes, out of the limelight, hidden away in a SHIELD facility, doing mad scientist stuff. Iron Patriot assumes most of Iron Man’s duties.
Sokovia [Latveria] is the first to refuse SHIELD inspectors. It soon becomes a SHIELD “protectorate”. Public opinion is mixed… it was an oligarchy before Ultron, a possible powder keg. Now? And what do other countries think of this? Which will be next? And what is
Hydra planning? (American conservatives are conflicted… they want security and a strong military, but will they give up freedoms?
So there’s the New World Order conspiracy theory, there’s the question of how do you control the superheroes, and who handles that power? SHIELD has been compromised once, why not again?
That’s where Captain American and Tony Stark disagree. The world itself is split. East vs West. Security vs Freedom. Conservatives vs Progressives. Brains vs. Heart.
But maybe that’s all too dark for Marvel and Disney Consumer Products.
Were I a comics fan, I’d feel a little manipulated by Marvel. “Age of Ultron” is misnamed. There’s no “age”… it’s more of a “week”. There’s no robo-apocalypse; the robot hordes teased on the San Diego poster never really appear. (Just like those classice Marvel comic book covers!)
Tony Stark is correct in this movie… the Avengers aren’t ready for another Big Threat like the Chitauri. They can barely handle Ultron, or a trickster god with a simple mind-control device. But that’s the crux of superhero team movies… how do you create a threat that’s too big for one superhero to battle? Eight heroes against one stupid robot? That’s not too difficult. Both Avengers movies don’t have that “End of the World as We Know It” urgency, or even a comeback moment from the Despair Event Horizon.
Perhaps we’re standing in the shadow of Victor von Doom’s tears and Superman’s gravesite, and we don’t want to be reminded of the real world around us. Maybe these types of movies should be nothing more than a death ray, a mad scientist, and a secret agent to thwart them, just like the Saturday matinees of yore. Perhaps we want escapism from the Big Threats in the real world, just as James Bond was a major distraction from the Cold War. We can handle radioactive gold vaults, atomic earthquakes, explosive space modulators, even disintevaporaters. Crumbling office buildings, not so much. That might be why Guardians of the Galaxy did so well… it has more fantasy than the Avengers. more distance from the real world, while replicating and mixmastering most of the tropes from the Avengers heroes.
Keep it simple and formulaic in tone… it worked for James Bond, it works for Transformers, it works for The Fast and the Furious (which likely will be the #1 movie of the year). Introduce the Macguffin, define the heroes and villains, create conflict, save the day, make it look cool, and Act Three sets up the next phase of the franchise, rising the action and anticipation with each subsequent movie. If you want to win awards, make a black comedy about superheroes or doomsday devices.
This might be what dooms the DC slate, if it gets made. Too much sound and fury, grim and gritty, Sturm und Drang, not enough escapism. Best to keep things light, maybe define a role model for the younger viewers. Make it all popcorn and picture shows, like Juvenal suggested, and pay no attention to the projectionist. Your suspension of disbelief is what keeps you from falling into the abyss.