Over at Wired, Sady Doyle brought the ruckus after staggering, ashen-faced and grief-stricken, from the orgiastic ka-bloomery of Avengers: Age of Ultron. To read her (mostly pretty compelling) diatribe against the flip-book style character development of Ultron, you’d think the latest Marvel tentpole eradicated cinema and salted the earth behind it, leaving nothing but a remainder bin full of crappy Iron Man Halloween costumes and a cocktail napkin containing Joss Whedon’s suicide note.
Here's the gist, if you don't want to sift through the cinders:
‘Age of Ultron’ is quite possibly the worst movie of Whedon’s career, and I can’t get over it. I’ve been obsessed with this movie for a week now, poking through it in my mind, trying to figure out what went wrong. I mean, it’s just plain hacky, in ways I frankly have trouble comprehending: It’s riddled with cliches, shortcuts, set-ups without pay-offs, elements that seem, not like bad choices, but like actual mistakes.”
The point here being that Marvel has taken to making movies so riddled with product placements for other Marvel movies that watching them has become an exercise in Mobius-strip navel-gazing. This isn't a problem that begins and ends with Age of Ultron, of course; I caught Iron Man 2 on FX the other night and found that I'd forgotten pretty much everything that happens in that movie for a very good reason: It was all disposable. The only character with even a whiff of a character arc was Tony Stark going from arrogant prick, to arrogant prick who thinks he might die from radiation poisoning, to somewhat quieted prick who wants to marry Gwyneth Paltrow, presumably because he's now a prick who's finally ready to give up gluten.
The characters in Age of Ultron didn't travel much further, but I got a kick out of it all the same, in the way that I enjoy watching a motorcycle leap ramp-to-ramp over a canyon, or watching a good ol' fashioned casino implosion. To Doyle's point, yeah, there wasn't much in the way of further character development: Hawkeye, it turns out, has a very nice family stashed out in the countryside, while Bruce Banner and Natasha Romanoff might apparently knock boots but are totally not into making babies. Do we need a great deal more than this, though? This is a telenovela for children, underwritten by grown-ups who still enjoy watching Hulk smash; it doesn't need to be Remains of the Day, though come to think of it, that would be a spot-on title for an Avengers sequel.
It would be fair, though, to compare the generally rote joys of Age of Ultron to a predecessor that did render its characters in three dimensions, did have some emotional resonance, did depart from the formula if only because it had to acknowledge the limits on the seriousness of centering a feature film around a talking tree and a criminally insane raccoon, among other savories. Guardians of the Galaxy was either the most calculated faux-weird blockbuster in recent memory or it was genuinely pretty weird. Exhibit in support of the latter: adopting a borderline offputting kitsch sound like the ooga-chaka-ooga-ooga-ooga-chaka chant of "Hooked on a Feeling" as its signature sound.
Keep listening to that soundtrack, if you like, to get a sense of how steeped the movie was in building Chris Pratt's Peter Quill into a three-dimensional being, with a back story. His mother gave him that awesome mix before he was sucked out into space, and it's integral to his concept of himself in a way that makes us care about whether he dies in, say, a botched arrest as he lifts some kind of Indiana Jones knockoff artifact from deep space.
Guardians of the Galaxy was unexpected and fun and resonant in a way that undermines and underscores Doyle’s argument. Marvel can treat its own material — its own audiences — with a respect. It was proof that not everything has to be paint-by-numbers CGI explosion porn. Marvel is capable of better, and showed as much only last year. This is still a deep and varied universe we’re plumbing. Despair is premature, even as general crankiness is fully justified.