Marvel has been everywhere these past few years (and years and years) and have been hard at work importing a large-scale, intertextual, story world from their comic properties to the movies. In doing so, they’ve gone a long way toward recreating their segment of film production in the image of the comic book market.
I’m no specialist (there are researchers who are), but I see the comic-film market as governed by two narrative impulses. The first is an elaborate cross-film machine that builds toward event movies like the first Avengers, which arrived after years of individual films and post-credit teaser segments. The second is the production of episodic filler pieces that may technically contribute to the build up for the next event but essentially “feed the beast” by offering up the cinematic equivalent of a stand-alone comic story.
Ant-Man, with its stock story, is a product of this second impulse; Avengers: Age of Ultron, the first. Or more precisely, it seems designed to move the machine forward while shutting down the event that was the first film. This means dealign with certain problems I suspect are inherent in Marvel’s model of film production.
Comics and movies are deeply related in practice. Both present visual interpretations of scripts in media that rely on montage and a careful control of point-of-view. A film’s storyboards capture this relationship perfectly: created as a stage in film production, they look like comic books. Yet the two industries are very different too, and I have questions about how those differences play out in the long term.
Actors: Marvel’s success these past few years has rested upon the work of a few talented actors and/or stars. But this is no longer the Hollywood of the 30s, and these actors are not studio property. They are free to work elsewhere, and many of them clearly define success in ways that require they work outside of the realm of superhero films. How much juice can you squeeze from the Johansson-Ruffalo-Downey Jr. lemon, if someone like Chris Evans—a star whose entire career is based on performances in superhero films—condescends to the genre and is vocal about his intent to complete his contract with Marvel and do other things?
Directors: All of contemporary film culture lionizes the director as an artist, a creator. Not every director makes art, but today, that means that those who don’t have failed or are hacks. Marvel has, as with actors, benefited from the contributions of some very talented directors, but Marvel’s overall approach harkens back to a pre-Griffin production model in which the studio is the artist and the marketable name. The director is an employee, talented and respected, but taking direction. Which top-notch directors (and I’m not even talking auteurs here) will accept to work like this? Branagh is probably not coming back. Whedon’s clearly done. Directors make movies that pay in order to make the movies they want all the time, but I’m curious who will make Marvel’s movies in the coming years.
Narrative: How many years can a series of films drag out an single explicit story arc? TV and film have been exploring this limit for at least the past few decades. HBO’s programming like Deadwood and now The Game of Thrones are notable examples, but there are others. Film series that adapt books have been doing the same in cinema, although they have until recently been strongly episodic: think Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, and The Hunger Games (and its imitators like Divergent and now The Maze Runner.)
Marvel is pushing things further by not directly adapting established books and by replacing a long-running series of films with a large-scale network of films. This is fascinating. Is there any other instance in the history of cinema of an entire studio’s production being devoted to the development of a single story-world?. But it’s also potentially exhausting. Who can (or will) keep up? I’m actually pretty bored with the post-credit teaser of Josh Brolin in purple-face trying to sound ominous and am lost regarding what he’s supposedly plotting. I think it had something to do with the ice-people in the first Thor movie way back in 2011?
The latest Avengers directly addresses the first and last of these concerns. The story both cleans out the stable of actors who are going elsewhere and introduces those who will fill the team in coming instalments. This last bit is, I presume, the first tease in the buildup for the next major event-movie in the cycle. The star power of those leaving and those arriving is shockingly different though. So I’m curious how that plays out.
All that said, a few things about the movie itself stuck out for me, so I want to note them.
Avengers is a war film. By that I mean, I’m surprised how heavily it draw on the conventions of the war film. How many of the earlier films did the same? They are certainly all obsessed with the military and militarism. (cf. thoughts about epic fantasy while reading Battle Cry of Freedom.)
Ultron is clearly a place-holder villain of the sort you see in one-off instalments in comics. Freed of the burden of surviving and becoming an On-going Threat To Our Very Existence®, he gets to have a wacky plan to kill everybody “wwhahahahahaha!” And I liked that. I also LOVED that when he is finally defeated, he is destroyed off-screen, a nice and oddly respectful touch that avoids glorying in his death.
This movie has so very many parts, all in the air at once, all needing to be juggled, and somehow Whedon holds it all together and it works. It was exhausting, but I’m very impressed by what he pulls off. With smart writing and clever direction.
This was the first film I watched in my blockbuster marathon.