Joss Whedon: Age of Ultron's Directing Marvel

When February 22nd rolls around next year, I can guarantee that Avengers: Age of Ultron will not be nominated for Best Picture. Nor should it be for, in my opinion, the movie always has too much going on to ever come together in a complete and fully rewarding way. That said, I can also guarantee that Joss Whedon will miss a nomination as Best Director, and this will be a far greater oversight. That is because while Avengers: Age of Ultron may not be an incredibly “good” movie, it is still a really fun and well-made one. Considering the weight of characters, plot threads, action sequences, and emotional threads that all had to be balanced: this is an achievement, one that is not likely to be repeated this year (and perhaps ever).

Alas, Whedon will have to contend with simply being adored by fans as a great director and a leader in the feminist human rights movement... what a shame.
Alas, Whedon will have to contend with simply being adored by fans as a great director and a leader in the feminist human rights movement… how will he sleep at night?

To give a rundown: Age of Ultron is the continuing adventures of Captain America, Iron Man, the Incredible Hulk, Thor, Black Widow, Hawkeye, and Nick Fury – meaning all these characters are in the movie. Oh, and let’s not forget the three new Avengers: Quicksilver, Scarlet Witch, and the Vision (of these characters begin the movie as villains). Okay, got them too. Oh and let’s not forget the cameos and supporting characters: War Machine, Falcon, Maria Hill, Stan Lee (cause apparently he needs at least one scene), Peggy Carter, Heimdall, Erik Selvig, Baron Strucker, Ulysses Klaue, and many others… seriously – there are others. I’m just done listing them. Oh, and OH YEAH – Ultron… and Thanos too…

There was even evidence to support a cameo from your friendly neighborhood wallcrawler... but sadly, this video has been exposed as a skilled fake.
There was even evidence to support a cameo from your friendly neighborhood wall-crawler… but sadly, this video has been exposed as a skilled fake.

I just named enough random names in a row to sound like part of the book of Genesis.

For those wondering, the film has a running time of 141 minutes, or two hours and twenty-one minutes, which is not that long. To give a comparison, if I may; The Hobbit: the Desolation of Smaug ran 161 minutes… and that did not even contain the whole story of a children’s book. Damn.

And it works, that is the single most impressive thing I can say about Avengers: Age of Ultron. It does not always work well – indeed there are several sequences where the mass of the movie appears poised to explode out and bury the plot – but this never happens. In part because Whedon stuck again to basics (like he did in the first movie).

A major flaw in film stories today is that they fail to cram too much complexity into their two and a half hour run time. Whedon wisely sticks to doing this model well.
A story has a simple bone structure and Whedon is skilled at sticking to – and knowing when to pad – this frame.

Ultron is a simple villain, but still well done. His plan is not complicated, his emotions are not buried under layers of psychosis. He is a refreshingly human robot with a simple dream… a dream of killing all humans. The voice work of the wickedly talented James Spader helps bring the character to life, as well as a beautifully tragic birth sequence.

A simple main conflict allows Whedon time to work with his characters – and work he does. Rising tension between Captain America (Chris Evans) and Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), fluttering eyelashes between Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Thor (Chris Hemsworth) questioning his purpose and his actions, and arguably the best scenes of all saved for Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) – and a path from villain to hero for Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen). Samuel L. Jackson‘s Nick Fury is the only returning star who feels a little left out in the cold.

Hawkeye may be lacking in cool powers, but Whedon knows the character well enough to bring out exactly why he is a member of the team.
Hawkeye may be lacking in cool powers, but Whedon knows the character well enough to bring out exactly why he is a member of the team.

Of course… this is a summer movie – and that means action. Those looking for it will get their fill. A castle raid, an oil tanker brawl, Hulk vs. Hulk Buster, Avengers vs. Ultron: the movie brings it all in spades. By the end, one might even be a little sick of slow motion sequences of our heroes beating up on robots… but one can also get sick from eating too much ice cream.

In terms of spectacle, it does not disappoint.
In terms of spectacle, it does not disappoint.

Joss Whedon has done the near impossible, wrestling this much comic book into one movie. Time will tell exactly how much of his background as a comic book writer and official super geek helped him achieve this – or whether others who don’t share this background can do the same (Marvel is certainly hoping they can). Whedon’s familiarity with the characters and source material has clearly helped him to do more with less in his past two mega superhero mash-ups.

It is simply too bad that he will not be returning for the sequels. Time will see if the Avengers can triumph without their real leader.

About that Ending: Iron Man

So I still haven’t seen Iron Man 3 yet (probably tomorrow) but over the weekend I did get a chance to sit down and rewatch one of my favorite superhero films, the first in the current-trilogy, Iron Man. Released back in 2008, this film is essentially the origin story of the beloved superhero. We see Tony Stark, at the beginning full of arrogance and naive pride, transform into the still cocky but responsible hero known as Iron Man. In case it still needs to be said: I’m a big fan of this film. To me it is an origin movie second only to Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, that’s how much I enjoy it. However this film, like the vast majority of superhero origin movies, has a real problem in its last act. As much as I love Iron Man I got to say that the last twenty minutes or so is really not that good. In case you’ve never seen Iron Man but would still like to, let me warn right here: spoilers to follow.

All right: we’re coming up to the climax of the film. Tony Stark has completed the Mark III suit and become Iron Man. Everything is starting to look up: he has a mission, his life has purpose, he is battling to regain control of his company, he knows who his friends and enemies are… yeah, time to fight Jeff Bridges in a giant robot suit. Yes, great! Wait, what?

Jeff Bridges plays Obadiah Stane (aka Iron Monger), Tony Stark’s second-in-command at Stark Industries. He is the film’s chief antagonist. A profit-driven man of power, Stane does not share in Stark’s desire for an ethically moderated Stark Industries. Also noticeable (and justifiable) is Stane’s disgust toward Tony Stark’s cocky boy-genius attitude. While Tony is the face of the company, Obadiah does a lot of the interior room work so he feels more than a little bitter towards his boss. Yeah, basically it all comes down to: Obadiah Stane wants to kill his boss. We can all sympathize (to some extent) with that.

Bridges does an excellent job playing a two-faced business man.
Bridges does an excellent job playing a two-faced business man.

The reason I am getting into this character as I feel the largest problem with the ending originates at the mishandling of this antagonist. Throughout the film, Stane is set up as a ruthless business man. Here is a guy who uses his corporate power to get what he wants: namely money. He doesn’t care who he sells weapons to, he just wants their dollars. So essentially Obadiah Stane is driven by greed, an appropriate vice for anyone of stature in the business world. This is where Bridges makes the character shine. The audience can see how Stane’s mind works. His motivations are understandable and his methods (up to the end) fit his character. Then he decides to put on a robot suit and punch Tony Stark.

"Hmmm, how cool would I look if I wore this?"
“Hmmm, how cool would I look if I wore this?”

Stane is not a hands-on guy. In an earlier scene when he is confronting a Ten Rings terrorist, he brings armed men to do his dirty work for him(these are the terrorists he also paid to try and kill Tony Stark at the beginning of the movie). This action is very inline with his character. Like his shady business practices, Stane operates from the shadows. Well he does up until the point where the movie needs a fight scene. Then he has to put on a suit.

This is always really frustrating to see in superhero movies and one of the reasons why the formula feels old. Superhero movies, origin superhero movies in particular, do not always need an ending fight scene with a big villain. When it works it’s great but when it doesn’t (and in case anyone is still wondering, I classify this movie in the “doesn’t” category) it drags the whole film down.

What also really irks me is that screenwriters Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby, Art Marcum and Matt Holloway (that’s 4 people who couldn’t write a better ending) knew that the action was out of character. This becomes obvious with Pepper Potts’ line: “Obadiah, he-he’s gone insane!” As a writer, let me tell you how the use of insanity works with characters. When you need a character to do something that makes absolutely no sense whatsoever, there are two easy options to make this possible: insanity and dream sequence. Now a dream sequence final fight might just be the most laughably bad idea I’ve heard of so the writers for Iron Man decided to go with option A.

Sup, I'm in a suit now.
Sup, I’m in a suit now.

Both approaches are lazy. This movie is 126 minutes long, there was time to establish the character of Obadiah Stane in any way that they wanted. They did, they did a great job creating a sleazy business man villain and they should be commended for that action. Problem was they also needed a fight scene. So instead of rewriting the character in an attempt to reconcile these two differences and develop them in a real and organic way, we got essentially this happening on screen:

Business man? Meet homicidal rage robot.
Business man? Meet homicidal rage robot.

So yeah, I have a problem with the character development of Obadiah Stane. Now let’s talk about the fight itself. It’s kinda cool, I especially like it when Stane keeps picking up cars and whacking Tony around with them. It’s not the best choreographed fight in the world but it works. Well up until this point:

Note how the mask is always off at the end of a climactic fight.

What follows is the constructed finale of the fight. Stane literally shoots everything else on the roof while Tony urges Pepper to throw the switch (which may or may not kill him as well). I always love scenes with the villain talking about how much he’s going to kill the hero. They are wonderfully cheesy and instantly make the audience aware that they’re watching a movie. Like why not just shoot him? Again, the writers of the movie are aware of how stupid this is: “You ripped out my targeting system… Hold still, you little prick!” That is a line delivered by Stane to Tony Stark. What this translates to as essentially an explanation as to why Obadiah Stane suddenly earned all the marksman skills of a stormtrooper. The writers know that the scene doesn’t feel real and they try to explain it away with a line. I think, if anything, it draws more attention to the construction.

But whatever, it adds to the drama right? Rest assured, the day is saved. Tony and Pepper succeed in overloading the reactor and killing Stane… what? Slow the hell down. They kill him? Just like that? Yeah, Tony Stark kills his longtime friend, Obadiah Stane. Now to be fair, Stane has tried to kill Stark several times, including at that moment but still: he’s the villain, it’s his job to be evil. And, as I highlighted before, some of Stane’s hatred of Stark is justified. I mean let’s face it, before his humbling in the cave, Tony Stark was a real asshole.

I feel like this image very cleverly sums up their relationship.
I feel like this image very cleverly sums up their relationship.

Regardless, Tony Stark kills Obadiah Stane with the help of Pepper Potts. Is it a realistic action: yes, which is why this only ranks as a minor problem for me. I find it believable that, in that moment, Tony Stark’s first desire has to be to escape with his life. If Stane dies in the process then so be it. Still the fact that there is not even an attempted reconciliation scene does bother me. Obadiah Stane has been a prominent figure in Tony Stark’s life, you think he would want to avoid killing him.

Adds a new spin to the very end. I wonder if his next words were "yes he deserved to die and I hope he burns in hell!"
Adds a new spin to the very end. I wonder if his next words were “yes he deserved to die and I hope he burns in hell!”

Now that I’ve nitpicked, I want to close with reiterating that, despite all these problems: I still really like Iron Man. It is a compelling character journey movie. Tony Stark is the main focus and the film does his character spectacular justice. It also contains a great message that promotes self-control and the difference between cockiness and arrogance. These are important lessons and it’s great to have films that do such an excellent job displaying these ideals. So bravo, Iron Man, you are an excellent movie, it’s just a shame that your finale leaves a little to to be desired.

Thoughts? Comments? Am I full of shit or onto something? Let me know now in the feedback section of this article.

End of a Cultural Era: Superhero Movies

With this Friday’s impending release of Iron Man 3, I felt that now was a good time to reflect on a film genre that has dominated cinemas since 2000. For the past thirteen years no other group of films has generated the excitement, or more importantly the dollars, as well as superhero movies. Three of the top grossing films of all time are superhero movies from the past thirteen years (The Avengers, The Dark Knight Rises, Transformers: Dark of the Moon). Point is, the genre has been a juggernaut. Yet nothing gold can stay (except of course Ponyboy – weird reference, I know) and reflecting upon cultural trends, it is inevitable that superhero movies will fade from their height of popularity. I believe the process has already begun.

Let’s rewind the clocks to the year 2000 (that date still sounds futuristic). Director, Bryan Singer delighted audiences with his surprise hit X-Men. The film garnered a fairly favorable critical reception and went on to gross nearly 3oo million dollars at the box office. Not bad for a film that only cost 75 million to make. While audiences cheered and enjoyed themselves, Marvel Studios was watching. Turns out that X-Men was only the beginning: a trial run to test the waters and see whether or not there was an eager market for superhero movies. Turns out there was and since then we have been treated to 25 superhero films from Marvel alone (technically 20 but who’s counting Man-Thing?). Holy crap that’s a lot of superhero movies! Hope you’re still hungry cause there’s three more due out this year (still only counting Marvel films).

The film that started it all.
The film that started it all.

So here is the question: how many is too many? Answer: probably close to 25. The superhero genre has a formula that wears thin after repeated viewings. Stop me if you’ve seen this already: a flawed protagonist must overcome an internal struggle with himself (almost always a him). In doing this, he will find the strength to defeat a physical antagonist and save the woman/town/world from certain disaster. This story is nearly as old as recorded history. American mythologist Joseph Campbell actually wrote a book on this phenomena which expresses the ideas quite nicely:

Well worth a read to help understand the popular appeal of "the hero".
Well worth a read to help understand the popular appeal of “the hero”.

Point is: it’s a good story, people like it and its worked for thousands of years. So why don’t I think it will work anywhere? Several reasons. For starters, let’s go back one more time to X-Men. As I said before, that film only cost 75 million (I know right? just 75 million cause most of us I’m sure have that lost in our sofa cushions). While that amount staggers, it really is quite cheap for a blockbuster and is no longer the case for superhero movies. Want to guess at Iron Man 3‘s budget? A cool 200 million. And that’s not including the money spent on marketing and promotion. Wow these things cost money. Will they make it all back? Sure, this time.

When X-Men did really well at the box office, it was a nice surprise. Now, it’s a requirement. The Avengers (220 million), The Dark Knight Rises (230 million), Spider-Man 3 (258 million) – it’s a good thing these films were all blockbusters otherwise people would have lost their jobs.

The funniest face 258 million dollars can buy.
The funniest face 258 million dollars can buy.

So if a superhero movie under performs financial expectations by even a slight margin: it’s a big deal. Has that already happened: yes. The Amazing Spider-Man took in just over 750 million worldwide. Impressive chunk of change even when you minus the 230 million it cost to make (I’m not sure how much was spent on advertising and promotion but probably at least another 50 million right there). So it still made money but it made less than any Spider-Man film that came before it. This could be blamed on one of two things: confusion at the reboot (a lot of people thought it was a sequel) and leftover bad taste from Spider-Man 3 (the most profitable Spider-Man film ever made by the way). I have a different theory, however.

To me, The Amazing Spider-Man represents the beginning of the end. It was a good film, at least I enjoyed it when I saw it in theaters last summer. The cast was good, it had great effects and cool action scenes. It was a superhero film… that’s it. That’s all I can say about it. There was no greater commentary present in that movie (I’m not saying there should be, it’s Spider-Man after all). But really, did I need to see it: no because I had 25 other options of that movie to watch, many of them (Thor, Iron Man, Spider-Man 2) that did that formula better.

Now they’re making another one. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 comes out next summer. And I am completely unexcited for it. Might it be good: it very well might but do I really need to pay 20 bucks to see Spider-Man web-sling around and kick Jamie Foxx (who has been cast as Electro) in the face? No, not really. Electro is a boring character to me. I’ve already seen Spider-Man grapple with his best enemies. The only webhead related experience I would like to see at this point is a movie with Venom in it that, you know, doesn’t suck.

Worth 20 more dollars to you?
Worth 20 more dollars to you?

And that’s generally how I feel about most superhero movies. Yeah they’re good but are they all worth seeing? For instance why pay to see Thor: the Dark World, Iron Man 3 and Captain America: the Winter Soldier when I can just wait for the Avengers 2? They’re all going to be cool movies about guys in costumes fighting stuff but Avengers 2 will most likely be the coolest (really excited to see what Joss Whedon does here). They’re all good movies but they’re good superhero movies. Really out of all the films that have been released, there’s only been three that have transcended into great cinema:

Without a doubt the pinnacle of the cinematic superhero era.
Without a doubt the pinnacle of the cinematic superhero era.

Christopher Nolan brought levels to his Dark Knight trilogy that are not found in any other superhero movies. It is awesome that I can watch The Dark Knight as a batman movie AND as a commentary on George W. Bush’s war on terror (I will explain this more fully in another blog post if people would like). The Dark Knight Rises: cool fights between Batman and Bane and really close examinations of growing class inequality in America. Point is: there were more to these movies… and they’re done now. There will never be another Christopher Nolan Batman film. There will be more Batman – Warner Bros. has already announced plans to reboot the character but really? I think I just feel bad for the unfortunate director given that task. Even if he/she does a movie that’s as good as say The Amazing Spider-Man, it will be the worst Batman movie by far that we’ve had this millennium.

Warner Bros. is clearly trying to continue the momentum on in Man of Steel, I’ve already talked about that in an earlier blog post (http://redringsofredemption.wordpress.com/2013/04/17/marketing-method-man-of-steel/) but what if it doesn’t work? What if Man of Steel is nothing more than another good superhero movie? Zack Snyder is not a director of the same caliber as Christopher Nolan. Really, it would be nice to have a good Superman movie (there isn’t one yet in my opinion) but you know we won’t get just one. There will be at least three and then there’s also Justice League if that ever get’s out of development hell.

Directors aren’t the only ones leaving as well. Robert Downey Jr., arguably the strongest superhero actor presence out there, has spoken publicly about ending his role as Iron Man: [Recasting] would probably be the best thing in the world for me. You know, ego…but sometimes ego just has to be smashed. Let’s see what happens. I take the audience very seriously – I feel bad when I see folks doing movies and the audience is like, ‘Don’t do that anymore.’ I don’t have to overstay my welcome…

So while he is not walking away, he is expressing the eventuality of it. There will most likely be an Iron Man 4, Marvel has indicated as well… but will we pay for it? When will audiences grow tired of their heroes? The directors are already tired, the actors are getting there. My feeling is that audiences will not be far behind. It’s been a good ride and it will end in a crash. These films have been too popular to not be run into the ground. Do we need a Flash movie? Ready to pony over your dollars for 25 more films? I don’t think so.

Would you really be so excited if it was someone else in the suit?
Would you really be so excited if it was someone else in the suit?

Crazes come and go in Hollywood. Comic book superheros are a strong intellectual property full of rich stories that benefit from the cinematic experience – but there are other such materials waiting in the wings. My prediction for the next ten years: move over Iron Man, it’s Master Chief’s turn in the spotlight.

Thoughts? Comments? Am I full of shit or onto something? Let me know now in the feedback section of this article.