Apparently $874.9 million worldwide in just 10 days, and the second biggest opening weekend in history, spells the end for popcorn movies. Those are just numbers, however.
[Spoilers for Age of Ultron to follow.]
In my interpretation, the focal criticism in Sady Doyle’s Age of Robots: How Marvel is Killing the Popcorn Movie was the lack of depth in the storytelling found in The Avengers: Age of Ultron (AoU). (Note: this criticism coming after Doyle’s disclaimer that she enjoys popcorn movies for the mindless fun they are, which was itself followed by a disdain towards Christopher Nolan’s Batman for taking itself too seriously. So which is it? Should popcorn movies be or not be “deep?” But I digress.) I’ll be addressing the three biggest issues in the article that stood out to me.
In a Nutshell
To start, it is glaring that Doyle’s article fails to accept AoU for the kind of movie that it is — a chapter in a grander, serialized narrative, and not a stand-alone one-shot film. Had this been taken into account, the woes of character development would have been remedied. That is not to say character development did not occur in AoU, as evidenced by at least Tony, Clint, and Natasha’s characters. Secondly, claiming that Marvel portrays thinking as “evil” is disingenuous when the conflict resolution by our heroes is a result of science and strategy before the inevitable fist-fight can even occur. Lastly, the independent ex-KGB turned atonement-seeking Avenger who holds her own next to gods does not suddenly turn to a sexist portrayal because she finds love (with the non-leading man, at that), most especially when it is her goal to seek “normalcy” after a life of being manipulated, regulated, and used.
Character Development in a Serialized Narrative
Never before have we seen cinema attempt a serialized narrative at the scale we are seeing with the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Character development cannot be held to the responsibility of one movie alone; the characters of the MCU have large developments throughout the whole narrative. With the MCU, we have a film series of 11 movies, each building off from the last and into a larger narrative spanning all movies, and will continue for another confirmed seven movies (18 total movies). That is not taking into account the television series; two seasons of Agents of SHIELD, a season of Agent Carter, the current one season of Daredevil, and three more shows planned — all for which add to the MCU narrative. The character development occurs throughout the entire MCU, mostly in the characters’ respective solo outings.
The MCU is acting much in the same way as the comics from which they take inspiration. There are serialized titles for (most) of the characters, and yearly event mini-series that bring the characters of the Marvel Universe together, giving scope to the universe these characters inhabit. Taking this formula into the MCU, The Avengers movies are the ensemble pieces; all the characters that have had character story and development in their own/other series, and now get together in an event whose purpose is to give scope to the universe they inhabit. Criticizing AoU for not having character development is a moot point, because that is not the purpose of the film. Instead, the purpose is to provide grandeur and stronger sense of connectivity to the MCU with an ensemble cast of characters. That is not to say that AoU did not have its fair share of developments.
Tony Stark continues his development from narcissist to hero. In his own way, he is acting as hero by providing to the world a means to protect itself against the harmful outside forces (see: The Battle of NY from The Avengers). This development has occurred in his three solo films, and continues in AoU with the Iron Legion, and the attempt at the Ultron protocol. Tony is not detracted from his goal after apparent failure, because he does not believe himself or Banner responsible for creating Ultron, and is later validated in the creation of Vision. Is Tony morally right? To Steve Rogers no he is not (see: Captain America: The Winter Soldier to find out why Cap is against pre-emptive measures), but to Tony he is right (see: Iron Man 3 for the fear and PTSD after The Battle of NY that drives his side of the argument). Am I starting to paint a picture as to how all these movies interconnect into the overall character development inherent to the meta-narrative of the serialized format?
Hawkeye/Clint Barton, after appearances in Thor and The Avengers, is given the most development in AoU. Here, we see a witty, albeit secretive, character turn out to be a family man. We learn a great deal more about his character and motivations. These developments to the audience shine through, for example, when he gives Scarlet Witch a pep talk in the third act, remind her (and himself) of their place in the unbelievable event happening around them. Is this something we would expect of Clint’s character in the first Avengers film? No. Is it something that makes sense now that we understand his motivations as a husband and father? Yes. (Side note: contrary to what Doyle claims, Clint did not name his newborn after Pietro, instead it is a middle name. Also, why wouldn’t a father have a say in what he names his child? Lastly, I’m sure the mother would be fine giving her son a middle name after the man who saved Clint’s life during a doomsday event.) In addition, we get a further look into Clint and Natasha’s relationship, being that the audience now knows that it is a solely platonic relationship.
For Natasha, after a career as an assassin for the KGB, she is seeking atonement and normalcy. She has gone from assassin, to working for SHIELD in order to do good, to being the face of exposing the actions of the world organization in The Avengers in an effort to be a hero. No, this might not be evident in AoU, but it is evident after seeing her character fleshed out and developed through Iron Man 2, The Avengers, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier. In AoU, she reaches a new stage in seeking normalcy, manifested in a relationship with Bruce Banner. Surely this is not something the Natasha we knew in Iron Man 2 would do, but it is something she’d do now. We learn more about the specifics of what happened in her past, learn her current motivations for being part of the Avengers, and why she finds a connection with Bruce. (More on Natasha and her character later.)
A lot can also be said about the Maximoff twins, going from hating Tony simply for seeing his name on a bomb that devastated their lives, to working with the Avengers against Ultron, to the extent of sacrifice. Even the A.I. Jarvis had development!
With all this in mind, let’s now look at Doyle’s points on the formal requirements she claims Marvel imposed on Whedon’s script:
• “Too many characters.”
Well of course, that is the point of the Avengers movies, it is an ensemble piece.
• “No matter what, Marvel’s structure mandates at least one fight scene every 20 minutes, and most of the time, those characters aren’t having in-depth discussions while they fight.
According to Doyle, this is a popcorn movie, leaving her argument against many fight scenes a confusing one to make.
• “The movie also has a pre-determined narrative, which we know because it’s the same narrative every Marvel movie adheres to […]”
According to Christopher Booker, there are only 7 types of plots or tropes in all stories. Anything can be reduced to a basic plot when that is your intention.
• “We also need to end the movie in such a way that all of the characters with ongoing franchises can go back to those franchises, alive and more or less unchanged.”
Well, yeah. That’s how a franchise works. Let alone the fact that characters did change (see my above examples of Tony, Clint and Natasha for a quick surface-level example), and character(s) did die even in spite of what source material dictates.
•“Yet if that’s what the movie is doing, why is the problem “I fucked up by building an overly powerful, self-aware robot” resolved with “I built an overly powerful, self-aware robot?”
That is Tony’s character arc! He believes himself to be correct in his preemptive measures to protect the world. If you pay attention to the movie, he clearly does not hold himself or Banner responsible for creating Ultron, stating that they were nowhere close to cracking the Mind Gem. With this mindset, he goes on to finish creating Vision, and is now validated because Vision turned out exceptional. From here, we can assume we get the foundational conflict in Captain America: Civil War (Tony’s preemptive stance against Cap’s freedom above all else stance).
“Punching is better than talking.”
Doyle’s article continues with a relatively short point about Marvel antagonizing thinking, and celebrating the brute (“Punching is better than talking”). Essentially, the evildoers are the ones thinking and scheming, and it is the heroes that stop the conversation in favour of punching. The example used was of Hulk smashing Loki around at the end of The Avengers, as Loki was starting a monologue. Apparently, according to Doyle, not letting the villain monologue during the climax of a city-wide battle is a message that talking things out is bad.
Failed to be mentioned is what led to the climax of the first movie. Banner had to figure out how to track the radiation emissions in order to find and stop Loki. The group had to figure out Loki’s riddle about “a warm light for all mankind to share,” leading him to his whereabouts and plot once again. They had to use science to figure a way to close the portal. One third of the Avengers are genius level scientists using their expertise for good. And that’s leaving out the intelligence that goes behind strategy in battle/war present in Cap, Natasha, and Clint. In fact, the Avengers are against the world organization’s attempt to solve the invasion by blowing everything up, and instead work to solve the problem intelligently (close the portal) in order to save NY (quite the opposite of brute force saving the day).
This is again ignoring the inherent hypocrisy of criticizing a popcorn movie for being action-oriented in its conflict resolution, even though the resolution was a result of the brain power to get our heroes to that point — the point where ultimately an invasion or robot armageddon comes to the inevitable conclusion of being resolved through action and not just thinking/diplomacy alone. I won’t make this piece any longer on detailing how the characters’ wits, expertise, and science went behind saving the day in AoU.
Black Widow: The Sexism Intensifies
I am cautious whenever talking about sexism, no matter how good and feminist my intentions are, as the fear of backlash from misguided pseudo-feminists and their drivel is real in everyday life. However, I do feel I have to defend against the unwarranted criticism against Black Widow/Natasha and claims of a sexist portrayal of her character in both Doyle’s article and general detractors.
At the least, the character of Natasha can be summarized as the ex-KGB assassin who turned to working for the good guys, and is now an Avenger next to gods and metahumans while still holding her own both physically in action, and in mind to drive the Avengers to victory. In AoU alone, she: handled herself without need of aid against Hydra agents in a fight beside Hulk, Thor and Cap; secured the extraction of Vision from Ultron; was not helplessly captured by Ultron like a damsel and instead used it as an advantage to communicate Ultron’s location to her teammates (without which Ultron would have succeeded unopposed); and fought off swarms of killer robots sans superpowers. Surely all of this, along with being written by a writer who’s written some of the best female characters of the last two decades (Kaylee Frye, River Tam, Buffy, Anya Jenkins, Echo, etc.) cements her as a strong female character, right?
Apparently, falling in love makes her a sexist stereotype, according to detractors. Let’s look at why Natasha is seeking romance. First and foremost is her search for normalcy. After a life of being an assassin manipulated and controlled by the KGB, and dangerous missions for good with SHIELD, is it really a stereotype to be seeking some sort of normalcy? It is this search for normalcy that attracts her to Bruce, he too is seeking to be normal, despite how much good he does and is capable of as scientist and Hulk. Both view themselves as monsters for different reasons, and seek to be “normal.”
(Spoiler: Natasha does not view herself a monster because she is sterile. Had one paid attention to the dialogue and not get worked up into a faux-frenzy, one would have realized it is the nature of why and who sterilized her that makes her feel like a monster — being a trained-since-childhood assassin.) Surely this sameness, this familiarity is what attracts Natasha to Bruce, and makes their relationship make sense, and not just a girl falling for the pretty guy (as pretty as Mark Ruffalo the actor is, his character is not the pretty boy/leading-man of the bunch).
Even before AoU was released, there was hoopla about a sexist portrayal of Natasha, and how young girls look up to her (see: Renner’s and Evan’s joke about Natasha being a “slut”). First of all, it is a fair point, slut shaming is unacceptable… but taking what is clearly meant in jest and not a serious statement/opinion is also unacceptable (I’d like to get into this more, but it’s besides the point of this piece). What boggled my mind was how people were attacking these men because young girls apparently look up to Natasha. As an educator, this frightens me. No child should be looking up to a fictional character, male or female, as a role model. Fictional characters should be for entertainment, for imagination, and the stories sometimes provide inspiration and commentary on the world around us. The fact that some people or children view them as role models doesn’t make it right, nor does it mean writers and the rest of the audience have to conform and treat them/criticize them as role models. They can be an ideal to aspire to, but not to model oneself after. You can want to aspire to what Natasha stands for, but wanting to be like a fictional character is misguided. Children need proper guidance from both parents and teachers on this issue to remedy it.
Sady Doyle claims to like popcorn movies for what they are, yet goes on to criticize a popcorn movie according to out-of-context and non-popcorn-movie standards. It is clear that in the article’s criticism of The Avengers: Age of Ultron, no account is taken to the nature of the serialized storytelling the MCU functions under. Had this been taken into account, not only would an understanding of why little character development occurred in the AoU ensemble piece be understood and accepted, but would have also given way to witnessing and comprehending the character development that did occur in AoU. The Avengers as a team do not operate under brute force alone, by any stretch of the imagination. It is their intelligence, expertise, and use of science that drive the team to achieving their end goal of protecting the world; it is only the nature of their work that requires physical force to be used, as well as the nature of a popcorn action movie. A fully developed strong female character does not a stereotype become simply for seeking a relationship, much less the type of relationship Natasha in particular was seeking, with whom, and why.
The Avengers: Age of Ultron is what it is, and should not be judged as something it is not, most especially so wildly inaccurately and out of context.
This is not intended to harm Sady Doyle in any personal way; this is a critique of her article alone, and an expression of my personal opinion of Marvel’s MCU.