Monday, May 4, 2015

Currently Watching 5.4.15

Avengers: Age of Ultron and the Marvel Cinematic Universe

I never meant to fall face-first into superhero blockbuster movie hell. When I went to see The Avengers back in 2012, I hadn't seen any of the other Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) films and only had marginal awareness of who any of these characters were. But I was both dazzled by the spectacle and drawn in by the fact that, hey, this movie about people punching aliens actually has a soul. So after that, I followed the MCU closely, going back and watching the previous films, gushing about it to friends and making them as enthusiastic as me, and going on opening weekend to subsequent films. I saw Iron Man 3 in 3-D. I saw Guardians of the Galaxy on opening day. Opening. Day. If you told past-me that more-recent-past-me would be up to this nonsense, she would have laughed and then resumed being a surly emo teenager.

It figures that I saw Avengers: Age of Ultron, the successor to the 2012 Avengers title, as soon as humanly possible. Thursday night, people. Not even midnight. Thursday at 8:30, because that was the soonest I could do it. And in 3-D, natch. And it figures that I loved every minute; Age of Ultron is fast, funny, and gut-wrenching at times, and I think I almost cried, and I definitely yelled at the screen way too many times while cocooned in my Hawkeye hoodie. So you should definitely go see it because it's great. But I really want to talk about the broader MCU because, quite frankly, it's fascinating as a franchise, comprised of a patchwork network of different properties adapted to the silver screen and TV screens alike.

Marvel's done something that, really, shouldn't work as well as it does. The superhero movie was in a rough position only a decade or so ago; the current equivalent is, arguably, video game adaptation films, and the issue is simple. The people in charge just don't care. They take a money-grabbing property - for comparison, look at the Silent Hill films, which are unarguably horrendous - and assume all they have to do to make money is promote the brand name. There's not enough care put into the film itself. Marvel's using a different playbook, thankfully, and I think that's because Marvel desperately needed the MCU to work.

Before the MCU, Marvel was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, selling off the film rights of various properties to other companies to stay afloat. That's why Sony still owns Spider-Man, the X-Men, and the Fantastic Four. Yeah, that's why we get a new Spider-Man origin story every few years, and if I see another one I swear to god I'm gonna kill Uncle Ben myself. I digress, though; back to the point. Many early Marvel films were flops - Ghost Rider, anyone? They hired Nicolas Cage on purpose. That man has a pyramid prepared as a grave for himself. See, I like terrible things so I think Nic Cage as a flaming skull man on a motorcycle is great, but it's also objectively horrible. While all the comic book movies were doing terribly, Marvel's comic sales dwindled too and the future seemed grim.

But the MCU turned it all around, namely with Iron Man. It was the first film produced by Marvel Studios without any meddling from other film companies and during production, nobody would touch it, convinced it'd be a flop like other comic book movies were. In the age before the MCU, comic book movies were a joke. Arguably, Christopher Nolan's Batman movies helped change public opinion as well, but I don't like watching brooding raspy-voiced Batman scream about drugs and the Joker as much as I like watching Captain America backflip and kick dudes in the face, so we'll move past that. Of course, we know now that Iron Man would be a huge critical and commercial hit. It's kind of a sweet, "Little Engine That Could" type of story; this film reinvented the superhero movie genre and gave rise to a phenomenon that would change box offices forever, because nowadays "Marvel movie" is industry code for "competition curb-stomper." With Marvel's forays into TV - Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Agent Carter on network TV, Daredevil streaming online - they're a cross-industry giant showing no signs of slowing down.

It's fascinating how the MCU functions as a connected world, how shenanigans with Thor or the Guardians of the Galaxy out in space have an impact back on Earth building to the final duo of Avengers movies, how the destruction in New York City after The Avengers affects the everyday lives of New Yorkers in Hell's Kitchen in the Daredevil Netflix series, how ABC's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. reacts to the events of Captain America: The Winter Soldier the same week as the film's release date.  There are constant ripple effects, and every writer and director has to be mindful of previous character arcs and plot developments. Fans are already examining Age of Ultron for hints about the next releases, namely Captain America: Civil War, and they're gearing up to see Ant-Man even though it's literally about a dude who can get really small and talk to ants. Like, I'm legitimately excited to see this film after seeing a trailer at the theater ahead of Age of Ultron. How did this happen to me?

The adaptation is a favored genre of mine, because I love seeing people react to an existing property told in a new way. But frequently adaptations are dismissed, both by audiences and by studios that decide not to take them seriously enough. It's good to see Marvel getting it so right and telling such compelling stories, creating three-dimensional characters with flaws, struggles, and funny habits. On Thursday night I was completely enraptured by a movie screen for two-and-a-half hours, reacting loudly and frequently, and I walked out of the theater determined to go again, to watch for things I missed and relive my favorite parts. That's the mark of a good movie. Marvel is creating amazing cinema, and yes, I'll defend that to the death.

(Go watch Marvel movies and talk to me about Hawkeye because he's the best Avenger, I will fight you on this, I'm not even joking.) (Scarlet Witch is also fantastic, we can talk about her too.) (Please.)


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