With Avengers: Age of Ultron, Joss Whedon and company bring Phase Two of the Marvel Cinematic Universe to a predictably spectacular and sufficiently satisfying finale, deftly bringing together numerous elements from prior MCU films and pointing the direction, in ways both subtle and obvious, for the next phase. Of course, Phase Two isn’t technically over yet since Ant-Man will be the movie to officially bring this chapter to a close, but it seems reasonable to expect that Ant-Man will be more like an epilogue and bring the scale down a notch, both figuratively and literally.
Speaking of scale, there’s no question that Avengers: AoU is the pinnacle of the MCU in terms of size and spectacle, but therein lies part of the problem as well which I’ll be using the space here to focus on instead of discussing each individual element which plenty of other reviews will surely do.
First, we’ve become so accustomed to sensory bombardment at the movies in general, and to the remarkable planning and execution of the Marvel films in particular, that we now expect nothing less and are no longer impressed as we were when Phase One surprised us with Iron Man, Thor and Captain America and then delighted us with the thrill ride that was Avengers. But standard Hollywood protocol dictates that the ante keep being raised, which Age of Ultron does and does well for the most part, but there’s only so much you can amp up in terms of intensity and scale until the both the movie in question and the overall franchise at large begin to suffer for it. This isn’t quite the case yet, thankfully, but you can almost sense the beginnings of it starting to happen.
And why would this make the franchise suffer? Because the more new characters you introduce, and the more connected plots you weave in, all of which then lead to an overarching master plot, which in turn never really ends but again leads to something even bigger, the less time and space you have to devote to the very things that made most of the Phase One and Two movies so great—namely, character.
In fairness, the Avengers movies were never intended to probe deeply into the souls of its characters. That’s what the solo movies were for, to make us care about and identify with our heroes. Avengers was all about inducing a collective fangasm by bringing the heroes together and having them kick ass in an epic fashion, and that it did, but it also walked a fine line between balance and overkill. Age of Ultron, as technically dazzling and ambitious as it is, somewhat crosses that line into overkill at times. While this will surely differ depending on the viewer, in my case I found some of the set pieces so overwhelming in terms of the sheer sensory data my brain was trying to process that I went a bit numb at times (I do, however, tip my hat to Whedon for addressing something that irked many viewers about Man of Steel, which I won’t reveal but which you’ll recognize when it happens).
Increasingly stupefying intensity and scale, of course, has long been the great conundrum with Hollywood. In any given series, what’s typically expected and delivered is more, bigger and faster each time, an aesthetic that can only be sustained for so long before entropy inevitably sets in (something that we the audience also need to share responsibility in helping to perpetuate). The Star Wars prequels, of course, are the most painful reminders of this truth, but we even see it in something as recent as The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies. X-Men: Days of Future Past admirably sidestepped this trap by splitting up the team, limiting the scenes of the future X-Men fighting the sentinels and instead focusing on Wolverine, Mystique, and the younger Xavier and Magneto. And Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy, of course, avoided the issue altogether by simply, and wisely, ending the series after a mere three movies and keeping it independent of any other universe, thus sealing and immortalizing the integrity of that particular vision.
Given that the trajectory of the MCU is to increasingly mirror its fictitious cousins, the primary Earth 616 and the Ultimate universe in the comics, and given the ecstatic fan reaction to this ongoing growth, it would be delusional to expect or demand anything different from the more-bigger-faster principle. The most that one can hope for is that Disney and Marvel will remember what it is that made the better of the Phase One and Two movies good to begin with, which then made this franchise successful enough to make all this growth possible, which in turn is almost—not quite yet but almost—beginning to threaten what made the movies good. One could argue that Age of Ultron isn’t doing anything that the comics haven’t already been doing for some time, but the increasingly unwieldy scale of the comics is precisely one reason that they have become less appealing to me, personally.
It is telling that the best parts of Avengers: Age of Ultron are actually not the cataclysmic action sequences but the quiet moments between Natasha Romanoff and Bruce Banner, the debates between Steve Rogers and Tony Stark on the appropriate uses of technology and power, and a surprising, touching sequence in which Hawkeye finally gets his due as a character and as a human being (making me wonder if Whedon perhaps took a cue from Matt Fraction and David Aja’s brilliant run on Hakweye, the comic).
This is why Ant-Man is potentially such an important film for the MCU, as potentially as important as the wonderful Guardians of the Galaxy which was like the magic of Phase One all over again. Not only is it again banking on a second-tier title/character, something which has thus far proven both commercially and artistically successful, but it is an opportunity for the creative minds behind the MCU to remind both themselves and their audience, in the midst of all this epic universe-building, that not only can small be beautiful it can often be superior, even. On a side note, this is even why the street level action of Netflix’s Daredevil has been refreshing for the MCU.
But, yes, Age of Ultron was what most fans would want or expect it to be. And even if Ant-Man fails, and even if things start falling apart or become over-bloated in Phase Three, at least, in the modified words of Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) in Casablanca: We’ll always have Phase One… er, and most of Phase Two.
And as far as I am concerned, if there is any additional awesomeness that comes out of Phase Three it will be the icing on a cake that has already been delicious and satisfying.