WARNING: Egregious spoilers contained within.
In a recent article, I discussed the reasons behind the success of Marvel's method of movie making. However, after watching Avengers: Age of Ultron, Marvel's most recent installment, I feel that it must be considered whether or not the Marvel model is sustainable. Now, before I go on, I must say that I thoroughly enjoyed the movie while sitting in the theater and would recommend it to anyone. My misgivings only came about an hour later, when I was reflecting on the film and considering the future of the franchise. Having slept on it, I say the film is good, perhaps great in a way that you would expect, but offers nothing particularly new. The people at Marvel understand that they wield a powerful force, the technological capacity to bring people's favorite superheroes to life on the large screen in spectacular fashion and the inevitable excitement that this produces. I will refer to this as the hype. Marvel wields the hype. But the hype relies on novelty and novelty, by definition, cannot last forever. When The Avengers came out in 2012 it was like nothing we had ever seen before, the culmination of five lead-in films, the product of four years of anticipation, the epitome of the hype. In this way it stood to detract from its sequel. It will be very difficult for any film produced by Marvel going forward to capture the hype that accompanied the first Avengers. In my opinion the only film that was definitively more hype was Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Admittedly, Captain America is my favorite superhero in the MCU but the beauty of that film is that it did not rely on the hype. It is a film, I feel, that would be just as entertaining regardless of how many times you watch it; similar in this way to Inception or The Dark Knight. This is the result of a near perfect mix of well-choreographed action, solid character development, and, surprisingly for a superhero film, larger political commentary and implications. At the time of its release it was regarded by some as an intersection between the summer superhero blockbuster and the classic political thriller. It is films like this, and not Age of Ultron, that will sustain the Marvel franchise.
Age of Ultron had many high points. Principal among these for me was the strange and touching dynamic entering The Black Widow, Bruce Banner and the Hulk; yes, the Hulk separately. It was also very interesting to watch Hawkeye in an expanded role as the most human element of the team. And, of course, watching the seeds of the brewing conflict between Captain America and Iron Man being sown was very fun. Consider too an abundance of classic superhero action and you have an inevitable summer blockbuster and a very solid film in general. But was it hype? Yes of course it was. Will its sequels be? Presumably less so. As a matter of course, each successive Avengers film, lest it have an exceptionally shocking and innovative development, will be less exciting than those that came before it.
In this paragraph are the spoilers to which I referred. In spite of all the good contained in the film there was a distinct lack of suspense. With movies slated through 2020 you can't help watching scenes involving major characters without knowing that they will overcome. Now I'm not saying that I would like to witness the death of Tony Stark on screen but with presumably all major characters surviving the length of the film, the writers must find ways to surprise us, to leave us truly curious as to what will happen in the films to follow. In essence, they have to rely on quality storytelling, not the hype. You were warned, Quicksilver does not survive this film but with limited screen time and character development there was no chance to develop an emotional connection to the character before his death. So while it was slightly surprising, it did nothing to throw off the trajectory of the MCU. In The Winter Soldier we witnessed the collapse of S.H.I.E.L.D. This would have ramifications that would reverberate through the entirety of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. There was no such occurrence in Age of Ultron but there was a glaring opportunity for such a seismic event. The climax of the film involves Ultron, an artificially intelligent preemptive defense system designed by Tony Stark, attempting to destroy the world with a city which he separated from the earth functioning as a meteor. The city is still populated so the Avengers must save its population before destroying it and preventing its impact with the earth. Of course they do this successfully and the film ends in a generally happy and conclusive manner despite the death of Quicksilver. But what if they hadn't? What if they couldn't save everyone and massive casualties were incurred as a result of Stark's misjudgment and failure? The guilt from his error would lead him to assume the almost fascist philosophy that characterized him in the comic Civil War storyline, the basis of the next Captain America film. That's what I would like to see, for Marvel to take risks, for their films not to conclude so cleanly. I believe this will be a necessity if Marvel is going to continue releasing two feature films a year. In any event, the exploration of less popular characters such as the Black Panther, who is largely hinted at in the film, Captain Marvel and Dr. Stange will provide the necessary injections of hype that the franchise will need going forward. So how long will Marvel reign? It remains to be seen. In the meanwhile go see the film.