Avengers: Age of Ultron and the Mess of Today's Action Genre
Over the weekend, The Avengers: Age of Ultron made nearly $188 million at the domestic box office. It's perhaps surprising to some that it didn't beat the original Avengers opening weekend of $207 million, but when the bar is raised to such an absurd level, it's nearly impossible to replicate or surpass, even with a product this strong.
This weekend, I contributed to that total, getting to do the rarest of things for us these days: simply watching a movie without having to look for sins. Oh sure, just through basic watching there are a number of sins you can find, but at least this time we're not having to stop the movie every 2 minutes. That would be financially unfeasible for most theaters, I'm assuming.
Certainly, we've had a lot of fun poking at the Marvel Cinematic Universe since the early days of Cinema Sins, beginning with that first Avengers. Those of you who aren't familiar with how we began will see a much quicker video than which you're accustomed:
Haha. 3 minutes! Damn. The old days. I assure you that Avengers: The Age of Ultron will likely be 6 times as long. Of course, if we re-did the original, it too would be way longer.
Anyway, I'm not going to get into an in-depth review of Ultron, but focus on one aspect of the movie. I have mixed feelings on the final product, but most of it is because of this one thing, which is not only a problem in this movie but nearly every (American) action movie that comes out these days.
We often complain about the state of action in films in many of our "Everything Wrong With" videos, especially something like Underworld, where the action is staged in the bleakest settings possible with tons of random bullet fodder running around onscreen and edited to death to, I guess, make it seem like it's more exciting. All you know by the end of each action scene is that asses were kicked and people were mowed down and man are we glad the heroes won. Even when the battles turn to one-on-one, they get cut to death and we can't appreciate the choreography of it all--either because there is no choreography and they need to cover up mistakes, or they want to special-effects the fight into oblivion.
The scale of The Avengers and its sequel requires the stage to move outside, where whole cities are demolished in the wake of good versus evil. There is a ton of daylight, so it has one major advantage over an Underworld movie right away. But it still does Underworld stuff. On a much larger playing field.
The Marvel movies have used cities as its playground many times--notably New York in The Avengers, London in Thor: The Dark World, Washington D.C. in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and now in the country of "Sokovia," one of those fake Marvel countries with a fake city that serves as the setting of much of the action in Age of Ultron. When your battle takes place over such a wide area, it's kind of hard to keep up with 10 protagonists and a bunch of Ultron robots.
So, what you see is a bunch of people getting their asses kicked: oh look, it's Hulk smashing robots! Oh look, it's Captain America smashing robots! Oh look, it's Thor...you get the picture. The problem is, you have a combination of factors that contribute to losing focus. Shaky cams, extreme close-ups, shots that last for less than a second, and a furious attempt to give every hero equal time wherever they are. None of the action really seems tailored to each superhero's unique abilities, and the settings within the city are always changing. So, when we watch the action, we know the heroes won, but how we got there is a mish-mash of things we were only the slightest bit involved with. It's passive movie-viewing.
I always go back to an easy movie when it comes to action-film comparisons: Die Hard. While Die Hard takes place in one location for the most part, it's still a tower with multiple levels, and never once do you feel like, "Man, I can't figure out where John McClane is." The movie gives verbal and visual cues where the hero and villains are. And each action scene is carefully constructed so that you always know where everyone is in a room, a rooftop, an elevator shaft, or an air-conditioning duct.
There's a tiny moment in Die Hard I love--it's when McClane is in the air-conditioning duct and pulls out his lighter to see where he's going. That little bit of light gives away his position to second-in-command baddie Karl, and when he narrows down McClane's location, it doesn't come down to stupid luck. We did do an "EWW Die Hard," but I assure you nothing we came up with in that video truly bothers me that much because the movie is just so damn good.
As one lowly viewer, I wish The Avengers could find a way to get all the heroes involved, but maybe not put them all in one city--each of them has a unique area where they fight, each one with its own unique stakes. Or, if it has to take place all in one city, put them in distinct places where their abilities are most needed so I can follow along a little bit better. Or, if it just has to be a free-for-all like the last two Avengers movies, stop cutting the hell out of every single sequence and stage a few with some longer takes. There are many ways to be able to tell your story so that some of us can distinguish what action is taking place and why, and become an active viewer.
I think the issue is worse with a movie like Avengers: Age of Ultron because the brand is so strong, they can afford to take some time and help out some of us film nerds who actually want to see breathtaking action with stylistic flourishes and actual spatial relationships. I realize this does not matter to most John and Jane Q. Moviegoers. But I feel like we're getting shortchanged in this area, and John and Jane Q Moviegoer may not know it, but the movies can be a lot better. I know most can enjoy these movies for "what they are" and as long as they see some asses kicked, they're good.
The biggest problem, which will likely never be solved, is that these movies need to be made in time for a predetermined release date, many times 2 or 3 years in advance, so there's no room to map out complex action sequences or create a release date based on when the movie has the time it needs to be truly finished. The entire Phase 3 of the MCU is planned out until 2019, inserting millions of new characters and plot-lines, and they still need to stick Spider-Man somewhere.
So, that's all. It's a problem for very few of us. Marvel will continue to make movies how they see fit, because they're printing money at this point, so there's no reason to change. But a bulk of the movies they're putting out now run the risk of being long forgotten after they've made their money, and it's only a matter of time before even the John and Jane Q Moviegoers start getting tired of trying to keep up with everything in future chapters.