Once The Avengers crossed the gazillion-dollar line in global box office, it was a fairly safe bet that director Joss Whedon was going to have a lot of latitude when it came to the sequel. That's both a good thing and a bad thing. A good thing, because Whedon is among the most witty, innovative pop-culture artists working today. And a bad thing, because he is often not content with being witty and inventive, and has a long history of steering his projects in unnecessarily—and often unsatisfactorily—dark directions. For many of his fans, this represents a great strength; in my estimation it is his signal weakness.
Folks who have followed Whedon’s career will know exactly what I’m talking about: in particular, his borderline compulsive urge to kill off his sweetest, most gentle characters, frequently when they’re about to enjoy a hard-won romantic happiness (Tara in Buffy, Fred in Angel), or as a kind of bitter coda after the principal action has already concluded (Wash in Serenity, Penny in Dr. Horrible). And it’s not just the body count. It’s the “What would happen if we had Buffy’s mom die?” impulse, the “maybe she should have an exploitative sexual relationship with Spike” drive. Don’t get me wrong: There are brilliant moments of tragedy scattered across the Whedon corpus. It’s just a well to which he returns too eagerly and too often.
Which brings us to the first trailer for Avengers: Age of Ultron, which leaked today in advance of its planned debut next week. Elsewhere on the site, Joe Reid has done an excellent job of walking readers through the details. But as he notes, the trailer’s biggest reveal overall is that this sequel is going to be considerably darker than the original. Now, yes, the mood of any given trailer will capture only a fraction of the movie’s overall tone, and I’m sure there will be moments of wonderfully Whedonesque banter scattered throughout Age of Ultron. (The scene described by Comic-Con attendees in which various members of the gang try to lift Thor’s hammer, for instance, sounds like a winner.) But if the trailer is at all representative, our moments of shawarma will be relatively few and far between.
Which would be a pity. The Avengers was at its best as a kind of superpowered drawing-room comedy, with Whedon bouncing his mismatched heroes off one another verbally as well as physically. Tony Stark and Thor. Tony Stark and Captain America. Tony Stark and Bruce Banner. Tony Stark and Loki. (A theme emerges.)
The solemnities of Christopher Nolan are all well and good, but there is a place—and yes, it seems profoundly silly to have to point this out—for humor and easy escapism in superhero movies. Marvel Studios has been proving this for years now and, with Guardians of the Galaxy, proved it all over again this summer. I continue to be astonished that DC Comics and Warner Brothers have misread these obvious lessons and dictated an essentially humor-free zone for their competing superverse on the basis of Green Lantern(!)—as if an overly light touch was what caused that sour, ill-conceived movie to fail.
Perhaps Whedon can go darker with his Avengers sequel without going too dark. (Though his comment on the subject in this Q&A with EW startled even the interviewer: “You go to movies to see people you love suffer—that’s why you go to the movies.”) And he does, after all, have Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige looking over his shoulder, with an eye to keeping his many billion-dollar franchises alive and in working order.
It’s worth remembering, too, that Whedon’s original opening for The Avengers implied (falsely) that it would end in tragedy. That could presumably be the case with Age of Ultron, too. Captain America’s broken shield, Thor’s dropped hammer—perhaps it’s all an elaborate con to persuade Warner Brothers that its grim vision is the right one, only to have Robert Downey Jr. pop out the wisecracks on opening night.