The Limits of Marvel's Comic-Book Storytelling

Avengers: Age of Ultron has to work both as a standalone film and as a cog in a billion-dollar, ten-year saga. Is the company’s creative approach reaching its end point?

Marvel Studios

Midway through Avengers: Age of Ultron, after a debilitating battle, Marvel's titular heroic team takes shelter at a quiet farm to recover and take stock of themselves. Joss Whedon's film, the eleventh in the increasingly overwhelming "Marvel Cinematic Universe," is a bombastic experience that lays several action sequences end-to-end, with only brief pauses for humor or character development. The most significant is the farm interlude: It’s a crucial moment, because it lets the team reflect on their failings and ponder their relevance to the world, which is the film’s core theme. But it’s not the Marvel Universe’s core theme, which is why, according to Whedon, the studio “pointed a gun” at the sequence during post-production.

Studio interference is hardly a novel concept in Hollywood, and Whedon is hardly the first director to complain about the intersection of business and art in moviemaking. But Marvel’s approach to storytelling increasingly comes into conflict with the idea of a film being able to stand on its own, even as part of a series. Amid complaints of too many sequels, Marvel has largely dodged criticism because of the generally consistent output of its products, but while Age of Ultron has gotten decent critical notices, its seams are far easier to see. Nowhere is Marvel’s interference more obvious than a scene following the trip to the farm, where Thor the Avenger zips off to take a bath.

There’s no other way to put it. Thor, already one of the more inscrutable Avengers, decides he’d much rather be introspective on his own and jets off to a secret Asgardian cave, where he dips into a wading pool and has visions of Infinity Stones, the various multi-colored deus ex machinae that have been MacGuffins in so many Marvel movies thus far. Satisfied, he returns to the team with helpful expositional info on the stones, which are guaranteed to play a much bigger role in the third Avengers film, already earmarked for two-part release in 2018 and 2019.

Marvel Studios

It's a baffling diversion, and to hear Whedon tell it, Marvel insisted on its inclusion as part of an "unpleasant" creative battle. Speaking on the Empire Film Podcast, he said “With the cave, it really turned into: They pointed a gun to the farm’s head. They said, ‘Give us the cave or we’ll take out the farm.’” After making both Avengers movies for Marvel, Whedon is calling it quits, handing the keys over to the talented Russo Brothers for the third installment, and that's enough reason for him to finally discuss the negative side of working on a project as vast as this one.

For all of Whedon's storytelling skills (and vast capital with the "nerd community," accumulated from his TV projects Buffy, Angel, Firefly, and Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog), he was never the creative point man for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. That honor goes to Kevin Feige, the producer of every film since the first installment (2008's Iron Man), who sold the comic-book company on the prospect of making a grand, interconnected series of films that aped the storytelling style it had used for generations. Each individual hero—Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, the Hulk—could have his own series of films, like an individual monthly comic-book title—and then they would all be united for an Avengers movie, which would function as a grand, unifying event.

Marvel Comics has obeyed this creative process for generations. In 1984, editor in chief Jim Shooter devised Secret Wars, a limited series that would see all of the company's heroes united in a grand battle royale by an omnipotent alien being. Shakespeare, this was not—Secret Wars was tied into a line of action figures sold by Mattel and was quickly followed by an equally preposterous sequel. Shooter was Marvel's editor in chief for nine years and was notorious for the strict creative control he placed on all of its titles, and the frequent clashes he had with writers, many of whom would quit and move to rival company DC after a few years, citing creative burnout.

By all accounts, Feige is no Jim Shooter—even when Whedon gripes about creative clashes with Marvel in the Empire interview, he refers to its production team as "artists" and cites his respect for their process in keeping the grand enterprise knitted together. But Age of Ultron isn’t the first time Marvel has clashed with its creative staff. After working with the director Edgar Wright for years on an Ant-Man project (Wright was hired because he had a personal take on one of the company's more idiosyncratic heroes), Wright left the project a year ago citing "differences in vision." Given that Ant-Man was Wright's baby, one would figure that his departure would stall the project, but Marvel quickly found another director (Peyton Reed) to usher it to the screen, and the resulting product (due out in July) looks dashed-off, to say the least.

But Ant-Man had to come out this July, because Marvel can't futz with its schedule: There are nine more films in the pipeline through May 2019, each one feeding into the next, setting up a grand finale with the two-part Avengers: Infinity War, which will presumably see the celestial purple space goon Thanos (Josh Brolin) gathering the films' Infinity Gems to wage a galactic war with the Avengers. It's straight from the Marvel playbook—starting in 1991, after the Secret Wars model, the company published a multi-year series of special events, titled Infinity Gauntlet, Infinity War, and Infinity Crusade, which drew in all the company's characters. The idea was, if you were reading the Hulk, the book's plot would suddenly tie into this special event, and one would be compelled to buy it and all the related titled, just to keep abreast of all the Marvel happenings.

Marvel Comics / Ron Lim, Al Milgrom

This is the creative standard in the comics world: Individual heroes and team have their books, which plod along unaffected for a year, then they're all tossed together in a universe-spanning "event series" that simply has to be read to make sense of anything. In 2006's Civil War, everyone does battle over the idea of "superhero registration." In 2008's Secret Invasion, alien sleeper agents infiltrate Earth's super-teams. In 2013's Age of Ultron, the world is conquered by artificial intelligence. It's worth noting how often the Marvel films have borrowed from these comic book "events," even if it's as simple as aping a title.

But one thing the Marvel films do not have the advantage of is the agelessness of its characters. The original Avengers ensemble is getting old and expensive—Robert Downey Jr. commanded more than $40 million for what appears to be a supporting role in the coming Captain America: Civil War and that film's star, Chris Evans, has spoken of taking a break from acting after fulfilling the colossal Marvel contract he signed in 2010 (which covers six films). Downey Jr. will be 54 years old when Avengers: Infinity War Part 2 comes out in 2019, and Marvel seems to be planning for his eventual retirement, ushering in new characters to supplement the originals. Age of Ultron ends with Iron Man quitting the team and Captain America looking to train a new batch of recruits, although one imagines future twists are on the horizon.

The comics can always hit reset and return  to the status quo: Readers expect Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor to be on the Avengers, even if the characters take breaks from time to time. Without casting changes, that will eventually be impossible for Marvel's movies, and within a few years Hollywood will know if it's the superhero brand, or the original cast of characters, that has guaranteed its consistent box-office returns since this grand enterprise began in 2008. Marvel's unique branded storytelling has catapulted these characters to global fame, but to keep things going, it's going to have to repeat the same trick again in a much more crowded marketplace.