For those who haven't seen Avengers: Age Of Ultron (and by the way, hella spoilers in this article): Ultron is an artificial intelligence that exists inside ... well, it's not really explained, but he's like a global WiFi network that can hop from robot to robot. So the heroes have to make sure that not a single robot survives, or else he lives on. These are some of the very first words out of Ultron's "mouth" (Or speakers? Are his cheeks speakers?):
"You want to protect the world, but you don't want it to change."
Later, he says:
"I think you're confusing 'peace' with 'quiet.'"
"Everyone creates the thing they fear ... parents create children."
Also, yes, his cheeks are totally speakers.
The point is, Ultron is the shakeup, the dangerous aspect of filmmaking that the industry needs to preserve itself (or what it thinks it needs). Ultron isn't just a villain here -- he's a metaphor for everything that the Marvel Movies are doing to the art of filmmaking. Ultron is Kevin Feige, Lord Commander of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And in order to explain this, I'm going to talk to you about theater. Ha! I tricked you into being nerdy, sucker. I'll come around your house when the article finishes to give you a wedgie and a swirlie.
In the beginning of the Tony-Award-winning Red, a fictionalized version of expressionist painter Mark Rothko explains that the purpose of art is to destroy the cool stuff that existed before you. "We destroyed cubism," Rothko says, "We stomped it to death. Nobody can paint a cubist picture today ... the child must banish the father. Respect him, but kill him." At the end of the play, when Rothko is a tired old artist and complaining about how younger artists don't respect his work, his assistant throws those words back in his face. That is ultimately the point of the play: When you're creating a new style of art, you have to wreck what came before it.
Think about it. When Die Hard came out, with a hero who could actually bleed and made mistakes, all of the '80s indestructible heroes who wandered through hailstorms of bullets without blinking seemed ridiculous. It's suddenly impossible to relate to Commando, because Arnold approaches a firefight the way you approach a hungover Sunday morning supermarket trip. Or look at movies like Happy Gilmore and Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. Those were raunchy, edgy comedies when they came out, but they've been replaced by raunchier, edgier ones -- not because comedians have gotten edgier, but because the edge has moved. Adam Sandler's schtick has been ruined by crap like Jack & Jill, and as we just pointed out, jokes at the expense of transgender people have moved from "taboo and exciting" to "stupid and offensive."
And finally, show Indiana Jones or Aliens or any of your favorite action movies to a kid who's grown up watching The Avengers, and he or she is going to be bored. (Trust me, I've tried it. If you don't get them before a certain age, it's hopeless). Because children are stupid, and because the rules have changed, what's cool has changed, what's exciting has changed. There are different cues for them to pick up on. And that is exactly what Ultron represents.
Let's start on a superficial level. Like I said at the beginning, Ultron has spread his consciousness across every single robot in his army, which means he can only "die" whenever every single soldier in his army is destroyed. He even shouts "what doesn't kill me makes me stronger" while building a bigger, tougher version of himself, which then shreds the older, weaker, shittier Ultron into pipe cleaner. Just to make sure you got his point. Then, in the climactic battle on a flying city (these movies have gotten crazy weird, man), the characters say over and over that every single Ultron robot has to be destroyed, or else he will live on. It's a pretty cool way to raise the fight's stakes, and it's exactly how the Marvel Cinematic Universe works.
Ultron is the MCU, and each movie is one of his robots. Remember The Incredible Hulk? Ha! Of course you don't, because everyone who isn't me hated that movie. And if it had been a standalone story, disconnected from any cinematic universe, we would've had to have a reboot (like with Spider-Man or the Fantastic Four) before we got any more Hulk movies. But because it's part of the MCU, that character got to piggyback on the success of Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor, and show up in The Avengers with no required backstory -- just vague hints that he's "the big guy." At this point, The Avengers was basically the coolest guy in the room, grinning and winking and saying "Remember Hulk? He's cool in movies, right?" And despite the fact that no cool Hulk movies exist in this Earth, we were all "Yeah, man! I love that Hulk guy! His movies are just grand!" because we wanted The Avengers to like us.
See, the MCU is stronger than any of its parts. Any one franchise can fail to catch on but still contribute to the success of the whole. Agents of SHIELD is an embarrassment, but characters from that show still got to show up in a major theatrical release this summer because they're part of the MCU. Thor: The Dark World and Iron Man 2 are both preettttty bad, but they both got big sequels because they're contributing to the success of The Avengers.
On top of that, the core Avengers -- Iron Man, Thor, Captain America -- all represent an older style of filmmaking. Each of those characters came from stories that pretty much stood alone. None of them picked up an old thread, or failed to resolve their core arcs because they needed to be part of something bigger. They're all fairly well self-contained, provided you skip the post-credits stingers. Nowadays, each story is a chapter in something far bigger: the Marvel story, which transcends petty things like "plot" and "arcs" and "wait, what the fuck is going on?"
This conflict between different narrative philosophies is Age Of Ultron's story, since Ultron wants to kill all humans and replace them with robots. He says there's an extinction-level event coming (which is itself foreshadowing the next Avengers movie), and that replacing humans with living metal is the only way to save life on the planet. This is a lot like how Mark Rothko wanted to destroy cubism and, I'm arguing right goddamn now, how the MCU wants to destroy the old style of filmmaking. It basically hocks a loogie right in the face of most of the rules about what makes a "good movie."
Most popcorn movies like this need a protagonist whom you identify with and who guides you through the story, but this movie has six heroes, none of whom have clearly defined arcs, and none of whom have needs or wants that are established or resolved. Another rule of filmmaking is to introduce every element that the story needs in the first 20 minutes. But here we have a seventh protagonist introduced in the last half hour, and there's no explanation as to why he wants or needs anything, or even why he's fucking purple. And then Purple-McWeirdo is the one who gets to kill Ultron. We get a scene with a magic swimming pool in a cave that has no explanation at all, and which probably breaks, like, a rule or two. Stellan Skaarsgard appears, and he's like, "Hey, what's up. I'm Stellan Skaarsgard." And that just can't be right. Roughly half the movie is more about the next movie in the franchise. It is, in short, everything movie snobs hate about modern filmmaking, and it's pretty goddamn aggressive about it.
Of course, there's one big difference here: Ultron loses (told you there'd be spoilers). Marvel hasn't been the underdog in this race in a long time, not since The Avengers did to the box office what ... well, what Mark Rothko did to Cubism.
My point is that the success of "cinematic universes" means the at-least-temporary extinction of one-off films. They can't coexist, because one is so much stronger than the other, and also voiced by James Spader and made out of vibranium. The point is that the future of cinema could go one of two ways: Either every movie will be a cinematic universe, and TV shows will interweave their plots with theatrical/digital releases, or ... not. And that divide is exactly what Avengers: Age Of Ultron is secretly about.
Um. It's also about superheroes punching robots. But I mean, whatever, right?
For more from Sarge, check out 5 Tricks Hollywood Uses To Make Good Trailers And Bad Movies and 7 Famous Movies That Got Tiny Details Absolutely Perfect.
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It has exactly one positive review on Rotten Tomatoes at the time of this writing.