Superhero Movies and the Curse of Familiarity:

The Age of Ultron

[Author’s note:  this week’s column isn’t really a review of The Age of Ultron.  I’ll leave that for others to do.  But after seeing the movie, I found myself asking a number of questions.  What follows are my stumbling attempts at framing some answers.  Oh, and along the way you might also encounter a very minor spoiler or two.]

There’s a scene about halfway through The Avengers: The Age of Ultron where Black Widow races a motorcycle through a congested roadway.  She’s chasing a truck carrying Ultron, and she has to veer and skid through traffic at incredibly high speeds.  It’s an exciting scene, reminiscent in many ways of Indiana Jones galloping after the truck carrying the Ark of the Covenant in Raiders of the Lost Ark.  But throughout the chase scene, I had one burning question.

Why isn’t she wearing a helmet?

You know a movie’s not working when you find yourself thinking about totally irrelevant things.  Before the motorcycle chase, my thoughts had focused on Steve Rogers’s shirts.  Early in the movie, as the team goes to a celebration party, Rogers arrives in a perfectly fitted, long-sleeve, button-down shirt.  I’m not much of a fashion expert, but it looked a lot like silk or rayon—not cotton.  Later, when the team hides away in a farmhouse, he’s wearing what looks like a high-end designer t-shirt.

All of which makes me wonder why a guy from World War II who says he can’t even afford to live in Brooklyn is wearing tailored, designer clothes.  Maybe he dressed this way in the earlier movies, but I never noticed.  Did the studio make a special deal with a fashion designer?  Can I go online and buy the “Captain America designer t-shirt?”  And more importantly, does it come with muscle padding like a Halloween costume to make me look like Chris Evans?

Unfortunately, none of this is what you’re supposed to be thinking about when you’re watching the biggest movie of the summer.

Sometimes this happens when the viewer isn’t really interested in the movie, but that wasn’t the case for me.  I really enjoyed the first Avengers, and I liked The Winter Soldier even more.  So I was pretty excited.  I had even bought a box of Limited Edition Avengers breakfast cereal to eat that morning.  No really.  It’s very cool.  It’s got these little marshmallows that look like Captain America’s shield, and …

Stop looking at me that way.

Anyway, film is an unpredictable medium.  I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen a good director assemble a good cast to shoot a good story … and it just doesn’t gel.  There’s a special alchemy to making all those elements come together—sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.  For me, The Age of Ultron obviously didn’t work.

But that doesn’t mean it’s a bad film.  It certainly seems better made than Thor: The Dark World, 300: Rise of an Empire, The Lone Ranger, or Spider-Man 3.  The acting is solid, the special effects are mostly good, the dialogue is mildly witty, and there are even a handful of poignant character moments.  It’s a very watchable movie, I’m glad I saw it, and I’m sure many people will love it.

So I don’t want to think about it in terms of good or bad.  I don’t really believe a work of art can be objectively good or objectively bad anyway.  I’m more interested in the subjective viewing experience.  The point shouldn’t be to prove that a movie is good or bad, but rather to try to figure out why it either worked or didn’t in a particular case.  Clearly, The Age of Ultron didn’t work for me, and I wanted to understand why.

The superhero films I’ve most connected with—Superman, Unbreakable, The Dark Knight, Man of Steel, Winter Soldier, and even The Incredibles were all real-world based.  The lead characters interacted with small, recognizable parts of everyday life.  In Winter Soldier, we see Cap living in a small apartment, jogging around the National Mall, touring the Smithsonian, and going to the hospital.  He may have been Captain America, but he was also a guy trying to figure out how to live as Steve Rogers.  The same is true with all of those other films I mentioned.  But I’m having trouble coming up with any real-world interactions in The Age of Ultron.

When the team goes to their celebratory party, there are some “civilians” there, but it’s mostly an opportunity for the plainclothes Avengers to connect with other superheroes like War Machine and the Falcon.  Likewise, when the team goes to a private farmhouse—one of my favorite sequences, by the way—there’s still very little that happens that isn’t directly related to their lives as Avengers.

Even after the Hulk goes on a destructive rampage and Bruce Banner is told that there are calls for his arrest, the filmmakers opt not to show us the news coverage or the public outrage.  We just see Banner wrestling with guilt while hearing about the public’s reaction second-hand.  The result is that the real world—the one the heroes are fighting to save—isn’t really part of the movie so it doesn’t mean much to us.

Does this mean the only kinds of superhero films we should have are ones where the heroes are integrated into the real world?  Of course not.  But the enemy here would seem to be familiarity.  Just as our minds will start to wander when we re-watch a movie for the twelfth time, when dealing with a franchise like the Avengers where we’ve already met all the characters before, we need something to destabilize us—to knock us off our game.  In short, we need an element of strangeness.

In films like The Winter Soldier, that sense of strangeness comes from those little elements that reflect the real world—Cap writing down the title to a Marvin Gaye album in his notepad.  That moment is familiar to us, but it’s strange in the context of a superhero story.  It reminds us that there’s far more to Captain America’s life than fighting Batroc.  And the fact that we identify with a world where people listen to Marvin Gaye makes the fact that people like Captain America also live in it seem all the more wondrous.  That’s one way a story can use the real world to give us that sense of strangeness.

But a superhero story can also do the opposite—taking us far away from the real world.  I’m not talking about traveling to Oa or some far away galaxy, but rather by rethinking the world in which the characters exist, making even small things seem exotic.  Think about Neil Gaiman’s run on Miracleman.  When Gaiman took over after Alan Moore, there was almost nothing to work with, or so it seemed.  But Gaiman put his focus on everything in the world except for Miracleman—building a post-superhero world that was fundamentally different from our own.

It reminds me of two of the major types of fantasy.  The Winter Soldier works much like urban fantasy.  The world is familiar but the magic is not.  The other approach is more like high fantasy, like Tolkien or Martin, where everything works differently.  We, in the audience, are in a constant state of discovery, working to assimilate how things in this world operate and where nothing is overly familiar.

But The Age of Ultron feels like neither.  Instead, we watch overly familiar characters—almost as familiar as characters in a TV sitcom—engage almost exclusively with one another and not the real world.  Even James Spader’s quirky Ultron is ultimately familiar—his personality is essentially an unbalanced version of Tony Stark, and his glibness—which might work as a “Big Bad” on Buffy the Vampire Slayer—diminishes his gravitas in this story.  The only suggestion of anything unusual or unfamiliar is Ultron’s religious fixation.   Coming from an artificial intelligence, his recurring motif of talking about a church, referencing Noah, and alluding more than once to God is all quite interesting, but it ultimately goes nowhere.  It feels, instead, like an idea that someone had earlier in the creative process that was mostly dropped, leaving behind only the residual ingredients of some other, unmade movie.  If there was a payoff for this, I missed it.

Ultimately, the art of adaptation as well as the challenge of sequels is to allow the audience to experience things in new ways—strange ways—in order to destabilize us.  That’s how we maintain our suspension of disbelief.  But when our disbelief returns, we’re left with little to ponder besides missing motorcycle helmets, designer t-shirts, and inexplicably evangelical robots.

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Greg Carpenter is a writer, teacher, and recovering coffee addict. He is the author of The British Invasion: Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, and the Invention of the Modern Comic Book Writer. In addition to producing a weekly column for Sequart for almost two years, he has also written for and PopMatters. He has published essays on a variety of writers and artists including Moore, Gaiman, Morrison, Jerry Robinson, August Wilson, and Tennessee Williams, and he has taught a wide variety of classes, including Comics, Shakespeare, Modern American Literature, and Screenwriting/Playwriting. He currently teaches at a university in Nashville.

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Also by Greg Carpenter:

The British Invasion: Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, and the Invention of the Modern Comic Book Writer


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