The age of the Marvel?

Cross-platform releases could signal a shift in the Marvel narrative experience

By T.T. Stern-Enzi

Photo: Chris Evans as Captain America and Chris Hemsworth as Thor in “The Avengers: Age of Ultron”

Expectations couldn’t be higher for the upcoming Marvel/Disney release “The Avengers: Age of Ultron,” especially in light of this year’s front-loading of each month of the summer season. The first weekend in April saw the arrival of “Furious 7,” which has already earned more than $1 billion internationally, only the third film to achieve that distinction (behind the James Cameron one-two punch of “Avatar” and “Titanic”). “The Fast and the Furious” franchise has seen remarkable growth with each of its last four installments, having built itself up in a surprisingly organic fashion, if you consider that it started out as a little movie about underground illegal street racers and the undercover cop trying to infiltrate the inner circle.

What Marvel has accomplished is much different, and it begins, as they say, at the beginning. Marvel, much like comic book rival DC, has created a fantastic world of inter-connected characters that borders on the mythic. In fact, some have argued that comic books and the heroes contained in their colorful panels and pages are the modern equivalents of the gods and heroes or ancient mythology; contemporary stand-ins, less as explanations for that which we cannot understand through science, logic and reason (as in our ancient golden ages), than as analogies for social dynamics and cultural crises we struggle to confront and overcome. Comic books allow us to reflect upon social ills like discrimination (mutants as placeholders for various oppressed groups) or authoritarian exercise/abuse of power (super powered beings forced to surrender their secret identities and register with the government out of fear). Certain storylines mirror social realities, as if ripped from the headlines and talking points of blogs and cable news scroll feeds.

At the heart of it all though, are the stories themselves and the characters, the larger-than-life beings – be they regular humans with high intellects or mutants or aliens from other worlds or androids who dare to dream of being human. We turn those pages because we want to see the full spectrum of life unfolding before us, and we watch the movies now because, thanks to technological advances, filmmakers can render the impossible now as something far more ordinary, while still retaining a heightened sense of the implausible.

But it is the very humanity (and the desire for humanity) that threatens the next wave of movies in Marvel’s seemingly unending rollout of characters and narratives. With more Avengers movies (and team member solo projects) to come, along with secondary and tertiary characters like Black Panther, Doctor Strange and teams like The Inhumans, as well as another reboot of an A-lister like Spider-Man (thanks to an unheard of collaboration between Sony and Marvel/Disney), the real test may arise from Marvel’s own unfettered ambitions.

By jumping from the big screen to adaptations of network television (“Agents of SHIELD,” “Agent Carter” and new projects in the pipeline featuring previously established characters and/or creative partnerships with filmmakers like John Ridley) and new ventures like the Marvel/Netflix saga, which just successfully kicked off with “Daredevil,” the emerging question seems to be whether or not the film events will continue to hold the attention of an audience that will be able to explore the shared universe and its characters, in much greater detail in other platforms?

Already, it feels as if the big pictures lack a degree of specificity and intimacy, moreso when the complexity of the characters is taken into consideration. How and why is it that over the course of three movies Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.) hasn’t truly grappled with his alcoholism? Where is the undeniable mad genius of Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), which stands in sharp contrast with the complex psychology of his raging Hulk? Or how about the gritty street-level connections Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) share with Daredevil (Charlie Cox) and his soon-to-be revealed “Defenders” on Netflix?

The movies can’t offer those kinds of stories, because they are trapped by a set of expectations rooted in box office returns and the chase for record earnings. So, at some point, Marvel will have to decide what matters more – the characters and the host of stories waiting to be told or the bottom line – and the answer could usher in a real golden age for audiences.

Reach DCP film critic T.T. Stern-Enzi at Film@DaytonCityPaper.com and visit his blog for additional film reviews at terrencetodd.wordpress.com.

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T.T. Stern-Enzi
Reach DCP Film Critic T.T. Stern-Enzi at Film@DaytonCityPaper.com and visit his blog for additional film reviews at TerrenceTodd.com. You can also follow him on Twitter at @ttsternenzi.

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