Superhero O.D.

by wjw on May 8, 2015

I saw Age of Ultron, and I’ve reached Episode Seven of Daredevil, and so I’m pretty well experiencing a superhero O.D.  right now.  What I’ve learned from both is a lesson in the limitations of the superhero genre, even if you gussie it up with A-list actors and a $250-million budget.

I’m enjoying Daredevil, and Charlie Cox’s take on the character,  the bravura action scenes, and Vincent d’Onofrio’s chilling portrayal of Fisk.  And I’m beginning to suspect that Matt Murdock isn’t merely a dark avenger of the night, but someone who’s got a sick compulsion to get himself beaten up on a regular basis (because that’s the best thing that’s going to happen to you when you take a little stick to a gunfight).  The urge to atone for past sins (his responsibility for his father’s death) by turning himself into a punching bag makes him more interesting than the usual crime-fighting hero.

But I can’t help but notice that Daredevil‘s plot is pretty well tracking the plot of Arrow.  I mean, we’ve got

  1. A dark avenger of the night determined to protect his community (check)

  2. Female Chinese drug importer (check)

  3. Russian Maffya (check)

  4. Mysterious highly skilled member of a corps of assassins who turns up when the plot needs juicing.

  5. A primary villain with an interest in radical forms of urban renewal (check— and WTF?)

Malcolm Merlyn wants to destroy the slums because he wants revenge on them, and Fisk wants to destroy slums so he can build high-rises and make a fortune.  (He doesn’t wonder where, in the absence of slums, his high-rise dwellers are going to find their servants.)  But yeah, it’s a little strange that in two comic book-inspired venues, the villains aren’t Galactus or Darkseid or even the Joker, but developers.

It keeps the special-effects budget low, I’m thinking.

I suppose there are limitations about what you can do with superheroes who aren’t particularly super.  These guys are a lot closer to the streets than Thor or Tony Stark.  They don’t defend the planet, they defend a neighborhood.

But still, it’s weird that the two series are drawing plot coupons from the same hat.

As for Age of Ultron, it was pretty well a Platonic ideal of a superhero movie.  It handled its big cast well, each character was given an arc, and there was a lot of action interspersed with a good deal of quipping.

An hour was cut from the film during editing, so there were some subplots that were so truncated that they just lay in the film like a walleyed pike thrown up on the shore, gasping and flopping to no purpose.  Like, what was Thor doing barechested in that freaking pool?  Why did Black Widow offer an earnest discourse on her involuntarily sterilization?  What was Stellan Skarsgård doing in the film at all?

Wait for the director’s cut, these questions will probably be answered.

What’s become obvious by now is that the Avengers spend their time cleaning up their own shit, all with colossal loss of life and property.  Who the Avengers avenge against is the Avengers themselves.  It was Nick Fury who brought Loki to Earth in the first movie, and in Ultron one of Tony Stark’s mad science experiments comes close to  wiping out the human race.  (Not to mention Thor’s girlfriend awakening a force that almost destroyed the universe, Thor’s misbehavior bringing him to Earth along with a bunch of enemies in his wake, Hydra’s sixty-year grudge against Captain America,  Hulk’s giving blood and creating two supervillains, Fury letting Hydra infiltrate SHIELD and building flying death ships for them to command, Stark creating the Iron Legion which gets subverted, Stark’s selfishness and neglect allowing Obadiah Stane to turn his company into a force for evil, Stark telling the Mandarin to “bring it on,” Stark creating Ultron . . . Stark doing anything, basically.)

The only Avenger who hasn’t brought bad karma to the Avengers is Hawkeye, but that’s because he’s the wimpy guy who brings a longbow to a laser cannon fight.  (Because.  Just because.  He’s so wimpy he doesn’t even have a backstory to tell you why he uses a bow.) If Hawkeye had an archenemy, the baddie would last only as long as it took Thor to step on him.

Fortunately all the Avengers’ foes are, so far, pretty feeble.  In Avengers 1, Loki and the Chitauri are disposed of pretty quickly once they actually appear on the Avengers’ radar.  Ultron’s real superpower is ubiquity, which ought to be a colossal problem, because he’d be in every computer in the world at once and you couldn’t get rid of him, but instead he decides to levitate a city and drop it on the planet like a meteor, and that’s the sort of thing the Avengers can handle on a slow afternoon (albeit with a massive death toll and vast property damage).

The only suspense is whether, with their internal conflicts and conflicting agendas, the Avengers can get it together in time to stop the villain.  (And somehow, I think they always will.)

Which brings me to the limitations of the superhero genre.  Even though colossal attention and budgets are devoted to bringing superhero films into being, there are certain things that the movies can’t do.  Fiction and film abound with characters who go through enormous change, but that can’t happen in a superhero franchise.  You can change Tony Stark to just short of the point where he stops being Iron Man, but you can’t ever reach that point or you lose the franchise.

Iron Man 3 played with the idea of giving Stark PTSD, but you always knew he wouldn’t suffer for long, because he had to suit up and defeat the villain at the end.  He had to still be Iron Man, even though by then he had the Iron Legion and could have retired and let his army of robots do the fighting for him.

(To be fair, this is the same with any franchise character.  Matlock never stopped being Matlock.  Sherlock Holmes never stopped being Sherlock Holmes.)

So Professor X will always be opposed by Magneto, and Spider-Man will always have to rescue Aunt May, and the Justice League will never be able to get rid of Snapper Carr, not even after 55 years.  And the whole enterprise is filled with legacy sexism, because it’s been there forever and you can’t get rid of it.

So when you’re working within one of these franchises, what do you do to disguise the fact that you really can’t change anything?  For the answer, you need look no further than Age of Ultron.

First, you add lots of complications.  New characters, new agendas, new character arcs, new bad guys, new gimmicks, and then you stir them all together.  Constant motion conveys the idea that something may actually be happening.

You add cleverness.  Jokes, quips, running gags.  The heroes get more clever about using their powers.  Likewise the villains.  Lots of plot twists.

And then you add soap opera.  Hawkeye’s touching reunion with his family.  Black Widow’s foredoomed romance with Bruce Banner.  Scarlet Witch’s producing a glimpse into each character’s fears.

And lastly lots of action, which goes without saying in a superhero movie.

Which is why Age of Ultron approaches some kind of Platonic ideal of a superhero movie.  It’s got all of that (including the legacy sexism), and it does it all so well.

But nothing’s going to change.  The cast of the Avengers might change, but the Avengers themselves are stuck in the template, and they’ll be there until the audience loses interest.

And the only way Matt Murdock is going to give up the mask is if the series is canceled.  Until then he’s going to go on getting beaten up a lot.

PrivateIron May 8, 2015 at 8:58 am

Bruce Wayne gave up the mask twice (for relatively realistic reasons) in Rises. For all the film’s other problems, it should not have shocked us that he took off again at the end of the film and yet it did because it defies the convention of what a superhero is. He took his retired linebacker body, had it broken in two and then magically regrew his spine. Instead of getting back on the gargoyle, he said “Whoo! Going to Italy. See ya.” Like anyone with sense would do. Batman’s not supposed to have common sense; Batman is supposed to be crazy forever.

wjw May 8, 2015 at 7:16 pm

I suspect Bruce Wayne gave up the mask because Christian Bale signed a three-picture deal, and that provided a handy end to their character arc. If they’d wanted more from Bale, they’d have had to give him a dump truck of money.

We may see more of the same from Marvel, because the principal actors’ contracts are expiring, and Marvel is also Disney, which is notoriously bad about giving actors power, or for that matter a lot of money. When Robert Downey was signed for the first Iron Man, he was a recovering drug addict whose career was at a nadir, so I reckon they signed him to a multi-picture deal for not a lot of money. None of the other Avengers are played by actors who were household names when they signed, and their contracts will be expiring as well.

Clearly Marvel’s prepared to replace at least some of the Avengers with Paul Bettany and Elizabeth Olson– good actors, the both of them, but not in a position to demand a truckload of money.

Though personally I’d have a hard time accepting the Avengers without Tony Stark and Captain America.

Ralf T. Dog May 11, 2015 at 12:25 pm

I don’t think the superhero genre is irredeemably stale, forever condemned to the half price, must sell today shelf. I do think that it will take significantly more complex plots and perhaps a bit better writing.

Picture the Avengers fighting the ultimate villeins, in the hopes of saving the peaceful, helpless citizens of a world so advanced, they had lost the basic aggression needed to defend themselves. The bad guys fight with a savagery unimagined. They sacrifice their lives and perhaps the lives of their children for even the smallest advantage. The Avengers are sickened by their barbarity.

The heroes fight their way to the center of the barbarian stronghold. Perhaps Thor smashes the control system to the ultimate weapon, only moments away from destroying all life on the peaceful world. Perhaps, Stark in uncontrollable rage beats the evil general to a hair’s width of his life, then, just one hair’s with more.

The General’s last words, ‘Please, you must destroy them before the parasites end your civilization as they have ended ours.’ The Avengers walk through the libraries and museums of the hoard. They find, the world they were attacking was their world. They were not attempting to take it back, that could not be done. They were simply attempting to retrieve their genetic library and save their species. They failed and now, thanks to the Avengers, a civilization dating back to the first beginnings of time is gone.

The Avengers, no longer able to save the innocent, descend on the word they were protecting and in the name of vengeance, exterminate the parasitic civilization.

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