Throwing physics out the window seems the new norm as big tentpole films hit the theatres.
Let the games begin! The blockbuster season has arrived with aplomb as the run of highly anticipated summer movies kicked off with Avengers: Age of Ultron. The Marvel movie canon has been a mixed bag, some working well and some not quite making the cut. The original Avengers was great. Director Joss Whedon let the characters drive the story. Yes, there was the typical battle at the end but the best parts were the dialogue, and the cast were having fun. You could see character, story and development (something lost in a lot of modern movies). Unfortunately Age of Ultron has almost 20 central characters and coupled with some really over the top CGI, may have missed the mark. There was an interesting article on Cracked highlighting reasons why CGI movies don’t look as good as they used to. It boils down to the fact that physics has gone out of the window and when you see some of the examples they show, it is pretty laughable.
I left the theater after Avengers: Age of Ultron mildly happy. It was a romp, even though it followed the typical Marvel formula of a powerful device that lands in the wrong hands and after a few failings the good guys win in the end. There were some nice set pieces, but it felt very confusing at times with too many characters. It definitely wasn’t as good as the first movie but wasn’t terrible. Or was it? Why did the CGI bother me?
It was only after reading some articles published after the film came out that I began to rethink things. Firstly Joss Whedon claimed that making this movie nearly “broke him,” which doesn’t sound good. Secondly the Black Widow character was seen by many to be overly feminized (and Marvel even dropped her toy from the range). Thirdly, the movie was essentially just a centerpiece to hook you into more of the Marvel universe.
Age of Ultron was never going to be Whedon’s movie. It had too many predefined roles to fill. The Marvel universe is so big now that they need to keep you piped into all the areas. It used to be done in a more interesting way by means of a post-credits teaser, but now it’s right in your face. Each character had to spend time preparing you for their next big outing and Scarlet Witch was the perfect conduit. Thor’s moment was almost a trailer for what might happen in the upcoming Thor: Ragnarok, for example. This is where the problem lies - we know none of the main cast can die. When they introduced Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch in Age of Ultron, they may as well have had them wearing red shirts. It was obvious one of them had to die as nobody else could. This irrevocably leads to the problem I had with the CGI.
If nobody can die, then you are left with quite a boring premise. After Man of Steel (Snyder, 2013) was released, someone coined the phrase “CGI pinball.” They were highlighting the banality of the virtually indestructible Superman and Zod flinging themselves at each other for an hour. There is a fair amount of this going on in Age of Ultron and to spice things up, the set pieces get grander and more ridiculous. I noticed a complete disregard for scale as Iron Man flew around, but he looked cool so I assume it was approved. In the Cracked article they show examples from Jurassic Park and the upcoming Jurassic World. They point out that CGI is ALWAYS used (in the new movie) and the sense of reality is lost because (in the scene with Chris Pratt and the 3 velociraptors) they are dancing around like cartoon characters. Other shots show a complete disregard for physics and gravity, the camera moves around through impossible moves and spaces. Does this make for better viewing? Possibly. Personally, it removes the grounding for me to suspend belief. Compare this to Rise of the Planet of the Apes (Reeves, 2013) where for great stretches of time, I forgot I was even looking at computer graphics.
So where does this leave us? All in all Avengers: Age of Ultron wasn’t a bad movie but could be a sign that things may have peaked for Marvel. Where do you go from here? There was a glimmer of hope with last year’s Guardians of the Galaxy, a movie that was just pure fun. I also thoroughly enjoyed Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which seemed like a thriller more than a formulaic comic book movie.
There are a few glimmers of hope though. This year there looks to be a resurgence of practical effects with Mad Max: Fury Road and Star Wars: The Force Awakens. From the trailer, Mad Max looks spectacular but somehow grounded in reality; the physics have been respected. Star Wars is a little different. There was such a backlash against the prequels looking sterile and computer generated that director JJ Abrams wanted to bring things back to how the original trilogy looked, even going so far as to shoot on film! I’m cautiously optimistic about how it will turn out, after all, as Avengers: Age of Ultron showed us, without character development, the visuals can’t make up for it.
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