The Limits of Storytelling in ‘Avengers: Age of Ultron’

WARNING: MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD!

As I shuffled out of the movie theatre after Avengers: Age of Ultron, the number-one movie in America, I wondered why I hadn’t liked it. I knew Hawkeye’s secret family had nothing to do with how I felt (the scenes at his safe house may have been among the most interesting parts of the film). I didn’t even care about Black Widow’s infertility (I could have sworn that the “monster” she referred to had nothing to do with her lack of babies and more about the fact that she used to live of life full of remorseless killing). I enjoyed the first Avengers well enough and I like Thor and Captain America and Iron Man and the rest of the team. But I just didn’t care about what happened to them this time around, and I suddenly cared even less about Joss Whedon’s protestations and explanations I’d been reading about for the past week. And I like Joss Whedon, too.

Instead, I started to hear the voice of my latest creative writing teacher echoing her first and foremost critical question of sub-par short stories: What is the emotional truth? In those types of student stories, the rest of us reading them were usually uncertain about what we should have focused on—what character, what scene, what event, what theme—and why we should care at all. We could conjecture and conjure sub-text that might make certain themes appear, stitching our own links between disassociated acts to try to make them come together as a whole, intentional message, but sometimes we all had to sit back and realize that the story just wasn’t working on those levels and needed to be fleshed out. It needed life. Soul, even. So my teacher would ask us her first question in a different way: What makes the story live?

Thor getting struck by the lightning of knowledge (or…something) in a random sea cave doesn’t count.

But what does “emotional truth” even mean, and what does it have to do with the enormous, thrashing mashup that is Age of Ultron? Most working definitions might call forth the importance of creating empathy, allowing for deep connections between readers and characters through the conflict of the narrative and the meaning inferred between the lines. It’s supposed to create a “truth”—an interpretation of the world or a worldview, perhaps—that often rings truer whilst reading the fiction than it would whilst reading plain facts in the news or a dissertation. It’s supposed to give the readers something to take away.

I’m speaking now of fiction in literature, but the same elusive concept can be applied to comic books as well.

At 2012’s Baltimore Comic-Con, Marvel editor Tom Brevoort spoke about the importance of emotional truth when reviewing stories for the brand’s famous super heroes.

“The trick of stories is to reveal an emotional truth,” he said. “You want to effect the reader, make them feel…something.” In other words, just as X-Men is a metaphor for tolerance, or Thor a metaphor for the bond between family, a story must in some way resonate with readers regardless of whether they’re already fans of hammer-wielding thunder-gods.

Or some sort of mutant with inspecific superpowers who can destroy entire races and create alternate universes where some people are dead or else just really messed up, and with only a flick of her red, glowing wrist. Which, admittedly, is hard to relate to.

Still, I found that the question of emotional truth, even by Brevoort’s simple definition, is often difficult for writers in my class to answer, especially when the story on the table may have been the result of hurried stress in the midst of other school assignments, and not a true vision desperate to be told. I wonder if the same thing could be said of Joss Whedon and the famous difficulties encountered during the production of Age of Ultron.

Above, Joss Whedon laughs to hide his pain.

Interestingly, Tom Brevoort’s role as an editor, not a writer or an artist, is crucial to discussing these problems about how to draw out the ever-necessary emotional truth of not just a story, but a whole comic book—or, for the purposes of this blog, the massive, overarching film franchises like the entirety of Captain America, or the epic super-franchise of The Avengers.

In the same talk, for example, Brevoort speaks about the importance of the editor’s role as the “first reader”—essentially the first audience—of the book, whose primary role is to “figure out whether the story works, [whether] it’s exciting, and, ‘do I care at all.’” He suggests that Marvel stories “are ultimately about individual people” and that every story they do is “usually about metaphor.” And if the individual people are important to the story, then their identities and roles are also important. An editor, Brevoort said, needs to ask, “Why is this is a story that can only be told with these characters? If this is a story that can be taken out and do a global find and replace for Spider-Man, this is not really a story about Spider-Man.”

Actual reaction shot after reading the ‘Age of Ultron’ script.

Lastly, Brevoort makes special mention of a misstep especially pertinent to Age of Ultron: “You don’t want to just make ‘stories about stories,’ meaning books that just reference other comics, or exist only to fix a continuity mistake from five years prior.”

Why, then, does the Avengers series break almost all of these story-telling rules from the mouth of Marvel itself?

Age of Ultron, after all, disregards individual stories in favor of an enormous ensemble cast, twelve of which are superheroes or exhibit superpowers (counting Idris Elba’s brief appearance as Heimdall and Ultron just being Ultron), to which Whedon admittedly tries to attach some emotional truth, but not always successfully. For example, Ultron spouts his lines about God versus Man, freedom versus restraint, preservation versus evolution, but we see little evidence of internal conflict until his final confrontation with Vision at the end of the film. The audience is told through Ultron’s spooky renditions of Pinocchio’s “I’ve Got No Strings” that he desires freedom, but what does the film actually show the audience about Ultron’s sense of being bound? If he truly does desire freedom as a rational being, then why does he seem written off as insane or maniacal? He even calls himself “evil” after calling the Avengers “good people.” Ultron, then, risks falling back into the trope of a simple antagonist, even when the film wants to paint him as a complicated creator-god.

We get it.

When the Vision—arguably the most characterized protagonist in the film—confronts Ultron at the end of the movie, we don’t even know why we should believe that Ultron really is “afraid of death” when we’ve been given no sense of Ultron’s relationship to ideas of mortality.

And despite Whedon’s apparent amusement at fans’ confusion in response to the Black Widow’s romance with Hulk, is it that hard to believe that the last Avengers movie and Natasha’s arrow necklace in The Winter Soldier seemed to be leading audience to believe that she and Hawkeye really were more than friends? And that her relationship with Bruce appeared from nowhere? Even in Age of Ultron, Natasha still seems more attached to Hawkeye, who goes to locate her while Bruce doesn’t seem too outwardly concerned. If so many fans perceive so many continuity issues in this matter, than perhaps they might actually exist in spite of Whedon’s protestations.

All I’m saying is, one of them went out of their way to buy this on Etsy or something.

Why, too, render Quicksilver’s death unemotional and inconsequential by means of failing to develop his character, especially since, as a new character, that should be the first thing accomplished? Why is he reduced to a punchline, his constant frown the only evidence of his war-torn past? Since Whedon admitted to shooting an alternate version of the film where Quicksilver survives his wounds, we can only assume that Quicksilver didn’t need to die to make the story work. Come to think of it, I reckon that an argument could me made wherein none of the original Avengers actually need to be themselves to make the story work.

Here’s Quicksilver trying to catch up to a plot that started eight zillion movies before he arrived.

After all, the story seemed to want to be about Ultron and the Vision in the first place, as both were given some of the most compelling dialogue hinting at “emotional truth” the film had to offer, and yet both characters were sidelined in favor of action sequences and wise-guy cracks from the rest of the Avengers. I would argue, for example, that the most telling moment in the film arrives when the Vision sees his physical form for the first time, reflecting over the human-made lights of the human-filled city, visibly moved by his new birth. How ironic that a robot and an android would offer us the most compelling view of humanity in a movie filled with super-humans.

Or just views of the peaceful Sokovian landscape.

Perhaps this comes down to my own selfish wishes in the end. I wanted to learn more about Pietro’s conflicts before he died, and about Wanda’s relationship to her brother. I wanted to learn more about how Ultron and the Vision feel about their inhumanity. And I wanted to learn more about what rest of the Avengers felt about any of this at all.

I’m tempted to think that something so populated with characters as The Avengers just can’t work out the way fiction writers and Marvel creators intend for good storytelling, and that the story of Age of Ultron lost itself before it really began, failing to weave an “emotional truth” until it appears all at once at the end of the film. But since Marvel seems to be intent on making superhero movies until the end of days, that gives plenty of time for all the evolution Ultron kept talking about. Perhaps then, at the close of the last Avengers, we will see the story that has been hiding between the lines all along.

Watch the trailer below:

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