Days before it opened, advance ticket sales for the new Avengers film promised one of the biggest opening weekends ever, making it obvious – in case you might have missed it – that we’re living in the age of the comic book movie.
Ever since the movies began, nearly every decade has been dominated by some genre of film. The ‘30s had gangster movies, the ‘40s had film noir and the ‘50s had melodrama. The ‘70s will be remembered for disaster films, the ‘80s for teen flicks and the ‘90s for romantic comedies.
As for the ‘60s – well, even over four decades later it’s hard to decide just what the hell the ‘60s were all about.
But ever since the last reboot of the Batman franchise in 2005 in the wake of the Spider-Man and X-Men series before that, it’s been obvious that we’re living through the age of the comic book movie. Men in tights, troubled anti-heroes spawned from weird science, mutants with superpowers, gadget-enhanced millionaires and gods descended from the skies – we’re obsessed with a pantheon of super-men and –women who regularly decimate our cities while saving us from harbingers of yet another apocalypse.
But what does it mean?
For Wired magazine, it’s all about the triumph of the nerd. “We won,” they crowed in a preview of Age of Ultron. “Nerd stuff is everywhere. Resistance is futile. At almost any time, and almost anywhere - the cinema, on network TV, wherever it is that we watch Netflix - there’s a superhero staring back at us.”
They may be right. The social misfits with their mint-in-box action figures and complete runs of Mylar-encased Deadpools have taken over Hollywood, and with once-bankrupt Marvel Studios’ cumulative worldwide earnings edging past a staggering $7 billion on the eve of Age of Ultron’s release, it’s hard to imagine Hollywood’s copycat business model turning off the caped and superpowered juggernaut any time soon.
Make no mistake – Avengers: Age of Ultron is more of the same, only moreso. Destroying Manhattan is an action movie cliché, so this time it’s Seoul and Johannesburg that become collateral damage as Thor, Captain America, Iron Man, Hulk and the rest of the gang battle what’s basically a computer virus gone sentient thanks to some hubristic meddling with a magic jewel in a divine sceptre.
(If you’ve never reviewed movies for a living, you have no idea how silly it feels to have to type a sentence like that.)
We see civilians run in terror from choking clouds of dust as skyscrapers implode under the blows of battling villains and demi-gods. If that wasn’t enough of a hint, the film’s main action centres around an unnamed city in Sokovia, a fictional Balkan country with a troubled history. Ringed by mountains, it resembles Sarajevo more than anywhere else, a city with a prominent role to play on both ends of the 20th century.
I don’t imagine the creators of the Avengers saga had Gavrilo Princip and Archduke Franz Ferdinand in mind, but I’m sure they have youthful memories of Sniper Alley and the four-year siege that dragged on while experts pontificated, governments wrung their hands and nearly 14,000 people died. For Generation X, our childhood played out with Vietnam and helicopter gunships on the evening news; for Millenials, it was Bosnia and Kosovo and massacres and symbolic air strikes on CNN. And then came 9/11.
For the generation that buys the movie tickets and DVDs and downloads that make Marvel Studios rich, their lived history has been one incomprehensible war bleeding into another, prolonged by clueless and arrogant politicians and experts and made ever more bloody and pervasive thanks to technology. Some ancient grievance that began in a distant desert can erupt in gunfire or bombs in a mall or subway or crowded street nearby, live on television and Twitter.
So far the Marvel Cinematic Universe has seen Earth survive the depredations of Loki and the Chitauri, Ten Rings, Malekith, and Hydra. As this constellation of movies and TV shows enters its next cycle of sequels, cities will be pummelled by Ultron and Thanos and some impending Civil War, the details of which are sketched out in dozens of Mylar-bagged comics.
With sequels leading to sequels and conflicts stretching out for nearly a dozen films lasting at least till the decade’s end, it’s no wonder that Avengers: Age of Ultron, like the rest of its large and small screen cousins, ends without catharsis or relief. After all, why should it be any different from a week’s worth of cable news?
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