Age of Ultron and Daredevil: Marvel Testing the Limits

Shiny happy heroes.
Age of Ultron definitely has higher production values on the posters at least. (Image via Comicvine.)

From a point of bankruptcy in the 1990s, Marvel has built its comic-book properties into a billion-dollar film and television franchise that’s so omnipresent you never have to wait long for the next Marvel product. Two movies a year and multiple TV series are enough to sate the most avid fan, and while we may be nearing oversaturation, the quality has remained remarkably high so far. The latest two offerings—Avengers: Age of Ultron and Daredevil—represent Marvel working harder than ever to maintain that quality as it stretches the limits of what superhero fiction can do on screen.

A:AoU is of course the follow-up to Joss Whedon’s ensemble blockbuster movie, whereas Daredevil marks the first offering from Marvel’s tie-up with Netflix, presenting heroics at a more gritty street level than Avengers’ apocalyptic, primary-colour adventures. Having watched them both to completion over the past weekend, I thought comparing the two might prove interesting.

Spoilers abound below…

The most impressive shot in the first Avengers movie was a swooping action set-piece that highlighted every character in the cast. It’s a mark of the sequel’s ambition that it starts with a shot clearly designed to evoke that previous success. Director Joss Whedon has always been a fan of evoking character through action as much as dialogue, and his new movie has a wave-like structure, moving from full-on action to thoughtful downtime and back again multiple times. If anything, it could probably do with a little more downtime—it was cut in the editing suite from over three hours to around two, and it asks the audience to accept a lot with minimal explanation.*

One of the other triumphs of the first Avengers movie was Tom Hiddleston’s Loki, who played his villainous role with gleeful malice and wounded resentment. James Spader as the titular artificial intelligence Ultron is cut from similar cloth, portraying a bitter, spiteful creation who clearly loathes and despises the Avengers. It’s a choice that allows plenty of emotional connection to the heroes, especially Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark, but part of me wanted a more imperious, overwhelming presence who could really present a challenge to the Avengers. (I had a similar problem with the recent John Wick, where the eponymous hero spent his time simply whittling down the foe instead of being driven to the brink of defeat.)

As a movie, A:AoU is stuffed to the brim (apparently, unlike previous Marvel movies, this one is going to have an extended cut on its home release), with three new characters introduced to add to the already packed cast**, as well as a host of cameos. It’s to Whedon’s credit that it all works as well as it does, though some of the sense of fun of the first Avengers does seem to have been lost along the way. With this being Whedon’s swansong and the finale of “Phase Two” of Marvel’s movie strategy, it will be interesting to see where they go from here.

If A:AoU feels overstuffed from start to finish, Daredevil suffers from the opposite problem. The Netflix series spends 13 episodes serving as an origin story for both its hero and the street-level world that Netflix and Marvel are creating to host a TV version of the movie strategy. It stands at the far end of the Marvel spectrum in other ways too, delivering as it does some brutal violence, moral dilemmas and darkly lit sets. Casting and performances are successes in the typical Marvel fashion, with both major and minor parts well played, but this leads to further problems by the end.

Daredevil starts with a bang, weaving the origin of Charlie Cox’s protagonist (blind lawyer Matthew Murdock) into his current life and activities and keeping its villain, Vincent D’Onofrio’s Wilson Fisk, in the background until his reputation has been suitably built up. After that, the parallels between Fisk and Murdock are raised repeatedly, with both hero and villain questioning the methods that they adopt in order to achieve their goal of improving their city. While there’s never any doubt that Fisk is the villain and Murdock the hero, the decisions that they make push them towards choosing their final destiny and retain the audience’s interest.

However, towards the end Daredevil does sometimes feel like it’s overstaying its welcome. Having started so strongly, it sometimes lapses into repeating some plotlines as it advances others. It never loses a sense of progress, but the balance between its various parts gets a little lost towards the end. Worse, having built up a strong cast of supporting characters over the course of those episodes, it then proceeds to do away with many of them, killing off the interest that they added. Having a sense of consequence is vital for a street-level series like this in a way it isn’t for an overblown adventure like AoU, but Daredevil strays too far towards the grimdark humourlessness of recent DC comics output for comfort.

Where Daredevil succeeds without question is in opening up a new field for Marvel’s comics-based output. Cable-based programming featuring street-level heroics could be a great success, and Marvel and Netflix already have three more solo series to follow, as well as an Avengers-like team-up series, Defenders. If Marvel can learn from Daredevil’s successes and missteps, it could deliver a lot of fun for fans and newbies alike and a lot of profit for its shareholders and partners.

As different as Avengers: Age of Ultron and Daredevil are, they both show Marvel’s multi-platform strategy pushing forwards and stretching the limits of both television and movies. One of them provides a two-hour shot of high-octane action and quips that might once have been described as being in “the Mighty Marvel fashion.” The other is a miniseries that translates Nolan-esque moral compromise and brutal action into a cable television setting. Neither quite fits into its chosen medium, but they both deliver a lot of enjoyment along the way, and as long as they both represent growing pains for Marvel rather than the first stumbles of an inevitable fall, there should be a lot more enjoyment to come.

*In particular, there’s a lot of backstory to be explored around just where Ultron came from and how he got there. The link to the “Infinity Stones” theme running through the Marvel movies is dropped it very quickly and acts more as a lead-in to the mid-credits sequence than anything else.

**Paul Bettany’s “Vision” is a particularly welcome addition, not just because he’s Paul Bettany and thus brilliant. He changes the team dynamics as soon as he arrives (providing a lead-in to next year’s Captain America: Civil War), and there’s an essay to be written about the hubris of Stark and Banner building their own Superman in a very messianic mould. Another thing reduced in impact in the editing room, I fear.

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