The release of Fantastic Four finally puts to bed this year’s run of superhero blockbusters, and it’s fair to say that as superhero movies go, it’s been an unpredictable year. Ant-Man opened low for a Marvel film, but made back its money and was critically well-received even as people mourned the Edgar Wright film we lost as a result. A similarly-troubled Fantastic Four movie crash-landed in a manner befitting the four’s initial spaceflight, fulfilling the grim predictions based on early leaked material.
And then there’s Avengers: Age Of Ultron. Perhaps the biggest puzzle of the three, not least because – unlike the others – it seemed to do everything right on paper.
We liked it, but with caveats. The weeks that followed saw a broader consensus emerge that yes, it probably wasn’t as good as people were hoping it would be. The five-star majesty of Avengers seemed an impossible target, but who amongst us expected Avengers 2 to lack the strength of affection that 2014’s Guardians Of The Galaxy and Captain America: The Winter Soldier were showered with?
Avengers 2 was rich in the things everybody said they wanted out of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe. It had multiple female superheroes. It introduced a slew of new characters taken from the comics. It had a main villain who, while not in the league of Loki, was at least batting above average. It boasted inter-film connectivity the likes of which we haven’t ever seen before, transforming the Avengers franchise ahead of Phase 3. That breathtaking seven-character shot during the climactic fight scene of the first Avengers film? That was where this film began its action sequences.
And yet ultimately, the film underperformed.
We’re not necessarily talking about money, though it’s worth noting that the first Avengers did do better business. We’re talking about a film’s ability to entertain and engage its audience. The first Avengers movie reverberated through pop-culture for months afterwards, and its echoes are still felt today in the likes of superhero franchise mash-ups like X-Men: Days Of Future Past and Batman v Superman. By comparison, it seemed that lots of people had stopped talking about Avengers: Age Of Ultron before it was even out of the cinemas.
But why? You can blame a lot of factors. A worn-out sense of novelty, perhaps. Phase 2 Fatigue, if that’s a thing. A tougher production, at least by Whedon’s account. But we wonder if the problem was that it committed a cardinal sin of any entertainment: it tried to give audiences exactly what they wanted.
When speaking about his philosophy towards comic writing, legendary Marvel editor Mark Gruenwald used to say that “The writer’s job isn’t to give the fans what they want. The writer’s job is to give the fans what they didn’t even know they wanted.” It’s a philosophy Joss Whedon knows all too well. He’s renowned for being the guy who kills off the fan favorites, who breaks up the OTPs, who makes sure that if things are going well for someone, it’s only because it’s all about to go horribly, horribly wrong.
And that’s why fans respond to his work. It has drama. It makes you care, and then it punishes you – in a proper way – for caring. It’s a rollercoaster.
But Age Of Ultron? It wasn’t a rollercoaster, but it did seem to be on rails.
There was little in the movie that didn’t seem to be there to please fans. A Hulkbuster Iron Man. The appearance of a classic comic villain. Cameos by the supporting cast of previous films. More backstory. More continuity. More Infinity Stones. New heroes. Jokes aplenty. Hints towards Infinity War. A shirtless Thor.
The only thing it reasonably lacked was an appearance by Loki, and even that was only just left on the cutting room floor (it still seems odd, incidentally, that Whedon didn’t seem to get his version of the film through, given the massive success of the previous movie). Age Of Ultron went bigger. It went louder. It did almost everything fans demanded a sequel to Avengers should do.
And how did fans respond to it? Not particularly well. Moderate enthusiasm for the movie soon gave way to vocal and often vitriolic attacks on Whedon. Fans said he undermined the female characters. Fans complained his version of Ultron was too funny. Fans accused him of falling back on tired tropes. And when he tried something that wasn’t a direct response to fans’ demands – putting the ‘wrong’ romantic pair together – it was as though some were so conditioned towards being given exactly what they wanted that they acted like it was a personal slight when they weren’t.
Maybe that’s why Avengers 2 was ultimately never going to be the hit we wanted it to be. Fandom at its best is a celebration of a shared enthusiasm for something, but it takes only a little nudging to turn it. Fandoms start off based on something good, but they soon start to feel like they own the thing they love, and that the creators employed to write (or draw, or direct) that thing are only stewards who have to feed the fandom beast or meet with disapproval. Things turn toxic.
But for all our good intentions, fans don’t really know what’s good for them. Trying to please fans is what gets us an Ant-Man film most people like instead of an Ant-Man film that some people would’ve loved. It’s what gets us a Fantastic Four film torpedoed by reshoots and rewrites based on outrage from almost a year before its release. And it’s what gets us an Avengers film that ticks every box and somehow comes up short.
The lesson? Be careful what you wish for. Not because you might get it, but because you risk getting only that and nothing else. It’s fine to think about what you might like to see. It’s fine to criticise developments you don’t enjoy. But once you expect anything more specific than a well-told story, you may have to blame yourself if you don’t even get that. The supine posture of Avengers: Age Of Ultron would seem to prove that if you try to please the fans, you’re on a hiding to nothing. Some love Age Of Ultron, we should note. But nowhere near as many as love Joss Whedon’s first The Avengers movie.