In Marvel's new mega blockbuster, Avengers: Age of Ultron, the titular superhero squad has a new tactic for calming down their most volatile member. When the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) needs to be subdued, the Avengers dispatch Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) to soothe the savage beast. Cooing at the colossal, snarling behemoth, Widow lulls the Hulk back into human form, lest he cause any further undue devastation.
The Avengers' repeated attempts to housebreak the Hulk allegorize the whole so-called "Marvel Cinematic Universe." There's to be nothing unruly here. Nothing wild or truly disruptive. Sure, the Avengers movies regularly see skylines decimated by hellacious fireballs and whole city blocks levelled by waves of flying robots. But it plays out with a yawning precision, as if someone pressed the Enter key on a keyboard and executed yet another sequence of computer-generated chaos. It never feels actually chaotic or messy – or interesting.
This process of taming, of ironing out the worrisome kinks of an otherwise compelling character, is Marvel Studios' whole MO. Behind the scenes, producers tap passably exciting filmmakers – nerd-culture icon Joss Whedon with The Avengers flicks, Shane Black and Jon Favreau with the Iron Man films, veteran Shakespearean Sir Kenneth Branagh with Thor – only to make them boring, dulling those compelling edges to fit within the relatively narrow confines of the Marvel house style. Matt Patches at Grantland has termed this "the Pygmalion formula": a process of dressing up "second-stringer" directors to pass as A-list purveyors of massively scaled blockbuster movie-making. Shaping a Shane Black into a Michael Bay, basically.
In their respective origin stories, the Avengers' core team grappled to overcome something. Iron Man's Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) grappled with alcoholism and insidious ties to a military-industrial complex. Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) went from pigeon-chested dweeb to brawny emblem of U.S. patriotism after a super-serum moulded him into Captain America. And the Hulk, as always, battles those internal demons: his rage, his inadequacy, his irrepressible desire to smash.
By Age of Ultron, those personal struggles feel like faraway things.
The Avengers work like a well-oiled machine, bounding into battle together, combining their forces, reflecting Asgardian lightning bolts off vibranium shields as they scrap against the psychotic robot Ultron (James Spader). No longer the dorks, the drinkers, the outcasts, the Avengers now feel like the starting lineup of a championship high school football team. As the once recondite, subcultural pleasures of comic books have shifted straight into the centre of mainstream culture, the nerds have effectively morphed into the jocks.If Marvel Studios has any particular desire to make their cape-and-cowl blockbusters more interesting – and they probably don't, given that their present cinematic formula essentially vests them with a licence to print money – there's a different superhero team to aspire to. Not the Avengers, but the Defenders.
Introduced in 1971, the Defenders were conceived as the anti-Avengers. The original lineup consisted of mustachioed sorcerer Doctor Strange, the skivvy Speedo-wearing merman Namor the Sub-Mariner and the ever-volatile Incredible Hulk. They were a non-team of troublesome outsiders, banding together to protect Earth from Lovecraftian demons, wizards from other dimensions and furry, Yeti-like aliens. Rounding out the rotating membership were other oddballs, obscurities and no-names such as the Silver Surfer, Valkyrie, Hellcat and Son of Satan (a.k.a. Daimon Hellstrom, the spawn of Lucifer and a mortal woman, who rebels against his demonic DNA). If the Avengers are Marvel Universe's Traveling Wilburys, the Defenders are its Asia – a consummately nerdy supergroup nobody really cared about, a superheroic D-list.
Granted, they were ridiculous. But one of the best things about superhero comics is their capacity for sheer lunacy: their devotion to silliness, spectacle and arch stupidity. Consistent with Marvel's "Pygmalion formula," Age of Ultron squanders this potential, subsuming stupidity into razzle-dazzle summer-blockbuster cliché and tie-in Doritos promotions.
Maybe it's dumb to wish that Son of Satan made it to the big screen. Maybe it's pointless to hope the well-oiled Marvel Studios machinery will restore something of the subcultural nerdery of the source material. But is it so much to want movies about super-men in spandex and airborne Norse gods to be something other than mind-numbing, predictable and hopelessly similar?
As Marvel rolls out its expanded cinematic universe, organized into carefully calibrated "phases," it's hard not to want to see some of the weirdness left untouched, some of those kinks left unironed, to skew more Defenders and less Avengers. Rooting for a super squad comprised of "the Earth's Mightiest Heroes" is like rooting for the Prom King or the Yankees or the Coca-Cola Company.
Maybe that's why, when Age of Ultron lets the sometimes-Avenger, sometimes-Defender Hulk off the chain, it's hard not to applaud the chaos and havoc he The Hulk wreaks. And maybe that's why the demented robot Ultron – with his cockamamie scheme to exterminate the Avengers and the whole planet along with them – is easily the new movie's most compelling character. Watching Age of Ultron, it's hard not to cheer on the bad guy, to see the whole Marvel Universe snuffed into non-existence. As frequent Defender Valkyrie once snapped, "I hate the Avengers, anyway."