The first Marvel movie I really fell for, the first one I loved, was Guardians of the Galaxy, James Gunn's joyous, self-aware (but never self-mocking, never spoof-like) throwback that suggested its hero had managed to escape familial tragedy and dreary adulthood by walking right into one of the '80s movies with which he grew up. It wasn't really a superhero movie at all, though its characters eventually got a not-entirely-serious team name and did some de rigueur saving of the world. Mostly, it was just a attempt to resurrect old-fashioned space opera fun, a weird delight.
Until 2014, the idea of what Marvel was doing with its sprawling movie universe was more interesting to me than any one of its installments, each of which was a pretty good time that offered a similar story — trouble on the horizon, lessons learned about pride or believing in yourself or repentance or trust, fight with the bad guy. But then came the paranoia-tinged Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which took what was previously the blandest Avenger and turned him into a tragic figure out of time, his idealism looking old-fashioned in a contemporary world of moral relativism and betrayal. Guardians of the Galaxy danced on far-off planets to the beat of its own drum, and in animated, non-Marvel Cinematic Universe territory, Big Hero Six dosed an unexceptional getting-the-team-together origin story with a hearty amount of Pixar stylings to create a surprisingly heartfelt depiction of mourning.
These movies weren't just good, they were reassuring flickers of individuality from a system that, by design, aims for a certain amount of overarching uniformity. To like the last eight years of Marvel movies is to be continually impressed by corporate ingenuity — which is a bit like getting an unexpectedly delicious meal from a vending machine, again and again. From Iron Man onward, the agenda of these movies has become increasingly one concerned as much with promoting and scattering seeds for future storylines as with dealing with each feature's own here-and-now, which is a stunningly un-movie-like thing to do. All big studio films are products of some compromise — no one's given $150 million, then told to go wild and be back in two years with a finished blockbuster. But Marvel's output, more than other tentpoles, openly serve a greater master. They are the opposite of auteurist — or rather, their auteur, more than any of their respective directors, is Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige.
Which is why, in a strange way, the pleasure I've taken in Marvel's recentish output feels interchangeable with a sense of relief that the company's not yet fucked up. There's no reason, even with the general input of the exiting Joss Whedon — who shepherded the MCU's most challenging supergroup chapters into existence and who's done the most to shape these movies' tone — that these films should be good, that a vast, calculated marketing and content-leveraging empire should be able to turn out such satisfying creative work. They just don't need to be good. At this point, Avengers: Age of Ultron, as entertaining as it was, wouldn't have had any trouble being a box office beast even if it were crummy. As it stands, the sequel is decidedly more lumbering than its predecessor, so overstuffed that it required some work to see the plot at its center, in which the superheroes seem to keep creating their own future enemies, all while acting with the best intentions.
Avengers: Age of Ultron ended with the heralding of some new superheroes and another reminder that Thanos (Josh Brolin), who was introduced in a fairly desultory fashion in Guardians of the Galaxy, would be the big bad in the two-part Avengers: Infinity War, which is still a few MCU episodes down the line. It was a deflating on-to-the-next-one coda to an otherwise epic powered-person collabo that involved a whole city being lifted into the air as part of a prospective extinction event engineered by Ultron (James Spader), an AI villain who seemed driven to madness by the whole superhero concept — and he didn't even have time to go to the movies. While the Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and the Vision (Paul Bettany) expand the fantasy and sci-fi scope of the Avengers, they are also very obviously tagging into an already crowded arena as we enter "Phase Three" of Marvel's plan.
Despite its title, Avengers: Age of Ultron wasn't much of an age at all. It was more of a moment spent with the villain of the week, without the world-will-never-be-the-same heft of The Avengers. And when watching it, the tension between its obligations as a movie unto itself and its MCU duties feels strikingly clear. For all of its distinctive, Whedonesque touches, like the reveal of Hawkeye's (Jeremy Renner) reverse secret identity as a Midwestern dad, Ultron's un-robot-like snippiness, and that glimpse into the Avengers' party games, there's Thor (Chris Hemsworth) abruptly taking off in order to have a hot-tub vision about the Infinity Stones, the Vision getting created in a mess of confusing motivations, and that final Sokovia scene that was bigger and noisier than anything that came before without being more exciting. The best part about the big finale was that it featured the Avengers actually saving and worrying about all the regular humans in the city, a concern that doesn't seem to be on superheroic minds so much these days.
In the MCU, Marvel has built a machine fueled on anticipation — one in which one of the biggest films ever made can legitimately be there as a bridge to set up Infinity War, and Captain America: Civil War before that, because warring is what superheroes do, especially when the scale has to keep getting bigger. But the machine-like qualities of it all are also a source of foreboding, especially with a clearly burnt-out Whedon departing and with Edgar Wright having made a high-profile exit from Ant-Man. Last year offered proof that there was room for innovation and heart within the Marvel behemoth. This year has so far provided a reminder that these installments are always precariously balanced between being movies and being products, and that the more reliably successful they are, the less important it is for them to be the former. So fingers crossed they don't mess up — at least not until after Guardians of the Galaxy 2.