Thanks to the Memorial Day weekend, I got let out of work early on Friday, so I decided to use that time to its best advantage and go watch a 2-hour movie in a darkened cinema. My choice was Avengers: Age of Ultron, since it's the oldest release on my current shortlist of movies I want to catch (Mad Max: Fury Road and Tomorrowland being the others), and because it was starting at the perfect time for me to make my way over from work and find a seat.
I don't know if I've mentioned, but the first Avengers movie, from 2012? I quite liked it. All the Marvel movies had been building up to that, from the first Iron Man back in 2008 with its Samuel L Jackson as Nick Fury cameo, so it was great to finally see the characters together and kicking ass.
It helped that I generally liked the movies preceding it - Iron Man remains my favorite of the Marvel movies, and Captain America was also a pretty fun romp. I never got to see either Thor film, but I'm assured that they aren't bad either.
That said, I think there have been a number of diminishing returns since then, as some franchises have taken stumbles (Iron Man 2 was pretty awful), or just weren't very good to begin with (I hated Guardians of the Galaxy). I also gave up on Agents of SHIELD after the end of season 1, since the acting and storylines weren't really doing anything for me.
Age of Ultron wasn't too bad, but neither was it a particular high point. There were nice touches, like the relationship angst between the Black Widow and the Hulk, or the scenes with Hawkeye's family, which did a good job of grounding the team with some humanity. I also enjoyed the hammer scene at the start, including the look on Thor's face when Captain America almost budges Mjolnir and comes close to ruling over Asgard.
It also had a reasonable plotline running through it, with Ultron trying to destroy humanity (will he never learn?), and Iron Man's fear of failure after the previous movie spurring him to create Ultron in the first place.
The only problem is that too much of it felt like putting the pieces on the board for the next movie. Some of it made some slight sense in the context of previous films, like one of the Infinity Gems popping up, but other parts were just shoehorned in to tie in to movies that aren't coming out for another two years.
The main offender is this scene toward the end, where Thor runs off with Stellan Skarsgard, before the climactic battle, to wade around in some underground pool. He takes off his shirt, waves his hammer around, lightning strikes, and then he makes his way back to the fight against Ultron, with no obvious answer for why that scene is in the film.
As near as I can tell, that (and the weird dream sequence with Idris Elba) is only there to set up Thor: Ragnarok, which doesn't come out until July 2017. And there's more stuff setting up the next double-part Avengers movie, Infinity War, which is scheduled to hit cinemas in 2018 and 2019. I'd say more, but spoilers, so...
Anyway, my point is that we're getting perilously close to comic-book-levels of continuity here, and I don't think that's a good thing. Marvel and DC, having decided that their characters would all interact within their respective universes, have since had to make retcons and reboots part of their strategy, just to help keep everything straight (or to present a monthly comic for new readers that looks superficially like the movies).
The problem is that this then turns continuity from a neat thing (hey, Batman's hanging out with Superman!) into an end in itself. We're quickly getting to the point where stuff actively doesn't make sense in Age of Ultron if you haven't seen any of the characters' solo movies. Also, I'm curious why only one dude from the current season of Agents of SHIELD got a cameo, but none of the others - not that this makes me curious enough to check out the series again.
I rather suspect that Marvel's shot itself in the foot with this Marvel Cinematic Universe business. They got everybody all worked up last year when they revealed what the next movies would be, all the way through to 2019. But now they have to stick with that, and set up loads of stuff along with it. So in Age of Ultron we get mentions of Wakanda and Ulysses Klaw, but no Black Panther - what's the point? Why can't that stuff get the attention it deserves in the Black Panther movie, which doesn't even come out until 2018? Who's going to remember all this crap?
And because nobody can succeed in Hollywood without everyone else ripping them off, now DC and Warner Brothers have started using individual superheroes' franchises as backdoor pilots to set up their own shared universe. So the upcoming Superman vs Batman movie keeps getting characters added to it (Wonder Woman and Aquaman so far, possibly also Cyborg), to better set up the upcoming Justice League movie.
Marvel may not have much of a TV presence to worry about, but DC does, in the shape of its rather well-received (and entertaining) CW shows, Arrow and the Flash. Apparently Warners is looking at putting out a Flash movie to tie in with Justice League, but it won't have anything to do with the TV show. That's kind of a fuck-you to Grant Gustin, who plays the Flash, and to fans like me.
What both Marvel and DC seem to have forgotten, drunk with power on the returns from a bunch of movies that, let's be honest, have varied widely in quality, is that doing shared universes for the sake of shared universes is what's killing comics. Nobody wants to pick up the monthly books, because they don't want to have to deal with decades of backstory. If the studios expect movie audiences, who aren't used to this sort of crap, to keep up, then I think it's going to blow up in their faces.
OK, let me qualify - I'm sure they'll get asses in seats (including mine), but I think that the novelty is going to wear off soon, particularly as actors age and stories get ever creakier with continuity. And we're diving deeper and deeper into those universes, dredging up characters that may get me excited, but not necessarily anybody who doesn't know the comics as well as me.
Let's let the movies get back to telling one story, and leave the crossovers as nice treats for the fans, rather than stuffing them with crap that won't pay off for years and years.