Let me start by saying that I don’t enjoy being negative. When I read a comic (or watch a movie [or consume any form of media]), I really want to like what I’m interacting with. We only have so much time to engage with art and stories and the best possible outcome is that it’s all enjoyable. This is also the reason why it’s important to call out bad stories and bad trends early and often. If we don’t critique bad things then we’ll continue to encounter them and, even worse, they may proliferate. Make no mistake about it, Age of Ultron is bad and is a style of storytelling (read: lazy) that should not be encouraged.
There are no hard and fast rules about what makes a story good. For every example of a good idea that generally works, there’s a counter example of a complete paradigm shift. A great example of this is establishing the stakes of a story early. Pixar does a wonderful job of making you care about a story right away. In “Finding Nemo” they start the story by showing you why Marlin and Nemo are the way they are. It immediately makes the characters sympathetic and defines their motives. Nolan breaks from that concept brilliantly in “Inception” (and most of his films). He slowly reveals character motives making for a puzzle of a movie that still manages to create the same sympathy that generally relies on a full understanding of characters. Talented storytellers like the Coen Brothers and Brian K. Vaughan thrive on changing the rules and surprising their audiences with interesting story devices. So there’s nothing wrong with trying something new. The only rule about what makes a story good is that it has to be a good story. Every story has to be examined by its own merits to understand what makes it good, bad, or anything in between.
It’s not worth going through the entire mini-series and detailing all of the major problems. On its surface, “Age of Ultron” is a pretty bad comic. Based on the general reaction to the series that doesn’t need to be exhaustively argued. There are plenty of issues like a lack of central protagonists, no inherent story logic, and lots of unnecessary material that does not contribute to narrative. The most interesting problem of the book mirrors the problem that allowed it to reach market and receive the level of promotion it did. It is also the same problem that caused many of the other fundamental flaws in the title. “Age of Ultron” is a book that has been promoted as being good without ever providing any reason to believe that assertion. Claiming that art has value doesn’t provide it with value. It’s something that is established by lots of hard work. “Age of Ultron” acts as if it deserves to be considered a well-crafted story without ever doing any of the work.
One of the default rules you’ll hear a lot about good story telling is “show, don’t tell”. The reason you’ll hear it a lot (I know I’ve harped on it quite a bit here) is because it’s true. There are exceptions where telling works, but they are exceedingly rare (e.g. “The Princess Bride”). The reason it’s so very important is that in order to connect with an audience or elicit an emotional response, you have to earn those responses. The difference is in no way subtle. Think of how you feel when Dumbledore dies at the end of “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.” You feel that way because there are thousands of pages in which Dumbledore behaves likably and helps other characters you have come to care about. Now substitute that earned connection with “A likable mentor of the protagonist is brutally murdered”. Do you care about what you were just told? That’s the difference. In “Age of Ultron” we are told a lot of things both about the characters and the internal story logic. The death toll builds at a very rapid pace for the first several issues. Many characters like The Thing and Thor are said to have been killed earlier. Others like the Black Panther and Taskmaster die on the pages. The similarity all of these deaths share is that they lack importance. There is no reason to care that these characters die, besides already knowing who these characters are. The most “earned” death is that of Luke Cage who goes across the world dying of radiation in order to give the heroes a fighting chance to defeat Ultron and that is explained in exposition, not shown. As if this weren’t troubling enough, all of the deaths in the first half of the story ultimately have no impact on the surviving characters or the conclusion of the story. It all fails to affect the audience or the story.
The outcomes of the story are also based in what the reader is told, not an internal logic shown by the story. At its core, “Age of Ultron” is a time travel story. Admittedly, time travel can be tricky because there’s no hard science behind it. Yet great stories like “Looper”, “Back to the Future”, and “Primer” have all dealt with time travel in different ways, but they function equally well within the rules established by the story. There’s no correct way to handle time travel, just to handle it in a way the audience can understand. Brian Michael Bendis handles the concept by having Iron Man state, “You’ll break it beyond repair” referring to time travels effect on the space-time continuum. After decades of continuity involving more time travel incidents than you could hope to count, this is the first time this thought has really arisen. There’s nothing special about this story or incident, it just is because it is. That’s not just bad storytelling, it’s pure laziness.
Bendis’ reaction to the criticism has been disheartening. The response to “Age of Ultron” has been vocal and widespread. Between people complaining about a very slow pace (the first two issues can be summarized with the sentence: “Captain America stands up.”) and pointing to the issues with a conclusion that does not justify its outcomes, there has been a lot of criticism of this story. In the few examples where he has been asked about these issues in interviews on Newsarama, he has dismissed them out of hand. When asked about a comparison to DC’s “punching reality” moment in “Infinite Crisis”, he said,
But the Marvel Universe is not like the DC Universe, and there are a lot of differences, obviously. … Most of them I think are pretty obvious for people who know their stuff.
There is no real attempt to address why he thinks the comparison is unfair (despite the fact that it’s a comparison a great many readers are making) and just tells us that it’s obviously different. That’s not a real answer, that’s just waving your arms in the air and shouting “C’mon!” It’s telling, not showing. Instead of showing us why he thinks the book works, he just tells us that it’s so.
That “show, don’t tell” rule applies to reality as well as stories.
I don’t expect you, as readers, to agree with my opinion simply because I state it. I try to convince you of the points I’m making by showing examples and explaining what I mean to tell. When I told you that there are exceptions establishing motives at the start of a story, I made sure to show you some examples. That’s how this works. So when writers or artists simply tell people that something is good or interesting or exciting, they fail to convince anyone, but themselves. It’s obvious that Bendis believes “Age of Ultron” was good and that many critics just “don’t get it”, but never shows what they “don’t get”. This is a real problem, because it allows him to continue to tell and promote stories which fail to come close to the really good works he’s created before (Powers, Daredevil, Goldfish). As long as he continues to refuse to engage with these issues, it’s guaranteed that the mistakes will be repeated. It’s pure arrogance.
This is not a unique phenomenon. Tim Burton is one example of an artist in another medium who has created some really high quality pieces (e.g. Nightmare Before Christmas, Edward Scissorhands), but when unchallenged produces a lot of bad stories (e.g. Dark Shadows, Alice in Wonderland). It’s not a new trend to comics either. Plenty of successful writers and editors in the industry dismiss criticism rather than engaging with it. Dan DiDio recently dismissed criticisms of DC Comic’s management of their various creative lines out of hand at the retailer roadshow. This sort of behavior never results in anything good. Valid criticisms are ignored, preventing any form of change or improvement. Even if things don’t change, engaging with criticism can at least allow for a better understanding of artist’s intentions and the process behind creation, which is valuable in and of itself.
So it’s important to engage with things we don’t like. It’s the reason I’ve talked a lot (really, a LOT) about “Man of Steel”. I don’t want to just move past things that don’t work for me, but understand them. That’s how you prevent repeating the same mistakes. Unfortunately, there’s no way to ensure that the editors and creators of media share that opinion. Whether they only engage with other creators or with the public, it’s important that they improve, both for their own success and for our enjoyment and growth as consumers. So when something really bad is released and marketed as being great, it’s our responsibility to engage with it and, ideally, its creators. It’s the only way to ensure that arrogance isn’t fostered as a positive attribute amongst our most talented artists.