As McMillan writes, “Throughout Age of Ultron, the specter of death looms heavily. Characters repeatedly tell each other that it’s unlikely that they’re going to make it through what’s happening alive, and Hawkeye practically gets awarded the Most Likely to Die prize when his wife tells him that she just wants him to come home alive, damn it, right before the final showdown . . . it should, by all rights, be something that makes the final battle feel even more dangerous, with everything up for grabs. But the very nature of the Marvel Cinematic Universe undercuts the tension entirely.
After all, the audience knows that none of the big name characters are going to die [emphasis added]. Most of them are already announced to appear in next year’s Captain America: Civil War, or subsequent movies down the line (Thor: Ragnarok, for example, if not Avengers: Infinity War). Along the same lines, the very existence of those movies means that there’s never any possibility of Ultron’s plan succeeding even a little bit . . .
I’m reminded of a line often attributed to Stan Lee, when talking about what comic book fans look for in stories. Reportedly, as the common wisdom goes, he explained that fans don’t want change; they want the illusion of change [emphasis added].
It’s an attitude that makes sense, as much as it seems dispiriting to hear. With the many moving parts of the Marvel comic book universe, in which multiple series are published simultaneously, many of them sharing concepts if not characters, there needs to be a default status quo to which characters return to allow the toys to be used by as many creators as necessary at any given point. The same, it seems, is starting to become true of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
In a way, it was unavoidable; there are only so many stories you can tell in a shared universe before they start, if not contradicting, then at least overlapping each other. When you promote, as Marvel has, the interrelatedness of your stories (‘It’s all connected,’ as the tagline goes), that’s a selling point, instead of a bug — until the existence of those other stories starts limiting what you can achieve with each individual movie or television series.
The question then becomes, at what point does your audience realize that you’re standing in place in terms of narrative momentum, and are you doing so in such an entertaining way that they don’t care?”