'Avengers: Age of Ultron' Reveals How The Marvel Machine Is Eating Its Own Tail


What came first, Marvel's chicken or Marvel's egg?

There's no telling at this point — a far cry from the early days of comic book adaptations in Hollywood. At the tail end of Marvel's sprawling Comic-Con 2013 panel, following footage from "Thor 2," "Captain America 2," and "Guardians of the Galaxy," universe mastermind Joss Whedon took the stage to make a brief announcement: "Avengers 2" would now be known as "Avengers: Age of Ultron." The reveal blew the fuses of attendees and onlookers in the know. "Ultron" is one of the Marvel universe's most famous villains, recently revived in an all-encompassing 2013 comic book mini-series. Convenient.

Too convenient.

Before Marvel split-off into an independent movie factory, the Hollywood studios were knocking at their door for inspiration. That's why the X-Men live at Fox, Spider-Man is swinging around at Sony, and Universal briefly claimed ownership to The Hulk. But knowing they had the best understanding of their characters — just imagine a studio executive trying to parse through an Iron Man Wikipedia while considering a big screen adaptation — Marvel decided to take the job of translating their characters into their own hands. They could simultaneously be purists and mythology-tinkerers. They would have the fans built in with the leeway to wrangle new eyes.

Marvel found mega-success in their multitiered plan. But like studios that rely on remakes and property-driven blockbusters, "original visions" in the comic industry may be fading, compromised by synergy. There's never really been a case like Marvel in movie history: The source material is now being conceived side-by-side with the inevitable movie adaptations. Whereas comic book arcs of yesteryears were devised to sell comic books, they now exist to supply a foundation for the vocal fan base. An industry of paperback viral marketing.

There are still talented writers and artists behind today's comic books. "Age of Ultron" is written by Brian Michael Bendis, a star in the comic world, and revives a villain from the '60s bent on destroying Earth's. Here is a summary of the arc, which kicked off in March 2013 (from Comic Vine):

Set in an apocalyptic future, Ultron has returned to earth, and ruined it, using his superior technology to enslave the mankind. Certain villains do as Ultron commands and get higher privileges but at the end of the day Ultron rules. Most of the heroes live underground whilst thinking of a way to rid the world of Ultron. Amongst these heroes are Captain America, Luke Cage, Iron Man, and Emma Frost. Hawkeye is with them, but he's willing to go out into Ultron's world if it means saving his friends. The event follows the heroes plan to prevent Ultron from ever returning from the future, and the consequences of these actions.

Whedon came into the Marvel fold in 2010, around the same time Bendis was reportedly conceiving "Age of Ultron." With Marvel's eye for a big picture, one likely informed the other. Bendis' new series works in many characters unavailable for Marvel's use, but with major beats that are a necessity for Whedon's on-going "Avengers" big screen saga. Hank Pym aka Ant-Man aka a central character in Marvel's Phase III is the keystone of the story, intrinsically tied to Ultron. So is Quicksilver, a character Whedon has been anxious to work into the movies. And Iron Man [beware spoilerphobes] is all but killed — an easy detail that Whedon can exploit to cast Robert Downey Jr out of the universe. Coincidence? Not in the Marvel world, where everything is running parallel.

The back-and-forth relationship of comics and movies work in their infancy. "Guardians of the Galaxy" is a movie that wouldn't exist without a modern comic book revival that culled tropes of today's television sci-fi. It needed the test to examine big-screen potential (the book was rebooted twice in the last five years). But if Marvel is going to continue telling compelling stories with their fleet of characters, they will need their comic writers and artists to tell independent stories without the influence of the Movie Universe.

The best example is a non-Marvel Marvel movie. Next week's "The Wolverine" is the best comic book movie in years, thanks to a streamlined story and vengeful tone put on the page by Chris Claremont and Frank Miller in 1982. The duo found an emotional in for the character that challenged the X-Man and his easy fit into the larger universe. They took him to Japan, gave him a vendetta, and wrote characters that never existed in the Marvel pantheon prior to their involvement in the arc. They invented for the purpose of their story. While "Age of Ultron" has plenty of imagination and spectacle, the upcoming "Avengers: Age of Ultron" will likely prove that Bendis was working off a set of guidelines laid down by Kevin Feige and the other Marvel overlords.

Marvel knows their characters, they know what an audience can tolerate, but they also want their machine to run on every cylinder in order to accomplish a mission. With the comic-reading community diminishing, the best use for their books is as setup to the cinematic cash cows. It's a backwards art of storytelling that could hurt them in the long run. For now, it's brilliant business.