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Digesting Iron Man with Shirtless Karate

May 10, 2015

It’s been interesting watching the popular psyche digest the new Avengers movie. Age of Ultron is, far more than the first Avengers, a big summer crossover comic in movie form. So many explosions, so many characters, so little time. It can feel light and fluffy, with the drama and importance of said characters/explosions undermined by the lack of character development. Comic fans are familiar to the feeling, but the movie-going crowd has just been introduced.

It makes sense on a mechanical level. You have to introduce a new bad guy and hit story beats for, in this case, 10 or so main characters. All this while keeping the run time in line within Hollywood expectations. No one character gets too much screen time, lest the others get shorted.

In comics the sense of shollowness mitigated by multiple books running in parallel. Just because Iron Man is a big crossover book doesn’t mean that his solo book(s) stop running. The solo books can handle character development, while the crossover only touches on it. Marvel is doing just this with their cinematic universe, but unlike the books the movies are spaced by years. It’s easy to lose your place.

But Marvel (or should I say Whedon? It’s hard to say until the next, non-Whedon directed Avengers comes out), isn’t just taking narrative ques from their comics. the technical presentation of Age of Ultron incorporated plenty of visual tropes common to comics, but new to film.

Age of Ultron was more informed by comic structure than anything Marvel has put on-screen so far. The, at times overwhelmingly busy, fight scenes are splash pages. For those unfamiliar, a splash page looks something like this:


In a standard sized comic, the page count is typically in the low 20’s, so page space is very limited. This means that a lot action scenes, especially those with multiple characters, turn into big two page splash pages. It’s a single image intended for the reader to spend more time with. It’s too much data to process at once, so the reader must compartmentalize and takes it in one section at a time. This creates the illusion of time passing.

On film a splash page looks something like this:

In Age of Ultron it happens many times (for now I’m limited to clips from the trailer). On the comics page you can spend as long as you like digesting each image. On screen the tempo is entirely up to the editor/director. Sometimes the result is a quick shot with way to much info to get it all on the first (second, third, etc…) pass:

How well this kind of dense content works is debatable. It’s a lot to take in, and that feeling of “missing something” can dampen the fun, or worse, break immersion. At the same time, to what extent is this just deviation from what we’ve been trained to expect?

American action cinema is usually dominated by fast cuts, tight shots, and a camera that absolutely will not stop shaking. Ever. While this method is disorienting, it is very communicative. By keeping things tight and focused, the audience is told what is important. We know what’s important because the camera narrows our view to one thing. To give a pretty extreme example, check out this clip from Transporter 3:

There’s something like 24 cuts in ten seconds, and the clip isn’t even chronologically consistent. Several cuts jump forward a few moments from the previous shot, and at times the playback speed is altered so movement is faster/slower than reality. But, you can still, on a narrative level, tell what going on.

Every one of those cuts tells you exactly one thing. You know that the bad guys are losing, and how each one of them lost, because we follow each punch/kick/grapple, and cut to their tempo. You know that a redhead is watching, and that she approves, because we get a quick cut to reaction every time Statham punches someone. You know Jason Statham prefers to do karate shirtless, because that’s how you build sexual tension when you have the mind of an 11 year-old. It’s efficient film making, and there’s a reason movies made like that are so popular internationally. They don’t leave guesswork, or require much knowledge of a given market’s cinematic conventions.

The information needed for the narrative (i.e. who get’s punched) is clear, because we zoomed in on a fist, followed it to someones face, and the quick cut to the guy stumbling back. At the same time, the overall sense for what was happening is lost.

Go back to that Transporter 3 clip. Where is the redhead hiding? We assume she’s in the room, because the cameraman gets his male-gaze on with intermittent shots of her reaction. But do we ever see her outside those closeups? That’s an honest question. I can’t tell. She very likely wasn’t there for that day of shooting. If anything, there’s a body double standing under some rafters somewhere in the room, in case the camera holds still for a second.

In Age of Ultron, there’s plenty of Hollywood style quick cutting. But at the same time, there are several wide-angle shots, with more than one thing going on at the same time. It’s impossible to take in all the details in a single pass, but unlike the close quick cuts, all the details are right there in front of you. It’s an interesting decision, and I hope Marvel sticks with it in their big crossover movies. I’m curious who it will play with audiences as they grow more accustomed.

Right now it’s jarring. A sudden wall of information in an already hectic fight scene. I’m curious how it plays after we’ve all seen it a few times, and the mental speed bump get’s smaller.

Video embeds courtesy of MCUExchange

If you want to see clear, wide-angle fight choreography done well, and broken down far better than I ever could, check out this breakdown of Jackie Chan’s action/comedy, courtesy of Every Frame a Picture.

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