The only surprise about Avengers: Age of Ultron is how boring it is. Despite repeated attempts, I failed to find a way into the momentum of its story, which seemed to have no beginning or end. That's part of the appeal to readers of periodical comics: They go on and on for as long as the publisher can make it work, with little arcs and cycles to break up the monotony. Same with sitcoms, newspaper columns, life. If suspense is generated by the sight of a boulder at the top of a hill, Age of Ultron, with all its potentially fun elements—Captain America's ricocheting shield, Thor's mighty Mjölnir, the tank-bashing green giant, the blaze of lasers, the constant bombardment, the flying debris—is like watching a boulder firmly installed on a flat plain. It may be massive, but the one thing it will never do is roll. It just sits there.
Don't get me wrong. I don't object to Age of Ultron because it's dumb, or unoriginal, or popular. I'm in favor of all those characteristics. My objection is this: The film has no cinematic magic whatsoever. Within a month, people around the world will have spent a billion dollars seeing it, which means we'll soon have more of the same. Two of the four trailers shown before the screening of Age of Ultron were for upcoming superhero flicks: Ant-Man and the Fantastic Four (which I will watch because, yes, the Human Torch is black in this reboot—soul on fire). Superhero movies had a brief golden age at the turn of this century—X-Men, Spider-Man, Batman Begins—then, as if in a plot from a comic book, the computers took over.
The simultaneous expansion and decline of the superhero genre has not gone unnoticed by the French, who have always been great consumers, critics, and imitators of Hollywood films. That nation has produced two new works that present different responses to the current state of things. The first is Olivier Assayas's truly beautiful Clouds of Sils Maria, and the second is Thomas Salvador's lyrical Vincent. The former—which is about two actresses who, wanting more out of their careers than the same old superhero roles, participate in a stage production of a Bergmanesque film—is in line with my critique: The artistic value of superhero films has been supplanted by the industrial capacity of computers, and we have the moviegoers rather than the directors and actors to blame for this. The latter film, which screens at SIFF this week, says something more interesting. Instead of criticism, it calmly offers a new direction for the genre.
The superhero in Vincent, played by writer/director Thomas Salvador, is a migrant worker who hides his powers from the public. Weirder yet, we get the impression that he is not unhappy about his ability to swim like a dolphin or having, when water contacts his skin in ample amounts, the strength to smash concrete walls and leap tall buildings and bridges with a single bound, but he prefers to keep these wonders to himself. He is a very private superhero. But the public will just not leave him alone. There are problems in the world that only superpowers can resolve. Once forced out into the open, everything goes downhill quickly for our reluctant hero. And as the police and the public are closing in, he is forced to make a big decision about his future.
Aesthetically speaking, Vincent is not moody or atmospheric. The cinematography is plain, and the music is as bland as the small town the superhero moves to after losing a job in the city. The film's realism is more Belgian than French (if you get what I mean) and takes its own sweet time building the plot: Vincent settles in the town, gets a job at a construction site, buys a bicycle, swims in a dark lake isolated in a deep and thick forest, meets a pretty woman at a local nightclub, falls in love, reveals his secret to her, gets in trouble at work, and so on.
What is new about this film, however, is that it employs an art-house grammar. The dialogue is kept to a minimum. When the hero falls in love, for example, it is shown rather than spoken; the same is true for scenes involving his landlord, or his friendship with an Arab construction worker. This is cinema aggressively rejecting its theatrical roots. (Films like Age of Ultron are, of course, very heavy on expository dialogue. When there is not lots and lots of action, there is lots and lots of talking.)
Vincent ends with the understanding that superhero films are not going anywhere anytime soon, and so it is better (or more productive) to reimagine them than to bitch about how boring and uncinematic they are. The American superhero might be bloated and dull, but there is still room to dream if you are willing to make the effort.