When Marvel unveiled its surprise announcement at the end of its lengthy panel at San Diego Comic-Con last weekend, it felt like something of an anticlimax, and not just because Tom Hiddleston had just been on stage moments earlier in fully Loki regalia (wouldn't have been more exciting if he had come out dressed as his character from "War Horse?") Joss Whedon, the balding, brilliant whiz behind the $1 billion-grossing "Avengers," trotted out on stage in what appeared to be hand-me-down sneakers, to announce the title of the "Avengers" sequel, due in theaters in 2015. The movie would be called "The Avengers: Age of Ultron."
For those who were not born with a lifetime subscription to Starlog Magazine, the puzzlement sent in almost immediately. Who (or what) is Ultron? Why is this a whole "Age?" How long is this movie supposed to be? For those of us who own a complete set of limited edition "Battlestar Galactica" commemorative plates and can name all of the different jaegers in "Pacific Rim," there were even more questions: Is this based on the recent Brian Michael Bendis-scripted comic book series (that shares the same name)? And wasn't Ultron, an evil robot overlord, developed by Hank Pym aka Ant Man, but doesn't the "Ant Man" movie come out after the movie formerly known as "Avengers 2?"
The answer to all of these questions should be that it doesn't really matter. Because, ultimately, "Age of Ultron" is a pretty meaningless subtitle, since it seems almost impossible to imagine anyone over the age of 12 walking up to a movie theater ticket booth and asking for a movie called "The Avengers: Age of Ultron." Instead, they'll politely request a ticket for "Avengers 2." And that's what they'll get, without feeling like they're headed into a marble-mouthed '50s sci-fi movie.
For some reason, studios have gotten allergic to numbers. This summer's sequel to J.J. Abrams' "Star Trek" reboot wasn't called "Star Trek II," like the original set of films. Maybe because this is set in a parallel universe (or something), it had to be called "Star Trek Into Darkness," a name that was made even dopier when the movie proved to be so lightweight that it practically floated away, like it was stranded in deep space. This winter will see the second chapter in Peter Jackson's already overlong "Hobbit" saga, with "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug" (grammar police alert: two definite articles in one title is always a drag, plus a preposition, puh-leeze). "The Desolation of Smaug" might be the most leaden subtitle in recent memory; it practically drags the entire title down to the hellish depths of Mordor.
Marvel has been particularly cagey when it comes to subtitles – this fall "Thor 2" will be hitting screens, but instead of being called "Thor 2" it's called "Thor: The Dark World," which is pretty dumb (isn't our world dark enough?) Next spring "Captain America 2" will disregarded in favor of "Captain America: The Winter Soldier." This is a fairly new development, since Marvel was putting out movies with refreshingly straightforward titles like, oh, "Iron Man 2," that is, before it was gobbled up by Disney. ("Iron Man 3" is a Disney-supervised anomaly.)
These subtitles are absolutely awful, lacking creativity or ingenuity and saying absolutely nothing about the actual movie. What's more – they confuse the issue. These days, Hollywood is almost exclusively interested in tentpoles – franchises that can be endlessly recycled, spun-off, or Xeroxed. That means, if a movie is a hit, there will be more. After noodling around with various subtitles and variations for its "Fast and Furious" movies, Universal just said "screw it" and now one of its top-grossing franchises has numbers like "6" and "7" at the end of the title; up until now the only sequels that dared utilized numbers that big were horror movies (things like "Friday the 13th, Part VI: Jason Lives," which is the one that opens with a bolt of lightening resurrecting mass murderer Jason Voorhees – scientific!) There's a refreshing clarity to this approach; it's got an upfront charm. Soon the numbers will be required just to know whether or not we're watching a sequel, spin-off, reboot, or version that takes place in an alternate universe where everyone's last name is Thompson (I'm working on a spec script that utilizes this approach for a sequel to "An Officer and a Gentleman").
Disney tries to have its cake and eat it too: It'll name the third "Pirates of the Caribbean" movie "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End" and call the second "National Treasure" romp "National Treasure: Book of Secrets," but when those sequels come out on home video, a number has been instated, at the very least on the spine, just in case (god forbid) someone try to watch "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides" before "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest." Can you imagine?
It's not like the sequel subtitle has had a particularly fabled history ("Breakin' 2: Electric Bugaloo" anyone? Or "Spy Kids 2: The Island of Lost Dreams?" What about "Basic Instinct 2: Risk Addiction?"), it's just that studios have dispensed with the numbers almost entirely. This strategy isn't tricking anyone, since it'd be impossible to know that "Star Trek Into Darkness" was anything but a sequel to the much-better 2009 movie, but by the time "Star Trek To A Place Slightly Near Jupiter" comes out, it might be confusing as to where, exactly, this falls in the franchise.
When Sandra Bullock said earlier this week that she was uninterested in doing a sequel to this summer's sleeper hit "The Heat," she pointed to her inglorious experience with sequels – namely, "Speed 2: Cruise Control" and "Miss Congeniality 2: Armed and Fabulous." These movies, beyond being truly horrible, were saddled with some of the saddest subtitles in sequel history. Maybe instead of making a lousy movie, she was more worried about what a "Heat" sequel would be called.