I once again find myself late to the watercooler party in finally getting around to watching the sequel to Marvel’s Avengers. When the Whedon directed Age of Ultron made its debut some four months ago, it created no small amount of controversy among the impassioned internet masses. Despite making more money than God, AoU had a decidedly more mixed reception from fans for reasons ranging from odd character choices to continuity errors and straight up plot holes. Having waited until the proverbial shitstorm died down to take a look myself, I’m rather glad I did. I can definitely empathize with some of the issues my fellow nerds had with the movie, but on the whole, I still liked it quite a bit: enough, in fact, to consider it on par with the original.
The preceding statement is by no means a declaration of worship towards the movie, though. I consider AoU as good of a summer superhero blockbuster as the first; enjoyable through its fantastic action scenes, interspersed with Whedon’s as-always entertaining dialogue to add humanity to even the least human characters while we wait for them to begin smashing stuff again. That being said, the characterization is uneven in its quality, and at times perplexing as to why the director decided to take a particular direction. I’m getting ahead of myself, though. Let’s get some background and take a look at some of AoU’s strengths while I set up the ol’ cinematic dissection table.
Since saving New York from the invasion of Loki and the Chitauri, the team has been working full-time smashing baddies either on their own or in tandem. The opening to Age of Ultron finds them doing much of the same, assaulting a fortress helmed by a Hydra commander in possession of Loki’s sceptre. In retrieving the sceptre, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) discovers an advanced AI program in the midst of development. Instead of destroying it, Tony takes the program for himself, and begins working with Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) in bringing it to fruition with the hope that with such an advanced artificial mind running his Iron Legion (Iron Man’s nickname for the squadron of robot automatons at his beck and call), the Avengers can retire.
However, things backfire when upon gaining sentience, the AI (now calling itself Ultron and played by James Spader) logs on to the Internet and decides that the best way to save humanity is to extinguish it. Taking control of the Iron Legion, and assisted by the Maximoff twins
(Aaron Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen), Ultron leaves the Avengers in shambles, using their own mistrust and splintered ideals in order to pit the team against one another.
Given a plot so focused on psychological manipulation, AoU really needed an actor who could appropriately mask Ultron’s ruthlessness beneath a veneer of sneering charm and charisma. James Spader comes through in every way with respect to this, easily becoming my favorite part of Avengers. Any time I see a main character who is animated completely using CG, I get skeptical as to whether I’ll be able to suspend my disbelief long enough to not be distracted by the fact that I’m looking at a green-screen effect. While the former fact was never in doubt, the combination of the incredibly talented folks at Disney/Marvel’s animation department, and Spader’s smooth, silvery delivery of the dialogue managed to complete the task with grace and aplomb.
In some respects, the characterization with the Avengers themselves is just as strong (SOME respects… I’ll get to that later), in part due to the fact that the Phase 2 films do enough of the heavy lifting allowing AoU to avoid being bogged down in explaining different pieces of character development. It’s when Whedon and his cohorts remain consistent with this characterization that AoU is at its strongest. It’s when they pick and choose which character arcs ACTUALLY took place that things get sketchy.
The best example is Tony Stark. Regardless of people’s opinions on Iron Man 3, it makes little sense that Stark would go back and make an army of robots when he spent the WHOLE FILM being hunted and ultimately deciding to blow up almost all of his AI driven suits, partially due to the realization that having a personal robot squadron made him sloppy and reckless through a false sense of security.
I understand that this decision is partially a result of retconning Ultron’s origin story to not include Hank and Janet Pym, but regardless I feel it hurts the film as a whole by killing most, if not all sympathy or likeability for Tony. At this point, so many of the world-threatening problems in the MCU can be be explained by, “Dammit, WHO LET STARK OUT OF HIS JOLLY JUMPER AGAIN.”
Iron Man may often be a morally ambiguous (sometimes bordering on nihilistic) dick in the comics, but he learns from his mistakes and makes preparations so they don’t happen again. He’s not just a computer whiz with a lot of money… he’s a TERRIFYINGLY intelligent strategist. The MCU makes him a tech-wizard in a ten year old’s body with no capacity for impulse control or forethought.
Several of the other Avengers seem rather 2-dimensional as well. Thor seems like your friendly-yet-slightly-dim jock friend. Cap’s dialogue seems to be structured for the sole purpose of negating anything that Tony has to say.
The Maximoff twins are borderline silly, and aside from their ramshackle ‘Stark revenge story’ background are little more than what would result if someone exposed a pair of terrible Russian accents to the super-soldier serum.
Finally, there’s Bruce and Nat.
Oh… Bruce and Nat. You had to know this was coming. You may be surprised, dear reader, that about 60 minutes into the movie I found myself warming to the idea of a romantic subplot between Black Widow and Dr. Banner in spite of my initial skepticism. Natasha’s attraction to Bruce makes SENSE, and when she describes her life as “full of fighters, full of killers, and [Bruce] is the one guy who runs away from a fight because he knows he’ll win”, I was won over. He is her emotional counterpoint: she has built a life out of manipulating others, projecting and hiding her emotions at will in order to achieve her mission objective. She was trained to dehumanize others to make killing them easier and to ensure her assignment is ALWAYS number one. Bruce can be considered her opposite: the same skill Nat applies to others in her espionage operations, Bruce must apply to his own internal battlefield. Instead of dehumanizing others, he maximizes the value of the lives around him, and dehumanizes HIMSELF to make it easier to put up with the self-imposed isolation he uses to make sure he won’t accidentally hurt someone.
When placed in these terms, I think that Banner and Black Widow would have been an interesting pairing that would allow them to evolve in interesting directio- wait… what’s that noise?
Unfortunately, some weird choices in the latter third of the film seem to squander a lot of the potential positives of the relationship. Bruce and Nat don’t have chemistry because Nat’s history of being around macho badasses means she finds Bruce’s meek humility charming. They don’t feel attraction to one another because they find a compliment in one another’s method of dealing with their outer or inner lives. Nope. Nat’s babymaker dun work and Bruce can’t have kids because he gives raging hard-on a new meaning.
As an aside, I am baffled by Whedon’s inability to understand peoples’ problem with Nat’s character progression:
“Hey, only character in possession of a uterus on the cast! What’s your defining character point?”
“MY UTERUS DOESN’T WORK”
Fans: *WTF’ing intensifies*
Whedon: “They’re just pissy that she didn’t suck face with Hawkeye.”
Seriously, dude? Like, seriously? I’ve watched Buffy. I’ve seen Firefly. I KNOW you’re a smart individual who is KNOWN FOR WRITING WOMEN WELL.
While Nat/Bruce is the issue that got the most publicity, the third act of Age of Ultron in general is… kind of a mess. The script can be summarized as, “Vision tells everyone to calm the fuck down.” “Everyone calms the fuck down.” There’s no character driven realization; no plot point that comes to light which causes the conflicts between the members of the team to be resolved. The resolution is LITERALLY that Paul Bettany comes in and uses his Bob Ross-ass soothing voice to miraculously persuade everyone to handle their shit.
When I imagine the writing of this script, I picture Whedon reaching this part and going, “Wait… that’s not convincing, why would they just suddenly decide to let bygones be bygones? Agh, maybe this script needs some rewrites-”
When Mrs. Joss calls from the other room, “IT’S 2 FUCKING AM. HAVE HIM LIFT THOR’S HAMMER OR SOMETHING AND COME TO BED.”
However, despite the myriad of issues with the latter third of its narrative, there is still plenty to have fun with. As I mentioned, Ultron is a refreshing change in villain, and one that often holds together the rest of the film when some of the weaknesses in its writing threaten to unravel it completely. The fight between Iron Man and Hulk is fantastic, and despite his fairly limited amount of time on screen, Paul Bettany is spot-on as The Vision. Whedon’s banter is still there and enjoyable as ever. At this point though, I wonder if the complexity of the MCU as it intertwines between a half dozen film and TV franchises (with well over 20 characters between each) threatens to strangle the consistency and fidelity of its story and character structure in the process.
In particular, I feel like Hawkeye, Black Widow, and Hulk movies are almost REQUIRED at this point, not JUST because so many fans are wanting to see them, but because these characters (among others) have had such little relative screen time to develop that we need an extended piece of narrative focused solely on them for the writers at Disney/Marvel to finally nail down WHO exactly they’re trying to write when it comes to the giant “crossover” films like Avengers. Right now, it seems that the “secondary” Avengers lack definition, and are whomever the plot requires them to be at that moment.
All in all, Age of Ultron is still worth 2 hours to sit down and enjoy. It’s a big, smashy blockbuster, with solid performances from the vast majority of the cast, and better dialogue than 90% of action movies going nowadays. However, it’s an eye-puzzle of a movie that you have to really squint to avoid noticing inconsistencies and plot holes in. Soak in the action, but don’t think too hard about it.