[Review] - Avengers: Age Of Ultron

Courtesy of Marvel Studios
Or, as it should have been subtitled, Joss Whedon's Impossible Task. Because that really is what this film was. I mentioned a couple weeks back, when the Star Wars trailer appeared, that films like that, and like this, they aren't movies in their own right. They are expectation. A movie like the first Avengers can go from maybe earning $100 million to actually making a billion, and it is earned. There was no expectation that it would break records, but the quality of the film pushed it through. Marvel has done this three times: with the first Iron Man, with the first Avengers, and with Guardians of the Galaxy. And all three times, those successes felt earned. And all three have beget expectation. So, Age of Ultron will make great heaps of money for reasons having little to do with it's quality and more on the film's inertia.

So, Marvel and Disney had expectations for this film. And, considering that Joss Whedon has been flagellating himself in every interview he's done during the release, he clearly had his own. But the end result is a muddle of differing expectations, and the push and pull of Whedon's artistic expression and the corporate side's cinematic vision. And they are, for the most part at odds. The result is a film that is most easily compared with Iron Man 2 in the MCU filmography, and for all the same reasons. I've spent the weekend trying to come up with a succinct way of expressing my feelings for this film, and this is what I've come up with: Age of Ultron is a potentially great movie that is constantly being interrupted by other movies. And I'm not interested in watching those other movies right now. I'm interested in watching this one.

Hit the jump for the review, which contains spoilers that are puppets, tangled in strings.

Marvel has, since around about Thor's release (I think) talked in Phases. Phase 1, Phase 2, Phase 3. Like the acts of a play. You introduce the characters, you present them a problem, then you fix it. And the Avengers felt like the culmination of Phase 1. Each film lead into one another, and the Avengers retroactively made those first films all feel like they were building a wave that broke over New York. So, as the credits rolled on Age of Ultron, my immediate gut reaction was that this didn't feel like the culmination of Phase 2. At all. It felt like just another step towards the culmination of Phase 3, which is just bad story telling. And unfortunately, its the story telling that occurs at the corporate, executive level. Kevin Feige is the grand master, plotting out moves years ahead of time, but for the first time it feels like the plans are driving the films, not the films driving the plans. It's always been that way, for in this movie it is far more obvious than it has been since Favreau's follow-up.

Age of Ultron is a sequel to Avengers, yes, but it is also a sequel to every movie that has happened in between, which wasn't really true of the first one. If you hadn't watched Iron Man, Captain America, Thor and Hulk, you could still watch Avengers and enjoy it self contained. There would be a distinct lack of characterization, but it is largely self contained. Every character introduces themselves as if it were the first time, and the plot is self contained. None of that is true here. If you've seen the first Avengers, you'll still be in  fumbling in the dark because of the aspects of Winter Solider, The Dark World and Guardians that hold sway (the film basically ignores Iron Man 3). Then it gets bogged down even more with really hit-you-over-the-head-with-a-paddle obvious lean-forwards to the next batch of films, most egregiously Civil War, Ragnarok and Infinity War. It's like watching a movie on TV; occasionally there are pauses where a commercial for the next thing airs. Except I didn't buy a ticket to watch trailers, I bought a ticket to watch this film. I will take it as gratis that the Avengers will return, and when they do I'll get interested. Right now, I want to hear what the robot has to say.

What makes it all the more sad and disappointing is that there is a really good film in here, maybe even two, that is shaking Bruce Banner style, wanting to Hulk rage out of it's shell and exist in it's full glory. The film that Joss Whedon wanted to make, that he was hired to make, and that Marvel only let him skim the surface on. The first act is the best of this film, everything from the lights dimming until Ultron's reveal is solid, and the foundation for a great film. A funny, emotional, disturbing film. Then it starts to go off the rails. It never truly leaves the tracks, but you can imagine it tipping from side to side, never more than one rail solid beneath them at a time. It avoids being a Fugitive-style train wreck because Joss at least recognizes when he needs to shift the weight back to the other side. Then it becomes heavy, and starts to tilt again. And it's a constant fight to find balance right up to the last frame of the picture. And never finds it. This is very likely the last impact Joss Whedon will have on the MCU, and I was hoping for more. I blame him, but only I think for bowing too much to the studio's desire to tease, rather than make his own thing. Which is why he was hired, which is what he did with the first one, and what he championed James Gunn to do with Guardians. I believe he's as tired as he says, because this is a movie where it is obvious he has no fight left in him.

There is good in this, and you can see what Whedon was aiming for. He notes that he rewrote the script constantly, nightly, and perhaps the end result is that he over thought it. There are salient moments, moments where intent and quality shine through, and the movie feels confidence and self assured and in possession of itself, and in those moments the movie flows effortlessly and joyously. I don't often say this about extended action sequences, but the Hulkbuster scene is nuanced and has more depth and motive behind it than most of Ultron's characterization. And there are, as you'd expect from Whedon, single lines that sing. You want to go back and watch them come back around again. Whedon has these characters down. He knows them. The core Avengers team is fully formed and fully realized. It's the new characters, and the plot where everything falls apart. Whedon manages to balance all of the core six characters perfectly, until the end when he subjects Black Widow to a bit of uncharacteristic damseling (which may have been a work around for Scarlett Johansson's pregnancy, which once you're aware of it, it becomes obvious where Whedon made special effort to work around it).

As he did with Black Widow in Avengers, so does he do with Hawkeye in Ultron. He has taken the joke character, the useless butt end of the team and made him dynamic and distressed and sympathetic and purposeful. DC should take note for whenever they get around to Aquaman. This movie not only made me give a damn about Hawkeye, but made me give more of a damn about him than Tony or Steve. Clint Barton became the character he hasn't been allowed to be in his previous appearances. The other characters are extensions of themselves, natural progressions or natural stagnation as needed. There is a wonderful;y developed subplot between Bruce and Natasha that doesn't feel forced or overplayed, and reminds us that Whedon made his name on the backs of doomed romances (it felt heavily influenced by old Buffy and Angel patter). Clint though is give room to reveal himself. He doesn't have an arc, because he's just as stagnate as everyone else, but a fuller knowledge of him gives his actions greater meaning. We know why he's willing to charge into battle between a green Goliath and a Norse god, when he's just a dude with a stick and string. We care why, and we feel more for that than the millionaire in the tin suit or the pumped up war hero.

When Whedon announced that Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver were joining the team, his reasoning was that "they don't make things easier" and now it seems that he was talking about himself in that. These characters add nothing to the film, in that they aren't given the time to do so. They are suffering Black Widow's fate in IM2, in that they are being introduced not to benefit this film, but future ones. They have a shell of a motivation, which they discard abruptly and with little effort. They are given little opportunity to develop any sort of arc that doesn't seem forced and manipulative and hollow. they aren't characters, really, they are a flimsy plot device and an excuse for a different set of computer effects. Removing them only changes the plot in one significant way: for the first half fo the film, Ultron has no one to talk to, so the audience knows what's going on. But the twins aren't even audience surrogates as obvious as Ellen Page in Inception. They are meant to be foes on equal standing with the Avengers, and they just aren't.

As disappointing as they are, Ultron is so much more. This is a waste of talent and potential. Hiring James Spader to play a villain whose power is basically to talk you into agreeing with him, and then reducing his role and motivation to the barest minimum is criminal. Somewhere in that hour of material they cut is possibly a better use of of top-tier actor playing a top-tier villain. This isn't that. Ultron is great fun, and Spader is wonderful as him. He shows more energy and enthusiasm than most of the other villains of Phase 2 (he's probably the most into the role since Jeff Bridges all the way back at the start, or Loki whenever he pops up). But he's meaningless. He suddenly appears, makes threats, engages in a bunch of menace and then enacts his sinister plan, which is never fully explained. The mechanics of it are simple enough to understand, but his hatred of the Avengers and eventually all man kind is washed over in a lazy "I'm the bad guy, it's what I do" sort of way. He is monstrously underdeveloped, and spends a significant amount of time not engaging in heroes, so he isn't a clear and present danger. He's a hazy and philosophical danger. And at first, only a danger to the Avengers. The progression to global destruction comes out of nowhere, and feels disingenuous, to the film rather than the character.

This is the wasted potential of the film. Between Ultron or the twins and Hydra, there are two potentially powerful films, that Whedon would have been perfectly suited to make. A film where Ultron essentially runs a smear campaign against the Avengers, undermining their prestige, turning them against one another, making the world hate them as much as he does would have played into Phase 2's notion of what is a hero, and nicely set the tables for Civil War, and made far better use of Spader's seductive voice. And then he could have set out fo pick them off, one by one, forcing them to come together again (think Firefly's Jubal Early, but a robot). Or, turning the film into a psychological horror, as Scarlet Witch worms her way into their psyche, playing off their fears and hopes, twisting the characters into monstrous versions of themselves. That would have been a dark place, and the film as is touches on it, but never embraces it. It's all the potential, all the places the film clearly wants to explore, but never does, that makes the film truly disappointing. Not the size of the action sequences, not the "yes, and" extension of what the first film did, but the new ideas that Whedon introduces and does nothing with.

And then there is the issue that, at no point does it feel like this is a challenge. Ultron, as I said, spend most of the movie not in contact with the Avengers, and his twin sidekicks turn coat pretty quick. But Hydra, who caused the collapse of SHIELD in the last film, are apparently wiped out completely after Strucker is killed (off screen). Marvel doesn't really seem to have much interest in exploring these larger ideas it's introducing if it doesn't involve Thanos snarling. Thus, what likely should have been a Really Big Deal basically got handled between movies, and now can be ignored. Which undercuts the effectiveness of any outcome of any other film. Tony Stark decides not to wear the armour anymore, except when he does. Hydra destroys SHIELD and is a global threat, except they aren't. So, if Civil War divides the world and superheroes against themselves, why should I believe that is something that is going to have lasting consequences?

Either way, in this film, the heroes never seem to have the situation out of hand. They retreat to Hawkeye's farm, in a welcome calm sequence of talking scenes in the second act that also uncomfortably recalls the Ninja Turtles doing the same twenty five years ago. But they also basically win every encounter they have with a baddie (and victory gets even easier once Vision shows up, another underdeveloped character who promises to be interesting somewhere else). the threat of Ultron doesn't even feel global when it takes that turn. It feels like one former Soviet state is having a bad day, but while the film is travel happy, the danger never feels global. Maybe if the fight had been happening in multiple locations simultaneously, with the team separated and divided, and forced to act as a team individually, there might have been a great feeling of "holy shit, Ultron's going to mess this place up." Instead, it is the fifth movie in the MCU in a row where something big falls form the sky. And, there is no feeling of peril. There is talk of looming death every third line, they practically fetishize it, but I never believe that anyone is really in danger. Even when one character dies, it feels like hollow manipulation (and in answer to the question, yes, saw it coming), and everyone we care about survives, so why beat us over the head with a gun whose trigger you aren't willing to pull?
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About MR. Clark

Adopting the descriptor of "successfully unpublished author", MR. Clark began writing things on the internet in 2012, which he believed to be an entirely reputable and civilized place to find and deliver information. He regrets much.

3 comments :

  1. My main criticism of film was that it seemed to be putting too much in. However I felt that a second watch would be more satisfying. In the end it was much better second time around and finally got what Whedon was trying to do. I must say I didn't see the gregarious advertisement of the other films as you seemed to. And most of that didn't take away from the film, although I agree that Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch were shoehorned in a bit. However I think it was cool to see her mess with the Avengers and thus give a bit of a chance to look underneath some of the characters.

    I do think that Ultron wasn't as menacing as he could have been. Though again, on a second watch it becomes a bit clearer (though perhaps the point is it should be obvious on the first watch).He was stopped from getting nuclear codes and therefore moves onto a more grandiose and dramatic solution. However I'm not sure (in a popcorn film) they could have shown him doing anything more villainous without showing more cruelty towards civilians.

    All in all I think it wasn't as good as the first (You can't really beat them getting together for the first time) but I think its been getting some unfair criticism. Critics have been particularly harsh on it. 75% on Rotten tomatoes? That rates it lower than Thor, Captain America and Iron man 3.

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    1. I absolutely agree with you. I saw the film for a second time this weekend, and found it better. I think because, since I was aware of the faults, I was able to push them to the side and focus on what made the movie good. And it is a very good film at times. But some stuff, like Ultron's lack of development and the choppiness of Thor's subplot is just impossible to ignore. I'd say my enjoyment of it increased the second time, but I still feel that it is a weak product, on par with Iron Man 2.

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    2. Yes I def think Ultron could have been given a bit more time. And from what i've read Thor had more but they cut it. It was originally was over 3 hours which makes me worry they got cut happy. An extra 20minutes could have helped here.

      When editing this film surely Whedon and co are too familiar with the film to be able to view it from the perspective of the audience. (Genuine question: How does an editing team manage to take an outsiders focus?)

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