“The city is flying, there’s an army of robots, and I’m fighting with a bow-and-arrow. None of this makes any sense.”
There’s a telling moment that subtly rears its head during the climactic battle in Avengers: Age of Ultron. It happens in the midst of computer-generated urban destruction; the finest money can buy, the kind that’s so aesthetically impressive it becomes capable of tossing the proverbial invisibility cloak over a films more misguided efforts, the kind we’ve come to expect. We have writer/director Joss Whedon, through the voices of the classic characters he’s realized so vividly on screen, questioning the legitimacy of it all. By “it”, I’m of course referring to very franchise that’s made him a multi-millionaire. Whedon is almost laughing at us, as consumers, for buying into all of this religiously. When Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) is attempting to convince Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) to fight for the good side, to channel her inner-Avenger, she asks him how he makes sense of this chaos.
Whedon Hawkeye responds, “The city is flying, there’s an army of robots, and I’m fighting with a bow-and-arrow. None of this makes any sense.”
Like much of the films self-aware dialogue, a trademark of Whedon, the line induces laughter from the audience. But it also feels like Whedon’s swan song. He’s been in countless interviews saying how tired he is and how this film has nearly killed him. He is 100% done with Marvel now (the next two Avengers films will be handled by Joe & Anthony Russo, who did a fine job with Captain America: The Winter Solider). Whedon, the man who made this all possible by showing that you can in fact squeeze a bunch of heroes into a movie, became overwhelmed with what Age of Ultron was asking of him. And if Joss Whedon, the Tolstoy of geekdom, can’t find a way to make a film like Age of Ultron work without going insane; who can?
The thing about Whedon is…he’s not really the comic-geek many make him out to be. Sure, he headed both Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly. He also claims to have been writing scripts for his favorite characters since he was 12, once being optioned to do Batman and Wonder Woman scripts for Warners (the studio ultimately went in a different direction). But Whedon is also very well-versed in and passionate about things that are, rightly or wrongly, considered higher art than Marvel movies. In between Avengers films, Whedon did a minimalist (and brilliant) modern recreation of Shakspeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, shot entirely in his own apartment. In Age of Ultron, when there’s blood smeared on a crime scene, he makes a reference to Banksy. When the characters talk about a length of time, Whedon/Iron Man says, “Like, Eugene O’Neil long?”. Whedon is ready to move on from Marvel bubblegum. It’s been made apparent through both his comments and the film itself.
Perhaps the reason Age of Ultron stressed Whedon out so much is because of what it was obligated to do. Unlike in 2012 with The Avengers, Marvel has a clear plan for where they want to go moving forward, which will ultimately culminate in a two-part Avengers film. Knowing this, it’s hard for me to view Age of Ultron as anything more than a $280 million layover. This film had to introduce the world of Wakanda for the upcoming Black Panther. It had to push the characters of Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Cpt. America (Chris Evans), and Thor (Chris Hemsworth) to where they’re going in Captain America: Civil War and Thor: Ragnarok, respectively. It had to introduce The Vision (Paul Bettany) and Scarlet Witch, teaming them up with Falcon (Anthony Mackie) and War Machine (Don Cheadle) to create the “new Avengers”. It had to continue the foreplay with the infinity stones for the impending battle with Thanos (Josh Brolin). This seems confusing, and it is. Not only did Age of Ultron have a roster so big it could make even the most trusting fanboy weary, it had to actually do something with all its characters, and that something is not necessarily relevant to this particular film. Considering all of this, it’s amazing that Age of Ultron wasn’t a complete train-wreck.
That’s the key here, Age of Ultron isn’t “bad”. If you’ve enjoyed the recent offerings from Marvel, you’ll find plenty to love. There’s non-stop action, hilarious one-liners, and countless easter eggs for the keen eye to pick out. But the praise, at least from me (a HUGE fan of these films), stops there. I didn’t find the actual action or visual effects, save for the incredible work they did with Ultron itself, to be all that enticing. In the funny department, this film was a step back from the first one and Guardians of the Galaxy. I thought the new characters were introduced to mixed results. I’ll have more on this in a bit, but first, I want to take a few paragraphs to discuss what I loved about Age of Ultron.
Strangely enough, the smaller scenes in the film were the ones that stuck with me. I, unlike many, thought the budding romance between Bruce Banner/The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) was handled perfectly. It began with this cute tension, and resulted in a rather heartbreaking ending. It wasn’t sexist. Black Widow is in control of nearly every scene she’s in, dating back to her debut in Iron Man 2. Even when surrounded by some of the most powerful men in the galaxy, she’s usually the boss.
This romantic subplot gave both characters more to work with. In the first film, they were sort of just there. The continued development of motion-capture technology allows Ruffalo to do some powerful acting as the big green guy, and it worked. There is a different tone to these scenes than those with the casual flirting from Black Widow in other films. If you can’t differentiate between the two and want to call it sexist for “using her an object”, well, you’re wrong, but to each is his own. Maybe I’m a sucker, but I was much more interested in the dynamic between these two than the floating city in the end.
I also found the scene with the party, where all the characters were in attendance, to be quite fun. They drank and cracked jokes. They referenced earlier films. They all tried to pick up Thor’s hammer. There was this sense of impending doom that played in the background, but is was still one of the lighter scenes in the film. When an early form of Ultron crashes this party and causes mayhem, we also get the films best action sequence. There’s no plan, no costumes, no structure at all. Our heroes were caught off-guard, and their response was fun to watch. So yeah, I thought the smaller scenes in Age of Ultron were the strength of the film. It was actually during the gigantic moments where I found my attention wavering a bit.
On a visual level, Age of Ultron was not the step forward I thought it would be. In fact, some of the action concepts felt stale and eerily similar to those from the first film. Whedon essentially used the same shot from the battle of NYC in the opening snowy sequence in Age of Ultron; the shot where the camera pans around to all of the characters fighting and then is brought back to a frame with all of them in it. It’s a cool trick, but doesn’t provide the “wow” factor it did when it was used originally in 2012. I also found the final battle in Age of Ultron to be, frankly, boring and repetitive. Iron Man does something important while the rest of the team fights an endless army in the city streets??? Where have I seen that before? Oh yeah, IN THE AVENGERS.
(Note: the “Hulkbuster” scene was pretty dope, I must admit.)
The urban destruction wasn’t as fun this time around. As Hawkeye said, the city is literally flying. I have no problem suspending my disbelief for 2+ hours, but c’mon; given that we all knew going in that the team would be back for another go-round, what intrigue was there in this films climax?
I do think the the FIFTEEN different FX teams hired to work on the film did a fine job creating the character of Ultron based off voice and body capture from James Spader. Ultron was funny, intimidating, and full of life. He smirked and smiled. He moved like a more powerful Iron Man. While I still don’t fully understand (or buy) his very vague worldview that inspires the destruction, I liked him overall as villain. He was certainly more interesting than the random space species we were introduced to in Guardians of the Galaxy and Thor: The Dark World.
As for the new characters we had the privilege of meeting in Age of Ultron; they were hit or miss. The Vision looked very cool on screen, and I honestly wish we got to see him do a little more. The way his moral compass differs from every other person in the film, both good and bad, is rather interesting. He figures to be a major player for Marvel moving forward.
I really liked Olsen as Scarlet Witch. She’s just a damn good actress and the inner turmoil she battled throughout the film felt authentic. Her ability to control the minds of others made for some interesting moments with our heroes (Cap and Peggy almost had that dance!). Adding strong female characters to these very male-driven films (in terms of target audience/data tracking) is never a bad thing. But beyond that, Scarlet Witch is just a great character who was handled the right way by the filmmakers.
I wish I could say the same for her twin brother, Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). When using a superhero with super-speed, you simply have to make him funny (like Bryan Singer did with the “same” character in X-Men: Days of Future Past). Watching this guy blur around isn’t interesting in and of itself. But the character was so deftly serious in Age of Ultron. And given that’s he’s not naturally as powerful as someone like Iron Man or Thor, if that’s the route you’re going to take, Quicksilver becomes easily forgettable. Then you have Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who simply does not have the charisma, acting chops, or look required to be an enjoyable superhero. We all over-react when our favorite characters are cast, but in this case, those who opposed the decision were correct. And can we talk about his HORRIBLE Russian accent? It’s got to be one of the worst movie accents I’ve ever heard, like Leo in Blood Diamond bad.
By the time the credits rolled, I was tired, and I had already forgotten about most of the movie. The final battle was draining, as was the 141 minute runtime. While there was much to love, Age of Ultron felt like a waste of time to me. It felt like something force-fed to the fans in between the films Marvel really wants to make. Given what’s happened with these characters prior to the film, and what is on tap for Infinity Wars and Captain America: Civil War…did anything that happened in Age of Ultron actually matter?
This is not The Dark Knight. This is not The Empire Strikes Back. This is not The Road Warrior. This not a sequel that dramatically improved on its predecessor, taking the franchise into a new realm of possibility. This is a sequel that functioned as a slightly bigger version of its predecessor. This a sequel that’s primary goal was to set-up the “third one”. The blame doesn’t go to Joss Whedon, the cast, or the crew. The blame goes to Marvel Studios for its long-term focus, believing what is basically a layover can stand as its own film for nearly three hours.
Or maybe the blame is with us, as fans. The film is at almost $700 million gloablly already. So Marvel was right, Age of Ultron can in fact stand on its own. It’s just shame that it does so, because it’s huge step back from the creative and wholly original filmmaking we saw with The Avengers, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and Guardians of the Galaxy.
I’ll be the first in line for the next Marvel Studios movie, but secretly, I’ll be hoping they shrink their scope a bit.
Updated Marvel Cinematic Universe Power Rankings:
- Captain America: The Winter Soldier
- The Avengers
- Guardians of the Galaxy
- Iron Man 3
- Iron Man
- Captain America: The First Avenger
- Avengers: Age of Ultron
- Thor: The Dark World
- Iron Man 2
- The Incredible Hulk.
Until next time.