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Non-Review Review: Avengers – Age of Ultron

Avengers: Age of Ultron is a hot mess.

It is fun, witty and fast-moving. However, it is also disjointed, uneven and awkward. Age of Ultron is a big and bombastic summer blockbuster, but it feels like Marvel learned very little from The Avengers. Rather than simply taking what worked in the first film, it often seems like Age of Ultron doubles down on every part of its predecessor. There’s more action, there’s higher stakes, there’s bigger conflict, there’s more Tony, there’s even less of an idea what to do with Thor, there’s more continuity.

"Hey, at least I beat the Terminator prequel to cinemas, right?"

“Hey, at least I beat the Terminator prequel to cinemas, right?”

“More” seems to the be the word here. Age of Ultron is bigger than its predecessor in just about every way. The film boasts an ensemble so large that it threatens to collapse under its own weight – a fact perhaps wryly acknowledged by the genocidal robot’s evil plan at the climax. While it is nice to have more diversity in the cast – The Avengers are no longer a bunch of white guys and their token female colleague – it does seem like Age of Ultron strains and groans under all that Joss Whedon and Marvel heap upon it.

Bigger is not always better.

You know, "pull Thor's hammer" is probably not a family friendly party game...

You know, “pull Thor’s hammer” is probably not a family friendly party game…

Whedon very clearly loves his source material. Age of Ultron is a film that displays an incredible affection for its various inspirations. Although Thor never says the line “Ultron, we would have words with thee”, the climax draws rather heavily from Kurt Busiek and George Perez’s iconic Ultron Unlimited storyline. Various plot developments nod (however faintly) towards the work of Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch on The Ultimates II. This makes a certain amount of sense; there are literally decades of story material to draw upon. However, not all the elements blend so smoothly.

The most obvious problem with Age of Ultron is that the cast is simply too large. All of the major heroic characters (and some of the minor ones) return from the original Avengers film. However, the movie seems to acknowledge that Tony Stark’s Manhattan playhouse could seem a little… less than diverse. So Whedon’s script piles in appearances and supporting performances from all manner of supporting players from various solo films. They certainly add a lot of diversity to the cast, with various players enjoying the opportunity to move up to the big leagues.

Not a patch on the original?

Not a patch on the original?

Indeed, Age of Ultron introduces two fairly significant parts of the larger Avengers mythos, introducing the characters of Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch. These are two staples of the comic book line-up, but also have an interesting place in the overall structure of the Marvel universe. The twins are best known as the off-spring of X-Men supervillain Magneto, and inherit a lot of their complex characterisation from their father. Magneto is one of the most compelling comic book villains ever created, and both Quicksilver and the Scarlett Witch enjoy a lot of the same tension and ambiguities.

However, due to the nuances of comic book licensing, Marvel has the rights to use Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch – but not to their father. As such, Age of Ultron disconnects the twins from their father, giving them a fairly generic “dead parents” origin that feels like it could have come from the background of any character. The film does try to tie the two characters into Tony Stark, who Age of Ultron positions as the nexus of the shared universe, but there is not enough time to properly develop any of these threads because there is just so much going on.

Wonder twins...

Wonder twins…

Indeed, it appears the Marvel has to share the character of Quicksilver with Fox, who offered another iteration of the character in X-Men: Days of Future Past. That was a similarly over-stuffed superhero blockbuster, but it at least had the sense to discard various elements as their utility ceased. Days of Future Past makes much less extensive use of the character of Quicksilver, but he makes more of an impression. Quicksilver is more integral to the plot of Age of Ultron, but it feels like Joss Whedon never quite figures out what he wants to do with the character.

This is perhaps the biggest problem with Age of Ultron. The movie clearly wants an incredibly vast ensemble, but seems unwilling to accept that it has to compromise and sacrifice. Age of Ultron seems unwilling to brush any of the original characters aside to make room for character development for the newer characters. Most obviously, the characters of both Thor and Captain America seem largely superfluous to the core plot of Age of Ultron, but they eat up a lot of screentime simply because they are headline figures.

S.H.I.E.L.D. is broken...

S.H.I.E.L.D. is broken…

There are moments when the film seems to be spinning its wheels, allocating time and space to characters simply because they appear at the centre of the poster. At one point, various characters confront their own nightmares and demons. This might be a vital moment of character insight. Indeed, these segues provide nice character moments for Tony Stark and Natasha Romanoff. However, the sequences devoted to Steve Rogers and Thor feel like lazy excuses to work in cameos from the shared universe and offer awkward foreshadowing.

To be fair, these moments should work. It is interesting to tease Steve Rogers with a vision of a world where he got to enjoy the end of the Second World War. It is fascinating to see Thor deal with the idea that he might make a terrible ruler. However, as with The Avengers, it feels like Whedon can’t figure out what to do with Thor as a character. In The Avengers, Thor seemed to spend twenty minutes staring at his hammer as the other characters moved around him; in Age of Ultron, Thor jets off to appear in an extended trailer for Avengers: Infinity War, a film three years away.

Obligatory shirtless Thor scene...

Obligatory shirtless Thor scene…

Age of Ultron is absolutely obsessed with the idea of pushing forward. It is so obsessed that it never stops to slow down and enjoy what is actually happening around it. What should be a huge moment before the climax of Age of Ultron feels more like clumsy manoeuvrings. It feels like characters are slotted into the narrative because they are vital to the next stage of the shared universe. Indeed, even Ultron himself feels like nothing but a placeholder villain – a stock genocidal maniac with daddy issues to fill a Tom-Hiddleston-shaped hole.

To be fair, this is not a new problem. Due to licensing, many of the best Marvel villains have been farmed out to other studios. It seems unlikely that characters like Doctor Doom or Magneto can be incorporated into the tapestry of this shared movie universe. Hugo Weaving is reluctant to return in the role of the Red Skull. There is only so much of Tom Hiddleston to go around. Vincent D’Onofrio’s Wilson Fisk is easily the best villain of this shared continuity, and he exists on a Netflix television show.

Making a splash...

Making a splash…

James Spader does great voice-work. Joss Whedon’s dialogue is as sharp as ever. However, Ultron is just another supervillain with generic daddy issues who channels his resentments and insecurity into an attempt to destroy the planet. The movie seems acutely aware of just how one-dimensional its bad guy is. At the climax of the film, Ultron is ultimately reduced to something of a joke. Two big moments in any supervillain arc are pushed off-screen, glimpsed by the audience from a distance or heard in the background.

There is something just a little frustrating in how religiously Age of Ultron repeats the story and action beats of its predecessor. The baddie is driven to a CGI-spectacle climax by unresolved daddy issues; Thor is pushed out of the plot because there’s nothing for him to do; the villain has a comedic encounter with the Hulk; Tony Stark spends the climax dealing with death raining from the sky. There is a sense that the audience has seen all of this before. The scale might have increased, but it is all a little bit too familiar.

"Note to self: buy stretchier shirts. Pants good, though."

“Note to self: buy stretchier shirts. Pants good, though.”

Indeed, Age of Ultron suffers the same difficulties with balance that plagued The Avengers. On the one hand, Whedon is obviously interested in the more under-developed members of the ensemble – the characters who have not (yet) received their own solo movies. The Avengers devoted a lot of time to Natasha Romanoff, and Age of Ultron builds upon that. The movie finally gives the Russian super spy an origin story that is surprisingly affecting given the limited time afforded to it. Tying her arc into that of Bruce Banner works very well.

That said, it does raise some interesting points of continuity. For all that the Marvel films are obsessed with a shared universe, it seems like they are much less interested in character continuity than “event-driven” continuity. For all that Age of Ultron makes a point to remember to pick up Loki’s staff, it never seems too bothered with Bruce Banner’s character arc as it exists outside the two Avengers films. It seems that any trace of Ed Norton’s interpretation of the character has been wiped from the film franchise; Mark Ruffalo might as well be the character’s twin brother with the same name and powers.

Green-eyed monster...

Green-eyed monster…

Age of Ultron also makes a point to focus on Clint Barton – acknowledging the seeming incongruity of the guy with the bow and arrows who fights alongside these demi-god. “Pretending we need him is the glue that holds this team together,” Natasha quips at one point, and it becomes a recurring thread. At the climax, Barton muses that he is fighting an army of robots with little more than a bow and arrow. At the same time, Whedon takes the time to suggest that this makes Barton important. He is the human tether on the team, the character who grounds them.

However, Age of Ultron can’t quite devote all its focus to these minor players. Once again, Tony Stark finds himself at the centre of the ensemble narrative. It is a decision that makes a great deal of sense, given the popularity of Robert Downey Jr. in the role. Indeed, even the movie’s introductory sequence is quite candid about the character’s prominence: the cast are introduced one at a time, leading up to a big slow-motion hero shot; the camera then follows Stark out of that hero shot, establishing him as the first among equals.

Suit up!

Suit up!

Age of Ultron tweaks its source material in a way that increases Stark’s role in the narrative. The comic books had presented Ultron as the product of scientist Hank Pym, the character who will be appearing in the upcoming Ant-Man, but is perhaps most famous as the superhero guilty of domestic abuse. In the comics, Ultron represented a fairly sizable failure on the part of Pym. Writer Kurt Busiek even suggested that Pym felt directly responsible for Ultron because he used his own brainwaves as part of the basis for the psychotic robot.

Age of Ultron gives this role to Tony Stark – inviting Stark to play the (self-described) role of the “mad scientist” responsible for the creation of Ultron. It’s an approach that works well enough in the context of the narrative. It puts Stark at the centre of the film in a way that feels organic; it also fits with the character’s overall arc across these films of having to atone for his own creations. Ultron is just another warhead; he might not have the name “Stark” scrawled on the side of his head, but he is Tony’s responsibility.

A chink in the armour...

A chink in the armour…

At the same time, Age of Ultron does work hard to limit that sense of responsibility. It is implied that Stark was not acting entirely under his own influence when he decided to try to create the artificial intelligence. More than that, the movie is somewhat ambiguous as to where exactly Ultron came from – there is a part of him that is Stark, but the movie leaves enough wiggle room to suggest that he also came from somewhere else. Thor and Captain America are suitably upset at Stark’s actions, but the movie never suggests that Stark can (or should) be really blamed for all this.

Again, Whedon might have taken a cue from the source material here. Over the years, Marvel characters like Tony Stark and Hank Pym tend to cross a lot of moral lines that have long-term impacts on their characters. It seems likely that Hank Pym is reduced to a mentor figure in Ant-Man so Marvel doesn’t have to worry about selling trade paperbacks about “the wife-beating superhero.” It seems like almost every Hank Pym story to the present day is rooted in those rather infamous moments that took place in the seventies. There is the risk of tainting a character.

Parting shots...

Parting shots…

Tony Stark seems too popular a character for the narrative to firmly lay something so monstrous and brutal at his feet. In light of that, it will be interesting to see how Captain America: Civil War manages to handle a storyline that has been widely (and perhaps sensationally) been accused of turning the comic book version of Tony Stark into a fascist. Age of Ultron suggests that the production teams overseeing the shared movie universe are rather more concerned about what dirt might get on their action figures than the writers guiding the comics.

However, the character touches and nuances often get drowned out in the bombast unfolding around them. There are always more characters to be drawn into the web, always more references to be made. Thor dreams of the Infinity Gems, Bruce Banner struggles to pronounce the word “Wakandan.” While it is nice to get a sense of a larger world, there comes a point where detail becomes clutter – where it feels like the narrative is straining to make all these little winks and nods and homages for the audience to appreciate and get excited about.

Red dawn...

Red dawn…

However, there remains something interesting about all this. Age of Ultron seems aware of its uneven and disjointed nature – a story existing in a lacuna between things that have happened and things yet to happen. The open scene teases the idea of a better movie. If the climax of The Avengers recreated the trauma of 9/11, as Daredevil suggests, then Age of Ultron nods towards the War on Terror that flowed from that. The Avengers act unilaterally on foreign soil, imposing their own order. Stark deploys crowd-controlling peace-keeping robots, an army of automatons.

Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch are the products of a super human arms race, just like Captain America was. When Steve Rogers points it out, Maria Hill informs him, “We’re not at war.” Rogers counters, quite bluntly, “They are.” The opening scene suggests that these situations are never as tidy as they seem; that the Avengers are still dealing with the fallout of an attack that took place years ago. Tony Stark has a nightmarish vision in the shadow of the carcass of one of the monstrosities that tore through New York; Thor tries to recover Loki’s staff.

Bits and pieces of continuity...

Bits and pieces of continuity…

Similarly, Age of Ultron is fascinated with the future. Children become something of a recurring theme in the story. Ultron is a child of Tony Stark, in many ways. When the Scarlet Witch points out that Ultron thinks he can save the world by destroying it, she taunts, “Where do you think he got that?” Ultron muses on the irony of humans begetting humans – parents raising children who will replace and supplant them. It is interesting to wonder whether this is Joss Whedon musing on his own legacy with this shared Marvel universe.

Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch are literally children of this new world; Ultron flies into a rage when his relationship to Stark is mentioned. The film contrasts the idea of cloning and copying (as Ultron ultimately does) with a more organic growth and evolution (as Tony and Thor attempt later on in the film). When the team wonders what Ultron’s motivation is, Steve simply states, “To become better.” Positioned at a crossroads of the Marvel universe, Age of Ultron is engaged with the idea of the past and the future.

Not-so-jolly green giant...

Not-so-jolly green giant…

It is just a shame that it doesn’t come together smoother, that the film isn’t tighter. It is a disjointed mess, but an interesting one nevertheless.

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11 Responses

  1. DARREN I AM SO GLAD YOU DIDNT LIKE THIS FILM I HOPE EVERYONE HATES IT.

    • Ah, I don’t think that’s fair. I do hope people do enjoy it. If people buy a ticket to something, they are entitled to be entertained. And it would suck if they weren’t. (And I wasn’t entirely entertained.) Just because it didn’t work for me doesn’t mean it can’t work for them.

      And while I wasn’t entirely satisfied with it, it is not terrible. I didn’t hate every minute of it like I did with – to pick some examples – Transformers 4, Unbroken or Noble. I just found it hard to care at points.

      • I actually didn’t like Age of Extinction either, but I didn’t think it was anywhere NEAR as awful as everyone else. But considering I’m a teenager and thus in the target demographic, you can take the above opinion and take it with a grain of salt.

  2. Thanks for a well-written and spoiler free review.

  3. “Disjointed mess” seems slightly harsh don’t you think? I know you are meant to give honest opinions and stuff, but still.

    • I don’t think it’s unfair.

      It’s fun, and it’s well-produced. But it is all over the place, because it seems like every attempt at a cohesive plot is cut short by external demands. The idea of Stark creating a monster is undercut by the implication that this monster isn’t really his fault, because you can’t have your big tentpole action hero indirectly responsible for attempted genocide. The stuff on the farm is tied into a giant distracting trailer for Infinity War.

      The movie never quite connects together the film’s little fascinations with perverse parenthood (echoing through the plots involving Stark/Ultron, Natasha’s sterilisation, Ultron/the twins, Ultron/Vision) in a way that makes it feel organic or even logical. (In a way, that thread would be stronger if the script could even wink at the parenthood of the Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver, instead of awkwardly grafting in “tragic superhero back story 101.”)

      Don’t get me wrong, I had fun watching it. But it’s not as good as the strongest Marvel films or even the stronger examples of the genre.

  4. I think some people over think. I mean come on. LOL… to so seriously analyze a movie with characters who fly,are impervious to pain and can morph into a completely different being and back along with other purely fantastical beings is missing the point entirely. IT’S JUST A MOVIE!! Anyone who looks at this film with a need to compare it to actual humans or the human condition is likely in need of mental therapy. These characters aren’t real. Their situations aren’t real. Any person who in “real life” (sic) would have the capacity and abilities of any character in this film( protagonist or otherwise) would likely not be concerned with the issues in life our movie critic so eloquently wrote.

    • To be fair, the movie sets up imminently relatable problems. After all, the movie sets up a story about how relations between parents and children. Stark/Banner/Ultron, Ultron/Scarlet Witch/Quicksilver, Ultron/Vision. Even Black Widow’s character arc is centred around her inability to have children and what that means to how she sees herself. So it is very much a relatable story, at least in theory. You don’t have to invent a genocidal robot to feel anxious about the children you’ve raised, and you don’t have to be a Soviet assassin to wonder whether your inability to have children somehow diminishes you as a person.

      The problem is how the film tells this story. The original Star Wars films are another example of an epic blockbuster series engaged with similar themes about parents and children; but they manage to convey those ideas in a much clearer manner than Age of Ultron does.

      It’s not what a movie’s about, to borrow a quote; it’s how it’s about it. And Age of Ultron is about it quite poorly.

      • Darren, we shall work together to prove a point: Age of Ultron isn’t a very good film. One day we shall succeed.

      • Let us struggle valiantly!

        (And I say that as somebody who thought it was light and fun, just not – as you said – very good.)

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