Avengers: Age of Ultron (dir. Joss Whedon)

Posted: May 5, 2015 in Uncategorized

Spectacle is fine.  I enjoy a good spectacle as much as the next human being.  I think the difference, however, between myself and an average moviegoer is that I get restless when a film is ONLY spectacle.  Some people are turned on by special effects and watching digital people fight digital people and cause digital destruction all day long.  Personally, I’m more turned on by imagination and ideas than spectacle.  The best of both worlds, of course, is a film that weaves in killer spectacle in the midst of ideas.  I would credit, from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” as the film which has most successfully done this.  It helped when that film has a car chase and assault sequence that felt far more practical than it did CGI, though I’m sure both were employed.

The issue I have with “Avengers: Age of Ultron”, which is a perfectly fun and enjoyable spectacle, is its lack of imagination and ideas.  This is particularly disappointing when the man who wrote this film is Joss Whedon, who is often so goddamn good at marrying ideas with spectacle. “Cabin in the Woods”, the underrated “Dollhouse”, and of course “Firefly” and “Buffy/Angel” have all shown the man to be a true talent.  Whether it’s from overbearing Marvel executives or the difficultly of balancing so many characters into a single narrative, Whedon seems very watered down in both the first “Avengers” (which was slightly better and had the novelty of seeing disparate film franchises combined which has now fallen away) and now this sequel.  My disappointment is not because the film isn’t good, because it’s a fun time at the movies, but because it could have been more.

I’m not a Marvel Universe junkie.  I’ve skipped both “Thor” films, found “Guardians” to be a good film but hilariously overrated (and also found its auteur, James Gunn, to be watered down), and in general am not as impressed with the whole enterprise as I was with Nolan’s first 2/3rds of his “Batman” trilogy.  That being said, I kind of like this sprawling, multi-storied universe of the likes we normally only see in comics being perpetrated on the big screen.  Any franchise that calls out to be graphed awakens a nerd in me.  I have, however, been following the general plot progress of this thing.  “Age of Ultron” largely ignores “Guardians” and picks up after “Winter Soldier”.  The Avengers have come together to storm a Hydra facility which contains both an Infinity Stone (glowing rock MacGuffin) as well as two new super-powered characters who don’t like Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) because his weapons were once used to blow up their home.  These characters are Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen).  We saw a different version of Quicksilver in the last X-Men film, which is not part of the MCU.  This version is less of a jokester and has a Russian accent.  Scarlet Witch, however, is a welcome addition to the film.  Aside from a cool power (telepathy and mind-control) she is designed to look like a cross between the hottest goth girl who never went to your high school and the hottest fake profile on Anastasia Date.  Olsen is also a good actress, though previous roles (“Silent House”, “Martha Marcy May Marlene”) have been in flawed films that haven’t really showcased her talent.

As for our heroes, well, Iron Man is still a Capitalist dick with a god complex, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is still a fish out of water, and Captain America (Chris Evans) is still old fashioned and has a strict code of ethics.  It’s the second string characters that actually get story this time, showing Whedon at least heard some of the criticisms of the first film, as well as the MCU as a whole. We get a whole load of information about Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), and a weak explanation of why this bow-and-arrow shooting muggle is a member of the Avengers (something about a regular human being needed to balance out their egos, or something…I said the explanation was weak).  Black Widow (Scarlet Johansson) is given a bit more of a back story as well, though apparently certain feminists online have been upset about it.  I think it’s important to keep in mind that the back story is not meant to show her as a “baby-fevered flirt” but to explain how the character views herself and why she would fall for the Hulk/Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo).  She views them as the same thing: flawed people whose flaws were forced upon them and not chosen, and who because of these can’t fit in.  Turning into a giant, green Mr. Hyde is probably not the same as someone fighting against their nurtured programming of being a lethal assassin, but it’s close enough.  Also, while some blame Whedon for only giving her this story line to enhance a man’s (Banner’s), I view it more as both characters enhancing each other’s story lines.  In any case, I think people complaining about alleged misogyny in Whedon’s work should A) watch “Dollhouse” and see that he even subverts his own magical-hot-waif trope in many cases and B) watch “Sucker Punch” to see what a misogynist spin on Whedon by someone who is not Whedon really looks like.

I was not as a big a fan of Loki (Tom Middleton) as everyone on the internet seems to be, and I was hoping this time we’d get a better villain.  This time we’re given an artificially intelligent being named Ultron  (James Spader).  I’m surprised the character kept this name, seeing as how it was bestowed upon him by Stark, whom he hates for reasons unclear.  I’d also point out that his creation is as much on Banner, Scarlet Witch, and possibly Thanos (Josh Brolin) as it is Stark, but Ultron specifically hates Stark.  This may be because Ultron doesn’t want to be viewed as one of mindless drones that Stark created in “Iron Man 3”, but perhaps the film would have been more interesting if Ultron, instead of being fueled by an anger that seems to come from nowhere (maybe Thanos) he was a super-logical robot ala “War Games” that simply saw human destruction as the only logical path to peace.  Then again, that would go against the Ultron from the comics (even though Marvel Films has no problem changing their villains, as evident by “Iron Man 3” and The Mandarin).  In any case, we’re treated to an angry robot voiced deliciously by Spader who seems to be a stand-in for Whedon’s opinion of religion.  Ultron’s base of operations is a church and he compares himself to god from the story of Noah so, yeah, Whedon decided the “puny god” line from the first film didn’t adequately express his hatred for religion.  Then again, having one of your heroes be another god, Thor, kind of undercuts any general atheist or anti-theist message.

I guess that’s part of my issue with the film.  There is so much potential to say something political with this thing, and nothing is said. Hell, “Winter Soldier” and “Iron Man 3” both had pretty surface political messages all but the most idiotic of filmgoers could see, but this film never has a clear thing to say.  The Eastern European, South Korean, and South African settings are all ripe to be backdrops to political messages, but we barely get any.  There’s some acid thrown in an Iron Drone’s face when it’s claiming to want to help and protect them, but any comment about drone warfare or American intervention in other countries is undercut by the fact that the drones in the film really ARE there to help, and hating them is counterproductive to the citizens if they want to survive Hydra.  Iron Man and Captain America argue over ethics a little bit, but it’s more broad issues than anything specific (democratic weighing of opinions or unilateral measures).  Any indictment the film makes of Stark for going against the will of the group to make Ultron is undercut when Stark does the same damn thing and ends up (with Thor’s help) with Vision (Paul Bettany), who is at least good enough to wield Thor’s hammer.  I guess we’ll have to wait for “Captain America: Civil War” for any good political stuff to come back to the MCU, and to have a true Stark vs Rogers ideology-off.

Also, Ultron is kept from being a really good villain simply because he ends up so simplistic.  Humans will never have peace, so all humans must die to give rise to a new army of super-robots.  We’ve seen this already a hundred times, and no new spin is put on it.  Ultron’s ultimate plan to accomplish this, inspired by meteor-caused extinction events, is kind of James Bond-out there.  Granted, the film lets us know that Ultron can’t launch nuclear weapons, but there have got to be easier ways to wreak world havoc than lifting a large, Eastern European city out of the ground, flying it high, and crashing it to Earth to kill all of the life.

Despite my issues, there are moments of the film that make the 13-year-old boy in me smile.  The whole Iron Man vs. Hulk fight is very fun.  Ultron derided humans for using the world’s strongest metal to make “a Frisbee” (Captain America’s shield) is funny.  Thor’s little fight with Stark over whose girlfriend is better was nice.  The film doesn’t have as many of these moments as one would hope, but there’s enough of them.

I also like that Whedon clearly saw the criticism “Man of Steel” got for having wanton destruction of a major metropolitan area without referencing how many civilians were likely killed.  The finale is basically just our heroes trying to evacuate civilians as robots try to kill everyone, and Iron Man specifically checks to see if a building under construction has people in it before dropping the Hulk in it (the ash and debris, however, he seems unconcerned with).

I was about as disappointed with the finale of this film as I was with the last film.  The last film has our heroes fighting a bunch of anonymous digital aliens on flying jetski-segway things, and it was boring.  This film has our heroes fighting a bunch of robots and it’s slightly less boring, but having heroes fight digital NPCs is not very fun to me anymore as a moviegoer. Sorry.

That said, the film is often fun and has some good jokes, though it feels longer than the first film despite having a shorter running time. I was hoping Spader’s Ultron would be less clichéd and more dark and sinister, or cold and logical, but we just got a petulant child with daddy issues and a hackneyed view of humanity.

I’m hoping “Captain America: Civil War” ends up being the film I wanted “Age of Ultron” to be. B-

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