Lots of spoilery thoughts on AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON
I saw Avengers: Age of Ultron Monday and have had a lot of thoughts about it, but was too worn out afterward to really focus on a detailed post. It’s a pretty intense, densely packed movie, although in some ways I wish it had been longer (and I look forward to the extended DVD cut).
Oh, where to begin? Well, maybe I should start with how pleased I am with the smooth transition from last week’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. episode to this movie. That episode featured Dr. List — Baron Strucker’s assistant in the Winter Soldier tag scene and here — experimenting with human enhancement, and ended with Agent Coulson discovering the location of Loki’s scepter in List’s files, then transmitting that info to Maria Hill so she could send in the Avengers. In the movie, we find that the Avengers have been together as a team for some time, hunting down Loki’s sceptre while cleaning up the remains of HYDRA. It’s a bit odd that we haven’t heard about their efforts in previous AoS episodes, but HYDRA’s a big, fragmented enough organization (cut off one head, two more grow, etc.) that I can believe that two groups would be involved in hunting them down and that their efforts would rarely overlap.
(Agents didn’t quite stick the dismount, though; last night’s episode following up on Ultron was a bit abrupt, just “Well, that happened; now let’s get back to our own problems.” The transition will be rather jarring on a binge rewatch unless you pause to watch the movie in between episodes.)
Anyway, I figure the Avengers have probably been back together as a team ever since the fall of SHIELD in The Winter Soldier. For one thing, they needed to pick up the slack, to fill the void of protection left by SHIELD’s fall; and for another, once HYDRA was exposed, it would’ve been discovered that SHIELD-held assets like the scepter were in HYDRA hands, motivating Thor’s hunt. This is probably also what drew Tony back out of his retirement at the end of Iron Man 3, though it would’ve been nice to have some acknowledgment of this.
Tony Stark’s arc between that movie and this is a bit awkward. It feels like he’s regressed from his growth at the end of that movie. But then, he is an addictive personality, and thus prone to relapse. And he did have a little help. It wasn’t until the Scarlet Witch’s psychic push that he started repeating his old mistakes in earnest and trying to create “a suit of armor around the world.” True, he did have the Iron Legion, an Avengers-branded version of his army of suits from IM3, but they seemed to serve a narrower, more specific function. They were a sign of his potential for relapse, but it took Wanda to push him over the edge. So it’s a plausible personality arc, even if I have to read (or write) between the lines to justify it.
Steve Rogers has less of an arc here; if anything, it’s more the resolution of his arc in the previous few films, as he moves on past his identity as a WWII relic and ex-SHIELD agent and finally embraces being his own man, his own superhero. He’s the rock upon which the Avengers are built (to borrow Ultron’s Biblical allusion), the stalwart moral center, and that’s what Captain America needs to be. And I continue to be impressed at how perfect Chris Evans is in the role. He’s the purest paragon of heroism onscreen since Christopher Reeve, but with more of a soldierly edge, as befits the character.
Thor has even less to do here, mainly just advancing plot threads for this and other movies and providing comic relief with his smugness. The visions that Wanda gave him were mainly about creating an excuse to include Heimdall and Eric Selvig in the movie, and about moving the Infinity Gauntlet arc forward a bit more (although it is neat to see that thread starting to coalesce). Apparently, according to this Whedon interview, this part went on even longer in the original version, but test audiences reponded poorly since it was so peripheral to the film itself, so the pool sequence was cut to the bare minimum.
The bulk of this movie’s character work was for the characters who don’t have their own film series, which makes sense. Black Widow in particular continues to be a dominant presence, as she’s been in every one of her appearances except Iron Man 2. And she’s grown a lot. What we see here is the payoff of Natasha’s arc from The Winter Soldier. There, she told Cap that he might be in the wrong business, because he valued friends more than secrets. As it turned out, she was right, and that movie ended with Cap leaving the spy game (indeed, kicking the whole board over) — and with Natasha following him out. When she told the Congressional committee “You know where to find us,” it was implicit to me that she was talking about Avengers Tower. Now Black Widow the spy has given way to Black Widow the Avenger, and she’s manifestly happier as a superhero — more open, more able to connect to another human being in a way she never allowed herself before. The team’s use of her as the keeper of the “Lullaby” to calm the Hulk probably started as an exploitation of her skills at seducing and manipulating people, but by the time we see them here, it’s grown into something more real to her, given her a human connection she wouldn’t have been open to while working for Fury and playing his games of secrets and lies. Now, I gather there’s some criticism of this plot development putting Widow in a more conventional feminine role than before (discounting her sexualized debut in IM2), making her less “strong” as a character, but I disagree. I think she’s actually stronger here, because she’s grown into a more complete, healthy person, one who’s added honesty and genuine kindness to her repertoire of assets. Real strength doesn’t come from fighting and killing, or from hiding your emotions from yourself or others. Any mindless force of nature can destroy; what enabled humanity to transform the world was our empathy, our ability to bond and work together. That’s real power.
As for Bruce Banner, I found his arc a little unfocused. The Avengers (Avengers Assemble to you UK folks) ended with Bruce apparently coming to terms with the Hulk, recognizing that he could direct the Hulk as a force for good. And come to think of it, The Incredible Hulk ended with the same epiphany, to an extent (“Maybe I can aim it”). How many times is he going to regress to thinking of himself as a monster? And what exactly did Wanda put in his mind to set off his Johannesburg rampage? Hopefully we’ll see that in the extended cut. His departure at the end seemed pretty arbitrary too.
(By the way, there were moments when I was watching Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce and I was struck by how much he reminded me of Bill Bixby. I think it’s the hair, and the way he plays the role. The face isn’t really that similar.)
It’s Clint Barton/Hawkeye who gets the most development here, given that he’s had the fewest appearances of any of the Avengers and spent most of his one previous big appearance under Loki’s mind control (which Whedon acknowledges and corrects here by having Clint be the only one who avoids Wanda’s mind-whammy). Turns out he has a whole hidden domestic life we didn’t know about, and Natasha isn’t his love interest but his best friend and his children’s favorite “aunt.” And Whedon nicely plays with genre cliches here, as he so often does, since he spends much of the movie doing all he can to set up Clint as the one who’s doomed to die — he’s severely injured in the first battle, then he has a family and a pregnant wife, and he’s talking about all his home renovation plans, so that when he steps off the evac shuttle and gives up his ride to safety to rescue that kid, it seems inevitable that he’s going to be killed — and then Quicksilver shows up and changes the narrative. In the interview linked above, Whedon admits that he had great fun playing with that cliche, really pushing all the “Hawkeye’s gonna die” buttons to set us up for the twist.
Beyond that, Pietro never really emerged as that interesting a character, with Wanda carrying the bulk of the emotion and plot agency in their arc (since she’s the one who sets Ultron’s creation in motion). Whedon says he’d always planned to kill off Quicksilver, so that there’d be a real price to what he considered a war story, so maybe that’s why his character development was considered the most expendable (apparently quite a lot of it ended up on the cutting-room floor). I also can’t help but notice: Now there’s no longer a Quicksilver in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and there never was a Scarlet Witch in the Fox X-Men movie universe. That would seem to resolve their dispute over the characters and their split rights — they’ve each ended up with half the pair. I’m not sure if that was planned, but it works out nicely for them.
I guess talking about Scarlet Witch brings me to the Vision next. In some ways, bringing about his creation seemed like one thread too many in an already-cluttered film. What made it work was the decision to retcon the Vision into an evolved form of the JARVIS artificial intelligence. JARVIS has been Tony’s stalwart ally from the start of the MCU, so the audience already has an investment in him as a character. And the film established him as a heroic figure in the first two acts, showing him fighting to stop Ultron at the latter’s creation, apparently dying heroically in the attempt, and then turning out to have survived and assisted the Avengers clandestinely in battling Ultron on the Internet. Giving him a body and a fuller sentience is basically a payoff he’s earned through all his prior achievements — although I think Tony underestimated how sentient he was to begin with. JARVIS was never just a voice interface, but had many behaviors that require sophisticated cognition — the ability to recognize and generate humor foremost among them, but also the ability to anticipate Tony’s thoughts, needs, and even feelings. (Like when JARVIS suggested calling Pepper when Tony was about to sacrifice himself in the Chitauri wormhole. No mindless interface could have that kind of empathy.)
And that was Tony’s real mistake here — underestimating the true intelligence of his own creation, so that he felt compelled to do something very stupid and plug an unknown alien AI from an evil sceptre into his mainframe and use it as the basis for his ultimate security system. True, it was Wanda’s amplification of his fears that compelled him to choose the more advanced intelligence, but he still didn’t appreciate the potential of his own “son.” I’m reminded of Harold Finch on Person of Interest and the way he continually underestimates the intelligence and the morality of his own AI creation. The Vision’s creation represents Tony finally trusting that his own brainchildren are good enough, that he doesn’t have to be forever unsatisfied and striving for more. And maybe finally recognizing just how much JARVIS has done for him over the years, and how worthy JARVIS is of being entrusted with the enormous power of the Vision.
And that moment with Thor’s hammer — I was literally agape and on the edge of my seat after the Vision lifted it. I mean, I knew that much-touted scene where everyone was competing to lift the hammer was bound to be setup for a later scene where someone other than Thor would prove worthy to lift it, but I was expecting it to be Cap. The fact that Vision did it so casually just made it more striking. (Although I love the final bit where Tony and Steve try to comfort Thor about how maybe it didn’t count. “An elevator isn’t worthy.”)
So anyway, Ultron himself… He was a pretty interesting villain, more nuanced and textured than a number of the MCU’s villains (I’ve seen sheets of plastic wrap with more texture and depth than Guardians of the Galaxy‘s Ronan), but still kind of rushed in a lot of ways. His creation in particular seemed to happen overnight, although I guess it probably took the Avengers a few days to gather all those party guests together after bringing Strucker down. Even so, it felt kind of abrupt, and a lot of Ultron’s character traits, while fun to watch thanks to James Spader’s performance, seemed a bit unmotivated. Why did he hate the Avengers so much? How did he end up as a reflection of Tony’s own personality, as seemed to be the case? Why did he turn to Wanda and Pietro as his allies? Maybe it would’ve worked better if Ultron had been a more direct outgrowth of Tony’s legion of suits in IM3 — if he’d been established there as a broader global security program, and if Age of Ultron had begun with the Avengers already relying on Ultron drones as a security program to take the place of SHIELD, and if it had been Tony’s effort to improve the system by enhancing it with the sceptre’s software that had pushed it over the edge. Then it wouldn’t have felt quite so abrupt, Ultron rebelling from the instant of his creation. It would’ve required a different ending to IM3, but would’ve unified the films more and helped set up Ultron’s rise better. (I may be influenced by how the animated The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes did it, with Ultron starting out as a set of robot prison guards and security drones for the Avengers before going bad.)
As far as the film’s ties to the broader MCU go, I like it that they managed to include so much, like cameos by Rhodey and Falcon and Peggy and mentions of Pepper and Jane, but I regret that they left out so much, like actual appearances by Pepper and Jane and maybe Darcy. (Although I do like it that Pepper and Jane’s absence was justified by the fact that they were just too awesome and important to have time for being mere extensions of their men’s lives. And I love it that Tony and Thor were competing with each other by boasting about how powerful and amazing their girlfriends were.) And I suspect that a fair amount of Sam/Falcon’s material was cut. In the climax, it felt like he was supposed to be there, providing air support alongside Rhodey, so it was odd that he didn’t show until that brief cameo in costume at the end.
But I’m glad we got the new character of Helen Cho. I recently watched Netflix’s Marco Polo and quite enjoyed Claudia Kim as Khutulun, so it was nice to see her again in another role so soon. And it’s interesting that she’s still around as part of the Avengers’ support team at the end. I wonder if we’ll see her in future films, or maybe in an Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. guest role.
So… at the end of the film, we see Iron Man step down from the team (justified, as it was his mistake that created the crisis), Thor take a leave of absence to research the Infinity Stones, and Hulk wander off for unclear reasons, while Hawkeye goes home to his family. And now we’ve got a new team of B-listers led by Captain America. This is an homage to the comics’ evolution in which the original Avengers team gave way to “Cap’s Kooky Quartet” of himself, Hawkeye, Quicksilver, and the Scarlet Witch. The new team at the end of Age of Ultron, by contrast, has Cap and Black Widow as the leaders and War Machine, Falcon, Scarlet Witch, and Vision as the new recruits. Which is a definite improvement on the all-white, one-female roster we started with. But I wonder if it’ll last. The next film after Ant-Man is Captain America: Civil War, which I’ve heard referred to as essentially Avengers 2 1/2. We know that most of the members of this Avengers roster (except War Machine and Vision, and including Hawkeye) are already confirmed members of its cast. So this is probably the team Cap will be leading at the start of Civil War. Whether it survives those events and continues into Avengers: Infinity War remains to be seen.
Anyway, I mentioned earlier how Cap and Widow have basically graduated from being soldiers/spies to full-on superheroes. Aside from the HYDRA raid at the beginning, the Avengers definitely felt more like superheroes than warriors here. One thing a lot of reviewers have called attention to — and it’s sad that this is unusual enough in movies to need calling attention to — is how much the action sequences focus on protecting civilians. This was something I noticed and liked in the climax of the first Avengers, the way Whedon kept the focus grounded on the reactions of ordinary people and showed us what it was the heroes were fighting for. And it’s an even larger focus here, with so much of the climactic sequence revolving around the logistics and difficulties of evacuating the civilians, and Fury/SHIELD’s Big Damn Hero moment being an act of rescue rather than one of combat. This is something I’m glad to see in any movie, particularly a superhero movie. As I’ve said before, I prefer seeing superheroes as rescuers, not warriors. It’s also a pretty clear “Take that” to Zack Snyder and Man of Steel, and I can totally get behind that. I just hope that Markus, McFeely, and the Russo brothers — the writers and directors of Civil War and Infinity War — follow Whedon’s lead in this regard. I felt they kind of dropped the ball on that front in The Winter Soldier, staging battles with lots of potential or implied civilian casualties and only making the rare token nod to protecting civilians. (Although it was a nice touch in TWS that the one character who was shown urging civilians to get to safety was Black Widow, showing that she had more hero in her than she realized.)
One thing I want to acknowledge in particular is the musical score, by Danny Elfman and
an uncredited Brian Tyler ( well, semi-credited — there’s a section deep in the credits that has one heading for the musicians who worked on Tyler’s score and one for those who worked on Elfman’s score; I gather Elfman replaced Tyler midway through). One thing the MCU has lacked in the past is musical consistency; they use different composers for the different movies in a given series, so we generally haven’t gotten character themes that have remained consistent from one film to the next. Only Alan Silvestri’s Captain America March has been used consistently, being at least briefly quoted in all four of Cap’s films to date. But with this film, there was more acknowledgment and consolidation of past themes. We got snippets of both Cap’s theme and Tyler’s Iron Man 3 theme at key heroic moments for those characters (and maybe more individual character themes I didn’t catch), and Silvestri’s Avengers motif from the first film was quoted here both in the underscore and in the end titles. It’s good to hear some continuity in the scoring at last, to accompany the continuity in storylines. And the score is solid overall, too. I don’t know how much or which parts Elfman did, but I think he’s become a more mature and versatile composer in recent years, growing beyond the single, somewhat repetitive sound his scores had in the ’80s and ’90s. There was a time when seeing Elfman’s name in a movie’s credits inspired a reaction of “Oh, not again” in me, but that’s no longer the case.
Ooh, what else? Physics! I can talk about physics. The science behind Ultron’s scheme at the end actually made a fair amount of sense, up to a point. The movie recognized that even if the big chunk of Sokovia fell back to Earth from even a relatively low height, at an altitude where people could still breathe fairly easily, the energy release of the impact would be cataclysmic — not enough to wipe out all life on Earth, but certainly enough to devastate the continent. This is something a lot of movies don’t get. In Independence Day, for instance, all those city-sized saucers crashing into the ground even from just a mile or two up would’ve caused an extinction-level event all by itself; heck, the simple act of their deceleration within Earth’s atmosphere would’ve converted enough kinetic energy into heat to devastate the planet. So points for understanding gravitational potential energy. A bit iffier is the fact that if Ultron’s engines were powerful enough to lift that mass against gravity, then they must’ve been capable of generating the same amount of energy that would be released by its impact, and then some (since some of the energy they generated would go into vibration, breakage, heat, noise, etc. rather than lift). So why not just use that device as a bomb and eliminate the middlemassif? But Ultron isn’t a perfectly logical being, and he seems inordinately fixated on symbolism and metaphor. He was thinking in terms of impact events causing mass extinctions, and was irrational and immature enough to focus on recreating that particular type of event rather than recognizing that there was a simpler way. So I can buy that.
The problem is the one you usually get in “stop the asteroid” stories — namely, that blowing up the impactor wouldn’t really help, because you’ve still got the same amount of mass delivering its kinetic energy to the Earth’s atmosphere and surface, just a bit more diffusely. It can actually make things worse, in the way that a shotgun blast can be more damaging than a single bullet hit. In this case, though, it might be somewhat justifiable, since the mass of rock was shattered at the very beginning of its descent. If you blew up an asteroid that was already incoming at high speed, all its fragments would still have that same velocity. But here, the mass is starting from zero velocity (or a low upward velocity). Intact, it would’ve all accelerated at once and would’ve been too massive for air resistance to matter; but with lot of smaller fragments starting from zero, air resistance would be more of a factor. So the millions of fragments wouldn’t be able to build up as much kinetic energy as the one big chunk. It would probably still be a lot worse than shown, but it borders on the plausible.
So what else is there to say? Mainly that Joss Whedon, in his interviews lately, sounds really, really tired. He worked damn hard to make this movie work, and he managed to pull it off, but he’s earned a good rest. I can’t blame him at all for choosing to step down from the MCU and go back to his own, more manageably sized projects. At this point, he can probably do whatever he wants in Hollywood. It’s impressive that he’s already gone back to focusing on his writing (which is apparently the real reason he left Twitter, despite certain claims that have been made — here’s the link, but watch out for “language,” as Cap would say!). I just hope the Russo brothers don’t burn out doing three big Marvel films pretty much in a row. At least there are two of them, so hopefully that’ll ease the workload.
(By the way, would Cap really have had an issue with his teammates using profanity? I mean, sure, he’s wholesome and clean-cut and a literal poster boy, but he was also a soldier in the trenches in WWII, so I’m sure he’s quite used to being around heavy cursers. He would’ve been uncomfortable with such language being used in front of a woman, but he’s been teamed with Natasha long enough to think of her as a fellow soldier. So that bit, while funny, didn’t quite ring true for me.)