Before Avengers: Age of Ultron went into production, geek favorite and creepy middle-aged champion of teenage girls, Joss Whedon, ruffled feathers by smack-talking two other sequels to iconic films – The Empire Strikes Back and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom – and expressed the desire to avoid certain pitfalls he saw as endemic to both. In the main, these were their inability to provide a complete narrative experience and/or relying on beats from their predecessors as a cheap emotional shortcut. He also broached a desire to turn inward and make a completely different movie to the first. Based on the mixed results of AoU, Whedon jumped the gun in making those pronouncements. His latest work falls prey to those ‘flaws’ in far greater proportions than the cited offenders and, unlike ESB especially, is assuredly not a great sequel. Neither is it a complete mess or a failure, and it won’t help end the MCU’s dominance of the cinematic landscape any time soon. Anyone who makes the latter claims – and I’ve already seen a few – is indulging in wish-fulfillment, not to mention likely to be a disgruntled, self-loathing and self-mutilating DC fan that can’t wait to revel in three dowdy hours worth of the Man of Murder vs. Jigsaw the Serial Killer!
What Age of Ultron is, is a good, not great jigsaw piece in the larger puzzle of the MCU. It’s certainly not a classic and has a lot of dinks on its bodywork, but it’s entertaining, has a lot (too much) going on, and quality-wise is on a par with most of its Marvel brethren, including those that many would consider the top three – Cap: The Winter Soldier, the first Iron Man, and the original Avengers – none of which were truly great movies, and all of which had their problems (apologies to anyone who likes nonsensical chuckle-fests full of dancing hipsters and Footloose references, as Guardians was strictly second-tier material in my eyes). On that limited level, the movie is a success. Yet, AoU is denied the opportunity to be a great sequel, or even a truly great genre movie, by being forced to adhere too rigidly to the by-now formulaic expectations for Marvel movies, and it also shows worrying strains of shouldering the burgeoning weight of the ever-expanding MCU mythology. The movie is very much a transitional piece, with all the attendant pros (for fans) and cons (for casual audiences and critics) that implies.
AoU charts a middle-ground by being neither a complete rerun of Avengers 1, nor a complete reinvention of the template, either. In terms of mood and content, it’s certainly a more subdued and somber film than its basic, but more focused and rousing predecessor, and I’d be surprised if it tops part one at the domestic box office; aside from some trademark moments of Whedon’s self-conscious schtick (a good proportion of which falls flat this time), this isn’t really a crowd-pleaser. And it deserves praise for skirting some meatier material, only to be damned for not going far enough with it. Whedon gives with one hand, and takes away with the other (or was it Kevin Feige and his ruthless editorial scissors? But more on that later).
Structurally, AoU isn’t much different from its predecessor: there’s the pre-credits ‘sting’, a few initial skirmishes with the big bad, the heroes then clash with each other and have their moments of doubt, followed by a big, noisy third-act battle. The main difference is there’s more detail to all of these developments, with far more characters and subplots. That’s okay, but one of Whedon’s mandates was that “you go smaller with the sequel, and dig with a scalpel to cause pain”. No one expected AoU to be a chamber piece, but one would be led to anticipate an inventive storyline that takes some unpredictable twists and turns from expectations and plays more to the interior lives of the characters. Like – damn its eyes! – Empire. Unfortunately, the differences between AoU and its predecessor arise solely from expansion and bloating, not narrative smarts.
There is no subversion of the usual superhero template to be seen here, and – yes – such a thing could and should be expected, as Whedon has crafted all kinds of inventive episodes for his various TV shows over the years. Not to mention the repeated criticisms he made of the first movie’s many rote plot beats, his excuse being that he was held to ransom by pre-determined script structure and several locked-in sequences that existed prior to his hiring (the basic outline of Avengers 1 was developed by Zak Penn). This sequel was Whedon’s chance to craft a Marvel movie completely from the ground up with a lot more control; yet, instead of fixing those problems, he’s rehashed and even exacerbated many of them as a result of accommodating all the new characters and future film foreshadowing, and compounded them by displaying his own lack of balls in deviating from script formula. The former two impediments could have been imposed by Kevin Feige’s dicta, but Whedon has absolutely no excuse for the latter failing.
However, for its greater sins, AoU does improve on the standard Marvel template in a few key areas. First, the biggest positive: Ultron is one of the best bad guys in any MCU movie to date. In fact, aside from Loki, he’s the only villain so far who’s been worth a tin shit. Spader’s voice/mo-cap work is sterling, and the character has some of the best lines and speeches in the film, veering from one deranged line of reasoning to the other like a malicious idiot savant. Spader’s made a career out of playing slimy, insidious creeps, and is thus the perfect engine to bring this duplicitous, perverse and obsessed walking scrap-pile to life. All that being said, Marvel really need to develop a team of super-villains with their own clashing personalities to parallel the heroes, as their movies’ continued focus on singular and (with the noted exceptions) bland villains, plus their dispensable armies, is getting tiresome.
As for the much vaunted Vision, Ultron’s robotic mirror, Bettany basically plays him as Data from Star Trek, detached, yet a kind and wise calming presence. The android is another highlight, and provides a unique perspective on all the super-powered cape heroics that acts as a reflective counterpoint to the more traditional, testosterone-fueled characters.
There are hints of some intriguing themes as Jarvis/Vision and Ultron’s rapidly evolving AI engage in dialectical debate and then appear to assimilate, all within the confines of a vaguely surreal ‘birthing’ sequence (a noble stab at visually depicting the dawning awareness of an artificial intelligence, which for some reason reminded me of Murphy’s ‘awakening’ in the original Robocop). However, these loftier sci-fi conceits are soon thrown to the way side and the moral and ethical divisions between both intelligences clearly delineated, as the hicks, soccer moms and/or man-children in the audience would otherwise get confused (or perhaps this side-plot was again simplified and edited out). Instead of the routine smash-‘em-up denouement (which could have been moved to the mid-point), the third act should have been a more cerebral, character-based finale, as the Vision once again linked with Ultron’s consciousness and attempted to defeat him by exploiting algorithmic loopholes or uploading a virus; a Lawnmower Man style virtual reality clash that would have confounded the cheap seats but which would have displayed far more…er, vision. And again I’m not expecting too much, as the source comics themselves have displayed all kinds of genre-bending, trippy ideas and far-out imagination over the years. I don’t know what kinds of drugs Jack and Stan partook of in the swinging sixties, but they were obviously skirting a different plane than the conservative and reductionist Whedon and mainlining (even if by unwitting osmosis) a lot of the bleeding edge science fiction ideas of the day for their monthly strips.
Nevertheless, for all the dumbing down of some potentially weightier concepts in favor of spectacle and carnage, The Vision does later espouse some poignant and lofty philosophical sentiments which clearly echo Whedon’s defeatist, existentialist view of life. Who says Marvel’s movies carry no imprint of their respective helmers? Although, despite the billions he’s squeezed out of his pain in compensation, the poor fool would obviously have been a lot happier had he put down the Sartre during his youth and boffed a few bimbos!
But enough about Joss’s white-knight inability to dip his wick or those inscrutable robots and their machinations: what of our stalwart Avenger heroes themselves? Should we expect Whedon to have dug in with his ‘scalpel’ and re-invented them as he promised? Well, no. None of the players in AoU experience the dark night of the soul that, say, the Empire Strikes Back’s protagonists did, and there are no surprising twists on their established personalities, either. To be fully successful, and not just a nudge sideways toward further episodic adventures, a delicate balancing act should have been achieved, with every single one of the Avengers undergoing a defining moment of crisis or revelation that fundamentally altered their narrative course. Yet, many characters here are only paid lip service in this regard, and still others receive almost no attention at all.
Of course, Tony Stark once again gets the lion’s share of action/ character, as Marvel understandably want a return on all the coke-on-tits fun RDJ has undoubtedly enjoyed on the sly from spending their monstrous paychecks. His character isn’t particularly deepened, but does get the opportunity to reveal some real doubt behind the cocky façade that’s at least more authentic than that witnessed in the ridiculous parody, Iron Man 33 1/3. Hulk has some great moments in the movie’s first half, too, including a brewing Beauty and the Beast romance with Black Widow and going at loggerheads with Iron Man after Scarlet Witch toys with his mind. However, his climactic abandonment of the team – intended to be poignant and dramatic – seems to come out of nowhere: the script cheats by having him revert to being an unambiguous hero so he can fight alongside his comrades in the ‘splosion-filled finale, in control of his emotions again for at least the time being. Hulk’s resignation of the team would have had a far greater effect had his earlier moment of crisis been reserved for the movie’s end, with the character endangering his colleagues in the battle. Despite the earlier seeding, his escape in the Quinjet thus appears puzzling and once again the enforced plot mechanics in service of future installments become all too transparent. Expect the big green bastard to show up in Civil War living on Fiji and being worshiped by the natives. Or something.
By contrast, Thor and Cap don’t get much to do this time out. This isn’t such a disservice to Cap as the character was already showcased to great effect in Winter Soldier, but Marvel really must step up their game in regards to Thor. Thor wanders through these events seeming permanently distracted; his deeper and more dramatic (should I call them ‘Shakespearean’? Branagh would) concerns are set on otherworldly affairs, while he’s mainly reduced to no more than a hyper-macho, affable Viking caricature when hanging with his Avenger buddies. He has very little personal stake in the events of AoU, and attempts to anchor him to proceedings through the yellow gem that births the Vision in corporeal form appear contrived. There’s also a truly strange subplot, involving his trip to some sort of underground cavern, which presumably belonged to a longer sequence. It’s so brief and incoherent that it practically qualifies as abstract. Kevin Feige no doubt mandated its inclusion, as it involves some malarkey about the infinity gems that’ll surely be lost on ninety percent of the audience, but it’s not a natural fit for the story. By contrast, an earlier, Black Panther-setting excursion to Wakanda integrates into the narrative perfectly, as it follows from the main thrust of the plot and Ultron later uses the shipments of vibranium to craft an improved body for himself.
Anyway, what’s the point of including otherwise redundant scenes like Thor’s side-trip if you’re not prepared to let them run to their intended length? AoU’s original edit apparently ran for a whopping three and a half hours, and even Whedon isn’t happy that a few pieces were trimmed. In a time when summer movies routinely run 150 minutes or more, would it have killed the micro-managing Marvel brass to include a few things to clarify the plot and that would have added maybe no more than ten minutes to the film’s runtime? And don’t give me some jive about extra screenings for extra dollars, because this is already a fairly long movie. AoU suffers badly by being edited so close to the bone; its overstuffed story contains too many characters arcs and side strands to be pared down successfully to a shorter runtime, unlike the simpler, more direct story of the first movie. Like Thor 2, this movie would have benefited immensely from being at least twenty minutes longer. Sadly, extended cuts don’t seem to be on Marvel’s agenda as they currently have so many other streams of revenue on the boil.
But I digress. Pleasingly, Whedon does carve out time to deepen the two dullest Avengers, if only slightly, as everyman Hawkeye’s personal life gets fleshed out and Black Widow’s character is strengthened by some personal revelations. As for the twins, Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver, they fulfill their plot functions admirably but coast by without much in the way of character development (perhaps due to enforced editing decisions again, as Joss is usually known for lavishing special attention on his teen protagonists). Proving that Whedon’s really lacking when it comes to visual flair, their costumes are terribly cheap looking – as if, just prior to filming, the director had secured a tracksuit from the local sporting goods store for the former, and slung together some pseudo-goth stylings from Hot Topic for the latter. Plus, in a surprise to no one – SPOILERS – Quicksilver is this movie’s sacrificial lamb, as Whedon’s contract maintains that all his projects must have one. It’s in the small print, apparently.
But, for all the pros and cons of each individual Avenger’s larger arc or lack thereof, when the busy script gives it room to breathe character interaction is where AoU really shines. The slower paced dialogue scenes really play to Whedon’s strengths with an ensemble, clearly honed over many seasons of episodic TV. Tarantino once remarked, while talking about Jackie Brown, that his goal was to make a ‘hang-out movie’, one where the audience would simply enjoy spending time with the characters in lieu of plot mechanics and rapid pacing. Well, Whedon has achieved much the same thing in AoU. The first movie also displayed these qualities, and the known quantity of the sequel, and the familiarity the actors now share with each other, has allowed this interplay to settle into an even more comfortable groove. The movie’s most accomplished scenes are early on, at a post-mission party in Stark’s tower, which contains many off-the-cuff improvisations and genuinely witty lines; those set during a second act interlude at a safehouse offer some surprisingly affecting emotional moments, and contextualize and humanize the characters’ heroics. We like this group and feel the natural camaraderie and warmth between them. It’s almost a shame when things have to be disrupted by plot or another action sequence.
And speaking of action, after watching AoU, I’m glad the Russos are directing Infinity War in place of Whedon (though I’d be perfectly happy for him to write the screenplay). Whedon’s staging of action sequences isn’t bad, but lacks the precision of Winter Soldier, and also appears to have deteriorated since the first movie. The inaugural Bond-aping siege is well done (with an amazing continuous action shot that opens proceedings), and the Hulk/Hulk Buster showdown skirts greatness, but a later highway chase is botched (and not a patch on a similar sequence in The Matrix Reloaded ten years ago). Whedon still films his action sequences too much like a TV show, employing a lot of tight shots and not pulling back the camera to establish geography.
As for the final battle, it’s just a melange of crap blowing up. Yeah, it was cool in the first movie, but it’s not very engaging here, and befitting the more sober mood, there aren’t as many iconic hero shots as there were in the first, either. It’s also a case of the heroes battling more anonymous cannon fodder – although Whedon does get around this somewhat, since technically all the drones are Ultron and every one of them an extension of his consciousness. And for someone who disparaged ‘call-back’ moments, such as Temple of Doom’s two pistols versus whip redux, Whedon sure doesn’t mind breaking his own rules: a pan around the heroes as they ready themselves for combat self-consciously echoes its predecessor, and there’s another impulsive action on behalf of The Hulk that effectively copies the “puny God” zinger from part one, only it’s nowhere near as funny.
It’s examples like the above – and the lack of taking the characters anywhere really new, as well as only thickening an already existing template established in the first movie – that show Whedon had no business disparaging The Empire Strikes in relation to his ‘opus’ on any level. Even though he was trying to make a specific point about that film’s ending, it still invokes unfavorable comparisons. A truly great sequel must daringly reinvent and deepen its predecessor as ESB did; transpose it into a new genre like Aliens; or invert the central conceit as in T2. As part of the ultimate episodic franchise, Whedon’s film could not possibly circumvent the ‘serialized’ qualities inherent in most sequels and, in fact, ploughs them into an even deeper furrow, whereas movies like Empire transcended and/or made a virtue of their ‘defects’.
AoU is not surprising, nor a movie one step ahead of its audience’s expectations; it is not sweeping and operatic; and it is not structurally adventurous – qualities that Empire, the epitome of the ‘dark second chapter’ – possessed in spades. Empire ended on a questing note, full of grand possibilities; AoU ends on a fart and a “see you at the theater next year, patrons” as Cap prepares to train a bunch of second stringers. And despite “Mr. Feminism 2015’s” aspirations, it’s not a complete experience, either. AoU is simply a diverting, slightly more shaded and layered version of the first movie, which is about all anyone can now reasonably expect from this increasingly episodic, assembly line series. Hopefully, this movie’s flaws don’t portend similar (and exponentially larger) problems for future epics like Civil War and the Infinity War duology, although I rather suspect they will. For the time being, Age of Ultron will entertain you – Whedon is dependable and traditional enough a storyteller enough for that – but it could have been so much more.
7/10 – and that’s being generous!
P.S. If Marvel had owned the rights, I’m sure Sokovia would have been substituted for Latveria, and the mountain fortress for Victor Von Doom’s castle on loan to Hydra for their experiments. That would have been fantastic, and would have set up further possibilities for the MCU in a logical and escalating manner.
If you want to see something like the above become a reality, boycott Fox’s Fantastic Four shitfest this summer and hasten the property’s passage to Marvel, where it belongs. And no, Marvel didn’t bribe me with an evening of coke on tits at Downey’s pool house to say that!