Avengers: Age of Ultron represents a pivotal point for Marvel Studios. If The Avengers was the culmination of Marvel’s attempt at creating a series of interconnected franchise films in a manner no other studio had ever done before, then Age of Ultron is the culmination of the company solidifying their dominance over what has been, so far, the most popular movie genre of the 21st century. A lot has been said on the subject, but in their quest for supremacy, Marvel has introduced us to a new level of industrialization in moviemaking. With producer Kevin Feige at the helm, Marvel Studios has established what is essentially a new millennium version of the classic Hollywood studio system. Think about it. They are a bib company where the artistic vision belongs to the producer, who churns out movie after movie thanks to a group of actors, writers, and directors signed on to long-term contracts.
This has proven to be a successful approach as far as selling tickets is concerned, but critics and cinephiles have complained that in their attempt to homogenize its product, Marvel has drained the artistry out of cinema. Recent creative disappointments, like Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy pointed towards Marvel becoming the cinematic equivalent of fast food. Just like you can go to any McDonalds in the world and taste the same Big Mac, you can go see any Marvel movie and expect essentially the same experience. This idea terrorizes certain movie fans the same way the rise of fast food terrorized food enthusiasts, and not without reason. There is an argument to be made that Marvel’s success will saturate the market with attempts at recreating that elusive Big Mac, instead of studios experimenting with putting weird, idiosyncratic ingredients in their million-dollar burgers.
As you have probably inferred from the previous paragraph, I haven’t been the biggest fan of Marvel’s recent output. I’ve been underwhelmed by most of their movies with two exceptions. Iron Man 3 and The Avengers, and for the same reason. They both represent the most over instances in which a filmmaker with a unique voice has been at the helm of a Marvel movie. In the case of Iron Man 3, writer-director Shane Black made a movie that resembled Kiss Kiss Bang Bang as closely as it did an entry in the Marvel Canon. Meanwhile, and of more relevance to this discussion, Joss Whedon applied his years as show-runner of nerdy shows to the blockbuster formula of The Avengers, rightly treating the heroes as he would the characters on one of his shows.
The wonderful thing about Whedon, is that he had a clear and deep understanding not only of the history and personality of the characters, but also of how to payoff serialized stories in eventful installments. As a fan of comic books, he had a vision of what The Avengers represented, and of how to translate those feeling to the big screen. Sure, The Avengers is not a perfect movie, and it is often not very pleasing visually speaking, but the long take late in the film, in which Whedon pans to reveal the members of the team standing together to defend the world of an army of invading aliens remains the definitive and most iconic image of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) because it means something.
At this point, let me go back to the beginning of this article. Age of Ultron is a pivotal point for Marvel not only because it will cement the Studio’s place as one of the biggest (if not the biggest) cultural forces on the planet, but also because it ushers the moment in which Marvel Studios became so monolithic that a man with as clear a vision and as deep a love for the material as Joss Whedon cannot survive making a movie uninjured.
Now, before we get into it, let me make clear that this doesn’t mean Age of Ultron is a bad movie. I am writing such a long article precisely because I think that is a question that can’t be easily answered. I want to identify the forces at play within this movie. I want to know what makes it better, and what makes it worse. What works, and what doesn’t. To do so, I’ve decided to break up this analysis into parts, each of them dealing with a different point of analysis for blockbuster movies. This is the first time I use this model, but I would like to adopt it for the future. I just thought there wouldn’t be a better trial run for it, than Avengers: Age of Ultron.
The first sign that this is something better (or at least more thoughtful) than your standard Marvel movie comes in the fact that the basic plot structure is different from the McGuffin-search these movies (including the first Avengers) have been indulging in lately. There is, thankfully, no chasing after a magical blue/red/purple stone this time around. Instead, Age of Ultron focuses precisely on The Avengers’ fight against Ultron, an evil piece of artificial intelligence (if such things can be evil in the first place is another discussion altogether) created by Tony Stark aka Iron Man aka Robert Downey Jr.
The way Stark sees it, the best option to guarantee a bunch of aliens won’t come in through a wormhole and destroy Earth (like they did at the end of the Avengers’ previous adventure) is to build some sort of shield around the planet. Ultron is supposed to be a super-intelligent computer that will be Earth’s first line of defense against external threats, but because there has never been a movie about how computers are awesome and make our lives better, it won’t come as a surprise that Ultron’s own intelligence leads it to rebel against its makers, build itself a robot body, adopt the voice of James Spader, and decide that the best way to achieve peace is to exterminate humanity. It’s up to The Avengers to stop him.
That’s the most basic outline for what the story of Age of Ultron is. Within the context in which this movie is created, meaning the fact that this is the second Avengers movie and the 11th overall movie in the MCU, and that the story we’ve been building towards will most likely not come to a conclusion for four years and ten movies, it’s easy to ask one-self if all the running and punching I’m watching even matters. Such an exercise is a little pointless. At this point, we should be more than aware that trying to watch the Marvel movies as contained stories is futile. For the fans of these movies, the pleasure is, rather obviously, not in the destination, but in the trip.
There aren’t any problems with that sentiment. The problematic aspects of the way the MCU is plotted come in the fact that these are not movies about these characters just hanging around together (although I would watch that), these actions movies require a plot. And Kevin Feige’s marketing department requires to keep making the stakes bigger and bigger as to convince audiences that they must come back a year from now, because that’s when the shit is really going to go down. Again, there are no problems with wanting to get people in the theater (only the most misanthropic of filmmakers wouldn’t want that). The problem comes when the plotting, which as we’ve seen, is kind of meaningless in the long term, overwhelms the experience of enjoying these movies, which is, as far as I understand, the reason audiences want to watch them.
Does the MCU’s pilgrimage towards Civil War and Infinity Wars hurt one’s enjoyment of Age of Ultron? To say that it doesn’t, even on the slightest level, would be a lie. Making room for future plot and future projects has become synonymous with Marvel movies. The good news is that, for the most part, Age of Ultron works as an incredibly well constructed chapter in the history of these characters. There might be other problems with the movie, but I think that Whedon has crafted a very solid and lean script. It’s the rare movie that is more than two hours long and moves swiftly while not feeling like it’s full of fluff. There is no question that the movie is overstuffed, but the reason it works is because it isn’t stuffed with build-ups for next entries, but with Whedon’s ideas of what he wants to do with the characters. As the creative man (seemingly) in charge of overlooking the Studio’s “Phase Two”, he was allowed a freedom that most directors don’t get when playing in Marvel’s sandbox.
Now we’re going to get into what is more problematic about Age of Ultron. One of the reasons why Whedon’s first time at bat with The Avengers was so good, was his understanding of the importance of space and geography when it comes to action sequences. We must remember that back then, Marvel wasn’t quite the behemoth it is now, and besides of its shiny cinematography, it hadn’t fully develop a visual style of its own. Whedon’s approach to action proved to be invaluable. Think of the sense of scale in display when he pit the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) against an angry Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), or the way he introduced us to the geography of the final battle with the long takes of the Avengers fighting robots and helping civilians around Grand Central Station. The Avengers presented a much needed break from the impressionistic action that had dominated the past decade. It wasn’t only about feeling. It was action that invited our brains back to the mix.
Age of Ultron opens with a long take similar to the one at the end of Avengers. We are re-introduced to the team in medias res, as they raid an Eastern European fortress, where evil Baron von Strucker (Thomas Kretschmann) is keeping the magic scepter our heroes where chasing after in the first movie (a lot of things happened in between, but like I said, it doesn’t really matter). The opening long take jumps from hero to hero as we see them take down Strucker’s puny henchmen.
Before I continue, I must give a little context. I’ve seen Avengers: Age of Ultron twice now. The first time, I saw it in a “regular” theater (which is to say no 3D and no IMAX). I usually get a head-ache when I watch 3D movies, so this is my preferred way of watching my superheroes. I say all of this because during my first viewing of the movie, I couldn’t make out what the hell was going on in that long take. I knew our heroes were fighting bad guys, but it was so shaky and so jumpy that I couldn’t make out what they were doing.
My second experience was quite different. It was an IMAX 3D screening, and while the 3D part of things remained a little annoying, the IMAX helped quite a bit. It was only in the context of a gigantic screen (bigger than the ones most people are going to see the movie in) that I could focus on the part of the frame where the hero was and make out how awesome what they were doing really was. Taken in the IMAX vacuum, that opening take is an awesome piece of action, so why does it lose its magic in any other context?
I think the problem lies in the fact that between Phases One and Two, Marvel has evolved into a company that knows exactly what it wants to be. It had an idea of what it wanted to do back when The Avengers came out, but the formula has been “perfected” in the years since, and there are certain spices that cannot be omitted from this secret recipe. One of them is the style of action, which has sadly veered back towards the impressionistic cutting that has dominated action movies ever since the heyday of Paul Greengrass and Christopher Nolan, and most notably entered the Marvel Universe with Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
The reasons for the proliferation of this style have to do with more things than mere aesthetic preferences. For the most part, it is easier to do. If you can’t exactly make out what the characters are doing during an action sequence, there is little need to craft perfect action choreography. Directors can have actors learn a pretty basic choreography, then shoot a lot of coverage, and trust that they will make it look cool in the editing bay. The chaotic impressionism of the action in, say, The Bourne Supremacy was revelatory when it came out more than ten years ago. It feels tired now that most every movie has adopted it, and it’s especially frustrating when it makes it way to a movie directed by someone who, like Whedon, has shown in the past that he knows what good action looks like.
The other thing to keep in my mind when analyzing the action sequences in Age of Ultron is that most them are not really put together by the director. They rely so thoroughly on the use of computer imagery, that they are more often than not outsourced to outside visual effects companies. The best moments in the Age of Ultron action sequences come from little bits of Whedon’s script. Sometimes, they are action beats like when Tony Stark puts on the Hulkbuster armor and repeatedly punches a runaway Hulk in the face to try to stop him, but most of the time, they are bits of clever dialogue or other comedic bits. When the most lively and memorable thing that happens during an action sequence is a bit of dialogue, you know your action is in trouble.
In the case of the action, as in most of what is frustrating about Age of Ultron, you get the sense that the ideas in the script are bogged down by the pre-ordained execution. It is hard enough to raise the stakes of an action sequence when you know most of these characters have to come back for nine more movies, why then add the burden of anonymity by adopting a visual style that hinders the creativity that can be found in these sequences.
Like I said above, Whedon’s biggest strength comes in his understanding of the characters. I don’t mean that as in, he knows what the characters were like in the source material, and thus, knows how to write them now (I detest the insistence in fidelity during adaptation), but in the sense that he has created and understands the inner lives of the characters he is playing with. You get the sense that he knows what they would be up to when they’re not fighting bad guys, and thus, the scenes in which they are not fighting bad guys are precisely some of the best in the movie.
One of the stand-out scenes for Whedon’s understanding of these characters comes early in the film, after the Avengers have recovered the magic scepter from Strucker, and decide to have a little celebratory party. They are hanging out, and decide it’d be fun to see if any of them can lift Thor’s (Chris Hemsworth) magic hammer. The legend says that only those who are worthy will be able to lift it, so the lifting of the hammer quickly becomes some sort of dick-measuring contest. “I don’t need that question answered” says Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) when asked to try lifting it herself. It’s a funny bit of comedy, but also the rare moment when we can take a breather and see how fun it is to see how these superheroes talk to one another. These character moments are the best thing in the movie.
Outside of the Ultron dilemma, there are many a subplot in this movie. Many a fan will be delighted to find out that the more time has given to the characters who haven’t had their own movies. This means that one of the most important sub-plots involved the blooming love relationship between the Black Widow and Bruce Banner aka the Hulk (Mark Ruffallo). I was happy to see that the two best characters from the first movie were paired up in the sequel, and it makes sense to give a tragic hero like the Hulk a romantic partner, as to put into perspective how tortured he is by the fact that there is always the possibility that he will lose control and destroy an entire city.
The biggest surprise, however, is that after being sidelined in the first installment, a pretty large amount of time is spent on Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner). He gets some of the best quips, gives a surprisingly moving speech, and introduces us to the fact that he has a family (his wife is played by the wonderful Linda Cardellini). Developing the characters’ love relationships and giving them people to care about seems like a way to amp the stakes in a movie with a predictable ending (will the Avengers save the world?), but it’s really a way for Whedon to put the human element on what his movie is really about. I’m not going to say that it’s a particularly original question to make, but what he is trying to explore is the relationship between the character’s power, and the effect this power has on other people.
If Age of Ultron is about the effects superheroics have on the world, then Ultron seems like the perfect villain for the movie for multiple reasons. The first one, pretty obviously, is the fact that he is created by Tony Stark. It’s the age-old Frankenstein story, in which man creates something that he can’t control, and which seems to be in the mind of all kinds of people as we near the moment in which we’ll be technologically able to create intelligence superior to our own. Which brings me to the second reason Ultron seems like the perfect fit for this movie: being essentially a computer program, Ultron is immaterial. No matter how many times he is punched by the Hulk, he can always jump into another body.
The fact that Ultron works on paper, however, doesn’t mean he works within the movie. Making a movie about an evil computer and trying to make it make sense seems to be an impossible task. There is certainly not enough time in this gigantic movie to sit the audience down and really explain what Ultron is all about, and how exactly he works. I will admit that I still can’t figure out exactly how is it that the Avengers get to destroy Ultron. I also don’t quite understand why he would want a human-like body. Ultron might be voiced by James Spader and get to say a few funny lines, but he remains another disappointingly underdeveloped Marvel villain.
The importance of Ultron to the movie seems to be strictly thematic. Like I said, Whedon is juggling so many plates that he can’t really explore the mechanics of Ultron’s thoughts or the details of his ideology. The important thing to know is that 1. he was created by Stark and 2. he wants to destroy humanity in order to save the Earth. He also wants to get rid of the Avengers. Ultron is programmed to achieve peace, and he sees humans as a fragile source of destruction. By all means, Ultron is smarter than any human, and he has a point when he says that there will be peace if there are no humans around to mess things up.
In order to achieve his evil plan, Ultron seeks the help of two new superhuman characters. The Maximoff twins, Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Scarlett Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) represent the first time we’ve had non-American Marvel heroes in the movies. We will also get an African hero (Black Panther) in future Marvel movies, but as the MCU extents its view to the rest of the world, it becomes a little disappointing that all these international heroes come from fictional nations. The Maximoffs are citizen of Sokovia, a Eastern European nation where everybody speaks English with a bad Russian accent, and the Black Panther comes from Wakanda, a fictional country mentioned in this movie.
The vagueness continues as the Avengers go stop an arms deal in what text on screen broadly tells us is the “African coast”. Not long after that the Hulk is set loose in an African city that is never identified by name. Now, some of you might say it’s not that relevant to talk about the representation of other countries (fictional or not) in a dumb superhero movie, but I wholeheartedly disagree. If Marvel is becoming one of the most popular cultural forces in the planet, then it must take advice from one of their most popular characters and understand that with great power comes great responsibility.
For all its shortcomings at the moment, the future of Marvel looks to be more diverse than ever. There are a host of black and female heroes in its future, so I would like for these movies to show that they understand the nuances and politics that come with presenting more than beefy white dudes on screen. This is not meant as a way to scare Marvel away from their future plans, but as a call (however small) for them to seize the opportunity and put thought into their future. The hammer scene I referred to before, for example, is a nice example of Age of Ultron being aware of how comfortably its pew-pew macho testosterone fits inside the Manbox. Now, it’d be even more gratifying if the movie stepped out of the Manbox, but at least it recognizes it’s inside it.
Let’s try to tie up everything together, so let me say that Age of Ultron reflects the moment in which Marvel will be burdened with the responsibilities of being a cultural powerhouse in its themes. Much like the company itself, Ultron brings the Avengers to question whether or not there is a point to what they’re doing, and whether the price of victory is worth paying. As such, the movie does something that no other Marvel movie had ever done before: it presents the audience with an existential question. “We know you enjoy these movies, but is there a point to them existing?”
The announcement of Ultron made it seem like Age of Ultron would be about the futility of fighting something as impermanent as a computer when you are a giant green monster, but it turned out to be about finding a justification for violence. On the eve of a movie as bent on destruction as Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel, in which Superman brings a whole city to the ground, Whedon seems to have questioned the morality of the heroes he is playing with. These Avengers’s biggest concern is to evacuate the civilians before their final battle, and their biggest fear is what they can do if they lose control of their power or sight of why they were doing this in the first place.
This moral conundrum is personified in a character that is introduced late in the movie. Now, I don’t consider revealing the identity of the character to be a spoiler considering he appeared in at least one of the trailers, but in case you are sensible to that kind of thing you might want to stop reading now. The Vision (Paul Bettany) is an android also brought to life by our heroes who becomes the chief opposing force to Ultron (at least in philosophical terms). Like Ultron, he has no attachment to the human race. He is a higher intelligence, and thus, when he reveals why he has decided to fight side-by-side with the Avengers, Whedon presents us with the meatiest part of his philosophical treaty on the existence of superheroes.
Avengers: Age of Ultron is about something, and that is more than can be said about virtually any of the other Marvel movies. Even The Avengers, which is a superior movie practical terms, but one that is pleasurable exclusively on a surface level.
The thing about Age of Ultron is that despite his ambitions, Whedon is bogged down. The first cut he presented to Marvel was more than three hours long. He wanted to make something special, but intentions and reality have different logics. Whedon can’t say all that he wants to say once you take into account all the conventions of the genre. He can merely hint at it. Like an old movie made in the Studio System, Age of Ultron succeeds at being an entertaining movie and at hinting at deeper themes than you’d expect, even if it can’t afford to take the time necessary to actually explore them.
The good news is that this is enough for the movie to work. The bad news is that I’m afraid this might be the last time we’ll see something like this come out of Marvel. Whedon was reportedly exhausted by the making of this movie, and has decided to not come back for the next “Phase” of the MCU. His exit doesn’t bode well for the future of these movies. He couldn’t fight the Marvel behemoth this time around, and I don’t know if there is anything that could make me believe that anybody else can.
Grade: 7 out of 10