AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON Movie Review (So Many Spoilers)
It’s not easy making something that’s fun. You know this fact too well if you’ve ever planned a party or set up a Slip ‘N Slide or procreated a party clown. Although movies that are referred to as “mere entertainment” are looked down upon by those whose noses are turned up so high that they enter a room Adam’s Apple first, it is almost as difficult to make something that feels effortless and carefree as it is to craft that homeless amputee drama you’ve been writing.
The unstoppable juggernaut that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe aims for a characteristic breezy playfulness, and succeeds with very few exceptions. Too often this keeps people from seeing just how much heart and skill goes into each of these films. It is somehow widely believed that unless a film is as dour as a raspy Christian Bale then it cannot possibly be thoughtful, or deep, or interesting beyond its clever dialogue or face-punching. But the Marvel films have a tremendous sense of character. Even the worst ones always have well-defined characters and relationships. The first Thor film is saved from being a steaming pile of garbage by a truly great Chris Hemsworth performance, which elevates the film to a lukewarm pile of garbage. I would take Marvel’s ability to distinguish, develop, and interplay characters over any action blockbusters of this or any other time, and I would hardly hesitate before putting them up against any classic film in terms of pure, concentrated character. It is consistently a glorious sight to behold, particularly in the bigger ensemble pictures like Thor: The Dark World and either Avengers film.
Everything in these films comes back to character. Even when the special effects were a few shades away from passable and the plots of the films struggled to exist at all, we always had great characters to fall back on. Let us not forget that this franchise was founded on one actor’s (Robert Downey, Jr.) performance as one character. His dry wit and self-deprecation set the tone for the entire franchise. It all started with a comedy. (To call the first Iron Man an action film is being overly generous with the term, as there are perhaps two action sequences. Pineapple Express has more action bits than the first Iron Man, far more plot, and its villain isn’t Jeff “I Have Forgotten How to Talk” Bridges).
Almost every great joke or moment in Age of Ultron comes from character. Look at how these characters give each other crap. It’s exactly the way that a real Norse god would give his friend a hard time if he hung out with a war veteran and Jeremy Renner. Perhaps the film’s best running joke is the crew collectively giving Captain America crap for being really lame.
No proper amount of credit can ever be given to writer/director/Dutch boy with his finger in the dyke Joss Whedon, who makes this whole enterprise move as smoothly as it possibly could. This strangely sad journey is filled with wonderful beats and moments, and impeccable set-ups. The bit with Vision and Thor’s hammer is a jawdropper and is the kind of moment that can only come from bashing one’s head against one’s office wall for long enough for the genius to come out like so much cerebral maple syrup.
This is a smoother, more elegant ride than the first Avengers, which had some real fist-pumping moments but is a jumbled mess for its first half until all of the punching happens. This is the benefit of sequels. The Avengers know each other now. They understand each other. They do cool combos together. They’re probably friends. Some of them want to shack up in Stark Tower. The plot could be junk (it only kind of is) and this movie would still be a blast because it is just so much fun to watch these characters bounce off of each other, and grow with each other, and almost bone each other. Each character feels like part of a team, but also gets a moment in the sun. But enough generalities. Let’s break this whole thing down.
Collateral Damage and Captain America
Do you remember when Man of Steel came out two years ago? Do you remember how people really hated the devastation in that movie? That the movie about Superman, the swellest fella in all the land, ended with the death of what must be thousands of unnamed citizens, many at the hands (or torso flying so quickly it would hit you like eight cars tied together) of Superman himself? How city blocks were obliterated without anyone so much as talking about it? And then it was ridiculous how the film climaxed with Superman getting really broken up about not killing, like, three people when he easily killed one hundred people just minutes ago? And when everyone lost their minds during Guardians of the Galaxy when Rocket “Goddamn” Raccoon went out of his way to save more people than “Goddamnit” Superman? Well, I remember. I will likely never forget. Because it was tremendously stupid and careless and the Swellfella I know wouldn’t let that kind of thing happen and certainly wouldn’t punch a woman in an IHOP.
Much of Age of Ultron feels like a direct response to Swellman and his 9/11 imagery. The Avengers are absolutely obsessed with saving people. In the film’s climax, Captain America refuses to let even a single citizen perish on this flying smalltown. It is impractical, to be sure, but also means so much to see. Cap and Thor stop everything to rescue two people whose cars threaten to careen off the side of the makeshift island. To the Avengers, each of the lives they claim to protect is precious.
When the Avengers visit Wakanda (the home country of future Avenger Black Panther) and Iron Man must use everything he has to stop a mind-altered Hulk from wrecking the joint, it would be almost impossible not to notice just how much care he takes to preserve human life. He does everything he can to get Hulk out of the city, and when that fails and the only thing that could possibly put the big guy down is an entire building, Tony runs a quick scan of a building to make sure there are no people inside that could possibly be hurt when the entire thing comes tumbling down in a thrilling effect we can relish with even greater glee than usual, as we know there are no fathers of three who are about to get squished.
It is absolutely inspiring to watch these superheroes be actual heroes. I know it’s almost distractingly impractical by the final battle as each of the heroes and their new accented allies take great care to tend to every single human being they can find, but that’s what superheroes are for. If I was looking for realism I’d watch Planet Earth or go to a counselor to address my crippling Blackjack addiction. But I just slapped down the price of admission and an extra $5 to get a popcorn tin with Thor’s face on it. I want to watch heroes be heroes and see squishy humans get saved by big green men and eastern European witches and eat popcorn out of Thor’s face. And Age of Ultron delivers that incredibly.
And most of these great moments belong to Captain America. Steve Rogers was already the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s greatest achievement. Through a combination of casting, writing, and a great Phase Two solo film Cap has transformed from a character that I never really understood to one that I relish in every instance. His Man Out of Time schtick plays best in situations like the final battle. Cap is presented with a tough call: Sacrifice civilians to save the day, or risk letting Ultron succeed. Cap looks at these choices and selects neither. He says they can save everyone and defeat Ultron, because they are superheroes dammit and that’s just what real heroes do. There is no one more qualified to lead The Avengers.
Ultron: Live at the Chuckle Hut!
Who let this murderbot be funny? Who looked at this all-powerful tin man with the Isaac Asimov ‘kill humans to save humans’ mentality and said, “Yes, more dick jokes from this guy please!” The decision makes sense in the context of the movie. Created in the image Tony Stark, Ultron is blessed and cursed with his sense of humor and “whatever it takes” sense of justice. Because of this, our titular foe ends up being a bit of a mixed bag.
He certainly carries more personality than many of the recent Marvel foes. With their consistent (and correct) focus on developing their heroes, the films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe usually leave something to be desired. They live or die almost entirely on character design. They sort of slide back into “unbelievably evil,” and that has served them well. I would much rather watch a superhero movie with a great, developed protagonist than one with a more interesting villain but a bland lead. Heath Ledger’s Joker is legendary but is there any fictional character more boring than Batman? What does he do? What does he want? You probably don’t remember much about Malekeith or what he wanted, but you do remember the dimension-hopping finale to Thor: The Dark World and the relationship between Thor and Loki. Ronan the Accuser was sort of a vague blue dude that wanted a lot of people to die, but it didn’t matter because the Guardians of the Galaxy were such an interesting bunch that they could have held your attention in an minimalist drama (it is scientifically proven that audiences will watch a tree/raccoon buddy duo do anything).
Those expecting the Ultron of the trailer that holds a much greater resemblance to the generic evil of yesteryear will be sorely disappointed, and likely suffer a similar whiplash between expectation and delivery to the one I did. James Spader does a bang-up job as Ultron, but one wouldn’t be wrong in being put off balance by how evenly our villain is split between Blacklist James Spader and The Office James Spader.
But this film really isn’t about the robot, beyond the point of his name being the title of the movie. It’s about six or eight or nine great characters going up against a relentless force they can only stop if they band together and them growing along the way. Can you be disappointed by Ultron himself and still enjoy the Age? Absolutely. I was. A movie is not its antagonist, no matter what anyone tells you. Believe that in your heart, Timmy. Believe that in your heart.
Vision, The Seventh Inning Savior
Vision is such a strange duck. Only entering the picture in the last 45 minutes or so, Vision refuses to dominate the film’s back section (which is nice) but also doesn’t get enough to do for me to be able to make a true evaluation (which is less nice). Played by Paul Bettany in what appears to me to be some stunning practical make-up effects, Vision is a fusion of man and machine, a robot who can feel, who wears a cape in admiration of Thor, and bears an Infinity Stone on his forehead. I never thought these movies could potentially get this nerdy, but here we are, with what will likely be the biggest moneymaker of the year introducing us to a character that needs this sort of explanation. What a truly strange time to be alive.
Vision is a refraction of Ultron, who himself is a refraction of Tony Stark. He carries both of their refusals to quit, and a mixed sense of cynicism he inherited from his very troubled grandfather.
He’s a strange mix, as neither Vision nor Age of Ultron can really decide what his purpose is. His only real action (besides shutting down the last Ultron unit with his forehead) is to block Ultron from using the Internet, which I’m pretty sure my parents did to me once. Why not just call them?* He sort of feels shoved into the movie because comic book fans know you can’t have Ultron without Vision. He is there because he has to be.
*Age of Ultron’s tragic flaw is that is lacks a scene where a recently disconnected Ultron asks the twins to “Google that for me.”
But I certainly refuse to come down anti-Vision, because the few things that he does do are so very effective. The previously-mentioned Thor’s hammer bit is oh-so-inspired, and we need a few more heroes in this world with forehead-based superpowers. And now that he’s joining the Avengers proper for the foreseeable future, I’m sure we’ll have plenty of time to grow with this wonderful, confusing red robot for years to come.
Iron Man Makes a Lot of Rash Decisions
The man responsible for both of these nifty robots is our own Tony Stark, as dryly witty and single-minded as we have ever known him. Ever since the events of the first film, when Tony saw the wreckage that his Stark technology hath wrought firsthand, he has been uniquely inventive in trying to remove the human element from combat as much as possible. But he consistently chooses to do it without supervision. In Iron Man 3, he developed suits that could operate without Tony being in them at all (you may remember these robots as being really damn cool). This occurs after Iron Man 2, where Tony is brought before the government to have his motivations questioned and his prototypes demanded. Tony trusts neither government nor man.
When Tony and science bro Bruce Banner fast track the Ultron project (something they have been scheming for quite some time, apparently), it is with the end goal of “peace in our time.” He wants to save the world and instead makes a murderbot with experimental German tech. Classic Tony Stark.
The events of The Avengers hang heavy over Tony like a spectral Chitauri whale. With his personal arc (and self-titled film series) wrapped up, Tony is forced to see an uncomfortable big picture, one where the Earth might again be attacked by little green men streaming out of a wormhole in the sky. His arc for as long as we’ve known him is learning to take accountability. He has lashed out against and attacked those who would use Stark tech for evil, stopped the manufacture of said dangerous doowoppers, and put away the playboy lifestyle to settle down with Mrs. Coldplay. By the end of The Avengers, our favorite billionaire (sans perhaps the cartoon duck known for swimming in his riches) is flying a nuke into a wormhole with no knowledge that he will ever come back.* It is a fully realized character arc akin to Sawyer on Lost, and it continues right on into Age of Ultron. Tony is particularly adamant that they stop the murderbot’s murderbotting, and though he often tries to dodge some of the sharper jabs from his teammates, we know he feels the weight of his mistake.
*An action that will likely never be mimicked by Scrooge McDuck.
It just doesn’t really… go anywhere. After Ultron is destroyed and his evil plan put down (mostly, anyhow. Many bicycles perished in his doomsday plot), Tony gets off rather scathe free. At least as of the end of this movie, Tony is allowed to drive off into the sunset in a Very Cool Car and amends seems to have been made between himself and his colorful friends. Perhaps there will be some fallout for Tony going forward as, lest we forget, he did beget a wisecracking murderbot hellbent on turning an Eastern European town into a meteor. That is exactly the kind of cool/ridiculous thing that catches the attention of the people that put folks in the adult world equivalent of a time out.
The Mixed Blessing of Marvel (And Thor)
Now this is a mixed blessing with a hell of a lot of blessing and only some occasional and forgivable poopy bits. If Age of Ultron was a Frappuccino, it would be a very delicious, properly made one that holds only the faint sense that someone sneezed near it. There are just so many elements that go into these movies, so many demands and contracts and Downeys Junior, that it seems almost impossible to not have a little sneeze on it, and it is probably a miracle that it wasn’t scooped up off the floor and served to you in a shoe.
Sometimes things feel like they’re in the film just to be in the film. Nick Fury truly adds nothing to the proceedings, but he shows up on Hawkeye’s farm nonetheless to be all Samuel L. Jackson and to ensure that this film has at least 20% more Samuel L. Jackson than it did before. In Guardians of the Galaxy, we get a nice explanation of the Infinity Stones for those among us who don’t care quite enough to Google it. And because somebody has to tell The Avengers about the things that a talking raccoon learned from Benicio del Toro in the last film, Thor sort of just departs for a while to hang out with his scientist friend and take a nice bath. Sometimes there’s nothing like a hot tub of water to relax the muscles, help you unwind, and tell you what’s going to try and kill you a couple movies from now. It’s a bit dull and obviously shoved in for its exact, onscreen purpose, but it’s just short and direct enough to be pretty inoffensive and to not take away from all of the other cool things going on in this film.
There’s also a sort of general lack of resolution to everything that isn’t the Hulk/Black Widow storyline. War Machine is there for the initial Ultron attack, and then sort of stops helping out for a while. Once Ultron goes down, the film wraps up almost immediately, leaving elements like Tony Stark’s Ultron-related guilt and the death of Quicksilver with hardly a moment to breathe before the movie’s over, the credits roll, and everyone’s kind of bummed there’s no little tidbit of Captain Marvel flying a plane over Doctor Strange’s house or whatever.
Thor is honestly the biggest victim of this film. Long the most underrated Avenger (Chris Hemsworth has been great since Day One and Dark World was a damn fun time at the movies), Thor is the only Avenger without a real arc. There’s only so much you can blame the movie for this. There are nine other characters in this movie with complete character arcs. I think shoving a tenth in there would make the film too dense to survive and it would collapse in upon itself like a black hole. Thor’s storyline and strange disappearance to a bathtub to see the future feels so strange and out-of-place, and it holds the terrible stink of a plotline that was completely cut out in the name of efficiency. It leaves old Odinson out to dry a little bit but, dammit, there’s only so much one movie can have in it. I would totally buy an Extended Edition DVD, though, if you’re paying attention to this, Marvel.
Marvel is no stranger to heavy topics. Iron Man deals with alcoholism, arms dealing, and how the legacies we leave behind aren’t always the ones we’d like to see. Captain America: The Winter Soldier is as much about veterans affairs and government corruption as anything else. But even still, the backstory of Wanda and Pietro Maximoff seems particularly bleak. Tied into Tony Stark’s redemption arc from the original Iron Man, the Twins had their family taken from them by some of Stark Industries’ more regrettable tech, and sat buried in rubble for days, inches away from a bomb that could easily end their life.
On a reckless, teenage quest for revenge, they ally themselves with one questionable Father Figure after another. First, it’s Strucker and his bizarre experiments using Loki’s staff, during which their sheer, white hot, teenage hatred of Tony Stark keeps them alive. I wish I hated anything as much as these two hate Tony Stark’s stupid face. The only people I come anywhere close to hating that much are Peeta Mellark and Jon Snow, and I just don’t think I’m anywhere close to hating them enough to gain superpowers from it.
Like many, I was concerned about the additions of the Duo Maximoff into Age of Ultron. The film already seemed packed enough and the addition of not only two more characters but two new characters was certainly a cause for the “but can they develop them amidst all the bangbang pew pew?” kind of concern. And after both Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron Taylor-Johnson thoroughly underwhelmed in last year’s Godzilla, one would not be amiss to wonder if these two would be liquid turds on the screen. The response to these concerns is “Yes” to the development and “Ew, Kevin, no” to turd concern.
Elizabeth Olsen’s Wanda Maximoff (or Scarlet Witch, as she can’t legally be called) comes off particularly rosey. She’s the more psychological twin, playing largely silent through much of the film, imbued with both ‘splodey magic and the power to make the Avengers sad. Though her turnaround on Ultron is a bit too sudden (again, almost every moment in this film feels at least a little rushed), she shares a solid quarter of Age of Ultron’s tremendous, beating heart. If this film has one true fist-pumping moment, it’s Hawkeye’s speech to Wanda about what it means to be an Avenger. And she receives that note well. Heroism isn’t as easy for everyone as it seems to be for Captain America or Thor. For some, particularly the broken among our ranks, being a hero takes a lot more doing. But by the film’s end, Wanda accepts her new mantle head-on, joining the very new, very experimental Avengers. Wanda’s future in the MCU is bright and interesting. Not only does she bring some much-needed XX chromosome combos to this near sausage fest, but she appears to be a compelling character to boot. I look forward to watching the path she takes going forward.
Pietro is a bit more of a mixed bag, if only because of his attached bad accent and silly hair. I mean, he’s fine. ATJ does a very fine job with the monologue he delivers to Ultron about why the twins do what they do, but he doesn’t get a standout moment for himself until he ends up dying saving Hawkeye and a young boy. It’s an affecting death (the theatre went silent when it happened) because we like this guy and he seems to be a lot of fun despite all that’s happened to him, but it’s brushed away too quickly. He is basically dismissed when his heart stops beating after all those bullets pass through it. (“Catchphrase,” he wheezes before dying). But his legacy will live on through the quiet rage of his sister. There are worse ways to go.
In a move one would never have guessed would come out of the fingertips of someone reviewing an Avengers film, it seems that Hawkeye was the best part of an Avengers film. Hawkeye. The guy whose only defining moments so far have been being mind-controlled and looking really good falling off a building has stolen an Avengers film right out from underneath a God, Captain America, and a bunch of other sexy people.
Those like myself who have been waiting for the terse bowman to finally receive some much-needed advancement/characterization/anything at all will likely be very pleased with these offerings. After being introduced in Thor just to be introduced in Thor, enslaved to Loki in The Avengers to give him something to do in The Avengers, and being completely absent since then, Hawkeye gets to be the emotional center of Marvel’s biggest film to date.
I love everything about Hawkeye’s farm. I love that it’s the culmination of a running joke. I love the shots of The Avengers approaching the farm, these mythical beings juxtaposed against Norman Rockwellian Americana (if this wasn’t a blockbuster studio film people would be praising in the streets about this sequence). And I love most of all that it happened to Hawkeye. Jeremy Renner has always played Clint Barton with an air of blue collar skepticism so not only is this reveal surprising, but it makes perfect sense. It also goes a long way to justifying why Hawkeye just simply isn’t around all the time. He doesn’t stay to train the New Avengers because he has to take the kids to soccer practice. He doesn’t go underground with Nat and Cap to take down Alexander Pierce because it’s date night with the wife. He doesn’t see the world in the same way that his fellow Avengers do. His teammates strike out against the world with reckless abandon, but Hawkeye has a family to think about and a floor to remodel. Having children basically makes you a different species. Your priorities and worldview change completely. Think about all of the parents you know and how many of them have made the transition from liberal radicals to fuddy duddy conservatives. He is different than his teammates. And he gives them soul.
Hawkeye gets so many of the film’s best moments, and almost all of them come from his weary, straight man worldview clashing with the ever-expanding world around him. I have already mentioned the “You’re an Avenger” speech moment with Wanda, but there is hardly a moment in the film I love more than Hawkeye collapsing on the shuttle off of the floating Slokovia. “It’s been a long day,” he says before falling asleep and leaving the rest of the fighting to his teammates with bigger hero complexes and more to prove. It’s a remarkably human moment in a movie with a floating goddamn country in it. Mad props, Joss Whedon. Mad props.
Natasha and Hulky, sittin’ in a tree
Natasha Romanov has become the most controversial figure of the Avengers. There is no shortage of think pieces concerning whether or not her romance with the Hulk is the worst, most misogynistic thing to ever happen in a film. Personally, I land on the total other side of the spectrum. I think the love story between Bruce and Natasha is beautiful, leading up to the truly heartbreaking moment when Hulk turns off communications in the quinjet and drops peacefully off of the grid. The ultimate takes on the plot can be found here and here.
I found the romance to be one of the great, unexpected finds in a movie as rigidly predetermined as this one. It takes the two biggest outsiders of the group (one because of her past, the other because of his potential future) and bonds them together. They share a mutual desire to escape. The things they have done have left scars on their hearts it will be nearly impossible to heal, even in each other’s arms. In another life, they could have escaped together. But as often happens in life, other circumstances intervene. Sometimes in life you make plans and an Eastern European witch comes along to ruin them and persuade you to attack an African metropolis. Such is the way of things.
I hear criticisms of this plot. I understand them. But I think they’re missing a couple things. In spite of all of her flirting and tight leather outfits, this is Natasha’s first real romantic pairing. Her seductive appearance in Iron Man 2 is a partially-baked attempt to spy on Tony Stark (in a very bad movie that makes very bad choices, it should be said). To my recollection, she only has one scene with Hawkeye in The Avengers, and there is nothing in it that can’t be interpreted as pure, concentrated best friendship. Sure, there’s some flirting in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, but that’s just the sort of thing that happens in those sorts of movies when the leads are attractive enough. Bruce Banner is her first real love interest. And it’s a sweet and touching love story to boot.
The main scene of contention seems to be the “I can’t have babies scene.” It’s a great scene that falls victim to the culture around it. There aren’t enough female characters undefined by their gender or mating potential, so even a great scene like this one becomes the subject of ridicule because of the lack of proper roles for women on a culture-wide basis. It’s an incredibly important fact to note that Banner starts it. When Natasha’s all, “I want to make out with you and stuff let’s go steady,” he goes, “I can’t have kids and I bet you want that” (which is kind of a douche move there, Bruce). It’s only then that Natasha goes, “Well, I can’t either, brah, so maybe let’s give this a shot?” She’s not defined by her reproductive system. There is just as much time in the movie spent talking about her fertility as there is his. Yes, the gender representation in the MCU sucks right now, and it double-sucks that the womb of the most significant female character has any bearing on her identity at all, but let’s just think about how good this is. How much this works. The two most lost souls of The Avengers found in each other a respite from their lives that gave them some sense of peace and stability, at least for a short time. It’s the kind of thing that great romances are made of.
That part where Black Widow gets kidnapped and needs to be saved, though? Yeah, that part sucks.
So, What’s Next?
An excellent question, Kevin.
Well, we know where the larger universe is headed because Marvel has laid out its next slate of films up through 2019. Black Panther, Captain Marvel, and the Inhumans are on their way in, and the credits stinger marking his third appearance should be enough of an indication that all roads lead to Thanos.
But what will always be more interesting than guessing what exactly “Ragnarok” means is wondering where the characters are headed. It looks like the Avengers as we know them may be no more. The Hulk has vanished. Tony Stark is off on his own again to deal with everything that has happened. Thor is back to Asgard to contend with the meaning of his visions, whatever they might be.
But, even without these people, the Avengers Initiative continues on. Cap and Natasha will continue to train the New Batch into in the new and impressive Avengers training grounds (fully staffed with characters you thought were either dead or forgotten). And while this isn’t the most important thing, check out the diversity on that new Avengers squad. If these numbers hold true, there is only one white dude on the whole team. There are two ladies! And a pair of black guys! And a robotman (who is admittedly played by a white guy but WHATEVER)! It is now up to them to rebuild and defend. And who knows how long they’ll be able to keep that up. The next film we’ll see most of these characters in has “Civil War” in the title.
The story is a mess and Ultron is a mixed bag, but the same great characters get deepened and are just as fun as they have ever been.
Final Grade: B+/A-
Disagree with this novel that I have written? Leave your own comments below. You can check out Kevin’s Game of Thrones reviews here, his podcast Talking Back to the Movies here, and follow him on Twitter here.