Thoughts on ‘Avengers: Age of Ultron’

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Past entries:
Iron Man
The Incredible Hulk
Iron Man 2
Thor
Captain America: The First Avenger

The Avengers
Iron Man 3
Thor: The Dark World
Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Guardians of the Galaxy

Following on three more solo films and an almost unrelated side story, the Avengers return in Age of Ultron.

The film wastes no time in its opening sequence, with the Avengers already assembled and assaulting a Hydra fortress in the Eastern European nation of Sokovia, seeking to recover Loki’s staff from Baron Strucker, a high-ranking Hydra agent who has been using it to experiment with human enhancements. His only two successes are the Maximoff twins, Pietro and Wanda, who are, respectively, super-fast and possessed of powerful psychic abilities almost amounting to witchcraft. The assault is, unsurprisingly, a success, though not before Wanda is able to give him a vision of the Avengers being defeated by Thanos’s forces because of his own failures. This prompts him to use the staff to jumpstart his ‘Ultron’ project: a super-sophisticated AI program that can automate his suits and thus keep the planet permanently protected without the need for the Avengers.

Unfortunately, something goes wrong and Ultron emerges as an unstable, murderous lunatic who immediately sets out to destroy the Avengers and take over / destroy the world (enlisting the help of the twins) while the team tries to find a way to bring him down.

So, Age of Ultron is kind of a difficult film to discuss, since there is so much going on in it. The original Avengers was a very straightforward film: Loki wants to conquer the world, Avengers assemble to stop him. Age of Ultron leaps all over the place, quite literally; from Sokovia to New York to Africa to Korea to Oslo to the Midwest and back, all the while introducing and dropping character after character, moving from crisis to subplot to crisis. It’s all (or most of it) strung together by the Avengers trying to stop Ultron, though Ultron’s plan seems to change every other scene as well. Does he want to control mankind for its own good, like the robots at the end of Asimov’s I, Robot? Or does he just want to wipe out and replace mankind?

This is partly explained by the fact that Ultron is clearly insane, which is itself an interesting touch as far as it goes; unlike the standard emotionless, ultra-logical killer robot, Ultron is instead an erratic, highly emotional being, more like an arrogant teenager than a super-genius, and clearly taking a lot from his ‘father’ Tony Stark. This leads to some very amusing moments with him, as when he cuts off Klaue’s arm in a fit of rage, only to try to walk it back with an uncertain “I’m sure that’s gonna be okay,” as well as some rather striking emotional bits, as when he almost shyly tells a captive Black Widow that, “I don’t have anyone else [to talk to].” It also leads to him ranting about God and quoting the Bible at some points, which seems standard for a lot of bad guys these days, but in Ultron’s case seems to hint at a blasphemous belief that he can take the place of God (certainly at times he seems to be using ‘God’ to refer to himself). He even sets up his headquarters in an abandoned medieval church.

There is a lot that could be made of this: Ultron as a devil figure, rebelling against his creator and trying to set himself up as a deity; Ultron as the image of what attempts to perfect or systematize the world always lead to; Ultron as unfettered fear of mortality; Ultron as the embodiment of pacifism’s tendency to backfire horribly. You can get any of those out of the film, but I’m not sure any of them are really carried through into a coherent whole. It feels rather as though the writers had all of these ideas and ran with them without stopping to focus on any of them.

And a lot of the film is like that; too many underdeveloped ideas thrown together to end up with a satisfactory payoff for most of them. The Maximoff twins’ hatred of Stark is never given a satisfactory payoff, for instance; they never come to grips with the fact that they were blaming the wrong person for their pain (Tony didn’t fire the shell into their building, he only made it), or recognize that Stark is a better person now. Strucker’s experiments in enhancing humans only serve to give us the twins and are dropped once he’s out of the picture. The threat of Ultron taking over nuclear weapons and the existence of the ‘internet nexus’ in Oslo are only briefly touched on, as is the possibility of Banner being arrested for the Hulk’s Scarlet Witch-induced rampage in an African city.

The biggest out-of-nowhere bit, however, is the sudden onset romance between Banner and Natasha. There was nothing at all to hint at this in either the first Avengers or Winter Soldier (both those films, if anything, seemed to hint at the possibility of something between her and Cap), and here we open with them strongly in love and wrestling with it, to the point where Barton’s wife can tell what’s going on in five minutes. It isn’t that the romance doesn’t make sense (as the film points out, they’re both broken, hurt people who spend a lot of time hiding their true emotions, and Natasha is understandably drawn to Banner’s integrity and reluctance to fight “because he knows he’ll win”), it’s that they don’t have time to give it any real set up, so that we’re left more being told that they’re in love than actually seeing it happen. Though, on the other hand, it does build on the ‘beauty and the beast’ motif of the Hulk, which is further reinforced by having Natasha being the one who calms the Hulk down at the end of each mission (that they would develop a reliable means of shutting the Hulk down is a very smart touch).

So, the film is kind of all over the map and frankly tries to do way too much for its own good. A more streamlined story, one that gave Ultron a more clearly defined goal with fewer details and twists, would have benefited it immensely.

But most importantly, there needed to be a better origin for Vision. What they might have done was to have Vision be created as a weapon against the Avengers, and then develop a conscience and rebel against Ultron. It might have been tricky to fit into a single film, but it would have certainly been better than having Tony solve the problem he inadvertently created by, essentially, doing the exact same thing and getting a different result.

In summary, plot wise the film is kind of a mess. It jumps all over the place, throws out too many threads to wrap up, and fumbles some of the ones it tries.

All that said, I still really like it. The story is all over the map, but what goes on in it is entertaining as heck, with great action sequences like the Avengers versus Hydra in the opening (which starts with a spectacular ‘oner’ showing all the individual Avengers doing their thing) or Iron Man versus an out-of-control Hulk using the ‘Hulkbuster’ armor (called ‘Veronica’) or Cap’s one-on-one running battle with Ultron, which he knows he can’t possibly win but he gives a heck of a fight anyway, all culminating in the Avenger’s all-out battle with Ultron and his drones in Sokovia while the whole city is levitated into the air to be used as a planet-killing meteor, which is just a gloriously comic-book-style conceit.

This final battle climaxes in a glorious scene where the Avengers all assemble to defend the ruined church against Ultron’s armies, creating a striking image of superheroes defending sacred ground and seeking to purge it of the evil corrupting it (I don’t think the symbolism quite goes far enough – since they’re ultimately trying to keep Ultron away from his own weapon rather than defending the church as such, but it’s certainly a possible interpretation and a glorious image nonetheless).

And, of course, it’s all featuring the same great characters we’ve been getting to know for over ten film now, and they’re just as entertaining and interesting as ever. One of the best scenes of the film has them just sitting around a room chatting, which turns into a party game where they each try to life Thor’s hammer (Steve is the only one who budges it. I really think he ought, by all rights, to be able to lift it, but as a friend pointed out, it’s possible he’s faking so as not to embarrass Thor). As I said before, they really could do a whole film of just the Avengers hanging out together and it would still be hugely enjoyable.

We also get some more character development, particularly for the ones who haven’t had their own film in between. Banner’s dislike of using the Hulk and his tragic inability to ever have a normal life are re-emphasized, as is his sense of being hunted. When, in the end, the Hulk makes a particular choice, we understand why he’s doing it and feel the tragic logic of it.

Likewise we get to learn some more of Black Widow’s backstory, including glimpses of her nightmarish training (which included ballet lessons along with cold-blooded executions, perfectly highlighting her distinctive blend of femininity and violence). We also learn that she, like the other members of the program, was sterilized upon ‘graduation,’ ensuring she could never have a family or anything in her life more important than her mission. In other words, it was her handlers’ attempt to surgically strip her of her capacity for love and nurturing. It’s a disturbing touch; cool as Black Widow is, we’re made to see that she has literally been made to sacrifice part of her humanity to become what she now is, and though she is now on the side of the angels and has recovered her power to trust and love others, she can never truly have a ‘normal’ life (significantly, she’s the only one on the team who doesn’t even try to lift the hammer: she already knows the answer). She even calls herself a “monster” at one point, emphasizing how acutely aware she is of what’s been taken from her.

Naturally, given the world we live in, this development caused controversy in certain regions by people who found the idea of a sterilized woman calling herself a ‘monster’ to be offensive. But of course, the sterilization as such isn’t so much the point; it’s the logic behind it. She didn’t lose her power to conceive through illness or accident, but deliberately in an effort to make her a more efficient killer and to ensure she would never put anyone or anything before her mission. It is that, the stripping of her power to love and care for other people, symbolically embodied in her sterilization, that makes her a ‘monster’ in her own eyes. It’s all the more tragic as we are able to see from her behavior in this and the other films that she actually has the warmth and love to make a very good mother, and that it’s implied in her flashbacks that she tried to deliberately fail to avoid the procedure, but she was too talented for her trainers to allow that.

This is a striking and haunting detail, showing us just what a tragedy Natasha’s life really is, along with Bruce’s, and continuing her trend of being one of the most flat-out interesting characters in the franchise.

But this tragedy is balanced by the long-overdue development of Hawkeye, who, we discover, actually has a wife and two kids (with a third on the way), whom he keeps carefully off of everyone’s radar, but who give his life and mission a degree of purpose that the rest of the team generally lacks (while embodying what Tony wanted to be able to give them by creating Ultron). I absolutely love the scenes at chez Barton, whether it’s his wife’s awkwardly homely welcome (“I…know all your names”) or their warm spousal conversations where she expresses both her pride and her concern about his ‘Avenging.’ There’s a great detail where Hawkeye gets wounded in the opening battle, then has it patched by Dr. Cho’s new artificial skin technology, which she assures him “even your girlfriend won’t be able to tell the difference” (“I don’t have a girlfriend,” he answers, to which she comments “Well, I can’t fix that”). But when he talks about it to his wife, she tells him that she can indeed feel the difference.

This is a great bit not only because it demonstrates her love and concern for him, but also as a way of subtly showing the limits of technology; Dr. Cho’s process is technically perfect, but she can’t account for love. Rather like how Ultron himself can’t fully account for humanity (this would have been even more striking if the latter theme had been better followed through, but oh well).

They also poke fun at the popular idea of Hawkeye being comparatively useless. When he’s recovering from his wound, Natasha jokes, “pretending to need this guy really ties the team together.” Hawkeye himself later comments on how fighting an army of robots in a flying city with a bow and arrow makes no sense. But his wife points out that, with the rest of the team emotional powder kegs, they really do need the stable, responsible family man, the ordinary guy to keep them in check. Hawkeye also gets some awesome moments in his own right, such as being the only team member to avoid Wanda’s mind manipulation (commenting that he’s already done the mind-control thing). Generally speaking, he finally gets to have a substantial role, and it’s very cool to see.

Stark gets a bit more development as well, showcasing how terrified he is at the thought of the earth being destroyed and his friends dying because he didn’t do enough (“That’s my legacy” he laments at one point, following the character thread started way back in the first Iron Man). Which, of course, leads to his ill-judged attempt at a final solution for “peace in our time.” This makes perfect sense, given Tony’s character. He’s an engineer and inventor, and to his mind there must always be a final solution, a way to automate, to remove the possibility of human error. Except that, as with so many previous attempts at automating humanity, it simply doesn’t work that way.

Cap understands things better. “Every time someone tries to stop a war before it starts, people die,” he tells Stark. When he tries to talk Ultron down by saying “no one needs to break anything,” both Ultron and Tony come back with a variation on the “can’t make an omelet” line. In other words, Cap is of the view that it’s better to lose the right way than try to win at all costs, and that you can’t guarantee a good outcome, you can only try your best. Tony puts his faith in structure and systems, Cap on human virtue and trust.

These two perspectives, touched on in The Avengers and latent throughout the series, will continue to be with us and to inform the choices of our two protagonists all the way to the end.

Thor probably has the least to do of the returning Avengers, to the point where the film either disables him or sends him off on a side quest for a good part of the second act (which quest ultimately doesn’t amount to anything except inspiring him to go along with creating Vision, which wouldn’t have been necessary had that event been worked into the story better). The film also seems to forget that he’s more or less banished from Asgard and can’t just go back whenever he wants.

But then, it also pretty much just ignores the fact that Tony trashed all his suits and retired (not that the latter was really worth remembering, but it still feels jarring). It is as if the only film the writer thought worth keeping was Winter Soldier, as dealing with the fall-out of SHIELD’s collapse kickstarts this film’s plot (Falcon, unfortunately, only has a few short cameos, which is explained by him running down leads on the Winter Soldier, though I don’t see why he couldn’t have shown up with War Machine in the final battle). One touch I particularly liked was that the same brave technician who stood up to Rumlow in that film reappears working on the bridge of the Helicarrier. That’s the kind of thing that almost no one in the audience will really notice except for long time fans, but shows a great deal of commitment on the part of the filmmakers.

On the other hand, just where Fury had the Helicarrier stashed and how he’s able to get it out when he’s supposed to be ‘dead’ and SHIELD doesn’t exist anymore is never addressed, nor will it ever be in subsequent films. It’s implied he’s kept up a form of SHIELD in the background, but it’s never explained.

As for the new characters, Wanda and Pietro don’t get too much development: they have very good chemistry, and Wanda has a good moment where she breaks down in a panic during the final battle, realizing what her actions have brought (though Barton’s the one who shines here as the veteran soldier reassuring the young rookie, including giving her a way out if she wants it), but again they’re never quite allowed to come to terms with how misguided their actions were (in particular, Wanda never seriously shows regret or gets called to account for unleashing the Hulk on a city full of innocents). Pietro has a lot of fun as a cock-sure, immature speedster, while Wanda gets to be the more mature and level-headed one (even though, as he says, “I’m twelve minutes older than you!”). Their relationship with Ultron is kind of interesting, as he genuinely seems to care for them in his own way.

There’s also Vision, who benefits immensely from being partially constructed from Jarvis, a character we already know and like. His simple goodness and heroics are quite appealing, serving as the angelic counterpart to the diabolic Ultron, though he doesn’t get too much time to develop. His philosophical musings range from good (“A thing isn’t beautiful because it lasts”) to banal (“they think order and chaos are somehow opposites”), but I suppose we can’t expect too much better. He does at least get an iconic heroic moment where he rescues Wanda from the exploding city, Superman-style.

Meanwhile, we also get Andy Serkis in a scene-stealing cameo as Ulysses Klaue, the fearsome and eccentric African arms dealer, who is the one man who’s managed to steal Vibranium from Wakanda. He creates a strong first impression by putting the Maximoff twins in their place with sheer force of personality (“I’m afraid that I’m not that afraid”), then doing a deal with Ultron. We…will come back to him in a later entry.

The great snappy Avengers humor is back, for the most part, with things like the running “language!” gag (which also deftly re-establishes Tony and Steve’s characters), Tony’s disbelief at Barton’s family, Barton’s continual snark, Tony and Steve questioning the rules of Mjolnir (“if you put the hammer in an elevator..”), and Ultron’s…oddities (like when he reacts to the twins fleeing in horror from his scheme by shouting “Come on, guys!” like a petulant kid whose friends took a joke too seriously). On the other hand, the film sometimes sprinkles in humor at the wrong times, as when we get Ultron reacting to the Hulk with comical frustration right in the middle of mourning a character’s death. Doesn’t happen too often (not nearly as bad as Iron Man 3, for instance), but much more so than in the first film.

There’s also just a lot of really good lines: “How long before you trust me?” “It’s not you I don’t trust.” “I was asleep…or was I a dream?” “Make it right or the next missile I send you will come very much faster.” “Human life; not a growth market.” “I’m just an old man who cares very much about you.” “Keep your friends rich and your enemies rich and wait to see which is which,” and so on. We also get what is probably Stan Lee’s best cameo of the series to date, as an Omaha Beach veteran who dares to try Thor’s thousand-year-old Asgardian mead.

Most importantly, the unabashed heroism of the first film is still there in full force, from Cap mobilizing the twins into saving civilians from a runaway train to Tony taking such logical steps as temporarily immobilizing the Hulk while he gets his armor on and trying to fly him out of town, the film makes sure the Avengers are always trying to put the innocent first. At the end, when it looks like the only option is to blow up the flying city to save the world, Cap objects “I’m not leaving this rock as long as there’s a single civilian on it,” to which Black Widow answers, “I didn’t suggest we leave.” The waters are muddied a bit by the fact that, again, the situation is ultimately Tony’s fault, and to a lesser extent Bruce, Wanda, and Pietro’s, but even then the former two at least were trying to protect the world and prevent things like this from happening and spend the film trying to correct their mistake.

In summary, Age of Ultron is a big step down from its predecessor; it tries to tackle too much, fails to settle on what it wants to be about, and makes a number of key mistakes along the way. But that still leaves a lot of room for an extremely entertaining and thrilling superhero adventure full of iconic moments. The characters are still great, the dialogue and humor are mostly solid, and the action scenes are spectacular. It’s a potent blend of flaws and virtues that nevertheless ends up being well worth watching.

 

1 thought on “Thoughts on ‘Avengers: Age of Ultron’

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