Monday, May 11, 2015

Avengers: Age of Ultron (Joss Whedon, 2015)


The most glaring issue with the first Avengers (2012) was, of course, its failure to account for War Machine. As Loki and his Chitauri army descended upon New York, I very nearly stood up in the theater and asked aloud, “Where is War Machine? Why isn’t he helping out?” I’m sure many, if not all, of my fellow moviegoers were wondering the same in that moment. They didn’t even actually need to include War Machine in the action. But they needed to address why he wasn’t there, perhaps with a few simple lines explaining, oh, maybe how there was too much bureaucratic red tape to cut through before the Air Force could deploy War Machine. It was almost a fatal oversight that severely dampened my enjoyment of that movie, which I had been so anticipating for years.

Marvel and Joss Whedon must have realized how badly they screwed up with the first film, because the most applause-worthy moment in the sequel by far is War Machine’s triumphant entrance during the climactic battle. I very nearly stood up in the theater and yelled out, “It’s War Machine! He’s helping out!” I’m sure many, if not all, of my fellow moviegoers felt the same in that moment. In fact, although the overwhelming sense of elation left me rather senseless to everything else around me, I’m almost positive that the entire room was applauding. This was the moment we’d all been waiting for, not only for the three years since the first Avengers, but indeed for most of our lives.

(Hmm, I feel like I was trying to be facetious when I started writing that, but now I can’t tell if I actually mean it. Ahem. Let’s move on.)

Avengers: Age of Ultron may well be a messier, more deeply flawed film overall than its acclaimed predecessor, but I honestly feel it’s a much more satisfying Avengers movie. More nimble than the first Avengers, Age of Ultron zips along from spectacle to spectacle, avoiding the moments of drag that made the previous movie sometimes a chore to get through. Director Joss Whedon manages his players’ minutes more effectively this time around (except for Thor). Thus, although Age of Ultron features a greater number of superheroes, each one (except for Thor) actually gets more moments to show off than they did last time. And that was really the essence and appeal of the Avengers comic at its conception—the promise of a large number of superheroes uniting to show off in spectacular fashion.

Nowadays, both Marvel and DC like to structure the bulk of their superhero comics around all-encompassing and status quo-shattering crossover “events,” but, back in the day, a comic like The Avengers, which brought together a bunch of characters who were already individually stars of their own titles, was kind of a treat and a bonus—the superhero equivalent of a team sports all-star exhibition. If you wanted to follow the ongoing dramas of these characters, you would read their monthly solo titles. What The Avengers, originally published only every other month, offered was a cover-to-cover action story, where the heroes would be in costume from page one, no time to waste, as they scrambled to take down an indiscriminately menacing enemy of transcendent power.

For me, Age of Ultron manages to capture the experience of those classic Avengers comics, or, even more so, some of the older “event” crossovers, such as Secret Wars and The Infinity Gauntlet—fluffy but fun stories, which were little more than thinly plotted excuses to gather all of Marvel’s heroes together for one big brawl against an ultimate villain, after which the characters would disperse back to their separate arcs, as though the crossover never happened.

The reason this doesn’t work as well in the Marvel Cinematic Universe as it did in the comics is because even the solo pictures are already summer blockbusters, so it is less certain where the team-up movies are supposed to stand in the overall scheme. Is The Avengers to be a fluffy but fun diversion from the character-driven solo melodramas, or is it the culmination of all those individual stories? The first Avengers was positioned as the latter and felt grand for that reason. Age of Ultron definitely is not the culmination of anything, as it arguably doesn’t progress any of the characters’ individual arcs at all, and so, massive as it is, it comes off inconsequential, even compared to most of the solo pictures.

Still, that can be a blessing as much as a weakness, depending on your perspective. I think Age of Ultron can be more easily enjoyed as a standalone experience than any of the other Phase Two movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe so far (excepting Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), which is, right now, kind of still in its own self-contained corner of that universe). That might seem counterintuitive, considering Age of Ultron ties in threads from every other movie and even the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. TV show. But, honestly, the majority of its references are more akin to easter eggs (little things that might slightly enhance your viewing if you get them, but otherwise can be shrugged through with no great loss), and are entirely immaterial to the experience of the film. Age of Ultron is a direct sequel to the first Avengers, written and directed by the same man, Joss Whedon, with Loki’s scepter from that movie reappearing as a major plot device. Age of Ultron also advances my least favorite subplot of the relationship, begun in the previous film, between Black Widow and the Hulk. The only post-Avengers movie that it would help to have seen before Age of Ultron is Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014), which covers what happened to Nick Fury. The events of Iron Man 3 (2013) and Thor: The Dark World (2013) are pretty much ignored.

None of this is to deny what a giant mess Age of Ultron is. Never mind trying to deliver on other movies’ setups, Age of Ultron raises questions all its own that it is never prepared to answer.

Right off, when the Avengers are storming some Eastern European stronghold to retrieve Loki’s scepter from HYDRA, I wondered, why is this Iron Man’s problem to deal with? If I’m not mistaken, Tony Stark is still a civilian, so it’s not like anybody can order him to take on this mission. With S.H.I.E.L.D. gone, who is there to give orders anyway? Did Thor or Captain America just text their pal Iron Man, “Hey buddy, could use some backup on this one”? I guess I could believe that. It’s harder to buy that Bruce Banner would be at their service as the Hulk. And what about Hawkeye and Black Widow? Weren’t they just agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. working for Nick Fury? Is Tony Stark the one signing their paychecks now? (Stark does hire Maria Hill after Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and the idea of him directing his own version of S.H.I.E.L.D. could have nicely set up next year’s Civil War, but Age of Ultron doesn’t explore that in any depth.)

Later, when Iron Man has to take down the Hulk, even though it was the most awesome fight in the movie, I had to wonder, if Iron Man has a suit powerful enough to beat up the Hulk, why doesn't he just wear that suit all the time? (By the way, the notion that Iron Man could ever build a suit capable of coldcocking the Hulk is ludicrous. As awesome as that fight was, the resolution was disappointing.)

Those are minor details, I'll acknowledge. The less forgivable plot holes all revolve around the character of the Vision, who just shows up in the middle of the movie without any proper justification. What are his powers, and how are they to be explained? In what ways was this body supposed to be an improvement on the one Ultron already had? (When Ultron and Vision later do battle, Ultron clearly seems more powerful.) What's the deal with the yellow gem? Does it have a mind of its own, and is that now the Vision's mind? What became of J.A.R.V.I.S.? Is he just gone? Wasn’t he kind of essential to Iron Man’s operations?

Speaking of which, even though it obviously wasn’t the plan when he first signed on to do Iron Man (2008), how nice for Paul Bettany that he has been able to parlay his disembodied robot butler role into playing an actual Marvel superhero. That said, I preferred him as the robot butler.

His evil counterpart, Ultron, I think is a marginal step up from Loki, who was a likable villain, certainly, but not a credible threat to “Earth’s Mightiest Heroes.”

I loved the original Ultron story from the comics, and I found the character in his debut to be very effectively unsettling. Part of it was the way they built up deliberately to the reveal that Ultron was a machine; for most of the story, everybody, even his own minions, assumed it was a human mastermind underneath the hood he wore. In the 1960s, the idea of an artificial intelligence sophisticated enough to dominate human beings was probably only just becoming conceivable enough to be legitimately the stuff of nightmares. Also reflecting the exponential rate at which technology was advancing (perhaps beyond humankind's capacity to command it), the Ultron of the comics had already redesigned himself four times before revealing himself to the Avengers.

Almost none of that makes it into Age of Ultron, alas. I suppose, given that J.A.R.V.I.S. already exists in that world as a super-advanced AI, there wasn't all that much new to say about Ultron. At least he cuts an imposing figure (although I find his visage to be lacking some of that spark of menace of the original comics version—odd that even a robot character's face should be such a challenge to translate to live action).

The other new stars, Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch, core members of the Avengers for decades in the comics, make their way to the movies with some compromises, though not as many as might have been feared. Originally mutants in the comics, these two are unique in being equally associated with the worlds of both the Avengers and the X-Men. Readers and writers alike have always interpreted an allegorical dimension to the X-Men, so it’s not a great leap to recast these former mutants in a slightly more real-world context as orphaned children of an oppressed people in a fictional war-torn Eastern European country. In Age of Ultron, these new Avengers suffer, not so much because rights issues have robbed them of their origin story, but more so because, as with Black Widow and Hawkeye last time, they haven’t had their own films to develop them outside the mayhem of this mega-movie.

Technically, they never had their own solo titles in the comics either. Rather, The Avengers became a smaller, more character-driven comic, once Thor and Iron Man left the team and were replaced by characters who were never individually stars. The ending to Age of Ultron, where we see the new Avengers lineup, composed of Captain America leading a bunch of supporting players, might indicate that the movies too will settle down a bit with the heavy-hitters gone. But, of course, we need only look over Marvel’s future release schedule to see that they have no intention of going smaller, and they are surely bluffing with the suggestion that Thor and Iron Man might not be part of a third Avengers movie.

My biggest complaint with Age of Ultron has not to do with the new characters, but rather with some of the established heroes, specifically Captain America and Black Widow. It wasn't something I was wholly conscious of while watching the first Avengers, but, between Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Age of Ultron, it strikes me now that the Joss Whedon versions of these characters are a little off. Well, I suppose they are no less canonical, so I'll say instead that they feel like different people from who they are in the solo movies.

The Captain America of the solo films is moral but not moralizing, noble but not proud, firm but not an ideologue. The Captain America of Joss Whedon’s Avengers movies is didactic, and, in his seldom-if-ever-constructive debates with Iron Man, he too quickly devolves into shaming instead of leading.

The Black Widow of Winter Soldier (and, to a lesser extent, Iron Man 2) is an artful master of the game, always thinking five moves ahead, "comfortable with everything," and takes pleasure (if not pride) in being the best in the world at what she does. She has the measure of every man and super-man, while being herself impenetrable. In the Avengers movies, she is more exaggeratedly compartmentalized, "Black Widow" being more clearly a role she plays, rather than a facet of herself. She is effusive when off the clock, and her dialogue is more often subject-oriented, rather than object-focused.

If it's not clear, I prefer the versions of these characters that we saw in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, as I suppose I preferred that movie overall. Age of Ultron is a different experience, and one that I did enjoy, but I am ultimately glad that Joss Whedon's run on the Avengers movies is now ended.

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