I like this movie a lot… but didn’t love it like its predecessor. I will say I have a lot more respect for Joss Whedon because his Avengers 2 feels like the equivalent of Jon Favreau’s Iron Man 2. It’s connecting a lot of pieces together and giving fans what they want, but as a consequence dilutes the story and characters.
This is a good movie, but it has a great deal of problems. It struggles to create a consistent tone, has no clear protagonist, features an insane antagonist, develops its core characters but to no resolution, and perpetuates a theme of division without consequence or payoff.
In the end, you get an exciting and expertly-made, but ultimately uneven, movie.
The Biggest Draw is the Biggest Problem
One of the biggest draws to the Avengers films is the fact that we have been following each character’s individual journeys… but now that the key players have each had 2 or more films, they’re becoming more developed and individualized. This makes it hard to incorporate the key players into a team-based film because they’re not a team, they’re a group of leaders. Each character is strong enough to carry their own film so inevitably (even in 241 minutes running time) the characters get diluted.
No doubt, this is part of the fun when screenwriting an Avengers film as each character is in a wildly different place in his/her life, but because those places are so different, it leads to a divisive film without a unified theme or tone. As a result, the theme becomes “division,” but the final act fails to make good on that promise. Instead, the final act — while awesome — feels contrived because they don’t suffer a loss from their breakup; they come together because it’s what the movie needs to do.
Where is the Protagonist?
Unquestionably, Tony Stark is the protagonist of The Avengers. Stark starts as the odd-man out, unqualified for the roster of super heroes due to his narcissism and selfishness. This is exemplified in an argument when Steve tells him:
“The only thing you really fight for is yourself. You’re not the guy to make the sacrifice play, to lay down on a wire and let the other guy crawl over you.”
So to give Stark an arc, he ends the film by making the hero’s sacrifice, taking the nuke to space on a (seemingly) one-way mission. Great! But 2012 was a different time for the MCU, when Iron Man was the chief success of the franchise. Now Cap and Thor have found their footing and have been developed further in their sequels; now it’s unclear who the biggest draw is, making it equally unclear who the protagonist of Age of Ultron is.
Characters who experience a significant change are Banner and the twins… but none of them qualify as protagonists. It’s partially due to a lack of screen time, but also due to their lack of their overall impact to the plot. Banner’s alter-ego doesn’t even quip this time time around, making Mark Ruffalo into a voice-grunter rather than voice-actor.
Meanwhile, Wanda (Scarlet Witch) could have had an arc. She could have been shown as the girl who presents visions for the future, but lacks a vision of her own. It’s only in the final battle does she see a future with the Avengers and that leads her forward… but alas, her brother does most of the talking and she rolls with the punches.
In the first film, so much time is dedicated to introducing us to the key players (Captain America, Hulk, Iron Man, Thor) and this gives each character a solo short story. For instance, Fury meets with Cap about acclimating to the 21st century; Banner discusses his wants and struggles with Widow; Thor and Loki trade discourse about leadership; Stark and Potts enjoy each others’ company. Each of these scenes are discrete, but they all built towards the same goal. All these elements build towards the final act and everyone gets resolution.
The problem in Age of Ultron is every character has distinct scenes… but they don’t coincide with the same goal. While that’s a huge theme and significant part of the plot, it makes for an uneven story. One of the most obvious examples of this contrast is when the Scarlet Witch gives Cap, Widow, and Thor visions.
Starting with Cap and Widow, their visions seem to parallel because they both see the past… but Cap’s is bittersweet whereas Widow’s is macabre — and almost turns this PG-13 film into a solid R. As a result, you can see how Whedon tried to connect more dots by having Cap’s vision have some soldiers with blood (or wine?) stained shirts, but on its own, Cap’s vision is a tear-jerking reunion, whereas Widow’s is the nightmarish fuel Silent Hill‘s are made of. To convolute matters further, Thor’s vision shows a party scene — to connect with Cap’s, no doubt — but then Thor kills everyone — to coincide with the horror of Widow’s.
I understand the idea, but the visions come across as such a hodgepodge of ideas that I lose sight of the meaning. Evidently, Thor did too as he runs off to have his vision explained for him and Cap doesn’t seem to do anything with his vision, it merely recycles information he (and we) already knew.
The only two characters whose visions provide actual insights are Widow’s and Stark’s. Noticeably, both Stark and Widow are driven to action by their respective visions — hell, Stark’s vision is what results in Ultron — but Widow’s gives us some much desired character background.
Due to Cap and Thor’s inconsequential visions, it feels like Whedon added theirs because it’s an Avengers film, you need everyone doing/experiencing something even if all we needed to see was Widow’s vision. Admittedly, it would disrupt the pacing had they just shown us a Widow flashback, but that’s all the more reason it feels like Whedon’s Favreau’s experience, he’s gotta please all parties and fit the Marvel mold.
Antagonists Can’t Be Bananas
One of the primary rules of improv — that not even professionals seem to follow — is ‘don’t be crazy.’ Crazy people can’t easily provide new information or add to a scene and Ultron fits that mold. He’s layered in curiosity, but because of this his lines run like a stream of consciousness, ambiguous and abstract. We learn more about Ultron from outsider opinions than we do from witnessing him first-hand.
Wanda tells us he doesn’t know the difference between destroying and saving the world. The Vision tells us he’s a scared child. Nick Fury tells us what Ultron’s goal is and where they can find him. But Ultron does very little outside of taunting.
In fairness, I like James Spader’s Ultron. I like the sarcastic quips, his child-like curiosity, and lack of understanding. I like that he cuts a guy’s arm off in anger and then apologizes when he realizes it won’t regenerate. He’s wickedly adorable. I even like his somber moment with Widow where he justifies keeping her alive because he has no one else.
But he never comes across as a threat.
Perhaps the childlike nature of Ultron was too convincing, but he does seem like a lost child rather than a villain. His rage, no different from tantrums. While that’s an interesting villain, it’s juxtaposed with this megalomanical goal of breaking the Avengers psychologically. He’s a child that doesn’t understand humans, but believes a psychological attack is the best way to go? Even Widow alludes that Ultron probably knows more about their team than they do… but Ultron never utilizes that information. Hell, if we’re building to the Civil War anyway, why wouldn’t Ultron tell Stark that Steve’s best friend Bucky assassinated his parents?
It seems out of place for Ultron to fight a mental battle despite the fact that he’s a super computer.
Having a crazy villain works for characters like the Joker because he’s a reflection of the superhero’s psyche; he points out the obvious craziness of dressing as a bat and fighting crime. And while Bruce Wayne and Tony Stark have some similarities — billionaire playboys by day and self-made vigilantes by night — the Iron Man suit serves function over fashion. Tony Stark isn’t crazy, he’s afraid. Plus, arguably the Joker is not insane, but super sane — but that’s another story…
The Highlights (with One Notable Exception)
One of the things I loved about Avengers: Age of Ultron was how it rectifies much of the problems in Avengers — much like The Dark Knight did for Batman Begins… sorry, Bats on the mind.
- For starters, Cap and Thor finally use that “shield smash” as an attack. When Cap first blocked Thor’s hammer in Avengers, the forest is leveled. It seemed like this would be used again in the final battle, but it was noticeably absent. In Avengers: Age of Ultron however, it’s one of the first attacks used — excellent!
- Speaking of the Captain, he actually does stuff, not just dangle from the Heli-Carrier. He even leads, ordering Clint to abandon Natasha for the sake of the mission.
- Thor is no longer the emotional throughline and isn’t the fish-out-of-water character. He’s at home among his team members and actually plays off his costars. He’s actually fun!
- Solving more of The Avengers issues, War Machine and Falcon make an appearance. Not Avengers, but it’s explained where they are and what they’re doing.
- ‘Saving people’ is the primary goal of the Avengers in this film. Somehow the people of New York safely evacuated in the first movie, but in Ultron it’s a hassle and the main objective.
- And of course, Hawkeye gets real ‘meta’ with the Scarlet Witch and plays a significant role while concurrently serving as the comic relief.
In addition to all this, there’s a lot of new material to enjoy.
The quips are great, both in-jokes and running gags (see Cap’s ‘language’). And even Whedon’s comedic “Lift Thor’s Hammer” exercise services the overall plot by providing visual clarity for whether the Vision is a good guy or bad guy.
Speaking of the Vision, it’s great to see Paul Bettany materialize into the MCU after 8 years behind-the-scenes.
The global aspect is also awe-inspiring and provides a good change of pace from New York being the epicenter of chaos.
However, my one notable exception that I legitimately could have done without is the Hulk vs Hulkbuster (Veronica) fight. This was disappointing because I wasn’t invested and didn’t care. I know I shoulder part of the blame for researching the movie in July 2014… but I was misled by Robert Downey Jr. as to how it would play out.
Before the trailer for this film was ever released, I was eagerly awaiting any and all information about the film I could get my hands on. The only thing that existed was the Age of Ultron subtitle and a concept art of the Hulk fighting the Hulkbuster armor.
In my anticipation, I found an interview with Robert Downey Jr. (see link above) who spoke openly about the fight:
“It can’t just be a good fight, it’s gotta be about something… And the great thing in ‘Age of Ultron’ is, that fight between [the Hulk and Tony Stark] is, nobody wins when two people who are friends fight.”
But it’s not friends fighting… Banner is mind-controlled. From RDJ’s interview, I thought this would be a blowout between two friends. I thought the fight was premeditated on Banner’s behalf, like he disagreed on how Stark was running the team. During the film, it’s clear that Banner distrusts Tony — the seeds of doubt were clear. But instead the plot stops so a fan-favorite fight can happen.
It’s this kind of fan service that irks me. Wouldn’t this type of fight better serve Civil War; could Whedon and fans simply not wait to make this fight happen? What really upsets me about it is it doesn’t impact the story at all. Stark doesn’t think any less of Banner and Banner continues thinking he’s a monster. There’s even a throwaway line about how Banner’s destruction doesn’t really mean anything, “There’s talk of Banner’s arrest, but nothing official,” in other words, this should matter but it doesn’t.
It feels like this fight was animated before they even began filming, and in a 241 minute movie, I would rather have that 10 minutes of my life back (or filled with dialogue) rather than watch the fight.
PS. Now they have two Russian, redhead women on the team… yay diversity!
Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
Written & Directed by Joss Whedon
For more reviews, visit Derek Hobson’s Article Archive