Some Assembly Required
Third time seems to be the charm. That’s how many times I’ve seen Avengers: Age of Ultron (third time being in 3D). That’s also how many times it took me to really look past initial reactions to the movie from myself as well as outside sources. I wrote most of this after seeing it just the once, and the majority of it has remained the same, but I’m glad I held onto discussing AoU, especially in the wake of “controversies” surrounding some stories and characters.
Reviewing Avengers: Age of Ultron is the most useless thing any human being could do. Even without the onslaught of marketing and tie-ins, and fanboys bitching about all the marketing and tie-ins, as if anyone who has seen any other Marvel Studios movie wasn’t going to see this. And I’m fairly certain the peer pressure from those people will get others to see it as well. The box-office business overseas and here at home has been staggering, and there is no question this movie will surpass its predecessor’s success financially (eventually). Prior to release, Fandango reported 95% of movie tickets sold for the first weekend in May were for AoU, and the sequel presold 4 times the amount of the first film.
Critically, AoU hasn’t been as impervious as the first meeting of some of our favorite heroes three years ago. “Phase Two” of the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been met with the same mixed reviews. I don’t share this outlook, but many consider Iron Man 3 and Thor 2 to be fairly forgettable wastes. On the other end of the spectrum we had Captain America 2 and Guardians of the Galaxy, both of which proved how great these movies can be in diversity of character and quality. A year of movies like that would be a tough act for anyone to follow, even Earth’s Mightiest Heroes.
By most accounts, AoU can be summed up in the same way- the reviews have basically been “it’s not all that, but I still loved the hell out of it.”
So what did I think? As if you cared, but…the reviews thus far have been largely correct. From the most glowing praise right down to the nitpicky bellyaching. It’s all going to depend on what you latch onto in this movie. For me, I thankfully found a middle ground, and on seeing it a couple more times grew to appreciate some aspects more and critique things less. AoU is like an album from a favorite band that gets better the more you listen. I’d hate to actually dislike any of the Marvel Studios films. It’s not a matter of IF I like them, it’s to what degree. At this point the best way for me to gauge these films is by how many times I think I could view them again.
It starts out with the Avengers fully assembled and raiding a Hydra (former Hydra?) base to reclaim Loki’s scepter from the first movie. With the exposition of who these characters are and how they come together out of the way, jumping right into the thick of things is welcome as opposed to jarring. Not long after the scepter is captured, and many a plot thread is discovered/begun, we are swiftly whisked to a point in the Marvel timeline in which the scepter can be used to possibly complete a protection initiative known as Ultron. Ultron comes to life, Pinocchio metaphor and destruction ensues.
That’s the basic premise. All else would honestly be telling you the story, and that’s what the movie is here to do, not me.
If you go into this movie knowing what to expect, you should be thoroughly engaged and entertained. The following is what I originally wrote next after seeing the movie once:
**What is foremost to remember is that nothing is given time to breath. Except for a party scene, and a portion of the movie down on a farm, the main characters are in the thick of the fight, and most dialogue is a Whedonesque aside or something to tell them and the audience to where the fighting needs to move. As I mentioned, not long after the scepter is recovered, we have Ultron. Even though we know Tony Stark, his views, and his PTSD desire to keep the world safe, we could have used more. And so goes much of the movie. The jump from one necessary point to another leaves us wondering if there is logic in the transition despite what we know from previous films.**
This hasn’t really changed a whole lot, but it simply doesn’t bother me, or seem as severe, as it did before. I was being hard on poor AoU, though some things still just feel too rushed. There is no chance that could be any different, however. The amount of material that is being tackled in Age of Ultron is too vast, and the powers-that-be most assuredly want it that way. AoU is essentially Iron Man 2, serving more as prequel to future events and establishing players, plot, and situations to be carried over to what is hopefully more satisfying fare. On the other hand, looking at what’s going on, the pure density of the project with plot and characters, it’s amazing it works as well as it does.
The success of the narrative lies with the person who will also unfortunately be blamed for any shortcomings. Nerd savior Joss Whedon once again wrote and directed the team-up flick, and I can say despite what flaws he brings to the table, not all of the problems are a result of his efforts, and the whole thing doesn’t turn into a giant mess because of what he’s done with it. Not to say he is totally without blame, because you can definitely tell which characters he wanted to lift up and which parts of the story he wanted to explore more than others (we get it, Joss, Hawkeye gives you a big boner and you feel sorry for shafting Jeremy Renner in the first movie- **note, a lot of emphasis on this character has been purported to be as a red herring for a certain plot point, but it’s still lathered on pretty thick).
The first Avengers was a perfect marriage of Whedon and Marvel. This one too often feels like Whedon trying to fit into a Marvel template, or a Marvel movie that at one time excels because of his signature style and then is hindered by it. It’s as though you know there were two lists on a bulletin board somewhere with two sets of bullet points. One was what Marvel needed to see in the movie (fans are clamoring for Hulk vs. Hulkbuster!), and one was what Joss wanted it to be. The final movie is a mishmash of the two that if they were separated could be much better than the product of their union.
It’s no secret that the MCU is building to a two-part Avengers: Infinity War, to which this feels like a tie-in comic. It’s never allowed to be its own movie like the first Avengers (though, to be fair, that film was also essentially a stepping stone to the future, it just did it better). Despite all that, it manages to be something you’ll not dislike, just like not as much. And for what it does accomplish it deserves great credit. Some might think the introduction of so many new characters would be part of the problem, but many of them (VISION!) are redeeming factors in the equation. Not surprising that 7 years and 11 movies in, we should be craving some new blood. As contracts wind down for the actors, I really do hope we continue to see new characters cycled in to take their place instead of extending the original players’ time. Nothing more comic book than a rotating team or teams.
There’s also a surprisingly affecting dramatic moment during the climax that I wasn’t expecting to be so easily felt (I knew about it prior to going in). But my reaction and the gasps of some audience members goes to show how well Whedon does write and stage some of this material.
I suppose I should also give James Spader his quick due, playing an Ultron that is probably not going to be what every fanboy wants, but it is the kind of Ultron this movie needs. Yes, Tony “creates” him I guess (though I do wonder exactly if his creation was made possible by the scepter or if he was unleashed from it). He’s a child wrecked by the obsessions of the man who programmed him, also inheriting the snarky wit of the genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist.
ONE. LAST. NOTE. Dear Marvel, stop ending your movies with large hordes battling one another or mid-air battles. Every movie is becoming this and it is starting to wear thin. Hopefully that’s not a sign of what is becoming of the overall creativity, because that would be a shame.
I lied…one more thing.
Quickly…to the controversy-mobile! A lot has been made of Black Widow and her story in this movie. She has a revealing moment about her back story that people have criticized for various reasons (protestors/complainers really need a unified front when they bitch about stuff, otherwise it’s just throwing shit to see what sticks). Put aside the fact that Marvel still struggles to promote these movies with females on merchandise (like EVERY major company), and focus on the movie. Part of the problem is that people expected to get into the “red ledger” part of Widow’s back story mentioned in the first Avengers. Instead, Joss gave them something more intimate and quite honestly probably much more harmful to her as a character. In a movie where taking life is “part of the job,” we have a character lamenting with ANOTHER character how she can’t create it.
It’s part of a very good conversation between Widow and Bruce Banner (a relationship I really enjoyed and thought was very well realized). She wants to be with him, he wants to be with her, but he’s trying to explain what he can’t give her. She tells him that’s not what she wants and she can’t have that anyway. It’s a very personal moment between the two of them, and a great performance by both actors. Yet, Joss Whedon is being lambasted. The guy who created BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER and more stronger, developed women characters than most of Hollywood combined is being targeted for his treatment of a female character. Because it’s not what people expected. And because some people don’t understand words and think Widow’s line about being a monster is a result of her secret. Get a dictionary and a clue, folks. And, yeah, she gets captured and rescued. But let’s not forget she was captured recovering the cradle with the soon-to-be Vision in it, and the Avengers were alerted to her whereabouts because she’s a professional and used her skills to send a message.
As long as we’re talking equality, I’m very encouraged by the end of the film as well. Big spoiler here…..
As mentioned before, we get a few new recruits to the Avengers team. War Machine, Falcon, Scarlet Witch, and Vision comprise the base of the team headed by Cap and Widow. It’s a great place to be when inclusion and diversity have really become a sticking point for people. Obviously future movies are going to bring back everybody’s favorite metalhead and Asgardian, but we have two black guys and two women as part of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. One of the women is second in command only to Captain America.
I’m not saying it’s all roses and peach smelling anus, but this is a great thing when we have fanboys complaining about gender and race swapping when it comes to casting decisions and characters in general. Okay, bitch session over. Now..
Continuing my tradition of ranking the MCU, here’s the list reflecting Age of Ultron’s place in it. I’m going to say I haven’t revisited this list since Guardians came out last year, and having since rewatched all of Phase Two things are shuffled just a tad. For my money, Cap 2 is one of the greatest movies that could have come from these franchises. In keeping with that, it’s moved up. Here ya go, True Believers.
1. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
2. The Avengers
3. Guardians of the Galaxy
4. Iron Man
5. Captain America: The First Avenger
6. Avengers: Age of Ultron
7. Iron Man 3
8. Thor: The Dark World
9. The Incredible Hulk
11. Iron Man 2