Lots of column inches have been dedicated to Avengers: Age of Ultron. I wanted to leave a little bit of time before writing this to allow GeekDad readers time to watch the movie themselves. This little bit of time ended up being more extended than I expected, not least because I was trying to read and review Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves. It’s difficult to justify why you don’t like something, without deconstructing it, so for the avoidance of doubt,
****************** THERE ARE SPOILERS IN THIS REVIEW! ****************
I was very much looking forward to watching the film. I don’t manage to go to the cinema that often these days, but Age of Ultron was one movie I was sure I wanted to make. The pre-release buzz was good; everybody here at GeekDad was excited at the prospect. So I booked seats for opening weekend (here in the UK, a week earlier than the US release date), the lights dimmed, and I sat down preparing to be amazed.
Two hours later I emerged into the daylight, disgruntled and wishing I’d used my valuable kid-free pass on something else. On reflection, I think my problems with the film stem from the sheer size of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). I’ve fallen badly behind. This didn’t matter for the first Avengers film but now, despite comments to the contrary by Kevin Feige, it makes a big difference. I’ve not seen Iron Man 2 or 3, Thor 2, or Captain America: Winter Soldier. As a result, I spent a lot of the movie wondering what was going on.
I’m of two minds about this. On the one hand, I love the idea of a sprawling mass storyline spanning several strands. On the other hand, if you’ve failed to keep up, like me, it becomes a serious problem. Whilst watching, I was troubled by questions like “What is the staff doing there?” and “Why is Nick Fury living in a barn?” (I know he wasn’t living there, but he’d certainly fallen far since I last saw him.) It later turned out that almost nobody understood the most confounding scene, Thor taking a brief dip in the pool of pointless confusion. Age of Ultron makes little allowance for casual MCU visitors and I think some reiterating of back story could have been included, without spoiling things for those in know. Hollywood is not above spelling out the patently obvious, so I don’t see why they didn’t offer more help here.
Enjoyment of fantasy and superhero films requires a suspension of belief. The more deeply immersed you are in the experience, the more enjoyable you’ll find it. Little things that don’t quite make sense are forgiven. Because I was continually wondering what I’d missed, I never lost the sense I was sitting in the movie theater. This made it impossible to immerse myself in Age of Ultron’s world or the story it was telling. A consequence of trying to piece back story together myself was that I watched the film with an analytical eye. I was constantly thinking about what I was watching and, arguably, the key to enjoying an action movie is not to think about it.
Haven’t I seen this film before?
In the first Avengers movie, there’s an explosive opening scene. A villain arrives. The Avengers gather. The villain escapes. The Avengers track him down. There’s a faceless horde of aliens to fight. The Avengers pull together as a team. They defeat the villain.
In Age of Ultron, there’s an explosive opening scene, the Avengers gather in bar, a villain arrives. The villain escapes. The Avengers track him down. There’s a faceless horde of robots to fight. The Avengers pull together as a team. They defeat the villain.
This is slightly unfair. Reduce any film down to its core events and they all start to look the same, but as Cap ‘n’ Co. were wading through Ultron’s robot army, I couldn’t help shake the feeling I’d seen it all before; our heroes hacking down waves of most definitely non-human casualties and fatalities.
Who you gonna call?
Hulkbusters! If there’s one thing we like more than a traditional good-vs.-evil battle, it’s a little good-vs.-good dust up. The vaguely forbidden thrill of watching your two best mates slug it out over something. Superhero lore is fuelled with “Who would win in a fight, X or Y?” type questions. They’re mildly diverting but they’re also obvious and lazy ways of generating some action. Whilst Iron Man fighting the Hulk was undoubtedly visually arresting, I could practically feel my brains cells killing themselves in order to get away from the senselessness of it. Still, at least it provides some good merchandising opportunities.
“Every action scene you include should move the plot of your story forward. Don’t just include a fight to give your characters something to do.” – from How to Write Your Best Story Ever by Christopher Edge. A story-writing book. For nine-year-olds.
What most annoyed me about the Hulkbuster scene is that so much more could have been made of it. The Scarlet Witch’s mind-control power was chronically underplayed. In the case of Bruce Banner we don’t even see the vision he’s presented with. The action just cuts to him smashing stuff up. His catchphrase is “Hulk Smash!”–we know he can do that. How about showing us inside Banner’s mind? His internal plight, his suffering, his trying to do the right thing, only to fail. Or maybe even succeed – an unexpected and heroic outcome.
The visions we did see weren’t any better. We didn’t so much catch a glimpse of the innermost psyche of our heroes, but instead saw small reminders that there are other parts to the MCU franchise.
How do you solve a problem like Natasha?
Tony Stark can build robotic suits of armor that can assemble themselves from near-space. He can build amazing machines that can do pretty much anything. You think he’d help find Black Widow a catsuit with a zipper that stays shut in a fight.
The representation of women in superhero books and films is subject to a massive amount of criticism and analysis. Rightly so. In the past comic books have been a male-dominated genre, both on the page and those reading the page. The balance is gradually being redressed, and my biggest gripe about Age of Ultron is historical. There were two strong female heroes in this film. A doubling since the first. Yet whilst the boys side of the team include a god, two science geniuses, and an all American hero, what do the women get? A witch and an assassin. Two embodiments of negative connotation, against a background of golden male positivity. Even the new altruistic artificial super-intelligence turns out to be a dude.
The men in the film, by and large, created their own destinies. Even the Hulk was generated out of Banner being a genius. The female heroes were acted upon by outside agents in order to come into their heroic legacy. Black Widow through child cruelty and the Scarlet Witch from some not very well-explained force that feels all the more sinister as she’s from a fictional former Soviet state. (Fictional Eastern European states are a personal bugbear. It’s as though filmmakers feel they can avoid doing any research by throwing a few stereotypes together and adding in the faint whiff of communism. Again, it’s lazy storytellling.)
The most contentious revelation is Black Widow’s inability to have children. On the face of it I liked this scene. That she didn’t need the problem of child-bearing to distract her from her missions makes perfect sense. The growing relationship between Banner and Natasha is one of the finest things about the film, offering rare tender, human moments. The scene when Widow reveals her closest secret works well, but it left me feeling uncomfortable. There aren’t very many women in this movie, so why do horrible things to them? I’m not trying to suggest that being unable to bear children makes Widow somehow less of a woman, but it does remove one of the few things that only she can do. The ability to give birth is a power that, of all the Avengers, only she can have (not including the newly arrived Scarlet Witch). Whilst it might fit with her backstory, taking that away from her felt like a cheap shot to help us emote.
Please emote here.
Hawkeye. He seems like a bit of ladies’ man. Not the sort to get tied down. Well, how wrong were we? Totally unpredictably he owns a farm and has a family. Who’d have guessed? Ignoring whether this was a plausible twist or not, the execution felt false to me. Hawkeye didn’t look like a devoted father. He looked like a man caught on camera trying to pretend he was a family guy. There was little attempt to bring this plastic family to life. It was more, “Look, Hawkeye has a family. Now the stakes are raised. You know how important family is, so fill in the emotional responses yourself.” I get that it’s now much braver for Hawkeye to be an Avenger because he has a family, but only by drawing on my own experience, not from how it was portrayed on the screen. Hawkeye’s family felt about as real Ultron’s left ventricle.
A Very Modern Prometheus.
Age of Ultron is a retelling of Frankenstein. If we hadn’t worked this out already, Thor jumps on top of the Vision’s lifeless frame and blasts him full of lightning to make it so. But if Age of Ultron is Frankenstein, it’s been rewritten with a crayon. The central point of the novel is that humans should not play God. Written around the time of the harnessing of electricity, it’s a parable exploring the perils of scientific progress. The novel gains much of its strength from the fact that the monster is essentially good. He has a strong moral compass. Frankenstein, abhorred by the appearance of his creation, spurns it, denying that it has a shred of humanity.
What Age of Ultron offers up is an out-and-out villain. There’s no subtlety to Ultron whatsoever. Nominally, he realizes that humanity’s worst enemy is humanity itself, driving him to become a homicidal maniac. It’s a reasonable premise, but it lacks artifice. There is no moral ambiguity. Ultron has added two and two together and made Armageddon. Because he’s a robot and driven by cold logic (except he’s an organic AI – so he’s not really), it’s justifiable, but it’s not terribly interesting. There’s no sense that Stark is hunting down Ultron because he is ashamed of what he’s created. Ultron is unremittingly bad, all Stark has to do is mop up his mistake, learning nothing in the process.
The driving force behind Ultron’s self-appointed prime directive is interesting. The idea that military might cannot promote peace and harmony is one that has troubled the world since St Augustine promoted the theory of a “just war,” in the 5th century AD. Fighting is not the way to save humanity, yet that is the Avengers’ raison d’etre. I loved this idea, and hoped it might lead to some existential crisis hitherto unseen in the world of the comic book heroes (at least, unseen by me). This hope lasted all of two minutes.
What’s the best way to deal with an entity accusing you of being too violent? Apparently it’s to beat the living daylights out of it for the next two hours straight. Yes, I know it’s a action movie, we need some fighting, but at no point in the film did one of the Avengers look around them, take in the smoldering ruins of Sokovia, and think, “You know what, Ultron had a point.”
Worst of all, they did it twice.
I wouldn’t expect Tony Stark to learn from his mistakes. That’s sort of the point of Tony Stark. So having gone behind his team’s back and created a world threatening super-villain, it’s reasonable, that given a second chance, he’d have another go. Bruce Banner, on the other hand? This is a sensitive genius, who not only turned himself into the world’s most dangerous two-year-old, but is consumed by hatred of himself for doing so. His meddling also helped create Ultron. That he would be part of doing the same thing a second time rides roughshod over character believability. The other Avengers find out, start a bit of fight, but then in comes Thor with his hammer and puts an end to the debate, with his Mary Shelley-channeling lightning bolts.
Fortunately, the vision (in the hallucinatory sense of the word) that Thor had told him this would be fine and dandy. The Vision turns out to be pure of heart and spirit, despite having neither of those things. Phew! Now the Avengers can forget that Stark went behind their back twice, because the second time around it worked out all right. I’m sure the divisions are still there, there’s a film called Civil War coming after all, but once it turned out that the Vision was a goody, everybody forgot how cheesed off they were with Tony Stark. Now that the team has a benign super-intelligent being on it that can literally shoot goodness out of his forehead, the Avengers are surely righteous.
Closing the Circle
So the circle is complete. Tony Stark wanted a Just War and he was able to create an Angel to tell him it was OK. Now the Avengers can smash stuff up with impunity. Best of all they didn’t have to learn anything about themselves in the process. The greatest power of the Mind Stone? It allows the Avengers not to bother using theirs. Compare this with Big Hero 6, which, coincidentally, I saw the following weekend. This is a very similar movie. It too is a Marvel movie, with a condensed storyline almost identical to the ones I outlined above, but it’s a movie with a huge amount of heart. Mostly because the Tony Stark character, Hiro, actually learns something about himself and how the world works. In Age of Ultron the message seems to be: the end justifies the means, and I’m not sure that’s what being a hero is about.
In Age of Ultron, the Avengers create their own enemy, and almost destroy the world in the process. We’re meant to feel glad when they form a circle and show they have each other’s backs, but the lack of emotional depth in the film made it feel hollow. They win, but who cares? They don’t really seem to. The end of the film sees them swanning off to whatever else it is they do in the MCU. Incidental characters parade around, so that we know they’re going to be in the next film. The net position of the team at the end of the film is almost identical to what it was at the beginning. Nobody has really gone anywhere new. They are all exactly the same people as they were at the beginning of the film with the possible exception of Bruce and Natasha.
When I asked somebody who liked the film, why they thought Age of Ultron was good, they told me, that it “did what it set out to do.” When I asked what that was, other than to sell merchandise, they said “It told the second part of the Avengers team story, taking them from the original team members to the new set we see at the end. It brought Vision, Scarlet Witch, and (briefly) Quicksilver into the MCU. It tied into the MCU as a whole by setting up future films, in particular by revealing the Mind Infinity Stone.”
That is not a story. It goes a long way to explaining why the film had almost zero emotional resonance. There’s a reason why Shakespeare didn’t write a holding play to introduce new characters and set up some future storylines. At my most cynical, I would say Age of Ultron is little more than a vehicle to sell people stuff they don’t need and to perpetuate Marvel and Disney’s ability to do so ad infinitum. If I was being more charitable, I’d concede that it’s an occasionally enjoyable but mindless battle between some two-dimensional heroes and the robots they created.