During the heyday of “Buffy The Vampire Slayer,” I was an active advocate for studios to pick up on the wonder that was Joss Whedon.
Watching “Avengers: Age Of Ultron,” it feels like that is exactly what we were asking for when we asked for him to be in charge of our pop culture. And I mean that in both positive and negative ways.
Joss Whedon has a great ear for clever dialogue, and that can be a wee bit of a curse. There is something about the way he writes that can make it feel like he's afraid to fully engage in some of the bigger emotion. When you're doing 22 episodes of a television series, you can take one episode to shift the tone to something darker, more somber, and it feels appropriate. In a 140 minute film, you can only find moments to downshift, and when it's surrounded by non-stop wisecracks, it can feel glib or insincere. That's also true when you have this many characters you're trying to serve. Characters who have had several movies worth of set-up can afford to be given less screen time, sketching in new details quickly. With new characters, though, growth can seem artificial or forced. Whedon knows how to create a character arc, but juggling seven or eight of them in one movie would be a challenge for anyone to pull off with anything approaching grace.
Also, before we continue, a quick note about why I would publish this second look at something as gigantic as “Avengers: Age Of Ultron.” When I read critics who I know are smart and reasonable people dismiss a film like this outright, it reminds me of how I've seen mainstream media treat genre my entire life. People refuse to engage with movies, and then they call those movies poorly written or shallow or somehow lesser.
It makes no sense, and it is one of the ways I know who I can or can't take seriously. If you won't engage any text fully, then you're not doing your job. If I sit down to see “Holy Motors” or “Pather Pachali” or “Thor: The Dark World,” I approach every one of those films the same way, open to the experience and ready to engage the film on its terms. When something is as gigantic a cultural juggernaut as “Avengers: Age Of Ultron” is and there are critics who check out completely, I think it's even more important to make the case for what these movies do well.
“Is this a Code Green?”
— Bruce Banner
The storytelling in “Avengers: Age Of Ultron” is basically done in one of two modes. Either it's a set piece, or it's people standing around and discussing exposition. There is so much exposition in the film that they bring in characters who do nothing but help shovel through it. The moments in the film that work best are the ones where they manage to balance action, character, and story progress into one graceful whole.
There are two major set pieces that play back to back set in Africa. The first deals with Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), who runs a highly successful black market out of a landlocked shipping tanker. I really like Serkis when he's allowed to actually appear on-camera as a real human being, and he makes a great impression in his extended sequence here. He deals with the twins first, and he seems like he rolls with the whole idea of super powers pretty well. His introduction to Ultron goes less well, and when he loses his hand, it's a shockingly funny accident. It's interesting that the most violent reaction to anything in the film by Ultron is when he is compared to Tony Stark. Very clearly, this movie deals with each of these characters at war with themselves, and none more overtly than Stark. Ultron and Jarvis are the two parts of Stark given physical form, and it's in-character for Ultron to be offended by the mere suggestion that he is part of Stark in any way.
There's some pretty naked franchise seeding going on in this scene as well, with careful mention being made of the brand on Klaue's neck, the Wakandan word for “thief.” When we meet T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman) in “Captain America: Civil War,” I have no doubt he's going to be looking for the vibranium that Klaue surrenders to Ultron, and he's going to want answers about what happened to it. It's going to give him a really strong motivation during his introduction, and should make it interesting when Serkis shows up again.
The Twins hurt the Avengers here, and when people complain that Ultron's not a strong enough villain, they miss that he's not the only antagonist. At this point, Wanda is the one the Avengers should truly fear, since she seems to be able to pierce their defenses immediately and in a way that leaves them truly wounded. What I find interesting is how her attempts to hurt Steve Rogers only seem to clarify his place in the world for him. Yes, he missed his chance with Peggy (Hayley Atwell), and a “normal life” no longer seems to be an option for him, but if that's the worst thing Steve has rattling around inside of him, no wonder he's Captain Freaking America. I thought for sure his visions would have more to do with the way he failed Bucky, especially since I think that's going to play into “Civil War” in a very direct way.
The film's single greatest failure involves Thor, and it's a shame because Thor has one of the most interesting dangling story threads in the Marvel Universe right now. One of the things that is most clever about “Thor: The Dark World” is how Loki ends up on the throne of Asgard without anyone realizing he's done it, and that includes Thor. “We are all dead. You are a destroyer, Odinson.” The basic thrust of these scenes involving Heimdal (Idris Elba) is that Thor's done something to doom all of Asgard, something he cannot name, and there's a way to pay that off. There should be something eating at Thor, something he knows is not right that he can't name. Yes, Loki looks like Odin at this point, but Thor should feel there's something wrong after their interactions. It should be nagging at him, eventually leading him back to Asgard for “Thor: Ragnarok.” All of that is fumbled and lost in the actual execution of the Thor scenes, though, and I feel bad for Hemsworth. He is so perfectly cast that when he is given room to simply be Thor, he makes it effortlessly charming. His reaction in that moment where Captain America slightly moves Mjolnir is enormously subtle, but speaks volumes. I suspect that Hemsworth is a real actor who just happens to be wrapped in the body of a Norse god, and seeing him sidelined for this entire film, it becomes clear what a waste it is. It's fitting that this set piece ends when Hawkeye stops Wanda by hitting her in the forehead with an electrified arrow, preventing her from using her powers on him. “I've done the whole mind control thing,” he says, directly referencing his own fumbled character arc in the first film. “Not a fan.”
Wanda and Pietro limp away from the fight, just as dented by it as the Avengers are, but before they go, Wanda makes one last stop. Again… she's the one to fear here, not Ultron. “I want the big one,” she says, and she gets him. When we see the Hulk, he is on a tear, heading for the city, out of control. This is the second big set piece in Africa, and one of the biggest action sequences in the entire film. One of the biggest gripes I've heard about this film, and this scene in particular, is that people simply don't care if they're looking at computer pixels punching computer pixels. I guess I can't argue if someone simply hates digital effects as a whole, but I also don't really understand. Yes, these scenes were accomplished using character animation on live-action plates, but you're still looking at a scene involving characters. And what happens between these two characters here is fairly pivotal. Tony calls in Veronica, the fail-safe that we heard him mention earlier, and it's clear that this is an option designed by Tony and Bruce to put the Hulk down. It is the worst-case scenario. One of the small things I found interesting was how quick Tony is to pull the trigger. It's clear that he takes the threat of the Hulk seriously, and when you see what a blind rampage looks like, it's clear that he should take him seriously.
This is a key moment in Ultron's plan, but the way the film moves, you'd never know that this is something Ultron did with purpose. He wants to make the world afraid of The Avengers. He wants to tarnish them. But why? If he's already planning to create an Extinction Level Event, why worry about what the world thinks of the Avengers? It's almost like Whedon thinks in terms of season-sized arcs, and trying to do that all in the space of two and a half hours means you do everything at a gallop. You ride by so fast that none of it sticks. I can see the idea of an evolving plan, but in two hours, it evolves at light speed. One of the reasons all of these films end with people running around and fighting over some glowing doodad on a roof or in the sky that's going to do some vague something that will be bad is because studios worry about complex storytelling on a spectacle scale. They need international audiences to be able to watch these films and absorb them without worrying about the fine points of language. When you're telling a story that moves as fast as these stories are required to move, it works “best” when it's simple. “There's a bad thing. If you put it on a roof and turn it on, bad things happen. So the bad guys want to do that. And the good guys want to stop it. The end.”
“You don't think they need me.”
“I think they do. Which is scarier.”
— Clint and Laura Barton
One of the most interesting notes in Joss Whedon's “Don't Blame Me” promotional tour for “Avengers: Age Of Ultron” was the notion that Disney was dead set against the entire detour to the farmhouse. Laura Barton (Linda Cardellini) is Hawkeye's big secret, his wife who lives off the grid and under the radar. She doesn't even exist in his official SHIELD paperwork, which is why Ultron doesn't know about her, making their farmhouse one of the few places he wouldn't know to look for any of them.
The real purpose of this scene is to show what it is that they're fighting to preserve in the movie. When your characters are billionaires and rage monsters and super soldiers and gods, it helps to sometimes introduce a bit of normal-scale humanity. While I love the Matt Fraction version of Hawkeye in print, I'm fine with the idea that Whedon went in a very different direction. Laura Barton knows the value of having a human being on the team because she knows that it connects the Avengers to human frailty, something that is important when you're fighting for us. Clint is the only one who gets seriously hurt in the opening fight, after all, and it was the death of Coulson in the first film that gave the Avengers their real push into the fight.
It's also important here to show that Natasha may have regrets or sorrows in her life, but she's not the walking wounded. She has a healthy relationship with Clint's family, and she has a place in the world. She is not alone. She is not a monster because she can't have children, something that people have misread in her conversation with Banner. What begins as a sort of playful joke about joining him in the shower becomes a conversation about whether or not they've missed their opportunity to be together. She's pushed gently before this, but this is the moment where they lay it out, no more vague flirting. Banner doesn't believe he can ever be part of a relationship. Natasha, perhaps moved by being close to Barton's family, is ready to run, ready to go claim her piece of normal. Of course, her piece of normal would be with a guy who is afraid he will turn into an actual rampaging beast if he ever lets his heart rate race too high. Whedon's had plenty of experience writing this dynamic before with Buffy and Angel, so maybe that explains why he's able to quickly make it feel like this really does matter to both of them.
“What did you dream?” Banner asks her.
“That I was an Avenger. That I was anything more than the assassin they made me.”
“What are you doing?”
“Running with it.” She wants to at least try. She believes they might find some way to be happy. She knows it won't be like anyone else's normal, though.
Bruce says something very important during the conversation. “Where in the world am I not a threat?” That phrasing is important when discussing the end of the film, so keep that in mind. He is equally precise when he tells Natasha why they can't have the same things that Clint has. “Do the math. I physically can't.”
“Neither can I,” she tells him, and the way she explains what happened to her after her graduation ceremony is dispassionate. Straightforward. She thinks of herself as a monster not because she was sterilized, but because of what that did to her, stripping her of the chance that she would ever care about something enough to put it before the job. There is plenty about this scene that is up for interpretation, but I don't believe for a second that either the character or the filmmakers are saying that people who can't or don't have children are monsters. This is about whether Natasha has done enough harm in her time to ever be able to balance that with doing good. It's about whether or not Banner can ever control himself enough to live, or if he's going to spend the rest of his life afraid of himself. It's the same thing Stark is wrestling with during his conversation with Steve outside. The thing that really rattled the Avengers is that they are having to confront the idea that they really may not be a good thing for this world, and that can't be easy for any of us to face.
“We're mad scientists. We're monsters, buddy. And we've got to own it.”
— Tony Stark
Oddly, as the film accelerates towards its ending, I find myself less and less engaged by it. One of the things I noticed about my own reaction is that the third act of this film feels like a reaction of sorts to “Man Of Steel” and the way that film's third act numbed audiences and frustrated audiences who wanted to see Superman saving people. I maintain that the fight in that film is a far less controlled thing than that, more about Kal-El realizing his own abilities than serving as the protector of mankind that the character eventually becomes. My biggest problem here is that this swings so far in the other direction that it renders Ultron almost toothless. The Avengers spend much of the film's climax saving people, and while that is admirable, there comes a point where it feels like we're going to see them load every single extra onto a bus.
The most interesting element of the final stretch of the film, by far, is The Vision. His physical form is initially created to hold Ultron's final consciousness, but because the Avengers manage to steal The Cradle during the process, he becomes something very different. Banner's incredulous question to Stark is a fair one when he says, “Ultron can't tell the difference between destroying the world and saving it. Where do you think he learned it?” Stark seems to be determined to be the one to clean up his own mess, and that focus is what keeps him pushing. None of them seem to anticipate whatever The Vision is in the end, and he raises way more questions than Ultron ever does. While they refer to Ultron as an artificial intelligence, it's important that Wanda can't actually read Ultron's mind at all, while she is able to read The Vision. It suggests that Ultron never makes the leap that the Vision does from being a trick of programming into being something else, something real. It's not just because of the Infinity Gem that is embedded in the Vision's head, either. The Vision almost seems like an already existing consciousness that was just looking for a host. He arrives with such a complex personality that he is able to do something no other Avenger can, easily lifting Mjolnir at a key moment in the action. And again… watch Hemsworth in every single interaction he has with the Vision. He is delighted by him, and it's such a real and funny response that I have to give him special praise.
Both Ultron and The Vision are birthed in the same place, and they are both birthed by the same parents. It is worth looking at how different the two of them are considering how closely their origins are entwined. The Vision is Ultron's idealized version of himself, but with a radically different mind driving things. It's interesting that Ultron would want to be so very human in his final form considering how naked his contempt is for humanity. I would think that something that truly hates humanity would want to create a form for itself that left behind all the things that define and limit us. Instead, it looks like Ultron was trying to turn himself into something that is like the most perfect version of what Tony Stark began with his first Iron Man suit. It feels like it's more an echo of Tony's dream than it is something that organically began with Ultron. After all, look at the colors in the Vision. He's got a real strong streak of Tony Stark Crimson running through himself. He looks like a human Iron Man suit, sleeker and more beautiful than any of the suits could be. His first moments alive are marked with a lovely haiku of a voice-over. “I'm not Ultron. I'm not Jarvis. I am… I am.” The amount of thought that goes on between those two very different pronunciations of “I am” define what I like about the character. He is a dream, shared by a creator and a creation, that surpasses both of them.
It makes sense that even once all the fighting is done, things ultimately come down to The Vision and Ultron standing in a forest, quietly talking about the end of things. All of the physical violence that happens in that third act, all of the fighting and explosions and everything else, means nothing compared to what happens in that last hushed moment. Ultron tries to provoke The Vision, saying, “Stark asked for a savior, and settled on a slave,” but The Vision is unflustered, unconcerned because he knows exactly who and what he is. As Ultron accepts what is about to happen, he tells The Vision, “They're doomed.”
“Yes,” the Vision agrees, “but a thing isn't beautiful because it lasts.” Whedon might as well be talking about the Marvel Cinematic Universe itself, because he knows that this narrative juggling act can't continue forever. At some point, there has to be some sense of conclusion for this story, and that's part of what defines a story. The ending is part of the thing, and there will be an ending at some point.
But this film is not allowed to be a conclusion, and that's one of the things that I found dissatisfying about it. That sense of serving other ongoing stories can be a good thing, but it can also make this feel like a feature-length trailer instead of a story that works on its own terms. While I think there are many moments in the film where Whedon gets Hulk and Banner completely right, right in a way that only he has managed so far out of all the films the character's been in, I think there's a weird narrative gooch that takes place here, all in service of a surprise later on. Remember Banner's line earlier in the film? “Where in the world am I not a threat?” After the incident in Africa, the answer appears to be “Nowhere.” The last time we see Hulk in the movie, he's sitting at the controls of a Quinjet, and he looks up, through the canopy, at whatever lies beyond the horizon.
In the early drafts of the film's script, it was made very clear that Hulk was trapped on a Quinjet that had been programmed to leave the atmosphere. He had a goodbye moment with Natasha, and their final contact here feels like a goodbye. Hulk is tired of worrying about what he is capable of doing, and he can't live his life that way any longer. People have read the end of the film as saying that Hulk definitely landed his Quinjet, but I think the opposite is true. The reason the Quinjet doesn't show up on radar anywhere on the planet is because it is no longer on the planet. The next time we see Hulk, he is going to be somewhere else. My theory is that he'll appear in either “Thor: Ragnarok” or “Guardians Of The Galaxy 2,” and it will only be once we reach the next “Avengers” sequels that he will finally return to Earth. I don't believe they're going to do a full “Planet Hulk” movie, but I think they're going to cherry-pick elements of that larger storyline and use them in the midst of these other movies. The ending of “Age Of Ultron” is confusing, but I think intentionally confusing. They want you to be puzzle about where he is so that when we do see him again, it will be a jolt. I just wouldn't be too terribly shocked if that took place on a planet other than ours.
The film's final images are an announcement that the status quo is no longer the way things work in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and I wish Whedon had been able to drop even more characters into that image. You can almost see the spot where Captain Marvel could have landed, but he didn't have room to introduce her anywhere else in the film. If someone as gifted as Whedon had as much trouble as he did figuring out a way to use and fully serve each of his characters here while serving the individual franchises and also setting things up for stuff still to come, then that should be an indicator of just what a difficult task this is. Marvel plans in broad strokes, and in doing so, I think they set some pretty hefty challenges for their filmmakers. It will not be easy to make things all work together over the course of the next four years in a way that is satisfying both commercially and creatively. I admire the focus of their ambition now, even if I don't think the Thanos moment mid-credits makes any sense at all. Who is he talking to? What was his part in this movie's events? What would Ultron's victory have done to serve Thanos and his agenda? While I recognize that post or mid-credits scenes are big parts of the Marvel signature, I wish they'd either make sure they are genuine parts of the story or just drop them. There are several from the various earlier films that make no sense at all now, like the one in “The Incredible Hulk” or the one at the end of “Thor,” scenes that are retroactively erased by things we see in the actual movies that came later.
When I spoke to my kids a few weeks after the “Age Of Ultron” screenings to see what stuck with them, they barely mentioned Ultron himself. They were fascinated by The Vision and The Scarlet Witch, disappointed by the death of Quicksilver,a nd still just as engaged as ever by the main Avengers and their various wants and fears. Marvel gets so much right, and there is so much talent involved, that even when I feel like “Age Of Ultron” gets lost, it's interesting. But it is also an indicator of just how unwieldy the story that's being told is becoming, and how hard it's going to be for the studio to pull it all together.
“Avengers: Age Of Ultron” is still in theaters everywhere.