I’m very conflicted about Avengers: Age of Ultron. Not about what sort of movie it is: this is a wall-to-wall headache-inducing, exhausting action-fest where lots of stuff blows up. I’m sure there are lots of people in the world who find that sort of thing enjoyable and besides, that’s what’s expected of this genre now. I’m disappointed rather in what kind of movie it isn’t, and how much it could have been.
The image of Iron Man in his “Hulk-buster” armour is very apt. This is a big action movie wrapped around a smaller, more interesting movie about one character based on earth wrapped around still another, MUCH more interesting movie again, about the human character under both layers. The movie succeeds only in those little moments in which the humanity pokes through and just for a minute, we remember we’re watching a movie with real people and characters we care about. Then it’s back to blowing things up.
To put it in probably over-simplistic terms, everything good in this movie comes from Joss Whedon. Everything else comes from how much a film like this is obliged to achieve, in the Great Plan of Marvel Movies. Which means that about 80% of its 2 hours-plus running time is spent in completely over-blown exhausting action sequences, setting up half a dozen sequels and introducing new characters to an already way over-populated universe. It’s a formidable challenge for a filmmaker to find any voice in all that cacophony. But there are little touches of Whedon everywhere, and the writer/director, and everyone involved, is labouring very hard to make this material fly. You feel the weight of that labour, and all the expectations. This is not a film light on its feet.
But let’s start with the good: from the first line (a choice piece of vulgarity) to the last (a fresh take on a familiar catch phrase), this is absolutely a Joss Whedon script. There’s a fresh, wise-cracking energy to it all, and a smart self-awareness, such as a moment when Hawkeye runs down the situation and admits, “None of this makes sense.” There are running jokes about Captain America (Chris Evans) being a bit of an old-fart fuddy-duddy, which echoes back into the poignant and effective Winter Soldier, and a surprisingly gentle and warm love relationship between Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) and Natasha Romanov (Scarlett Johansson). Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is still arrogant and irresponsible, and it’s wonderful to see Don Cheadle back as Colonel Rhodes, and revisit his and Stark’s effortless chemistry. The “party sequence” in the film’s first act is memorable and will no doubt become one of the legendary Marvel scenes, not only for the already-famous “lift the hammer” sequence but wonderful little touches such as having Captain America’s old war buddies, now in their 80s and 90s, join the party and drink with the young guys.
Surprisingly, most effective of all are some of the new characters, Scarlett Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). Now here is a true missed opportunity. Based solely on what is presented here (I haven’t read the comics), these are two fascinating characters, and their story, of dispossessed youth blessed with great power making difficult moral choices in a complex world, is right up Whedon’s alley. This is one of the examples of the “man in the double suit” trying to burst out, because it really does feel like there’s a different and much better movie lurking in the story of these two characters. Whedon gives them all the time he can, and the performances are rock-solid, but it’s just buried under tons and tons of franchise obligation. In a logical world, we would have had the Maximoff Children film, written and directed by Joss Whedon, and then a big action-fest in the summer.
The Vision is similar. Played here by Paul Bettany, with all the humanity and dignity he can muster under the makeup (which is a surprising amount), we’ll presumably see more of him as the series goes on. He has been a part of the Marvel world since Iron Man back in 2008 as Jarvis, and there is a relationship between Jarvis and The Vision that makes it logical for Bettany to play both characters. Of course, the nature of that relationship (which I won’t spoil) is so utterly convoluted and confusing that it exposes the weak spot of these Marvel movies.
The third new element is Ultron himself, voiced by James Spader. This is a fairly substantial villain, with lots of wonderful wit and character, and Spader revels in the Whedon dialogue as we all knew he would. (James Spader was born to speak Whedon dialogue, just like Nathan Fillion.) Ultron provides ample menace from scene-to-scene, and excellent CG work helps a great deal, but ultimately when a quiet moment is found to think about what he wants and why, it’s nothing special. To put in geeky terms, he’s no Khan, that’s for sure. But at least he’s a character, and about as entertaining as a stock baddie as one could imagine.
Ultron is more interesting for what he represents than who he is. The key argument the characters have in this film is really the key argument of all superhero franchise movies: who are these people protecting, and from whom? Iron Man’s idea of creating Ultron is to put the Avengers out of business on earth. Because there are two games being played here, and this is reflected in the two categories of Marvel movies. We have the movies that are set on earth, and deal with humans and their problems. (Iron Man, Captain America.) And then a whole other category dealing with huge gods and magical forces and all manner of cosmic weirdness (Guardians of the Galaxy, Thor). Tony Stark’s argument is basically that The Avengers should concentrate on the big game rather than the small, earth-based game, and set up a shield (not the acronym: an actual shield) that would forever protect earth from the magical mystical forces of cosmic weirdness.
(As an auteur-ish side note: Joss Whedon has dealt with this sort of thing before on Angel. If you recall, the end of that series had Angel speaking in terms of reaching beyond the problems of earth and making an impact on the bigger game, played by devils and demons from a higher plane called “The Senior Partners”. But the series ended before they could really start fighting the big fighting, leaving it instead for IDW’s wonderful Angel: After the Fall.)
In terms of Marvel movies, in a sense, I’m with Tony Stark on this issue, but as a filmgoer. The problem with these movies, and this as apparent in Age of Ultron as it has ever been, is that they have to shift gears between those two completely different genres too often. Everything dramatically weak about Avengers comes from the fact that is has to play that big weird mystical game with power gems that can be used to violate any inconvenient scientific laws or huge intergalactic bad guys that can be wheeled out on cue. Imagine if Marvel Movies operated under that shield, and we got films like The Winter Soldier or Iron Man 3, movies that have real dramatic heft, deal with the problems of this world, and even action sequences that are creative and interesting because they have to vaguely respect the laws of physics.
Speaking of action scenes, there’s nothing in Age of Ultron even close to the tension of the Air Force One sequence from Iron Man 3, and nothing as charming as the “Time in a Bottle” sequence from X-Men: Days of Future Past. That’s not for lack of trying, as the climax involves one of the biggest set pieces ever rendered. And kudos to Joss Whedon: he’s not Zack Snyder. This never gets grim, dark and depressing, and Whedon actually cares about humans and their casualties, lingering over shots of people being rescued, emphasizing that our heroes only wound and don’t kill opposing human enemies. These are strengths of cinematic character that should celebrated.
In the final analysis, Age of Ultron feels like five movies on top of each other, all squeezed into just over two hours. That Whedon keeps the wit percolating through the whole enterprise and does fitfully create some tension in the smaller scenes is a testament to the strength of his talent. But even with all his literate skill, this film simply has to do too much in the context of the Marvel movie universe to ever have a chance of succeeding as a film.
To put it another way, The Winter Soldier was a great film, with a beginning, a middle and an end. It tells the story, and when it’s over you walk away satisfied as a viewer. On the other hand, Age of Ultron is like a mid-season episode in a long-running series, in which the audience is expected to know a great deal coming in, and anticipate a great deal going out. To anyone but Marvel universe obsessives, that’s simply never going to make for great cinema.