The first Avengers movie was magical. It’s almost indisputable at this point. The less analytical got a joyous and brilliant popcorn movie that featured big stars and entertaining and loved characters bouncing off one another. Those a little more divorced from surface enjoyment could, or at least should, admire the film as a mark-stone in the evolution of a groundbreaking new type of cinematic franchise and some well-written character work. Both reactions are based around the novel nature of the film. The fact that it was the first of its kind elevated it, and made the pay-off not just work within the confines of the film, but instead work in the context of years of anticipation and build up. It’s a hard question the movie stirs up. Would “Hulk smash” work as well without all the build-up? Maybe that’s not the best example, given that the Hulk hadn’t had a proper tie-in, but the question stands. Would the Avengers work as well as it does if it existed in a vacuum unique and independent from the cavalcade of preparatory Marvel movies leading us towards the inexorable point of dynamism like the soaring smoke of a soon-to-burst firework?
Avengers: Age of Ultron doesn’t answer this question. Maybe nothing will, at least not until long after this series’ death. However Ultron does immediately display the differences between the first punchline to Marvel’s great joke and the second. This isn’t a comedy sequel, but it is a little like a repeated joke. A man goes to the circus. He’s watching a clown named Jimbo who, at one point in his act, randomly points at the man and mocks him. Infuriated the man vows vengeance. He decides to get perfect revenge on the clown and tries to learn his trade from the inside out. He masters juggling, and pratfalls, and stand-up comedy. He reads all the great comedies and studies the human mind in relation to humour. He spends years of his life preparing for his perfect revenge. Then he sits in the same circus, in the same place, during the same act. The clown again mocks him, and the man responds: “Fuck you clown!” A man goes to the circus. He’s watching a clown named Jimbo who, at one point in his act, randomly points at the man and mocks him. Infuriated the man vows vengeance. He decides to get perfect revenge on the clown and tries to learn his trade from the inside out. He masters juggling, and pratfalls, and stand-up comedy. He reads all the great comedies and studies the human mind in relation to humour. He spends years of his life preparing for his perfect revenge. Then he sits in the same circus, in the same place, during the same act. The clown again mocks him, and the man responds: “Fuck you clown!” That probably wasn’t as funny the second time. Or maybe even funny the first time. That’s basically why people are disappointed with Avengers: Age of Ultron.
It’s not new anymore. It doesn’t have the same spark of originality that The Avengers had.
Here’s the funny thing though, it’s still really, really good. It also feels a little like a grand series of contradictions. It’s less concerned with crescendos and one-liners than the first movie, which arguably pays off. The first film is a little more quotable, yet the second one is filled with great lines. It’s less novel than the first, yet filled with new exciting things. It’s faster moving than the first film, yet feels longer.
Let’s parse out the fascinating tapestry.
The length of my horrible clown joke (courtesy of Bobcat Goldthwait I think) is actually nicely reflective of Age of Ultron in that they’re both bloody long. Now this one doesn’t have to do the legwork of the first film, so it hits the ground running with an immediate fight scene involving the whole group and lots of character dynamics and plot set-ups and action. Gone is the hazy first act involving SHIELD and set-up and instead it’s replaced with slow-motion group shots and funny jokes like Cap’s “language” and Tony’s “please be a secret passage.” The movie only really slows down twice, and it’s for terribly short periods of time. It’s action scene after action scene, and the moments that aren’t action tend to be funny or take up the space with Franchise Driving Character Beats. There’s a fun party scene right away, there’s an action scene in the Avengers Tower and Africa and Korea and there are spooky dream sequences and romance and a finale that looks like a terrible symphonic metal cover and… And it’s all rather fatiguing. Or could be. Personally I was thoroughly entertained, but there’s something no one likes to admit about the “rocky” first act (fuck third act structure, that entitled twat seeps into one’s language so insidiously) and that’s the fact that it makes the explosive finale more dynamic by contrast. It’s like how teasing Godzilla in Gareth Edwards’ film makes every new thing the titular kaiju does so much more satisfying. Set-up and pay-off. The Age of Ultron is all pay-off. That’s what makes this whole shared-universe franchise thing interesting though! Why can’t it be all pay-off? The other movies are doing the set-up just by NOT being an Avengers film. And the ultimate litmus test – was I entertained? Yup. Moving on.
Part of why the movie is exciting is the new ground it breaks. Sure we’ve seen these characters interact before, so just letting them interact is no longer as exciting. There’s not really any making up for this, so instead the film does its best to explore new aspects of their dynamics, and keep the movie fresh in other ways. Ways like the aforementioned party. These characters haven’t casually hung out onscreen before, and this scene does all kinds of legwork. It establishes the extent of these characters’ relationships since the first movie, it sets up ideas that don’t pay off till far later, and it’s witty and compelling. It’s a great scene, but it’s not the only thing the movie does novelly. Avengers was a movie for the fans, sure, but Age of Ultron is an unrelentingly Marvel movie. It’s unapologetically dense and referential and nerdy. It introduces characters from past Marvel movies; it references events from the last wave, and builds upon character arcs from other movies. It never ever takes the time to explain any of this. If you didn’t suffer through Thor: The Dark World or watch Iron Man 3 you’re not going to get as much out of this movie. It’s ruthlessly a Marvel movie, ruthlessly a comic movie, and ruthlessly a nerd movie. It seems every time a new Marvel movie comes out it feels like the most comic-book movie yet, but this is more like reading a comic than ever before. This is for the exact same reasons that some critics are comparing this film to TV. It’s utterly episodic in some ways. Or rather it’s more like some big event comic or arc of TV. There are strings from past entries and strings extending to future entries, and a spine leading to some bigger arc, but we get to see the entirety of this one arc. All this unforgiving complexity is only emboldened by this movie’s bizarre content. Like Guardians of the Galaxy, Age of Ultron leaves me scratching my head wondering how there’s a good movie starring The Vision and yet there is no good Superman movie (fight me in the comments). This is a movie that speeds through the creation of not one but two androids, one of which is a mixture of organics and mechanical parts from a mysterious African country and the combination of a previously established computer program and the other android and Thor’s lightning and a mystical shard from the big bang that’s part of a many movie spanning plotline and was hidden inside an artifact from past movies and… This is so densely strange and comic book inspired that I can’t help but love it. The Vision with his metal body and cape and fleshy eyes proves Marvel’s commitment to their universe, and I love that. Even if the gold stone in his head makes me pause and wonder about Warlock, who I really wanted to appear in this series unchanged.
So that leaves us with the strange lack of memorable dialogue. Here’s the thing, saying there is a lack of memorable dialogue is actually a bit disingenuous of me. This movie’s length, density, and propulsive nature just means the movie rarely gives its best lines time to breathe. Instead it’s all too breathless, with great lines all but buried in the mix and relegated to backgrounds (and it’s best crowd-pleasing moment is visual). This movie only has one substantial pause. Maybe it could’ve used a few more moments with a “pause for effect” mentality, but instead it asks you to keep up. Multiple viewings will undoubtedly clarify what the best lines are.
Now let me take a second’s break from furiously prostrating myself at Joss Whedon, Kevin Fiege, and the undoubtedly horrible Orwellian company that they work for’s feet, because in no way is this movie flawless. When I watched Captain America: The Winter Soldier I had hope for the future of Marvel movies. Their stunt-team and choreography team had clear chops. The action was dynamic and entertaining, and I thought it was the best of the series yet and promised overall improvement. Avengers: Age of Ultron did not follow through on this promise. Let’s talk about how Marvel fights scenes work. They employ a bunch of previs teams that basically work on every big blockbuster with computer driven set pieces. Previs is essentially the process of storyboarding special effects scenes using 3D animation. Due to Marvel’s production schedule they often start prevising before their scripts are even done. Marvel employs a unique pace and schedule and generally it works for them, I’m not here to criticize that. The trouble arises when there’s no directorial oversight when it comes to these scenes. Marvel’s fights tend to be designed by the previs team. They’re easy to spot; they all have at least one superfluous zoom. The zoom probably only bothers me, but it’s starting to look like some cocky signature scrawled across these action scenes by a bunch of twats who couldn’t direct an action movie. These guys have worked on great sequences, but without great oversight the problem inherent in the technique raises its ugly head. When you’re spending months planning fight scenes frame by frame, and then handing it off to animators who spend months at a time completing these scenes frame by frame there’s an unfortunate side effect. Look at a busy cluttered fight scene frame by frame for any length of time and you’ll know that scene off by heart. And so we get terrible fight scenes with no sense of geography, too much noise and not enough clarity, and insubstantial impact. There are cool things here and there in the fight scenes, and the moments shot in real life and based off planned scripted moments stand out, but generally the fights are muddy and bland. They all look alike, and they’re never that cool. This is bordering on a BIG problem when most of your movie is action. It never kills the movie, because it’s not terrible, but Age of Ultron isn’t a good action movie.
Which is funny, because most comic book artists can’t compose fight scenes either. It’s like the superhero genre really wants to be action based but never quite manages to fulfill that particular fantasy. Instead we get a film where every best moment is character driven, literally without exception. That is the territory this movie really shines in. It’s coming to the plate with six main characters. It has about three previously established secondary characters. It introduces six more important characters before the movie is over. Some of them probably won’t appear again, but it’s still a movie filled with characters. It manages to pull this off too; the new characters succeed again and again. The Vision is compelling and weird. James Spader cements himself as one of Marvel’s better villains. The bland couple from Godzilla are entertaining as the twins (I knew she could act, but I wasn’t so sure about him). Hawkeye’s secret wife is decent too, I wouldn’t mind seeing her in future movies. Andy Serkis even gets a nice cameo as a shockingly developed character that smoothly establishes Wakanda. He also gets one of my favourite moments (the cuttlefish thing).
So this movie has a metric ton of characters, but that’s not impressive in and of itself. What is impressive are the character arcs. Most blockbusters, hell, most movies, don’t have character arcs. It’s one of those things everyone understands in theory but few can actually come close to executing. Age of Ultron doesn’t have one character arc, it has about nine. NINE. I’m not saying we should accept Joss Whedon as the patron god of cinema or anything, I’m just saying that for men in funny costumes punching each other or period pieces shot out into the sticky fluid of Oscar season, nine character arcs is amazing. It’s crazy impressive. Even a less charitable estimation of six (it’s nine) is mind-boggling. Talking about characters would be a great way to segue into the controversy surrounding Black Widow. It WOULD be a great way, if that argument didn’t only exist in the minds of ignorant click-baiters who can’t understand context in either an immediate sense or in relation to Joss Whedon’s career. You miserable fucks drove a guy in Hollywood who has always strived to fill his work with great female characters off Twitter with accusations of sexism. I hope you’re all wallowing in shame.
Sorry for the knee-jerk response, it’s just an argument entirely based on misunderstanding painfully simple context and the fact that it’s gained as much footing as it has is completely noxious.
But back to the character arcs. The plethora of character arcs within this movie is brilliant for another reason. They’re deftly and organically building on past films and setting up the characters for future Marvel events. When you know how the lines are going to be drawn come Civil War it’s easy to see where Whedon and Fiege are carefully prepping the playing pieces, but it still feels natural and justified. Kevin Fiege might be some kind of genius, one only has to look at DC to see how much he takes the shared world concept and gently sculpts it into something great.
Now those who follow my writing with any fervour (if indeed you exist) might have noticed I’m predisposed towards liking something that takes a good shot at being thematically driven. Recently, because I have nothing better to do, I’ve taken to thinking about my criteria as a sort of scatter-plot. Imagine one axis represents artistic intent and the other represents entertainment. Basically any movie could then be placed somewhere on this graph after being examined. 2001: A Space Odyssey would fall to the far right of the graph, somewhere rather lower than the midway point, marking it as a movie with more interest in high art than entertainment. The Raid would be near the far left, right up near the top, marking it as pure entertainment. Now don’t confuse art with artistry. To really make it to the far sides of this imaginary graph a film would have to achieve it’s goals effectively, something that requires the excellent understanding of the craft that could be called artistry. The Raid isn’t about much of anything other than martial arts, but it gets so near the top left of the graph because it’s incredibly well made. In this stupid graph scenario making it to either the far right or top left pretty much marks the film a classic, or at least one with the quality befitting a classic. Avengers: Age of Ultron would be closer to the centre of the graph than you might at first think. It would sit past the midpoint of the X-axis and a shade farther past the midpoint of the Y-axis. Just like most movies can’t properly write character arcs most movies can’t include theme, but Age of Ultron is different.
I’ve tried to dance around spoilers in this article but this paragraph has to discuss some plot points. If you have yet to join the rest of the world and see this film, skip to my final paragraph. This movie is all about fathers and children and stuff, in a very Frankenstein way. The main villain is the creation of Tony Stark, basically his son. Ultron hates Tony with a passion and talks about children as creatures designed to supplant their makers. Black Widow (talking about her monstrous indoctrination into a murder cult) and the Hulk discuss their inability to have kids. We meet Hawkeye’s secret family. We meet twins who want to avenge their dead parents. Ultron begins thinking he’s the start of a new species and consequently is designed to supplant the entire human race. This leads him to create a child of his own in a device unsubtly called “the cradle.” Ultron’s son ends up disagreeing with his dad and standing against him in the fight to come. All this stuff sort of weaves together nicely with the film’s many character arcs and preexisting character threads, but still manages to drive a surprising amount of the film.
Avengers: Age of Ultron is just a popcorn movie done right, with great character work and some thematics (Dads! Sons! Cribs!) to boot. It’s not perfect (here’s an idea, get someone who gets action to oversee all of Marvel’s previs work), but it’s a great piece of entertainment and another entry in the brilliantly ambitious franchise Marvel is carefully concocting.