May 31, 2018
Countdown to Infinity War: Revisiting Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
When one thinks about the Avengers, there are only a handful of villains that come to mind who can pose a true challenge. Loki was an excellent choice for the first film; he was known to people who saw Thor, and in the comics, his actions were responsible for forming the team. With Thanos’ cameo at the end of Avengers, I think it’s safe to say everybody expected the “Mad Titan” to be the next big bad.
But then in Thor: The Dark World, they dropped a pretty big bombshell: The Aether is an Infinity Stone, and so is the Tesseract. This implied that more stones would show up as more films were released, and that Thanos wasn’t going to be making a major appearance anytime soon. The question became, if Thanos wasn’t going to appear in the second Avengers movie, who would?
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Two names were bounced around between me and my friends. The first was Kang the Conqueror, a time traveling despot who ruled in the 30th Century and traveled into the past mostly because he was really, really bored.
Another idea was that we might see the Avengers go up against the Masters of Evil, which is pretty much the anti-Avengers, sometimes put together by frequent Captain America villain Baron Zemo.
This is what I really wanted to see. After so many heroes-vs-minions fights, an epic battle between super-teams would have felt like a breath of fresh air.
What we got instead was Age of Ultron.
The plot: For months, the Avengers have been taking down HYDRA facilities in an attempt to find Loki’s staff. Upon obtaining it, Tony Stark and Bruce Banner start to unlock its secrets. In doing so, they wind up inadvertently creating Ultron…
…Tony’s answer to protecting the world. Only, Ultron has ideas of his own in that regard and he escapes, downloading his consciousness into robot bodies thousands of miles away. The murderous robot recruits twins Wanda and Pietro Maximoff…
…who have been given super-powers by HYDRA scientists, and hate Tony Stark as much as Ultron does. The three of them embark on a quest to save the world from the Avengers, but little do the twins realize what Ultron’s true motivations are. Will Wanda and Pietro come to realize the robot’s intentions before it’s too late? Will they and the Avengers be able to save Earth?
Short assessment: I don’t hate Age of Ultron. It’s flawed—man, is it flawed—but for an action movie, it works. Joss Whedon knows how to deliver action set pieces, from the cold open to the finale’s climactic battle in Sokovia. The movie has plenty of creative violence to satisfy just about anyone who loves the genre. And Joss’ ear for humor and his ability to generate entertaining and believable dialogue is still top notch. The man is good at what he does.
The best scene in the movie is arguably the party that happens early on, where we see these heroes as friends. It was nice to get cameos from Anthony Mackie and Don Cheadle, and I liked the way it sets up the film’s finale. But it really would have been nice to see Gwyneth Paltrow, Natalie Portman, or Liv Tyler there. It’s sad that Portman washed her hands of the franchise entirely, although I completely understand why she did it. For those of you who don’t know, Portman’s friend Patty Jenkins was slated to direct Thor: The Dark World but got replaced, so Natalie decided to never play Jane Foster again. I guess Disney/Marvel thought Jenkins couldn’t handle a superhero film.
It would have been great to have seen the girlfriends at this party; they deserved more than just passing mentions. And with Tony’s problems with Pepper that were later mentioned in Civil War, we could have seen a hint of this at the party.
This was the first of my issues with the movie. Let’s take a look at another: Black Widow and the Hulk.
Natasha and Bruce’s budding relationship… Wow, was this a bad idea. Where was Betty? You know, Doctor Betty Ross, Bruce’s girlfriend, the love of his life, played by Liv Tyler in The Incredible Hulk? Why isn’t she here? And is Bruce still being hunted by General Ross? If so, how can he be at this party without Ross’ people being all over him? Have Bruce and Betty broken up? Was Liv Tyler unavailable? Did Liv not want to come back to the franchise? Whatever the reason for Betty’s absence, the romance we got was totally not needed, and I doubt many people even bought into it. I was accused of disliking the pairing because it wasn’t canon, and I’ll concede maybe that was part of it. But most of my issues stemmed from the seeming necessity of having Natasha fall in love with another one of the Avengers. It was an unnecessary plot point; why couldn’t she and Bruce simply be good friends?
Thor’s bath-time scene wasn’t a part of Joss Whedon’s plans, and one of the reasons he opted out of doing more superhero movies for Marvel. I can appreciate his problems with the scene, but from a narrative standpoint, I can also understand why it had to happen. If Thor had been in Korea, Ultron probably wouldn’t have gotten away. And with the infodump Thor got, it inspired him to power up the Vision. I see Whedon’s point, and I appreciate where he’s coming from; when a writer has an editor pushing a mandate to such a point where the work no longer feels like your own, it’s easy to grow frustrated enough that you simply want to walk away from the company (see also: Brian Michael Bendis recently leaving Marvel over creative differences), but I don’t think it’s as big an issue as some might think. I also suppose another part of the problem was the introduction of Wakanda and Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis)…
…but again, I had no issue with this. Vibranium played a key plot point in the creation of the Vision and the destruction of Sokovia, and it had to come from somewhere. And Serkis made the absolute most of his few minutes of screen time; His cuttlefish reference was pure gold. So you might be asking what issues, if any, did I have with the movie? Well, first is what I’m sure some of you are by now thinking of as a tired old refrain from me: the use of faceless minions.
Why was Winter Soldier such a great movie? Because evil had a face, and thus the stakes felt more real. In this case, what we get are wave after wave of robots. Perhaps if Ultron had limited the number to a select few, each one custom-made to defeat a particular Avenger, then maybe it would have been different. Instead, we get an improbably vast army of mechanized foot soldiers swarming all over Sokovia.
What else? Let’s talk about Ultron’s origin and who’s responsible. Namely, this guy.
I was talking to someone online about the one of the problems I had with this movie, which is that Tony Stark was responsible for creating Ultron. Let’s face it, these movies have too much Stark in them as it is. He cameo’ed in Incredible Hulk, where his weapons were used to hunt the Green Goliath. His father Howard is integral to Captain America’s origins. His name is dropped in Thor and by this point he’d had three solo movies. Now he’s responsible for Ultron’s creation? On top of all this, Stark gets to be in the best fight in the movie.
I said I would have preferred Hank Pym to be written into the story instead, and the other person responded that there were already too many people in the movie. Because yeah, no way could a Marvel movie handle so many characters.
With Stark being responsible for creating Ultron, Tony becomes even more the center of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and I find that to be pretty annoying. I respect Robert Downey Jr., but this is supposed to be an ensemble cast and he keeps getting put into the foreground. With Pym involved in the plot, we could have seen the groundwork laid for Ant-Man later that year. The story could have been about Stark being forced to turn Loki’s staff over to Pym and a team of specialists because they need to cooperate with the government. Pym, played by Michael Douglas, would be distrustful of Stark while also being heard talking about his “Ultron initiative”, and when Ultron is activated he inherits Pym’s attitudes. To redeem himself, Pym helps Stark and Banner create the Vision but there are consequences, as his actions cost him government contracts, which leads to him losing his company and some of his property to Stark (namely, the new base in upstate New York, where some of the action in Ant-Man takes place). Does it complicate the plot? Yes, admittedly, a little bit. But I think it would have been a more satisfying means to introduce Ultron and the Vision.
The alums from the first Avengers movie all do a good job. And while I had issues with the Natasha/Bruce angle, I thought Scarlett Johansson and Mark Ruffalo delivered. By now, Scarlett is really comfortable in her role and Ruffalo’s second outing is fantastic as he portrays a man haunted by his own actions, ultimately leading him to wishing to be as far away from people as possible. I enjoyed the interaction between Bruce and Tony as fellow nerds, and Tony and Steve’s simmering tensions were a great setup for what would eventually turn into major fallout between them. The person who really benefited from the sequel, though, was this guy.
Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye receives more screen time than the first Avengers and actually feels like a peer this time out. I liked how when the team is down and Tony is full of self-doubt, it’s Clint that takes charge, transporting them to his family’s home to regroup. It showed confidence and was something that was much needed to salvage what had been done to him in the first film, where he spent half of that picture as Loki’s drone.
It was also nice to see his character fleshed out, with the introduction of his kids and wife Laura, played by Linda Cardellini.
I know some people had issues with Clint’s wife being a stay-at-home mom. Oh look, some said, she’s a housewife, how regressive. Why isn’t she a career woman or something? People, we have a franchise where women are super-spies, scientists, and business executives. Marvel has done a credible job of showcasing women as being intelligent, tough, and influential. I see no problem with one of their female characters deciding she wants to devote her energies to being a mom in the 21st century. Not every woman wants a full-time career. Besides, how do we know Clint’s wife doesn’t have an online business or something? All we see is one aspect of her life.
Speaking of the alleged mistreatment of women at the hands of Whedon (and no, I’m not going to go into what we discovered about Whedon last year; I’m going by what I see on the screen. I’m not excusing Whedon’s behavior, I’m just trying to stay focused), there was the matter of a scene where we learned Natasha had been operated on against her will to make her unable to have children. Yes, her being sterilized was a horrible act (though, keeping in mind that she was working for horrible people), but I have to agree that her line to Bruce, “Do you think you’re the only monster on the team?” strongly implies she’s no longer human because she’s not able to have kids. That whole scene should have been handled differently, with her including some other facts, like how her “graduation ceremony” included murdering an innocent person. That would have made her a monster. It’s badly written, and I can’t help thinking something got cut in the interest of time.
As for the new members of the cast: James Spader is… wow. Just… wow.
His Ultron is just so freaking awesome. I’m not kidding; when Spader talks, he’s compelling. He’s able to evoke whatever emotion he’s going for effortlessly, from ironic humor to rage to disgust. He really does bring Ultron to life. He’s given fantastic dialogue here, probably my favorite being his initial confrontation with the Avengers and his puppets and strings monologue. It was his performance in this movie that made me decide to start binge watching The Blacklist.
Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen also do a decent job here.
Honestly, they aren’t given a whole lot to do, but their story regarding the un-exploded Stark bomb is a compelling one, and they’re given good reason to hate Iron Man’s guts. It seems unlikely that just the two of them could take out the Avengers, but the fight sequence was handled well. I especially liked how Hawkeye fared, and I can’t help but wonder how much Jeremy Renner was acting when on the subject of mind control he says he “was not a fan”.
The Vision was given even less to work with, considering he was only introduced in the third act, but Paul Bettany made the most of what little he was given.
His brief interaction with the last Ultron is wonderful, with the villain showing utter disdain for humans and Bettany admitting that Ultron is probably right, but he’s also missed all the good things about them. His saying, “Well, I was born yesterday,” was a terrific line delivered perfectly.
The film’s finale is great, ending on a bittersweet note as the team loses the Hulk, and Thor goes off on his quest to find the other Infinity stones. As for Tony, him just driving away feels… off. It seems like it would have been more interesting had we seen some tension between him and Pepper at the party earlier, which could have presented the idea of him trying to prioritize his life to put Pepper first ahead of the Avengers. Tony exiting stage left was pretty random. Still, that end scene where we see the new team…
…yeah, that was sweet.
The soundtrack was arranged via collaboration between Brian Tyler, who had worked on the second Thor movie and Iron Man 3, and Danny Elfman, who hadn’t scored a Marvel movie since the 2003 Hulk. I checked the soundtrack out of the library and have been listening to it for the past week, and I have to say it impresses me a great deal. If you look at the track listing on Wikipedia, you can see who wrote what, but in listening to the music without knowing who was responsible for each track, I honestly can’t say which composer created which piece of music. That’s how well Elfman and Tyler worked together on this project, with both doing their best to craft a cohesive score that really added to the film as a whole.
So Age of Ultron wasn’t as good as the first Avengers film, but at the same time, I don’t think it’s nearly as bad as some people claim. Call it a flawed masterpiece if you like, but I enjoyed it. As for what was going on in the comics…
2015 saw the end of a chapter at Marvel. In an earlier era, Brian Michael Bendis had been the principal driving creative force, but after a while, he was supplanted by Brian Hickman. Hickman had been writing two Avengers titles and driving things forward with his storyline involving universes colliding and the reformation of the Illuminati, which culminated in Namor and Black Panther fighting over the fallout from a couple of crossover events ago, while Cap and Tony were fighting over what transpired in the one before it. If it sounds like I’m cynical and frustrated regarding the state of Marvel at this point, it’s because I am. Heroes fighting heroes have become such a tiresome cliché, and so have the endless crossover events, each one promising a change to the status quo and failing to deliver. Hickman’s Secret Wars in 2015 implied things would be all new, and all different.
Secret Wars meant the literal end of the Marvel Universe and a reboot of sorts, so the aftermath was new and different alright, and just when I thought things couldn’t get any worse at Marvel, they went and unpleasantly surprised me.
Next up: Hank Pym makes his belated entrance into the MCU, as does Paul Rudd in what might be the first fully comedic entry in the franchise.