Turns Out There Are A Lot Of Strings On It!
DIRECTED BY JOSS WHEDON/2015
Erik Yates: To say that the expectations are high for Joss Whedon’s follow up to the #3 all-time box office smash, The Avengers, would be a serious understatement. This pent up anticipation has been further fueled by the success of the various “Phase 2” Marvel films such as Thor: The Dark World, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Iron Man 3, and last year’s break out smash Guardians of the Galaxy (which will be tied into the upcoming The Avengers: Infinity War).
With the television tie-ins of ABC’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., and Agent Carter, much of the pressure has been squarely on the shoulders of (writer, director, and producer) Whedon himself to produce a picture that balances all of the various threads that bring this ensemble back together, gives enough screen time to each of the heroes, develops the story, establishes the villain, and sets up the Marvel universe for “Phase 3”, which kicks off with this summer’s Ant-Man. No small order, but Whedon, as always, is up for the challenge.
Picking up where The Winter Soldier left off, The Avengers are going after Hydra, and trying to reclaim the weapon yielded by Loki in the first Avengers film. The team has settled into a complimentary dynamic, but each member now has their own agenda they are trying to pursue, especially in the fallout of the demise of S.H.I.E.L.D. When Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) develop an artificial intelligence named Ultron that is meant to protect the world from the type of invasion that came from space in The Avengers, it puts them at odds with Capt. America (Chris Evans). When Ultron decides that humans are better protected by either evolving or being destroyed, The Avengers find that their enemy isn’t from another world like before, but one of their own creation.
For the most part, with this sequel, Whedon succeeds. The bigger question is whether this film is as good as the expectations placed upon it. By that measure, I’d say that I liked this film. It is a good action film and further develops each of the character dynamics that we’ve grown to love across the span of nearly 10 films. His introduction of Quicksilver and the Scarlett Witch (don’t call them X-Men mutants), felt like a natural fit, even comparing it to Quicksilver’s fantastic “Time in a Bottle” sequence in last summer’s X-Men: Days of Future’s Past.
Walking out of the theater, however, I felt that “The Age of Ultron” wasn’t able to fully capture the magic that can only happen the first time you see all of these heroes and personalities on the screen.
Maybe it’s simply juggling too much, or maybe it is because it just feels like the middle story of trilogy (in this case a quadrilogy since Infinity Wars is going to split into 2 parts). So, it’s good, but in the end it falls a little short for me, especially following what I believe was the most effective of the Marvel universe films, and that was Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
Jim Tudor: Winter Soldier is a good point of comparison in terms of where this film falls short, although each films’ genre intention is a bit different. But yes, on the level of pure entertainment solidity, this crammed-to-the-gills Avengers sequel falls short of the Cap-only film that preceded it – even as pure spectacle.
But, before I get too far into pointing out the problems, I do want to make clear that as a fan (and I am a lifelong Marvel comics fan), I like this film. There. That’s out of the way…
There is a struggle at the heart of this Avengers film, and I don’t mean the one with Ultron.
A lot has changed in three years since the first outing that united these diverse characters, not the least of which is Marvel’s utter domination of the pop culture landscape. Their response to such kingship has been to announce an intented slate of projects and release dates up to 2020, with the Avengers films continuing to bookend the whole shebang. This may be the first Marvel Studios picture to be overtaken by the agenda, and its world-building groundwork-laying needs. Such set-up has always been a part of these films, but Marvel, to its credit, has been careful to not get too carried away with their pioneering shared-movie-universe hook. At the end of the day, most Marvel films, or at least their series’, are relatively self-contained affairs. There’sbeen just enough connectivity to urge audiences to see them all. (i.e., the demise of S.H.I.E.L.D in Winter Soldier.)
So yes – Age of Ultron has new characters, old characters, groundwork to lay, and the burden of being the biggest, most anticipated doggone Marvel movie yet. The studio doesn’t skimp on spectacle here – it IS, no question, the BIGGEST Marvel movie to date. But it doesn’t take a comics buff or film critic to detect that just under the surface of all the flash, effects, interplay, and even cold-brewing politics, there’s a lingering exhaustion, particularly on behalf of writer/director Joss Whedon.
Whedon (of Buffy the Vampire Slayer fame), who has notoriously spent the press tour for Age of Ultron detailing how and why he’s done done DONE with this franchise, burst from the fringes of geekdom three years ago with The Avengers, and has been strapped in tight to the Marvel machine ever since. Two big, high-stakes movies, one TV series with his name on it (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D), and umpteen consulting jobs later, one can barely blame the guy for wanting to crawl back to his cozy, more obscure corner of pop culture. I just wish that it didn’t show so readily and consistantly in this film. His zingers lack their usual zing, his direction is the most scattershot it’s ever been, and his trademark risks don’t land like they should. It’s an ugly, visually cluttered movie, lightyears from the autuer panache he demonstrated with, say, the BtVS episode “Hush”. There are several very cool moments in Age of Ultron, but it is in no way a cool movie.
Again, as a fan, I liked this movie. But there are undeniable problems that will keep it off year-end top ten lists. (The first Avengers ranked #9 for me in 2012.) But to detail my differing experiences during the two films, in the middle of the 2012, I recall thinking, “This character interplay is so satisfying, it could stop right now and I’d be completely satisfied.” In the middle of AoU, I thought to myself, “You know, I’m ready for this to be over. I want some ice cream.” I still consider myself a Whedon fan, and am rooting for him to kill it with his next project, whatever he ticket he opts to write for himself from here. But as for Marvel, perhaps we can take solace in the fact that Winter Soldier‘s Russo brothers are lined up to helm the next two Avengers films.
Erik Yates: I think you clearly articulated all of the reasons I am not as enthusiastic for this entry as in the past. Though, like you, I remain a fan, and overall still felt that this is a solid film. Some of the things that Whedon got right include going deeper into Hawkeye’s (Jeremy Renner) story and making up a little bit for how little he was used in the past. The other thing that they nailed was casting James Spader as Ultron. He brought a dark and twisted sense of humor to the proceedings while simultaneously enacting a menacing presence to the Avenger team. Evoking the theme of Pinocchio, even directly singing “there are no strings on me”, he embodies perfectly the rebellion of a creation against its creator, echoing the violence of Eden and the destruction that plays out when one makes the choice to do what is right in their own eyes. The larger premise of creator vs. creation gets into the “why?” of it all, setting the stage for a confrontation between Tony Stark and Steve Rogers (Capt. America) over the surrender of freedom in the name of protection. This ground work began in The Winter Soldier with the dualism of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Hydra, but here its implications are being felt internally within the team who obviously represent different positions on how that balance of freedom and security play out. I am looking forward to the confrontation to come in the next Capt. Americafilm which will also feature Iron Man, as well as its conclusion in the next Avengers film.
Jim Tudor: Yeah, the notion of created rebelling against creator is definitely there, as are a ton of other tasty philosphoical and political morsels. And on that related note, we can be glad that in the admittedly exhausted hands of Joss Whedon, this film, like its predecesor, doesn’t interpret its “action movie” pedigree as a free pass for all kinds of machoism stupidy and female objectifications, even if the men still far outnumber the women. (Welcome to comics!) But like most action films that bother asking questions, in the end, it’s still one’s aligence to good or evil that generally determines his or her fate. Whedon’s transcended these trapping in the past, sometimes painfully.
None of this helps the film where it really needs it, though. The primary villain may claim to have no strings, but the film is certainly tangled up elsewhere. Avengers: AoU fails to deliver on the needed weight of a doomsday vision glimpsed by Tony Stark early in the film. It’s a key moment that motivates everything the character does for the rest of the movie, which is vital to the plot itself. But the sight he sees more or less comes and goes, and is truthfully kind of lame.
Also, I could’ve done without a wisecracking Ultron, and although I appreciate Whedon’s attempt to give emotional weight and significance to Hawkeye (who’s always been my favorite Avenger), much of what’s added doesn’t wash with the character I’ve known in print. (A quibble that’s not really justified, but there it is.) Finally, bringing in a romantic angle between Black Widow Natasha Romanov (Scarlett Johansson) and Bruce Banner simply feels like a forced way to add yet more of the needed “emotional stuff” to this very techie, very stuffed, and very nerdy story. Yet, through all of those flaws, the film doesn’t just have vision, it has The Vision (Paul Bettany). And he is magnificent.
It’s important to note that the spirit of fun and pure zest from seeing these characters as portrayed by these actors all together in the same film, and on equal ground more or less, is still intact. It’s simply not as evident or immediately graspable as last time. And that distancing that has unfortunately emerged in the making of AoU isn’t going to do the MCU any favors in terms of continuing mainstream super-popularity. Who knows, we may’ve seen the zenith for all of this with Gaurdians of the Galaxy. But again, I want to reiterate… As a fan… I. Enjoyed. This. Movie.
Whew. And now I’m worn out. Pass the ice cream.