Avengers: Age of Ultron is, for better or worse, the culmination of Marvel Studios’ approach to commercial cinema. By this stage, their much-discussed directorial departures – Patty Jenkins from Thor: The Dark World, Edgar Wright from Ant-Man – and the homogeneity of their output make it clear that this is about as far from auteurist filmmaking as you can get. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is a product, and – much like the burgers at McDonalds – it’s hard to deny the consistency of their output.
So there isn’t too much point in my dwelling on how I feel about the film, because by all accounts your reaction to Age of Ultron will align with your reaction to the “Phase 2” fleet of Marvel films – Iron Man 3, the aforementioned Thor sequel, Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy. If you love those films – if they bring out your inner twelve year-old – then you’ll love this film. If you hate those films, then you’ll hate this film. And if, like me, you found those films entertaining but overburdened by a need to serve the wider franchise and hold to an increasingly tired three-action-set-pieces-and-some-banter formula … then you’ll feel about the same when it comes to the latest instalment.
Let’s quickly break down the basic constituents, then, before I get into some meatier analysis (yeah, this’ll be a long one. Bear with me.):
No point bothering with a plot synopsis, but I’m fond of Scott Mendelson’s analogy over at Forbes, where he said Age of Ultron “plays more like a “monster of the week” instalment.” Remember those TV episodes that provided a devastatingly powerful villain and promised to upend the status quo then just … kind of … petered out? That’s Age of Ultron, which starts strong with the introduction of Ultron (James Spader) – a failed experiment of Tony Stark’s (Robert Downey Jr.) – before losing momentum around halfway through as Ultron’s motivations become increasingly muddled and the screenplay feels it necessary to start setting up shop for next dozen or so films to come rather than, y’know, taking the most interesting elements of the narrative to their natural conclusion.
I unabashedly love the climax of Avengers. That moment where the camera swoops through New York to reveal the Avengers all kicking ass in their own unique way? Revelatory! Joyful! Whedon pulls the same digitally-augmented sweeping long shot quite a bit here – right from the in medias res opening – but it’s somehow way less satisfying. Maybe it’s because the darkness of the subject matter sits uncomfortably with the flimsy, almost cartoonish feel of the action (contrasted with Winter Soldier and even Fast & Furious 7, it feels lightweight). Maybe it’s because the stakes are so simplistic – get this MacGuffin, save these civilians – that it’s hard to sustain a fifteen minute action sequence. Maybe it’s the editing, which too often obscures any sense of space. Maybe it’s just because, by now, it’s just more of the same. Avengers fighting a never-ending horde of anonymous bad guys, saving all the civilians (because you don’t want to upset those vocal Man of Steel haters with collateral damage, jeez), something big and flying crashing or exploding or what have you.
Joss Whedon is, for the most part, really good at establishing and interrogating character efficiently within an action-packed, exposition-heavy narrative. This is evident in his TV shows, but also the original Avengers, which was spotted with a bunch of wonderful little – simple – payoffs for its character arcs (sorry, I’ll stop comparing these two films from here on out. I promise). Age of Ultron promises the same across its first act. We’re introduced to two new mutants – wait, sorry, “enhanced,” can’t use the “m” word – twins Quicksilver (Aaron Johnson) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), the latter of whom has some funky mind control powers to go with her telekinesis.
So, she finds the vulnerable strings hanging loose from our Avengers’ psyches and pulls. Tony Stark agonises over the ramifications of his actions. Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) laments the past he lost. Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) relives her traumatic training. Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), predictably, hulks out. Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) avoids her witch-y powers, but gets some fleshing out of his own (both figuratively and literally, with the former involving a brief appearance from Linda Cardellini). There’s a sense that we’re going to get to know these people better… but it goes the same way as the storyline, promising plenty but delivering little.
There are too many disappointments to list – and too many to forgive because they’ll be paid off in the next Avengers. Romanoff’s troubled past becomes a complication that hinders her ability to hook up with Bruce, and then she’s turned into a damsel-in-distress in the final act (just when you were wondering how egregiously they could squander Johansson’s talents). The new characters are even more disappointing. Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch get a poignant backstory but not a personality between them. (It doesn’t help that Johnson can only be compared unfavourably to Evan Peters’ take on the character.)
Meanwhile Ultron’s memorable entrance – Spader’s dark sarcasm and all – gets swallowed up as he becomes yet another bland Marvel villain. There’s a fourth addition to the universe that I won’t spoil but, suffice to say, there’s no substantial characterisation to go with them.
One of the saving graces of these films is their insistence on (a) good casting and (b) irreverence. Both are in ample evidence here, with plenty of the banter that you’ve come to expect from these guys (particularly Whedon and RDJ). When the jokes land, it’s great, but they’re somewhat swallowed up by the seriousness of the situation (trying to make the audience believe the world is really imperilled doesn’t go so well with earning a chuckle. The comparatively dull colour scheme doesn’t help matters, either). But it’s definitely fun to watch these guys bounce off one another.
All of the above attributes are important to evaluating a film like Age of Ultron, that lives or dies on its entertainment value. Plenty of viewers will gloss over the film’s narrative or character shortcomings, and more power to them. For the most part the film is enjoyable enough in the moment that you don’t realise the flimsiness of the plot until reflecting on it a day or two later. But such reflection also reveals that the film has deeper ambitions beyond entertaining. Beyond operating as MCU-Movie-Number-Eleven. I’m talking, of course, about…
Age of Ultron spends a great deal of its runtime reflecting on the consequences of America’s militaristic foreign policy. This should not come as much of a surprise; this is a franchise that began, after all, with Iron Man – a movie about an arrogant American billionaire weapons manufacturer discovering that – shock! horror! – his weapons are actually used to kill innocent people. See also: Soldier, Winter, which weaved into its runtime an interrogation of the surveillance state, drone warfare and the dangers of government secrecy. Age of Ultron is I’d argue, the most thematically robust take on America as a global citizen in the Marvel franchise so far.
Take the primary antagonists. Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch bear a deep enmity towards Stark as the manufacturer of the missiles that devastated their childhoods. This is a familiar story, shared with most of the Iron Man villains. Tony Stark – whose heroism goes hand-in-hand with smugness and self-assurance – is a potent stand-in for modern America, caught in a cycle of creating enemies in their attempts to eliminate them.
That’s especially apparent in the genesis of Ultron, created to ensure “world peace” as an amplified version of Tony’s very own personal drone program. While Ultron’s motivations remain frustratingly vague (a diversion into nebulously-defined “evolution” is unsatisfactory and it all ends up right back at ‘destroy all humans’), he’s unquestionably a mirror image of Stark in many respects. He shares Stark’s dry humour and, most importantly, his supreme confidence that his way is The Way.
Stark’s confidence does not go unquestioned. Captain America – an avatar of an idealized America – is opposed to Stark’s actions throughout, which makes a lot of sense given the battles he fought in Winter Soldier against drone-esque technology. But there’s a sense that the other avengers are simply unaware of the full consequences of their actions. On more than one occasion, Banner raises moral objections to Stark’s ill-conceived schemes … then goes along with them anyway.
This is highlighted cleverly in a mid-film visual metaphor: Thor accidentally crushes a child’s toy truck, then sheepishly hides it beneath a chair. For all their heroism, these avengers don’t always take responsibility for the destruction they leave in their wake. (This is also apparent in spinoff series Daredevil, which posits that Hell’s Kitchen has been overtaken by lowlifes after the damage caused in Avengers.) For the first time in a while, Age of Ultron makes September 11 imagery feel meaningful again – it’s surely no accident that Banner and Stark’s battle topples a building and fills the streets with smoke.
What’s frustrating is that for all the maturity of these ideas, they’re left unresolved by film’s end. The conflicting ideologies of the team spawn a few arguments, but they’re invariably shuffled aside to accommodate the next plot point (with those arguments presumably set to resurface in the third Captain America movie). The closest Age of Ultron comes to espousing a philosophy of its own is in the climactic sequence, where Hawkeye tells a tormented team-mate: “It’s your fault. It’s everybody’s fault–” before urging them to fight. It’s a straightforward, militaristic sentiment that would resonate with many Americans – who cares what inspired these terrorists, let’s just kill ‘em! – but it’s a shame the film couldn’t present a more coherent counter-argument in the mix.
Ah well, The Avengers Will Return. Perhaps that coherency awaits us somewhere in the next dozen or so Marvel movies we have to look forward to.