Avengers: Age of Um, Not So Much

Avengers: Age of Ultron does strain under the weight of years of TV shows and movies. Not Marvel’s, though.

I’ve been avoiding reading reviews of Avengers: Age of Ultron, to avoid spoilers. I recommend you do the same, since I’m not going to make any effort to avoid spoiling everything here.

My short review: it’s very good, and I liked it a lot. It’s also 100% a Joss Whedon movie, for better and for worse.

While I didn’t read the reviews themselves, I was reading the headlines and summations. There seemed to be one bit of consensus in particular: it was supposedly more franchise than fun, a case of all the joyous excess of The Avengers finally starting to collapse under the weight of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

I don’t agree. I didn’t love it as much as The Avengers, or Iron Man, or even Captain America, and it was largely because it had to strain under the weight of decades of movies, television series, and comic book. But not Marvel’s. The ghosts of franchises and formulas past were from Firefly, Serenity, Angel, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

If you were to have described to me all the stuff that appears in Age of Ultron, the part I would’ve expected to be the most insufferable would be “Ultron is an advanced artificial intelligence that talks like Xander Harris.”

In practice, though: yeah, not so much. It’s not particularly overdone, and in the end comes across not as “Self-aware supervillain as the writer’s self-effacing defense mechanism” but “this was an AI created by Robert Downey Jr.’s version of Tony Stark.” Sure, he does a comment about revealing his super-villainous plan — itself a bit of self-awareness at least as old as Watchmen, to the point that that’s become even more of a cliche. But it’s incidental to its scene, and ends up feeling more like another reminder of Tony Stark’s responsibility in the whole thing.

It’s also a constant reminder that Joss Whedon is speaking through all of these characters. And it was kind of hard to “turn him off.” Related: I either never knew that James Spader was the voice of Ultron, or I forgot. I thought it sounded like Ty Burrell, so I spent the entire movie picturing him whenever Ultron came on screen.

But I like Joss Whedon, a lot, so what’s the problem? The problem is when all the tics and mannerisms are so familiar that they threaten to overpower everything else.

Towards the climax (reminder that this is a pretty big spoiler, in case “towards the climax” wasn’t enough of a clue), there’s a “ha we have masterfully played off of your expectations” moment. Hawkeye has spent the entire movie with the Grim Reaper looming over his shoulder: he’s injured early on, he questions his value to the team, he has an idyllic visit with his family and a heart-to-heart with his wife, he says both that he’s made his final addition to his peaceful farmhouse and makes plans for one more as soon as this mission is over. He even says out loud that he doesn’t know who’ll be coming back alive.

But then no! It’s Quicksilver who heroically sacrifices himself, much like, say, a leaf on the wind. And he calls back to his rival Hawkeye’s earlier dialogue with the line “Bet you didn’t see that one coming.”

Except those of us who’ve spent the last couple of decades watching Joss Whedon’s stuff respond with a Whedon-esque “Actually, yeah, we kinda did.” It’s not even just a precedent from Serenity (and Dr. Horrible, and Buffy, and Angel); it was in the first Avengers movie! Agent Coulson is still practically standing right there, and they’re trying to act like Killing Someone In Act 3 still has any element of surprise or weight to it.

Even more frustrating is when it’s not just all the old familiar tics and mannerisms and favorite cliches, but the entire sensibility that threatens to overwhelm everything else.

One of the reasons the “Marvel Cinematic Universe” has been so successful is that they’ve been unafraid to let directors bring their own sensibilities to each character. So Iron Man feels like a romantic comedy with robot suits, Thor feels a little bit like a modern take on a Shakespearean tragedy, and Captain America feels like The Rocketeer with a bigger budget and better CG. (I guess DC has done the same, more or less, but it requires you to like Zack Snyder and Christopher Nolan’s sensibilities). It was a great fit for Avengers, as well: it had to be epic and packed full of stuff, so it was important to get somebody who could have huge, effects- and action-heavy sequences and keep it character-focused and have lots of good-looking people being flippant and charming to keep the whole thing from collapsing under its own weight.

Age of Ultron is also packed full of stuff, but somehow, none of it feels all that important. Which is a drag, because I think it made the right decisions going in:

  • It doesn’t pretend that the Avengers are anything other than a superhero team. All the “can these misfits work together?” drama was covered in the last movie, so this one starts right away with a big, complicated fight sequence in which it was clear to everyone that the Avengers were going to win. There’s even dialogue to that effect: one of the bad guys asks whether they can withstand the attack, and a henchman simply replies, “It’s the Avengers.”
  • Knowing that “will they win?” isn’t a valid question, the story puts all of the weight onto character conflict. The reason Scarlet Witch is a threat isn’t because she can overpower them, but that she could cause them all to collapse under their own personal baggage.
  • Even with that, the story knows exactly how far it can take the question of whether they’ll all turn on each other — because we know that even if they do, they’ll work around it by the end — and uses it as an impediment instead of a major crisis. The major crisis instead becomes completely character-driven: they have to deal with the left-over “psychic residue” of the Scarlet Witch’s attacks.
  • And that doesn’t take the form of self-doubt (because again: we’ve already seen them effortlessly taking down bad guys), but questioning what they want. Much more interesting than the question “can I win this fight?” is the question “do I really want to keep fighting?”
  • That cleverly side-steps the whole question of “why is Hawkeye even on this team?” The movie still asks that question outright, and answers it, but the implied answer is even stronger: Hawkeye’s the only one of them who has a “normal” life available to him, which is ostensibly what they’re all fighting for.
  • And that most obviously drives the whole romantic subplot between Black Widow and Bruce Banner, which is handled surprisingly maturely for a “comic book movie.” But it also drives the main plot, which is justifying the creation of Ultron: it states outright that the whole reason for the Avengers to exist is to create a world in which the Avengers don’t need to exist.
  • There’s a party scene that’s presented as if it’s meant to be aspirational: a bunch of clever, beautiful people having fun in a penthouse overlooking Manhattan. The recurring theme — from Rhodey Rhodes’s story about tossing a tank to the various attempt to pick up Thor’s hammer — is how much better these guys have it than “normal people.” The entire rest of the story seems to be questioning that scene: what are they doing, exactly, and why are they doing it? I liked the detail of ending the movie with Avengers Headquarters in a more nondescript, ground-level building outside of Manhattan.
  • “Who would win in a fight?” is a staple of superhero comic books, so we get the huge, destructive showdown between Hulk and Iron Man punching each other through buildings. But it’s framed to be both gratuitous and important to the theme: when the heroes are flying around smashing things, they’re making things worse for the civilians they’re trying to protect.
  • Which ties in yet again with Scarlet Witch & Quicksilver’s story, and puts almost all the emphasis of the climactic fight scene on their efforts to save people, instead of just beating the bad guy. (Which is itself kind of an interesting flip on the fight scene in the first Avengers; the destructive fall-out from that was the basis of a lot of follow-up stories, Daredevil in particular. Here they seem to have actually learned something from the experience). The question isn’t presented as “will they win?” but instead, “how many people will be hurt or killed when they win?”

In theory, it all fits together elegantly, giving the entire movie a nice solid through-line. It’s packed full of characters and sub-plots and franchise set-ups, and nothing feels out of place.

In practice, though, it just kind of drains the urgency out of the whole thing. I kept feeling as if the movie was making assumptions about what I should consider important. Ultron’s plan was never quite clear to me — extinction events and meteors kept getting mentioned, but they just seemed like metaphors — so I could never gauge how dangerous I was supposed to believe he was. I started to wonder whether my lack of a Marvel upbringing was working against me. Would I just “get” how he’s the baddest and most unstoppable of bad guys if I’d read the comics? After all, the Avengers seem to have no problem defeating infinite numbers of robots, vibranium/adamantium enhanced or not.

(I’ve read The Infinity Gauntlet but I still can’t for the life of me understand why people are so excited about even the smallest reference to it. “Is it like their equivalent to Crisis on Infinite Earths?“)

Normally, I’ve got a love/hate relationship with self-awareness in movies and books: it’s not just that I appreciate it when a writer respects my intelligence; I really do believe that it can trigger a kind of connection between the artist and the audience that’s impossible to get from something that’s completely earnest, no matter how honest it is. It’s an acknowledgement of the artificiality of fiction, and an implicit understanding that both the artist and the audience have at least one thing in common: we all know how this works.

But I started to wonder if the self-awareness in Age of Ultron had gone a bit too far into the realm of over-thinking it. It wasn’t arch, or really any other flavor of ironic detachment that you get when an artist feels that he’s better than the material he’s working with. Instead, it just felt kind of weary. The ending felt almost confessional, as if everyone involved would be happier just riding off with Tony Stark and getting out of the Gigantic Multi-feature Franchise business.

Maybe the over-inflated threats, villainous monologues, and crises of self-doubt that get resolved just in time for act 3 are in comic book stories because they need to be there. Maybe they’re not just lazy fallbacks that we’ve seen too many times already; maybe their familiarity is part of the appeal, why we keep going back for superhero stories in the first place.

I’ve said before that I was always more a DC guy than a Marvel guy. What’s been great about all the (good) Marvel adaptations is that you get a real sense of how excited people are about these characters. It’s as if they’re sharing their childhoods with us. That enthusiasm was in the first Avengers movie. Age of Ultron is still good, but it feels like they got all that enthusiasm out of their system. Which is a bizarre thing to say about a movie in which the Hulk and a witch fight legions of robots on a floating city, but there you have it.