Day 11 of 11 Days of Marvel is here! In this project, Bill and Erin go through every single extant film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and write their reactions to them! The project started here, with Iron Man, or you can click here to see all the articles in the project so far. Today is about:
Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
Bill’s Response: I Dare You to Do Better
This movie had a lot riding on it, and I think almost every review I read at the time it came out focused less on its individual merits and more on its place in the broader MCU canon. This makes sense: Although Ant-Man is technically the end of “Phase 2” of the project, I think Ultron is the movie which most symbolizes the end of the first two arcs of the MCU. People who are predisposed to hate the inter-connected marketing blitz that is the MCU found Ultron incomprehensible and boring, while people who are predisposed to love all the intertwined references and cameos from other movies mostly liked it a lot. Further, the clumsy scene between Banner and Romanoff in Hawkeye’s farmhouse distracted much of the critical discussion away from the movie as a whole and more towards its portrayal of women, and their place in superhero movies as a whole.
What I’m saying is that it’s hard to examine this movie strictly on its own terms. It serves as the second part of the Avengers “trilogy,”1 and second-installments are hard to land on the best of days. You need to advance plots brought forth in the first movie and set up the third while still maintaining some semblance of self-identity, which is very difficult. Further add the fact that Ultron needs to make references to many of the other MCU movies aside from just The Avengers while trying to tell a coherent plot and selling a ton of toys, and you have an incredibly tall order. I said before that it’s something of a miracle that The Avengers was a coherent movie, and Ultron faced even more challenges than the first movie did. There is a lot going on in this movie.
I nevertheless mostly like it. It’s not smooth or efficient the way a perfect movie should be – there are rough edges everywhere, truncated plotlines and weird pacing, but I actually think it succeeds relatively well. It is true that I cannot imagine making any sense of this movie if you haven’t seen most of the rest of the MCU2 and that may account for why many people didn’t care for it. Even people who have seen all of the MCU movies but aren’t as bizarrely obsessed with them as I am may have lost track of who some of the supporting cameos were or what, exactly, all these weird glowing rocks are. Since Erin and I had pretty recently watched all of the other MCU movies, however, I don’t think we had very much trouble following what was going on.
I still haven’t really said very much about the movie, because it’s hard to approach. I think it’s the first MCU movie that I wish was longer, rather than shorter: it feels like it should have been a miniseries rather than a single 2.5 hour movie, and I think it’s interesting enough that I’d like to have seen that miniseries. Ultron’s arc is actually pretty neat, even if it does culminate in the attempted annihilation of the world (which is still so boring, as I’ve said a dozen times before). Much of his changes in motivation happen in about four lines of dialogue, so I’d like to have spent a little more time with him before he threw his final temper tantrum and resolved to destroy all of humanity. Nevertheless, the arc makes sense: aware of the coming Infinity War (or whatever we’re calling the fact that Thanos is coming soon), Ultron thinks the only way to “save” the world, as per his programming, is to force humanity to evolve. So he plans to kill many of them and force the rest into survival mode. At least, I think that’s his motivation. Like I said, it happens in about four lines of dialogue. Then, when his own attempt at evolution is thwarted when they steal his new body, he becomes furious and resolves to just kill everyone instead.
Spader was a perfect choice for Ultron: a deep, menacing voice which can nevertheless deliver the sort of snarky and irreverent dialogue for which Joss Whedon is famous. Spader can sell Ultron both growlingly quoting scripture and comically apologizing for accidentally slicing off Ulysses Klaw’s arm. He’s a good villain, and I wish we could spend more time with him. The MCU’s villains are often not as good as I’d like, so that’s a good problem to have.
Many other people have written about Whedon’s skill with dialogue, and at this point it’s pretty much acknowledged as truth that the man has a gift for words. The light touch with the dialogue keeps the movie running forward and helps prevent its long running time and many different plots from becoming too painful. Even if you’re not necessarily sure what’s going on, at least everyone is having a good time and spouting witty dialogue as they punch robots in the face.
Anyway, I’ve already said a lot. But unlike the first Avengers movie, Ultron is also trying to be about a few things, about human self-identity and what “saving the world” really looks like, and even when it’s sometimes stretched too thin, it’s still a good time. I can’t argue too much with that.
More to the point, I think this movie was always going to look like this. In May, as we sat in the theater and the lights began to dim, I looked at Erin and said, “This movie is going to be crowded and clumsy,” and I was right. But I enjoyed it anyway. And I also think it’s not as symbolic of the future of the MCU as people wanted to make it. I actually think Ant-Man will be more predictive: if the launch of this new MCU property goes well, it will imply the train hasn’t gone completely off the rails. But if Ant-Man also feels like a clumsy and crowded movie which exists only to set up future movies, that may spell the doom of the MCU more than Ultron could ever have, both in terms of quality and box office returns.
Favorite Moment: The look on Clint Barton’s face when he thinks he’s going to die, just before Quicksilver saves him. He sees the Quinjet coming towards him, realizes Ultron is piloting it and revving up the machine gun, and he grits his teeth, sighs, and tries to shield the little boy’s body with his own. Jeremy Renner is fantastic as Hawkeye, and I think he gets overlooked in favor of some of the flashier performances. But the look in his eyes as he makes that decision is perfect. He’s doing it, even though he knows it means he won’t see his family again, because it’s his job.
Least Favorite Moment: I mean, the scene in the farmhouse that everyone hates really doesn’t land well, and I don’t like it either. I think it’s more because of time constraints than a deliberate attempt to equate sterility with monstrosity, but it’s still a bad scene.
Best Captain America Moment: “Yeah, who would let a German scientist experiment on them to save their country?” Because, as we’ve kept saying, Steve Rogers is the best: even as he knows he will need to fight the Maximoff twins, he sympathizes with them, understands their position, and refuses to let Maria Hill dehumanize them. This helps contextualize his later decision to trust them in the runaway train.
Favorite Thematic Middle Finger to Man of Steel: The whole back half of the movie is about preventing collateral damage, because that’s what heroes are supposed to do. TAKE THAT, ZACK SNYDER.
1. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
2. Captain America: The First Avenger
3. The Avengers
4. Iron Man
5. Iron Man 3
6. Avengers: Age of Ultron
8. The Incredible Hulk
9. Guardians of the Galaxy
10. Iron Man 2
11. Thor: The Dark World
Erin’s Response: Age of Ultron and the Green Power Smoothie
Of all of the movies that we re-watched, I think this one was the most fun to watch again. First off, following the plot was easier the second time around – I knew we were headed to Africa (although it felt even more like a set up for Black Panther the second time around), I knew that Dr. Banner would capitulate to Stark not once but twice, and I was prepared for some deeply troubling discussions about the Black Widow’s sexuality/monster-dom. I am sure that if I wanted to I could talk about how much I disliked her flashbacks, how envious she is of Hawkeye’s barefoot and pregnant secret-wife and his children, or how she compares her sterility to being a monster. I still think that scene desperately needed more dialogue to come off as anything but strange and horrible, but I have watched Whedon do some fantastic things with female characters in the past. I am now of the opinion that the problems with her character development were probably created by truncated (and artificially imposed) time constraints rather than out-and-out misogyny.
Instead, I would posit that a much more interesting way to look at this movie is through a paradigm of care. Because of this project, Tony Stark’s breakdown and fear from Iron Man 3 is still fresh in my mind, and his actions make so much more sense when one remembers all of his pent-up fear in Iron Man 3. In this movie, Tony tries to care. Ultron is born of the fear that Tony won’t be able to save the world or, perhaps most importantly, his friends.
While there are many things I could say about this movie, I want to put some of my Art History training to good use and do an in-depth reading of what I think might be the key to understanding Stark and the way his character relates to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Right after their first bad-ass battle, the Avengers return to headquarters, and while Hawkeye’s serious injury is treated, Tony makes the whole team a green power smoothie. It is such a throwaway moment, but it really resonated with me. Tony’s care is so often conceptualized in terms of technology (the cleaning and disassembling of his suits, the gadgets he makes for himself and the team, the fancy clubhouse he has created for them, etc.) that the green power smoothie, by its pedestrian, unassuming nature, is beautiful. It is not like anyone needs to be watching their weight or that they need some good food to perform better – they are all gods or at least close to it. Thor is an actual God, the damage that happens to the Hulk never seems to be transmitted to Dr. Banner, Captain America’s body is patented by the US Government, and with his new arc reactor, Tony is healthier than ever before. These people don’t need care, and yet Stark offers it up in the most natural and unassuming way. He feeds them, even though they don’t need to be fed (this action is later echoed in the “kitchen sink” scene at the farmhouse). That sentiment is one that carries this movie – from the green smoothie to the Black Widow’s care for the Hulk , from their amazing joshing around about Thor’s hammer to the final (and I will admit, a bit ricioulous) urge to clear all of Sokovia’s inhabitants even while Ultron hangs another asteroid apocalypse over their heads. Care, abundant, consuming, and (as embodied in Ultron) destructive, makes this one of the most human of all the Marvel movies.
When Captain America budges the hammer. So excellent, so kind, so hot, so good. He is my favorite. No apologies.
Least Favorite Moment:
Black Widow’s discussion with Banner still makes me really uncomfortable. Perhaps I shall write about that another day.
Most Important Smoothie:
Didn’t you read my article? ;)
1. Captain America: The First Avenger
2. Iron Man
3. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
4. Avengers: Age of Ultron
5. The Avengers
6. Iron Man 3
8. Guardians of the Galaxy
9. The Incredible Hulk
10. Iron Man 2
11. Thor: The Dark World
And Now, A Conversation
Bill: Something I had wanted to talk about: you touched on the element of care, and I think you’re absolutely right that it’s what makes this movie work. These people are friends in a way that most movie casts aren’t.
Erin: And in a way that they weren’t in the last movie. They are now Assembled!
Bill: It’s in the little things, not the Grand Gestures, which is what Guardians of the Galaxy didn’t understand. It’s the silly jokes and the care that shows that they are a team of friends and not simply fellow cast members.
Erin: Exactly! This movie feels like the behind the scenes was just as much fun as the movie itself.
Bill: Yeah, I like to think that the cast hangs out all the time. I don’t know if it’s true, but I sure hope so.
Erin: Although, I have to say, BLOW UP SOKOVIA. I am a bit terrified to think that superheroes would let the world end over 200,000 civilians. But I know you disagree. ;)
Bill: Well, I mean, I suspect they eventually would have, had it come to that. But I think it’s important as a stylistic choice: these are superheroes, and part of the point of superhero stories is they allow us to think about what we would do if we could transcend our own limitations. That’s why Superman should always be able to save the day without sacrificing his moral compass: if I want that kind of “what is the right thing to do in a tough situation where you can’t save everybody” question, I should read Batman.
Erin: Also I think you are right about Jeremy Renner, but wrong about the last scene with Hawkeye. It isn’t about it being his “job,” it is about doing and being what is good and right. He isn’t a god, just an excellent man. And that is more powerful than anything else.
Bill: I understand what you mean. What I wanted to communicate is that he doesn’t hesitate at all: he sees the situation, and knows exactly what he has to do. That’s what I mean: this is what he MUST do, and he has no real choice about it. That, I think, must be why Quicksilver chose to try to save him (aside of course from the rights dispute which necessitated his death somewhere in the movie). He saw Hawkeye make the choice without a moment of hesitation, like it was second nature, and realized he had to save him.
Erin: Well, again, I think that was clumsy. His death didn’t have any real punch. If this was a longer movie we could have spent more time with the twins, and that would have been better. Although I did like how they styled Elizabeth Olson: she is very proportional, her larger boobs are in keeping with her more natural curves, but I don’t think they oversexualized her.
Bill: I hear what you mean: I was pretty happy with the Scarlet Witch overall, actually, though as you say, I would have liked to spend more time with the Maximoff twins. Which brings me tangentially to two questions for you. First: we’ve lamented the lack of “badass female scientists” in the MCU so far. Do you think Helen Cho makes any steps in that direction?
Bill: Fair enough.
Erin: To expound: she isn’t interesting, isn’t a main character, and her team-switching to Ultron was so hard to follow it almost didn’t matter. Also. WHERE WAS JANE FOSTER? WHY WAS SELVIG HERE AGAIN? Seriously, where were Potts and Foster? I enjoyed the banter between Thor and Stark about their accomplishments, but it still rang hollow.
Bill: Yeah. I’m happy to reiterate that these movies would be infinitely better if Erik Selvig didn’t exist and Jane Foster did all of his major story beats instead. Also, as much as I love Anthony Mackie as the Falcon, it probably would have made more sense to get Paltrow and/or Portman back instead, if they had to choose.
Bill: Anyway, second question: what did you think about the Vision? I don’t think we’ve talked about him yet at all, and he’s kind of important.
Erin: Well, I loved that he was trustworthy because he could move Thor’s hammer. It was a great joke to come back to, and it was excellent shorthand for his character. I am interested to see what they will do with him. He seems to be the kind of character that could be a protagonist or antagonist at the drop of a hat but would always be consistent. I hope they continue to write him well!
Bill: Agreed. I’m glad they found a way to have Paul Bettany play him: Jarvis and Ultron have nothing to do with each other in (most) of the comics (I think), but I think it was both a good idea in terms of the fiction and because Bettany is a fantastic Vision. Bettany is a really underappreciated actor, I think, and it will be good to see if he gets do any meatier stuff with this part.
Erin: I love Paul Bettany too, because Master and Commander.
Bill: Really, though.
Erin: The best. Anyway, I read an interview with Whedon where he talked about all the things he had to do to save the farmhouse scenes. Do you think it was worth it?
Bill: I think it probably was worth it in theory, but we didn’t get as much out of it as we should have. We did need a break somewhere, and seeing Hawkeye’s family was good, both for his characterization as the only actual person on the team and to make Steve feel sad about the life he can’t have. In a world where the Banner/Romanoff scene wasn’t so damn clumsy it would really be worth it. I don’t know: I guess I don’t know what the execs wanted instead. We certainly couldn’t have gone straight from the Hulkbuster fight to the stuff in Korea: we needed some down time, and I don’t know what else would have happened.
Bill: So: we are going to see Ant-Man in a few hours. Any predictions? Any thoughts?
Erin: I don’t think this one has as much build up (or as many people who want to see it) so I am hoping they might feel free to have a bit more fun with it (a la The Incredible Hulk). What about you?
Bill: I’m not sure. The trailers leave me really uncertain how to respond. I think it’s going to try to be more comedic than a straight action movie, which is probably a good choice, but Guardians of the Galaxy makes me worry that the MCU doesn’t know what “funny” actually means. Other people constantly try to imitate Whedon’s style and it almost never works (see Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.), so it needs to have its own identity. We’ll find out tonight!
Well, that’s it for Ultron! Tune in tomorrow for the 11 Days of Marvel BONUS ROUND, where we talk about Ant-Man! Comment below if you have any responses to our thoughts about Ultron or any of the other MCU movies so far!Notes:
- Of course, the last part of this trilogy is going to be split into two movies, because that’s how everything works now. I hope whatever Warner Bros. executive decided to test-drive this maneuver with Harry Potter 7.5 drowns in his money-pool. [↩]
- At least Captain America: The Winter Soldier, The Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy and, ick, Thor: The Dark World, since it makes many references to all of those. [↩]