Avengers: Age of Ultron is the most polarizing movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Some hail it as a classic of the superhero genre that outdoes its predecessor, while others think it’s an overblown, sexist, convoluted, and unfunny piece of shit. We seem to be in a period of time when pop culture is judged on black and white terms: you either love it or hate it, there is no in between, and three-star reviews are for cowards. Age of Ultron had a lot riding on it: it’s the sequel to the biggest, and at the time most successful, team-up movie of all time that had to improve on what many saw as very near perfection. For returning director Joss Whedon, this task proved impossible and he deserves some of the blame for Ultron’s inconsistency, but this failure is nothing new in superhero movies.
Think about Iron Man 2 or Thor: The Dark World: superhero movies that failed to capitalise on the success of their hero’s origin stories, and they weren’t even part of anything new. Multiply that pressure by a thousand and you have an idea of Whedon’s task. In fairness, Age of Ultron is a much better movie than I remembered. I, like so many others, felt betrayed by Whedon’s failure to make a perfect sequel, mostly due to his status as the God of geeks. Outside that stupidly privileged attitude, I realised, with the help of the Kick Ass films, that what’s new in cinema can get stale extremely quickly.
Kick Ass paved the way for the likes of Guardians of the Galaxy and Deadpool, and like The Avengers, felt like a completely new type of superhero movie. Fast-forward to Kick Ass 2, and what felt so fresh now feels old hat. Age of Ultron suffers from the same thing as Kick Ass 2, where familiarity bred contempt.
In fairness to Joss Whedon, he did try something with Age of Ultron. With the Avengers now assembled, the sequel gave him then opportunity to tell a deeper story than the first, and with the help of a classic science fiction novel he tried to dig a little deeper into what makes each Avenger tick. That novel was Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, with Tony Stark in the role of the titular scientist looking to play God, and Ultron being his monstrous creation. The connection doesn’t stop there, as both Steve Rogers and Bruce Banner can been seen through these lenses: Steve became Captain America through being the product of an experiment, and even though the Hulk has a closer literary parallel in Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyd,e his feelings of isolation from the human race are similar to the monster’s feelings in the novel. The Maximoff twins fit this theme like a glove.
Another theme that Whedon threads through the film is that of parenthood – Tony is the father of Ultron, Hawkeye has his own secret family, Cap is the boss of the Avengers who make up his work family, and Thor is hiding from his own destiny of becoming the Allfather to his own people; also he and Tony are Vison’s parents which is text that went right over my head last time even though it’s bloody obvious (the spark of life literally comes from the Norse god).
Now to address the elephant in the room. There is one character that encapsulates both of these themes, of the resentful creation and the burden of parenthood, more than the others and that’s Natasha/Black Widow. The fact that she is a former Soviet killer and that she was sterilised as part of that training makes her feel like a monster. I see what Whedon was going for here, especially through the romantic plot with Bruce (more on that at the usual place), but it also feels like a misstep that, through its inclusion and the way it’s handled, devolves Natasha’s character. As the core female hero of this franchise, this is a typically obvious way to go. Think of three iconic female heroes from popular genre films. Are two out of the three Sarah Connor and Ellen Ripley? I’m sure they are. What those heroes have in common is that they are both driven by maternal instincts, Ripley more so in Aliens. You know who never has to worry about kids? Male heroes. Have you ever seen Snake Plissken save a crying child in a gun fight? No, but Jyn Erso, who has many of Snake’s qualities, has.
Back to the point. The fact that Natasha’s growth comes from her inability to be a mother is lazy writing. Even I, a guy who has my pop culture needs catered to constantly, know that women have more going on in their head than babies. Which brings us to…
Ticking the Romance Box
I’m not entirely against the Natasha/Bruce romance, although being the only woman in the team meant that this plot was inevitable. The reasoning behind it is quite sweet, and while I’m annoyed at the way Natasha’s arc has been skewed because of her gender, I don’t believe that characters should miss out on romance. I just wish it was done a little better, and I sincerely hope that I never have to cringe my way through another one of Steve’s big brotherly speeches.
The Villain Corner
As the sub-heading suggests, I have mixed feelings about Ultron (this is a very “mixed feelings” movie). His position as the villain and being Tony’s creation make Tony the de-facto lead of the movie. If Whedon got one thing absolutely right in Age of Ultron it’s Tony. Joss Whedon seems to understand Tony better than any other MCU filmmaker, and while Tony has to be reckless in order for Ultron to be born, and the title to make sense, Whedon grounds it in the trauma of the battle of New York. This is something that Iron Man 3 let slip through its fingers. Ultron himself is often a joy to watch, with his James Spader voice and bat-shit crazy plan to drop a town-shaped meteor on the planet, all the while acting like a rebellious teenager that would rather trash his room that clean it. Ok, I think Ultron is awesome.
Avengers: Age of Ultron is a messy movie. It’s action scenes, barring the Hulk-buster sequence, and the splash-page delight of the opening assault, are convoluted and messy, and there is far too much story to adequately fill it’s two hour and fifteen-minute runtime. Unlike the first movie, a lot of characters get lost in the mix, and the ones that have more screen-time aren’t the ones you want to watch. After the brilliance of The Winter Soldier, Steve Rogers is in a holding pattern, with only his Peggy Carter-featuring vision giving us anything under the surface. Things are even worse for Thor. It’s really no wonder that Chris Hemsworth thought about hanging up his hammer before Ragnarok because, apart from co-creating Vision, he’s just the big dude with the hammer.
Then there’s the increased presence of Hawkeye which, apart from some good back and forth with the Maximoff’s, stops the movie dead. Seriously, is his wife able to have a social life? Is she doing all the farming while he’s away despite being heavily pregnant?
Of the new characters it’s only Elizabeth Olsen that makes a lasting impression as Scarlet Witch. Aaron Taylor Johnson’s Quicksilver suffers from being underwritten, obviously marked for death, and overshadowed by Evan Peter’s version of the character in the superior X-Men: Days of Future Past.
To sum up this wild, Frankenstein’s monster of a movie is no easy task. It clearly has some good points, but it’s bogged down by some weird choices: reproductive terrorism and Iron Man spouting rape jokes do not a family blockbuster make, but Avengers: Age of Ultron is built on compelling themes and a sizable ambition, despite not having as big an impact on the Universe as past and future team-up movies. Basically, this coward is giving it three stars.
By Kevin Boyle
(header image courtesy of Projected Reality)