Friday, May 1, 2015

'Avengers: Age of Ultron' Is Good But Not As Great As It Could Be


I think the context in which you see a movie can pretty profoundly impact what you think of that movie. Like, for example, when I was sixteen someone told me that I was too immature to like Boondock Saints. So I watched it out of spite and decided that it was my new favorite movie. That kind of thing. The way in which we watch a movie affects our enjoyment arguably as much as the movie itself. A bad movie watched with people you love and can laugh with is about the same as a good movie you watch alone. That sort of thing.

Which is all to say that last night I got to watch Avengers: Age of Ultron with thirty people I love, on my birthday, sandwiched in a movie seat in between my sister and one of my best friends. Goodwill was in the air, I'm a total Marvel junkie, and there is pretty much no more positive way for me to have seen this film.

So when I tell you that it was good, but not great, I want you to understand that I'm not saying this because I'm butthurt or my popcorn wasn't salty enough or I had to see it alone. None of those things are true. And, for the record, Age of Ultron isn't a bad movie. It's a quite good one, actually. It just wasn't as good as we've come to expect from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and that's a damn shame.

The main problem that I have with the film is this: it could have been so much more. And I know that's a sort of backwards kind of complaint. Really what I ought to be doing is analyzing the film we got instead of wishing for a film that never materialized, but the problem here is that Age of Ultron has all of the elements of another spectacular Marvel movie, it just fails to utilize them properly. Seriously, all of the ingredients are there, and they're not terrible on their own. It's like eating a bunch of soup ingredients rather than waiting for the soup to be done. The movie just never managed to put it all together right.

I'll get into specific examples in a minute, but first I just want to tell my readers who have not yet seen the film that this isn't meant to deter them from watching. Your mileage will almost certainly vary - my filmgoing experience isn't yours, and maybe these ingredients are your favorite kind. That's totally cool. I know that out of my group of friends, I was probably the most negative, and considering that my verdict was "I liked it but it's not my favorite," that's saying something.

Go see the movie, enjoy it, have some popcorn, and then we'll talk. Everyone else, meet me after the break, where there are SPOILERS.



Still with me? Awesome.

Okay, so getting into the nitty gritty of the film, I feel like the movie just never managed to really bring it all together properly. We'll start with the big stuff and sort of work our way down.

So, the biggest problem with this film is that the plot never quite works. On a basic level, sure, I can follow what's going on, but once we get down in to the nitty gritty, it falls apart. The Avengers are searching for the scepter, which brings them to a small Eastern European nation where the scepter has been used to create two metahumans: Wanda and Pietro Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron Taylor-Johnson, respectively). 

The Avengers find the scepter, but not before Wanda Maximoff steps in and messes with Tony Stark's head (Robert Downey Jr.), showing him his worst fear. Since his worst fear is that the Avengers would die and the world would end because he couldn't protect them, this puts him on a track for serious crazy.

Everyone flies home with the scepter, planning to let Thor (Chris Hemsworth) take it back to Asgard on Saturday. But, between now and then, Bruce (Mark Ruffalo) and Tony decide to use the scepter to start a complex AI program that might help save the world. 

A program so that the Avengers don't have to be the first line of defense, Tony's robots can do it. They discover that the gem in the scepter contains a scary-advanced AI, so they decide to implant it into their "Ultron" program and create Earth's greatest protector.

During the party, of course, everything goes wrong. Ultron (voiced by James Spader) wakes up and straight up kills JARVIS (voiced by Paul Bettany). It then takes command of a robot body and confronts the Avengers. Since its coding is that it is meant to create and sustain peace, it views all of the Avengers as threats. Sort of like how the helicarriers viewed all of the Avengers as threats in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Just saying.

The Avengers fight Ultron and his robots, but he escapes with the scepter. He's uploaded himself onto the internet now and there's no stopping him! So our heroes go to a small African country (that is as "Hollywood African" as it is physically possible for a movie location to be) to confront an arms dealer named Klaue (Andy Serkis). Klaue has access to vibranium that he stole from Wakanda*, and Ultron probably wants it since it's the strongest metal on earth.

They go to meet Klaue and get more than they bargained for. Ultron is there to confront them, as are Wanda and Pietro. While Pietro and Ultron beat the Avengers up, Wanda gets in their heads and makes them see bad stuff. Eventually she gets into Bruce's head and makes him hulk out, nearly destroying an African city - a generic African city, of course, with a weirdly high number of white cops - before Tony and his Hulkbuster armor can stop him.

Then the Avengers have to go into hiding because everyone is mad at them, I guess. They hide out on Clint's (Jeremy Renner) farm in the middle of nowhere, being all sad and pathetic and unhappy with each other until Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) shows up, gives them an inspirational speech, and then I guess everything is okay again?

So the Avengers track down Ultron, who has been using a geneticist, Dr. Helen Cho (Claudia Kim) to make a "perfect being"  - a mesh of human and robot whose sentience comes straight from the gem in the scepter. Since that gem is the Mind Gem, that's a big deal. But before Ultron can finish downloading his consciousness into this new being, the Avengers show up. 

Steve, (Chris Evans), Natasha (Scarlett Johansson), and Clint distract and fight Ultron so they can steal the being and get away. Also Wanda and Pietro defect and join them because they are convinced that Ultron ending the world is slightly worse than letting the Avengers save it. Oh, and Natasha disappears in an explosion because there can only be one speaking female character on screen at any one time. In with Wanda, out with Natasha.

Sigh.

Back at the lab, Bruce and Tony decide yet again to play God without consulting their teammates. They download a salvaged version of JARVIS into the being's mind, and then, as the team fractures into arguments over what should be done with this incredibly powerful and possibly destructive being, Thor comes back and gives it a power boost. What emerges from the cocoon is Vision (Paul Bettany), a non-human, non-robot something else. But whatever Vision is, it's committed to saving the world, so with help from Thor, Vision rallies them all to bring them back to the small Eastern European country where this all began.

Once they get there they discover that Ultron is going to use the city itself as a meteor to wipe out all life on Earth. They spend most of the third act fighting robots and saving civilians, until the very end, when they all have to destroy the flying city. Also some people die and it is very sad.

After the events of the film, the Avengers are fractured, and most go their separate ways. Tony decides to take a break and do something less destructive with his time, Clint goes back to his farmhouse, Thor goes to Asgard, and Bruce strands himself in the middle of the ocean because of course he does. It's left to Steve and Natasha to make a new Avengers Initiative. And, honestly, seeing that new team, with War Machine (Don Cheadle), Falcon (Anthony Mackie), Scarlet Witch aka Wanda, and Vision, was one of my favorite parts of the film.

Okay, so, looking back at the plot, I hope you can see what frustrated me. Because the biggest issue I have with the movie is that it really doesn't make much sense. When Ultron is created, it is created from a combination of the mind in the Mind Gem and Tony's protection matrix. But it's also made of JARVIS too, as it pretty much eats JARVIS when it comes to awareness.

So what part of Ultron was the crazy part? Later on, Vision comes out and is essentially a combination of those exact same things, except with a more direct input from Ultron itself, and Vision is mostly fine. Why? What's the actual difference? I mean, we never even really find out how or why Ultron woke up early in the first place. Why did the Mind Gem seemingly change its mind about destroying the world?

And that brings up another question: did Wanda know that all of this would happen when she messed with Tony's head? Because I'm thinking not. But if she didn't know it would happen, then why were there so many robot shells lying around in that castle? The robot shells were presumably for a project like Ultron, but if Ultron was spontaneous and never actually planned, then what were they actually for?

Also, when Wanda shows the Avengers their dark moments, what are those moments actually about? Like, are they visions of the future? Memories? Fears? Out of all of them, I feel like the ones that made the most sense were Tony's and Natasha's. Tony of course fears that he is not powerful enough to do things single-handedly and that everyone will fail because of it, and Natasha fears what was done to her in the Black Widow program.

But Thor and Steve have really weird visions. Thor sees an Asgard full of apocalyptic partying, but for no clear reason. It's not established that this apocalypse is because he screwed up or anything, it's just weird and kind of freaky. Steve is also shown an unsettling party, but it's one that has Peggy in it. Is it meant to suggest that Steve could live in the dream world with Peggy and not wake up? Because that is not established. It's just unsettling, and then over.

Furthermore, what the heckity heck did Thor see in his dream that made him track down Erik Selvig and go to that mirror pool so that he could access the dream and then see something else and then make Vision happen? That whole sequence was baffling, and it was not explained or even really acknowledged. If it's not important, then why include it?

Bruce's motivation throughout this film is very unclear. At first he seems interested in helping Tony make Ultron because he wants to live in a world where there's peace and he doesn't have to be the Hulk. But then later, after it's clear that making Ultron makes more problems for the Hulk, why does Bruce agree to do it again? Why does he disappear at the end of the movie? Like, I get it, feelings and poignancy, but it didn't actually make sense as a character move. It was just a typical movie "we can never be together" moment. Lame.

What frustrates me in all of this, really, is that it all has the potential to be so much more. The Ultron plot really came off as a kind of hacky rehash of previous Marvel plots, but it had the potential to be a spectacular look at the problems with peace by disarmament. Since so much of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is about an escalation of violence and strength and stakes, it would have been really intriguing for this movie to put us more clearly in the wake of that destruction. 

Wanda and Pietro are fantastic characters. Their hatred of the Avengers is clearly well-seated and pretty reasonable. We should have gotten more of that. Instead we got one (very good) monologue, and then nothing. This is problematic, because it allows Tony to never really address his role in destroying their lives. Wanda and Pietro have a really legitimate beef with Stark Industries, but they also could have been written into characters have a very legitimate issue with the Avengers as a whole. I mean, the Avengers come into foreign countries without asking permission, destroy whole cities, and then just leave? Give me aftermath, give me angst, give me consequences.

And for all that this movie was about Tony's fears and ego, he was a considerably less developed character than he's been in all the other films so far. He was just this kind of ineffectual genius who couldn't see his own limitations but refused to accept that. Humorless, dry, and frankly annoying. I get that he was mind-whammied, but that doesn't make it better.

There was room for a lot more in this movie, is what I'm getting at. And there was also room for a lot less. More character time, fewer action set pieces and characters. Like, oh my gosh, there were so many characters. I didn't even mention all of them in my little recap, and I put in the actor names just so I could see how stinking many there are. Yes, they're all fantastic characters and very interesting, but there were so many that it was genuinely confusing and hard to keep track of.

But I don't want you to read all of this and think that I hated the movie. I didn't. My frustration isn't that I found nothing to love in this, but more that I found so many opportunities for this film to become truly great, and they were all wasted.

There were, however, some really wonderful points that did get into the final version. Like, Clint's family? A fantastic reveal. I've always been partial to the comics Hawkeye whose life is effectively garbage, but it was really cool to have a reveal that shows Clint Barton is a kind and loving father. It was even better to see how Natasha fit into all of this, and the revelation that she not only knew but went by "Aunty Nat" was adorable. 

I really loved Natasha's monologue about her past in the Red Room. It was absolutely heatbreaking, Johansson tore it to shreds and made me almost start crying in the theater, and Ruffalo did an awesome job just giving horrified reaction shots. My one real dislike in that scene? That the film doesn't really address how incredibly messed the hell up it is that Natasha calls herself a monster for not being able to bear children. I mean, I totally get why she thinks that, but to have Bruce not contradict it and then sort of agree that they can be monsters together made it implicit that he agrees. Which is not cool or in character for him.

And just in general I didn't love Natasha's characterization in this film. While Johansson is a fantastic actor, it felt a bit out of step with her previous versions. Like, this is not the same Nat as in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. She feels decades older. And maybe she has changed a lot in the intervening year, but, really? This much? This much into a completely different person? I doubt it.

But, again, my issue is really with the characterization. Johansson is fantastic, and watching Scarlett freaking Johansson and Oscar Nominee Mark Ruffalo go head to head in dramatic scenes is a desire I never knew I had. I love that after countless movies focusing on Thor and Tony and Steve, we got a film about the other three, the ignored ones. Yay!

I have more thoughts, but I'll save them for another time. Suffice to say this: Avengers: Age of Ultron is a good movie, but it could have been a great one. And if there's one thing that bothers me more than almost anything else in media, it's mediocrity. Fail or succeed, I'd rather know that you worked your butt off to get there. I want movies that try, and unfortunately, it feels a bit like this movie was paint by numbers. Like it was a little too scared of failing to really go for it and try. Which blows.

I mean, it's no Iron Man 2 of terribleness, but it's not exactly Captain America 2 either, is it?

Was anyone else weirdly mesmerized by Ultron's lips?
*Vibranium is the stuff in Steve's shield, and Wakanda is the home country of the Black Panther. I appreciate that they set this up early, but I could have done with more than this teensy taste.

9 comments:

  1. So what part of Ultron was the crazy part? Later on, Vision comes out and is essentially a combination of those exact same things, except with a more direct input from Ultron itself, and Vision is mostly fine. Why? What's the actual difference?

    Ultron wrecks Jarvis, but doesn't take in his/its core protocols; those end up on the net until Tony puts a copy of them into Vision. So the difference is a dose of the proper Jarvis. And possibly more coherence: Jarvis formed the core of Vision, whereas Ulton had no core to cohere its conflicting impulses.

    Wanda and Pietro are fantastic characters. Their hatred of the Avengers is clearly well-seated and pretty reasonable.

    One thing I liked was that it was essentially taken as read that there would be people in the world to whom it wouldn't be immediately obvious that a team bankrolled by an industrialist like Tony Stark and led by a guy literally called Captain America is one that would stand up for them the way it did for New York.

    It was even better to see how Natasha fit into all of this, and the revelation that she not only knew but went by "Aunty Nat" was adorable.

    I was also happy that this family wasn't killed to give Hawkeye manpain, or even imperilled to "make it personal" (really, I think heroism stands out more when it's employed for people the hero doesn't specifically care about).

    My one real dislike in that scene? That the film doesn't really address how incredibly messed the hell up it is that Natasha calls herself a monster for not being able to bear children.

    Yes. It would be nice to think that Nat only mentioned that as a note of commonality because Bruce had brought up his own sterility, but if so, it *really* didn't come off in the script. (And when I try to think so, I remember that Joss Whedon has done pregnancy-as-redemption in the past). Johansso saves it though.

    It makes me all the more frustrated that we'll probably never get a solo Black Widow film to explore all this, though.

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    1. I mean, that helps explain it, but I still feel unsatisfied with Ultron as a character. You know?

      Oh man, I absolutely love that this movie addressed how the whole world will not automatically love a superhero team where the US' leading arms manufacturer teams up with a guy in a flag and a literal weapon of mass destruction to dispense their own justice. Like, THANK YOU FOR NOTICING PEOPLE MIGHT OBJECT. But I wish they'd then done more with this storyline.

      I spent the whole time with Hawkeye's family going, "Oh man, if you kill them or him I will be so disappointed in your subpar, unimaginative storytelling."

      And I totally agree. On a slightly unrelated note, that's why I was so angry about the reveal that Snape was in love with Lily Potter. Because, to me, his heroism meant so much more when he was doing the right thing because it was the right thing to do, not for love. Heroism for people you don't know is way more powerful.

      It does parallel with Bruce's sterility, but it's clear that Bruce views his sterility in a different light. He sees it as a failure to her. She might want children and he can't give them to her. He doesn't think of it as a value judgment on him. And while I generally adore Joss Whedon, I don't love how he treats pregnancy. It's always tragic or a form of redemption or somehow a statement on a character's worth. Which is kind of a huge problem.

      I am continuing to believe that a solo Black Widow movie could happen. I know it's faint hope, but it's my faint hope!

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    2. Good point about the value judgment. He's treating it as something that happened to him, she's treating it as something she's become. Which isn't inconsistent with Johansson and Ruffalo's performances, I admit, but still gives me the queas.

      (I was happy to see Mark Ruffalo calling for more Black Widow merchandise).

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    3. I think part of the reason that scene annoys me too is that here we have two freaking phenomenal actors, being asked to spew out dialogue that isn't up to their level. They do a great job of selling it, but I feel like I want to demand a Ruffalo/Johansson version of Macbeth now, right?

      (Mark Ruffalo is an adorable human being.)

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  2. And in, oh for fuck's sake news. (The comments irritate too).

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    1. Graaaaargh. But fortunately most of the top-voted comments (right now at least) are looking more "Where my Black Widow toys?" than "Stop whining and get in the kitchen." Like, for the moment.

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  3. Wanda and Pietro are fantastic characters. Their hatred of the Avengers is clearly well-seated and pretty reasonable.

    Reminded by other post, I have to echo this and give props to Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron Taylor Johnson; they did a fantastic job of getting my investment into the twins, both of sympathetic villains (and it takes a lot for me to sympathise with someone who's throwing traumatic wrecking balls through people's minds), and their eventual transformation into heroes. And they really sold the twins as having had no one but each other in the world for far too long.

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    1. Totally agreed. They were one of my favorite parts of the movie. And I love that Cap defended their choices by placing them in a global context by recognizing American "specialism" as a bad point of view. I love eveeeeeerything about them. Mostly.

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