By Tom Holste
Oct. 8, 2015
When I first started this blog, I wrote an article about how people might be becoming overwhelmed with all the latest superhero movies. Since that time, I’ve caught up on a lot of Marvel films and TV shows, and for the most part, Marvel has anticipated viewer fatigue and responded by making each project unique. I thoroughly enjoyed the dark and grim Netflix series Daredevil; despite my initial reservations, Ant-Man turned out to be hilarious and inventive; and the ABC TV series Agents of SHIELD, which got off to a rough start two years ago, has thoroughly come into its own.
I’ve liked almost everything I’ve seen, with one exception – ironically, this year’s flagship installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) – Avengers: Age of Ultron.
The movie isn’t outright bad; it’s a respectable effort. But it’s the least interesting thing that Marvel has done since the inception of the MCU. Since writer/director Joss Whedon was again in charge of the production, as he was with the first Avengers, it was surprising that this film missed the mark. But here are the reasons why I think it did in fact miss.
A weak villain. A key problem is Ultron. He’s a villain who can be killed over and over again and not die. The Terminator handled that concept well, but in that film, there was only one nearly-unstoppable robot. Ultron has thousands (millions?) of bodies, so destroying any one of them is meaningless. His bodies are so worthless that at one point Ultron himself destroys one copy just because it’s a slightly older model. How can there be any dramatic tension when “destroying Ultron” is such a pointless goal? There’s a moment when thousands of Ultrons (all clearly CGI) are descending upon our heroes. Rather than being a moment of terror and dread, it looked like nothing so much as a cheap video game.
A lack of urgency. If the first Avengers film had failed, the grand MCU experiment would have ended at that point. There was some sense that this could be the end of the journey, and that maybe one of the major characters would die. As unlikely as it might be for that to happen in a major summer tentpole, there was at least the possibility, particularly with Whedon’s well-known propensity for killing beloved characters. (A semi-important character does die, and it actually elevates his participation to something more memorable than any of his previous appearances.)
But in an age where Avengers movies are super-profitable, we know that the train is going to keep rolling. In fact, Marvel released all of its plans for Phase 3 of its film universe, which includes two more Avengers movies before 2019. What this means is that there’s no sense that anything too important can happen here. This movie is just a placeholder until the next one. By the time those films come out, Marvel will probably have already announced its plans for Phase 4.
One semi-important character does indeed die, but that death hardly registers. The only suggestion that we might not see all our favorites back in the next installment is a moment that indicates that some of the C-level characters will become the new stars. Since we care so little about them, this moment fails to engender any excitement.
Too many characters. In the first Avengers, Whedon deftly balanced its huge roster of characters so that everyone got memorable screentime (Hawkeye was the only one who got a little shortchanged). But the task of giving good moments to all the returning characters plus having to introduce new heroes and villains proves to be overwhelming for even someone with Whedon’s skills. Everyone is shuffled onscreen quickly and then shuffled off again to make room for somebody else. The character who gets the most shortchanged is Falcon, who was great in Captain America: The Winter Soldier and in Ant-Man but shows up for two scenes here and never does any actual fighting. (Ironically, the best-developed character in this film is Hawkeye, who finally gets some backstory.)
There’s also a new character called the Vision, played by Paul Bettany, who had previously appeared in the MCU as a different (but related) character. (I can’t say more for those who haven’t seen the film yet.) His new character is actually less interesting than the old one, and I missed Bettany’s presence as the other character for most of this movie.
On the note of too many characters…
The needless appearance of X-Men characters. Marvel made headlines when it got in a very public legal war with Fox over the use of two characters named Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch. These characters have been on both the X-Men and Avengers teams; the problem is that Fox owns the rights to make movies based on Marvel’s X-Men characters rather than Marvel Films proper, which produces the Avengers movies. Rather than figuring out a scenario that’s mutually beneficial and pleasing to the fans, both studios stubbornly moved forward with conflicting interpretations of the characters. Fox used them in X-Men: Days of Future Past while Marvel used them in Ultron.
Peter (Quicksilver) made a memorable appearance in Future Past, while Wanda (Scarlet Witch) was a non-entity. I don’t think anyone even said her name in that film. (Strangely enough, neither production uses their superhero names.) Pietro (instead of Peter) and Wanda both have things to do in Ultron, but due to the overstuffed nature of the film, even a crucial, emotional moment near the end left me totally cold. In other words, the fight was largely over nothing, as the characters that were so fought over hardly made an impression (although I think I’ll give a slight edge to X-Men).
An unbelievable romance. When Agent Romanoff (Scarlet Johannssen) is introuced in Iron Man 2, Tony Stark flirts with her. In The Avengers, she and Hawkeye seem to share a special bond. In Captain America: The Winter Soldier, she kisses Steve Rogers. So who does she end up with romantically? Bruce Banner, a.k.a. the Hulk – who she mainly seemed afraid of in the first Avengers, leaving with the audience with the general feeling of “…Huh?”
As good of actors as Johannssen and Mark Ruffalo (who plays Banner) are, there’s no chemisty onscreen between them, in part because this romance seems completely out of left field. Also, a lot of viewers (myself included) liked the fact that Romanoff hadn’t been subjected to the cliched romance subplot until now. (Ironically, one of the late Roger Ebert’s criticisms of the first movie is the lack of sex in it. Perhaps this review stung Whedon to make changes, which sadly backfired.)
The final scene between Romanoff and Banner, which is supposed to be touching, instead simply creates the feeling of, “Oh. I guess we’ll find out more later.”
A mildly anti-religious theme. Ultron doesn’t have much motivation for his world-destroying ways, except when he mentions being inspired by the story of Noah. I don’t want to dwell on this aspect of the film too long – this is a free country, and Whedon is free to make the movie how he pleases. And the scene doesn’t go on and on. Plus, in reality, we’ve all seen people misuse their religion for violent ends. Still, in a film that was already lacking in other respects, this proved to be one less thing that I enjoyed or that had resonance for me.
A lack of connectivity to earlier installments. (Spoilers for the first Avengers and Iron Man 3 in the next paragraph.)
In the first Avengers movie, the group was disbanded and everyone went into hiding. In Iron Man 3, Tony blows up all of his suits and retires from being Iron Man. But in this film, everyone is back together right at the beginning, and Tony is already back in the suit without explanation. For a series of films that take pride in how well they connect to one another, seeing everyone already like this is rather jarring and confusing.
Ultimately, what it boils down to is this: Marvel needs to care more about telling each individual story well rather than focusing its attention too heavily on building the MCU. When characters come first, the projects thrive, as they did in Daredevil and Ant-Man. But Age of Ultron feels less like a movie and more just like a series of boxes being checked off. (“We introduced new characters? Check. We set up the next movies? Check…”)
Perhaps the most telling part of the movie is when my parents went to see it. A couple of weeks later, they couldn’t even remember what they had seen. When they finally remembered, they said that they enjoyed it.
But the part of the experience that they really remembered? Eating their Sno-Caps.