Movie Review – AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON, and the Tale of Bloated Diminishing Returns

Avengers-Age-of-Ultron-IMAX-HR-1

There are some mild spoilers in this diatribe. You have been warned. Although, I’m pretty sure all the marketing already did that for you. 

Superhero movies have a hard narrative hill to climb when it comes to creating scenarios that will get an audience invested; creating “stakes,” would be another way to put it. The outcome of every situation involving supers is, for the most part, a foregone conclusion. We know that somehow, someway they will be triumphant. So, the challenge when telling these stories come from a much smaller and more personal place. We want to know how these characters are dealing with saving the world. It goes beyond the narrative need to present these supers as relate-able, it becomes a narrative imperative, because without personal stakes that go beyond the world’s demise, why would we care?

Avenger: Age of Ultron feels more slight than it’s predecessor, The Avengers(Also, why did they drop “The” from the title. Branding is weird.). It feels more like a one off comic mini-series, almost like filler, than something that is connected to the larger fabric of the MCU. Broadly, it’s not a story that really needed to be told; instead, it just ends up being there to put other things into place for later movies. This story telling approach is something that has always bothered me when it comes to the Marvel movies. They, more times than not, are not allowed to be their own thing, and are always forced to shoehorn in plot elements that don’t pertain to the story they are telling in any individual movie. So, as a result the movies always have elements that feel under cooked.

To be fair, they have gotten better at making everything feel connected. Take Captain America: The Winter Soldier for instance, my favorite movie in the MCU. Both of it’s plots, The Winter Soldier and the rise of Hydra, are seamlessly connected because they are directly related. And not just that, they both have direct consequence pertaining to the rest of the universe. The story feels complete, and once the credits started rolling I was completely satisfied. Everything is very directed and purposeful, nothing feels superfluous, or shoehorned in, like the world building elements in the films that came before it. It made me hopeful for the future of the MCU. Like, maybe, the creative forces were finally starting to get the hang of this long form cinematic storytelling approach. If all of these movies are connected, why don’t they focus on stories that effect the universe as a whole? Yeah, it’s a difficult balancing act, but when every story is told in a way that is supposed to make me care more about movies that are coming out years later than the movie I’m watching, I don’t know, I find that to be problematic. And, unfortunately, Avengers 2 kind of falls victim to that. Kind of.

The thing that surprised me the most about AoU was how much of a retread of the first Avengers movie it was. For every scene in the original the sequel has a scene that almost acts as an equivalent. From Banner and Stark “sciencing” to Hulk losing control. I mean, that’s all well and good if done correctly, if they used these familiar scenarios to undermine our expectations, but they don’t, as their conclusions are pretty much the same as the last time you saw them.  Also, Loki’s tesseract powered staff is still a thing? I understand that it has a purpose beyond what it’s been used for in the past, but having it as a kinda/sorta maguffin again makes the first half’s motivated action feel a little too familiar. Adding insult to narrative injury, it never really gets paid off for the characters; At a certain point they kind of just drop it all together. Yeah, it gets paid off for us, we are shown what happens, but the Avengers don’t know, and, if memory serves me correct, they don’t ever mention it again after Thor brings up that they have to go find it again. Sure, acknowledging that the movie is a retread is nice and all, but it doesn’t change the fact that, well, it’s kind of a retread.

So, Ultron, huh? The rogue AI that Banner and Stark have unwittingly wrought upon mankind. He’s an all intelligent, all knowing, seemingly omnipotent super computer. Nothing is outside of his control. He is the most formidable opponent that the Avengers have faced thus far… Right? Nope. He pretty much just ends up being a psycho with a bomb. I mean, yeah, it’s a really big bomb and all, but that ends up being pretty much it. He has more in common with a Smallville villain of the week than a credible threat. The movie constantly “says” that he’s a big deal while also simultaneously undermining his credibility with every passing scene. His first monologue is pretty menacing, but nothing he says or does after that supports who we are supposed to think he is. He comes off like a petulant teenager, railing against a father figure, which could have been interesting if they had done anything with it.

They pay lip service to the idea of fathers and sons and how often times they are reflections of one another, but other than a few passing mentions of this idea early on in the movie it’s never really developed in any significant way, which is a real shame. It could have given a fairly shallow movie some interesting sub-text, and could have acted as justification for Ultron’s inconsistent personality, or his apparent religious zealotry. It would have been interesting to see Ultron struggle with why he thinks the way he does, and maybe even have to confront the fact that some of his ideological leanings have more to do with distancing himself from Stark’s than being born out of righteousness. Hell, if they did that they could have explored ideas involving sentience and what it means to be alive, giving Ultron some much needed agency(They could have told a pseudo Frankenstein type of story, but obviously that’s asking too much. “We’ve got shit to explode here, people!”) His plan never changes from the moment he comes into being. He is a computer program that has a personality for that most annoying of storytelling tropes, “Just Because.” It would have been interesting to see some actual growth in his character, or at the very least something to motivate his actions beyond programming. Having said all that, James Spader gives a pretty decent performance. I just wish he was given better material to work with.

Speaking of AI characters, The Vision. Man, was this completely mishandled. Basically, he/it functions as the antithesis of Ultron. Ultron being “iron handed justice,” and The Vision being the most altruistic of altruists. I really don’t understand why they introduced this character the way they did. His awakening ends up being kind of a non-event, honestly. This flick has a real problem with pacing. It never feels like anything is propulsive, or that it’s building towards anything significant, and more than any other character, The Vision being born should have felt momentous. But with all of the other things going on, and main characters that need to be developed(If we’re calling Hawkeye and Black Widow “main characters,” that is.), The Vision’s significance gets lost in the shuffle.

I would have imagined that he would have been the linchpin, the only thing that could really stand up to Ultron. Instead of using a bomb as the only source of “ticking clock” drama, why not have the birth of The Vision be part of it. They could have had some sort of debate about the dangers of waking something like him up, considering the way Ultron turned out, and then come to the conclusion that it’s their best shot, or have Tony bring yet to be awakened Vision to the battle ground behind everyone’s back, you know creating some interpersonal tension. Tony would be preoccupied with getting The Vision to wake up during the early parts of the battle, causing misgivings about what he’s doing, and then towards the end have The Vision wake up and lay waste to Ultron and all of his forces. All of humanity and the Avengers left awestruck and dumb founded. He could then maybe take off, leaving the Avengers in a state of confusion, not knowing how to feel about what just happened. It would also reinforce what they’re doing with Captain America: Civil War, as that film is going to be Iron Man versus Captain America, warring due to their ideological differences about how to save the world.

Okay, okay! Enough fan fiction.

So, what about the rest of the characters? How do they fair? Well, the vast majority of the team maintains their status quo, that’s to say they don’t really change. It makes sense, three out of the six Avengers have their own movies to do that. Hawkeye, Black Widow, and Bruce Banner get the most development, but it’s all pretty slight. There’s a romance between Banner and Natasha present, but it doesn’t really go anywhere. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it was pointless, but it doesn’t feel all that necessary. I don’t know, maybe it will come back around later down the line. Well, I’m pretty sure it will. That would be a weird strand to leave hanging.

On the other hand, there’s Hawkeye. We learn more about his personal life, but it doesn’t effect his character. He doesn’t really have an arch per se. He’s pretty much static, as he was in the first movie. Finding out he has a family is nice as it adds some dimension to him as a person, but as far as the movie is concerned it has more to do with the fact that he has a farm in the middle of nowhere that no one knows about, and gives the team a place to have conversations, most of which they’ve already had. Actually, most of this sequence feels like filler, to be honest. I mean, it’s not like they had other story elements to worry about or anything…

The other new characters, Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch, are pretty superfluous, to be honest, and for most of the movie’s running time they are pretty much sidelined as Ultron’s lackeys. You never get a sense of who they are, because anytime they are on screen it’s in service to already established characters, which is fair, considering that it’s their movie, but it makes me wonder why they even bothered if they weren’t going to utilize them in any significant way. Their presentation as characters is similar to what they did with The Vision, and by that I mean nothing. Oh, wait! I just figured it out! They are going to get into that stuff in later movies! My bad, everyone! Yeah, it just…. Great, you know?

This movie is filled to the brim with stuff, and a lot of it doesn’t feel imperative to the story the movie is trying to tell. It’s definitely “bigger” than previous entries and that’s really the crux of it. It’s so bloated that it can’t ever make any clear statement of purpose. Like I said before, it doesn’t feel like a necessary entry into the broader MCU, other than the things that it clumsily sets up for future films. I thought that these Avengers movies were supposed to be the “event” films that were supported by the character specific ones. The fact that they’ve used this as yet another “set-up” movie is a little disheartening, and is yet another prerequisite so that I might enjoy something that’s coming out years from now. In all honesty, it’s starting to feel like homework…

Just as an aside, I heard that the original cut of the film was almost three hours long, and that that cut will be released on bluray in a few months. So, maybe in it’s longer form it will come together better. I don’t know, though, the pacing is so dull that I’m not sure if adding forty minutes to the run time will fix that. Hopefully it will be material with importance to the actual plot, and not more incessant quipping.

Man, that Whedon writing style is getting grating. Seriously, can we have a conversation in these movies without someone mugging? Please? We get it, Joss, you are the smartest man in the room, stop having your characters tell us so. It essentially gives every character the same personality regardless of their life experience. Even The Vision and Ultron quip. It’s ridiculous.

This is the ninth movie in the MCU, and as a result they’ve become a kind of known quantity. They really do feel like assembly line movies at this point. Sure, it has it’s bright spots here and there, but over all the “sameyness” is becoming more and more apparent. I sympathize though, as it is a pretty huge undertaking coordinating all these movies. That’s why the creative control never leaves the purview of Kevin Feige, the producer. He’s shepherding the series, acting as a kind of show-runner. Actually, that analogy is pretty apt, as these movies do feel like big budget TV shows, with every movie basically representing a season of television condensed into two hours.

At the end of the day, you’ll probably be passively entertained; I was, but as soon as you turn that brain back on, there isn’t much to get out of it, and that’s coming from someone that can read pretty deep into these kinds of things. I know, I seem harsh, but there’s a reason for it. These movies have come to define what blockbuster, populist cinema is. Everything has to be connected and franchised more than ever before. The thing is, I like big franchise movies, or I’d like to like them would be more appropriate. They encompass all the goofy shit that I enjoy. So, I would like them to be good movies, not just good for a superhero movie. By giving them a pass an environment of complacency develops, and there’s a danger that we’ll stop asking for quality stories  because our expectations have been trained to only expect what we are given, rather than what we want.

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