After a lot of thought and plenty of eavesdropping on the conversation about Age of Ultron, I’ve decided to add my own thoughtful analysis to the discussion because this is the internet and I am a public figure (technically) who is renowned for my love of the superhero genre. Also, I have opinions and am more than willing to share them, but this makes me no different than your average schmuck on the internet. Still, as a fame-ish person who has been a fan of these characters and worlds for longer than I’ve actually been writing, hopefully, I can offer some unique insight.
First thing: We all have to admit that Age of Ultron would have a hard time being as awesome and groundbreaking as the original Avengers. The first Avengers film is a moment in cinematic history and when a diverse cast of characters shared the big screen in a world-shattering adventure, there really hadn’t been anything like it before in the world of movies. Comic book superheroes had been teaming up for ages in their original medium, but a film that did it was something most comic book fans never thought they’d see. And then there’s that famous shot (still iconic) where the camera pans around the team as they stand united against an alien threat ready to destroy the world. It’s a moment, like the death star blowing up, like Mrs. Bates skeleton sitting in that rocking chair, that became instantly defining.
Age understands this. It doesn’t try to duplicate the awe of that moment and instead, has the iconic group shot within minutes of the film’s beginning. It’s a cool image, but by now, we’ve had years to grow accustomed to this idea. Having all these superheroes working together is expected. It won’t fill us with glee in the way it once did. Like a long-term relationship, our fevered anticipation of next seeing that special someone is now replaced with comfortable familiarity. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it is unavoidable.
The other factor, beyond the quality of the film itself, is that people are waiting for the first official “Marvel failure”. They’ve been waiting for it for years. They predicted it with Guardians of the Galaxy and gosh, were they ever wrong. And they’re predicting it with Ant-Man because, ostensibly, it’s a movie about a guy named Ant-Man, but really it’s because for a noteworthy percentage of people, there’s always something satisfying about watching someone successful fall on their face. It’s human nature.
And then there’s the anti-superhero film faction who just don’t care for the genre. Their reasons vary, some more legitimate than others, and superhero film fatigue is understandable at this point. It doesn’t change the fact that superhero movies and TV shows aren’t going anywhere soon.
The meta text of cultural expectations has a lot in invested in the success and/or failure of Age, and it’s almost impossible to judge the film on its own merits. We have warring factions of nostalgia, fatigue, pretense (on both sides), feminism, masculinism, and just about everything else. It might seem odd that a movie about a killer robot fighting a team of superheroes would draw such discussion, but here we are.
So let’s break it down shall we?
AS A STORY, Age of Ultron is skillfully executed for the most part. It has the traditional problem ensemble superhero comics have always had. It’s not easy to juggle a diverse cast of characters with their own storylines and identities while creating a larger framework for them to participate in as a group. It’s harder still when it’s a movie. Avengers did a solid job of this overall, but it was about half-an-hour longer than Age. Apparently, Age was intended to run somewhere along three hours, but was chopped down to two.
That shows. Things are rushed. The secondary characters get the worst of this. Ultron gets to chew the scenery a bit, but his motivations are vaguely defined as Evil Robot Who Wants to Kill People. Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver work okay, but their sudden change of heart and acceptance into the team skirts believability and is more of a function of necessity than any earned story points. It doesn’t end with those characters though, even Captain America and Iron Man get to do little more than be broad versions of themselves who show up for a little patter. And Vision . . .
Well, Vision just shows up and beats up a few bad guys and gives a few pretty speeches.
The action scenes are inventive and dynamic. Whether its Captain America and Black Widow fighting Ultron on a moving truck or Iron Man throwing down with the Hulk, there’s a lot to recommend here. But the final showdown is mostly just nameless robots being punched down by our heroes. There is a moment that promises more when Ultron faces down the heroes, only to be quickly and summarily defeated. Yes, the shot where Thor, Vision, and Iron Man triple blast Ultron is cool, but it highlights how underpowered Ultron feels. Sure, he has dozens of spare bodies around, but the well-established Conservation of Ninjitsu tells us that the more ninjas you’re fighting, the less powerful they are individually. I’d have much preferred one very powerful Ultron versus dozens of weak minions.
Overall, as a story, Age is functional, but it isn’t flawless. And I can’t help but feel that another twenty minutes to an hour would’ve helped clear up those problems. And that’s not something I say very often.
Also, many of the beats are just too familiar. It was a wonderful moment when Hulk smashed Loki mid-villain bluster. It isn’t quite so wonderful when Hulk does something very similar to Ultron. And our heroes fighting off waves of goons, while visually appealing, is a bit too much like the first movie to really wow.
AS CULTURAL REFLECTION, the film carries a lot of weight, not all of it gracefully. Like in the comic books, everyone has their favorite character, and everyone is going to feel short changed in one way or another. As a fan of the Vision, I would’ve loved for him to be more prominent. As a fan of Ultron, I would’ve loved for him to be my “Loki”, that standout character that everyone ends up loving. But, let’s be honest, that has as much to do with Tom Hiddleston’s looks as it does with anything else. And not many people, aside from myself, are going to find a robot as visually appealing.
Undoubtedly, the most burdened character is Black Widow. As the only female member of the team, she is torn in a hundred different directions. I felt the movie handled her very well, but that’s my perspective. What about the others?
There are those who complain she has been demoted to “Team Mother”. I have a hard time with that criticism. She isn’t the Mom. She’s support. She isn’t a heavy hitter. She can’t go toe-to-toe with Ultron. Like Hawkeye, she’s there to back up the more powerful characters yet nobody calls Hawkeye “Fatherly”. Probably because Cap fills that role more obviously. The unspoken assumption, especially here in the U.S.A., is that the guy who throws the punch is the hero and that everyone else is unimportant.
This is what we shall call nonsense.
It’s dismissive of the contributions she makes to the team. It’s dismissive of support characters in general. And it’s dismissive of the idea of a character being strong without them having to be the physically strongest. Black Widow is shown, repeatedly, to be a valued member of the team. She’s never looked down upon. She’s never seen as dead weight. She accomplishes essential mission points, and she does so while surrounded by powerhouses. She’s capable, smart, and clearly belongs here.
“But she gets kidnapped…” No. She gets captured, while setting back Ultron’s plans. And she uses that opportunity to give the team vital info. Sure, Bruce Banner breaks her out of her cell, but that’s what being on a team means. Someone always has your back.
“But she calls herself a monster because she can’t have kids…” No. She calls herself a monster. She also notes she can’t have kids. Those are two entirely different points. In the previous Avengers it was established that she wasn’t always a good guy and as a spy and an assassin, she’d done some bad things. And, yes, she was sterilized. The editing on this is a bit weak, but to suggest that the character thinks being infertile means she’s a bad person is to completely ignore the entire history of the character in favor of the most patently uncharacteristic (both of the character and the movies) interpretation.
“But she’s all girly and falls in love and stuff…” Yes. But having a romantic subplot doesn’t automatically reduce Black Widow to a one-note character. She’s a person. She’s allowed to be more than just a butt-kicking robot. Her romance with Bruce Banner is a bit informed, but it’s not unimaginable. It could have easily happened off camera between the first film and the second. A lot of these complaints are also about whether or not she would fall in love with someone like Bruce Banner, and to that, I say get over it.
Yes, we all have our fantasy pairings, but life is complicated. People don’t always end up with whom we expect. The obvious pairing would’ve been Hawkeye and Black Widow, but the movie quietly and efficiently subverts that expectation. And good for it that it does. Widow and the Hulk have never been a pairing in the comic books, but the movie sets it up well enough. Just because some will prefer her with some other pairing doesn’t make this one illegitimate.
Granted, this is classic Joss Whedon “Relationships as Conflict”. She’s a superspy. He’s a rage monster. They can’t be together. It’s tiresome to a degree, and I’m sick and tired of relationships being seen as nothing more than a source of conflict. But it does make sense for these two characters.
“But she doesn’t have any toys or her own movie yet…” And here we have the most common legitimate criticism of Marvel’s handling of Black Widow. She should have toys. She should have had her own movie. Heck, the Hulk got two movies. Meanwhile, Black Widow (and Hawkeye) wait quietly in the wings. That’s just not right. The problem of “Girl Superheroes” and their perceived relevance and commercial viability is a very real one. (Just as the lack of diversity in all areas is.) This needs to be corrected, and it needs to be corrected sooner than later.
On Joss Whedon: The complaints that Joss Whedon isn’t a feminist because he made choices with a character that some might disagree with or a crude joke made by Tony Stark are startling in their myopia. It’s as if the years of work Whedon has built creating interesting female characters no longer count, as if it was all erased because of one movie. It’s insulting to Whedon’s body of work, and while he’s not the flawless god creator he’s often made out to be (who is?), to say that Black Widow is a huge step back for feminism is bullshit.
On the Marvel Movies: Everything that’s happening with the Marvel movies, every cultural hiccup, every internet blow up, has happened to comic book superheroes before. As a long-time aficionado of superheroes and their shared universe methods, I’ve watched this dance a hundred times. Age is probably the first movie though to fall dangerously close to creating a story more interested in setting up the next story than being interesting itself. This is why I’ve never been able to get into Agents of SHIELD. The show’s main purpose seems to be to support and set up the movies, and if it isn’t strong enough on its own, why should I care?
Age has a lot of this going on. Iron Man and Captain America’s personality conflict is foreshadowed, but not pursued because that’s for another movie. The Hulk leaves the team, setting up his inevitable return in the next film. And the Vision and the Infinity Gem are there to be used further down the line. Even Ultron comes across as a filler villain, someone to menace the team while we wait for a more dangerous villain to show up. The mid-credit teaser pretty much says this with the appearance of Thanos who has been a teaser villain for several films now, even if he hasn’t actually done anything.
This sort of continuity driven storytelling is rife with pitfalls, and it’s honestly why I stopped reading mainstream superhero comics years ago. It is also why eventually I’ll probably stop going to these movies. But for now, it isn’t a gamebreaker in Age.
On My Inner Nerd: Not many people are talking about Scarlet Witch and how the movie completely reworks her powers. This is actually one of the most troubling aspects of the film for me. The Marvel movies have done remarkably well by sticking true to the original material, but Scarlet Witch is the first character who is actually nearly completely reworked for convenience’s sake. And that’s not a good sign either.
Final Thoughts: Age of Ultron is a good movie, not a great one. Its position at the center of a cultural zeitgeist means that it is doomed to be be disappointing to many. Everyone will have their pet peeves, their expectations, their own interpretation. In the end, it’s a good superhero flick with some flaws, but it gets the job done. It’s biggest sin is that we are no longer in a place to be wowed by this sort of spectacle. It’s a victim of its own success and our own indifference. Could it have been better? Most definitely, but it’s still pretty good.
And maybe that’s the problem: People wanted the impossible, and nobody agreed just on what type of impossible they wanted. So relax. Enjoy. It’s a fun movie. A smart movie. A decent follow up to Avengers. And isn’t that good enough?
It was for me.
Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,