04 May 2015

First Impressions: The Avengers: Age of Ultron

Call it a sick addiction, or perhaps merely the sad fate of a nominally self-aware and rigorous-minded cinema fan, but I somehow felt a strong desire to see The Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015), not particularly for the spectacle but because I actually wanted to see what happened to these characters next. I'll fully admit to suckling the billion-dollar marketing teat of the corporations who want me to see this, because sitting down in the theater, I had a genuine interest in seeing where this grand story went to next.
Let the Metal Men Battle Commence

This is sort of flawed thinking, though, right? By its ending, Ultron feels like more a pitstop than a completed film, because that's exactly what serialized storytelling is all about. It doesn't totally matter what happens in this, or any other big studio franchise film anymore, because the next installment is going to be an even bigger, equally momentous event. This is nothing new, of course, even to movies, but there is a big change in expectation when that spectacle is thrown in - stakes in episodic television or the serials of old are understandably lesser than these earth-threatening escapades.

None of this matters because I still saw Ultron and I actually liked it a lot. This is also a feat that The Avengers (2012) achieved, though, which through a combination of pace, coherence, and cheekiness proves itself to be a great romp the first time around that depletes upon repeat viewings. If Ultron suffers from anything, though, it's actually that it's too short, at least in the sense that it doesn't get to develop some of the interesting characters or concepts it comes up with. Everything feels really rushed, even though it clocks in around 141 minutes and its big set-pieces tend to drag on, it could have used some more focus.

I suppose that is now left to our solo flicks - Iron Man 3 (2013) and Captain America: The Winter Solider (2014) had the luxury to delve into our main heroes, but Ultron can't be bothered to do such things. That's not a direct criticism of this film, because it tries pretty damn hard and deserves kudos for its focus on Black Widow, Hawkeye, and the Hulk, who don't otherwise get much of an opportunity to shine. Everyone else, and by everyone I mean like fifteen other characters, float in and out sometimes randomly, and others operate more as balance instead of pushing any development. I ought to drop a SPOILER comment from here on out, folks.

It's not like a film like this needs all of his characters to develop or have arcs, though. Just by its team-up nature this would be virtually impossible. I'm more excited now for Captain America: Civil War (2016) because suddenly that's turning into a tighter focus on issues between Cap and Stark that subtly emerged in Winter Soldier and were brought into stronger light in Ultron. This is what true Shared Universe movies should be about - when there's not enough room in one film to develop an idea, relationship, or conflict, just mention it, table it, and spin it more in the next go-around. So now that we've fully discussed the macro of this film, let's take a bit of a deeper look.

One thing that worked, and this is really why most superhero sequels of the X2: X-Men United (2003), Spider-Man 2 (2004), and The Dark Knight (2008) variety work well, is that the film wasn't bogged down with its origin story, this time of course, being the Avengers Team origin story. Ultron starts in media res in the form of a snowy Eastern European Hydra fight and blows its wad early in a tracking shot reminiscent of that great team shot from The Avengers where everyone shows their stuff. It efficiently reminds the audience who everyone is and what everyone can do. It then aptly presents new challenges in the form of Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch, while quickly deposing of Hydra dick Baron von Strucker, whose legacy haunts the movie far more than his actual character is present. I wonder if Thomas Krestchmann thought he had hit the jackpot here.

I'm not too worried about things like the complete lack of explanation for why Tony is still suiting up after "retiring" in Iron Man 3 or the inevitable fact that he ended this one with the exact same attitude as he did then. It's clear that this life has been wearing on him, which when combined with Banner's reluctance to go green, provides them ample reason to create AI to protect the earth when they won't be able to, or want to anymore.

Here's where the film got way more comic book-y than any other Marvel film so far, which have typically been more grounded in reality, or at least some kind of reasonable explanation. Thor's magic=science, Iron Man's suit, even the caveat of the various serums or radiation that give powers, that stuff is all hokey but you can wrap your head around it and get over the ridiculous quickly. I'm still struggling to understand how Ultron was born, or why he came out such an asshole right away.
This is actually really solid writing.
A humourous throwaway scene with really important
 payoff later on that quickly establishes character. Tasty.

So, the Mind Gem (or was it the casing around the Mind Gem?), that came from Outer Space allowed Tony to crack the code and create AI, which he spliced with JARVIS or something, and poof - evil robot. Okay, fine. I don't care. It doesn't matter how Ultron was created, what matters is that he was, and how the other Avengers deal with Stark afterwards, along with how Stark deals with himself. He didn't quite get the redemption he got in The Avengers, though, and he probably should have been the one to get the killshot on Ultron Prime instead of Scarlet Witch, even though that cements her transition from Avengers-hater to full-on team member.

Much of this same insanity can be applied to Vision, who is this weird Frankenstein made with equal effort from Banner, Stark, Ultron, and Thor. He's very literally a Frankenstein monster when Thor brings the hammer home giving him the electrical jump start, which is all he apparently required to rise and become awesome. His most important power is of course, creating clothing for himself, but other than that the film even blurs that a bit. Of course, Vision is most known for density control and shooting lasers, including his solar jewel, which is all pretty accurate in the film. I think I saw him give one of the Ultron droids an arm phase, which was rad. But the film neither totally absolves itself of scientific credibility like something more fun like Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (2009) would do, nor does it try to steep itself in hard science like Interstellar (2014). Alright, those are weird analogies, but Ultron seems like it miffs when it tries to have its ridiculous comic book cake and eat it, too. Just let it be nuts. This whole movie is nuts. Who cares.

I don't really want to talk about every single character, but it's worth it to pick out a few. I love that Hawkeye sort of becomes the heart and soul of this movie, even if the rest of the team doesn't really realize it, and he never does anything outside of an audience-surrogate position to earn that recognition. He certainly makes up for time lost when under mind-control for all of The Avengers, particularly when that plot thread affects almost everyone else on the team.

Ultron himself proves to be a pretty fun character, full of weird James Spader-isms like apologizing to Andy Serkis for sawing his arm off or halfheartedly asking Hulk to spare him before he's pummeled out of the Quinjet. The film doesn't do a great job with his characterization, though, and doesn't smooth over these sort of childish growing pains with his intellectual grandiosity and schemes. He is again reticent to relay his full plan, similar to how in The Avengers it was tough to figure out exactly what the hell direction Loki was headed in at any moment, but in the end it doesn't actually matter. We get that he's turned Sokovia into a meteor and plans on crashing it into the earth, destroying all humanity. What isn't clear is his motivation that's so clear in the comics, the simple fact that he finds humanity a danger to itself. The movie seems more focused on Ultron's fixation with The Avengers being the greatest threat to humanity, which is a fine plan in itself, but if that's the case, why the meteor? Is it all to merely capture their attention and kill them when they show up? None of it is really solid, which is unfortunate, because as Cap says, the criticism Ultron presents towards the Avengers is valid.

There is also an underdeveloped dynamic between Ultron and Stark, namely that Ultron has a lot of Stark in him that he resents, and that Stark also exhibits short-sighted Ultron-like qualities. Like I mentioned earlier, there just isn't any scene of Stark repelling these tendencies, and when Ultron goes from joking with Ulysses Klaue to cutting off his arm (so he'll become this dude! Finally at long last.) the tone stretches to goofy klutz instead of diabolical supervillain, which is just bizarre. If we really wanted to get into this junk, Ultron should just be in an Iron Man movie. Or even better, he could have been in a Hank Pym movie, because for some reason the lamest Avenger got the coolest nemesis.

I mentioned this in my preview post, too, but that brings up another point - with the introduction of Ultron, Scarlet Witch, and Vision it feels more and more like a real Avengers film, in the sense that the Avengers are terrible. When I think of the Avengers I really do think like, Vision, Hawkeye, and Scarlet Witch, all these junk characters that were pretty weird and lame and so far below the A-listers. Finally, that is on screen. I'm really appreciative for Whedon sticking pretty close to the comic script, honestly, in his treatment of many of these characters. After all, the Avengers did use Vision, who Ultron created, to first defeat Ultron. And there are nice creepy nods to him shacking up with Scarlet Witch. And damn, I love that B-Team of Vision, War Machine, Falcon, and Scarlet Witch at the end. Infinity War (2018) is gonna be rough. Hopefully some of the A-listers will stick around. Right?

On that note - we ought to talk about Captain America's dream sequence, and the dream sequences in general, because there a pretty interesting part of the film, which Whedon apparently fought to keep in. They're a look into every character's fears, which can either take the form of a tortured past she's trying to forget (Black Widow), or a horrific future they may cause (Iron Man). But Thor's and Cap's are kind of weird. Thor and his weird shirtless cave pool have already been somewhat up for debate, but nothing seems to have come from Cap's experience. Seriously, Black Widow is left shaken and crippled, Thor leaves the damn movie to find answers from Stellan Skarsgard, but Cap just chops wood. The answer actually likely likes in Civil War, which ought to provide our answer to Tony's lack of comeuppance for creating Ultron as well. See, that's better than any end-credits set-up teaser. The teaser is now the movie itself!

Now, I can't stress enough again that I did enjoy this movie a lot, and despite its darkness it keeps a blistering pace, a ton of fun, and its jokes land a little better than the first installment. The camaraderie is very well-developed both in action sequences (I kept seeing these combo moves, like Thor banging Cap's shield to make a shockwave to mess up Hydra's day) and in the interplay of personalities. That said, there are a ton of structural problems. I'm curious if the Hulkbuster scene was even necessary beyond a "Look! this is cool!" moment, because it really doesn't progress the story or characters along at all. Cut that and let's get more psychological development of Stark's Ultron machinations.
I didn't actually think all those Pinocchio (1940)
allusions were that accurate. Let's stick with Frankenstein (1931).

The ending is also remarkably similar to the first Avengers in the sense that they have to take on an overwhelming but ultimately fairly dispensable army. Really though, there's no other way to showcase a team like this fighting together. They can't really gang up on one baddie, and this gives lots of different characters lots to do. Speaking of that, did anyone else sense an overcompensation for the Man of Steel (2013) "Superman doesn't save people" criticism? The majority of every sequence is about half the team saving or evacuating civilians to the point of ridiculousness. That's a weird aspect to pivot against DC with but whatever. I suppose that's because the point of Man of Steel wasn't really about saving civilians, it was Supes' own struggle with the inevitability of Zod's destruction weighed against his own moral compass, one ultimately devolves into a no-win scenario. In a weird point of contrast, though, while DC heroes nominally vow to not kill anyone, there are a ton of henchman deaths in Ultron. Everyone kills humans beings all the time, and the only one who seems remorseful is Hulk. Oh well.

Should we talk about the Infinity Gems? Like it or not (and aware of it or not), the Gems have driven just about every Marvel film, crescendoing lately with Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) and Thor: The Dark World (2013) explicitly using initially unnamed Gems as MacGuffins. And we have them laid out pretty well by now. But we're missing two. Where the hell are the Time and Soul gems? It would make perfect sense for the Soul Gem to show up in Dr. Strange (2016), and that pesky Time Gem could show up in any of the five films set to premiere before the first installment of Infinity War. I'm actually half-curious if those two culminating films will actually tell the same story, considering that there two other movies set to come out in between the two. Perhaps Part 1 (2018) will be more a "first round" that results in victory for only one side that then recoups for Part 2 (2019)? Who cares. By then we'll be burnt out. Right?


What did you think of Age of Ultron, and more importantly, the state of Blockbusters and Cinema in general? Did you see Ex Machina (2015) this weekend instead?

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