The short version: I saw Avengers: Age of Ultron on opening weekend. I had a blast. I liked it more than the first Avengers.
I had a few quibbles, but nothing too upsetting. I noticed some themes and formed some thoughts. Y’know, what I usually do before I settle in and crank out 1500-2000 words for my li’l site here. It’s just this thing I do every time I see a film in a theater.
Instead I came home, spent the weekend reading Age of Ultron internet fights between various factions for various reasons, scribbled a few surface thoughts about it, silently tucked them away for a while, and let memory scratch much of the rest. I could retrieve them if I tried, but I worry that everything’s already been written about it, and I know I’m tired of reading about it. But here I am anyway, salvaging the remains because so far, compared to the other two (2) 2015 films I’ve seen so far, technically Midlife Crisis Crossover calls Avengers: Age of Ultron The Best Film of The Year. So it oughta have an entry.
(The other two films were Jupiter Ascending and Chappie. The competition up to now has been far from fierce.)
Short version for the unfamiliar: The gang’s all back! Cap, Thor, Iron Man, Hulk, Black Widow, Hawkeye, Nick Fury, S.H.I.E.L.D.’s Maria Hill, Stan Lee, Don Cheadle, Anthony Mackie, Idris Elba, Stellan Skarsgård, Hayley Atwell, Paul Bettany, and even Hydra chief Dr. List, who was in a few episodes of TV’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., all return from previous installments in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. A few characters even drop slight hints for who they are and why they do what they do, instead of assuming you’ve already seen all the other Marvel movies first. The movie thinks those should be mandatory viewing by law, though it more or less admits that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is inessential extra credit.
After Our Heroes solve the TV show’s Hydra problem for them once and for all, Tony Stark tampers in God’s domain and creates an A.I. named Ultron that talks, thinks, looms, and outshines exactly like James Spader. Ultron was supposed to help Tony change the world, but like 90% of all sci-fi A.I.s it decides the world would be so much nicer if humanity weren’t here. Unlike 90% of all sci-fi A.I.s, Ultron isn’t a bloodless, emotionless machine. Ultron is a moody, spiteful brat with poor manners, killer armor, sinister plans, and major daddy issues.
Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: Newcomers to this crowded house include Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen, who played loving husband and wife in Godzilla, reuniting as loving brother and sister. In the comics of my era, Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch were the mutant children of Magneto, who’s persona non grata in this universe. Here they’re vengeful teens from a war-torn fictional European country who agree to super-enhancement experiments so they can strike back at their perceived oppressor.
Thomas Kretschmann previously appeared for ten seconds after the Captain America: the Winter Soldier end credits as leftover Hydra chief Baron Strucker, and now he’s back for his share of the spotlight for as long as they’ll give it to him.
Lord of the Rings legend Andy Serkis pastes on a beard and accent as a shady arms dealer with a weird name; in the comics he’s a one-handed villain named Klaw who’s made entirely out of sound but is solid anyway thanks to ’60s comics science. Klaw also has no nose or hair, and his skin or his outermost sound layer or whatever is his costume. Maybe this isn’t the last we’ll see of Movie Klaw and some future Marvel production will make sense of him. At the very least, he could use some fashion sense.
Linda Cardellini (E.R., Scooby-Doo, Mad Men) has a small but interesting role (to me it was, anyway) as a character who never, ever existed in the comics, and probably never, ever will. Don’t hold your breath waiting for her action figure.
Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? Ultron is certainly one the most sarcastic robots ever to costar in a non-comedic film. It’s a change of pace from standard evil robots, and works if you consider it part of his disappointed angry-teen complex. He gets it from his dad. Curiously, he refers to God so frequently that I began to get the impression Ultron had done some twisted form of soul-searching about faith just to tick off his atheist father.
Speaking of dear ol’ Dad: Tony Stark’s motivation behind the original Ultron program has its roots in the PTSD we witnessed in Iron Man 3 that was the direct result of fighting endless, faceless alien hordes in The Avengers. His mental state has progressed into an isolationist paranoia with a new objective: secure the planet against space invaders by any means necessary. Cap is a morally centered sage and Thor is kind of a god, but Tony’s just an average billionaire inventor who never dreamed that an aggressive alien takeover could be a real thing, let alone in his face threatening his life. His overreaction is understandable, but his short-term thinking has long-term consequences that will almost certainly play out in at least one future Marvel movie.
Everyone else has their own reasons for being mopey. Cap wonders if he’ll ever truly see an end to his nonstop soldiering duties. Black Widow shudders to remember her grotesque upbringing in Russian spy elementary school, where she suffered unspeakable, irrevocable damage at the hands of The Patriarchy (Russian Division). Hulk tired of smashing and being Hulk. Thor is worried that his third film will be even worse than the last two. Hawkeye would be content just living to the end of the movie, let alone justifying his presence among the A-listers.
As in the comics, Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch aren’t heroes at first. Their attitudes are believable given the horrors of their childhood, but they’re several movies behind and don’t realize their primary target has undergone some attempts at redemption. Reform, forgiveness, sacrifice, and Doing the Right Thing are key themes that pop up at various times, often with the twins in the middle of it. Too bad Ultron got impatient and skipped those topics in his Bible studies.
Nitpicking? Maybe it’s my aging eyes, but several effects-heavy fight scenes were nothing but blurry montages where each combatant slams into the next one with impacts easier heard than seen. I also wasn’t impressed by how most of the battles are staffed on Ultron’s side with variations on the Iron Man 2 drones reprising their function as infinite, interchangeable henchmen. I realize the Avengers have to smash something, but after a while cookie-cutter henchman defeats are about as thrilling to watch as a Whac-a-Mole game.
As in the comics, Scarlet Witch’s powers are best defined as “whatever”. We watch her alter probabilities, control minds, implant dreams, create force-fields, shoot generic ray-blasts from her hands, create emotional shockwaves, and probably more. She’s the ultimate Hogwarts student who can cast any spells the plot requires without saying a word.
So did I like it or not? When I saw the first Avengers for my second time, my enthusiasm waned and I found myself fidgeting a lot. I’ve only seen Age of Ultron once so far and haven’t given myself the chance to downgrade my opinion, which is simply put: it takes all the best parts of the previous Marvel films and triples them. It gives us James Spader as the most intimidating Marvel villain to date, second only to Loki in charisma, and it’s a very close second.
In between the scenes of mass destruction are occasionally inspired moments of heroes being heroes by saving lives other than their own. The one-liners are as funny as ever, and not everyone sounds as though they’re using the same comedic voice. And somehow Joss Whedon, the film’s editors, and those finicky Marvel producers all came to an accord and allowed for nearly every single major player and several next-to-major characters to have a healthy amount of screen time apiece. (Saddest exception: the Falcon got screwed. Period.)
Two key factors I liked most above all else:
1. Ultron’s saga is played as a succinct, done-in-one worldwide threat who doesn’t function inseparably as part 275 of a 3000-part saga. His story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. He’s a satisfying pop single of a super-villain, who leaves his mark — more like a gouge as deep as a chasm — without overstaying his welcome.
2. They finally got Hawkeye right. I’ve liked Jeremy Renner in other movies, but the ten-year-old in my head has distinct ideas about what makes Hawkeye Hawkeye. In the first Avengers, Renner had the space and inclination to do almost none of those things. In the superior sequel, Hawkeye is the sarcastic, hard-luck dude blessed with talents he’s worked hard to hone beyond Olympic levels, well aware of his inferiority to his peers, brave in the face of overwhelming odds, encouraging to others in their moments of weakness, mindful of civilian safety, resistant to getting suckered the same way twice like a chump, and absolutely willing to put himself in the line of fire if that’s what it takes to save the day. And every so often he gets to show us what he can do with swashbuckling panache. This was the Hawkeye I knew and liked as a kid.
(Someday it would be nice to see comics’ other Hawkeye, the young Kate Bishop, get called up to the Marvel CU as well. Give ’em time. Baby steps. The comics have had fifty years to build a comprehensive universe. I like to think the movies will encompass more as they go, but I don’t expect overnight results.)
How about those end credits? In case you haven’t seen it or fled at the sight of proper nouns on screen, yes, there was one scene during the Age of Ultron end credits:
A mysterious figure with a unique visage leans into a locker, storage closet, display case, Enterprise replicator, or other small storage space and grabs a shiny, singular glove that’s been custom-made to hold gemstones that imbue the wearer with enormous power. No, it’s not Michael Jackson; it’s Thanos (Josh Brolin), disgusted that none of his plans are coming together and realizing that delegating to other super-villains is a waste of time.
“Fine, I’ll do it myself,” says Thanos, silently swearing that someday he’s gonna mean something to moviegoers, and then we’ll all be sorry.