In which I have opinions about Avengers: Age of Ultron that simply could not wait for the May 2015 Media Round-up (Movies)
I went to see Avengers: Age of Ultron Friday afternoon to try to get ahead of the hype and avoid being swayed by the opinions that will presumably be all over social media this weekend, but I think Tumblr still somehow managed to prime me to dislike it. So there’s a chance it will improve on rewatch in a few years, but it might just not be that good of a movie. Spoilers abound:
The opening fight sequence is pretty excellent; they do a good job of showing all of the Avengers’ powers and how they work as a team, which is important narratively, to make it clear that they’ve been doing stuff together since the first movie without too much clunky exposition dialogue, and in general, to be like “don’t worry, this is the epic action movie you signed up for.” If I knew more about cinematography, I’d probably say something about single takes, because that’s a thing that seems to be in these days (True Detective, Birdman, etc.) and that pretentious people really like pointing out?
Scarlet Witch‘s powers lead to some cool/creepy dream sequences that provide an interesting stylistic change from the more generic punch-quip-explosion scenes. Scarlet Witch in general is just an interesting presence; I mean, obviously, Elizabeth Olsen is gorgeous and that costume is…a lot1, but she also adds a totally different vibe than Black Widow and Maria Hill (more on that in Cons) and it certainly would not have hurt to devote more screen-time to her and Quicksilver and their backstory2.
Steve alludes to searching for Bucky, and okay, I needed that to happen because I am shipper garbage.
UGH BRUCE/NATASHA. This doesn’t work on so many levels that I’m not really sure where to start. Uh, let’s talk about Harry Potter instead:
We meet Remus Lupin in Prisoner of Azakaban; he’s a mild-mannered dude who occasionally turns into an uncontrollable monster, and even though he mostly has a handle on his transformations at this point, there’s still a lot of angst and loneliness and evasiveness. There are also A LOT of people who ship him with his (snarky playboy) bro Sirius. We meet Nymphadora Tonks in Order of the Phoenix; she’s funny and badass and we definitely want to hang out with her some more in the sequels and like maybe find out about her work as an Auror. Due to her appearance-altering abilities, she almost definitely does some intense spy stuff for the Ministry or the Order or both, right?
So then in Half-Blood Prince, Tonks’s main storyline consists of her angstily pining after Lupin, who might love her too, but They Can’t Do This Because Can’t She See That He’s a Monsterrrrr? And many Harry Potter fans were Not Happy:
1) From the reader’s perspective, the whole romance seemed to spring out of nowhere; we just go from zero to Intense Pining, so it doesn’t really carry as much emotional weight as it would if we had been privy to the process of Tonks falling for Lupin. And these are two characters that no one was really interested in seeing romantic plotlines for anyway. Younger readers are probably not invested in the romantic lives of the adult characters; older readers are probably only invested in the romantic lives of the adult characters if they involve slash (again, it’s all about Remus/Sirius). But mostly readers want to see cool wizard shit and witty banter and, you know, plot-forwarding scenes, right?
2) It’s character assassination for Tonks; she goes from being an interesting character in her own right to more or less being defined by her relationship to Lupin. Maybe she gets a few good moments of her own (I don’t really remember?), but her post-OotP appearances are pretty much subsumed by the romantic plotline. And the dynamic of her persistently pursuing Lupin and getting rebuffed is uncomfortable to watch, because like…she’s too awesome to be trying that hard?
3) It’s character assassination for Lupin; yeah, we shouldn’t expect him to get over the whole werewolf angst thing, but the specific self-sacrificing “even though our feelings are mutual, I have decided that you deserve better than to be with a Monster and you have no say in this decision” behavior is not flattering at all. Which is not to say it’s unrealistic, but again, it’s uncomfortable to watch.
Okay, NO IDEA WHY WE TOOK THAT DETOUR.
It should also be noted that all of the romantic dialogue in Age of Ultron was super cringe-worthy and just why did Whedon think this was something that anyone wanted.
UGH ROBOTS WITH DADDY ISSUES. To be fair, when you have an artificial intelligence storyline, it is a totally valid albeit totally obvious choice to explore the AI’s feelings towards its creator as a sort of stand-in for all men’s issues with their fathers or humanity’s issues with God or whatever. But I don’t think Joss Whedon ever really portrays daddy issues in an interesting way (and boy does he portray a lot of daddy issues).
UGH “STRONG FEMALE CHARACTERS.” So there’s this much discussed trend in action movies with ensemble casts where the mostly male members of the team get to be charming fuck-ups with witty banter and the one female member is left to be the straight man who just rolls her eyes and says “boys” due to a sort of incomplete understanding of feminism where the (male) writers/directors of the movies are like, “see? this is a Strong Female Character because she’s a super competent badass who’s above all of the guys’ nonsense” and the female audience is like, “right, but maybe we’d actually prefer to see a female character who’s an equal part of the guys’ nonsense?” And Natasha managed to escape that role in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, but Age of Ultron kind of3 places her and Maria Hill back into that box.
Clint’s secret family: Pre-Age of Ultron, Hawkeye was the least developed character on the team; we saw him briefly in Thor in a purely professional capacity, and he spent most of The Avengers under mind-control, so we don’t really know MCU Clint Barton at all4. And since he doesn’t currently have a solo movie scheduled, it makes sense to shade in his background here, if they expect audiences who aren’t necessarily super familiar with the comics to be invested in this character and any of his future appearances in, say, the third Captain America movie and the Avengers sequels.
So does this particular character development work? I honestly don’t know. Out of all of the characters in the MCU, Hawkeye is the one I know the most about from the comics, due to Matt Fraction’s currently super popular (and many would argue, definitive) take on the character. This new backstory pretty much destroys any potential for an adaptation of Fraction’s Hawkeye run.
But fine, let’s accept that MCU-Hawkeye is a different character and try not to heap our Fraction-based expectations on him, because did we actually even want to see Jeremy Renner as that particular Hawkeye? Well, there’s still the issue (that plagues the Bruce/Natasha romance as well) that the previous Avengers movie and the fact that Natasha was wearing an arrow necklace in Winter Soldier seemed to be setting up a Clint/Natasha romance. It’s an interesting twist that no, they’re actually just super tight bros, so tight, in fact, that Natasha is the only one who knows about his secret family and is considered Aunt Natasha by his kids. It might play better if we got more of a sense of who Laura Barton is other than a generic, supportive wife, especially since the reveal of Natasha’s sterility later on seems to suggest that Clint’s wife and children are supposed to symbolize this sort of ideal of womanhood that Natasha will never get to experience5.
The dialogue: Whedon is great at writing the more casual, hanging-out scenes and the entire party sequence was mostly excellent. The call-back humor, though, was not great; most of the jokes weren’t really funny enough in their first occurrence to justify their recurrence? And the mid-battle quips began to feel pretty formulaic. Again, there’s this whole punch-quip-explosion rhythm that’s a genre convention, and it doesn’t really matter how clever the quip is; as long as it’s in tempo, the audience will laugh, because they know that they’re supposed to.
The collateral damage: Super powered battles inevitably cause a lot of property damage. We become desensitized to that when we’re watching action movies, because woooo explosions, but if you want to give the sense that your movie is taking place in the Real World with Real Consequences, then at some point you probably need to address that even though they’re saving the world, superheroes are basically fucking tsunamis or earthquakes or whatever to the city they happen to be saving the world in6. Age of Ultron sort of addresses this, but I’m not sure it does as much as it should? It’s definitely one of the main points of the Hulk vs Iron Man fight sequence in Wakanda, which actually lasts a little too long. And of course we have the obligatory7 stopping an out-of-control train sequence, but what happens to the people in the cars that flip over during the highway chase in Seoul?
Take a shot every time someone refers to him/herself as A Monster: Joss Whedon clearly has a lot of Big Ideas about the ethics of superheroism and human nature and fathers and whatever. But at a certain point, a movie becomes so over-saturated with Big Ideas that it can’t actually do justice to any of them within its runtime and instead it just drops some references to a bunch of Big Ideas without following through on any of them. If you don’t examine it too closely, this movie seems “smarter” than, say, a “mindless” Michael Bay explosion fest, but is it actually? So okay, you introduce the idea that hey, maybe our Heroes are actually Monsters; it’s not especially novel territory for the genre, but it’s worth exploring beyond a few pithy lines8 and not just tossing aside for a big heroic finish.
1. I mean, between the leather jacket and the knee high socks and the boots and the armwarmers and the heavy eyeliner, it it is like…pretty specifically tailored to my interests. Also, the moment where Pietro throws Wanda’s jacket at her head as they get ready for battle was so adorable and sibling-y and clearly a very smart and deliberate choice to humanize the twins and get the audience invested in their relationship. ^
2. Steve has a throwaway line drawing a parallel between the twins and himself w.r.t. willingness to sacrifice themselves for patriotic duty, and they could have explored some cool shit with that, but nope. ^
3. Granted, this is a bit reductive. Natasha also has the aforementioned terrible romantic interactions and her scenes with Clint’s family. But in terms of interacting with the Avengers of a group, I think it is fair to say that she’s stuck as the straight man? And she has the “always picking up after you boys” line that is just…ugh. ^
4. This is why the comments that Tony (and Steve, maybe?) make about Barton’s personality at the beginning of the movie feel kind of off, because to them, he is now apparently a familiar teammate, but to the audience, he’s still a complete stranger, so the ribbing feels unearned. ^
5. I may be reading too much into this, because, I will admit, I am pretty sensitive to the idea perpetuated in sitcoms and that one Doctor Who Christmas special that bearing children is the most essential part of Being a Woman. ^
6. Marvel actually had a comic book series called Damage Control that explicitly addressed this. Daredevil (the Netflix series) also handles it really well. ^
7. Out-of-control train scenes are a staple of the superhero film genre because they fucking work. Like I know I’m being emotionally manipulated, but fuck it, I will never not be brought to tears by superheroes saving commuters on various modes of public transportation (trains! buses! ferries! trolleys!). ^
8. That will inevitably spawn thousands of gif-sets and fanfictions and dumb bros being like, “whoa, man, what a mindfuck.” ^
In which I rank all1 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, with the caveat that I am fickle and this is totally subject to change if I look at enough pictures of Sebastian Stan or something
- Marvel’s Daredevil
- Captain America: The Winter Soldier
- Marvel’s Agent Carter
- Captain America: The First Avenger
- Marvel’s The Avengers
- Guardians of the Galaxy
- Avengers: Age of Ultron
- Thor: The Dark World
- Iron Man
- Iron Man 3
- Iron Man 2
- Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.2
1. Okay, minus The Incredible Hulk, which according to Wikipedia is part of the MCU, but does anyone actually count it? ^
2. I quit in the middle of season 1, so it is possible that the show got radically better and can edged its way past the Iron Man movies. It would not be that difficult, because I fucking hated the second and third Iron Man movies (Iron Men?) and can’t remember the first. But then again, the first half of the first season of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was truly awful. ^