Tony Black revisits Avengers: Age of Ultron one year on to see how it holds up…
One of my main outlets is podcasting, and recently I asked online if anyone would like to do a speculative episode of my film show in which we ‘fix’ a broken movie, discussing why it failed and how we could try and improve it. The first one to be suggested? Avengers: Age of Ultron. That came as no surprise to me because given it was without question my third most anticipated movie of 2015 (after Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Spectre, FYI), it thoroughly disappointed me. Granted, given I wanted to see it in IMAX, I unfortunately had no choice but to watch it in IMAX 3D in seats far too close to the gigantic screen for comfort; cue a raging headache which arguably didn’t help my mood when I left and said in response to friends when they asked if I liked it, simply, ‘meh’. It deserves another round, I thought, so upon arriving on NOW TV over Christmas in lovely 2D, I cranked up the projector so to speak and gave it another shot… only to get so bored within half an hour I wandered off and did something else. Now let me point out: I *love* the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The amount of comic books I’ve read in my life you could count on one hand but the film versions, Marvel anyway, rarely put a foot wrong for me. I genuinely feel Joss Whedon’s 2012 Avengers Assemble is the Star Wars of its generation. For me to switch Age of Ultron off, bored, can only lead me to conclude something isn’t working, and I know I’m certainly not the only one to think that way.
What then? If Age of Ultron dropped the ball, hashing up to a degree the climax of an already fairly divisive Phase Two of the MCU… where did it go wrong?
To examine this, I of course watched the movie a third time. From the outset, I must say, I will approach this purely from the perspective of a film fan, not a comic book fan. I don’t have the knowledge to criticise it on levels to that degree and I wouldn’t dare to try. There are undoubtedly a ton of Marvel old guard comic fans who adore what Age of Ultron did, what it adapted and the changes it made. Joss Whedon himself even recently admitted however that his picture has problems, and unfortunately seems to be blaming himself for what, I’m convinced, were issues ultimately out of his control. But what did I make of Age of Ultron after attempt number three? Well first off, I didn’t get bored and switch off. Secondly, I enjoyed it more than I had both times before. Thirdly, and most crucially, I still don’t think its either Marvel’s best, a great movie in its own right, or even close to how good Avengers Assemble is. Age of Ultron has a myriad of problems, but would I classify it as a failure? Not quite. Flawed is the most accurate term. Impressive in its reach and ambition, disappointing in what it delivers. To explore what those disappointments are however, it’s prudent to first look at the strengths, because there without doubt are parts of Whedon’s film that do work, and sometimes even work well.
His main success comes down to characterisation, with both his heroes and to a degree his villains. Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) arguably steals the picture given he’s positioned as the ‘heart’ of the Avengers, Whedon addressing the criticisms from the first movie that he was a spare part by giving him a family and convincing us he was going to be sacrificed in the final dramatic punch. While many have heaped scorn on the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) & Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) romantic element, it clicks almost immediately; genuine chemistry between the actors and a sweet ‘beauty & the beast’ allegory which further adds to Hulk’s humanity in Black Widow being his catalyst to calm, only for him to fear his own power and skip town. That neatly parallels the journey Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) undertakes, the central dramatic arc, as in creating Ultron (James Spader) he realises in trying to save the world, he crafted his own hubris into a twisted reflection of himself which ultimately endangers the Earth he’s become obsessed with protecting. It’s a great arc. Most people equally praised Spader’s performance as Ultron, dripping with sarcastic, eccentric menace, but felt the character himself fell down under examination; there’s truth to that, Ultron’s central narrative arc descending into a morass of nebulous motivation, but the character himself was brought to life with haunting power, even if nothing in the picture was as terrifying as his final “there are no strings on me” declaration in the trailer.
If Whedon nails the majority of character arcs and beats, his script peppered with hilarious one liners and the kind of witty asides that are idiosyncratic to Joss, then where does his movie falter? Arguably, on the whole, in attempting to load up the major points of Phase Three which go beyond foreshadowing into blatant Marvel meddling.
After a fun, action packed beginning as the formed Avengers team raid Baron von Strucker’s (Thomas Kretchmannn) Sokovia base in a (sadly) largely offscreen battle against HYDRA, within the first ten minutes Tony is then having visions of events which are blatantly part of Infinity War, the next Avengers two-part movie, or at least a parallel universe version of what we’ll see. Later Thor (Chris Hemsworth) vanishes for a good half hour before randomly turning up in a cave with the previously unseen Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard) where he too gets visions and comes to understand the Infinity Stones we’ve seen across the Marvel tapestry, all leading to Thanos (Josh Brolin) attempting to control the universe presumably in Infinity War. It’s well known that a *lot* of those vision quest Thor scenes ended up on the cutting room floor. When Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) entrances the Avengers with visions, we see Heimdall (Idris Elba) in possible visions of a Loki-controlled Asgard in the throes of decadence, presumably part of the upcoming Thor: Ragnarok. All of this, all of these scenes and teases, they detract from the very essence of the story being told, Whedon’s story – the threat of Ultron and how he begins to divide the Avengers unit ideologically. Were any of the aforementioned moments in Whedon’s original plan? You can bet almost not. His film feels like a vision steadily corrupted in order to feed the Marvel machine, the forward marching progress of the phases, which make Age of Ultron less a picture in its own right (as Avengers Assemble was) naturally climaxing the themes and character beats of Phase Two, but rather serving as an extended set up for the next six films. That’s its biggest failure, that and Whedon not really knowing how to tie it all together, leading to a messy and noisy climax which once again sees Sokovia act as the big, crashing, exploding ‘thing’ falling on innocent people, before the deus ex machina that is The Vision (Paul Bettany) luckily manages to save the day. No chance would the Avengers have beaten Ultron without him, and that too is a failing of the script.
Lessons hopefully will have been learned from Avengers: Age of Ultron. The process led Joss Whedon to jump ship when you can bet at first he imagined directing an Avengers trilogy, and much has been written on directorial visions being compromised by the Marvel train across the last decade. The omens for Captain America: Civil War (Avengers 2.5 in all but name), released this weekend, are looking good; Anthony & Joe Russo have the benefit of following on from The Winter Soldier, soaking up Age of Ultron, and planning ahead for Infinity War in mind which they’re writing/directing. Maybe that will ironically allow Civil War to be its own, singular story while exciting people for the next phase, rather than frustrating fans about the film they’re watching now. And while Age of Ultron isn’t a bad film, isn’t even the worst of Marvel, it should serve as a waypoint, a warning sign, at how extended cinematic universes can be a blessing and a curse. It’s just a shame Whedon seems to be accepting blame he doesn’t deserve, and hopefully this won’t end up being his enduring Marvel legacy.
Tony Black is a freelance film/TV writer & podcaster & would love you to follow him on Twitter.