Some Assembly Required: Can “Avengers: Age Of Ultron” Overcome A Bloated Run-Time, Too-Many Plotlines & An Over-Abundance Of CGI To Defeat Ultron & Save The Box-Office? (Spoiler Alert: Yes!) [Double-Team Review B]
No doubt about it, the first Avengers movie was a perfect storm of a motion picture. Marvel had been teasing it for four separate movies at this point (the first two Iron Man films, the first Thor and the first Captain America), and not only was the world waiting to know if Marvel could catch lightning in a bottle a fifth time, they were actually rooting for them to do so!
It was Marvel’s, or more specifically, director Joss Whedon’s ball to drop, and he never so much as lifted his glove out of the dirt. And by the time the smoke had cleared, the movie had not only succeeded, it had become one of the most successful films of all time. Can somebody say “Excelsior?” And, almost immediately, the question becames, “What do you do for an encore?” In the midst of all the hype and hyperbole, the copycats and also-rans, the question of the day was “how will they make Avengers 2 even better than the first one?” The first step obviously, was to lock Joss Whedon down immediately, and then the second was to already have a story in place – a story that you began laying the ground work for, not only in your first Avengers film, but in all the next stand-alone movies as well.
And that really is the secret to Marvel’s success, not only with The Avengers, but with all their movies and TV projects; planning. Their meticulously detailed planning, all the way down to the smallest piece of the smallest part, is astonishing. Whedon, along with Marvel Creative Czar Kevin Feige know every little curve and wrinkle in the puzzle and how every bit of it fits together.
And if there is a valid criticism to be made against Avengers: Age of Ultron, it is that there are too many pieces. In their effort to pay fan service to each character (not to mention the actors who play them), put in motion pieces which will lead to Captain America 3: Civil War, Avengers: Infinity War, Parts One and Two, Black Panther, make Hawkeye interesting, fill in Black Widow’s back story (hopefully set up a movie for her?), introduce Quicksilver, Scarlet Witch and the Vision and introduce Ultron (wait, there’s a villain in this movie? Holy $#!+! I almost forgot about that!), one ends up with a massive movie which feels like it wants to explode and rain little Ultron Funko dolls down on everybody.
Perhaps, if they could have released the movie at it’s original three and a half hour run-time (and according the rumor, that’s the version that will appear in six months when the movie hits Blu-Ray), or split it into two movies so it wouldn’t feel so bloated. But with this chopped up (even, hacked up?) version, it’s just too obvious that there are missing scenes or important moments of back story and character development that we just don’t get to see. The movie suffers for it.
All that said, however, The Avengers: Age of Ultron is still a great movie and, close to one of the best comic book movies to date, and certainly one of the best sequels ever – taking the time to not only up the danger presented by our villain, but also to provide those little character-building asides and comics-inspired Easter eggs that bring the gleam to a fanboy’s eyes and give the actors so many more interesting things to do. Our story opens sometime after the events of the first movie. We’re not told exactly how much time, but it’s obvious that the events in both Thor 2 and Cap 2 have happened. It is also obvious that the Avengers haven’t quite finished mopping up after all of the rack and ruin their various adventures have caused. Running down the remnants of the various Hydra cells around the world (Cap 2) and still trying to recover Loki’s Infinity Stone-powered scepter (Avengers 1), they uncover the lair of Baron Strucker (Thomas Kretschman), mad-scientist extraordinaire who appeared briefly in Cap 2. Strucker, a long-time nemesis of the comics’ Captain America, not only has the scepter but has also succeeded in using it to create the first generation of what Thor first refers to as “the enhanced.” They are Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch (Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen), super-powered twins (not those super-powered twins) who have a serious bone to pick with Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr) and his super-friends (still not those super-powered twins. Sorry).
Still, despite the interference of the Maximov Twins, The Avengers do manage to capture Strucker and get the scepter. The twins get away, but not before Scarlet Witch puts a whammy on Tony Stark that will really put things into over-drive after the opening credits. Before we go there, however, let’s take a look at the first example of what many fans are calling sexist and the misuse of the character of Natasha Romanoff/The Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson). Let’s look at “the Lullaby.”
Now, first of all, let me just say that I firmly believe that sexism is wrong and should in no way be countenanced in our society or in our stories. But as a fairly open-minded male who believes that women have the same rights and responsibilities that men do (even in a fictional story), I just didn’t find that much about “the Lullaby” to get upset about. I did get upset about the Natasha/Banner romance, but for the same reason I got upset about the new Hawkeye back story; because it was crammed-in piss-poor story-telling, not because it was sexist. The problem with “the Lullaby,” I think, comes about because we are obviously missing tons of background relating to its development and how Natasha came to be the one who implemented it. Maybe Banner (Mark Ruffalo) asked Natasha to be the one, maybe she was best suited for the task temperamentally, maybe she lost a bet, we just don’t know! And until we do know the background, hopefully in the uncut version, it is grossly unfair of us to hit it with the sexism brush and paint the whole movie with it. Besides, it’s not like “the Lullaby” really was a lullaby, now was it? It wasn’t a song, it was a mnemonic device, a psychic trigger that had carefully been planted inside Banner’s mind and tuned to one particular person; Natasha. And before you going calling it soft, or stereotypically feminine, let’s remember that in order to use it, she has to face off with the most pound-for-pound dangerous and destructive force on the planet – The Hulk. This is not a job for a sissy.
Moving on from “the Lullaby,” Scarlet Witch has gotten into Tony Stark’s head and convinced him that his teammates will die if he doesn’t do more to protect them. What is this “more,” you ask? Well, in this case it turns out to be copying the evil computer matrix from the Mind Gem in Loki’s scepter and using it to create Ultron, the Marvel U’s first-ever AI. Well, first he talks Science Bro Banner into helping him and not tell the team about it, and then he creates Ultron.
And this is where we get two more instances of missed story-telling opportunities. First the creation of Ultron is too short. Despite a montage that shows it took the Super Mario Brothers – oops, Tony and Bruce – days to get the Ultron matrix up and almost running, it sure doesn’t feel that way. In fact, if it weren’t for the change of clothes on both men, I’d have sworn they both began and finished Ultron on the same day. Hopefully, when the expanded version comes around, we’ll find an added scene or two to make things feel more spread out.
The second missed opportunity comes in the fact that Age of Ultron completely fails to compare and illuminate the similarities between the film’s three mad scientist teams. First you have Baron Strucker and his Igor, Dr. List (Henry Goodman), living and working among the cannibalized pieces and parts of other people’s inventions, trying to figure out what made them work and how to move them forward. Later in the film, we get Ultron and his Igor, the scepter-controlled Dr. Cho (Claudia Kim), working to enslave humanity and give Ultron a make-over. Then, finally, we have Tony and Bruce, living and working among the cannibalized pieces and parts of other people’s inventions, working to enslave – uh, I mean protect – humanity and give Jarvis a make-over. (Anybody remember how, in the comics, Jarvis used to be a real-live flesh and blood butler? Just wondering). Do you see the pattern here? It would have been nice if AoU could have found the time to examine this more completely. You could tell Whedon saw it, but he just didn’t have time to address it.
Anyway, Ultron gets built and, whether it’s because of something inherent in the Mind Gem or because they were working off Strucker’s original schematics for Hydra or because Tony and Bruce just flat-out screwed the pooch, our android Pinocchio comes out full bug-nuts homicidal. This leads to our metal villain crashing into my favorite scene in the film, where the Avengers and friends are all sitting around taking turns at trying to lift Thor’s hammer. This is such a great scene because you totally believe it would happen, right? As big as the egos in that room are, there’s no way in hell you’re going to write, “Whosoever holds this hammer, be he worthy, shall possess the power of Thor,” and not have these guys want to prove their worth. And for those of you looking for a more morally superior position for the gals in our story to take, please note that neither Natasha nor Maria Hill (Colbie Smulders) ask to try the hammer themselves. As Natasha says, “That’s not a question I need answered.” Then, boom, into the den comes Ultron, and all hell (not to mention the rest of the movie) breaks loose.
Now, before you start, I know I skipped the first big Natasha/Banner romantic scene. I’ll come back to it later, I swear.
The team survives their first skirmish with Ultron and immediately set about doing what they do best: blaming each other and fighting amongst themselves. After a huge mea culpa from Tony and Bruce, the team heads to the imaginary African nation of Wakanda (where T’Chaka or his son T’Challa, aka Black Panther, is currently ruler) to check out a clue uncovered by Tony and Captain America (Chris Evans). Klau (Anthony Serkis), a weapons dealer who, in the comics is an enemy of Black Panther, has found a new source of Vibranium, the magical, indestructible metal from which Cap’s shield is made. (If you don’t read comics and Vibranium still sounds familiar to you, it was referenced in both Cap 1 and in the Agent Carter TV series) Ultron also might want to make a new body out of it. Another missed moment is here, as the movie could have taken more time to compare former arms merchant Tony Stark with current arms merchant Klau, but Joss was in a hurry, so he skipped it.
The short version of this next scene is that Ultron and the Twins get to Klau first and terrorize him a bit before the A-Team arrives. But our heroes get their collective asses handed to them, not by Ultron, but by Scarlet Witch, who manages to mind-whammy everybody except Hawkeye (who has “done the mind control thing before,” and didn’t like it). Hawkeye manages to stir fry the Witch’s brain with some sort of voltage-arrow or something, The trio of terror still escape, taking all the Vibranium with them, and the Avengers are too mind-freaked to follow.
This is where we get our first glimpse of Black Widow’s back story. As Cap goes through some sort of War is Hell/I miss Peggy thing and Thor needlessly sets up both Ragnarok and The Infinity War storylinee, we get our first look at the notorious Red Room. This is part of the KGB training program for young girls, created for the comics by novelist Richard K. Morgan for the Homecoming graphic novel. Here we see an unhappy Natasha forced to learn ballet and assassination in equal measure, as her Russian masters turn her into the ultimate human weapon. The prize for this perfection, as we discover later in a conversation with Banner? She gets sterilized as part of her graduation ceremony. This is another point a lot of folks have gotten upset about The argument that in Joss Whedon’s world a woman can’t be both powerful and feminine, that she must somehow give up a part of what makes her a woman in order to take any kind of charge over her life caused an appreciable amount of tsuris.
I don’t see how you can really blame Whedon for this since it came out of Morgan’s story, and, quite frankly, it’s such a small part of the over-all story, I don’t see where it really has that much impact on the character, but maybe I’m being dense. If they ever get around to that Black Widow solo movie that is so long overdue, maybe we can look at all this again. In the meantime….
It’s Hulk Vs Hulkbuster! It’s Hulk Vs Hulkbuster!
As a parting shot on her way out to Act Three, Scarlet Witch mind-whammies Banner, making him Hulk-out and attack innocent Wakandans. With everyone else still feeling mind-scrambled and useless, Iron Man summons the Hulkbuster armor, AKA “Veronica”, and puts the Wakandans in even more danger as he fights Hulk up and down the city streets.
It’s important to note in most of A:AoE’s fight scenes, Marvel and Whedon are trying to say something about all of the needless destruction in these giant action movies – specifically The Man of Steel. With the criticism it – and the first Avengers – received over the wanton destruction porn of many of the fight scenes, Marvel is now going out of it’s way to show our heroes protecting the weak instead of just pounding the crap out of the strong and dropping buildings on them. It’s a worthwhile point that’s worth making, but after the fifth or sixth time, I was sort of feeling, “Alright already! We get it for crying out loud!”
And now, at the beginning of Act Three, we have the most awkward and out of place scene in A: AoU, The Farmhouse. Battered, bruised and thoroughly effed-up, the team needs a place to go to get its collective $#!+ together, and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) says he knows just the place. His place. You see, unbeknownst to the rest of us, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) had helped ol’ Hawk squirrel the wife and kids away on a farm in the middle of nowhere while no one was looking, and, except for Fury and Natasha, no one knew anything about it…until NOW.
It’s not that I mind Hawkeye having a family or a life outside of the group, but this was all so sudden, and so shoe-horned in, that it just seems like a way to make it up to Jeremy Renner. Remember, the first time out, Hawkeye spent a ton of time as a mind-controlled bad guy. Linda Cardinelli, as Mrs. Hawkeye, has a groovy Earth Mother vibe about her, even though she and her Hawk-chicks are mostly seen but unheard. Marvel (and Whedon?) usually does such a much better job with these things. Where’s that planning that should have planted little hints about Hawkeye along the way, until the pieces all came together in this big reveal. Instead, not only were we not given any clues, but, prior to now, I would have sworn that Hawkeye’s relationship with Nat was romantic!
[I’m not going to waste much more than a sentence on the whole “Black Widow is a slut” controversy. As both Chris Evans and Jeremy Renner have endlessly explained, it was a poor joke at the end of a long day. End of story.]
If the whole Home with the Hawkeyes stuff wasn’t already so awkward and out of place (Let’s face it, Thor was so uncomfortable, he took off to tease a whole ‘nother movie!), maybe the big will-they-or-won’t-they scene with Bruce and Natasha wouldn’t have seemed quite so bad. As it was, having another shoe-horned in and out of place scene – in the middle of an already shoe-horned in out of place sequence – was unbearable. Don’t get me wrong, the relationship makes sense to me; Natasha’s whole “All my friends are fighters except the one guy who always runs away from the fight because he knows he’ll win” speech sums up the core of her attraction to him completely, but before this movie we never saw it coming. It just felt dumb. Maybe in the three and a half hour version, we’ll have a couple other scenes to make this one feel earned. But, in all honesty, they’d need to go back and add scenes to Avengers 1 and Cap 2 to really make it right, and they won’t do that.
As to the whole sexism of the relationship, I get it. Women shouldn’t be used merely as accouterments to men. I’ve heard of the Bechtel Test and know what it means. I just don’t think it really applies here. It’s not like Natasha is just the girl-friend. She kicks serious ass, not only in this film, but in two previous ones! Nobody said Natalie Portman was a victim of sexism in the Thor movies because she was the girlfriend, or Gwyneth Paltrow in Iron M[e]n. The crime of The Farmhouse and The Love Story isn’t sexism, it’s bad story-telling – a far worse crime.
Moving on to Act Three, it’s chock-full of the kind of mindless destruction and full-tilt disaster porn that comic book movies are famous for, and which Marvel does so well. Ultron gloats and almost wins, the team comes together in a dazzling display of unity and power, the Vision rises up in all his Messianic glory (wonderfully played by Paul Bettany, by the way), Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver realize Ultron is insane and come over to the Light Side of the Force with a little help from good old Hawkeye, who easily wins the MVP for this flick. And then…
Someone makes the Ultimate Sacrifice to give all of the previous death and destruction weight and consequence. Let’s talk about that, shall we?
MAJOR SPOILER: If you don’t know who dies at the end of Avengers AoU, stop reading now. Seriously. Because I’m going to tell you.
It’s Quicksilver (see, I told you I was going to tell).
Even though Age of Ultron sets up Hawkeye as its sacrificial goat, it’s Pietro Maximoff who pays the ultimate price. And he does so, ironically, saving Hawkeye’s life while Clint saves the life of the Random Kid who we’ve seen all through Act Three (with his equally Random Hot Mom). This was, if not a mistake, then a miscalculation. Joss Whedon likes to kill off his characters. We know this. It’s kind of his thing, his trademark. But he doesn’t do it randomly. Whedon does it for effect, in an effort to give meaning and resonance to his projects, to illustrate the ridiculous lengths heroes will take to save the day. The problem is, the wrong guy died. If Hawkeye had bit the bullet, as somewhat expected, that death would have meant something. Clint Barton has been with us since the first Thor movie, and we feel like we know him and care about him. Plus, it would have justified the addition of his huge back story. By making a martyr out of Quicksilver, Whedon robbed us of that. We don’t know Pietro. We don’t know what he likes or dislikes. We don’t know his passion or his depth. He’s a cipher and, by killing him off, Whedon is sort of saying that in the Marvel world, certain characters are off-limits and can’t be killed off, no matter what.
That’s a shame, really. Not that I ever expected to see “The Death of Iron Man” or whatever (though I think The Death of Captain America storyline is a real possibility once Chris Evans is done with the character), but it’s always good to be reminded that no one is safe in these fictional universes. You never know when the Cosmic Cleaver may come sweeping down to take a hero away.
Anyway, that’s my take on Avengers: Age of Ultron, a fun, flawed movie that is way over-stuffed and has far too much to do to be the thrill ride the first one was, but is still a great ride nonetheless.
A QUICK NOTE TO MARVEL: Just as Sony screwed up Spider-Man, and Warner’s screwed up Batman in the 90’s by adding too many villains and too many storylines, you are teetering on the tipping point of your universe here. You need to begin treading very carefully.
Looking at the cast list for Captain America 3, I count fourteen major heroes (with Black Panther and Ant-Man just announced), plus Spider-Man. In fact, it seems like every once and future Marvel hero except the Hulk, Thor and Dr. Strange are going to be making an appearance. If a freaking Captain America movie is that full, can you imagine what Avengers 3 and 4 will look like, especially with the additions of The Hulk, Dr. Strange and Captain Marvel ( and, rumored, The Defenders?). Jeez Louise, talk about sensory over-load!
Marvel, you need to remember that bigger is not always better. The audience can respond to small, intimate stories just as much as we do the big, noisy ones. After all, if all you do is the big spectacular movies, they’ll stop being all that spectacular, won’t they?