Marvel Movie Club: What works and what doesn't in Avengers: Age of Ultron
As we count down to the long-awaited uber-team-up Avengers: Infinity War (out April 27), EW’s Marvel Movie Club is preparing by revisiting the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe in the weeks leading up to the mega-sized movie. EW will revisit one Marvel movie a week, every week, to reassess its powers and hopefully answer important questions along the way like “What was The Incredible Hulk?” “Does Nick Fury wash his eye-patch?” and “Is there a point to Hawkeye?” This week, Chancellor Agard and Christian Holub find things to like about Joss Whedon’s final Marvel movie, Avengers: Age of Ultron.
CHANCELLOR AGARD: Avengers: Age of Ultron is one of my least favorite Marvel movies. It’s bloated, messy, and features some of the most egregious future-movie table setting in the entire franchise (See: Thor’s silly mystical hot tub scene). However, it’s also one of the Marvel movies I think about the most because it engages with some very fascinating ideas. Joss Whedon’s sad Marvel swan song is about power and control, about the dangers of acting out of fear, and also finds time to acknowledge that the rest of the world may not love the Avengers. Like The Avengers, it occasionally has a hangout vibe and a sense that it can joke its way out most serious situations. But overall, Age of Ultron — with its many heavy conversations between the Avengers and slightly more realistic foe — feels darker and way more thoughtful about this crazy world in which Tony and the rest of the heroes operate.
While rewatching Age of Ultron this week, I could again feel that the movie was in the middle of a tug-of-war with two impulses: Whedon’s desire to dig deeper into these demigod characters, and Marvel Studios’ desire to set up the rest of its universe. But, with three years of distance (and being immersed in the MCU with this weekly column and our most recent issue), I found myself a bit more sympathetic to the movie than I was when I first saw it. Christian, how did you feel after rewatching Age of Ultron this week?
CHRISTIAN HOLUB: Hey, Chance! Thanks for letting me back on to the column. We last discussed the first Avengers movie, so I’m glad to be back for round two. Funny enough, this is actually the second time I’ve revisited Age of Ultron since its release. I remember being pretty disappointed when it came out, but when I went back I found it utterly fascinating. That feeling has only intensified with this new rewatch.
For both better and worse, Age of Ultron has “Joss Whedon” written all over it in a way few directors get to leave their imprint on massive superhero blockbusters like this. I think that’s partly because these films have such sky-high budgets and expectations that they lean formulaic for fear of failure. But because Whedon perfected the superhero-movie template with the first Avengers movie (thereby justifying the insane years-long experiment that is the MCU) he took a little more leeway on this one and went, as you said, in some really interesting directions (he’s said his pitch to MCU boss Kevin Feige was essentially “We’re going to give you a bigger movie than you’ve had. But. I’m also going to get a little funky”). That’s where we get random stuff like the long sequence on Hawkeye’s farm, or Thor’s psychedelic bath, or the Black Widow backstory. Not all of those elements, maybe none of them, work, but it’s still fascinating to see how willing Whedon was to do things differently than the first Avengers movie.
As a result, Age of Ultron demonstrates Whedon’s limits as well as his strengths. He’s known as a snappy writer, and shows like Firefly still delight me with their rapid-fire wit. But bits like Cap’s “language!” line in the opening battle sequence undercut the character rather than enhance or personalize them. I’m still not sure if Ultron’s humor undermines him or not; I fear it might. I don’t think it’s an accident that Whedon’s self-professed love-hate relationship with this film mimics the textual dynamic between Tony Stark and Ultron. Tony wanted to build armor around the world and deploy his Iron Legion as a peace-keeping force that didn’t risk human lives, but instead his creation grew into a genocidal maniac. There’s quite a large subtext about creating something you love and then watching it turn into an oppressive force beyond your control. Considering the history of superhero comics (replete with writers and artists like Jack Kirby getting denied much of the profit from their brilliant cultural creations) I’m honestly surprised that this Frankenstein myth doesn’t pop up more often in these stories. One thing I now find extremely relatable about Ultron in a way I didn’t in 2015 is his disgust at the world and humanity. Again, Whedon was by his own account exhausted and broken during the making of this movie, and as a result it has a rather bitter perspective on people. Back then, I wouldn’t have said that the internet was a force for bad. But now I look around and I see social media companies stealing and selling my personal information, presidents on twitter, and endless news parades of death and depression … let’s just say I can see where Ultron’s coming from.
I actually think this angry disgust works well in the course of the MCU, too. Like, two weeks ago you and our buddy Devan Coggan talked about Captain America: Winter Soldier and its political critique of the ways modern Americans put so much trust in our massive security-state surveillance apparatus without thinking much about what would happen if the people running that apparatus turned out to be evil. Age of Ultron, by contrast, thinks it’s already too late to reconsider. We’ve gone too far now, Ultron posits, and the only way to amend our mistakes is to destroy all of humanity.
Well, let me toss this back to you Chance by focusing on the big boy himself. Last time we talked Avengers, I spent much of it complaining about Tom Hiddleston’s Loki. How does Ultron fare as an MCU villain, in your eyes? And is he right that humanity should die because of what we do on the internet?
CHANCELLOR: So, this is far from surprising since this is how pop culture always works, but it’s actually insane how much the current state of the world has shaped my feelings about this movie, specifically when it comes to Ultron. When the movie first came out, I thought Ultron was a bore, like pretty much every other genocidal Marvel villain. The only thing that made him remotely memorable was Spader’s performance. Spader infuses the character with a viciously salty personality, but in some respects, it didn’t feel that much different from what Spader does on The Blacklist.
All of that being said, Ultron ended up being one of the Marvel villains I think about the most, and I think I’ve figured out why: His motivations, while bland, are actually grounded in the real world and relatable. I can’t count the number of times I’ve either referenced or thought about his line about creating the thing we dread, because it’s so true! Especially, as you already mentioned, when you look at the internet. The internet was created to be a force for good. AMC’s under-appreciated Peak TV gem Halt and Catch Fire does a great job of capturing the inherent optimism of the internet. It was supposed to connect to each other, and thankfully, we’ve all played a role in its growth. But now many parts of it — or at least the most visible or noticeable parts — have become toxic wastelands. So like you I can definitely understand where he’s coming from — but, I prefer to take Vision’s approach and believe that we should still be given a chance to try to fix it ourselves.
Because of my newfound appreciation for Ultron, I’m kind of disappointed that the movie ends with him being destroyed because his main thing in the comics is that, no matter what, some tiny part of him survives which allows him to come back. But alas here, he ends up becoming as disposable as every other Marvel villain, most of whom have very little life past one movie. That’s probably one of the major losses in translating superheroes from page to screen. In the comics, villains return all the time because that’s just how the wheel works, but with these movies, there is a pretty big no-recycling policy across most of them (save a few exceptions like Lex Luthor and the MCU’s Loki).
Having written so much about Ultron, I feel like it’s time we turn our attention to the good guys. Like Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, this is a movie where it feels like almost every hero gets some kind of arc, or a semblance on one. Which of the Avengers’ individual stories works the best in your opinion?
CHRISTIAN: I agree that I like the way that each character gets their own arc in this movie, even if not all of them work particularly well. This is one of the strengths of Marvel’s superheroes, after all: They are riven by internal conflict and human flaws in a way that, say, DC’s just aren’t. Both of Whedon’s Avengers movies are driven by passionate arguments between the main characters, whenever those characters aren’t already busy beating themselves up. This approach did not work as well for Justice League (partially directed by Whedon), where the closest Wonder Woman comes to Marvel-esque trauma is pining over the long-dead Steve Trevor in a way that undermines rather than enhances her character.
Anyway, my favorite of these angsty Age of Ultron plotlines is Cap’s, and not just because it features a cameo from Hayley Atwell’s Peggy Carter (still one of the most compelling characters in the MCU). It also asks a truly fascinating question: What is Captain America without a war to fight? After all, until this point we’ve only seen Steve Rogers at war. He was formed during World War II and went into ice as soon as that conflict ended. Then, immediately after being pulled into the present, he was drafted to defend his hometown New York City from the invading Chitauri army. Loki’s defeat seemed to offer some potential peace, but that proved short-lived as Cap soon found himself in the middle of a cold war within SHIELD. So the question is: Can he ever stop? Can Captain America exist outside of war? It’s a question that makes the most of Cap’s symbolic resonance, because you could ask the same question of America itself, which has used the heroism of the Greatest Generation during World War II to justify many subsequent bloody wars. It also does a good job of contrasting the heroes with Ultron. If Cap is a scientific experiment built for one single purpose (winning wars), how does that make him different from Ultron, a scientific creation with one goal (protecting the Earth)? Especially since both purposes can easily be turned to evil ends. Perhaps Cap has just as much destructive potential as Ultron.
Cap’s story line also sets him fundamentally at odds with Tony Stark, a former arms dealer and instigator of conflict who now wants his own wars to be over. As Stark asks Steve during their great woodpile scene, “isn’t that the point? To end it?” Stark’s utopian goals are admirable, but life is a struggle, especially in the Marvel Universe. To end that struggle is to end life as we know it — either by constraining it under some global Iron Curtain, or by destroying it completely. Ultron understands this in a way Stark doesn’t. I like this conflict because it builds toward Civil War, rather than the extremely literal teases of Ragnarok and Infinity War found in Thor’s story line. This movie establishes in the context of its own story that Stark is willing to accept some oppressive authoritarian measures for the purposes of peace, while Steve’s only solution to anything is to start a war.
Now let’s talk about one of the story lines that doesn’t work. Black Widow’s plot in this movie caused a lot of controversy when it first came out, and might suggest the limits of Whedon’s work with female characters. Chance, is Black Widow really a monster because she can’t have children? And for god’s sake, why hasn’t she gotten a solo movie yet?
CHANCELLOR: Black Widow’s plot might be the most frustrating thing about this movie. Look, I just watched Captain America: Winter Soldier two weeks ago, and Johansson comes very close to stealing that movie. I firmly believe that anyone else in the sidekick role would’ve been easily forgotten, but it’s hard to imagine that movie without her because she not only has so many great exchanges, but she gets her most substantial story line: Dealing with the fact that her quest of redemption has been for naught since she was working for Nazis. That’s a compelling existential crisis of sorts!
Unfortunately, Age of Ultron fumbles the follow-through. Here, Natasha is considering leaving the superhero spy business and is also crushing on Bruce Banner, a.k.a. The Hulk. The introduction of this romance is cute and fine (it’s Buffy and Angel all over again!). However, whatever crisis of conscience Natasha has in the wake of Winter Soldier gets lost midway through the movie, which suddenly becomes about the fact that Natasha can’t have children because she was forcibly sterilized during spy training and maybe wants them, thus her character is reduced to whether she can reproduce. It’s the farthest thing from a good look because Black Widow is the most prominent (and up until that point only) female superhero in the MCU.
I think there’s a world where this story line — Natasha grappling with what was done to her to make the trained assassin she is today — could work, but it doesn’t here because of the MCU’s disregard for Black Widow. Unlike Tony Stark and Steve Rogers, who have received multiple solo movies that dig into their internal lives, Black Widow’s stories are always subplots in a larger movie, which means there was really no time to set up this big character detail. Thus, her sadness over not being able to have kids feels like it comes out of nowhere and forced into the movie. If anything, Age of Ultron is the strongest argument for why the first two phases needed a solo Black Widow movie.
As we begin to wrap up, I think we need to discuss this movie’s action scenes, which are exponentially more destructive than most of Avengers. Christian, in your mind, how does this movie’s fight scenes compare to The Avengers? Is more actually more here?
CHRISTIAN: Yes, unfortunately, the one thing about Age of Ultron that does feel like karaoke of the first movie is the climactic fight scene. When the first Avengers landed in theaters, that clash between the heroes and the invading Chitauri felt truly epic. Alien troop transports careening through Manhattan felt new, and the fight also made plenty of room to show off the Avengers’ different personalities and fighting styles (such as the both hilarious and awesome team-up between Hulk and Thor). But by the time Age of Ultron rolled around a few years later, that battle had been mimicked so many times (including by other MCU movies, like Guardians of the Galaxy) that it had grown stale. The more you pit your characters against an endless army of identical drone soldiers, the more it becomes clear you’re just trying to get in a ton of action without showing the bloody, complicated consequences of killing actual people. It’s the curse of the PG-13 format, am I right? Curse the day Lucas and Spielberg ever got divorced and poured their darkness into Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.
I will say, however, that after endless shots of the Avengers demolishing Ultron drones, the fight actually does come to some emotional conclusions. I love Scarlet Witch being the one to kill the main Ultron body, literally ripping his heart out as revenge for killing Quicksilver. And for some reason the scene that’s probably stuck with me the most about this movie is Vision’s final confrontation with the last Ultron body in the woods. It’s shot beautifully and also ends up pretty moving. I know you were saying you were disappointed Ultron didn’t survive in at least one body, but I bet that has more to do with James Spader’s busy schedule (and, I assume, hefty price tag) than anything else. Even still, I’ve always suspected that some piece of Ultron might have survived within the Mind Stone, just as JARVIS survived within Ultron. I wonder if we’ll see him pop up during Infinity Wars; certainly it would be awesome for Thanos to add the Mind Stone to his Gauntlet, thinking he’s got it all taken care of, only to get a nasty surprise from the only intellect as evil as him. Okay, sorry, I’ll reign in the fanboy speculation part of my brain now.
Speaking of both Thanos and Quicksilver’s sacrifice, here’s the note I want to end on: Should Hawkeye have just died in this movie? The whole reason those endless-robot-army climaxes grew so tiring was because they failed to kill off important characters and thus establish stakes. Hinting at Hawkeye’s death throughout the whole movie only to defer to Quicksilver is some classic Whedon fakery, but considering Hawkeye seems largely absent from Infinity War begs the question how much was really lost by sparing him (aside from the fact that he inspired T’Challa’s amazing “I don’t care” line during the Civil War airport battle, of course). I feel the same way about Nick Fury in Winter Soldier, as I think you do too (surely Maria Hill could have built that new Helicarrier on her own, if story needs demanded it). Actually killing those characters would have lent some real weight to the MCU. Everyone from Kevin Feige to Robert Downey Jr. promised in EW’s recent Infinity War cover story that the new movie would finally deliver on some permanent deaths, but let’s just say they haven’t built up trust with me up to this point.
So here’s what I leave you with, Chance: Should more Marvel superheroes die on screen? And did you even remember that this was the movie that introduced our now-beloved Wakanda to the MCU?
CHANCELLOR: Yes, I think more Marvel heroes should die, if only to break away from the MCU’s overused rebirth trope. And yes, I did remember the Wakanda reference. It’s probably the only Easter egg that works in the movie. Like, it still feels forced, but not too forced.