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?