This essay will contain potentially unmarked spoilers for Avengers: Age of Ultron.
There seems to be something of an emerging tradition for me and the Avengers movies. I really don’t watch movies in the cinema any more, as a rule – the prices are too high, and the experience really isn’t an improvement of being at home with all the things I want nearby.
However, I saw the first Avengers movie when I was in New York as part of the “holiday experience”, and because it was a luxury thing I saw it in 3D. Somehow, even though I am not in New York now, I managed to see the sequel in a cinema locally, and also in 3D.
So, firstly, 3D is not an unvarnished success for A:AoU, just as it is not for any movie. I think it helps for the action scenes a bit, giving them more ‘pop’, but for every action scene there’s a still scene with shallow depth of field where the 3d makes the out of focus bits glaringly distracting (rather than effectively focussing as in 2d).
That out of the way, I’ll start the discussion proper with my conclusion: whilst not perfect, Avengers: Age of Ultron is a superior film to its predecessor, although not long enough.
The first Avengers movie felt like the experiment it was sometimes, trying to pull together all the heroes of the last couple of Marvel movies (including some which were originally not quite intended for that purpose) into one big thing, and make them all work together,
thematically as well as socially. Because of that, while it has a large amount of character writing for an action movie, it also feels like it’s running around a lot of the time trying to introduce things.
Age of Ultron, meanwhile, can confidently open on an action scene in media res, as the already-introduced-Avengers demonstrate their awesome by effortlessly slicing through the defences of a HYRDA base, while engaging in nice character-defining banter. (A Whedon trademark is how the topics of the banter are then echoed through the rest of
the film in conversation.)
Within the very apotheosis of their success, however, as in all good 2nd movies in a sequence, is set the seed of their potential destruction, as the Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch (never called such in the film, but she does wear red and does get called a witch by people) sets up Tony Stark to destroy himself with a vision of his deepest fear.
Unfortunately, Tony is not the sanest of people to start with, and his trauma from the first Avengers film means that what he most deeply fears is a massive alien invasion killing everyone while he survives, impotent and alone. This is obviously not going to go well for anyone, especially as he’s just taken control of Loki’s mind-controlling Scepter from the first movie.
One issue that AoU does have, thanks to being cut heavily from the original 3.5 hours, we assume, is that it tends to be sketchy on the details of some elements. So, Tony finds a “program” inside Loki’s Scepter, which some viewers have interpreted as being Actually The Mind Gem As A Program (spoilers: the Mind Stone is in the Scepter). Given that this program becomes the basis of Ultron, and Ultron inherits a lot of Tony Stark in his twisted personality, I think the implication was supposed to be that the program is the Mind Gem echoing Tony’s desires back at him – he wants to make a “suit of armour around the world”, and Wanda’s nightmare vision is still echoing in the back of his skull, so the Mind Gem gives him what he wants. Unfortunately for all concerned, except in that it actually gives us an antagonist for the film.
Character development via duologue is at the heart of several strands of the movie, from the Tony v Steve moral argument (which will blow up in Captain America: Civil War) through the Paragon v Nihilist opposition of Vision and Ultron. It also serves in both of Black Widow’s character development arcs – contextualised by the Hawkeye Family, and against Bruce Banner/Hulk.
The latter is introduced via the entirely-novel-to-MCU concept that apparently all it takes to calm down the Big Green Guy is for Nat to say some trigger phrases while stroking his hand and forearm. This is convenient for plot pacing purposes, of course, as otherwise Hulk would need to calm down some other more long-winded way, while introducing some fridge logic concerning the way in which Hulk was conditioned to respond to those phrases in the first place.
More importantly to the film, it also allows us to introduce the concept of a tenderness between Nat and Hulk’s alterego, Banner. (It’s also the first horribly incongruous part of the film, albeit well acted by both participants, separated by green-screen. As with most of the other incongruous parts, it’s an attempt to attach more traditionally feminine aspects to Black Widow’s character which sits on the edge of being insultingly obvious.)
The emerging romance between the two is handled with some delicacy, as two damaged individuals (one of whom made seduction part of her armory in her spying days, so needs to be careful when using it for someone she actually cares for, and one who tends to destroy everyone close to him if he loses control) circle each other.
While there are incongruities earlier on (why is Nat apparently tending bar at her own party?) the big stumbling block in this romance is the point where, in response to Bruce’s “I’m a monster and can’t have kids” routine, Nat uses her forced sterilisation as part of the Russian Black Widow project as her example of how she’s a monster too. To his credit, Whedon is obviously trying to tie that line in on multiple levels – Nat is responding to the fact that Banner can’t have children (because he goes green when he gets aroused too) by noting that she can’t either; but she’s also using it to show how she’s a damaged
individual. Unfortunately, it isn’t really made clear that the sterilisation itself is not what makes Widow monstrous, just that it is one part of the training/indoctrination process that did so. (It is not clear that this is entirely unintentional, as certainly there are aspects of society that might consider having children/pregnancy to be the highest point of a woman’s life, and that removing that capability lessons a woman (in a way that might not lessen a man). And Nat is shown to be contrasted with her distaff counterpart Clint, who does actually have a secret family, which are all extremely conventional and settled.)
[It also rings a little false that, in a universe where Helen Cho can construct an artificial tissue that can apparently fuse with magical metal to make a full pseudo-living body, and where bioscience seems generally incredibly advanced, that someone couldn’t make Nat a new womb, or even just provide surrogacy for her from eggs derived from cell samples. At least in Bruce’s case, he doesn’t actually know if his sperm carries Hulkness with it into his descendants either, so his inability to safely perform is not the only issue. (In a longer analysis, one might note the asymmetry even here in the Hulk/Widow reproductive problem – Banner can’t even get it up without potentially killing people, while Romanoff is concerned more by being infertile ground – an explicitly reproductive issue, contrasted with Banner’s sexual one.]
But false notes aside, the romance between the two of them drives an important development towards the end of the film, based on both characters making an explicit choice to reject or embrace aspects of their personality for the greater good. Being a Marvel universe romance, you might imagine that these choices are not to the benefit of their personal happiness. Nat chooses Banner, but immediately betrays him because she needs the Hulk to save people (and thus also lets Bruce become another person she’s manipulated for another cause). Bruce (and Hulk) decide they can’t trust anyone to stop them rampaging, and exile themselves from happiness and the contact of those fragile, deceptive, others. It’s a tragedy for all involved.
Character arcs which explicitly exist to plumb together later films are much more deeply integrated into Age of Ultron than the first Avengers film. Over Phase 2, in fact, it’s striking how more confident the films have become in believing that they are part of a long
project which will actually last long enough for slow plot threads to accrue. In this, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is starting to resemble a series of very long, slow-release episodes of a TV series, rather than a movie franchise. We even have a few characters, such as Andy Serkis’ Ulysses Klaue, introduced apparently purely to give them an origin story for a later film (Black Panther). This does, places some additional stress on the running time of the film, and you do sometimes wish there’d been more emotional and plot development left in from the original 3 hr+ cut, rather than the material which made it.
The other aspect of the film, going back up a few paragraphs, is the focus on Renner’s Hawkeye, a sort of apology to the actor and the character for having him spend half of the first Avengers film in mind-controlled thrall to Loki. The film tries to cast him as the
“ordinary guy” of the superhero team – we learn that he has a Secret Family, which is almost an archetype of the Classic American Nuclear family (they’re just missing an excitable dog who can also look soulful when its master is sad), located in the archetypical midWest American setting. All this is as counter to the anomalous, and, we are
supposed to believe, ungrounded lives of the rest of the Avengers (although, ironically, we assume that Tony’s move to committed matrimony with Pepper Potts makes him the next most grounded individual in the team, which is hardly a recommendation of the
So, as the Everyman (who also is a master archer and skilled combat pilot…), Hawkeye’s role is expanded just in time for him to leave the team at the end. It’s not really convincing that his new informed role as Heart of the Avengers actually has any consequences – he doesn’t get enough time to serve as an audience surrogate, bar one knowing comment late on the film, and it’s certainly not clear that he provides any particular moral argument that other Avengers might not.
(This also compounds the confusing treatment of Johansson’s Black Widow, however, as she’s also being written into a more “traditional” social role in the film, but one with less power and responsibility.
She even manages to be the only member of the Avengers to get captured by Ultron, mainly so he can gloat at her (and she can tell the rest of the team where she is). Whedon has talked about having long arguments with Marvel/Disney execs about various parts of the film structure, and, in this light, perhaps the minimisation and weakening of Black
Widow’s character are part of this struggle.)
Of course, you could argue that the entire film is really based on a mostly hidden moral argument between The Vision’s Post-existentialist Life affirming purity and Ultron’s Nihilistic rejection of Humanity.
While Hawkeye is the Everyman, Ultron and Vision sit at ultimate poles in their rejection of what he represents. Spader’s Ultron, like HAL before him, is an AI with a maddeningly impossible objective which, perhaps, drives him mad. Tasked with creating “peace in our time”, an end to conflicts or threats to humanity, he seems to perceive the worst aspects of everything around him – first fixating on the Avengers themselves as the most powerful potential threat to peace, and then expanding his sphere, inconsistently and irrationally, ever wider. His final doomsday plan could be seen as the ultimate cynical response to his original directive – the only way to save humanity from itself is to destroy it.
The Vision, at the other pole, is created with no overriding objective. Almost the first thing he does on his creation is to stare into the city skyline, apparently mesmerised by the beauty of the world, almost his next is to declare his allegiance with “life”, rather than any petty factional divisions between individuals. In fact, he is the only heroic character who admits to sympathy for Ultron, noting that he is in great pain, driving his actions (which, nevertheless, must be fatally prevented, for the greater good).
In this messianic role, played note perfect by Paul Bettany, he actually resembles another Marvel hero, Adam Warlock, more than the original comics’ Vision. Warlock, in fact, was intended to be an explicit expy of Jesus, pure, on the side of life, eventually sacrificing himself to save the world. (He also had one of the Infinity Gems/Stones embedded in his head, which gave him some of his powers – another aspect which the MCU version of Vision picks up.)
While The Vision does not sacrifice himself in Age of Ultron, we suspect that some manner of this resolution might unfold in the next Avengers film (given that the Infinity War covers Thanos’ collection of all of the Infinity Stones, and one of them is in Vision’s head…)
The Avengers themselves are contrasted with these two poles throughout the film – Ultron explicitly calls them out as being “killers”, and the Maximoffs’ alignment with him at first is driven by their similar characterisation of Stark. Meanwhile, in their climactic battle, the Avengers are explicitly shown to act first to preserve life, evacuating the area and even sacrificing themselves to prevent civilian casualties.
The Vision is also established as being the Paragon via his ability to lift Thor’s Hammer, something nicely established as beyond any of the other Avengers, save Thor himself, earlier on in the film. As well as establishing a more mystical side to the MCU (explicitly, via Steve Rogers and Tony Stark’s rationalist reductionist attempts to constrain
or argue away the Hammer’s definition of ‘Worthy’), the former scene also develops Steve Rogers’ character as well, as the fallen Paragon – whilst coming closest to lifting the Hammer, he is now only able to shift it slightly in position. Steve’s character arc seems to be one of a fall from grace due to trauma – his ‘nightmare vision’ is simply
of the love he lost and the victory party that he missed via his decades frozen in ice. Perhaps 1940s Steve could have lifted the Hammer, but now he has too much damage, and too little hope, to really achieve that purity of purpose. (Again, perhaps a plot thread
to be picked up in Civil War?)
Overall, though, all of the heroes remain predominantly heroic, although the more compromised retire at the end. Old Heroes seem to stop because their purity can’t stand up to life in the MCU, and they need replaced by newer, purer stock (with cheaper film contracts) in time for Phase 3.
But before that starts, with a battle between Authoritarianism and Liberty in Civil War, there’s just a small matter of a man and his Ant…