With great power comes great… wait… different franchise. Never mind. Not relevant.
by Thom Yee
Age of Ultron represents a sort of anniversary for us here at GOO Reviews. It was nearly three years ago that Grace and I set off on this endeavor to review pop culture in all of its minutiae (or at least the parts we could be bothered with) after seeing an already overcrowded and thoroughly well served market of online reviews and saying, “Us too!” We launched with a spate of reviews, of movies and TV shows and novels and comicbooks, but the first out of the gate was a review of a particularly special movie – The Avengers. We’ve come a long way since 2012 and those lowly days of 3G iPhones, Large Hadron Colliders, and misinterpretations of Mayan calendars. We’ve reviewed more than 100 films, provided week-by-week coverage of several popular television series, and witnessed the Marvel Cinematic Universe grow from mewling quim to roaring froth. Some of us have graduated college, moved out of our parents’ house, and are well on our way towards marriage and adulthood, while still others have also graduated college, had already moved out of our parents’ house, and are continuing on our lonely, vengeful, blood-red path, with marriage, fulfillment and contentment still nowhere in sight, hoping that the next leap will be the leap home.
The first Avengers is the third highest grossing movie of all time, domestic and worldwide, with only James Cameron’s Avatar and Titanic ahead of it (damn them!), and not only did it play extremely well with a wide variety of audiences, it was the fruition of a once thought impossible dream for a certain nerdier, sweatier, more socially awkward, basement dwelling contingent of movie fans that form the lion’s share of the property’s comicbook readers. After years of torment and woe, stumbles and misfires, Ghost Riders and Fantastic Fours, we not only got five reasonably strong superhero movies featuring the likes of Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America, but a movie to assemble them all against a common threat too great for any single hero to withstand. And it worked.
Longtime readers of this website, however, might recall that I wasn’t the biggest fan of that particular Avengers. I gave it an 8, much of that earned simply by virtue of what it was — a giant superhero movie that’s better than good enough — but I didn’t care for the Black Widow’s portrayal, I felt that Hawkeye was completely wasted, and I just couldn’t take how, for lack of a better term, Whedon-y it was. Those cloying, desperate little jokes and dialogue few if any actors can credibly deliver. Having watched it again recently just before attending the Age of Ultron premiere here in downtown Edmonton, I’d further add that a lot of the movie comes off like amateur hour in the face of what we’ve seen since its release, perhaps most notably during the Iron Man-Thor fight that, compared to the likes of Man of Steel’s Superman-Zod-Metropolis annihilation, feels like a minor stage play. I liked The Avengers, especially what it did with the Hulk, but I feel it’s a good movie hunting for greatness without ever finding it, and I think A LOT of its enduring appeal comes simply from the novelty of the concept. For me, that initial element of “I can’t believe this is finally happening…” was strongly tempered against a concluding sense of “… and that’s all they did with it?”
Still, it was the biggest movie of that year, and Age of Ultron looks poised to become the biggest movie of this year, and so we’ve lined up two Age of Ultron reviews from two very different perspectives. First up, my nerdy, sweaty review, in all of its awkward, comic-book-reading glory.
Years after Loki’s invasion of New York, the Avengers have become a battle-hardened team of superhuman veterans, working in unison and without government interference in their continuing war against Hydra, an insidious terrorist organization risen from the ashes of the now-defunct S.H.I.E.L.D. Though united as a team, the assembled Avengers don’t necessarily see eye to eye on how best to protect the world, and when Tony Stark’s plans for the Ultron Program, essentially Stark’s plan for a suit of armour around the world, go awry after interfacing with the power of Loki’s sceptre, the Avengers find themselves once again threatened by a force that no one hero can withstand. This time, though, it may also be a threat not even their combined power can face.
Every once in a while, a movie comes along that makes me feel glad to be alive. There’s an energy, a spirit surrounding it, something that resonates all around and inside of you with the warmest, most inviting of chills. The only other time I’ve felt it was as I watched The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, which was odd since I wasn’t a huge fan of Fellowship of the Ring, J.R.R. Tolkien, or reading novels. And yet there it was, powerful, undeniable, emotionally resonant, a supercharged buzz. As a lifelong comicbook reader, I started to feel the same buzzing as I waited for Age of Ultron to start. And waited. And waited. And waited some more. Soon that buzzing turned to anxiety as I and eventually the gathered crowd began to wonder why the movie hadn’t started yet, and my mind started to race with doomsday scenarios. “What if there’s something wrong? Something serious?” “What if I have to wait for the next showing?” “What if I won’t be able to see it until [choke] tomorrow?” “What if this is the universe’s way of keeping me from something I truly care about? Like always!” “Gods, why me, why now, why the Av—”, and then it started, and it turns out it was just twelve minutes late, but still, what the hell, Landmark Cinemas 9 City Centre? That’s twelve nervous, wrathful minutes of my life I’ll never get back! Damn you! Minutes!
For those of you who may be on the verge of tuning out for a lack of finding anything of substance regarding Age of Ultron despite having made your way through more than a thousand words of prose under the banner of a supposed Age of Ultron review, I’ll go ahead and skip right to the point: I loved Age of Ultron. It’s not perfect, it’s not bulletproof, I don’t even think it’s for everyone the way the first Avengers so obviously was, but it’s a comicbook movie through and through, and for us nerdy, sweaties, it delivers.
Age of Ultron sets off right away with a widescreen battle, directly involving each one of the six established Avengers in a conflict that tops anything from the original film. As I watched Captain America throw his shield at bad guys and catch it, all while riding a motorcycle, I immediately felt at home with a series that embraces the implausible elements of superheroes without any disrespect or cynicism. I thought most of the jokes worked, I didn’t think ill of the movie’s score, and most importantly I didn’t feel Whedon’s grubby little flourishes all over it.
The core Avengers are stronger than ever at this point in our story, and they’re all served significantly better than they ever were in the first movie. Captain America has finally found his place in the world as the group’s clear-cut leader, and there isn’t really a hint of ego about who’s in charge. Iron Man’s doing his tech-genius, billionaire facilitator thing while, in keeping with the character and what he’s seen, thinking about things on a grander scale than everybody else. Thor, meanwhile, is the surest of the group (“I am mighty!”), as best exemplified in the hammer-lifting scene, and it takes a grim vision of the future to at all derail the character (and set him off in his own path towards [preventing?] Ragnarok).
Hawkeye, one of my favourite characters from the comic, though not so much in the movies, finally gets his due and the greatest amount of development of the six principals as we discover that not only does he go home to the most normal life of all the Avengers, he’s also well aware of his role on the team as the voice of humanity among these gods, grounding the group in reality and reminding them of who and what they’re serving. It’s the obvious role that I had wanted for the character since the first Avengers, and it suits him well, though I really wish we had gotten just one or two scenes of him doing something cool. He never gets his “f*ck yeah!” moment, and I think a lot of that is because we get far more shots of the character firing an arrow rather than following that arrow to its target and effect. I would’ve liked to see him using an array of trick arrows, with camera work that really conveyed the speed and deadly accuracy of the character.
Black Widow in particular has been the subject of a great deal of criticism from some circles as she’s been pigeon-holed as a slut in some corners and self-references herself as a monster when we learn the extent of her training. Unlike the first film, I had no problems with the Widow character in this one, and in spite of her having being attached to Stark, Cap, and now Banner, I see all of those instances less as her getting around and more as her using her abilities to achieve her goals. In all of her incarnations, she’s the one character most in control of the situation, in some ways moreso than Cap, and I think that’s a deeply respectful and understanding rendition of the character. She may wind up using her abilities in a way that exploits her more feminine characteristics, but I don’t think any of what we see is sexist towards women. As for her seeing herself as a monster on the level of the Hulk because of what happened to her (and I’m not going to spoil that particular point here), that completely misses the point of that scene.
Natasha’s attachment with Banner also feels real and natural, although it did make me wonder what happened to Betty. Y’know, Betty Ross, perennial Banner/Hulk love interest, played by Liv Tyler in The Incredible Hulk? That happened, that’s all still in continuity. Anyway, the thing I like best about the Natasha-Banner relationship is that it does seem to make sense as depicted on screen, and it reminds us of what the Hulk is(a monster) in spite of the more popular interpretations of the character we’ve seen recently. What ultimately happens with the Hulk also makes a lot of sense, and it shows a knowing respect for the monster Banner fears he is rather than the hero he can be. For anyone who’s thought of themselves as more a burden for others than a blessing, the moments we get with Banner at the farm show a deep understanding of what it’s like to feel that way and a big part of what makes the Hulk a sympathetic and compelling character.
As the big bad, James Spader’s Ultron has also been a source of division between critics. The potentially terrifying villain we’ve been sold since those early trailers winds up being not so formidable, not so evil, and pretty funny sometimes, and I actually loved him. I think Ultron also ends up being pretty sympathetic as a confused, conflicted, and angry being who lashes out at his creators, and that’s like a lot of us are in many ways, and though his raison d’être is the extinction of humanity (potentially also like a lot of us if we had our way), he’s more human than he thinks. Particularly when he lies defeated and confronted by Elizabeth Olsen’s Wanda, he openly worries about her, even though they’ve become enemies, even though he’s just done something horrendous to her, because she and Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s Pietro were kind of his first real friends.
Paul Bettany’s Vision is easily my single favourite element of the movie. He’s unbelievable in the best possible way, otherworldly, carrying himself with an untouchably natural elegance and nobility, and he legitimizes the lifting Thor’s hammer scene by making it much more than the joke it otherwise could have been. The Vision represents superheroes at that imagined highest level, refusing to give up on humanity, reminding us of who we are and what we wish to be, and I think (or at least hope) that’s why he’s been one of the few universally loved and respected element of the movie.
Unfortunately, of all the new characters, the Maximoff twins feel more than a little underserved. We know that they’re mad at the Avengers because of Tony Stark and his time as an arms dealer, but that fact is presented as a tell, don’t show scene and as a result it fails to sink in. We never get any real confrontation or resolution between the twins and Stark, and neither their initial roles as villains nor their eventual turns as Avengers feel particularly impassioned or momentous. I didn’t even get a strong sense of their attachment to each other as siblings. I do feel that Quicksilver’s death, one of two major reactions from the audience I was with, was well handled, particularly the shot of him lying dead on the floor, a moment that starkly illustrated the nobility of his sacrifice without glorifying it. The comic nerd inside me has to mention that I disliked Wanda’s power alteration, but she still felt like the Scarlet Witch overall. That comic nerd also has to mention, just like in X-Men: Days of Future Past, they wrote out the speedster before he becomes too troublesome to write significant challenges for.
Of everything that happened in the movie, more than the Hulkbuster scene, with destruction finally on a scale befitting the characters, more than seeing the Vision, Thor, and Iron Man all firing their various energies at Ultron in a big comic nerd squee moment, more than seeing the Vision lift Thor’s hammer (the other major audience reaction moment), I loved the end of the movie and seeing the new Avengers. That turn, that changing of the guard, more than anything, that represented the spirit of the Avengers as they’ve operated over the last fifty years, and to me it made the whole thing feel truly like a comicbook.
Plus, the Falcon! My favourite, favourite Marvel movie superhero.
Right or wrong, earned or not, the one thing that’s always helped elevate superhero movies, at least the good ones, above their more conventional, plainclothes action movie brethren is that they start from the one basic idea contained in the phrase “I’m here to help.” They manage to be utterly hopeful and optimistic in a world increasingly otherwise, and at their best they have the potential to help us when we fall, confront our own personal crises, and show us the way through our darkest hours. The Marvel brand of superhero movies has, since the beginning, erred much more towards the lighter side of the storytelling spectrum, and even though the early marketing had suggested a darker tone, Age of Ultron is still very much a bright, shiny movie.
And that’s fine. One of the biggest criticisms of the movie is how much it’s clearly feeding and seeding upcoming movies. Critics have pointed to scenes like Thor’s reflections in the Water of Sight and the Ultron-Maximoff twins-Avengers fight in the African shipping yard — our first introduction to Wakanda and Andy Serkis’s Ulysses Klaw (who, of course, gets his arm chopped off) — as being more in service of movies to come than of the moment, but I like finding out more about this universe, and would the movie really have been that much better with a fight in some unnamed country with an unnamed arms dealer never to be seen later? Rather than act as distractions, I think a lot of critics have simply allowed these moments to distract them in their quests to find cracks in the greater MCU superstructure.
I’m not going to argue that the biggest problems I’ve seen levied against the film aren’t valid, but I will argue that most of them aren’t problems for comicbook readers. For instance:
Critics: The movie’s so jam-packed with action that there’s no time for character or relationship development.
Me: Then pay attention. Those moments are still there.
Critics: S.H.I.E.L.D.’s gone, Nick Fury’s been in hiding and yet he can still produce a Helicarrier at a moment’s notice?
Me: Yeah. He’s a resourceful guy.
Critics: There are too many characters.
Me: But I love each and every one, they add layers and storytelling possibilities, and if you want to learn more about them, why not pick up a comic? Besides that, when everything’s on the line, it never made any literal sense when certain superheroes would stay home because, technically, this isn’t their story. The whole world’s at stake. Of course they’re going to help if they can.
You see, unlike a lot of the movie-going public, the sweaty nerds like me are ready for fast-paced stories full of new characters and extended fight sequences, not only because we’re already familiar with these characters and have been paying attention through all ten preceding movies, but because we’re used to this style of storytelling. That doesn’t make you wrong and me right, but it does require a shift in focus, and more than any of its MCU predecessors, Age of Ultron feels like the dividing line between hardcore fans and casual moviegoers. Perhaps all of these problems could have been addressed better in the movie, and I’ll admit there is a lot going on, maybe too much for the movie’s benefit, but none of it was enough to bother or confuse me.
Thinking back to that first, long-ago 2012 review, I remember setting off with the task of proving that The Avengers just wasn’t as good as people were making it out to be , and perhaps fittingly, I feel like I’m doing just the opposite with Age of Ultron. If you liked the first better, that’s fine, but I don’t know if you can argue that it’s objectively better so much as it’s easier to follow and you’re just getting tired of the formula by now. For me, it’s Age of Ultron that’s the fruition of all of the work Marvel has done, and it’s the movie that finally went as far as it could with the concepts. This is the world building, serialized reality we live in, that all of us nerds love to think about and obsess over in our “Who’s stronger?”, “Who’s faster?”, “Who would win in a fight?”, “Why don’t people see comicbooks as a serious artform?”-dominated non-lives. I still refuse to believe that an objective viewer can look at a Marvel movie, Age of Ultron or any of its predecessors, and say that they’re quantifiably worse than their summer blockbuster competitors. They continue to feature endearing characters, human moments, big, spectacular, coherent action scenes, and multiple laughs. You can say you don’t like them or that you’re getting tired of them, but it feels much more accurate to say they’re not to your taste rather than they’re actually bad. They’re increasingly intricate and require more from audiences with each new instalment, but they’re smarter, better shot, and more carefully considered than any Fast and Furious or Transformers movie, and until that stops, they’re always going to be worth my time.
Thom’s Avengers: Age of Ultron review: 9
On the Edge
- “Avengers, A—”
- Hey, it’s the same guy who refused to send the Project: Insight ships up! Good for him! Good FOR him!
- Best onscreen Cap costume yet!
- Everybody thought Hawkeye was gonna die, was I the only one who thought his family was going to be killed instead?
- So even in the poor country of Sokovia there are still plenty of Audi drivers?
- “I was born yesterday.” You just know that’s a joke Whedon waited years to find a story for.
- If you take only one thing from this review, let it be this: read Matt Fraction and David Aja’s Hawkeye.
- Next Week: an Age of Ultron review from a normal person!