Marvel Comics (or is that Disney we should be referencing?) has made a staggering worldwide gross of $627 million as of May 3rd. Seems like a lot, until you realize it actually made a $19 million less domestically on its opening weekend than the first Avengers film. So often with these big tentpole pictures it’s the little details that reveal a bigger issue, and yes, there are some issues with the new Avengers movie. Cue dramatic music.
Avengers: Age of Ultron
Those of you just joining the Marvel Cinematic Universe, let me first ask you to go to your freezer and find any meat product properly hardened. Now take that piece of meat and slap yourself in the face. What’s wrong with you!? I apologize, it’s totally reasonable to have not seen the 10 Marvel produced movies, just as it’s reasonable to not have seen a single sunny day. For you, the viewer who is new to the universe, you’re actually in luck as this newest film is relatively easy to consume without having seen the previous films. Sure you won’t enjoy it as much as you won’t understand the nuances between the characters, nor how they acquired their powers, which in hindsight is important to making this film interesting as it’s mostly action. All you really need to know is the team consists of two average humans, one who shoots arrows and another who is more hand to hand in combat, a superhuman with amped up strength and senses who throws a shield, a green, musclebound giant who can change back to being a wimpy human, a super smart genius in a metal suit that allows him to fly and shoot missiles, and finally the only completely non human hero is a god who wields a hammer, is indestructible and is actually an alien. They fight together because it requires all their abilities to take on larger threats. Done. Easy right? Or maybe just watch all the previous movies.
This movie opens with our heroes infiltrating a mega bad guy base in a snowy, Eastern Europe looking area. The heroes must fight through waves of foot soldiers with some advanced tech. Get used to this setup, as it appears the creators deem it important to have the characters fight endless waves of villains to give them all something to do. It appears the team must band together to take on threats, but only threats that require them to fight separately in cool awesome ways. It’s a weakness of the film as a whole, as most often the action sequences require the characters to split up and take on faceless bad guys we couldn’t care less about, but allow the heroes to look cool in all sorts of ways.
Though, the film opens on intense action because the creators know it saves them time to setup characters and plot. It also reminds the viewer we’re here for a big time action film and to hold reservations for shakespearean plot twists and character development at the door.
Despite the relatively minor quibble of the action sequences focusing on wave after wave of faceless and emotionless villains, the sequences themselves are quite good in this film. When a villain is simply a faceless bad guy without any character or purpose, it reduces them to a thing to be beaten and nothing more. Fans of the comics will delight in the many ways Captain America takes out bad guys or the multiple times Hulk goes into rampage mode and defies physics with his insane strength. This movie gets those segments very right. Unfortunately, the heroes don’t team up very much to combine their fighting, which makes for more of a disjointed sense of hero vs. bad guy than an actual team effort.
By my count there are seven action sequences, two of which are minor ones that break off from other action sequences, and of those only three actually had stakes raised to the point of characters possibly losing their lives. Thankfully one of these three is the final climactic battle which delivers multiple instances of heroes possibly being beaten or even killed, which raises the stakes and thus raises the dramatic value. Three out of seven is bad odds, but it’s at least a good amount of action that matters to the narrative and is worth watching from all points of view.
Another aspect that works well are the character moments, however brief they may be. Writer and director Joss Whedon gives nearly every character a moment to show their humanity or at least get inside their head. Black Widow and Hawkeye both get the lion’s share of these moments, partially because they reveal something genuine about themselves to the team or a specific character. The only character without any moment like this is Thor, who actually departs the film for a good chunk of time. This grounds the characters a bit and makes them more enjoyable to watch. You’re going to root for the hero who is human over a CGI version of them fighting wave after wave of bad guys, that is for sure.
Obviously a summer movie like this also has incredible special effects, which do not disappoint. Never was I wondering if something was real or not and the heroes all look very good in what they do. Given, most of these characters have, in Joss Whedon’s words, “punchy powers” which makes for less interesting effects. Scarlet Witch however adds a bit of magic to the foray and they look fantastic. Anyone wondering if Quiksilver looks as cool as Sony’s X-Men version can breathe a sigh of relief as he’s adequately speedy and fun to look at. There are no super slow down scenes like in X-Men: Days of Future Past but this film does slow down time to show some punches landing and they look great. There’s a fantastic slow down moment for Quicksilver that allows for a laugh I won’t ruin here, but it’s a nice case of power meeting power that should not be missed.
The film also contains plenty of laughs, albeit they are more chuckle inducing than straight laugh out loud moments. The key to the humorous moments is that there are many of them and they are peppered throughout so you’ll never find yourself not laughing for longer than a 15 minute stretch. Heck, even Ultron gets some great comic moments. This of course hurts his ability to be the big bad villain (see more below), but it gives him a quirk that makes him very original.
Something should be said about the new characters of Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver as well. While they aren’t called these names in this film and instead their real names of Pietro and Wanda, they are effective new hero/villains that allow the movie to explore what it means to be a hero. There is one scene in particular between Hawkeye and Wanda that’s powerful and gives the franchise purpose. It reminds us the there is something behind a hero blindly fighting bad guys and gives us reason to root for them. The characters themselves are a bit bland, but strong enough considering how brief a time they get on screen.
What Doesn’t Work
I keep bringing up the faceless bad guy and it’s a real issue throughout this film. Even though there are three villains with actual names (Pietro, Wanda and Ultron), there are only two fight sequences where our heroes are fighting them and could potentially end their storyline. That means increased anticipation and drama. When our heroes fight the faceless drones however there is absolutely no question who will win. This problem actually relates to how powerful Ultron is throughout the film. Even when he takes on multiple Avengers he’s so fast and strong it’s as if they are fighting a punching bag. I suppose that comes with the whole robot thing, but it’s a bit of a let down when you consider the only time the fight seems fair and the villain may lose is in the final moments of the film.
That said, Ultron just isn’t very scary. The character is comical and is more goofy than frightening which hurts his ability to command the film. Instead we’re privy to lots of fun moments for the heroes, but we’re never once worried if they’ll make it or if they’re really that battered from their battles. Take for instance a moment in the middle of the film where they hide out at one of the heroes’ homes. They just lost badly to Ultron, but none of them seem all that upset, hurt or scared. Sure a nuke could be shot at any moment to kill them all, but they to have their egos more damaged than anything else.
A major fault also lies in Iron Man’s creation of Ultron. This isn’t much of a spoiler if you’ve seen the trailers which tell us this very fact. The problem is, Iron Man helps to create Ultron, but after a brief scene where Thor grabs him by the neck furiously (mostly because it means the scepter has been stolen not because a ultra powerful AI was created and doomsday is upon us) and the other heroes scowl at him, nobody seems to care or deem it important to blame Iron Man. It’s as if he gets a free pass since he’s a genius who creates things. This might in part be due to the pace of the film, which goes from, “how could you Stark” to “okay let’s do whatever it takes and ignore the fact that it’s his fault” mode. This also means a lessened drama of the potential ‘Frankenstein and his monster’ motif and frankly the film never explores this aspect. It’s as if the film wants us to accept Iron Man started this mess to allow for more action scenes rather than explore the implications of his actions. A miss for sure.
As stated, Ultron himself isn’t the most frightening of villains either. His ultimate goal is scary sure, but for all his limitless power and huge army of robots he doesn’t do much in the way of attack the world. Instead he plots and plans with the intent of doing all the bad stuff in one fell sweep. He doesn’t actually put any of our heroes in danger much either. He’s more about putting things in front of our heroes so they can knock them down more than anything. It doesn’t help he’s comical either; it’s a nice element that makes him unique, but he comes off as a means to create humor more than an actual character. It’s unfortunate because this character is very well primed for interesting character dynamics, but there just isn’t enough time to explore them.
Of course this is an action movie first, as I said in the intro, so expectations of character moments and story are going a bit far. Unfortunately though there is no emotional core to this film. Even though we get some strong character moments, they are more morsels than meaningful arcs that carry the film. Instead, the film hangs on giving the action scenes purpose rather than giving the characters purpose. The film serves as a way to give us blips of each character that we will, hopefully, see more of in their own respective movies going forward. This makes for some rather unsatisfying character dynamics by movie’s end. Take for instance the love affair between Hulk and Black Widow. It’s actually a touching and meaningful development, but is cast aside at the end to make room for a long action sequence and nothing more. If they don’t explore this more in future movies it’s frankly a crime that it was ever in this film to begin with. It serves as a beginning to a more complex relationship, but just a beginning.
All in all though, this is a fun action film that succeeds at delivering awesome visuals and tons of characters moments for the comic book fans. Non comic readers can still get a kick out of the film although they’ll be wishing for more character and purpose by movie’s end. Still, this film is smarter than most action films and considering it must juggle so many characters it wildly succeeds.