Avengers: Age of Ultron

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015): Joss Whedon

In 2015, the Avengers come back bigger, angrier, and avengier. But this sequel has a problem. In a Hollywood where everything has to be bigger and better and more of more, how can this sequel top the third highest-grossing movie in history, a film that Marvel built to for four years with five films? Whedon and crew give it the old college try.

ONE SENTENCE PLOT SUMMARY: The Avengers assemble a second time to defeat an alien, and kinky, intelligence.

Hero (5/10)

More like heroes. Many, many heroes. The Avengers series must tackle a huge task: trying to lasso three characters with their own trilogies, plus some very strong supporting members, into one movie (OK, four movies, but let’s focus on this one). At this point we’ve spent many movies with these characters. I’ll briefly go through each one.

Iron Man: Tony Stark knows he’s part of a team in this one, not its leader. He dials it back appropriately, until he blew it by going and making a new AI with the space gem. If you ask Whedon, Stark is this movie’s villain, but don’t tell that to Disney. Downey seems a little down in this one, maybe even bored. Cashing $70 million checks could do that.

Captain America: Steve Rogers never stops being a total dweeb. He opposes Stark’s plan to upgrade his AI to the alien version. He thinks the whole thing is a bad idea. He’s right. Cap does everything by the book, and in a movie that’s also done by the book (as in Disney’s accounting book and the book full of treatments for Marvel Phase 3), he fails to rise from the page.

Thor: Thor is the odd person out amongst the Avengers. Not Black Widow, or the Hulk, or even Hawkeye, but the god from Asgard. Thor is not of this plane. His attentions turn to Earth and its universe only as it pertains to Asgard. He’s a bit distracted, and in Ultron it shows.

Whedon described a fight he had with Marvel about Thor’s inter-dimensional acid trip in a cave pool with cabana boy and general kink Stellan Skarsgard. The suits needed the scene in the movie, because that’s how we learn about Infinity Stones and their terrible powers. Point taken, Marvel. But it doesn’t work in the movie, and makes Thor seem like he’s not taking Ultron seriously.

Black Widow: Scarlett Johansson’s ascendant star receives important treatment in Ultron. We learn a little bit about her past as a Russian assassin. The state raised her, we are to believe, much in the way the British state raised James Bond. Also like Bond, Natasha Romanoff enjoys her time avenging, indeed she seems the only one who does.

Hulk: Dr. Bruce Banner must be a hard character to play. Several actors have tried. Many have achieved fame because of, or despite, the Hulk. Mark Ruffalo is as fine as any of them. But Banner struggles in this film to keep his cool. We learn that he and Widow have developed a lullaby, or safe word, to de-green the brute. Banner also has feelings for Romanoff, and they romance in this movie. Overall, Hulk seems as distracted by not-Ultron events as Thor. More later.

Hawkeye: The lamest Avenger, Hawkeye is the glue holding this thing together. Whedon scrapped with Disney for that farm segment, because Hawkeye can see the team breaking. He brings them there to remember what to fight for. The world might not care about them, but someone out there does. (Most of those characters are absent in Ultron). Hawkeye knows the whole damn fight is crazy, but someone has to do it, and it might as well be the people who started it (thanks, Tony Stark).

Villain (7/10)

Ultron is that AI, fathered by Tony Stark, mothered by a space gem. James Spader plays Ultron with the exact mix of menace and comedy you expect from a Joss Whedon project. “I’m glad you asked that, because I wanted to take this time to explain my evil plan,” Ultron says, exactly the kind of self commentary that shocks you in a mega-blockbuster like this one.

Spader is the perfect guy to act like he doesn’t give a shit at the beginning of a sentence, until he hits you with the gravity of your situation in the dependent clause. “Mehhhhhh, BANG,” for a shorter example.

Spader, knowing this was his only foray into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, is the one actor who seems to have fun making the movie. It’s more than a paycheck for him. I’m sure he enjoyed acting in front of green screen. He didn’t have to dress up, and it probably felt like a play or a monologue for him. Just about every actor who ever played a villain loved it, and Spader clearly falls in that camp. He gets to say lines like, “I can’t actually throw up in my mouth, but if I could I would do it.”

Ultron’s robot form menaces as well. The CGI team added a touch of Jigsaw to Ultron’s cheeks, giving them a roundness that popped from the silver face. Of course Ultron chose a humanoid composite body shape, when I think he would prefer something less human and more sinister. The effects team missed a chance to make a strange body that would be remembered like R2-D2, and not mocked like C-3PO.

Ultron is the most advanced intelligence in the solar system. He/it, doesn’t need a hulking body that, I believe, subtracts from its menace. Take HAL 9000, for example. HAL’s lack of mobility greatly added to its fear. It seemed MORE powerful because it could murder astronauts without lifting a finger, metaphorically or literally. Assigning any intelligence a humanoid frame allows the human mind to assign human frailties to it. Ultron is far, far more powerful than any human; its body must signify that. Ultron’s didn’t.

Action/Effects (8/10)

As expected/essential to comic book films, the effects are exquisite. Ultron is a CGI Spader-bot, and it captures both his menace and his charm perfectly. The effects team managed to create a floating city section, complete with crumbling buildings and thousands of mini-Spader-bots flying around. Scarlet Witch’s mind lasers shoot a lot.

Now is the time to discuss the fight between Hulk and Iron Man. Hulk freaks out in Africa (don’t you love when scenes are set in “Europe” and “North America”) and Iron Man is forced to confront him…with a vengeance.

Consider that Stark built a Hulk-busting armor suit for just this situation. What does that mean? Did Stark ever trust Hulk? Did he ever trust Banner? Seeds of discord sewn further. What does it mean for a team, the most important team in the world, if its members don’t trust each other, if they never trusted each other? That question is at the heart of the end of this film, which itself is a setup for 2016’s Captain America: Civil War, potentially the most upsetting of the Marvel films, unless you like civil wars.

Hulk and Iron Man clash in the streets. More cars are thrown and destroyed here than in a Blues Brothers chase. Hulk smashed Iron Man with poles that, I thought, would do nothing to an Iron Man suit wrapped around another Iron Man suit. Iron Man shows off his rad tech. Veronica controls the hovering rearmaments that Iron Man needs a few times. He zaps Hulk and punches him, all while destroying swaths of the city, including an elevator, which Iron Man swings onto Hulk. The scene ends when Iron Man throws Hulk into a building still under construction and destroys it.

Avengers is an effects-heavy franchise, necessarily, and the best people at Industrial Light and Magic made them work. Ruffalo’s distorted face is evident on Hulk. Ultron is pure Spader. Iron Man is thousands of moving parts. I can hardly imagine the burden on these CGI people, but they worked well. Whedon describes that a blurred Hulk shoulder cost as much as his whole face.

Sidekicks (3/8)

I put all the Avengers in the Hero section, although I think it’s clear some Avengers are just really talented humans and others are freaks of nature/radiation/Gods. The sidekicks in this movie are more prominent in the Marvel stand-alone features.

War Machine, Falcon, Nick Fury, and Jarvis all appear in Ultron, but none have much impact. Fury does bring a S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier to aid the evacuation of Sokovia. So many things were blowing up and falling down at that moment that we didn’t have a chance to freak out–S.H.I.E.L.D. is back?!?!? The organization, dissolved in Captain America 2, suddenly reappears. Maybe. I like the sidekicks to the Avengers, but there was no room for them in this movie.

The Vision is more mysterious than helpful. Paul Bettany costumed in lobster red seems like a nice intelligence, but that he doesn’t get a name in the movie makes him appear dreadful. He understands much, especially about Ultron. “He’s in pain,” he says, “but that pain will roll over the Earth.”

Henchmen (2/8)

Orphaned twins from Sokovia, Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver are employed by Hydra at first, until Hydra’s operations are destroyed. Looking for new mentors in evil destruction, they turn to the only guy in the biz–Ultron. Witch and Quick are capable in their skills. They work together as well as twins do. It’s like they can read each other’s minds!

Scarlet Witch eventually joins the Avengers, and will fight with them in upcoming MCU films. Her best scene comes when she cowers in a building on the floating sections of her native Sokovia. Hawkeye gives her a nice talking to about how crazy all of this is, and she decides to go out and fight. Here’s a superpowered hero who doesn’t feel like using her powers. She’s just a scared woman and needs direction. These twins were more interesting as sidekicks than as henchmen.

Stunts (1/6)

Hmm. Most of the fighting came in the comic books style. Very little actual filmed fighting here. So I’ll use this chance to discuss Joss Whedon’s filming stunts on the movie.

Whedon didn’t really want to revisit the Avengers. It’s tough work, and he’s more of a nuanced character guy. The movie he made before Ultron was a black-and-white adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing, a play by that Shakespeare guy. The change must be akin to making a model of a skyscraper to then building a skyscraper.

Climax (2/6)

Ultron decides, like much AI in film history, that mankind is its own worst enemy. He probably loved The Terminator as much as we did. He plans to raise a piece of Sokovian real estate into the stratosphere and drop it, creating a asteroid-like collision that will dinosaur the human race. Pretty ambitious, but Ultron is an ambitious AI. Remember, he’s from space.

The Avengers get their act together just long enough to fight Ultron. It would be too easy to just fight him, though, so the team spends most of the climax saving the lives of Sokovians as their land rises from the Earth.

Ultron meets The Vision, and the latter promptly mind zaps him out of the Internet. We know this because those orange Jarvis cubes take over the silver Ultron cubes in Ultron’s interior nano space, or is it in the Internet? Look, I don’t know, but it’s a comic book so it doesn’t have to make sense.

Sokovia is lifting off the ground, and some terrific shots of rocks falling from the chunk hammer home how large a chunk it is. F.R.I.D.A.Y., Tony’s Jarvis replacement, says, “Sokovia’s going for a ride.” (Side note: It’s funny that Tony now has His Girl F.R.I.D.A.Y. to aid him, and she’s funny too. It’s funnier that F.R.I.D.A.Y. is a downgrade from Jarvis, Jarvis of the aristocratic English accent and F.R.I.D.A.Y. of the Scottish or Irish accent.)

Thousands of locals need help getting off the flying island. Most of the team busies themselves doing that. Enter Nick Fury and a helicarrier. Weren’t they destroyed in the second Captain America? (Yes.) But here’s a new one, and before you can complain, here come some more Ultron drones to shoot lasers and get shot by Hawkeye’s arrows. He might be the world’s best archer, but he’d call Sokovia a target-rich environment.

There’s a lot of slick imagery of fighting. Thor and Cap play baseball with the shield and the hammer. Scarlet Witch mind lasers things. Hulk punts robots. Black Widow fights with energy beams on police batons while Iron Man accuses her of playing Hide the Zuccini with Hulk. Hawkeye tells Scarlet Witch, when she’s at a low point, “I have a bow and arrows. None of this makes sense.”

No Hawkeye, it doesn’t. The final battle does too much. The Avengers are saving civilians, S.H.I.E.L.D. exists again, Ultron flies around, who is The Vision, and why are we still dealing with Hawkeye? I can’t keep it straight. I felt as exhausted as Whedon must have been. “Why did I do this?” Whedon asks on the director’s commentary. (His answer: he wanted to tell a different Avengers story.)

Ultron sends his repurposed Iron Men zooming around the floating city, hindering their ability to help. Ultron sets up camp in a church and there he finally challenges the assembled Avengers. It was exactly what he wanted, to fight them all at once.

All the Avengers, including Scarlet Witch and The Vision, stand in a circle as the Iron Legion besiege them from all angles in the ruined church. It was a nice image, one for the posters and Blu-Ray covers, and it worked as a nice fight scene. The bloated movie is never more bloated than in that moment.

Three different energy beams melt Ultron and Hulk bashes him into the next country code. The Avengers save the world from Sokovia but disperse. Hulk is missing, and only some of the team unite with Nick Fury in upstate New York. The Vision destroys Ultron, but for good? I hope not, because Ultron was the movie’s savior.

Jokes (4/4)

The movie’s strongest aspect. Ultron, a robot, was the funniest character. All the points go to the terrific scene in which members and attaches of the Avengers try to lift Thor’s hammer. The scene reads like a master class in characterization. Iron Man tries first, and eventually uses his iron fist. Black Widow won’t get involved in a pissing contest. Captain America reluctantly agrees to a fun thing. He budges it. Thor looks scared. It’s a perfect scene.

Here are some other solid lines: Ultron annoyingly saying “For God sakes,” when Hulk busts into his jet; “How ’bout nunce,”; “Have you been juicing?”; the twins’ accents.

Setting (0/4)

Two settings stand out: the aggrieved nation of Sokovia, and Hawkeye’s house. Sokovia, you might have learned by now, is a fake country. I love fake movie countries. Is Sokovia near Krakozhia, the home nation of Tom Hanks’s character in The Terminal? Did they ever fight a war?

Perhaps Tom Hanks, bureaucrat in the Krakozhian government, ordered the attacks that killed the parents of Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver with Stark weapons. Oh what a turn that would be.

Ultron brings us not one, but two fake countries. The team travels to Africa, somewhere, where they fight Ultron in a tanker field. Actually, it’s not even a country, just…Africa. Generalities make art, uh, good.

Hawkeye’s house. Did you forget Hawkeye was in the Avengers? I bet he did too, a little bit. He doesn’t have other movies to galavant around in. And now we know why. He’s got rugrats! With another on the way! Hawkeye’s house is a great place for the Avengers to remember why they’re fighting, both Ultron and each other. It’s also a great place to chop wood.

Many critics speculated that Hawkeye has a family because the producers want him out of the series. I have another theory: “This fall, ABC brings you a superhero…dad. Starring Jerry O’Connell as Hawkeye, see how your favorite Marvel hero lives his domestic life. Tax forms, PTA meetings, baseball games: Hawkeye is always there for his kids…and a laugh.”

Commentary (1/2)

Ultron exists purely as a set up for Marvel’s Phase 3 film slate. Tony Stark wants to protect the world, so he creates a suit of armor to surround it. Captain America thinks it all a bad idea. Should the Avengers really be in the business of doing what they want?  As Cap says just before the battle, “This isn’t just about beating [Ultron], it’s about whether [Ultron]’s right.”

Who watches the Watchmen? These themes are only touched on, because they got to save something for the next one.

The Vision and Ultron exchange unpleasantries after Ultron has failed to kill all humans. Ultron, we know from the rest of movie, hates all human beings, but especially the Avengers, because they think they’re sooooo cooooool. What does The Vision think?

“There is grace in their failures,” he says. Sounds nice, except right before that he agreed with Ultron that humanity is doomed. A little rude, but he’s an alien.

For Whedon, it was “very important to me that [the Avengers] be brought down.” They are too powerful, and “the more power you have, the less a part of the human community you are.” Whedon might be talking about Disney executives.

Offensiveness (-1/-2)

Marvel couldn’t even make up a fake country in Africa. At least Europe got one.

Others

  • (1) Marvel does a great job with their color palate. I normally don’t look for such things, but making a comic book into a movie requires a negotiation of RGB codes. Each Avenger has a specific scheme, and in the books they certainly stand out, but movies need a more subdued look. Ultron achieves this with the right balance.
  • (1) Casting Andy Serkis earns a point from me
  • (-2) Ultron was every bit the distracted bridge to the next phase that Avengers was a terrific romp in which we enjoyed watching all our favorite heroes play. Is anyone to blame? This feels more like a time to blame “the system.”
  • The Avengers were sculpted in marble during the credits, just like the Greeks sculpted their gods.
  • Fury says to Cap, after he curses, “You kiss your mother with that mouth?” His mom’s been dead for decades.
  • I recommend the director’s commentary. Whedon is as perky and entertaining as directors come. He discusses the moment at the party when Banner and Romanoff flirt at the bar, which is a very noir scene. Whedon said that someone told them, “‘You should do The Thin Man,’ and they both asked me what The Thin Man was, which makes me feel that the Earth is doomed.” I can’t believe that neither of them knew that movie. Imagine complimenting Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant by telling them they remind you of Oscar Robertson, only for them to say they don’t know him. Wait, I could believe that.
Summary (32/68): 47%

Avengers is a strange beast of a series. It’s a shock that the movies even got made. Imagine if in 1992 Sony released The Book of John, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger as John Matrix, Sylvester Stallone as John Rambo, and Bruce Willis as John McClane, in which John McClane infiltrates a Colombian drug ring in New York, where they’ve stolen a book listing names and covers of thousands of CIA and FBI agents worldwide.

The drug dealers bust McClane’s cover, and the government calls in the only two guys with the skills to rescue him, two guys who have been long enough out of the game that their names don’t appear on the list: retired military men John Matrix and John Rambo.

The Colombians would definitely take their John to a jungle hideout. The other Johns would find their way to South America (it’s a black ops mission, after all, and subtitle would definitely say “South America” when they arrived there), and the climax would have the highest death count in the history of cinema.

You’d see that. You’d love that. It’d never exist. Too many egos and leading men and muscles. How did they get Avengers to work? I know Marvel/Disney put four years of advertising ahead of this, in the form of feature-length commercials starring the same people who would later appear in the assemblages. Maybe the series is as much testament to good advertising as anything else. Maybe we just enjoy the characters.

Age of Ultron advances things quite nicely, in exactly the way expository scenes in all second acts advance things. Therein lies the problem. Boston Globe critic Wesley Morris wrote that it’s hard to feel the urgency of this movie when it’s just a set piece for bigger, better action (in two parts!) coming in 2018 and 2019. Was it a success? $1.8 billion can’t be a failure. Right?