The Age of Ultron’s Weird And Wounded HeartPosted: May 1, 2015
The main reason for the consistent quality of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is the emphasis on character. While there are many thematic, genre-based and worldbuilding factors in every story, they are all built on what is necessary for the growth of the heroes. This is as apparent as ever with Avengers: Age of Ultron, which serves its characters above all else as all good stories should. While that focus on character results in what can sometimes feel like an unfocused narrative, the resulting emotional heft more than makes up for it. Not to mention a level of thematic depth that I’m still trying to decipher after two viewings, that will continue to tease my brain for the next few days at least. Age of Ultron may not be definitively better than the first Avengers, but it is a terrific (and surprisingly strange) movie in its own right. SPOILERS, RIGHT THIS WAY…
With all of the major characters having been established very well over the past 7 years, and the team being forged in the last Avengers, this one hits the ground running hard. And with the parameters of the team having been established, this film is less about the collective arc of the group. While there are plenty of disagreements and conflicts amongst the group, and some fisticuffs as well, their status as a team is never really left in doubt. Rather, Joss Whedon & co. set specific character arcs and emotional conflict for each member of the team and allow all of them to go through their own individual (or in one case, coupled) anxieties. On the one hand, this gives the film a scattered and sometimes-cluttered quality, as there are some moments (like the South Africa sequence leading up to the Hulkbuster fight) where we have three or four different character beats to juggle simultaneously, along with a firefight with anonymous thugs AND a brawl with Ultron. And in an attempt to let all of these character beats time to breath and properly land, Whedon constantly slows down the pace of the film in-between the setpieces, leading to a lot of peaks and valleys in terms of speed and intensity. There isn’t the same sort of unstoppable escalation and momentum leading to the finale as in the previous team-up, and some might be put off by that.
By prioritizing the characters, those peaks and valleys always feel natural and justified, and the film overall is one of the more emotionally-invested installments of the MCU. Whedon sketches the emotional stakes of each character well, and perhaps most impressively does so in ways that work with or without knowing what they went through in the intervening solo films. For example, Tony’s fear of the threats they don’t know about, and his desire to finish the fight for good, flow naturally from both the Avengers (his inciting hallucination is built around his trip through the wormhole) and from Iron Man 3 (where his constant tinkering was the building blocks for the Iron Legion and Ultron). You don’t need to have seen Iron Man 3 for his arc to make sense, but it adds plenty of extra flavor and impact if you have. While Cap and Thor also have their own struggles to deal with (and Thor’s is clearly a setup for his next solo film and beyond), the really impactful and raw beats belong to the unlikely-yet-so-likely couple of Bruce Banner and Natasha Romanoff. The parallels between the two and Natasha’s undisguised attraction to Banner are clever and immediate and honest, and the few quick scenes Whedon spends with these two are as good as it gets. In particular, the final denouement for their arc is heartbreaking. Oh and let’s not forget Hawkeye, who is given definition in ways I never would’ve expected. Whedon smartly embraces all the snark about “the bow and arrow guy? REALLY???” and establishes Clint as the blue-collar hero, who’s detached enough and grounded enough from the others to see the right and wrong in ways these demigods rarely can.
And none of that even addresses the new guests at the party, all of whom make their mark immediately. Quicksilver and (more importantly) Scarlet Witch are ostensibly Ultron’s henchmen for most of the story, but in the process they are defined and then redefined as characters. We see the pain and struggle that has defined their lives, why they’ve allowed the likes of Ultron (and previously, Hydra) to control them, and we see the innate goodness buried deep beneath their scars. Their redemptive arc is simple but earnest, and leads to some lovely emotional beats of their own. And while the Maximoff twins are played subtle, Ultron himself is one big swinging dick, and awesomely so. Perhaps what’s most impressive about the character (driven by a wonderful performance from James Spader, and gifted with Whedon’s off-putting dialogue choices) is how bizarrely human he is. While most of what you’ve seen of Ultron in the trailers is scowling anger, he’s truly much more expressive than that, and makes for a very hypnotic presence. But nothing, maybe in the whole movie, trumps the Vision, who in limited screentime is already one of the best achievements I can recall from the MCU. While Ultron is an angry, sometimes even petulant externalization of the dark side of the Avengers’ mission, Vision is a pure distillation of the hope and goodness that drives that same mission. In his creation, we seem to have found the physical embodiment of the Avengers’ conscience, the creature that is both human and not human enough to strive for a goal like peace without losing sight of what it might cost. Paul Bettany perfectly captures the evolution from JARVIS to Vision, establishing him as optimistic as only a newborn could be while also capturing the otherworldly power and knowledge he embodies. Those new characters are essential to another major element of Age of Ultron’s success. By letting character dictate the story, and adding the new players that he has, Whedon is able to get unreservedly weird and comic-book-y in some awesome ways while keeping everything tied together through the prism of our heroes. The hallucinations brought on by the Scarlet Witch are intense and unsettling, defined by stark imagery and personal pain. Whedon is able to keep the audience unbalanced while still conveying what these visions mean emotionally to each Avenger. There’s also our glimpses into cyberspace as we see the birth of Ultron’s consciousness and JARVIS’ rebirth as the Vision; we get a gorgeous sea of imagery and sound that captures the flood of information that helps shape these two otherworldly creatures, again while keeping the emotions that drive them clear and tangible. And there are many additional little details, many of them delivered through Whedon’s trademark banter, that keep the audience guessing and consistently entertained regardless of how quick or slow the action is at the given moment.
Speaking of, since the momentum of the story is less of a runaway freight train than the previous film you might think that the action is less exciting or less fun, and you’d be dead fucking wrong. There are numerous set-pieces scattered throughout the film, and all of them are as intense and engaging as anything the MCU has brought us so far. The Hulkbuster fight is obviously a standout, as well as a perfect microcosm of why the action is so great overall: the fighting is frenetic and well-choreographed, there’s plenty of humor peppered throughout, and there’s a clear, visceral emotional component tying it all together. However, perhaps my favorite moment in the fight is when an elevator becomes unmoored and Iron Man jumps to save the passengers before resuming his fight with the Hulk. It highlights a major component of the action throughout the film, that the heroes save people first and foremost. When the Avengers go into battle, they know their ultimate goal is to save people, and the lives of civilians is the paramount concern. Regardless of the different mentalities each team member brings to their mission, there is an overriding concern for life, and that is what makes them heroes. It’s something Whedon highlights time and again throughout the action and it adds more drama and tension and heart to Age of Ultron than all the destroyed buildings and exploding tanks ever could.
Age of Ultron is not the same visceral experience that the first Avengers was, nor is it as cleanly-structured as other top-tier MCU installments like Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy. But it is, to me, one of the most deeply emotional chapters in the Avengers meta-saga yet. The hopes and fears and pleasures and pains of these heroes can be keenly felt through every beat, and what they mean as a group is as clear as ever, even as that group evolves into something new by the end. With Age of Ultron, Whedon not only leaves the MCU on a high note, and not only sets up the enormous Phase III beautifully, but more important than anything else he has made these characters as human as ever, and crafted them as the fallible-yet-inspiring figures they should be. There was a point after Avengers came out where I wasn’t sure how interested I was in the MCU as a whole. I thought my returns to this world would be few and far between, and that there wouldn’t be anything new for them to do with these heroes. But now, after Age of Ultron, my connection to this world is as strong as ever, and I can’t wait to visit with these characters again and again for years to come.