The Critique (*NO SPOILERS*)
In 2012’s The Avengers, the titular superhero team assembled and saved the world with all the flourish of a child’s toys crashing together in a sandbox. Now, it’s time for the team’s insecurities to drive them apart in ways both subtle and overt. The Avengers are comprised of Steve Rogers’ Captain America (Chris Evans), Tony Stark’s Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Natasha Romanoff’s Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Bruce Banner’s Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) and Clint Barton’s Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner). The team finds themselves pushed to their limits by the alliance of rogue A.I. Ultron (James Spader) and two humans enhanced by experimentation with an alien artifact: Wanda Maximoff’s Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and Pietro Maximoff’s Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson)… together this trio conspires to tear the Avengers apart. All the while, an opposite number to Ultron lurks behind the scenes.
The chemistry and clever dialogue binding the heroes is the main draw of these all-hands-on-deck spectacles, and writer-director Joss Whedon delivers this in spades. There is an overlap that connects the “marketable” iconography of the Avengers and numerous profoundly human moments that punctuate the film, in between bouts of action heroism. These things are inseparable, of a piece. Not only do the Avengers have the easy banter of people very familiar with each other, there is also a contrast with how the team is presented versus the previous film. In the 2012 film, each Avenger was an icon, an idol beholden to the symbols of their characters. But here, Black Widow wields Cap’s shield like a pro, and most of the Avengers try to pick up Thor’s hammer, Mjölnir. The larger point that details like these signify is an evolution of the team dynamic that feels appropriate and necessary for a sequel.
So how about the new arrivals to the cast? Despite the Maximoffs’ accents being at times distracting, consider their entrances an unqualified triumph. In last year’s Godzilla Olsen and Taylor-Johnson played the most milquetoast married couple you’re likely to see on screen, but here their chemistry is redirected to a sister-brother pairing, and they make a big positive impression. They always give a sense of weight and history to their parts, and commit totally to their arc over the course of the film. (They are also not a symptom of an overstuffed narrative, as they play a very significant thematic part in the story, as I will detail in my analysis section later.)
Main villain Ultron is in the title, and he deserves the billing. Probably my favorite thing about Age of Ultron‘s trailers was Ultron’s voice, for the simple reason that I think it sounds just like Joss Whedon! In interviews Whedon has deadpanned things like, “I have a crush on Ultron”, and that sets the tone for the level of care given to this villain who could have easily been a static and generic threat. Look at the adorable moment when Ultron tells a character that he’s glad to have someone new to talk to; Spader’s motion-capture performance really enhances this petulant and quite funny character.
I made a veiled reference earlier to Ultron’s opposite number, and the dichotomy of the two reflects a novel approach to the A.I. movie. This year we’ve had great cinematic interest in artificial intelligence; we’ve had the movie where A.I. is cute and complementary to us (CHAPPiE), we’ve had the movie where A.I. is freaky as shit for a host of reasons (Ex Machina), and now comes Avengers, able to have it both ways. Ultron and his flip side represent negative and positive takes on A.I., but after both Chappie and Ava in their respective films integrate wholly into human mores and culture, the two in this film stand apart. There is a truly wonderful scene in which the two A.I.s meet in the woods and speak of their philosophical differences and reflect on humanity. It’s a scene that feels very fresh. Granted, if there’s a robot Bechdel test looking for a scene where two A.I.s talk about something other than humanity, it fails, but I’m just being a smart-ass. Also, the woods scene is set up much earlier by a bit in which these not-yet-corporeal matrices duke it out with digital tendrils. It’s an audacious scene, Whedon daring the audience to watch what looks like techno-spaghetti (albeit, techno-spaghetti voiced by considerably talented actors).
I do have a couple issues with the film. There is a digression with Thor and a sequence introducing Andy Serkis to the Marvel Cinematic Universe that could have been folded to make for a more streamlined experience. But my biggest issue is that the climax is too long, and the resolution of the ultimate threat still confuses me after two views.
Now, I’ve said next to nothing about the six original Avengers and a whole host of other things. It’s time for the meat of this post, a spoiler-laden analysis of the film’s themes that will do justice to those core characters, take a moment to address the Black Widow controversy, and in general illustrate the very well integrated themes of Whedon’s screenplay.
The Analysis (*SPOILERS*)
The Avengers’ Witch-Induced Visions
Throughout the first act of the film, Wanda Maximoff afflicts all but one of the Avengers with disquieting visions. Tony Stark and Thor’s visions reflect insecurities regarding the future. Tony’s vision shows all the other Avengers dead, and the earth being subjugated by what appears to be Thanos’ fleet. Tony says that the death of all the Avengers, and the conquest of Earth, is “the end of the path [he] started us on”. Firstly this a meta line because he did start the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the build-up to the Avengers initiative, and the battle with Thanos, way back in 2008’s Iron Man. Tony calls it his “legacy”, and it is so typical of Tony Stark that he would put the responsibility for this fate squarely on his own shoulders. He has never been a man to do things piecemeal – In Iron Man, Tony was a man who didn’t give a crap about anything. Now, he’s the man who obsessively course-corrects, and gives a crap about everything… to the point where he styles himself single-handedly responsible for the world’s salvation via Ultron (“a suit of armor around the world”). This is a trait that is explicitly passed down to Ultron. When Ultron talks about extinction-level events in Dr. Cho’s lab, he says that “God is winding up” to throw another big rock at humanity. But it’s Ultron who is throwing the rock. God complex, much?
Thor’s vision is one that relates to his own power run amok, bringing death to those “weaker” than him. Think about the moment in the Bartons’ house when Thor breaks the LEGO structure, and then tries to shift the damage away from view. That is Thor’s insecurity in a nutshell: his godlike powers are a great asset, but they are also volatile in the extreme. He is a force of nature that can all too easily be turned to destructive purposes. (Too bad he didn’t have this attitude in the last Avengers film when he recklessly attacked Captain America in the woods with all the power of Mjölnir!)
While Thor and Iron Man brood on the future, Captain America and Black Widow are stuck in the past. Steve sees a vision of a post-WWII celebration, wherein he and Peggy Carter finally have their dance together. It’s a gorgeously filmed sequence, with every innocuous-seeming element of the party being tainted by an association with war (the spilled wine=gunshot wound, the camera flashes=bomb blasts etc – it’s really quite brilliant), but the main point is that in the end, Steve’s status as a man out of time is a source of major angst for him. In the absence of a healthy personal life, he commits himself to his team. And in his down time, what does he do but try to chase down the tainted “ghost” of his best friend from the 1940s, Bucky Barnes? Similarly, Natasha commits to work in the present to tip the scales of the past. After the Soviet Union’s covert agents did everything they could to make Natasha a killing machine, all Natasha can do is use those skills for good in the here and now.
So we have seen how Thor and Iron Man’s insecurities court destruction, how Captain America and Black Widow’s insecurities hang them up on circumstances beyond their control, and how the Hulk’s South African rampage speaks for itself in pure volatility. It is incredibly significant, then, that the Scarlet Witch’s mind manipulation doesn’t work on Hawkeye. He stands apart from the team because he is by far the most well-adjusted (more on this later).
On the Black Widow Controversy
Natasha really didn’t grow as a character until she admitted she didn’t have a character in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which is kind of fascinating. But we know from The Avengers Natasha’s background as a Soviet spy with a ledger “dripping” in red. So I was, and am, so locked into the “monster” bit being because of the people she’s assassinated and the attendant collateral damage that anything else was simply not an implication that could have sunk in with me, especially not because she’s sterile. That Natasha would see her infertility as what makes her a monster is absurd. And that’s what everyone can agree with: it’s absurd. (Not to mention that every Avenger save Clint compares themselves to monsters at various points in the film: Tony and Bruce as monstrous mad scientists, Steve as the result of “mad science”, Bruce as the Hulk, Thor as a force of destruction, and Natasha as an assassin with the blood of innocents on her hands. As Ultron says, “How could you be worthy? You’re all killers.”)
Natasha Romanoff does not consider herself a monster because she can’t have children. If she did, she would be a pitiable character. No, she considers herself a monster because she comes from a place where monsters ruled the roost. They cut off all of the choices she could have made for herself, but now, Natasha is doing her best to mitigate that legacy. She chooses Bruce to romantically pursue. In the field, Natasha puts the mission first in two crowning moments. First, she secures the Vision’s Cradle on the Quinjet, facing the consequence of capture by Ultron. Second, she unleashes the Hulk and enters the fray of Sokovia to fight Ultron and save civilians, rather than choosing selfishly to remain with Bruce and make a discreet exit on the ground (which, I hasten to add, was Bruce’s suggestion). These are the choices of a hero, of a woman who is, has been, and will continue to be, one of Earth’s mightiest heroes.
Who is the “Character” in this Screenplay No One is Talking About?
or: Where Do We Fit Into the Avengers?
Many people are saying that there are too many characters overstuffing the film. I disagree, because every character’s insecurity informs the story. In fact, I identify another vital “character” that is very much a constant, vital presence in the film: the everyday civilian population of the earth. When the Avengers return to New York City, we see Whedon pan from a monument of the first film’s Battle of New York (featuring “ordinary heroes” such as firemen and police officers) up, up, up to the Avengers Tower. The message is clear: think about this divide between the Avengers and the “normal” people on the ground. As I will continue to explain, the film is extraordinarily preoccupied with the theme articulated very quickly and visually here.
As Tony Stark says, the Avengers live high in the sky, near the portal to space that was opened in the first film, and apart from the street-level crime that humanity visits upon itself. Look at Ultron’s initial “puppet in strings” scene after the party; the Avengers and their chosen elite allies are on a raised platform, and Ultron walks in downstairs. Ultron says something along the lines of, “Down here sometimes you have to make hard choices”. In an odd way, Ultron is speaking from a streetwise perspective that the godlike Avengers don’t experience. Also, remember that when Tony Stark sees the grimy smuggling operation Ulysses Klaw runs in South Africa, Tony remarks, “This was never my life”. Even when Tony was an arms dealer, he never got his hands dirty… until that fateful day when his humvee escort was shelled in Afghanistan.
Here we see the Maximoffs’ vital thematic importance to the story. They were the civilians (“smallfolk” to the uncharitable) whose home was destroyed with the tools of Stark Industries’ former trade; they embody a consequence of the unchecked arm of the 1% finding a way to turn the lives of the 99 upside down. Remember that in Sokovia, there is graffiti of Iron Man with a dollar sign painted over his head. Because while intellectually they may know that Iron Man helped save the world in the Battle of New York, they cannot forget this billionaire’s questionable history. The Maximoffs then volunteered for enhancement to be like, and compete with, the mighty Avengers. Wanda and Pietro artificially made themselves powerful, but then they correct their misguided alliance with Ultron to eventually use their potentially monstrous gifts to change their worldview, save civilians and, in the end, help save the world. It’s an extremely rich arc for these characters, who come from the street and have retained their grounded humanity even as they enhanced it. Pietro died a hero’s death, of course, but Wanda will keep this important perspective on the team.
Let’s apply this theme to the original Avengers, who consistently and with only one exception stand isolated from normal lives. Tony Stark has always been a genius, separated from an average life by excess and billionaire-sized defense mechanisms. Steve Rogers admits that he wanted a normal life back in his home era, but that a “different man” came out the ice, one who is stuck in the past. Just look at the shot Whedon gives us when, after Thor’s departure from the Bartons’ safe house, Steve looks back in the house and freezes outside the door frame. This is a super-allusive shot, hearkening back to the famous final frame of The Searchers, wherein John Wayne played another character who was a product of wartime, and now has no place among the people he has fought for. Bruce Banner is a man so insecure that after the Scarlet Witch artificially induces his South African rampage, a clear case of malevolent influence, he calls it “the real Hulk”; and if it wasn’t clearly evident, Bruce himself states that he can’t have a normal life. Natasha Romanoff learned from her training in the Black Widow program that “she has no place in the world”. Thor is an alien and harbors deep-seated fears as to the damage he can do to those without his power. The only original Avenger who can have a normal life is Clint Barton. His presence grounds the team – he has a wife, and kids who read Jeff Kinney. It’s a normality that all the other Avengers struggle with profoundly.
Tying the bow on this theme, remember the shot panning up from the monument to the shining skyscraper Avengers Tower? Well, guess where the New Avengers facility at the end of the film is located? On. The. GROUND. So we have a payoff to this theme of the divide between the Avengers and “civilians”, and it is integrated beautifully into the screenplay.
Ultron and the Vision
Ultron is created covertly by Tony Stark and Bruce Banner. The Vision is a synthesis of all the Avengers, directly engaging with themes of legacy and parentage. In the case of Ultron, it’s after his creation that he starts resenting his “father” Tony, but also in a strange way emulating him. He’s got the trademark Stark wit and humorous barbs (observe that the omelette joke works as a gag and reflecting something more disturbing). Also, the climax of hordes of Ultron bots terrorizing Sokovia works as a dark mirror of the House Party Protocol climax of Iron Man 3, where a host of automated Iron Man suits arrived to save the day.
By contrast, the Vision comes from the whole team of original Avengers. Tony and Bruce created the framework, you have vibranium which is associated with Steve through his shield, Clint and Natasha act as midair midwives with what is actually called “THE CRADLE”, and Thor quickened the birth with his lightning and gives the Vision its name (not to mention the Vision creating a cape for himself based on Thor’s). Thus, the Vision is a synthesis of the Avengers (guess what the Vision’s life form is called in the comics? A synthezoid). And maybe that’s why the Vision is “good” and Ultron is “evil”. Teamwork versus isolation. The constructed family versus the sequestered megalomania of a scientist thinking he can save the world from his lab. And in the creation of the Vision, Avengers such as Captain America, Black Widow, and the Hulk, who struggle with their inability to have a normal life, now have something whose creation they collaborated on, that they have the grounds to be proud of.
As a final point, contrast the first fully corporeal moments of Ultron and the Vision. The former: on a raised dias, on a throne of sorts, spouting the smug and aggrandizing words of a tyrant – King Lear with pistons. The latter: a poetic and understated moment high above the din of civilization, but making a silent connection. Ultron represents unchecked Avengers-level power, while the Vision declares quietly that he is “on the side of life”. So, two sides of the same coin. Like the tiny detail of showing the audience a sculpture in Seoul, as seen directly below.
The Significance of the New Avengers
The Avengers line-up revealed at the end is amazing. For one thing it’s diverse, with two women, two African-Americans, a synthezoid and only one white male. But the significance of this team runs even deeper on an emotional level. The first Avengers were brought together because they each happened to have exceptional talents or powers. Now look at the new recruits that co-leaders Captain America and Black Widow choose. You have a representation of the good the Avengers can do in a woman who pulled a heel-face turn to their side, and as we’ve established, comes from the ground-level, “civilian” perspective (Wanda Maximoff’s Scarlet Witch); a living embodiment of the positive collaboration of the previous Avengers team (The Vision); and two soldiers who have proved fierce and loyal friends to team members (James Rhodes’ War Machine and Sam Wilson’s Falcon). This team is bound by something more than being Earth’s mightiest heroes, making for a great dynamic. I dearly hope that this Avengers line-up has room to breathe amongst the chaos of Civil War! But in any case, I’d say this constructed family is doing just fine.
Compared to the first Avengers, we are given better character work, more interesting themes, and more organic humor. The first one has more individual crowd-pleasing moments but in my eyes the sequel is richer. I don’t want to rag on the first one because I do love it, but my preference stands. Despite an overlong climax, this film brings it home with great performances and seriously deft writing and direction from Joss Whedon. The film does not feel overstuffed to me since every element serves a thematic purpose, as discussed above. So for those who are invested in these characters, Avengers: Age of Ultron is a gift. 10/10.
P.S. (*POST-CREDITS SPOILERS*): The Thanos reveal was a very underwhelming post-credits scene. It comes off like a pale repeat of the one three years ago; to make matters worse, to this day Thanos has given us next to nothing to latch onto, other than a bit of a wink-wink nudge-nudge to comic fans. Thus far Josh Brolin has played him very middle-of-the-road, with no sign of anything deeper going on. Hopefully Thanos will make more of an appreciable impact in the films leading up to Infinity War, because at this point his status as a Marvel Big Bad has been locked as a fait accompli with no real leg to stand on. I get that the point is to bring him into the foreground later, so my words may mean nothing in a few years – I just didn’t like this post-credits scene.
P.P.S.: Can’t wait for the extended edition later this year. Hopefully this opens the door for similar releases? Like, I dunno, director’s cuts for Iron Man 2 and Thor: The Dark World? In my opinion they need it more than this one.