Yes, I said it, and before you go too crazy, I should add that I’m quite okay with Iron Man 2, and even appreciate the way it replicates a mid-arc Marvel comic full of footnotes and inconclusive bits that only the long-term reader will get. But if you think Avengers movies should be the main event, as opposed to bits of expensive busywork too consumed with minor fan service and setting up other things to be a complete story in their own right, this second Marvel movie mega-team event may leave you wanting more.
I remember the moment, watching the first Avengers movie, in which it suddenly clicked that here I am watching Thor and Iron Man and Captain America fight, on the big screen, and in a way that did not suck. It wowed my mind and warmed my heart. And if that’s all you want in a sequel, cool. I like some cake with my frosting, and appreciated sub-themes like the conflict between Tony Stark’s libertarian-anarchist way of doing good versus Steve Rogers’ traditional-values Eisenhower conservatism. In movie two, this has been oversimplified to “Tony’s an asshole, and Steve isn’t,” presumably setting up a slightly more nuanced version in Civil War.
Since the first Avengers movie featured the team coming together, while withstanding an assault from a villain who tried to mess with their heads and make them fight, the second Avengers movie, in which they’re now a more well-oiled machine…features them having to come together while withstanding an assault from a villain who tries to mess with their heads and make them fight. Though in this case, the ramifications go further. Using the exact same trick Palpatine pulled on Anakin in Revenge of the Sith, Elizabeth Olsen’s Scarlet Witch persuades Tony Stark to prevent the perceived future demise of loved ones by semi-accidentally creating that which will kill them – Ultron.
And what is Ultron? Well, the way they talk about it in the movie, it’s like it’s something you’re already supposed to know about. There’s no exposition, so non-comics fans will wonder what the hell Bruce Banner and Tony Stark are talking about, while comics fans who know what Ultron is will wonder why they’re talking about it (not yet a “him”) like it’s a good thing. For the purposes of this movie, Ultron is some sort of global defense program, given artificial intelligence via the gem in Loki’s staff, which couldn’t possibly do anything BAD, right? He wakes up as a disembodied intelligence, talks like James Spader, and in short order begins assembling robotic bodies and determining that the best way to protect humanity is to destroy it.
Now, I love what Spader is trying to do here, but he’s working with an extremely confused script and desperately trying to make a sense of it that I think only exists inside director Joss Whedon’s head. He goes on and on about God, without really explaining what an artificial intelligence born with access to all info on the planet conceives God to be. And while he can be anywhere and do anything in multiple bodies, he decides to go with a master plan that would be more appropriate to the ’80s cartoon version of Cobra Commander than a supreme intelligence unleashed on the web. Coming so soon after Ex Machina gave us a more believable AI threat, Ultron suffers by comparison.
Not to mention: every time he opens his mouth, he looks like a cartoon. And that’s a problem – for all the money thrown onscreen at these epic movies, the CGI should look the best it can. Yet in the opening battle in particular, many objects stick out as artificial, while Ultron’s mouth is about ten steps backward from Optimus Prime’s in the Transformers movies. Scenes of the heroes driving cars often feature obvious greenscreen, and even before I was reminded that Scarlett Johansson had been pregnant while filming, it was pretty damn obvious that Black Widow on a motorcycle was a stunt person in a red wig.
Hulk, meanwhile, is not just the worst-looking cinematic Hulk in four movies, but he’s a step back in many other ways too. Just when we thought the Marvel cinematic universe was finally making him fun again, here we’re back to angsty, self-loathing Banner (plus non-talking Hulk) who won’t let himself live or love (and for all the talk of possible new romance for him, his notable ex Betty is never mentioned once). While we’re talking about worsts, Stan Lee’s cameo actually has him taking credit for something Jack Kirby did, though it’s a detail only hardcore fans will pick up on.
I can’t believe I’m saying this, but Agents of SHIELD‘s more insanely convoluted storylines and need to rely on story over effects have perhaps jaded me to simplistic smashy-smashy tales set in the same universe, though I think it’s more than a structural thing. At heart, Marvel’s greatest characters were all about issues the reader could relate to, and Skye’s battle with controlling her anger and channeling it into a power is a better allegory for real life anger management issues than anything the Hulk does in Age of Ultron, all of which plays like gratuitous, by-the-numbers groundwork for Civil War again. Whedon’s detour into X-Men territory via the shared characters of Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver touch on that comic’s themes of discrimination and fear of puberty, but there isn’t a lot of time to run with it – at least Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron Taylor-Johnson appear to understand their roles a bit better than Spader does, and convey a lot in a look.
Paul Bettany’s Vision is the best thing about the movie, and his interplay with Ultron makes me wish for the two of them to get a spin-off solo film – even if it’s just The Odd Couple in space, I’d watch that. Whedon has said that he wanted to focus more on characters who don’t have their own movies, so we do get a deeper look at Black Widow and Hawkeye – though what we learn about the latter may disappoint comics readers who were hoping for something else. The “core three” of the team – Thor, Cap, Iron Man – are the Cliffs Notes versions, reduced to their most basic tics.
Meanwhile, because everybody complained about Man of Steel, Whedon goes out of his way to show you literally every single civilian being saved by the Avengers during scenes of large-scale destruction. Didn’t Power Rangers teach us that all you have to say is, “Oh no! They’re headed for the abandoned warehouse district!”? By contrast, Pepper Potts and Jane Foster are written off perfunctorily with a single line each, like the obligatory “Hey, there’s no cell phone reception out here!” in every modern horror movie.
Based on Whedon’s public comments about how hard the movie was to make, how overwhelmed he was and how much he thinks it prematurely aged him, it’s no stretch to imagine that the machine simply overwhelmed him, like a conquering Ultron in itself. You can’t fully blame him for special effects issues, but it is fair to talk story problems, of which there are many. I hope the Russo brothers hold up better under pressure.
In the meantime, should you see Avengers: Age of Ultron? You’re hardly waiting for my answer, but the bottom line is that if you’re happy to, as they say, just turn your brain off and watch your heroes fight, it’s fine – this isn’t Pacific Rim where the actively bad acting and characterization sours the action; the team are mostly the folks you still like. And maybe I should be content with that. But Marvel has set me up to expect stories a bit above that base level, and while that may be just my problem now, it’s going to be one for them soon if others start to agree.