Now hear this! Comicbooked‘s spoiler-filled review of Avenger’s: Age of Ultron might be as convoluted as the film itself. Actually, no. That’s not possible.
“There must be some kind of way out of here, said the joker to the thief. There’s too much confusion here. I can’t get no relief.”
In had that song going on in my head as I watched Avengers: Age of Ultron. And it came to my head again as I thought about writing this review. You guys out there might be thinking I have the wrong franchise, not just because “joker” seems to be part of another superhero story-line, but because I’m about to criticize a Marvel movie. I can’t possibly be critical of a Marvel movie. Everything they do is gold, right. Just look at the box office numbers.
Let’s be clear: the Marvel films are fun, blockbuster superhero films – at best. Despite being all connected in some kind of cinematic universe, this overall product – the cinematic universe – lacks cohesion, it’s more interested in marketing for itself within it’s own story than actually telling a real story. Oh, I know what you are thinking, that I should check out Winter Soldier. That film certainly had more teeth of any of these films, but it isn’t without it’s flaws. As it turns out, Age of Ultron manages to gut even that film.
There’s a flaw that lies at the center of the conception of Age of Ultron’s script (I use the word conception lightly, because I don’t think I’m conceiving a masterpiece of a side-dish when I’m making mashed potatoes): so much was crammed in this film that the elegance that pleased, well, everyone else, about the original Avengers is now a bit muddled. The first film had it’s fair share of moments that were simply meant for the hardcore fans of the MCU (Easter eggs, call backs to the other MCU films, or moments of foreshadowing that a lot of people in the general public might not spot) but the story had a simple through-line that anyone could enjoy: these heroes are teaming up to fight together. Age of Ultron, by contrast, has script so weighted down with these MCU references, callbacks, and call-forwards that it seems that whatever potential through-lines that are in the film might be has no been riddled with potholes (not to mention plot-holes). I can’t imagine the film will make the casual movie fan very happy. The reason? They have to work harder to see the core story; they have to peel their way through Marvel’s own arrogance about how friggin’ big, how awesomely profound their “cinematic universe” is. Is there a good movie here? If there is, it’s hard to find it.
Remember when the original Batman film came out? It was just Batman and the Joker, all wrapped up in a strange package by Tim Burton. But when he added more characters and subplots to his sequel, Batman Returns, he made a film that, on one hand, had more to it, but on the other hand was more difficult to sit back and enjoy. The story telling was jerky and haphazard. In comparison with the first Avengers, the new film has the same jerkiness – the same unwieldiness -as Batman Returns did, magnified by about a hundred times. Add to that even more superheroes (remember the good old days when the problem with superhero films was that they had too many villains?) as well as Marvel’s need to constantly sell us on what they are planning and you have a film that is very hard to watch.
So let’s get down to it.
The story begins with Iron Man and his friends…
Wait a minute. Sure, he said at the end of Iron Man 3 that he was always going to be Iron Man, but no one addresses the fact that he removed the arc reactor from his chest. Yay! But doesn’t that arc reactor power the armor suits that he wears?
Oh never mind. What does it matter, when the last MCU film we saw before this one showed a cartoon racoon plead with a cartoon tree to not wrap itself up in – itself – to save everyone, because somehow it might – uh, – die…?
Anyway. moving on. But as the Avengers burst onto the scene of a HYDRA base to get back artifacts left over from the first Avengers film, I started thinking how cool it would be if Chris Pratt could be there too, to have a dance off with a HYDRA agent…
But seriously, they manage to procure Loki’s scepter (I’m not going to back and watch Avengers, but didn’t they have that scepter at the film? Black Widow used it to close a certain portal) and inside they find a mind gem, and Tony comes up with a brilliant idea to use the AI abilities from this mind gem to get his Ultron program up and running. He conceived this Ultron program as a means to protect Earth from aliens as well as beings from other dimensions. Fine. Except…
Wouldn’t Iron Man 3 have been a better film to start talking about the Ultron defense program? After all, that film’s central conceit had Tony dealing with PSTD and having visions of falling through that space portal near the Earth. Wouldn’t it have been smart for the writers to name-drop the Ultron program in that story as something that he’d have conceived because of his traumatic experiences? By doing in that film – by already starting the Ultron project there – it would have given the title of this film, Age of Ultron, a bit more resonance: it’s not “Age of said villain in the story” it’s the “Age of Tony security program” from its conception to its implementation all the way to it’s failure due to the influence of the mind gem’s AI.
Ok. I’m going to try not to think for Marvel anymore.
Yet, by first mentioning the Ultron program here, we have to swallow a lot of exposition in the first half hour of the film, from what the Ultron project is, to how Tony and Bruce Banner will use the mind gem’s AI patterns to enhance, to introducing “Ultron in the flesh” at a conveniently apt moment. It’s all a bit rushed.
Somewhere in there, the Maximov twins are introduced. Scarlet Witch’s first moment, where she stuns someone and moves backwards through a door before closing it again, was pretty neat, and “witch”-like, but she never gets another moment that lives up to it. Quicksilver is pretty underwhelming throughout.
Just as Scarlet Witch was truly interesting when we first see her, Ultron goes down a similar path. He is never as menacing or as interesting in this film as the first teaser trailer makes him out to be. The robot form he uses throughout much of the film looks like silly rather sinister, with an over-animated yet Muppet-like mouth. Sure, James Spader provided a rich and appropriate evil-sounding voice for this character, but with the mouth the animators drew, I think Kermit the Frog’s voice would have suited the mouth movements of the character quite well. The first Transformers came out back in 2007, and yet none of the Ultron’s facial features could contend with the faces animated for the characters of that film; I think Megatron, Starscream, and even Frenzy look more intimidating than Ultron does.
Before long, Ultron gets on the internet. He’s not Googling anything.. he actually incorporates himself to the internet. They start worrying that he’ll try to get the launch codes, but Whedon didn’t seem to feel like dealing with that potential story, so he mentions if quickly and gives up on it entirely by having someone say that Ultron couldn’t get the launch codes. Ultron might be better off teaming with JOSHUA than the Maximov twins, but I digress.
There’s a whole lot in this story about the Scarlet Witch giving our heroes disturbing visions and then getting them to turn on each other. It was about here that Thor went on a vision quest of his own, the bulk of which was clearly left on the cutting room floor. The other characters bicker and fight. The resulting smack-down between Hulk and Tony made for good trailer fodder but just simply wasn’t as interesting the hero vs. hero squabble we had in the first film (you know it too, that you always wanted to see what would happen when Thor threw the hammer down on Cap’s shield. And yes, I noticed they used that again in this film. Oh Marvel I noticed pretty much everything that you are up to.) Even leaving it as it is, the Hulk vs. Tony scene would have been far more entertaining if the movie to that point was constructed better; by this point in the film I was exhausted already. It wasn’t fun at all.
Remember the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie from the 1990 where the turtles are defeated and leave the city to stay at a farmhouse so they can pad out the film’s run-time a bit? The same thing happens in this film after the Hulk/ Tony smack-down. They go to a farmhouse and the film screeches to halt as they spend an inordinate amount of time there.
Yet somehow, despite how slow the section of the film is, the editing actually gets worse. Case in point: that notable scene Marvel showed of earlier this year where Tony and Cap are having a bit of an argument while chopping wood. It happens at the farmhouse, but when? As Hawkeye and his wife are in a a second story room having a conversation, we see Tony and Cap out the window by the wood-stack as they approach each other. Naturally the editors of this film (who get paid a lot of money) would then cut to this argument scene, since we have already spotted Tony and Cap approaching each other out that window. But no, there are at least three scenes before that. One of these scenes is a very long conversation between Black Window and Banner about their relationship and how she can’t have kids or what not. Then we cut another scene back in New York with Ultron, and only after a long scene there do we get back to the farmhouse, and it is then that the editor realized that “Oh my god, Kevin Feige’s gonna kill me for forgetting that woodcutting/ argument scene he pimped at the let’s-brag-about-the-Marvel-Cinematic-Universe press conference at the El Captian theater that happened way back in January, so I better splice that scene in quickly, despite the fact that the scene that led up – where Tony and Cap approach each other occurred fifteen minutes earlier.” And then this same editor must have puked in his own mouth (something Ultron made clear he couldn’t do) when he also needed to splice a superfluous scene with Nick Fury at this point in the film as well.
What the heck was that last paragraph about, you ask, after having just read it? Well, it shows that the whole farmhouse sequence was a mess, and it did not help this film. Eventually we get back to some action, as Ultron is being pursued by the Avengers through some highways the heroes try to seize a container that could contain a a future body for Ultron. Whedon could learn a lot from Nolan and even the Russo brothers about how to film a superhero car chase scene. It all makes me long for the days of the classic Lethal Weapon movies, where it really felt like Mel Gibson was holding on for deal life while fighting real bad guys – because he was. Here, Captain America always seems like he’s going to be safe. Maybe they filmed these scenes on a green screen, or maybe they actually put the actor on top of a real truck, but the whole scene seems so largely over-produced and tinkered with that it didn’t have a lot of visceral impact.
As it turns out, the heroes get the case and Black Window is captured by Ultron. She’s left unguarded in her cell and Banner rescues her all of five minutes later, and at this point I’m wondering why the Marvel fan-boys are complaining about the bad writing on Gotham? Really?
Since Whedon conveniently wrote the nukes out of the picture, Ultron’s plan is to lift a city from the ground and then drop it back on the planet as if it was an asteroid, causing a mass extinction event. How he does this isn’t exactly clear to me, and I’m not going to go to the Wikipedia plot summary to try to help me remember how the vibranium Ultron stole actually is important to this plan. But…. but.. what kind of dumb plan is this? In G.I. Joe Retaliation, Cobra Commander had a pretty dumb plan too, but at least it was fun to watch him implement it and the movie let us know that it wasn’t all that serious. The fan-boys that follow every singe bit of this film and every other MCU film do take it a bit too seriously, but come on! An AI controlled robot is going to levitate a city and drop it on the earth. That’s our story folks. How much more fun was it to see a bunch of aliens on jet-skis sweeping through New York City in the first film than to try to come to terms with this awful plot.
I’m glad that the Avengers do try to save people, but how they do it in this film is – well – to have Nick Fury-ex-machina show up with heli-stupid-carrier to rescue everyone. Hooray! Captain America: The Winter Soldier had some guts to abolish SHIELD altogether, I suppose, but then Cap has a line here that “this is SHIELD, as it was meant to be.” This film is gutting a better movie, and whatever actual story this cinematic universe has.
I’m not going to go on with this. There are moments – even good moments – in the film that I’m not going to talk about. You know what they are. It’s still an Avengers film written by Joss Whedon. It will have good quips in it. Sure. (it just has way too many of them). It is fun to see the heroes fighting together while saving people. It’s kind of neat how a certain character dies to save someone. Sure. All the stuff that’s good in the film would have been better if the suits at Marvel weren’t using this film as an excuse to apply Miracle-Gro to their film franchise.
Do I even want to talk about Vision? He’s a yet another superhero (and yes, he even has a cape! yay! Let’s remind everyone that we are in a superhero movie. But the only reason a god-like/ Frankenstein kind of thing care about being a superhero? His glance at Thor’s cape kind of explains it, if you want to stretch credulity of all of this even more than it already has been stretched) in a film with way too many superheros. he has almost a story of his own in a film with way to many stories and plots as it is. He is a really stupid looking character that has one great moment (yes you know which moment). This character might have worked if the film as a whole was better managed. The scene in the woods between him and Ultron was also quite good on it’s own, and if the viewer hadn’t been working so hard in the previous two hours to pick up on everything that he or she could, this scene might have stood out as a profound moment in the film. As it is, the scene simply felt like a the script janitor’s were called in to do one final sweep and get all the leftover crap onto their dustpan so that this thing can finally end.
The core story of Age of Ultron, the notion that an artificial intelligence might go to far, was explored in the recent film Ex Machina (as yet unseen by me, though I want to) but it really reminded me of I, Robot, from 2004. In that film, an AI program also realizes that it can best protect humans it serves by wiping them out. As slight as Akiva Goldman’s script was in that movie, he managed to still probe a little deeper into this concept that Whedon could. I, Robot also had an army of disposable drone robots that the hero had to deal with, but beneath all of the action bits was a few scenes that pointed to the problems of having artificial intelligence providing protection: the idea of making decision based on empathy would be lost in all of the logic. It’s a real shame that Whedon couldn’t really explore the implications of Ultron and go any deeper; he was too busy writing witticisms for everyone (including Ultron), while plugging future films. And past films. And tossing in those Easter eggs the fan-boys love to see.
There’s been a lot of hype for this film, and the studio put out tons of trailers and clips. It’s pretty exhausting. Through it all, other kinds of headlines have poked their way through: that Whedon was “tired” after filming the movie, that he got paid more for directing “Dr. Horrible,” that he had to cut the film down so so much. How do these comments see the light amidst all of the hype? I’m not exactly sure, but clearly Age of Ultron was pushed forward to meet deadline and expectations despite having to navigate some very choppy waters. I’m of the opinion that the fights that happen across the conference room tables were more interesting than the big huge fights that we see in the film.
Let’s be even more clear: Age of Ultron gives the fans so much of what they want. Imagine an eight-year-old child going through his toy-box to find something he wants to play with, and instead Marvel comes in to help by lifting the toy-box off the floor and pouring all the toys over this kid’s head, showering him in metal and plastic and all the toys, along with all their accessories, are scattered everywhere. Thanks for helping!
There’s just too much of everything. There’s too many special effects. There’s too much action. There’s way too many characters. There are way to many little Easter eggs, way too many little “this will be cool in future Marvel films but not this one” moments. There is too much sarcasm. Oh, did I mention there are too many mini-plots, seemingly one for each character, and since there are too many characters you’d have to try to hard to make sense of any of it. Every time a character does something cool, they are guaranteed to have a line to punctuate it. It gets old fast.
My rating: 1 out of 5 whatevers. But I’ll give it another “whatever” for the Frisbee line. I liked that. And the Hammer thing with Vision was good too. The Hammer might be the best character in the MCU (it had quite a lot to do in Thor: The Dark World)