Ahoy, squirts! Quint here. I saw The Avengers: Age of Ultron a couple of days before it was released and fully intended on reviewing it, but there were some things I was wrestling with that never quite solidified in my mind, so instead of throwing out a half-baked opinion I decided to sit it out.
When I did that I thought that meant I'd just not ever write a review, but having now just seen the movie a second time a lot of stuff clicked into place for me and I found I had a lot to say about the movie. Some of that is very spoilery, which is an unintended benefit of writing up some detailed thoughts on the movie a week after release.
I knew I had troubles with the film and could lay some of them out, but mostly in vague terms. I knew I didn't quite buy Tony Stark's journey in the film, thought Thor's side quest got the short shrift and didn't ever really feel much of a threat from Ultron, but there was something nagging at me even with those basic opinions. I think I've figured it out now. I still feel the same way about those things, but can see better why they work for some people because the ideas behind each and every thing I have an issue with in the movie are solid... it's just the execution isn't the greatest.
You've seen it by now, so I don't need to give you a plot rundown, yeah? Good. So let's start by talking about Ultron himself.
I think James Spader brings a lot of character to him and I love the concept that Ultron has some of Stark's personality thus making him a kind of rebellious teenager. The scene when he gets angry at Andy Serkis' Ulysses Klaue when he points out that Ultron shows a little bit of Stark's personality is among my favorite in the movie. Ultron's humanity is what makes him interesting, but that's pretty much the only scene in the film in which I actually believed Ultron was a real threat.
The design team failed the character. He never looks better than he does as the acid-melted, broken bot we are first introduced to. The idea of him “evolving” into bigger and better versions of himself is lost because every single version looks just like the one before. And that looks isn't very inventive. He looks like a reject from Bay's Transformers universe.
I understand making a metal dude in this universe not just look like Iron Man is a huge challenge and you want the character to be expressive, but maybe that was a mistake on a conceptual level. How expressive is Darth Vader? Relying on body language and vocal performance might have been the way to go with Ultron and maybe that's why I liked his initial form the best. Or at least if they had revealed the final form at the end... giant, clean, pristine... Maybe then I would have taken to him a little more.
His story, like much of the movie, felt rushed. The final moments between Ultron and The Vision are actually quite beautiful, but would have been heart-wrenching if it was the culmination of a relationship that lasted longer than half an hour on screen.
Is it unrealistic for me to expect more of a long-form style of storytelling from an Avengers movie? Perhaps, but it's one of the reasons I felt the first film worked so well. It's nowhere near a perfect film, but as the culmination of Phase 1 it really felt like closing out a chapter whereas Age of Ultron feels more like a sequel to Winter Soldier.
I can all but guarantee we won't have that same issue with Infinity Wars because I have a feeling Marvel's building to a kind of finale with that project. Whatever happens on the other side of Infinity Wars will be a new start. Age of Ultron's biggest sin might be that it feels more like a stepping stone towards that goal than the grand culmination of Phase 2.
I know that makes it sound like I don't like the movie at all and that's not true. The charm is there, visually Joss Whedon adapted a more cinematic look which I appreciated and The Vision looks and acts just like I'd hoped he would. What we got was good, but fractured. It's just a little schizophrenic, unfocused and rushed.
Even if there hadn't be a few dozen stories about how troubled the production on this one was you could still tell Whedon struggled with this story. Character arcs are hinted out and not explored, the most frustrating of which is Tony's journey.
We're told multiple times how dangerous he is because he's trying to save everybody, but we've already seen that story. Tony's afraid he's going to fail not just his team but all of Earth. That's Iron Man 3. When Scarlet Witch messes with his brain and his fears resurface it just seems to make him go “Okay, I'm gonna try to cut a few corners” and that's pretty much it. He's still the same old guy, doesn't really grow. In fact, his not growing at all ends up saving the day! That's how Vision comes to be!
Thor also seems to disappear into a movie we don't get to see, which would be okay if we didn't get what feels like the Cliff's Notes version of his story.
Cap doesn't grow one iota, but Whedon smartly makes that zero growth a big part of his character. Steve Rogers' realization that he's essentially a career soldier and will not have a life outside of war is his arc in Age of Ultron. That's who he should be and who he will be and I kind of love the simplicity of that.
Tony's a different story, though. At first it feels like he's supposed to be on the verge of madness and irresponsibility and then that's just kinda dropped. I see what they were going for, though. The only way to break a team as powerful as The Avengers is to have them turn on each other and that's why it was so brilliant to introduce Scarlet Witch for this story. The concept behind the team not trusting Stark is a good one, but it felt like a small fracture and not a clean break if that makes any sense. It's like they wanted to split the team and yet not at the same time. It's a half-measure.
At the end they introduce a new team, but other than the Hulk taking off for places unknown I don't know why they needed new blood. Stark just talks about “Maybe I'll retire” (again, wasn't that kind of how Iron Man 3 ended?) because reasons, I guess.
And the Hulk... I love Banner in the movie. I love his relationship with Black Widow (we'll get to her in a minute). I think the Hulk/Hulkbuster fight is one of the best things in the movie and not just because it's two big CG things hitting each other. There's humor, anger, a real sense of back and forth to the fight and a whole lot of smarts. The Veronica program is brilliant and the execution of it is as good as anything in the first Avengers movie. That said, the fallout from that fight didn't have the impact on me that I was hoping for.
Hulk gets sad because he sees some scared people? That's what pushes him over the edge to break off from the team and walk away from the happiness he could have with the one woman strong enough and patient enough to tame the green guy? It feels like they intended the consequences of that fight to be much more severe than some admittedly effective 9/11 imagery. If he had seen his actions caused the death of someone then it would have made much more sense that the team went into hiding and he would once more retreat into isolation. Right now it just feels like the group goes their separate ways at the end because that's where things needed to end up, not because it was particularly earned.
Before you guys really think I'm just wanting to pick the movie apart, let's talk about how well Hawkeye and Scarlet Witch come off in the film. Hawkeye is the heart of the team here and I love that. He's the only one to get seriously injured in any of the fights. He shows early on that there's a consequence to being a skilled, but not-God or heavily armored human in a team like this and then we see that of all the characters he has the most to lose.
It's a brilliant character decision to follow Hawkeye home and open up that part of his life, especially following his near miss at the beginning. It's a quiet part of the movie that kiddies might squirm through, but it's one of the best aspects of the film.
Hawkeye is also the key feature to my single favorite scene in the movie: his pep talk to Scarlet Witch during the final battle. This one scene to me should keep this film from ever being completely written off. Wanda has been trying, but is clearly in over her head. She's scared and Barton in one fell swoop comforts, encourages and inspires her. It's fantastic writing that at once highlights the absurdity of his character and fully embraces it, ultimately showing us why he's an integral part of the group.
Wanda Maximoff comes off extremely well, too. There are some iffy components to her character (I think it's a bit iffy that the man she hates so much is vulnerable in front of her and all she does is make him scared of failure), but in terms of personal growth, redemption and loss she's the most nuanced of all folks in the film. Her relationship with Aaron Taylor-Johnson's Pietro is casual, easy and natural. I got the sense that these two cared for each other in a way that really cements their brother/sister relationship.
Taylor-Johnson comes off well in the movie, too, but he just never gets that stepping through the doors badass moment that signifies his next step in development. To be fair, he does get a hell of a redemptive moment, but as much as he sells it I still kind of felt like it was there to fulfill a script need more than a natural story need.
Now for Natasha Romanoff. A lot has been written about her in this film and part of the reason why I had trouble writing a review with only one viewing of this film was because I saw most of those who agreed with me that the film had some problems all seemed to focus on Black Widow and I just couldn't see it. Maybe I missed something because she was just as in control and badass as she's ever been in any of the other movies, so I paid particularly close attention to her the second time around.
I still don't get it. She is not the silly girl who needs saving in this film at any point. Even when she's held captive by Ultron she uses her situation to get the coordinates of the bad guy to the good guys. The rest of the time she is either being the go-getter badass in battle she always was or the aggressor in the love story between her and Banner. He very much needs her a lot more than she needs him, so I'm perplexed at the read that she's just a simple love interest.
And anybody who thinks that when she tells Banner that she's also a monster she means she's a monster because she can't have any children is either being willfully ignorant or is just a plain old dumbass. The intent of the scene is crystal clear and you have to contort in some pretty huge ways to draw that meaning out of it. She clearly says she's a monster because her inability to have kids makes her a better killer and that she made that choice of her own free will. Period. I will use this scene as an idiot detector for a good long while, I think.
On first viewing I was mixed-positive and on second viewing I'm still mixed-positive, but leaning a bit more to positive side than the mixed side. I can't fault the film too much for the stuff that doesn't work because I can see what they were going for. With Stark's arc, with Hulk's arc, with Ultron's depiction. I think at the end of the day they just rushed through this one. It's not that they had too much on display, it's that they didn't give all the stuff on display enough time to breathe.
The film shares a lot of the same flaws that the first film had (seriously, you could change out the faceless Chitauri for the faceless Ultron bots and have pretty much the same action at the end), but I liked Loki better as a villain and I liked the finale of the first film was the culmination of years of character work. That's why the one-shot works so well. It's not just something cool to look at it, it's also the visual representation of the team working as one, which also happens to be the payoff for years worth of storytelling. Thematically it's brilliant filmmaking.
When Joss tries to give us that one-er right off the bat in Age of Ultron it's just as cool as the one in the first film, but ultimately hollow. It feels more like “remember when you liked this in the last movie?” rather than actually meaning something to the film and characters.
But the film has its heart in the right place and still gives us enough humor and heartache to manipulate this audience member in all the right ways. I wish the storytelling was a bit tighter and that some of the big ideas were followed through on, but this ain't a disaster. Those calling it that (probably the same dipshits who chased Whedon off Twitter) have obviously forgotten about Catwoman, Elektra, Green Lantern, Blade 3, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Batman and Robin and the half-dozen other truly godawful comic book movies we've had to endure before this new age of Marvel came upon us.