I’ll confess, I’ve been shameless about my anticipation for this movie. I’ve pounced on each clip and feature video as they have been released over the previous months (unfortunately, as it turned out, giving away bits of some of the best scenes), gulped at the first appearance of Ultron on my monitor, and allowed possibilities to play out in my head as I’ve pieced together different glimpses of some of my favorite comic book heroes brought to life on the screen. Going to the theatre on opening weekend wasn’t even a question…it had to be done. Tickets were ordered ahead, plans were made, and I settled in to see what Whedon had brought for us this time.
As with the first Avengers film, this fulfilled my expectations.
First, let me say what’s obvious. If you’re going into this film expecting nothing more than fantastic action and super-heroic sequences with a bit of Hulk-buster armor thrown in, then you won’t be disappointed. This film is large (literally dizzying in my first few moments in the theatre), superbly paced and, while a bit predictable, still keeps you on the edge of your seat. For those of us a with a history, though…those of us invested in the stories of these characters (and I would point out that, if you haven’t kept up with the rest of Marvel’s cinematic canon thusfar, then Age of Ultron will be a bit less effective as a standalone film), we’re not going for only that. We want to see the heroes’ struggles, the epic good vs. evil conflicts that take place internally as well as externally. And, if Age of Ultron has a weakness that I can point to, it’s that Whedon handles the internal conflicts so well, that the external conflicts become more slight.
Captain America, as he assumes the mantle of leadership with the Avengers that he took during the Winter Soldier, encapsulates the through-line of the movie best with a single statement: “This is about whether we’re heroes or monsters.” Our heroes struggle with their own self-perceptions on this continuum, and the world sees them on both ends. Does the world want to be saved by the Avengers in every case? Who can protect the world if the Avengers (read: the Hulk) lose control or go rogue?
And, perhaps more to the point, what happens when the best of intentions, the purest of motivations, bring about a result that is terribly wrong?
This film walks an interesting line between a character-driven piece (we get to know Banner, Romanoff and Barton so much better in these two and a half hours) and a plot-driven piece. The most rewarding surprise of Age of Ultron to me was that Whedon accomplished so much with the minor characters. Hawkeye, specifically, is allowed to shine here, and it is his line that summarizes the choice to act as a hero, the intentional decision that must be made, when he tells the Scarlet Witch that, if she wants to hide until the battle is over, he will send for her at the end. But, he emphasizes:
“If you step out that door…you’re an Avenger.”
That was the line that gave me chills in it’s purity, and yes, it’s in the trailer, but it carries so much more weight when in context.
Whedon is making clear here that heroism is marked by a choice, even when that choice doesn’t always succeed. While that choice can take the form of entering the fray to protect innocents despite your fear, it can also take the form of fleeing the person you love in order to protect them. While the Scarlet Witch displays her heroism by leaping into the battle, Banner displays his, paradoxically, by fleeing a different entanglement in the end. Two sides of the same impulse, both equally right, we feel…this is what Whedon does so well.
And speaking of the Scarlet Witch, Marvel seems to be winning me over. Due to legal nonsense between studios, you see, Marvel is not permitted to cast the Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver as mutants, and so their origins are explained differently, here. I anticipated having big issues with this, as it’s very non-canonical, but Olsen’s performance was actually so impressive that I found myself not thinking about it until I had left the film. Perhaps I’m getting soft, or perhaps this a case of an actor adeptly handling a superb script. I’ll go with the latter.
Because the inner conflicts of the heroes are so pronounced, what suffers is the villain. In fact, the most serious flaw of the movie that results from the internal/external imbalance is that Ultron is cheated. Every time this character appears in the comics, he is terrifying. He’s nearly indestructible, he’s capable of so much evil. When the Avengers face Ultron, they’re never really certain if they’ll walk away. Here, his dialogue seems out of character frequently (I’ve never read Ultron as being in any way comedic), his dangerous visage dismantled on a regular basis. I’ll agree with Forbes that Ultron, despite his depictions in the excellent trailers preceding this film, is hardly terrifying. He is, in fact, so easily dispatched by the Vision in the end that the act feels cheapened and cartoonish.
The continuity is handled well, as lead-ins to the Civil War and continuation of the Infinity War story arcs are there for anyone who wants to see them, and feel consistent and well-explained. Whedon intersperses a smattering of religious metaphors, here, as well, but they never quite become fully cohesive, unless the point is a theology of evolution beyond ourselves. The Vision certainly has moments of appearing as a Christological metaphor in both dialogue and appearance, but I don’t think that Whedon is going for something that overt or…and I shudder to use this term here…simplistic.
When saving the population of a city from death by ushering them aboard the SHIELD helicarrier, Quicksilver remarks, “This is SHIELD?” Captain America’s reply is, “It’s what SHIELD is supposed to be.” And, while we feel the weight of the Winter Soldier’s events in those words, and see foreshadowing of the Civil War to come, we also understand that the purest of motivations, when misled, can lead to the most catastrophic of consequences.
Perhaps what most differentiates the heroes from the monsters lies in how those consequences are handled.
If you haven’t seen Age of Ultron yet, make certain that you do.