Review: Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

Avengers: Age of Ultron

Rating

Director
Joss Whedon
Screenplay
Joss Whedon
Length
141 min.
Starring
Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, James Spader, Samuel L. Jackson, Don Cheadle, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Bettany, Cobie Smulders, Anthony Mackie, Hayley Atwell, Idris Elba, Linda Cardellini, Stellan Skarsgard, Claudia Kim, Thomas Kretschmann, Andy Serkis, Julie Delpy
MPAA Rating
PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi action, violence and destruction, and for some suggestive comments.

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Soundtrack

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Source Material

Review
The Avengers: Age of Ultron marks the second merger of the Disney Marvel Cinematic Universe and the Whedonverse, two not always diametrically opposed galaxies, but ones that have never been more at conflict than in this latest outing.

Picking up where the events of the first film left off and some of the situations evinced in the third Iron Man film as well as some small parts of the second Captain America and Thor films, Avengers: Age of Ultron depicts the still fractured Avengers team going up against a cybernetic menace resultant from some of Tony Stark’s ill-conceived “save the world” projects. As the ramifications are felt, the crew becomes splintered and soon discover that the plot the titular Ultron is hatching will not only result in the end of life on Earth as they know it, but is specifically designed to hasten the crumbling structure of the Avengers.

Joss Whedon established himself as a television wunderkind with the cult series Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its spinoff Angel. This was expanded with his Fox-aborted attempt at a sci-fi western Firefly, which was later parlayed into a modestly successful big screen adaptation Serenity. His penchant for compelling female characters who were not only able to fight alongside the big boys, but whose emotional and psychological constructions were complex and deep.

The Disney Marvel Cinematic Universe, on the other hand, has struggled to generate more than cursory appreciation for female characters. With the lone exception of the second Captain America film, the period television drama Agent Carter and the Joss Whedon-created Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., the universe has been mostly devoid of powerful female characters. Nowhere is this more obvious than in this film.

Two prominent female characters are on display. The comparable Elizabeth Olsen, as new mutant Scarlet Witch, and Scarlett Johansson, the well established Black Widow character, are put through a litany of physically daunting tasks that show off their ability to play action sequences on par with and sometimes in excess of their male counterparts, but it’s their backstories that don’t quite hold up to scrutiny. Going into too much detail here would risk spoiling those elements of the film. See the Spoiler Discussion section below where I’ll go into in more detail.

That isn’t to say what’s presented in the film isn’t a rousing, exciting adventure film. It tugs at emotions in very real and honest ways, mostly towards the climax of the film. The story is richly constructed, built on selfless acts being turned against their creators and reopening rifts that had nearly healed. There’s also a fundamental shift in attitude between Captain America (Chris Evans), the most inspiring character in the franchise, and Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), the most egotistical and self-absorbed member of the team.

Throw in the otherworldly Thor (Chris Hemsworth), who’s more concerned with problems brewing back home in Asgard, and the emotionally conflicted Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), and you have a recipe for terrific zingers and believably camaraderie. These are characters that shouldn’t work well together, but do and that’s a testament to Whedon’s incomparable dialogue writing. Most directors would leap at cheesy puns, predictable one-liners and other genre tropes that become tedious the more frequently their used. Whedon’s conversations are witty, modestly subversive and toy with motifs common in the comic book movie universe, without teetering into banality.

This is the type of film Whedon excels at. It’s a careful blend of energetic acrobatics and intense character studies. That it’s not more successful on the emotional side may have more to do with the tight reins Disney has on this franchise and the struggle Whedon faces in relinquishing control over a baby he’s helped construct.

Avengers: Age of Ultron is exemplary of all the Disney Marvel Cinematic Universe films that have come before it. Rousing spectacle with private moments carefully maneuvered into it. These combined films are still among the best of the franchise to date even when they have their disappointing moments. Putting aside the far superior Captain America: The Winter Soldier, this film would rank just behind the first Avengers in terms of overall quality.

That placement is all thanks to what little control Whedon can still exert over the project, which is a testament to his cachet among fans. Hopefully, Disney can see past this and relinquish a bit more control to him. Maybe one day we’ll see precisely the kind of film Whedon can make and I suspect it will be quite spectacular.

Spoiler Discussion
Unlike Michael Bay’s patently misogynistic depiction of women in his films, Joss Whedon tries very hard to create compelling and fascinating female characters in Age of Ultron. Black Widow gets a fairly lengthy series of scenes that explore her degrading and oppressive training back home in Russia. Unfortunately, all that fascination is brought to a disappointing end when it’s revealed that the final exam the black widows had to undergo was a forced sterilization.

Motherhood is a distraction and for an assassin, it could certainly become damaging to the organization’s goals. However, in the context of this film, it acts as a rather one-note attempt to create an emotional connection between Black Widow and Bruce Banner. Up to that point, Ruffalo and Johansson had done a spectacular job building a relationship that seemed honest and credible. When he brings up the fact that he can never sire children because of his experiments, Black Widow reveals the sterilization.

It’s horrific, there’s no doubting that, but to make a character like Black Widow become emotional over simply never being able to have children is a bit disingenuous. That’s because the reason for the sterilization is presented not as one of the many onerous things done in her training program, but that it was the “final solution,” something that seems so trite when thought of in that context. We had a significant amount of build up to that point and then suddenly we’re thrust into a weepy, “I can’t be a mother” moment. If that’s what drives her. If that’s what makes her hate. If that’s all that her bad assery can be attributed to, it’s a rather hollow way to behave.

This story is poorly handled, which is what gives many of us who are disappointed in the outcome such frustrations. There are any number of ways this Banner/Widow connection could have been built, but it isn’t. That makes it even worse when Banner decides to go into hiding despite Widow’s confession to him. that turns a character that is utterly and completely sympathetic to that point to feel like a complete heel. That’s almost as unfair as how they treated Widow.

As to the film’s other major female character, Scarlet Witch, we’re given a woman whose only reason for being evil is hatred for a man who sent bombs to her village and whose creations slaughtered her family. She and her brother Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) are presented as generally forthright people who attack the Avengers because they are led by Tony Stark whose munitions, exposed in the first Iron Man film are being misrepresented and misused to hurt and injure innocent people.

It’s a nice tie-in to the original film, but it doesn’t give much of a background for the character. It doesn’t make her a strong character. Nor do her rather amazing powers of psychic control. There’s no doubt she’s an incredibly capable fighter, but whenever she’s not doing some very sensational things, she’s emotionally distraught or weakly muttering. The only other impetus she has is saving the people of her home village, which is at peril at the end of the film. Tony Stark, Bruce Banner, Thor and Captain America are each given much more compelling, fascinating and complex backstories.

In this film, even Vision and Ultron are more competently fleshed out than Scarlet Witch. There’s not much development for Falcon (Anthony Mackie) or War Machine (Don Cheadle) either, but they’ve had time to develop in other franchise films. No, here Scarlet Witch becomes a good guy just because the bad guy was mean to her, her brother and her community. That’s lazy character development.

Disney didn’t pick up this property to appeal to women and young girls. This is perhaps why Black Widow hasn’t gotten a deserved film of her own. Yet, if it’s going to expand beyond the rapidly constricting barriers they’ve erected, they need to step outside and realize that these kinds of films appeal to many different types of people from many different types of backgrounds. By focusing and relying on the easily jaded male demographic, Disney is saying that it doesn’t want to grow the brand. Perhaps they are afraid that they’ll alienate guys by giving women more than just big pecs and sweaty beefcakes to look at, but wouldn’t it be great instead it gave them reason to cheer Disney on for becoming the inclusive, well rounded outfit they most certainly can be?

Oscar Prospects
Guarantees: Visual Effects
Probables: Sound Mixing, Sound Editing

Review Written

May 8, 2015

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