You guys…. I really, really loved this movie.
With the arrival of The Avengers in 2012, the culture of mainstream cinema was changed significantly, and it continues to evolve to this very day. Films are no longer beholden to the constraints of a singular cinematic experience, and while the merits of this new paradigm are debatable, many outings now bear the dual responsibility of functioning as sequels as well as stand-alones. Avengers: Age of Ultron shoulders this responsibility tenfold, because it’s a sequel to ten films. Not only that, it’s a prequel to at least ten more, and it’s also Joss Whedon’s last hurrah, one that carries over the six main, and even introduces a couple more. It’s dense as can be, filled to the brim with details, characters, and almost non-stop action. In some ways, it’s like a Marvel comics event, in which all these threads set up over several different titles culminate in something massive and catastrophic, while also acting as connective tissue for everything yet to come. For this reason, I applaud it.
For the fact that it manages to pull off such a Herculean juggling act with little compromise, I yelled and I cheered. This isn’t an extension of the metaphor, I haven’t had a movie experience like this till date. There was a moment during the third act where I thought my friends and I might’ve been overdoing it, when the gentleman sitting in front us turned around during one of our collective reactions. He turned to his friend to whisper something, as I turned towards mine in a rare moment of distraction, but before we knew it, both the guys in front of us started yelling and cheering too. For a brief moment, I let my guard down and allowed my ears and eyes to pay attention to the things that weren’t on screen. Everyone around us was just as swept up in the experience. We were bringing the house down.
Make no mistake, these many spinning plates are hard to balance, and the fact that the film is constantly bursting at the seams means those seams are also constantly visible, but they’re accompanied by rousing highs, which are in turn supported by quiet character moments, and the whole thing feels like it’s bagged, boarded, and being sold on stands for $4.99. Seriously, it doesn’t get more comicbook-y than this. Right from the get-go, and at least once during every subsequent action scene, Whedon employs effects-laden long takes that move through the environment alongside his characters. It’s the shot from the first film that people talk about most, and while the choice is far less a marriage between style and narrative, and more simply because it “looks cool”, that seems to be all the justification he needs. What Whedon’s filmmaking lacks in other areas, he more than makes up for with his ability to bring comicbook aesthetics to the screen. His long takes feel like action panels come to life. His moments of slow-motion are like double-page spreads, overflowing with characters and explosive action. And, with the introduction of Scarlet Witch, The Vision and Quicksilver, characters whose powers go beyond the realm of punching things, he gets to play with shiny new toys that paint the silver screen in hues of red and green and blue.
The gadgets and the outfits are similar, in that they feel like they’ve sprung from the imagination of someone unconcerned with the logic behind them. Things are as they are, from Iron Man’s Hulkbuster armour sent to him from space, to Captain America’s gauntlets which now attract his shield magnetically, to Black Widow’s batons that can discharge copious amounts of electricity, to Hawkeye’s arrows that feel like they’ve undergone a first-person shooter weapons upgrade. This does sort of beg the question: how is it going to be received by people who aren’t used to the crazy goings on of the comic world? Well, positive reactions of my non-comicbook reading friends aside, the concepts in this film don’t feel like they need much explanation beyond throwaway lines. The only other ingredient is suspension of disbelief. Scarlet Witch can control electrical something or the other, which means she can do whatever the hell she wants with her magical red zapping powers, including (but not limited to) moving objects, and making The Avengers hallucinate. The Vision is a synthetic something with an Infinity Stone on his head, and since the Stones (which are FINALLY referred to as gems) don’t have any specific explanation beyond the fact that they’re powerful and mysterious, the character follows suit, flying and punching and phasing through Ultron-bots.
The Vision is a fully realized concept, and perhaps Whedon’s final and most personal stamp on the Marvel universe. Neither human nor robot, he’s brought to life by both the film’s heroes and its villain, existing somewhere in between, but fighting on the side of good. His initial emergence is reminiscent of Frankenstein’s monster, thanks to some good old-fashioned Thor lightning and a constant state of existential crisis. He sports his comicbook green & gold because he simply decides to, weaving a majestic cape out of thin air because he sees Thor wearing one. He’s the perfect encapsulation of the kind of film Age of Ultron is trying to be: an amalgam of bizarre concepts that work in harmony if you accept their premise, one that asks questions about the nature of humanity and heroism while also punching robots in the face.
The film opens in the fictional Eastern European country of Sokovia, the equivalent of the comics’ Slorenia. The Avengers are on a mission to retrieve Loki’s scepter from a HYDRA scientist, picking up threads from both The Avengers and The Winter Soldier, but allowing the momentum to be dictated more by action than by the details. The first line of dialog is Captain America asking Stark to watch his language, proving once again that Joss Whedon has no understanding of Steve Rogers when it comes to dialog. Thankfully he manages to stay true to him in terms of his actions, and the fact that he’s a leader and an uncompromising protector, both informed and weighed down his wartime experiences. Tony Stark on the other hand, is a big-picture thinker who rarely considers micro-consequence, blinded by hubris despite several films worth of him learning otherwise. Marvel Studios has been hitting the reset button on his character ever since he got back from Afghanistan, but this time it’s more than just about making him snarky. This time his actions have long-lasting ramifications. The fact that he doesn’t learn from his mistakes here, despite incessantly trying to fix them, is what separates him from the other Avengers, and I’m glad somebody finally cracked the code. He doesn’t just want to be a protector. He wants to be a saviour. After he’s shown an apocalyptic vision where he could’ve prevented the deaths of the other Avengers, he sets out to align the world with his idea of a secure utopia, one where superheroes are no longer needed because the world is watched over by artificial intelligence.
Luckily, Whedon’s hard-on for Stark and his disdain for Steve end up being background noise, with their ideological conflict acting as a backdrop for the film’s plot, lying in wait before its inevitable explosion during next year’s Civil War. The characters with their own franchises exist on the peripheries, while the heart of the film belongs to Bruce Banner, Clint Barton, and Natasha Romanoff. Banner is less concerned what turning into the Hulk will do to him, and worries more about what effect it’ll have on others. He dreads the idea, knowing that it puts his teammates, as well as innocent bystanders, in harm’s way, but thankfully once Natasha is done stealth-kicking henchmen, she’s there to talk him down. The two spend part of the film engaged in a will-they, won’t-they romance that works well in theory, even though it feels rather forced in execution, but it also serves a platform for them to ask important questions of each other and of themselves. Are The Avengers, these people who fight for a living after having done questionable things, capable of a life beyond the Quinjet? The answer happens to lie somewhere with Clint Barton, a man who’s kept his personal life a secret from almost everyone on the team.
After having been shafted the last time around, Clint gets the meat of the story once things get going, not to mention some of the biggest laughs and applause moments. While he’s no longer the lonely urban bachelor of Matt Fraction’s recent Hawkeye run, it’s still his perceived perfunctoriness that makes him interesting. In the process of being the least ‘super’ of the heroes, he’s the most vulnerable. And, being the only Avenger with a family, he has the most to lose. He knows that by putting his neck on the line, a neck that’s protected by neither hammers nor suits of armour, he’s also putting the future of his own children at risk. But he also knows that the Gods and billionaires he fights alongside are hostile and unpredictable, so he takes it upon himself to make sure they keep saving the world without tearing each other apart. His finest moment, perhaps even the finest moment of the film, comes when he and Wanda are taking refuge amidst an onslaught of Ultron drones, and he puts things into perspective. The world is coming to an end at the hands of a robot army, and he’s just a man with a bow & arrow. It’s a hilarious scene, but at the same time, it reveals exactly why he’s the most heroic Avenger.
While Hawkeye may not get to partake in every moment of eye-popping action, he gets to help carry out one of The Avengers’ other important tasks: rescuing civilians. In fact, the relationship between the heroes and people they protect is one of the film’s primary talking points. When they first enter Sokovia, the people resist their very presence. Iron Man graffiti on the city walls depicts him clinging to money and rifles, and Wanda & Pietro’s reason for hating them stems directly from damage done by Stark Industries. The people hate the idea that they might be collateral damage, and the fight between Hulk and an upscaled Iron Man tugs on that string even harder. The civilians here aren’t just extras, they’re living, breathing parts of the environment. It’s perhaps the only time the 3D really comes in handy, as every punch and every smash is accompanied by people screaming as they struggle to get out of the way. The fight is absolutely awesome, but it’s also terrifying. There’s even a moment where we see these two Goliaths from the point of view of a family and their children, right before they almost become victims themselves. This is the whole reason Banner questions his place on the team. This is the reason Tony Stark creates Ultron. This is why Ultron, in turn, wants to wipe out The Avengers. The safety of the people.
[Plot spoilers from here on out]
The film runs the risk of getting repetitive when it returns to Sokovia for its third act (after a Hulk/Iron Man battle in South Africa and a dazzling chase sequence in Seoul), but it brings things full circle when the civilians are caught directly in the crossfire, and manages to up its ante in a way that puts it at the top of the list of the most comicbook-y things ever done in a movie. Ultron lifts Sokovia itself, raising it higher and higher in the hopes of causing an extinction-level event when he finally lets go. This falls very directly in line with the so-called “superhero formula” or “Marvel formula” that many including myself have grown tired of, where the hero must stop the villain from destroying the world yet again, a concept that’s almost abstract at this point, but it takes that incredibly broad approach and makes it personal for each and every Avenger.
It’s not just about saving the world. It’s about undoing all their mistakes and proving that they really are the good guys.
In order to help them, Nick Fury, Maria Hill, War Machine and the Helicarrier return in all their glory, and they’re even accompanied by the nervous techie from Winter Soldier! Despite ending up with a grand total of TWELVE Avengers, the film manages to avoid being over-indulgent by constantly shifting focus back to the heroes trying to save people. When faced with a tough decision, destroying a city of thousands to save a world of billions, Cap and his team refuse to give in to what Ultron expects of them. If they fail, they’re not going to fail without a fight. But if they succeed, it’s not going to be at the cost of lives that could’ve been saved.
The cool and neutral colours begin to take on shades of yellow and brown once Ultron enters the equation, like there’s something in the ether. Something amiss and off balance, like a sickness. That sickness is perhaps Ultron himself, but it’s also The Avengers. The seeds of doubt and conflict planted in their minds, and the way they’re viewed by both Ultron and humanity, as a blithe to be eradicated. The film’s colours return to their natural state once Ultron has been defeated, but more importantly, once The Avengers have proved to the world, and to themselves, that they’re still the heroes they believe they are.
Ultron himself is a strange villain, though quite easily one of Marvel’s more interesting ones. He quips. He quotes. He’s a dark mirror to Tony Stark, having been modeled off his personality, and he’s exactly what Stark would be were he to forego his remaining humanity. In fact, he’s the other side of the line The Avengers have been riding all this time. A totalitarian force trying to propel humanity into his ideal world, only his idea of total security is evolution. Despite having a personality, his view on history and conflict is devoid of any emotional context, making him perhaps the most inhumane villain they’ve faced till date. He gets annoyed, and he has ambitions and jealousies, but ultimately, he’s an uncanny reflection of a person. A human-esque being that fundamentally misunderstands humanity, one who turns on his creator, just as his own creation turns on him. He’s part of a cycle, the same cycle that Red Skull and HYDRA belonged to, and the cycle that Stark has set himself up to be a part of. The cycle of violence as a means to peace, wherein ideals become so vital and primary to one’s cognizance that they supersede individual human emotions. Where the greater good is so far removed from humanity that it foregoes all the little goods along the way.
The uncanny answer to that cycle is The Vision, a being concerned only with preservation of life. All his actions stem from that singular desire, to save people and to understand them. If the main characters in Age of Ultron are a spectrum, then Ultron and The Vision are its two extremes, with Hawkeye, Black Widow, Thor, The Hulk and Captain America falling closer to the Vision side of things, and Quicksilver, Scarlet Witch and Iron Man falling somewhere in the middle, trying to work their way back towards the light.
Though no matter what situations they find themselves in, there’s always, always time for a lighthearted quip. While it borders on excessive during the initial scenes where not much else actually happens (the film starts out weirdly paced and tonally mis-matched), it manages to pepper the action with laugh-out-loud character moments, moments that work twice as well because of all the time we’ve spent with them, getting to know them more intimately.
Something The Avengers and a lot of the other Marvel films lacked was downtime with the characters. Much like the Winter Soldier scene where Natasha and Steve hide out at Sam Wilson’s before things get crazy again, our heroes get to be vulnerable as they recover at the Bartons’ farm. Well, except Thor, who leaves all of a sudden and then just sort of re-appears later on, but it’s probably for the best. Thor’s not very interesting anyway. Instead, we get to see Clint’s relationship with his wife, and their collective fears. We finally get to see Captain America and Iron Man arguing about things that matter. This time, they have a real reason to be at each other’s throats, and it comes from a place of one of them having seen the horrors of the past, and the other having seen the destruction of the future. We get to see Natasha and Bruce Banner open up about their demons and the monsters within them, as they wrestle with their own past and future. Every Avenger has had Wanda Maximoff inside their head, and they’ve seen everything from loss, to destruction, to the worst in other people, to the worst in themselves. All of this comes to a head when the fate of the world lies in the hands of a mad robot whose finger is on the trigger of a floating city.
It also never slows down for even a second! While there’s certainly room to breathe in between, it’s packed with spectacular action moments that make it ripe for the summer season. Captain America flips over a bike and throws it at HYDRA Soldiers! Natasha gets to wield the shield! The Avengers fight back to back, side by side, and in all sorts of permutations, each instance garnering a thunderous response from the audience as it came to life on screen like it had leapt off the page! It’s a superhero movie that’s aware of the faults of other superhero movies, one that takes a tired formula and tinkers with it just enough to make it matter in a larger context. It’s a piece of a much bigger puzzle, but it’s a massive piece on its own, one the director wanted to imbibe with as much life as possible before his departure. While there’s so much that doesn’t work, there’s so much more that does.
In one of the final scenes, The Vision confronts his creator and begins to have realizations about humanity. Order and chaos don’t need to be mutual exclusives; to him they’re one and the same. To him, the beauty in something lies in the fact that it doesn’t last forever, and he feels privileged to have spent time with The Avengers. And thus, with his varied influences and his colourful peculiarity, The Vision ends up a mouthpiece for Whedon himself.
With that, he leaves us with a changed world and exciting new possibilities, and in the grand Marvel tradition, a whole new lineup with some bright new outfits. Like a preview page at the end of a concluding issue, Captain America stands alongside Black Widow, ready for the next big adventure that awaits them as they prepare to lead War Machine, The Falcon, The Vision, and Scarlet Witch. The New Avengers.
“Doesn’t matter what you did or what you were…. If you step out that door, you are an Avenger.”