Don Cheadle, Cobie Smulders, Anthony Mackie, like… a lot of people
This is the kind of movie you learn to tolerate because it will live in popular culture for basically ever. (*cough* Star Trek Into Darkness *cough*) See it again on Netflix, Sunday afternoon TNT, whatever. It exists, goddammit, and you might as well forgive it’s shortcomings because your mom doesn’t care about plot and your little brother thinks Captain America looks cool smashing robots.
But this movie stunk. It should have been called the WEEKEND of Ultron for all the impact it will ultimately have on the series’ continuity. Instead of matching its predecessor’s level of quality, it traded storytelling for flash. It starts at 100 mph and finishes in the exact same place. It was completely and utterly without real consequence.
But let’s dive in. From the get-go this film was all wrong. Instead of catching up with our heroes in different places -in varying levels of danger- the gang’s already together. They’re fighting to retrieve Loki’s magic wand thing (I can’t remember why it was missing in the first place. It doesn’t matter.) But it basically amounts to nothing plot-wise. (And Loki’s not in it…spoilers.) After that, there’s a party where secondary characters get one-liners to pay off their final battle contributions. After that, Tony Stark invents Ultron. After that, Hawkeye gets most of the movie. After that, a European(?) city that I’m pretty sure has a made-up name gets Superman Return-ed into the sky. After that…fuck, who knows. Just get ready for a string of deux ex machinas to end the movie. There’s also a guy called The Vision who’s important…
It’s a mess. It’s too dense. There’s a lot going on and I hate to admit it doesn’t really amount to much. In contrast, the first Avengers film had purpose. It was a celebration of the success of this novel idea of a shared film universe. It was fun and joyful and was made with obvious craft. There was tension and release, build-up and pay-off. It was exciting and supremely satisfying.
I got none of that from Age of Ultron. Sure, it was fun-ish. There was still plenty of spectacle and excitement. Some Joss Whedon moments sprinkled in, too. But oddly, this film lacked the Joss Whedon DNA that I kind of expected. Age of Ultron didn’t feel as much of a quality product as the first Avengers. Juggling so many elements, the plot felt overburdened. The core of what made the first so good -the core of what any well-written story needs- wasn’t here.
So what’s the core? Or what was supposed to be the core?
Tony Stark is getting tired. He’d done good, but he’s beginning to realize that he can’t do it forever. He wants to leave a legacy behind. That legacy is Ultron, Earth’s last defense against the unknown forces of the universe. Of course, his invention goes rouge, and it’s up to the Avengers to deal with the threat. Tony Stark must come to terms with his own limitations as an inventor while reconciling his need to retire and his responsibility to be a hero.
That’s a compelling setup. But here’s the thing: They didn’t really do that. Instead, Ultron turns into Robert California, multiplies himself a thousand times, and then the Avengers headshot their way to victory against disposable robot hordes.
I’m hesitant to rewrite the entire movie, but here’s how Age of Ultron should have happened:
The Avengers are not together. Everyone is off on adventures while Tony Stark is at home in his lab. He’s building Ultron. He’s neglecting his girlfriend, Pepper. He’s not sleeping; he’s staying up all night with music blasting. He’s obsessed with this new project, the one that’ll change it all. The one that’ll give him that tiny bit of respite he’s been needing all these years. This is the big one, the last one.
No action, at least at first. The real drama is in this relationship: a mad scientist and his creation. (They sold the Pinocchio motif pretty hard in the trailers. That’s kinda what I’m getting at.) Develop a dynamic between the two. Ultron starts out like a child, an information sponge but capable of rapid learning. Have Ultron stumble, have Tony teach him things, impart a bit of his own personality into his new creation. Demonstrate a father-son relationship.
Eventually, have Ultron start thinking on his own, making decisions, ones that Tony doesn’t necessarily agree with. Create a rift between the characters, fundamental differences in thinking. Ultron becomes more calculating. Maybe he starts to see Tony’s tolerance for excess and inexactness and starts making assumptions about the rest of humanity. “The world needs order. The world needs rules…” Ultron might assume. Maybe he witnesses Tony and Steve Rodgers arguing and decides that the world needs better protectors than squabbling misfit heroes.
Now you’ve got a strong foundation on which to hang the rest of your movie. Ultron’s insurrection feels more personal, like a rebellion. His motivations are more organic than just: “kill all humans.” Plus, you set up more compelling questions for the Avengers themselves to answer, too. Now they have to deal with a force that they had nothing to with and one that was created by one of their own behind their backs. You’ll have jealousy, confusion, resentment. Bruce Banner will have the obvious reservations: science run amok, and so forth. Captain America will see Tony as reckless and a wedge driving the team apart, setting up their inevitable falling out. Thor will warn Tony that meddling in galactic affairs may bring danger none of them can even imagine…
Joss, my man. Did you just shoot the first draft, or what? Didn’t want anyone to proofread it, huh? He should have axed half the other characters, too: Scarlett Witch, Quicksilver. At least give The Vision something more to do than nothing.
Seriously, what a wasted opportunity. THE VISION. The second try. Tony fucked it up the first time with Ultron. Ultron’s gotten too strong to contain. He could’ve been driven not just by principles but by hatred and misunderstanding. The perfect opportunity to put all your remaining eggs in one basket and go for broke. Force Tony to do the unthinkable and go back to the drawing board and get it right this time. That would have been dramatic. That would have been awesome and terrifying.
All of that did kinda happen. But it was neutered by a weak story and even weaker character development. And why does Thor all of a sudden “have a vision”? Hasn’t Paul Bettany been playing Iron Man’s suit for the last like, five films? According to the logic of the films The Vision is entirely Tony Stark’s creation. What does Thor have to do with JARVIS at all? It’s comic book fan service shit and it totally detracted from the film.
Anyway. There are problems. The movie is too “on” all the time. It’s too dense and structured really thinly. There’s no tension and release, no emotional highs and lows. You can’t have a satisfying conclusion without first building tension. The Hulkbuster fight should have been the centerpiece of the entire movie. Instead it felt flat and frenetically samey like every other action scene, like someone yelling in a crowd. And they literally destroyed a building. Oops! Sorry. No consequences. Let’s all congratulate the Avengers for “actually saving people” at the end despite engaging in domestic terrorism elsewhere… That’s why the opening scene sucked. It signaled an emphasis on stringing together little moments for the audience instead of crafting a compelling story. “Go to sleep, go to sleep, go to sleep…”
I’m not in a hurry to see it again. At least not until it’s on TV or something. Kinda getting superhero-fatigued, if I’m honest. But then what to I know about anything? Marvel’s just printed another billion dollars to put in the kitty. Hook, line, sinker.
When’s Civil War, again?