Age of F***tron
A Film Review by Akash Singh
NOTE: SPOILERS OCCUR!!!!!!!
Joss Whedon pulled off an incredibly difficult trick with the first Avengers in juggling together several different superheroes and making a movie that was in any way cohesive. I wasn’t nearly as sold on the first one as basically everyone else on the planet, mostly because I found the opening to be maudlin at best and the climax to be suffocatingly nauseating. Good company made Ultron a fun affair, but the suffocation of the original’s climax is present throughout this movie. By the time you’re done, you’re searching for migraine medication in your bag, desperately wishing you had actually remembered to bring it along.
Ultron is a complete mess of a movie, less concerned about its own story than it is ensuring that the future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is laid out properly. Sure, you can drop in hints about future sequels/spin-offs here or there and there are certainly ways to do so smartly. But Ultron goes out of its way to make sure that everyone in the audience is aware acutely that Phase III of the Marvel films is going to arrive (just in case internet availability was an issue in the past year). Such random focus on the infinity stones and the African republic of Wakanda removes the centrality around its core characters that is required for a movie like this to work. In the uneven original, Whedon at least kept the film from spiraling out of control and that restraint made it a much better film than it had any right to be. The sequel spirals so far out of control that when it arrives back at its titular team, you’ll be forgiven for wondering why had just happened in the first place.
It’s also a deceit. The original teaser trailer had me exceedingly excited for a Marvel film that looked like it was going to take the impending darkness of its titular villain and bring some serious, groundbreaking consequences for its heroes. That feeling of impending darkness is largely due to its primary villain in Ultron that never becomes as much of a terror as the film had so ardently promised. The concept of an artificial intelligence unit becoming a murderous robot hell bent on the destruction of humanity isn’t a new one by any stretch of the imagination, but I was interested to see how it would fit within a universe occupied by such an admittedly strange and awesome superheroes. He simply doesn’t. James Spader’s voice in the original trailer was deeply menacing, a voice that sent absolute chills tumbling down your spine. That menace is almost entirely missing in the film itself, aside from a great climactic rampage that’s almost the epitome of too little, too late. The big bad robot who is literally out to commit mass extinction of the human race is himself largely lost in this kerfuffle of characters and side-plots. To perhaps give him a personality beyond “terrifying villain”, the script hands him quirky one-liners that at a certain point not only lose their surprise humor value but take away from whatever menace Ultron has left at that juncture.
Villainy is a tricky trait to capture well. The best villains are complicated, intricate beings (human or otherwise) whose motivations and goals go beyond the acquisition of power for power’s sake. The script, while opening with a rather dull lull, provides an interesting origin for Ultron if nothing else. Tony Stark, in all of his charming hubris, comes up with the idea of crafting an artificial intelligence shield so the world has something to protect it just in case any more aliens on jet skis decide to turn up in Manhattan. On one hand, his line of reasoning is actually solid. If something has already happened, taking precautionary measures to ensure that it doesn’t happen again is a fairly logical frame of thinking. The problem is not thinking it through. Outside of the sheer ridiculousness of creating a shield for the planet, Tony never bothers to consider any potential consequences and it all goes to hell from there.
The “you must not play God as a scientist” trope has been truly done to death and I’m preparing myself for the similar storyline in the upcoming Jurassic World. As far as artificial intelligence is concerned, the movie displays a remarkably lack of actual scientific intellect behind the creation and subsequent backfiring of Ultron. It doesn’t help that I recently saw the brilliant Ex Machina from writer-director Alex Garland, which is a film built around the concept of artificial intelligence but doesn’t go the demonization route that Ultron espouses. Besides including science and philosophy in a rational discussion, Ex Machina tries to understand the capacity for humanity within artificial intelligence. Ultron is born and about three seconds of screen time later, he turns evil and (gasp!) kills someone. There’s a neat thematic depth to be discovered here between protection and destruction and how the two intersect, but we never go there. In a quick montage, Ultron goes through the history of humanity and decides that these evil humans who kill each other need to be eradicated for “evolution.” How exactly he arrived at that frame of mind is thinly explored at best.
There are several little moments that simply don’t work within the context of the narrative that feel shoehorned into the Ultron story more than anything else. First off the bat is the romance between Black Widow and the Hulk that doesn’t even click on a basic level until the climactic ends of the movie. Her saying “I adore you” and then kissing him feels completely out of character, as if Natasha would ever say something like that to anyone, ever. Scarlett Johansson and Mark Ruffalo try their absolute best to sell this romantic attachment to one another and theoretically they should be able to, considering the comfort the two actors now share this far into the Marvel franchise. But with the aforementioned quote as an example of how undercooked this plot was, the script is hammy beyond measure in this regard, with the resulting romance feeling more forced down one’s throat than the concession stand prices at the theater.
The entire Wakanda sequence feels exceedingly forced for the sake of Black Panther and yes, while it does include a pivotal moment for the Hulk, that moment easily could have been shifted without an entire sequence that goes on for about twenty minutes. In fact, I’m not quite sure why the movie has to go beyond Sokovia and the States. Those two locations alone would have provided the film with more than enough to balance and raised the emotional stakes for the final, climactic battle that was the best action set piece in the entire movie, even though it has a fairly literal interpretation of deus ex machina.
There’s a significant amount that works, to be completely fair. The constant focus on saving civilian lives is especially important, considering that a lot of movies tend to destroy cities without understanding the human cost (I’m looking at you, Man of Steel). The banter between all of the characters can become too much at certain points, but the familiarity they exhibit provides an odd sense of comfort to the entire affair that’s quite welcome amidst the thundering chaos of the action sequences. The introductions of Scarlet Witch, Quicksilver, and Vision were done well and the twins’ Eastern European accents were handled with more care than I would have otherwise expected. Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye is actually given something to do this time around and the sequence at his home were amongst my favorites. I like to see my protagonists breathe once in a while.
Some of the character “mind warp” scenes (courtesy of Scarlet Witch) simply don’t work (Thor’s, primarily), but there’s one in particular that becomes the film’s absolute best moment, if not the entire franchise’s. The peek behind Black Widow’s history is absolutely magnificent, representing Whedon and his creative team at their best. There’s just enough of a glimpse into her tortured history that deepens her character and her emotional complexity without overplaying its hands, which the majority of the film’s sequences happen to do. I won’t give the details away, but it’s haunting, mesmerizing nature is sure to stay with you long after the credits roll.
Ultron has an expectedly gargantuan budget and the effort shows in the visuals, especially the effort to provide Sokovia with an austere Communist era architecture, complete with Soviet-esque statues. It’s disappointing that that same level of detail was something the script yearned for in vain. It appears that Whedon has a three and a half hour director’s cut of the film and if that is the case, I’ll be glad to revisit an expanded Ultron that perhaps focuses less on crashing skyscrapers and more on discovering its own characters and the stories they have to tell. For the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a whole, I can’t help but feel that it is becoming a victim of its own success. The burden upon each film to tell its own story and be connected simultaneously to the MCU can be a heavy one and certainly an understandable one. Ultimately, if it is important for each MCU installment to connect with others in a similar universe, it is even more so for those stories to be connected within themselves. At the end of Ultron, we have a new Avengers team with two women and two men of color to boot. Perhaps this new, diverse team can be reflected in the Avengers storytelling going forward.
Title: Avengers: Age of Ultron
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Directed by: Joss Whedon
Produced by: Kevin Feige
Written by: Joss Whedon
Based On: The Avengers by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby
Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Don Cheadle, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Bettany, Cobie Smulders, Anthony Mackie, Hayley Atwell, Idris Elbam Stellan Skarsgård, James Spader, Samuel L. Jackson
Music by: Brian Tyler, Danny Elfman
Cinematography: Ben Davis
Edited by: Jeffrey Ford, Lisa Lassek
Production Company(s): Marvel Studios
Distributed by: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Running Time: 141 minutes
Release Dates: April 13, 2015 (Dolby Theatre), May 1, 2015 (United States)
Image Courtesy: MTV