Defending Avengers: Age of Ultron

Avengers: Age of Ultron is a Marvel film with a lot of critics. But is it a better movie than it's given credit for?

This article comes from Den of Geek UK.

Avengers: Infinity War looks great, doesn’t it?

The feedback to it seemed to be broadly positive (and there’s another trailer just around the corner), with different people taking different things from it, but a few popular comments and observations have bubbled to the surface and elicited mass nods of agreement: Cap rocks facial hair, about time with the spider-sense, things aren’t looking good for Vision, and let’s hope this all turns out to be more Avengers than Age Of Ultron, right?

Alas, this final point is where I have to break with convention and open myself to accusations of contrariness and attention-seeking mischief. Because I feel the need to stand up for this casually-maligned sequel, a film that receives such flippant scorn you’d think it was in the same league as Iron Man 2 or Thor: The Dark World.

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In fact, I’m going to go further. I think (pops on helmet and checks for nearest exit) Avengers: Age Of Ultron is a better film than its predecessor.

Still here? Cool. Let me tell you why…

“I believe your intentions to be hostile.”

Let’s start with an oft-cited criticism: lame CGI villain. In fact, Ultron made a guest appearance in a recent tweet from Mark Millar lamenting various films for their CGI nemeses and placing the blame for third act battle fatigue firmly at their door.

Firstly, let’s not paint all CGI villains with the same brush. For every Steppenwolf there’s a Gollum, and for every Abomination there’s a Koba. What the good examples have over the bad is solid motion-capture, beautiful technical artistry, good writing, and an engaging voice performance.

Ultron is saddled with a disadvantage from the outset: as a mechanical being we don’t have any soulful eyes to look into, or a particularly expressive face to analyse (and yes, the mouth is a bit weird).

But what we do have is James Spader.

Writer/director Joss Whedon plays a bit of a blinder in how Ultron is first introduced: not as a killer robot but as an amorphous program struggling to comprehend his existence. And Spader’s vocal performance is at the heart of it.

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I personally find his first few lines of dialogue quite profound and a little heart breaking: “What is this? What is this, please?” he tentatively asks as he becomes self-aware – the technological equivalent of a newborn child’s first cries.

An artificial intelligence instantly analysing the history of mankind and deciding that humans need to be exterminated is techno-cliché of the highest order, but Spader – in concert with Whedon’s writing – makes it feel fresh and exciting. There’s the initial confusion and hesitation, the exponential building of knowledge and confidence, and then the inevitable conclusions – vulnerability to threat in less than 60 seconds. It happens so fast, as is fitting for a super-advanced AI, but it doesn’t waste a single piece of dialogue. It establishes character and motivations in such an efficient manner that I think it should be shown at film schools as an example of how exposition and character development can go hand-in-hand and don’t need to take up endless stretches of running time.

Watch Avengers: Age of Ultron on Amazon

Even through a vocoder, Spader’s voice performance throughout the movie is immense, dripping with menace, wit and contempt in equal measure. His physical performance shouldn’t be under-estimated either; those who choose to spend their time getting hung up on his mechanical lips might miss some wonderful subtleties, such as when he is asked by the twins if he has come to destroy the Avengers. “I’ve come to save the world,” he righteously snaps back, before adding with a nonchalant shrug: “But also… yeah…”

The physicality is pure Spader, and he permeates this computer-generated avatar in a way that, say, Ciaran Hinds never managed.

“We’re fighting an army of robots. And I have a bow and arrow. None of this makes sense.”

Another common complaint directed at the film is that it’s ‘overstuffed’ or ‘convoluted’ – some critics at the time stating that while they may have enjoyed it in parts, they had no idea what was going on.

There are two things to address here: one is the fact that a lot of plot is squeezed into this film, with a huge amount of ground covered from the opening through to the denouement. Sometimes this approach is to the detriment of the film (we’ll get onto Thor’s bath later) but for the most part the movie simply implores you to keep up.

Granted, a lack of familiarity with the Marvel Cinematic Universe – and even the original comics – puts you at a disadvantage; but everything is there, everything is explained, and everything ultimately makes sense. It merely asks you to pay attention. Crucial plot points are referenced once in passing with the expectation that you’ve taken it on-board and connected the dots yourself. We so often roll our eyes at movies spoon-feeding us explanations – and giving us a running commentary on developments through unnaturally stilted dialogue – that I’m surprised more people didn’t appreciate the efficiency with which salient information was disseminated to the audience.

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For example, Ultron is showing an interest in a weapons dealer who has the Wakandan word for ‘thief’ branded on his neck. “What comes out of Wakanda?” asks Bruce during one of the few, mercifully brief exposition dumps in the film. “The strongest metal on Earth,” replies Tony, as we get a fleeting close-up of Cap’s shield.

That’s it. That’s all you get. But astute fans will have gleaned all they need to know: Ultron wants vibranium for his nefarious plan, he’s found a shady bloke who has evidently stolen a ton of it, so he’s going to pay him a visit, and that’s where our heroes need to go for their next dust up. (Not Wakanda, nobody ever goes to Wakanda.)

“That was dramatic…”

Ah, the dust ups. Anyone with even a residual appreciation of comic book heroes will have a rightly tenderised soft-spot for the final act of Avengers, given that is was the first time – even after all those X-Men films – that a team of superheroes were shown working together, powers in sync, with such goose bump-raising fidelity. That was the finale the whole film had been building towards, and it was much needed because – let’s be really honest here – the other action sequences in the original were a little ho-hum. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy watching Cap and Iron Man fix turbines as much as the next guy, but without that extended throw down at the film’s climax, the movie would have opened itself to accusations of being a little (whisper it) underwhelming in the action stakes.

Age Of Ultron starts with an extended action sequence where our heroes are smashing through an army in synchronised chaos, even finding the time – with some mercifully judicious use of slow-motion – for a group hero shot (and a particularly imaginative one). And it doesn’t rest on its laurels after that. Pacing-wise, it’s very clever in how it spaces out the set pieces, giving the audience a chance to recover, decompress, and learn a bit more about the characters and plot before it ups the ante again.

It’s terribly unfair to label the action scenes in the sequel as ‘more of the same’ given each one tries to do something different to the one that came before. The Hulkbuster sequence is ludicrously good fun, filled with sight gags galore and dozens of different ways for two behemoths to clatter each other. There’s the impromptu scuffle in Avengers Tower where the twist is that everyone’s in their civvies; the highway/air chase where everyone and everything is moving at high-speed throughout; and, of course, the claustrophobic battle within Klaue’s maritime lair. It’s here that the majority of our heroes become compromised under Wanda’s influence and lose themselves in visions of their worst fears – another example of plot propulsion and character-development slap bang in the middle of a kinetic action sequence. (Incidentally, am I the only one confused by Wanda’s strange reluctance to use these powers after joining the Avengers? She could have really turned the tide of Civil War had she wanted to…)

And yes, the final action set piece pits our heroes against an army of copy and paste robots, but there’s a reason team-up movies require a seemingly limitless supply of generic fodder to face off against: we need disposable bad guys that our over-powered heroes can repeatedly unleash upon and in a variety of imaginative ways. The army of Ultrons is no worse than the Chitauri from the original, and allows us to see the Avengers really let rip, as the bodies of their mechanical foes are shot, exploded, smashed, repulsor beamed, chewed, phased through, torn apart by telekinesis, speed punched, electrified by a magic hammer, decapitated by a shield, and everything in-between. What more could a comic book aficionado want?

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Some fans lamented the quippy nature of the action scenes, claiming it undercut the stakes when Tony Stark meekly apologises after dislodging a Hulk tooth, or when Cap chastises the team for bad language, but a well-placed gag does wonders for breaking up what could otherwise be a relentless visual barrage. Even I’ll admit to reaching a threshold of tolerance when it’s just characters unremittingly hitting each other with increasingly grim expressions on their faces. But sprinkling a little levity on proceedings, and throwing the odd gag between the punches, creates a rhythm of gasps and laughs that more easily sustains our interest over a long battle. And it helps that, more often than not, the jokes are really funny.

“Yeah, who doesn’t like revels?”

Apparently, some people would have happily watched a whole film of our heroes just hanging out in Avengers Tower. I fancy that would have tried the patience of even the most ardent fan, but I accept the sentiment. Everybody loves those party scenes, and rightly so – we rarely get to see superheroes kicking back and having a few beers. It’s an oasis of merriment and silliness between the ass-kicking, and reinforces the fact that this is a team who have learned to appreciate each other even when they’re not bouncing around in the field.

But again, let’s tip our hat to the amount of heavy lifting the script’s doing throughout these sequences while at the same time planting big smiles on our faces. It explains away the absence of Natalie Portman and Gwyneth Paltrow, it reveals the burgeoning romance between Banner and Romanov, it introduces Rhodey and Wilson for those who haven’t been watching every entry into the MCU, and it squeezes in one of the best Stan Lee cameos yet. And all under the guise of super-people jovially hanging out.

The whole sequence with Mjolnir is an utter joy, especially Thor’s consternation when the extent of Steve’s worthiness is subtly revealed, but more importantly it sets up an almighty pay-off later in the film. One of the biggest asks for the audience was always going to be: why are the team so easily trusting of a powerful robot with 86% of Ultron’s consciousness uploaded into it, just because they patched in a jolly-voiced operating system? The answer, when Vision effortlessly hands Thor his hammer, fills a dozen potential plot holes in one fell swoop. Perfection.

“You want to protect the world but you don’t want it to change…”

Something else that Age Of Ultron does that should be applauded is fully embracing the episodic nature of the MCU while still telling a self-contained story. So many franchise films are criticized for the big reset, essentially leaving the playing field in pretty much the same way as it was at the beginning, affording the next inevitable sequel the comforting glow of the status quo.

Not so here…

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The film ends with four members leaving the team with various degrees of permanence: a tap-out, a retirement, a trip back home, and a trip into space. We have a near-apocalyptic event that has significant ramifications for the saga moving forwards thanks to the Sokovia accords. We have a new headquarters, brand new team members, and an actual death! Yes, the passing of a character suspiciously co-owned by Fox at the time may not have had the impact of a long-standing member biting the bullet, but it proved that Marvel wouldn’t shy away from a superhero making the ultimate sacrifice. That he makes it for Hawkeye – whose apparent demise Whedon delights in foreshadowing throughout the whole movie – is oddly touching, given the antagonistic banter the two engaged in.

The inter-personal relationships in the team are also examined and expanded in interesting, surprising ways. No one saw the Hulk/Widow thing coming (Bannerov?), which is perhaps why it sparked a little consternation among fans. But it’s a touching, absolutely believable pairing; and an incredibly bittersweet one – let us not forget, Banner’s final memory before his overdue re-emergence in Thor: Ragnarok would have been his new love shoving him over a precipice. Steve and Tony’s diverging worldviews are brought out into the open, without the influence of Loki’s sceptre this time; and Clint reveals he’s got a bloody family, further confirming his relationship with Nat as ‘best buds forever’ and nothing more.

Say what you like about the film – it doesn’t play it safe or go for the obvious.

“Fella did me wrong…”

Much was made of Widow’s proclamation that she might be considered a ‘monster’ due to her experiences at the Red Room where she was trained to become a top assassin and – as part of her graduation ceremony – sterilised. Lots of people took issue with this, interpreting it as a nasty way of describing her inability to have children. However, my own interpretation – and the point I think Joss Whedon was trying to make – was that it was monstrous to voluntarily undergo such a procedure for the express purpose of making you a more efficient killer (removing the possibility of there being anything ‘that mattered more than the mission’).

But whether clumsy writing or wilfully misconstrued, it spearheaded something of a backlash against how Whedon had chosen to portray the only female Avenger. I’m in no position to dismiss the accusations of sexism – and Widow’s non-appearance on much of the merchandise is indefensible (though, to be fair, nothing to do with the filmmakers) – but let’s try and clarify the issues.

Natasha is not, for example, working behind the bar during the party serving everyone else; she’s making herself a drink, and playing along with Banner’s dorky chat-up line. The idea that she’s been given a romantic sub-plot simply because she’s female and has to fall in love is open to debate, considering the emphasis that past instalments have put on Tony’s infatuation with Pepper and Steve’s unrequited love for Peggy. She’s also the one actively pursuing the relationship, despite Bruce’s hesitancy.

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She does, of course, get captured and requires rescuing by her knight in crumpled flannel. Is it made more forgivable by the fact that it’s as a direct result of her almost single-handedly prising The Vision from Ultron’s hands? Possibly. Also, upon her rescue – in what turns out to be her final moments with the man she had been hoping to run away with – she forfeits her chance for a happy ending by pushing him down a hole so he turns into a battle-winning rage creature. You can’t deny this agent has agency.

“Tales of sprained deltoids and… er… and gout.”

Okay, I suppose we should address the Norse God in the room. Yes, Thor gets short shrift and, yes, the studio mandate to get the film’s running time as close to two hours as possible definitely hit his little plot diversion the worst. The original idea for him to be possessed by the Norns – powerful mythical entities in the comics – and have Erik interrogate them for answers would not only have clarified exactly what Thor learned that led him to kick-start Vision’s ‘birth’ but would have also explained why Erik was needed in the first place. As it stands, Thor just seems to turn up and ask him to come and watch him have a bath.

But while his character doesn’t have much of an arc, at least it’s definitively revealed to the world that if you’re going to do Thor, take advantage of Chris Hemsworth’s comedic chops and make him funny. Yes, Whedon gave him some zingers in Avengers, and yes the ‘comedy’ was one of the few elements of Thor: The Dark World that was broadly praised. But Age Of Ultron cements his status as the one character that works best when his pomposity is pricked and his inherent daftness is embraced. Were it not for the genuine laughs he elicits here, we may not have got Thor: Ragnarok.

One query though: Thor points out that the Mind Stone is the fourth of the Infinity Stones to show up recently. How does he know about the Power Stone from Guardians Of The Galaxy? Was it in the Asgardian Gazette?

“Everywhere else that story kills.”

What Avengers has – the ace it holds that no other movie can wrest back – is the novelty, joy, and pure punch-the-air awesomeness of having these characters interact with each other and fight side-by-side for the very first time. That goes an awfully long way, and if these films were to be judged on first-impressions alone, then the sequel would always fall short.

But after several re-watches of both, this is my Avengers film of choice. For all the big reasons highlighted above, but also some smaller ones:

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– Cap’s uniform. Come on, you know it to be true – look at him marching through the Helicarrier in the original and try not to cringe.

– The aspect ratio. The 16:9 original may fill your HD television screen to the brim, but it also lends an undeniably ‘televisual’ feel to proceedings, as does…

– The cinematography. Seamus McGarvey is a talented guy, but an awful lot of his lighting and composition in Avengers is just plain uninspired. Ben Davis – the cinematographer on Age Of Ultron – arguably creates a more beautiful, epic-looking picture.

– The Hulk. It seems a bit unfair to praise an inevitable leap in technology, but the rendering of the Hulk – and the integration of Mark Ruffalo’s performance – is streets ahead of the original. When the not-so-jolly green giant is rampaging through South Africa under The Scarlet Witch’s influence, he’s genuinely terrifying – bringing to mind the creepy Glenn Fabry portrait that graced the cover of that old Megadrive videogame (obscure reference ahoy). But in his quieter moments opposite Widow, the sweetness and affection is plain to see through his micro expressions.

– Hawkeye. Freed from mind-controlled villainy, Jeremy Renner and Joss Whedon can finally explore exactly why a guy with a bow and arrow is such an integral member of the team. The simple and wholly satisfying answer? Because he’s one of us – a reminder of what they’re fighting for, and a grounding element among all the egos. (Clint’s right in Civil War – it does all go to shit the minute he retires…)

It’s by no means a perfect film, but ultimately the issues people had with it just don’t seem to bother me as much; and the things that everybody seems to like I absolutely love. For most people, Age Of Ultron hovers around the middle-to-lower end of the scale when it comes to ranking the Marvel movies. But for me it will always make my top 3 – and at the expense of the original. Maybe with the benefit of hindsight, and a full appreciation of the groundwork it was laying for the future of the MCU, a few more of you will take a punt on a re-watch and let it rise in their estimation too.

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And look, if nothing else, you’ve got to give some props to a four-quadrant summer blockbuster where one of the final scenes is a tête-à-tête between two synthetic beings agreeing that the human race is doomed.