It has been over two weeks since I saw Avengers: Age of Ultron with my brother and two sons. We made a celebration of it, as it was also Free Comic Book Day. (You can still see the pictures I tweeted on the right.) By now it's a bit late for a review. I've read a number of other people's, though, and here are some of my favorite angles. Beware major spoilers.
Where it Fits in the MCU
Emily Asher-Perrin (Tor.com) reviews the movie "as a piece of the Marvel Cinematic Universe jigsaw puzzle" because it's more successful that way. That's how I've invested since the post-credits scene of Iron Man, which I saw late, after Iron Man 2 was on its way to officially, maybe awkwardly announce the MCU. The first one I saw in the theater was Avengers because the individual characters' stories hadn't won me over yet. (With the exception of Iron Man 3, I've attended every Phase Two theatrical release.) For me, the serial continuity is what's fun, so all the Easter Eggs and fan service are easy bait.
Like Asher-Perrin, I'm hopeful that we might actually get an extended cut of AoU to redeem those moments that feel tacked on. The Maximoff twins are force-fit and Quicksilver's death completely hollow. (And unnecessary? I need to see it again, but couldn't he have just rushed Hawkeye and the kid out of harm's way instead of intercepting the bullets? I guess he was fridged for Wanda's development, which at least flips the common trope.) Thor's subplot is even less coherent, and I understand that Joss Whedon was forced by Marvel to include it. Again, I like when one MCU film sets up future ones, but hopefully not by sacrificing itself. I find AoU more guilty of that than IM2. Even the closing shots of the New Avengers (Falcon, War Machine, Scarlet Witch, Vision) struck me as cheesier than I would have hoped. Was Wanda flying, though?
I didn't see this development coming, although I did think Clint's lines about not having a girlfriend, then later being on the phone with his girlfriend, were odd. Turns out they were laying a foundation (as lines like that so often are). I'm with Jim Bennett of Deseret News in loving this plot twist. Hawkeye instantly goes from the vague, underused, most expendable Avenger to the one I can relate to the most. The Incredibles comes to mind. Even though AoU doesn't have the cartoony freedom to make Hawkeye's family members costumed heroes, it honors them more subtly, showing that Clint's wife and kids are central to his and maybe even Natasha's roles in S.H.I.E.L.D. and the Avengers team. From what I understand, Whedon had to fight to retain the farmhouse in the story, and I give him a lot of credit for that. It's one of the few places where this and Winter Soldier feel like creative siblings, showing that the more human these superhumans behave, the more super they become.
Speaking of which, it was a nice touch to see that loyal S.H.I.E.L.D. agent from WS as part of the Helicarrier crew in AoU. Not that that has anything to do with Hawkeye.
Black Widow has been getting a lot of negative attention lately. First it was Chris Evans's and Jeremy Renner's poor jokes in a pre-release interview, and now there's her strange absence from movie merchandise. There was also backlash against Joss Whedon for making her a damsel-in-distress who calls herself a "monster" for choosing to sterilize herself when she was an assassin-in-training. Some have said this backlash is what caused Whedon to quit Twitter, though he has denied that. It does seem unlikely, given his status as a feminist who has been known to chastise other feminists - Geek web site The Mary Sue, for instance, whose Sam Maggs ended up giving AoU a positive review regardless. Like her, I didn't read Black Widow's regret as an attack on anyone who can't or chooses not to have children. I like the definition of a "strong female character" as one who makes choices that matter to the plot, both good and bad. "Strong female character" isn't the same thing as "flawless female character." As for Widow's capture, this isn't even her fault, and she facilitates her own escape...even if it's unclear how she ends up there in the first place, or why Ultron chooses to keep her alive. I may have missed something there.
And her relationship with Bruce? I like both characters so I wasn't disappointed to see them come together, though it did seem unnecessary and slightly out of the blue. That she is Hulk's leash is a nice callback to events in the first Avengers, but her going from "Love is for children" in that film to "I adore you" in this one is somewhat jarring. In the Tor.com article mentioned earlier, Asher-Perrin observes that Black Widow "is the only person who feels comfortable in removing" Bruce's choice to change into the Hulk and that "the Hulk is the one who shuts Natasha out when she asks him to pilot the stealth ship back to the hellicarrier [sic], not Bruce." Apparently, even the Hulk recognizes that Natasha might be coming on too strong for puny Bruce Banner.
The Natasha/Bruce plot is one of the few that seems to have lasting consequences in the movie. Others, like the Maximoff's vendetta against Tony Stark, are really just running on the fumes of Phase One. I have to agree with Robert Reineke of Modern Myth Media that the film's ending commits similar errors as Man of Steel - maybe even worse. The destruction in AoU is too easily swept aside with single lines of dialogue about Stark's first response team. The Hulkbuster vs. Hulk battle, while absolutely satisfying (and obligatory!) hero vs. hero combat, features a moment when an entire building comes straight down, and the aftermath is as uncomfortable a reminder of 9/11 as similar moments in MoS. Like Reineke, I'm a bit more inclined to forgive the latter film, in which that destruction is perpetuated by actual terrorists rather than one super-buddy trying to curb another super-buddy's temper tantrum. I know the Hulk was set off by Scarlet Witch, but speaking of which, isn't that too reminiscent of what Loki did in the first film? I guess, unless he evolves into a better amalgam of Banner and Hulk, there are only so many uses for the Big Guy; this movie sort of reinforces - for audiences and, apparently, for the Hulk himself - why he may have a limited use in future installments. Have you watched The Incredible Hulk lately? Its pointlessness in the MCU is embarrassingly obvious. At least General Ross is showing up in Captain America: Civil War.
All that said, I like that Ultron's homemade meteor plan is foreshadowed throughout the movie by his archaic references (dinosaurs, Noah), and that it creates a truly unique setting for the final battle.
Speaking of consequences, Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige confirmed to Cinema Blend that every installment in Phase Two of the MCU includes someone getting their arm cut off as a tribute to Star Wars (presumably Empire Strikes Back in particular, which contains the most famous example). I learned this after seeing AoU and must admit that it made Ultron's dismembering of Ulysses Klaue a little more interesting. They weren't just shoehorning Andy Serkis in there to set him up as a villain in Black Panther, but also to satisfy a delightfully dorky "Once per Episode" trope ala the Star Wars universe itself. (Wilhelm Scream, anyone?) Even the TV spin-off Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. honored this in the recent season two finale. (That poor Agent Coulson...) This summer's Ant-Man is the final chapter of Phase Two, so I wonder who will lose their arm.
Horror Film Homage
Some have commented on the Frankenstein parallels in Ultron and Vision. Ultron's creation scene, when he comes staggering out like a zombie, is creepy and unnerving. Vision is basically the synthesis of Iron Man (J.A.R.V.I.S.), Captain America (vibranium), and Thor (lightning + cute cape tribute), and his creation is undoubtedly meant to recall said horror story. Whedon even said in an interview that Ultron is "living in a Universal horror film." In retrospect, though, the parallels don't end there. This is going to sound strange, but AoU actually has a lot in common with an actual Universal horror film, itself a horror film homage: none other than the loud, stunt-filled, over-the-top Van Helsing (2004). And yes, I'm a little embarrassed for knowing the latter film well enough to draw that comparison. But here it is:
- Eastern European castle? Check.
- Angry mobs of villagers? Check.
- Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde? Check. (Banner/Hulk. Obviously.)
- A flying, immortal villain who wants to reproduce? Check.
- Who is assisted by powerful women? Check.
- A fight over the Frankenstein monster in transit? Check.
- Brother/sister relationship that ends in tragedy? Check.
- Werewolves? Well no...though Ulysses Klaue is pretty hairy.
- ...and of course, a monster brought to life by lightning. Check.
Weird, huh? Of course, Joss Whedon did create Buffy the Vampire Slayer....
Now Whedon is done and the Winter Soldier team is bringing us Civil War next year. Yes, it's looking crowded...but Spider-Man's in that crowd! These are the same guys who deliberately tried to make Winter Soldier "Honest Trailer proof," - and did a fine job at it, too. (Even Honest Trailers thought so!) Even if it ends up with similar problems as AoU, it, too, is bound to be lots of fun - from a variety of angles.