Saturday, June 06, 2015

Ultron Unbound

Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson, and Jeremy Renner in Avengers: Age of Ultron

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) finds the Marvel Cinematic Universe entering its decadent period. I'd almost call it the series' Bronze Age, to borrow the nomenclature of comics. This should be a period when the storytelling in these films ramps up because the need for origin stories has been satisfied by the previous movies, a period when it should be doing its Galactus trilogy, its Kree/Skrull war, its Dark Phoenix saga. Certainly, that's part of why Captain America: The Winter Soldier was the best of the Marvel movies. That movie also had crackerjack storytelling and a defined source text. This film, on the other hand? It's stuffed to the gills with new characters, but not many new ideas. More, it's obviously the middle child in a trilogy, one that's weighted down with far too much franchise-building. Does it provide superheroics? Sure. But at this point, it should be providing more. Maybe I'm asking too much. I mean, it's not awful by any means. I suspect that after 38 movies based on Marvel Comics (with a 39th and 40th due in the next couple of months), I'm suffering from superhero fatigue.

The story here follows the fall of S.H.I.E.L.D. at the end of The Winter Soldier. The action begins with Captain America and the rest of the Avengers assaulting a Hydra fortress where Baron Strucker has hidden Loki's scepter, among other relics of the Chitauri invasion from the first Avengers film. Strucker has been using the staff and other means to develop super-powered foot-soldiers of his own, and he has two of them defending his fortress: Pietro and Wanda Maximoff. The Maximoffs have a serious grudge against Tony Stark, whose weapons were used in a war against their homeland of Sokovia. Wanda, rather than killing Stark when she has the chance, screws with his head. They realize that they're out matched, but they plant a seed with Stark and with the tech that Stark and The Avengers recover. Once back in the world, that tech acts as a Trojan horse. Stark's big project outside of The Avengers is Ultron, an army of drone robots that can take the place of The Avengers when it comes to saving the world. He's building Ultron with Bruce Banner and the gem in Loki's scepter provides the computing power to make it work. Unfortunately, it works a little too well, and Ultron, when he becomes self-aware, realizes that he's nothing more than a slave. He resents Stark. He expresses his disdain at The Avengers victory party, crashing it in dramatic fashion. Soon, Ultron is on the loose, where he unites with the Maximoffs. He wants to upgrade himself, and he wants to implement his prime directive, the one given him by Stark: he wants peace. But peace to Ultron comes only when mankind is extinct. The Avengers chase Ultron to Africa, where he's intent on obtaining a huge lot of vibranium (the indestructible metal from which Captain America's shield is made), and then to Korea, where he wants to build his upgraded body. The Avengers fail to stop him in Africa, but they thwart him in Korea, where they take possession of Ultron's "Vision" of his own perfect self. Ultron isn't defeated, though. He returns to Sokovia intent on creating an extinction-level event. The battle for the fate of the world is on...

I think it's probably a mistake to demand anything more of the Marvel movies than the superheroics they provide. That some of their films provide more than that is almost purely accidental even if it is this "more" that provides the best of them with their flavor. If you want pure superhero action, Age of Ultron is your huckleberry. Indeed, it's a film that occasionally tries to mimic the experience of reading a comic book. In the film's opening battle, for instance, Age of Ultron provides the audience with a splash page. This image:

Avengers: Age of Ultron

I laughed when this played across the screen. Indeed, each of our heroes gets a monumental shot in the film that acts as the equivalent of Jack Kirby's occasional double-page spreads, whether it's Black Widow dropping from a quintjet on a motorcycle, Cap using his own motorcycle as a weapon, or The Scarlet Witch striding into the battle after a pep talk from Hawkeye. It's fun. It's fun watching the various members of The Avengers trying to lift Thor's hammer (I love how Black Widow declines the challenge). It's fun listening to Ultron--voiced by a game James Spader--trading quips with Stark. It's fun picking out the oodles of Easter Eggs scattered throughout the film. Fun is something this film provides in abundance. This is never more true than in the fight between The Hulk and Iron Man's Hulkbuster armor. City-wrecking spectacle is a dime a dozen in contemporary Hollywood, so it's a testament to this film's craft that this sequence not only seems substantial, it doesn't come off as masochistic (American disaster films since 2001 always seem masochistic to me). Part of this is the way The Avengers has some fun at the expense of their competitors. In DC/Warner's Man of Steel a couple of years ago, Superman and General Zod level Metropolis without heed to the casualties incurred by the collapsing buildings. In this film, the filmmakers go out of their way to show The Avengers saving lives, either directly, or indirectly by taking the battle away from populated areas. Later in the film, as Ultron levitates his planet-killer (a hunk of rock containing the capital of Sokovia), The Avengers double down on their role as rescuers, even at the expense of their own lives. In doing so, they demonstrate a fundamental difference of philosophy from the Nolan-esque grimdark superhero, a philosophy in which human life is valued over a nihilistic conception of "realism." I would be lying if I said this wasn't appealing to me, because these days I value fun over realism any day.

Avengers: Age of Ultron

I think it's probably a mistake to demand anything more of the Marvel movies than the superheroics they provide, but what the hell, eh? There's actually more here than canned superhero thrills if you care to look. It's a film about choices and their consequences. This is a variant of the Frankenstein myth--or more on point, the Pinocchio myth given the allusions in Ultron's soliloquies--and it's yet another entry into the subgenre of films about the rise of The Singularity. Ultron has real grievances with Stark, and Stark is hardly blameless. He conceived of Ultron as a slave while pursuing a creation with sentience. These two impulses are irreconcilable. It's no wonder Ultron was born mad. Likewise, the enmity of the Maximoffs--who saw their country destroyed by weapons Stark manufactured--is legitimate in the context of the film, but that enmity also has consequences. They're as responsible for Ultron as Stark. They come to realize too late that Audre Lorde was right. You can't dismantle the master's house with the master's tools. In any event, Age of Ultron expands a bit on the Frankenstein archetype by providing not just Stark's fallen angel, but also his Adam. Between Ultron and The Vision, you have the two outcomes of the Singularity in a nutshell: a post-human future in which our offspring destroy us; a post human future in which our offspring forgive us and take from us our best qualities. This is not, as I've said, a cynical movie, so it's inevitable that it chooses hope and mercy to genocide.

This is also a film about legacies and offspring, though its less sure-footed here than it is as a Frankesntein pastiche. Surely The Black Widow's anxieties about motherhood--a choice stripped from her by the Red Room that trained her--stands out in stark contrast to Hawkeye's family life. This bit of backstory has raised some ire in some quarters by reducing the worth of a woman to her role as a breeder, an idea that rings totally false given the nature of the character. It's a blunder for a filmmaker who understood the appeal of the character so well the first time around. The movie compounds this by comparing the Widow to Banner as co-equal monsters, as if people who can't or won't have children are somehow monstrous. And, really, if we look at Ultron as Tony Stark's offspring, then there's your argument for getting your tubes tied right there. This is a dog that won't hunt.

Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron Taylor-Johnson in Avengers: Age of Ultron

One of the things that bothers me a lot about Age of Ultron is the way they've rejiggered the origins of Quicksilver and The Scarlet Witch. Marvel Studios doesn't own the concept of "mutants" thanks to Fox's ownership of the rights to the X-Men, so the new explanation holds that a pair of Romanian Jews who are the children of a Holocaust survivor (Magneto in the comics) would voluntarily submit to medical experiments by a secret organization of Nazis. Sometimes it's best if you don't know any of the backstory of the comics, because this is chock full of cognitive dissonance. This is exacerbated by the fact that Quicksilver appeared in last year's X-Men: Days of Future Past and completely upstaged this film's conception of the character. There's nothing in this film to match the cinematic moxie of the "Time in a Bottle" scene in that film.

The film that this most resembles from the previous Marvel films is Iron Man 2. Like that film, Age of Ultron climaxes with a huge battle with an army of robots. This also follows on the first film in which The Avengers fight an army of aliens. There's a depressing sameness to this. Indeed, such CGI mass battles have become clichéd in the years since they first appeared in The Lord of the Rings. They're weightless anymore, if they ever had any weight to begin with. The effects that bring them to life are old hat. This is a film, like Iron Man 2, where the best scene in the film is early on and consists of two characters going mano a mano rather than vast armies on the march.

Also like Iron Man 2, it's burdened with not only its own story, but by the meta-narrative of the whole series. This is a film that's at least partially tasked with setting up Avengers: The Infinity War and Black Panther. and every time it vacates its main narrative for this purpose, it brings the film to a screeching halt. This is most problematic in Thor's brief absence from the team to seek out the meaning of the dream fugue that torments him under the influence of The Scarlet Witch. This is a side quest that has no relation to the story this film is telling, and even though it provides us with the cinematic glory that is a shirtless Chris Hemsworth, it's a sequence that is blatantly the result of how these films are marketed. However much art goes into them, these films are a product pursuing a specific path to market. They are designed to sell you the other films now that you've shelled out for this one. That there is any art whatsoever is entirely incidental. I'm usually okay with this until the films go out of their way to remind me of it. Which this film does more often than is palatable.

Still and all, I had a good time watching this film. I never discount fun. This isn't a film that assaults the audience with style (a la anything by Michael Bay) or insults the audience's intelligence beyond the conceit of asking adult filmgoers to take Marvel Comics seriously. I can still put myself into the mindset of a ten year old when I set my mind to it. I saw this with a friend and her ten year old boy. It was kind of fun watching him react to the film. It certainly worked its spell on him. In the grand scheme of things I realize that I'm not this film's audience. That I can enjoy it for what it is is the mark of a film that's more generous than it needs to be.

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1 comment:

J.D. Lafrance said...

You make some good points, here and I know what you mean. ULTRON was fun and all but it felt like a bit of letdown after the first AVENGERS movie, which had the novelty of putting all these superheroes who headlined their own movies into one big one, and a more rah-rah, uplifting tone, while this one was more somber and downbeat and the novelty had, of course, worn off.

Another problem I had with this movie was the overcompensation for giving Hawkeye the shaft (har har) in the first AVENGERS movie by putting way-too much of an emphasis on him in this one. Look, I dig Jeremy Renner and all that but it felt like Joss Whedon was overcompensating and as much as I enjoyed the relaxed attitude and character-building of the farm house sequence it felt unnecessary in a lot of ways.

Still, the movie is a lot of fun and has a lot going for it and I found myself enjoying it a lot more upon a second viewing and I'm sure subsequent ones will be even better.