Fair warning, this thing is spoiler-central, so it’s going to be under a cut. I recommend reading either A) after you’ve seen the film, or B) if you haven’t seen the film but would like some details on possible triggers that are in it. Because it does have some heavily triggering material in it.
So I went to see the new Marvel movie, Avengers: Age of Ultron this weekend. And I have some thoughts. Also some very loud, angry words to say about it. But we’ll start with the thoughts.
First, the movie, taken completely out of context of the whole Marvel Cinematic Universe and judged as a stand alone film, is pretty decent. It has good pacing, funny jokes, a nice “resting moment” before the climatic ending battle. The camera work is… professional? (Like, there was nothing about it that wowed me, but there wasn’t anything about the angle of the shots or the set up of the scenes that made me want to scream at the screen “WHAT WERE YOU THINKING?” Because believe me, I’ve been very tempted to do that before. Open Gate, looking at you.)
When you put this film back IN context, that’s when things start falling apart. First and foremost, this is supposed to be the second movie in a trilogy of Avengers films. Or at the very least, a sequel to the first. (We all know they’re doing an Avengers 3, but whether or not Marvel is planning on actually framing Avengers as a trilogy is still… well, I think it’s pretty clear that they aren’t, now, after seeing this film. But either way, a trilogy is crafted differently from a sequel, is the point I was trying to get across.) And as a sequel, it’s… well, it’s inconsistent, choppy, and just plain tangential.
First, this film barely follows the first Avengers. Supposing a person hadn’t seen the new Thor, Iron Man 3, or Captain America: The Winter Soldier, you can at least assume the vast majority of the Avengers: Age of Ultron viewers will have seen the first Avengers movie, what with AoU being the sequel to it and all. And yet, that’s not really what we have here. In the first movie, we have “setting up the team,” and “learning to overcome our differences to save the day.” Pretty standard for team movies.
Except in Age of Ultron, it seems we’re still stuck on “learning to overcome our differences.” Which, okay, fine. Except these differences are not the same differences they were trying to overcome in the first movie. Nope, in Age of Ultron, each character has a whole new set of differences and character flaws they have to overcome in order to work together. Flaws that had never been brought up before. Half the time, I was wondering if I had walked into the wrong theater. The characters were so disjointed.
Instead of “I’ve got red in my ledger; I’d like to wipe it out” we have Natasha “I like you for some unknown reason; let’s runaway together” Romanoff. Barton wants to go home to work on his farmhouse which he lives in with his wife and soon-to-be three children (where the fuck did that come from?). Tony will call Captain America “the boss” in one breath and in the very next make plans behind his back to make world-altering tech because “I have to save the day.” Thor, well. Once again, Thor just seems to be in the movie to hit things, which was pretty much what he was in the first Avengers film for. Only Captain America and Bruce seemed to have any sort of character stability from the first movie to the second. But then again, much of Age of Ultron wasn’t about them.
This isn’t an issue of the second film expanding on the world building of the first and causing waves in the fandom. This is an issue of the second film literally re-writing things to make its plot work. And frankly, in every writing class I’ve ever had, that’s a major no-no. You can’t just ret-con your way through a second film, like “forget the first film, this is how I want the characters to be now.” Especially when this a film franchise.
You see, if you’re a writer for a television show, you know that you can’t get away with rewriting the basic structure of the characters to fit your ideas, especially if your rewriting greatly interrupts the flow of the plot arc overall. Your script will get trashed. You may be in temporary control of the vehicle that is the show you’re writing for, but you’re not allowed to crash that car into the tree just because you want to go to Canada while the show is heading for Albuquerque.
I’d imagine that if you’re doing a Marvel film, it ought to be the same way. But apparently not.
Ultimately, what was wrong and grating with the movie was that all the character dynamics were off. Barton was suddenly “the heart and soul of this team” with no real explanation as to how he got to be at that point. Natasha was suddenly in love with Bruce, again with no real explanation or show of her realizing she was in love with him. In fact, when we last left her in the Avengers, she was still terrified of the Hulk but learning to overcome that fear in order to fight alongside him. When did she fall in love with him? When did she decided “hey, this guy is actually like, really, really neat”? We jump straight from “oh god he nearly killed me” to “let’s run away together.”
And Tony, well, Tony went from facing his own mortality and realizing that he, in fact, does play immensely well with others fuck yeah i’m going to turn my ugly ass tower into the avengers HEADQUARTERS to “I’m going to keep stuff that I know is shady behind everyone’s backs except for Bruce’s because he doesn’t count.”
There are so many things off with their characters that I can barely list them all. 1) Natasha should be still wanting to right her past wrongs, not run away. 2) Tony’s whole thing in the first movie was that he treated Bruce like he mattered, and now suddenly he doesn’t count? 3) Tony entire plot arc in the first movie was learning that he was a valuable asset as a team member and he has now apparently forgotten all of that. 4) Barton’s backstory literally comes out of nowhere. If he really had a family waiting for him, wouldn’t we have noticed him pining more for them, considering that he’s pretty much continuously been on mission since the first Thor movie? Not once has it been eluded to the fact he has more of a home life than eating pizza on his couch watching Ninja Warrior with his dog. 5) Why the hell is Bruce giving in so easily to Tony’s schemes? In the first movie he was all about avoiding undue conflict, and now he’s letting Tony manipulate him into doing shit that he knows for a fact will stir up conflict?
And many, many others. Just, ugh, so many.
Not only that, but the whole Ultron thing, both his creation and the character himself, seemed… off to me. His creation seemed very shoehorned in, especially with Tony and all of his reasons for doing so. Protecting the earth? Sure. Artificial intelligence? Totally a Stark thing. But “saving the world by destroying it” (why yes, that’s in the fourth act of the movie, right before the Vision scene) has never been Tony Stark’s style. Tony Stark is way more of “I fixed this problem and accidentally created two more but I’m fixing it I just need time.” Then he’d let Pepper hit the button, knowing him.
No, the whole “I will protect this planet if it means taking away everything to do it” is way more Hank Pym’s style. In fact, the way Tony was acting in the movie, I really thought that it was Hank Pym and they just had Robert Downey, Jr. playing his part. After all, it was Hank Pym that created Ultron in the comics. Was Ant Man supposed to come out before Avengers 2? Because it sure as hell seemed like Hank was supposed to be in the movie and Tony was… on an extended vacation with Pepper, I suppose.
Honestly, I think that would have made more sense.
Not only that, but Ultron was basically just a mix of tropes and one-liners. And maybe it’s because James Spader’s voice rings very clearly through this character, but I kept expecting Ultron to don a fedora and start talking about how he needs to get back to Elizabeth Keen. As a character, there was nothing to suggest that Ultron was even a part of this film franchise, never mind a creation of Tony Stark’s. For all his supposed daddy issues, he acted nothing like Tony, leaving me confused on why he was so hung up on him.
Frankly, it got to the point where I started thinking that maybe what I was watching wasn’t actually an Avengers film but, perhaps, a Buffy film. Maybe Whedon had a plot already that he wanted to go into, what with the “what makes us monsters and what makes us human” themes and imagery going on, that he wanted to do but wasn’t able to do until now. Like he had a story pre-made and he just shoved the Avengers characters, plus this handy-dandy Avengers villain, in to tell it. Pretty sure Barton was supposed to be Xander, is what I’m saying. (Does that make Widow Willow? I think Tony is actually supposed to be Buffy.)
Mind you, all of this is only taking in the comparison of the first Avengers movie with this one. When you take into account the rest of the franchise movies, the characterization becomes even more disjointed. Whedon pretty much ignored everything that happened in Iron Man 3, and made only the barest attempts at keeping up with Captain America 2. (As usual, Whedon seems completely baffled with what to do with Thor, thus regulating him to Bruiser with Occasionally Funny One-Liners position.)
One of the things that really grated on me was the near character assassination that Whedon did with Tony Stark. Whedon hadn’t exactly shown himself to be that great at continuing a character from one franchise to another (like his blundering attempts at writing Steve Rogers in the first Avengers film), but it seems pretty obvious that Tony Stark has gone through a hell of a maturation period in his own films. Films, which, it’s reasonable to expect a good chunk of your audience to have seen, what with the superhero industry being as incestuous as it is. You’d think that Whedon would account for Tony’s characterization as it’s presented in the Iron Man franchise when attempting to make an Avengers film, but once again, I’m apparently mistaken.
It’s clear that, in the Iron Man films, that Tony has two main personas. There’s the person that he is when he’s in front of a camera, when he’s acting for a crowd or a charity or in front of congress. He’s brash. He’s rude. He’s a womanizer. He’s the kind of guy that would make a sexist comment or a rape joke. But then, there’s the person that he is when he’s safe, at home, with friends. He’s not the rude, womanizing playboy in front of his friends. He’s frequently vulnerable and even, at times, teddy-bear-ish.
We don’t see that here in Age of Ultron at all. What we get is brash, womanizing “I’m putting on a show for Congress” Tony that makes a rape joke in front of his colleagues. Even worse, is that no one seems to call him out on it, and Steve Rogers is sitting right there. So is Thor. So, might I add, is Natasha and Maria Hill, two of the most dangerous woman on the planet. There’s no rebuke.
(Also, along the same lines, with that whole hammer scene, I felt like Whedon missed a great opportunity to put Thor in his place and have another Barton joke, which Whedon seems so fond of. Why didn’t Barton very subtly mention that when he first met Thor that Thor couldn’t pick up the hammer either? Seems to me that A) that’s something Barton would do and B) it would humanize Thor and make him seem less of a jack ass, considering that this scene occurs about 12 minutes into the movie.)
Worse yet, was the terrible romance subplot this film subjected us to. Like I had mentioned above, Natasha suddenly gains a love interest–in Bruce. Why? We don’t know. When did this happen? Also unanswered. We are, as an audience, asked to come in and accept that “they’re totally, like, in love now” with all the sparkly gel pens and hearts over the I’s that that suggests. The rest of the movie was shaky enough as it is; with this romance in there, it definitely reads like terrible fanfiction. “Let’s give Bruce a girlfriend! A redhead! Won’t that be neat?” Just no.
If you wanted a romance plot, maybe try to make an organic one? Like Bruce could maybe have a crush on Dr. Cho, or vice versa. Or maybe a continuation of the Romanoff/Barton flirtation we saw in the first Avengers. Or hell, maybe Betty could have shown back up.
Even the actors (Johansson and Ruffalo) seemed like they getting their teeth pulled as opposed to falling in love every time the romance subplot came up. Dear lord, it was bad.
My friend who saw it with me said she felt like Whedon was punishing Johansson for getting pregnant by making her character be so stilted. I’m not sure I quite agree (that seems maliciously specific as opposed to just lazy writing), but I don’t disagree either. I might even go as far as to say her pregnancy was probably a factor. Either way, it was terrible and a lot of the theater was groaning in agony or shouting muffled curses of bafflement whenever they came on screen.
Also, it has to be brought up, but this movie is hands down the most misogynist of Marvel’s entire line. It’s hard to escape internalized sexism, especially in superhero movies where one of the most basic of tropes is “save the damsel in distress,” but this movie crosses the line from internalized to pretty much blatantly on the screen. Which is kind of said, because wasn’t just a few years ago Whedon was lauding himself as such a great feminist?
First, we get the obligatory “high brow misogynistic rape joke” that Whedon is pretty much known for making. Tony makes a quip about how if he picks up Mjolnir he gets to rule Asgard, and when he does he’s going to reinstate prima nocta. Prima nocta means “first night,” a law in Rome that meant a ruler could take the “first night of the wedding” usually meaning the virginity of any of their subjects. And it’s definitely take. So right off the bat, Whedon is making a rape joke, and assassinating Tony’s character to do it (see above, re: Tony isn’t acting like he’s around friends, he’s acting like he’s around senators.)
Second blatantly misogynistic thing (and the one that actually triggered me while I was in the theater, making the rest of the scenes incredibly uncomfortable and left me shaking for hours afterwards, I might add) is the ‘sterilization’ scene. I’ve heard quite a few people railing against Whedon (or whomever else) who decided to sterilize Natasha, but to be honest, that’s not so much a big issue for me. The Red Room has done horribly shitty things to its “ballerinas”–sterilization is just another horribly shitty thing. It once again paints The Red Room as this another evil thing doing awful things to women. Fine.
What set me off was the fact that Natasha tells Bruce this, then says “So I guess we’re both monsters.”
What. The actual. Fuck.
And for those of whom who haven’t seen the movie, Natasha is not referencing the people she’s killed or the things she had done under The Red Room’s orders. The scenes was pretty clear. Bruce knew some of her assassin training. Natasha says, “Here’s something you didn’t know” and explains how she was sterilized to make her a better operative. THEN she says “So I guess we’re both monsters,” clearly indicating that she is a monster BECAUSE SHE CANNOT HAVE CHILDREN.
No no no no no. Fuck no.
And what’s worse, is that there was no platitude from Bruce, like “of course you’re not a monster” or ANYTHING. He just stares blankly at her. Then the movie moves on, as if we’re supposed to agree with the assessment that if you used to possess a uterus (or still do) and cannot have children, that makes you less than human. That it makes you a monster. Like, what the actual flying fuck, Joss Whedon? How the HELL is this okay?
What’s worse, is that this isn’t some quip said by a writer or actor or director while walking down the red carpet. This isn’t something that someone said during an interview, or off the cuff. This was in a movie. Which meant that it was written into the script, which had been edited. Then rehearsed. Then filmed. Then edited again. There was plenty of time for someone to go “You know what? This line is not okay.” And it still made it to the final cut.
Seriously. What the fuck.
Lastly, there are a lot of pretty racist overtures when it comes to the twins, what with the white-washing and turning them into Hydra a/k/a Nazis. Like, okay, I actually really really liked that, through them, they presented this idea of America just butting its big nose into shit and fucking it up–because yeah, our foreign policy is STILL “we have the biggest sticks and we love to ambitiously hit you with them all the time.” So, in the beginning when they were setting up the twins’ back story, I thought “oh hey, we’re actually going to talk about how the rest of the world would view the Avengers.”
But then… they didn’t. Not really. They had very white-washed twins with moderately bad accents portraying “Eastern-Europeans.” (I put the term in quotations, because they’re from “Sokovia” which does not exist. However, the film and much of the MCU has lead audiences to believe that it’s a country in Eastern Europe.) If you’ve only seen the movies, you wouldn’t have any idea that Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver are anything but the incredibly pale persons (like, super pale. Is Olsen okay? Has someone checked to make sure she’s getting enough iron?) the film makes them out to be. But Wanda and Pietro Maximoff have a long and rich history in the comics, notably being romani and part-jewish on their father’s side.
Now, I get why Marvel, for this film, couldn’t delve into their father’s history, what with Fox owning all those rights. I actually quite liked the “we volunteered for weird experiments because we wanted to be stronger soldiers to protect our country and oh hey, now we have super powers” thing. It was a nice mirror on Captain America. What I didn’t like, was that this film had a great opportunity to tell that same story using already established PoC characters, characters which, had they actually been romani may have actually made for a stronger narrative (what with the whole “the entire world thinks we are nothing but something to stomp, but we will stand strong and protect our people” theme they were going for with them). But no. They decided to forgo such a decidedly effective method of storytelling and cast white people. There is absolutely nothing about the twins’ story in that movie that made it necessary for them to be white. In fact, there is ample evidence that their story would be more effective, better, stronger if they were PoC. But Marvel made them white anyway.
That did not sit well with me at all.
ALL THAT BEING SAID, there were some things that I did like. I liked Vision. I liked that he was all sparkly and new and low-key excited about going outside like a puppy who’s trying not to show that he’s over-eager. I liked Vision saving Wanda at the end, mostly because I love Billy Kaplan and I hope that Marvel will eventually be doing a Young Avengers film in some form or fashion. I liked that the twins hated Tony Stark because their family was killed by a Stark Industries bomb, and that they had to face their own weaponization when Ultron starts going on about destroying things. I liked that Tony and Thor had a near-drunken contest of “who has the better girlfriend.” I liked the random Barton jokes. (“NO ONE WOULD KNOW.”)
But those things still don’t out weigh all the shit that went terribly terribly wrong in this film. And it certainly doesn’t make up for the fact that Natasha calling herself a monster because she was sterilized triggered the fuck out of me.
So all in all, Avengers: Age of Ultron was actually kind of a shit show of a film, and made me confused and angry more often than it made me laugh.
I give it… maybe 1 star out of 5.