I think it’s safe to say a solid fraction of the American Empire went and saw the Avengers: Age of Ultron last night. In retrospect, this might have been a bad idea in light of how crowded movie theaters tend to be, yet I don’t think this dampened or interfered with my experience overall. I can tune other people out just fine. What I couldn’t tune out was the movie, which by about halfway through, I honestly was trying to do. I’d say this movie has plainly exposed the cracks and fissures in the Marvel Universe and how it is likely to fall apart at the seams. Not only did I have to sit through three or four identical trailers for some other superhero movies that did not interest me whatsoever (yes, that includes Jurassic World), but I had to sit through a two-hour-long trailer for another five years of this shit. God.
If you had to ask me, I’d wager Joss Whedon probably got more a lot more creative freedom on this movie than he had on the first Avengers. Since the vomit-inducing disaster that was Dollhouse, I thought humanity had learned not to let Joss Whedon run amok in a studio unsupervised. I guess not. Whedon, much like his partner-in-crime J. J. Abrams, has some really great ideas and a unique style that can make a movie unforgettable if applied intelligently, but much like their mentor, George Lucas, they need adults to keep their darker impulses in line and remind them what a good movie actually looks like. That did not happen this time around. The result is a two-hour-long mess of endless, boring action scenes, half-hearted character development, an almost comical villain, disjointed themes, horrible philosophy, and an ending that makes you unsure if anything of substance really happened when all was said and done, triggering a neverending cycle of existential angst.
Let me address a complaint/apology I’ve already heard from people about AoU: “you had to follow Agents of SHIELD and the Winter Soldier to really get it.” Okay, 1) that’s a really shitty way of handling your franchise’s universe, and 2) no, you didn’t. I had enough knowledge on the EHMAZING plot twists and developments that I knew vaguely that Hydra was Shield (somehow) and that Hydra are the bad guys. That’s really all I needed to know. I didn’t feel like I was lacking too much on the backstory, to be honest. Sure, the movie opens in some stupidly-named fake city in Eastern Europe (as opposed to the many real cities in Eastern Europe with amazing scenery and rich histories they could have easily made use of) with the Avengers beating up some Hydra guys whom I’ve never seen before and couldn’t care less about. They also don’t speak Russian/Serbian/Ukrainian/Whatever despite being obviously Slavic and surrounded by Slavic people, but none of that mattered because I knew what Loki’s scepter was and how valuable it could be. Past that, any information about Hydra and whatever didn’t seem to be and didn’t turn out to be anything important. The movie’s plot was decently contained to its own scenes, so I don’t hold this against it. I have the whole rest of the movie to do that.
So, surprise, they get the scepter and clean out the Hydra base. Here the movie starts to break down, specifically the scene where Scarlet Witch messes with Stark’s mind. Not only was it very poorly done in terms of cinematography, but the movie had no sense of what kind of thematic continuity it wanted to achieve. After watching this scene, I assumed the movie would be a little more psychological and focus on the Avengers’ deepest fears and weaknesses. Buuuut nope. The movie had one scene in Stark’s head and that was it. There was no follow-up, i.e., no thematic bridge. This is not trivial; it was the crippling flaw of the whole film. It’s especially relevant afterward: while all the We-Can-Build-Ultron-We-Have-The-Technology scenes were happening, I had no idea that Scarlet Witch’s nightmares were influencing Stark. He just seemed totally normal, talking with Banner and making his cutesy-wootsy chit-chat with him. The movie didn’t reinforce or deliver on what it tried to set up, as if it had no idea what it wanted to set up in the first place. A simple way to do this would’ve been to have other flashbacks in Stark’s head while he’s analyzing the Scepter’s data or whatever and have him mutter to himself. Show him sweating or agitated, then maybe have Banner come in and have Stark lightheartedly brush him off or even shoo him away, etc. See what I mean? Instead, post facto I have to be told that his nightmare was what drove him to make a mistake, but even that theme of hubris falls apart immediately, because it’s very clear that Stark had nothing to do with Ultron’s emergence. He was at a fucking party when the whole thing was happening. So instead of feeling angry or betrayed by Stark as a viewer or sympathizing with his humanity, I have no investment in what’s happening period.
Then, since these movies can’t possibly sit still and let things percolate for five seconds, they have to jump to a whole number of subplots and stilted character developments that just seem to come out of nowhere. Let’s take Romanov and Banner’s little romance. Was there ever any sort of hint of attraction between the two characters before suddenly right now? I mean, we didn’t have any real time to get to know these characters in that way since the Avengers came out. My point is that it felt slapped on. Like, with freaking kindergarten glue. Maybe I’m missing something because I’m gay and I don’t find either Romanov or Banner physically attractive, but it just didn’t work for me at all. I was bored during these scenes. If you really want to make a film about character development, then make the film about character development. You cannot have your cake and eat it too. This movie tried and ended up puking on the floor. Another way it did this was during the party scenes: there were people here I had never seen and didn’t care about either. Who’s this guy joking about the tank and the general? Who’s the random Korean lady whose name they said, like, once? Why am I supposed to be laughing? In contrast, one of the best scenes in the film was the post-party scene with them all trying to pick up Thor’s Hammer. This fit well and was done well, not to mention it had a clear thematic connection to the idea of teamwork and camaraderie. Maybe I was being too hard on the movie initially. Maybe things will get better.
Buuut Ultron shows up. Sigh, Ultron. What happened to you? Oooh, artificial intelligence is scary, I guess. Seriously, though, Ultron was the least-compelling villain I’ve ever seen in a Marvel film, hampered most by, again, not knowing what he wanted to be. Wasn’t he supposed to this massive machine intelligence that could protect the world on his own? Then why did he just seem like a random, wisecracking asshole without the imposing presence or intellect such a character would naturally have? Then we find out that he’s kinda like Stark for…some…reason, but he hates being compared to Stark for…some…reason. Then he hates humanity for…some…reason. Like, why? Why did he get that way? Why did Stark build a homicidal Hal? Why did anything of this shit happen the way it did? What was his motivation? What did humanity do to Ultron to piss him off so much? What did…geez. Oh, wait, we’re moving on. Ultron’s gotten away with the Scepter, because all these people are useless until they aren’t. Then the cracks start widening into fissures and my eyes gloss over to protect themselves.
What do I mean by that? I mean we have to sit through another ninety minutes of uncompelling action scenes. Who else was bored after the first five minutes of the Avengers tearing robots to shreds? Well, I was bored two minutes into it. Suck on that, nerds. I couldn’t take Ultron’s little minions seriously at any point during the film; they were about as effective as the Trade Federation’s droids. On that note, did anyone notice how all the major flaws in this movie are eerily parallel to that of the Star Wars Prequels? I can’t help but notice this: no thematic consistency, bland characters, a weird plot, a bad villain, an overemphasis on action scenes with cheap enemies that nobody cares about, a stilted, awkward romance, etc. The salt in the wound was how the cinematography was just…bad. Everything was so fast and wildly shot that I couldn’t even enjoy the action because my eyes were barely keeping up with it. It would’ve been nice if I’d had, oh, an extra second here or there to process that cool combo Thor and Captain America did. That would’ve made the movie a bit more fun, and fun was what the movie lacked most of all. What’s that sound? Oh, it’s a million rabid Joss Whedon fans wagging their tongues about how witty their self-styled idol is. A snarky jab here and there does not make a movie fun. I said the lack of thematic continuity was what sunk the film and I meant it: the movie was trying so hard to be “dark” that everything just felt depressing. Everything felt gloomy, morose, and suppressed. Some of that was just the lack of originality in the delivery too, considering they obviously took out a clipboard with “Things we have to have in a Marvel movie” and went right through it. One of the worst was Captain America’s very-not-inspiring speech that we’ve seen a thousand times before. Hey, I have a nice way to subvert that: after having a bunch of thoughtful, psychological character development scenes that end in some sort of painful yet meaningful triumph for the team’s cohesion, have Captain just kinda peter out and go like “Yeah, you know the drill.”
Nope. Instead, we go to Africa, where we meet the Maksimov twins and learn how not to pronounce Slavic names. It’s MahkSEEmuhf, not MACKsimahf, you ignorant morons. Anyway, Ultron finds a random group of beached container ships somewhere and misses a very obvious opportunity to use a slaveship metaphor. Did nobody else catch this? I mean, there’s a fucking greedy-ass white guy overseeing a bunch of African people working for nothing in a cramped ship with poor lighting. Maybe Ultron might’ve been more compelling had he explained his misanthropy a bit, particularly with such a low-hanging fruit hitting him in the face. Yawn. Ultron wants the McGuffinanium that will do something that we don’t understand but probably don’t need to regardless. As the movie demands, the Avengers show up and fight in this confusing, industrial environment with yet another set of really disjointed scenes that drag on for ten minutes. Then, finally, Scarlet Witch does her thing to all the Avengers and makes them go all crazy in their very pretty heads. This was the most interesting part of the movie and the one I was expecting and anticipating: psychological thriller roles! Yay! Then I was expecting the battle to peter out and the focus would shift over to all the Avenger’s nightmares. I may have been drunk at the time to expect something so natural to proceed from this, because what I got was twenty-ish minutes of typical disaster porn in which somehow nobody dies, which completely ruins the impact of the disaster porn. Another suggestion, Joss: how about you have Iron Man and Hawkeye running around the city trying to gather up the rampaging Avengers spliced in with inner scenes that show what’s tormenting them and driving them to such madness? Instead of wasting so much screentime on a boring fight between the Iron Man and the Hulk, one we know Stark is going to win, how about you cut to Banner waking up from his own nightmare and beholding the devastation he has just unwittingly inflicted upon New New Mombasa? That would make this half-hour, you know, exciting?
We have now reached the obligatory lowpoint of the film with the Avengers, again, running away with their tails between their legs after a defeat. Yawn. Our course this time takes us to…some random house in backwoods Americana, where we meet Hawkeye’s lovely wife and children that the movie took all of four seconds to set up or hint at. Was this ever mentioned in the Winter Soldier or another film I missed? I dunno, nor do I think anyone would’ve remembered anyway. This, again, is the perfect opportunity and environment for some rumination and psychological focus on the Avengers’ inner demons as it affects their teamwork, so of course it doesn’t happen. Thor eschews spending time with the team and building up his relationship with them, opting to go off to shoehorn into the movie a tie-in to the larger Marvel Universe that ended up proving totally unnecessary. Captain America sulks and whines at Stark about how he didn’t tell the team about something he didn’t even know was possible nor could they have possibly understood on a practical level even if he had, so this scene falls on its face. He also wonders why Stark doesn’t want to talk about what happened between them the night before, even though it was the most magical moment ever and Stark was so wonderful and blah blah, ha ha, gay jokes about Stark and Captain’s sexual tension or something. Romanov and Banner note about how their barely-established relationship is practically impossible, which is why no one cares about what they’re saying here. Then Romanov wastes her potential nightmare arc by talking about–not showing–that she was sterilized and thus can’t be a mom, because that’s what all women really want to be, right? Mommies.
This is another rabbit trail I want to talk about, namely the irritating misogyny in these films. Why do all the female characters in this franchise suck? Yon Black Widow doesn’t cut it anymore, particularly after we find out her BIG INNER REGRET is not being able to have children. Really? Not Budapest? Not any of the mental torture she was subjected to as a child? Not being forced to be an assassin that kills people with no normal life? Really. Okay. Also, can we have at least one other female Avenger? Scarlet Witch does not count. She was a B-character with nothing of substance beyond her relationship with her brother, whose death was so weirdly done and so pathetically telegraphed that I was chuckling when the dramatic music started playing. Considering almost no time was devoted to either Scarlet Witch or Quicksilver to begin with, I wouldn’t have cared had I known more about her anyway. We could’ve found out about their backstory in a more creative way than having Quicksilver talk about it in a totally-not-native Slavic accent. I should also note those two characters are idiots, being unable to suspect the towering, red-eyed machine monstrosity that’s talking about “extinction” and “evolution” in such foreboding terms. Eventually Scarlet Witch has to be shown a literal vision of an extinction level event to figure out that Ultron might be a bad guy. Does her English suck that bad? What did she think he wanted to do? Make cupcakes?
After wasting another twenty minutes of time not focusing on the inner troubles of a film that is clearly trying to spin itself around the theme of inner troubles, Mace Windu shows up literally out of nowhere (how did he get to the house? What mode of transportation did he use to get there? Was he waiting there in Hawkeye’s barn for weeks waiting for the Avengers to arrive?) and gives another speech about how the Avengers need to come together, an issue the previous Avengers film had already addressed and resolved. Now it feels tacked on and cliche, because the movie didn’t bother to provide us with the thematic experience it thinks it wants us to absorb. Then the movie just kinda totally forgets about this whole psychothriller aspect and whisks us all off to South Korea to go chase after Whats-her-face (you write such strong female characters, Joss). Ultron is there with the McGuffinanium to build a new body that he clearly doesn’t need but really wants for some reason. This is also ironic, since he babbles on about evolving and how “nothing but metal will be left alive” after his new iteration on Zechs Marquise’s Armageddon Remake–all while lusting after some bullshit mechano-organic hybrid body. The Avengers show up to stop this inexplicable dastardly plan, and the Smirnov twins realize they’ve been working for a monster who looks very much like a monster and has never hidden the fact that he’s a monster. The telegraphed allegiance shift out the way, away we go: time for a truck chase scene through Seoul in which amazing amounts of mayhem and destruction happen, yet nobody dies or even suffers a paper cut. Alas, all bad things must come to an end.
Back to the Halls of Justice, which Ultron doesn’t decide to attack even though he knows exactly where Avenger Tower is, has successfully attacked it before, and had a major hard-on for dat body that he immediately loses all interest in. To ensure Joss Whedon doesn’t have to write any more scenes involving women for a while, Black Widow is captured, locked up, then left alone and unmonitored to jury-rig a radio. Like, Ultron doesn’t even torture her or tackle her psychological issues, again missing another obvious opportunity to establish a theme. The Avengers disagree over whether or not to put Jarvis into the magical body of magic. For some reason. Jarvis has, after all, done nothing but serve the Avengers faithfully and even protect the Internet from Ultron without even knowing about it, but apparently everyone is mad at Stark for the thing that was clearly not his fault and doesn’t want to use the obvious weapon they need to give them a critical edge against Ultron, who is trying to make humanity extinct. Who is doing what? Why? Why does everyone hate AI so much? Stuff happens, glass shatters (shattered glass apparently does not cut human skin), and Thor shows up after his cold spa day to force this plot to move forward. Jarvis melds with the magical body and has a really awkward scene where he kinda-sorta-maybe explains who the fuck he is and what his motivations are. Then they mention the Mindstone, which is the dumbest and laziest name for a magical gem ever, rendering Thor’s spa day utterly pointless except for the fact that we got to see him without his shirt on. I dunno. Let’s get this ending sequence over with.
We return to Not-Moldova and find out that Ultron has been building an army of Iron Man suits based off the equipment the Avengers apparently did not bother to clean out or destroy after their successful raid, something which would’ve prevented this scenario from happening. We also find out that Ultron’s grand plan is to induce an extinction-level event by turning Not-Moldova into a comet, which begs the question as to what was the point of the whole rest of the movie. Why didn’t he just do this in the beginning? What purpose did the McGuffinanium serve? What is going on? So the movie cops out and doesn’t make rescuing Romanov a thing. Banner just kinda rescues her awkwardly and then…I dunno. They attack, and they fight the robots, and people scream, and the town lifts off, and Magic-Jarvis barely participates, and Mace Windu shows up with a helicarrier that nobody noticed at all or heard coming even though it’s propelled by giant-ass fans that crush all life on the surface below them, and Scarlet Witch blows things up, and they say witty things, and people kinda-sorta get paper cuts but don’t really die, and Quicksilver dies and nobody cares, and they save the day as expected. So. Fucking. Boring. I was laughing at the big scene where Ultron’s minions were fighting the Avengers while Ultron was just standing there doing, like, absolutely nothing, even though he could’ve just flown in during the confusion, hit the McGuffinthingie, dropped the comet, and won. The movie honestly thought two minutes of confusing action in which the Avengers totally dominate their foe without any struggle would be exciting. Maybe it was exciting for the five-year-olds in the audience, but I was about ready to pass out. Then everything is fine and dandy and that’s somehow supposed to mean something to me.
Finally, to twist the knife in the wound, we have to sit through a scene where the last one Iron Man Suit with Ultron in it talks with Magic-Jarvis so that Joss Whedon can have his chance to spin his quasi-pacifist, semi-misanthropic bullshit. I will pay someone money to go find a cardboard tube and shove it down Whedon’s throat every time he tries to write something that is not cutesy-witty. Joss Whedon, you are not the scion of Socrates. Make up your mind: either humans suck or they don’t. Either humans are worth it or they’re not. Don’t feed me this high-school rhetoric about how “there is grace in their failings” and all this nonsense. It is not convincing. This scene was so awkward and contradictory that I didn’t understand what happened. Nothing Ultron said made sense; nothing Magic-Jarvis said made sense either. So nobody was right or wrong, and I had no idea how to feel. Cut to the end scene where we are apparently exactly where we were at the end of the last Avengers movie, bringing the relentless cycle of existential dread to a close: Thor runs off for another spa-day even though we all know he’s gonna come back, Banner runs off to Fiji even though we all know he’s gonna come back, Stark talks about retiring even though we all know he’s going to come back, and Black Widow and Captain start training more Avengers. Yay. Was that all worth two hours of my time?
No, it wasn’t.
But you know what is?
Video games. Sweet, sweet video games.