The Avengers: Age of Ultron
based on characters by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby
2015 • 141 minutes • Marvel Studios
A lot of critics—especially those outside of fandom in general and sf in particular—have criticized The Avengers: Age of Ultron for being overstuffed. And that’s true. The crown jewel of Marvel’s Phase Two is stuffed, crammed, and otherwise jam-packed in such a way that, as Captain Cinema told me on our way out of the theater, that it felt like we’d been in that screening room for years. (I can only imagine what the brave souls who endured the twenty-eight hour long While Joss Whedon did succeed in his fanatical desire to make it shorter than The Avengers, but only by sixty seconds. (And that’s not including the extended and alternate endings promised on the DVD.)
But I only think that’s a downside if you’re coming to it from a context that does not value and reward serialization and attention the way that mainstream superhero comics do. Despite DC and Marvel’s intermittent attempts to clean up their universes (behold Marvel’s Ultimates, DC’s All Stars, and this summer’s Convergence and Divergence events at both companies) in order to attract new readers who might otherwise hesitate to leap into a genre that seems like it comes with a lot of homework, that backlog, once you manage to make the initial leap, is actually one of the great delights of comics fandom. (Although you have it to admit, it’s a lot easier with the Internet. I would have never hacked it in pre-Internet fandom, y’all.) As much as Marvel Studios gets deserved flack for the time it spends building the foundation for the next film during the film you’re actually watching, it’s that foundation that makes it great. Not, perhaps, in terms of film (especially standalone films), but in terms of what Marvel Studios is trying to do—it’s trying to recreate great comic book storytelling in a different medium.
For instance, the greatest moment in the film, which was greeted by my audience with a deafening roar of the most gorgeous and pure astonishment that I have ever experienced in my life, builds on all those years of foundation to make a major character beat work so elegantly, efficiently, and poignantly in the space of a single shot that it’s beyond words. (Which would explain the roar.) Without those years of foundation, that moment would play, but not as deeply. It’s the rich rewards of long-term fandom, which the magic that Marvel Cinematic Universe has that other studios are scrambling to capture.
But it’s also the rich frustrations as well. There’s the whitewashing of long-standing characters of color (the Romani Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch are played by white actors here), referring to the Wakandan coast as the African coast (??? An entire continent’s coast isn’t specific, you turds), and, worst of all, fumbling with Black Widow, the franchise’s only lead female character who isn’t tied explicitly to another male character. (And the only major female character who appears in this film; Pepper Potts and Jane Foster are busy off being the best at what they do.) In the context of her larger, heartbreaking emotional arc, I can almost buy what’s happening here. If we left off with Natasha wanting to find out who she is at her core—if she, in fact, even has a core—throwing herself into the Avengers and dealing poorly with her past makes sense. But, nonetheless, this is still a film that ends up equating infertility with being a literal monster.
In short: Captain America: The Winter Soldier, it ain’t. But it retains a significant amount of the DNA that made both that film and The Avengers so engaging—sparkling dialogue (complete with Eugene O’Neill reference), usually fantastic characterization (of course Thor wants to party with the World War II veterans Steve insisted on inviting to the party!), and a determinedly humanistic angle. In stark contrast to the mass civilian casualties of Man of Steel, the third act of The Avengers: Age of Ultron is explicitly about keeping human casualties down to zero. It gives the film’s action sequences a more frantic and morally loaded weight—during the Hulkbuster fight, we get almost as many shots of civilians trying to save themselves as the battle itself.
And as hideously disappointed I am that Wanda Maximoff has been whitewashed (and, on a nerdier note, stripped of her mutant heritage due to studio rights), the film hands both her and Hawkeye a surprising amount of things to do. The film deals perfectly with Hawkeye, from the team constantly teasing him about how they really don’t need him to Whedon’s decision to make him the most normal guy on the team, but Wanda gets the grace note, the main motivation that reminds us that Tony Stark, for all his words, is usually the bad guy, and another motivation that’s a welcome reversal of a long-standing comic book tradition. (An early shot that creepily reverses her motion promises a horror movie vibe to her that is tragically not followed through on.) I’m intrigued to see what will be done with Wanda as we move forward, since the Marvel Cinematic Universe largely shies away from magic (which they explain away as the kind of science that only Jane Foster is smart enough to understand). I just hope both she and Black Widow get more even-handed treatment as we move forward.
I saw this film in theaters.