It’s taken me a long time to write this. It’s not because I had any doubts about how I felt about this movie once I left the theatre the night of the premiere. I was in love with what I saw, and despite some mediocre (by Marvel standards) reviews, everyone who I was with loved the movie as well. This wouldn’t be very significant if I went with a bunch of fellow Marvel nerds. However, I had convinced an absurd amount of people to join me at the premiere, all with varying levels of knowledge of the Marvel Universe. Some of them had joined me for almost all of the movies in the marathon that I embarked on to prepare for the film. Others had only seen Avengers and maybe Iron Man before seeing this, so I thought this spread was pretty good. I loved this movie and others did too.
So, why have critics been hating on the second reunion of the team that they fell in love with in 2013? I was very confused, so I had to see it again.
I saw it again last night, and I think I understand things a little bit better now. I get it, critics. This is a very long movie. There is a lot of fighting. We get it, you can’t remember the names of many of the new characters. It was funny, and Christopher Nolan has trained you into thinking that’s bad from a superhero movie that is otherwise pretty dark. All of these complaints are fair.
However, I think the real critical downfall of this movie is that it has been done before. The official opinion that I have been taking since seeing Age of Ultron is that in five years, and 83 Marvel movies later, we are going to realize that Avengers wasn’t as cool as we thought it was. However, when we had nothing but origin stories to compare it to, it was the biggest superhero movie to every exist. It was the first time that we saw more than two superheroes on the screen together (This point is not well-researched, but all I’m coming up with is Daredevil and Elektra in Daredevil, and any time Batman/Robin/Batgirl, and Joel Shumacher’s Batman and Robin was so abysmal that those three barely account for two whole superheroes).
Avengers felt fresh, new, fun, and innocent. That freshness can’t push Age of Ultron. It isn’t new anymore, it’s fun but feels more organizational than the supposed serendipity of the first attempt. After the phase 2 additions to the Marvel Universe, which is admittedly darker, none of these heroes seems to have very clean hands at this point. So, yeah, the magic of the first movie is waning at this point. Hold the two up to each other now, though, and I think that you will see that the expectations for this movie were placed at a level unfairly set by Avengers.
I don’t want to say that the first movie is garbage, because it most certainly is not, but we know these movies can exist now, which is a large amount of the appeal of the first installation. Whedon and Co. had to do something more with this one. Most importantly, it could not feel like anything that has done by Marvel before.
This is going to be one of the biggest challenges for this franchise as it continues to evolve faster than Ultron (fistbump to those who have seen the movie). Nothing can feel repetitive, or things instantly become less interesting, and people start to head to franchises that require less commitment, like Divergent. And, please, do not turn to Divergent.
Age of Ultron embraces a style of film-making dissimilar from the other movies in a way that I know will go unappreciated by most. This movie feels like a documentary. I didn’t catch it the first time, but I heard an interview where Joss Whedon said that he wanted this to feel like a documentary for the Avengers. On the second viewing, this seemed to be incredibly obvious, and that perhaps makes the two and a half hour movie seem even longer; however, it does offer a unique opportunity for rapid development. Using this style, you can skip the moments that may seem necessary to see the points of import for each character, which helps this cast of around twelve central members all get an equal treatment.
There is not a main character in this movie who I feel remained static. In Avengers, I did not see development in Captain America, Hawkeye or Loki, and that is being pretty generous to Black Widow. I’m fine with this, but it couldn’t happen again.
Hallelujah, because we finally see a developed Hawkeye, a vulnerable Black Widow, Hulk’s lack of belonging, the inner-questioning of Cap, the humbling of Thor, and the desperation of Tony. Not only do we get all of this from the returning cast, but we also are introduced to three new characters: Scarlet Witch (who rivaled Hawkeye as the star of this movie for me), Quicksilver, and the Vision. None of these characters are particularly flat, except maybe the Vision, but you’ll know why if you have seen the movie.
And, finally, we have the best one-film treatment of a villain to date. Obadiah Stain was really cool, and Loki still holds the throne for best villain, but he has also had three movies to develop. Ultron is not afforded this luxury, and must be menacing from the get-go.
A major problem that I have with Avengers is Loki’s planning process. He is never fewer than five steps ahead of the Avengers, and they just luck out that the American military can be trigger happy, or else New York is coming out of that fight looking worse than Metropolis after the Man of Steel “saves” it. He is an unbelievably perfect and stubborn villain. His one moment of vulnerability was just a trick so that he could stab Thor with a butter knife. Ultron is far more broken. He is also entirely more powerful, and this makes his brokenness so much more frightening. As we watch the Avengers try to defeat him, we also get to see his plan develop throughout the film. His motives are much more complex than Loki’s as well. Loki wanted power, a throne. Ultron wants evolution. This is a much harder concept to describe; however, this complexity offers a bit of reality that seemed to be lacking from Loki’s motivation in Avengers.
Perhaps it’s unfair to hold these two offerings up to one another and do a strengths and weaknesses analysis. This isn’t a draft. Nobody should be forced to choose a favorite. However, I’m afraid that the success of this movie is being undermined by its older brother, and dad just won’t shut up about that time he was the quarterback for the state-champion football team. So what, an academic scholarship isn’t as sexy, but it’s doing something, ain’t it!?!?
Unfortunately, I also believe there are bigger concerns at play here. The mistreatment of this movie spells far more danger for the superhero genre as a whole. Marvel movies have begun to take a far more defined stance of serious issues in phase two. Iron Man 3 and The Winter Soldier proved this, and Age of Ultron is no different. The message was elevated from the first movie, the morals of which can be summed up with the statement, “We are stronger together than we are apart.” Not to say this is a bad lesson, but the superhero genre has always portrayed these elementary motifs. It’s good, but there is potential for more. Age of Ultron maybe bites off more than it can chew. It seems to want to convey the cultural destruction that will inevitably occur if we embrace a survival of the fittest mentality in how we interact with others.
If 2014 showed us anything, it revealed that we still live in an oddly messed up world. There is injustice and chaos that exists everywhere. Often our answer to this is one of two fallacies: (1) imposed order is the only answer, or (2) let shit happen, and when the dust settles, we will know who the real winners are. Age of Ultron tries to expose that these approaches always destroy and embraces a hands-on relational means of improving the world around us. This is quite unlike anything a superhero movie has tried to accomplish before and that might make people uncomfortable. What I would hate to see is critics’ response to something new and bold fuel the dumbing down of future projects. The superhero genre is desperately trying to attain a legitimacy that has always been denied to them by tackling these existential issues, and this should not be met with push-back and close-mindedness. The fall from the top can be quick and destructive to the genre, especially when critics are propelling that descent with an inability to adapt with these movies. Watch the movie, and you will see just how dire this is.