I wrote up my thoughts about Avengers: Age of Ultron immediately after having seen the film last Sunday while I was in Reno. Originally, I was going to post everything Monday, but ultimately decided I'd "sit on it" for a couple days in case I had new thoughts upon further reflection. "Days" turned into a "week" because new information kept leaking out about the film. Information that had direct bearing on my comments.
And so now there are a couple comments on my comments.
Which makes me wish I had just posted everything last Monday as originally planned, because that would have been a lot less work.
I am a huge, huge, huge fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
A Marvel movie has topped my list of favorite films every year since I started making lists... Iron Man 2 in 2010, Captain America and Thor in 2011, The Avengers in 2012, Iron Man 3 in 2013, and Guardians of the Galaxy in 2014. My guess is that Iron Man would have topped my list in 2008 (if I had one back then), and it seems inevitable that Avengers 2: Age of Ultron (or possibly Ant Man) will top it this year. These films are a dream come true for a long-time comic book geek like me, and Marvel seems incapable of making a misstep with their various franchises.
At least from the "big-picture" perspective. But I'll get to that in a minute.
Avengers: Age of Ultron is a mind-bogglingly huge film that defies a quick description, so I'm not even going to try. Instead, I'll just reprint the official description thusly: "When Tony Stark and Bruce Banner try to jump-start a dormant peacekeeping program called Ultron, things go horribly wrong and it's up to Earth's Mightiest Heroes to stop the villainous Ultron from enacting his terrible plans."
(UPDATE COMMENT: And the result is going to end up being one of the most successful movies of all time)...
And, for the most part, I loved it.
It's a highly entertaining effort that has some of the most ambitious and mid-blowing action sequences ever put to film.
But it's not without its problems.
Which I get into in an extended entry. Needless to say, spoilers will ensue...
Before I begin, I feel compelled to mention that the title of the film is taken from a comic book maxi-series by Brian Michael Bendis from 2013. And yet it's an entirely different story that bears no resemblance to the source material. This is probably a good thing, because I found the comic book a bit uneven. In some places it felt rushed and oddly incomplete... in others it was plodding, bordering on tedious with an ending you could see from miles away. As if that weren't reason enough to go in a different direction, many of the key characters (like Wolverine) aren't available to Marvel Studios, having been licensed away to other companies.
And off we go...
As the movie begins, Earth's Mightiest Heroes are hell-bent on retrieving Loki's magical scepter (from the first Avengers film) and track it down to a HYDRA base in the fictional Eastern European country of Sokovia. It's much too powerful and dangerous to be left in the hands of mere mortals, so Thor is quite serious about getting it off the earth.
Unfortunately for the Avengers, their efforts are hampered by the evil Baron Strucker, who has been infusing people with energy from the scepter to give them super-powers. His only(?) success story is with "The Twins"... Pietro and Wanda Maximoff... who volunteered for experimentation after their parents were killed by Stark weaponry. Pietro (AKA Quicksilver) has super-speed and Wanda (AKA Scarlet Witch) has the ability to manipulate energy in the form of physical blasts or telekinesis. She also has limited telepathy and the ability to manipulate minds by clouding them with a person's darkest fears.
AN ASIDE: I would be remiss if I didn't mention that this depiction of Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch is quite different than what you get in the comic books. In the source material, Pietro and Wanda are mutants... the next evolution of humanity, and developed their powers naturally (UPDATE COMMENT: Except not any more, as it turns out). But since 20th Century Fox owns all rights to the X-Men and, by extension, mutants, writer/director Joss Whedon had to take a different approach. He chose to tie their origin to previous Marvel Cinematic Universe events, and I think his solution was a very good one. Though I sure wish Wanda's powers weren't so deus ex machina to the plot, the whole "mental manipulation" stuff conveniently coming from nowhere because Joss needed a story beat.
Despite Scarlet Witch using her powers to enchant Black Widow, Iron Man, and Thor, The Avengers prevail and recover the scepter... only because Wanda determines that Tony (whom she hates for making the weapons that orphaned her) will destroy himself with it. Sure enough, Stark then convinces Thor to let him run some test on the artifact, which results in him finding out that the gemstone powering the scepter contains a highly advanced artificial intelligence. Thinking this might be the key to powering his plans for a global "Ultron" defense network, he convinces Bruce Banner to help him download the AI. Chaos ensues when Ultron overtakes Tony's J.A.R.V.I.S. AI (which has been much loved since he first appeared way back in the first Iron Man) and decides (rightly) he needs to inhabit one of Stark's robots and eliminate all of humanity to save the planet. To do so, he steals the scepter and takes over Iron Man's "Iron Legion" manufacturing equipment so he can create scores of Ultron Drones to do his bidding.
So far as plots go, so far so good. Whedon got James Spader to voice Ultron, which is about all he needed to do. Spader can read the frickin' phone book and make it sound compelling, so the hard part of defining the movie's "villain" was done. The only thing that rubs me the wrong way is the utter stupidity of, once again, having totally alien technology somehow being compatible with earth-based computers (shades of Independence Day, Batman!). It's a plot point that never works well because it makes so little sense.
And then things kind of went off the rails for me.
Ultron ends up convincing Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch to work with him to destroy The Avengers. Which seems utterly bizarre. Even given the context of a sci-fi/fantasy epic like Age of Ultron, who in their right mind thinks that teaming up with a giant evil robot ends well? I guess an argument could be made that their lives in Sokovia kept them sheltered from every evil robot book/movie ever made, but it still seems a huge stretch that Pietro and Wanda would ignore something as obvious as "never trust an evil robot," even as a tool for revenge.
But trust him they do, so off they go to Africa so they can purchase a ship-load of vibranium from arms dealer Ulysses Klaue to make an invulnerable body from which Ultron can rule the planet. Vibranium also being the metal from which Captain America's indestructible shield is made.
AN ASIDE: Here is where Marvel brings Black Panther, super-hero ruler of Wakanda, to the Marvel Cinematic Universe... even if they don't show him directly. It also sets things up for super-villain "Klaw" (as "Klaue") and his sonic-powers to eventually show up. And while Whedon did it with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer, I still think it ultimately worked. Even if it was a tad distracting from the story.
When the Avengers inevitably show up to stop Ultron, Scarlet Witch turns her powers on The Hulk, which causes him to flee and then tear apart Johannesburg. An awesome battle with a Hulk-Buster Iron Man suit ensues. As does one of the best action sequences of the film. An action sequence so destructive that it makes the world turn against The Avengers. Thinking they need to lie low for a while, Hawkeye flies everybody to his safe house (a farm in the countryside)... which comes complete with a wife and kids. This is a really nice turn for Jeremy Renner, whose character spent almost the entirety of the first Avengers movie being a mind-controlled stooge (which Hawkeye acknowledges earlier in a beautiful Whedonesque moment).
And it's at this point that the movie shits the bed.
Though it's probably not Joss Whedon's fault.
In order to set up future Marvel Films... primary of which is the two-part Avengers: Infinity War, the Infinity Gems are finally named by name. Which is not a bad thing except for how they did it: Thor flies off and convinces Erik Selvig to watch him take a bath. Yes, you read that right, a frickin' bath! Granted, it was a bath in magical waters that somehow allow Thor to access the visions he had while enchanted by Scarlet Witch, but come on! A magic bath? Really? This idiocy was shoehorned into the film so badly that one has to wonder if Joss Whedon was forced to do it at gun-point (UPDATE COMMENT: Sure enough, he was).
More copious amounts of bed-shitting were had as we watch Black Widow share a tender moment with Bruce Banner, who's now her boyfriend... I guess (no clue where this leaves Bruce Banner's long-time girlfriend in the comics, Betty Ross). Which has no real purpose for the story except to set-up even more future Marvel films by taking The Hulk out of the picture later on. But no worries... I'm sure he'll be back in Avengers: The Infinity War. Or perhaps a Planet Hulk film, which would be awesome.
Eventually Nick Fury shows up to give a pep-talk and pull the team together. Which is a good thing, because Ultron has now globe-hopped to Seoul so he can use the scepter to compel The Avengers' personal doctor, Helen Cho, to use her tissue-creation technology to make him that dreamy indestructible vibranium body he's always wanted (assumably so he can survive the end of the world?). As if that weren't enough balls in the air, meanwhile-meanwhile we have Tony Stark jetting off to some secret "heart of the internet" access point called "NEXUS" to find out what's preventing Ultron from gaining access to the world's nuclear arsenal and simply blowing up the earth to eliminate all mankind.
SPOILER ALERT: Turns out it's the J.A.R.V.I.S. AI that's keeping Ultron away from the nukes. Which means Ultron is just going to have to find another way to end it all.
But Ultron will have a hard time doing so without his cool new indestructible bio-mechanical body, so The Avengers make plans to steal it before he can upload his consciousness to it. Which is kinda hokey, but it gives Black Widow some awesome screen-time, so I try to be forgiving. Especially since she succeeds in stealing it so beautifully. Alas, she's captured in the process, but them's the breaks.
And now we go from "off the rails" to "off the continent" as Tony Stark decides to put Helen Cho's empty android body to good use... by uploading Jarvis into it. This does not sit well at all with the rest of The Avengers... especially Captain America... who worry that one insane homicidal all-powerful killer robot is enough. They don't need Tony making a second one. But the decision is taken out of their hands when Thor comes back from his magic bath and uses his magic hammer to create magic lightning to magically bring the J.A.R.V.I.S.-infused android shell to life (Shades of Frankenstein, Batman!). Thus we end up with something not-quite Ultron, not-quite-J.A.R.V.I.S., but something all new... Thor's magic bath vision becomes THE VISION! And one of the all-powerful Infinity Stones bonds to his forehead.
AN ASIDE: The Vision is my favorite Avenger in the comic books. His Pinocchio-inspired "I want to be a real-live boy" story arc (long before Data in Star Trek: The Next Generation) when paired with his super-cool density-manipulating properties, his awesome abilities, his relationship with Scarlet Witch, and his amazing design... well, he's the complete super-hero package. He has it all. Over the years many of my favorite Avengers stories center around The Vision or have him as a major factor. He has links to so many pieces of the Avengers puzzle that he could arguably be considered the key component to the entire team from the moment he debuted. Needless to say I was thrilled that he was being added to the Cinematic Avengers. But a little less than thrilled with his cape, which looks like some kind of nebulous CGI blob. It's so distracting that it sabotages this otherwise cool interpretation of the character.
The Vision is so pure of form that he has no problem lifting Thor's hammer... a test of worthiness that conveniently makes him trusted by the team and an instant Avenger...
AN ASIDE: A scene of all the various Avengers attempting to lift Thor's hammer earlier in the film... but being found unworthy thus unable... is a favorite moment of the movie for me. Captain America was slightly able to budge it (much to the horror of Thor!), which had me convinced Steve Rogers would be wielding Mjolnir against Ultron at the climatic end-battle of the film once all else failed (which would been a much better ending than we got, but oh well).
The Black Widow manages to get an S.O.S. to Hawkeye during her captivity, which leads the entire team back to where the movie began: Sokovia. It's then that they discover how Ultron plans to destroy all humanity since he couldn't get ahold of any nukes... he's going to go all "asteroid killed the dinosaurs" and use the vibranium to elevate a massive chunk of Sokovia high above the planet, then let it fall back to earth... causing an extinction-level event.
Kind of a convoluted plan for somebody as smart as Ultron, but it leads to the best line in the movie when Hawkeye says "The city is flying, and all I've got is a bow and arrow"... so why not?
This is the part of the movie where Ultron distracts the team by sending an endless onslaught of drones against them. Which would be pretty cool... except there was so much going on that it was tough to take in everything you were seeing. Maybe subsequent viewings will make it easier to digest, but I feel this was a bit of a problem for the movie. The action felt more abstract than personal. Something Joss must have felt as well, because he decided to do what he always does to up the stakes... kill somebody off. Which, in this case, was Quicksilver. He died in a hail of bullets while saving Hawkeye who was saving a child during a massive evacuation of Flying Sokovia (courtesy of Nick Fury and a S.H.I.E.L.D. Helicarrier).
It was a Whedon move that didn't really have any impact at all. Partly because it is just so damn predictable of him... but mostly because nobody gave a shit about Quicksilver. Unlike when he killed off Coulson in the first film, Pietro had so little screen time that the audience barely knew who he was. All we did know was that he's fast... so fast he can grab Ulysses Klaue's pistol, unload all the bullets, and line them up on a table in the blink of an eye. Which makes you think that evading a hail of bullets would be a piece of cake for him, but Whedon wanted him dead, so internal logic goes out the window.
UPDATE COMMENT: Apparently I was wrong in thinking nobody gave a shit about Quicksilver. Some people cared so deeply that Joss Whedon got death threats for offing him. Stay classy, internet!
Eventually The Avengers save all the people on Floating Sokovia and figure out a way of destroying the land mass before it can destroy the world. The Vision then tracks down Ultron's last remaining body and evaporates him. So, yay, I guess. It was all so anticlimactic to me that I had a hard time really caring.
Then the team kind of breaks up. The Hulk didn't want to make Black Widow be a fugitive, so he flies off in a Quinjet. Thor's visions have him needing to return to Asgard. Tony Stark leaves to focus on bigger things. Hawkeye goes home to his family.
Which means it's time for a new team of Avengers to assemble... Captain America and Black Widow join The Vision, Scarlet Witch, War Machine, and The Falcon to form Avengers 2.0 (with the help of Erik Selvig, Helen Cho, and (of course) Nick Fury (and probably Maria Hill as well). Roll credits.
Not that Avengers: Infinity War needed any more setting up, but a mid-credits sequence has Thanos putting on The Infinity Gauntlet so he can (finally) "do it himself." Which I'm guessing means collect all the Infinity Gems and destroy the universe so he can impress Death, whom he has a major crush on.
Like I said, in the "big picture" sense, I loved the film... despite its many problems. It just hit so many geeky buttons in me that I couldn't help but love it.
Though three overreaching problems I haven't addressed yet made it more difficult for me than it should have been...
1) Ultron is not scary or very threatening.
In the comics, Ultron is a terrifying presence. He's whacked out of his artificial mind, and the death and destruction that comes from his insanity-driven rage is a horrifying part of his character. The movie version was positively tame by comparison. Sure he wanted to destroy all humanity, but it never felt as though the Avengers were in much danger stopping him. James Spader was flawless casting, but his Ultron needed more heinous things to do to live up to his legacy.
2) The movie was all over the place.
And I mean that literally. It hops all over the globe at such a breakneck pace that you're left wondering if The Avengers and Ultron have access to some kind of secret teleportation technology we don't see. Even with Tony Stark's advanced transportation, it would take many hours to get from place to place... yet it always seems instantaneous. I like the idea of Earth's Mightiest Heroes actually spanning the entire earth, but it got a bit ridiculous.
3) Too little time for too much stuff.
In the first film, everybody had a role to play, and that's what made it such genius. For the sequel, I have a hard time recollecting exactly what Thor and Captain America had to contribute other than non-stop fighting. The Vision, Scarlet Witch, and Quicksilver were all introduced, but had so little screen time that they were pretty much reduced to cameos. And speaking of cameos... was anybody not in this movie? Oh yeah... Jane Foster and Pepper Potts... except they got screen time without actually appearing. Couple the massive cast with the abundance of time wasted setting up future films and there was barely time enough for this film. Had things been stripped down a bit and more screen time was devoted to the task at hand instead of what's coming next, it would have been a much better movie.
Next up, Captain America: Civil War, which is already promising to have a cast that equals or exceeds The Avengers: Age of Ultron. In addition to The Avengers 2.0 team (Cap, Widow, Falcon, Vision, Scarlet Witch, and War Machine), we're also getting Iron Man, Black Panther, Ant Man, Winter Soldier, Agent Thirteen, General Thunderbolt Ross(!), Crossbones, Baron Zemo, and... wait for it... the Marvel Cinematic Universe debut of Spider-Man. PLUS Martin Freeman just signed on for some unspecified role as well. I can only guess Agent Carter, Maria Hill, and Nick Fury will be shoehorned in as well. How are they going to fit an actual story in there?
I honestly dunno. But I can't wait to find out.
Time to update my "Y2K Super-Hero Comic Book Renaissance" scorecard...
The Avengers... A+
Avengers: Age of Ultron... A
Batman Begins... A
Batman Dark Knight... A+
Batman Dark Knight Rises... A
Big Hero Six... A+
Blade 2... B
Blade Trinity... B-
Captain America... A+
Captain America: The Winter Soldier... A+
Daredevil (Director's Cut)... B+
Fantastic Four... C
Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer... D
Guardians of the Galaxy... A+
Ghost Rider... C
Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance... D
Green Hornet... D
Green Lantern... C+
Hellboy 2: Golden Army... A
Incredible Hulk... B
The Incredibles... A+
Iron Man... A+
Iron Man 2... A-
Iron Man 3... A+
Jonah Hex... F
Kick-Ass 2... B-
Man of Steel... F-
Punisher War Zone... C
Scott Pilgrim vs. The World... C
Spider-Man 2... A
Spider-Man 3... D-
Amazing Spider-Man... D
Amazing Spider-Man 2... D-
Superman Returns... C+
Thor: The Dark World... B
The Wolverine... B
X-Men 2: United... D
X-Men 3: Last Stand... F-
X-Men Origins: Wolverine... D
X-Men: Days of Future Past... B-
X-Men: First Class... B