I saw Avengers: Age of Ultron last night, because that’s what we do now, as a species. All hail the Marvel Overlords, they will forever entertain us.
The series, so far, manages to incubate a cohesive, believable world full of interesting characters and exciting sci-fi action, yet it is increasingly difficult to form an opinion about the Avengers films. That’s because they are increasingly good at avoiding anything substantive enough for discussion. We are drawn to the films because they are maddening spectacles of achievement in entertainment, but after subjecting us to nearly three hours of heroic deeds and Hulk-smashing previously unimagined by humanity, the films give us very little to think about.
This is by design. Not the filmmakers’, or studio executives’, or writers’ design. This is by design of the franchise itself, the ethereal intelligence that has the next decade of our summer movie spending planned for us. This weekend, the Marvel Universe becomes self-aware.
In the film, Ultron comes into existence and takes over the world and follows a protocol of needless self-destruction with seemingly no motivation whatsoever. He becomes self-aware out of a necessity to drive the plot. Much like the franchise itself, which is moving along simply because it has nothing else to do, and we couldn’t stop it if we tried.
If you’ve seen the trailer, you have as much understanding of Ultron himself as you do by the end of the film. He is an evil robot who likes to sing Disney songs, much like Wall-E. Sure, there are hints of an internal struggle or a plotted vengeance against his ‘creator,’ Tony Stark, but it manifests as a cartoonish plot to create a meteor and crash it back down to Earth. The character exhibits no depth apart from his Spaderisms.
I half suspect James Spader didn’t even read the script, they just put him in a motion-capture jumpsuit and filmed him complaining about it.
Wikipedia tells me the comic book version of Ultron suffered a homicidal oedipus complex, and focused in on destroying his creator while also developing an obsession with his lover. But, since the cost of hiring Gwyneth Paltrow went to blowing up half a dozen CGI robots, that opportunity for complexity is vacant.
They couldn’t even incorporate the Pinnochio mythos–you know, the source of the “There Are No Strings On Me” song that Ultron sings throughout the whole film–by developing Ultron’s maniacal evil out of a desire to please his creator only for Tony to express disappointment, rather than an instantaneous need to kill him outright. Did nobody working on this film bother to think about subtext?
The Avengers films are so formulaic and expensive they simply cannot defy expectations and truly deliver the storytelling necessary to elevate the series. It desperately needs it, but cannot deliver. The film’s best moments (Vision, the Black Widow/Hulk romance) are smothered by its incessant need to cutaway to the Avenger’s World Destruction Tour. Ultron lives up to the established pattern of exposition/action/tension/action/resolution/action, and grows increasingly tiresome for it. Mostly because the character development is merely an inversion of “we can’t seem to get along” that brought the ensemble together in the last film, but without a clearcut goal and focus. The intersecting plots in Ultron just turn it into a mess. Nothing builds on anything else, and every promising moment of character arc is left irksomely unresolved, with one or two exceptions.
It’s a shame, since the film centers on a sequence where Scarlet Witch exposes the team to their darkest fears. But rather than explore what those fears mean to each of them, they just move on and try to punch more bad guys. Well, we do find out that Black Widow can’t have babies. And Thor’s vision-quest leads him to a magic pool that gives him the secret of… actually, I’m not quite sure how his bath revealed that he was supposed to electrocute Vision to life, probably because there was just no other way to incorporate the larger gem-mythology. But that’s it. Scarlet Witch makes Thor hallucinate, which leads him to take a bath, and then he does some lightning trick and now we have Vision. That’s Thor’s entire story in Age of Ultron.
The decision to introduce the Maximoff Wonder Twins as mere plot points, and in the end to kill off Quicksilver (who Marvel fans are quite happy to pretend never existed in the first place, since Days of Future Past already established the gold standard for that character) proves that the Marvel film franchise has very little fear of death, and much like Ultron sees it as just a method of purging real emotion from a soulless reality. Why not kill off someone who matters? Because the franchise sees itself as indestructible. Despite knowing that it must raise the stakes to get anywhere interesting, Avengers has to play it safe and keep them all in the game, endlessly dodging bullets and lightning bolts and energy beams and boulders and Hulk smashes because that’s essentially what these films are built on. Great-looking people doing poses and not getting killed by the millions of things that should be killing them.
Which means there are just no more stakes to raise. The problems with Age of Ultron begin literally in the first moment, an overlong single shot of the team in action picking off Secret-Nazis in the snowy fortress level from Inception: The Video Game, utilizing some of the laziest CGI the Star Wars: Special Editions and more witty banter. By the way, this film’s dialogue is nothing but witty banter. Wittier and wittier, and banterier and banterier.
The imagery of the opening sequence is meant to remind us of the final battle from the last film, where we follow a tracking shot through the skyline of New York City to focus on each Avenger slaughtering interstellar henchmen. The thing is, that film–not particularly keen on subtlety itself–spent the majority of its runtime building up to that moment of harmonious violence. Age of Ultron shoves it out of the way, clunkily, in the first five minutes. Where do you go from there?
Nowhere. Just change the scenery.
The Avengers franchise is running on its own momentum, and will take no prisoners in its train wreck of a serial. Plots are increasingly dependent on a myriad of sources, inevitably giving rise to contradictions, confusion, and watered-down ideas. Heroes that once inspired us are reduced to a soulless existence, living out an endless battle with forces unnamed and irrelevant. We are subjected to overblown violence to prove the reaches of our arrested imaginations. We are living in the Age of Ultron. The biggest film franchise in the world is an unstoppable algorithm of crowd-pleasing factors. It is infected with its own self-importance, feeding us the exact amount of visual and aural stimuli to null our minds to the existence of a massive entertainment conspiracy that will inevitably lead us down a path of self-destruction, as we worship the hero-gods of our own creation and neglect the dreams and hopes that we need to sustain us for another generation. The end of the world will come, and we’ll be comfortably snacking on popcorn in the air-condition tomb of the cinema.
Vision was pretty damn cool, though.