With the conclusion of Marvel’s ‘Phase Two’, we thought it appropriate to all sit down and share our man-giggles and squeeing over the new Avengers: Age of Ultron. It being such a massive film with so many moving parts, the best way to tackle it seemed to just have a conversation. SPOILERS ahead, so if you haven’t seen the film, do.
AoU as Joss Whedon’s Magnum Opus:
JB: I’ve hardly seen enough Joss Whedon stuff (no Buffy, no Firefly, only Serenity).
RS: I’m actually in the same tent, minus Serenity (the shame I know).
AM: Go now, educate yourselves. (That said, I’ve only seen bits of Buffy, but was a huuge fan of Dollhouse).
RS: After what I’ve seen here, I feel I need to.
JB: But I know that he likes working with teams of varied and interesting characters. Ultron has one of the best fantastical ensembles this side of the Fellowship, and the fact that Whedon could wrangle about 20 named characters of genuine importance and give them all their own moments without a 6 hour run time is absolutely incredible. He also played with his own reputation wonderfully, building and building to what seemed like Hawkeye’s inevitable, tragic death, before pulling the rug on the audience at the last minute. When the dying Quicksilver asked ‘didn’t see that coming?’ in his final breaths, the fourth wall came very close to collapsing.
RS: As you mentioned Jack, this is a big cast… like really big. I mean, excluding the big seven Avengers there’s over 10 other characters with major parts to play in the story. Then there’s all the MCU context that the film can’t get bogged down in. Add in the fact it’s a sequel, and it’s damn impressive what Whedon’s done.
AM: Nobody does ensemble quite like Whedon, and he definitely demonstrated his uncanny ability to keep really complex group dynamics under control. Honestly, at the film’s best it felt like I was watching a superpowered Serenity crew (superpowered teenage girl included). It was clear that he knew exactly what worked with the first Avengers, and he decided to run with it. ‘You liked that seamless sequence at the end of Avengers? Here have seven more.’ I think it’s also worth mentioning how damn funny this film was across the board.
RS: But it didn’t try to outdo the Avengers I feel, which is why it worked. Sure the stakes are higher, but Whedon wasn’t aiming to replicate the success of the first one: Age of Ultron goes its own path without forcing the jokes or fist-pumps to outdo the previous ones before it.
AM: I think it also does come back to genre differentiation between different MCU franchises; the Avengers have always been a light-hearted team with their dynamic, and the first film’s fun-poking was extremely refreshing. I can only assume Civil War is going to chuck that dynamic out the window.
JB: I’ll be sad to lose the humour, as much as going darker is sort of a necessity to move the franchise forward. This film was hilarious when it wanted to be, which helped the run time fly by and stopped the action and constant high stakes from getting tiring. Watching it with such a responsive audience certainly helped.
Direction and Action:
RS: That first fight scene in the forest? Top friggin’ notch.
JB: No visible edits. I was grinning like an idiot the entire time. The final fight was less thrilling, but the introduction of the new heroes and their unique powers kept it fresh. They never lost sight of the humour either, with the Hulk/Iron Man fight having some of the film’s funniest moments.
AM: Definitely a different directorial style compared to the Russo brothers, with a lot more frantic camera-shaking and the occasional loss of clarity; it felt much less visceral than Cap 2 where you could feel every punch. That said, every hero had multiple moments of unadulterated badassery and it was a treat to watch.
JB: I was also surprised by how many innocent people were pretty explicitly killed. The violence seemed far more consequential here than in the first film.
AM: That said, you can’t ignore how refreshing it is to see superheroes risking their own lives to save civilians. They devoted a 20-second shot just to show Captain America directing traffic, drawing out the fact that these heroes are heroes.
JB: Ultron’s final beatdown was hilarious overkill. Half melted by Iron Man, Thor, and Vision, then punched across the city by Hulk, then thrown out of the jet he hijacked by Hulk, and topping it all off by having his ‘heart’ ripped out by Wanda. Having robots as enemies must be a godsend for a blockbuster director; you can be as creatively violent as you want when dispatching them, without any fear for your age rating.
AM: It got pretty gnarly, didn’t it.
RS: I remember when the first Avengers came out, and perhaps one of the biggest complaints people had was Hawkeye and how he got shafted with the ‘mind-control’ schtick. I honestly didn’t think it was that major a problem, but many people I know did. I definitely think Whedon rectified that 100%; Hawkeye was cool, he had a sweet backstory, good relationships with Widow and the Maximoffs, and he brings a different side of charm and humour to the team.
JB: His ‘dad’ moment with Scarlet Witch was great. He’s the only Avenger with a real life outside of the team, which not only allowed for higher stakes regarding his life, but sort of made up for how tangential he felt in the first film.
RS: Oh, definitely, a complete turnaround for Hawkeye. Renner must be chuffed.
JB: I also felt that it was necessary to have that small-scale emotional stuff in the midst of such a ridiculously BIG film, which is also why I think the Hulk/Black Widow romance really worked.
AM: He definitely helped ground all the ridiculousness this time around: “There are killer robots outside, we’re in a floating city, and I’m a guy with a bow and arrow. This doesn’t make any sense.” Without superpowers, he is the perfect character to point out the silliness without undercutting the emotional stakes.
AM: Also, a lot of people have been criticising the somewhat out-of-left-field Hulk-Widow romance, but I honestly thought that thematically and structurally it absolutely belongs in this film. It makes sense that the two most internally conflicted characters see something deep within one another, and really helped justify the fact that Widow has the ability to calm down two-tonnes of punchy green monster. I thought they left it in a nice place without much resolution. That said, I did feel like Black Widow’s brilliant characterisation from Cap 2 fell away this time around, which was a shame.
RS: I have to add that on top of Natasha/Banner, the Scarlet Witch hexes were a great plot point emotionally. They gave such a clear-cut window into most of the team’s insecurities and damaged psyches: you’ve got Cap in the creepy ballroom as the man out of time; Thor’s got his foreshadow to Ragnarok which provides him his own little journey in the film; and Black Widow has some really interesting history at ‘evil assassin school’. They’re short, simple, cool, and provide a punch of sympathy in a short amount of time. You do need these small character moments to get you even more invested in the fights.
Newcomers to the MCU:
AM: Not being a Marvel fanboy like you two, I had no preconceived notions about any of the character reveals this time around (except for Quicksilver in Days of Future Past, which I honestly preferred). Vision was extraordinary, and the twins really settled in nicely among such massive characters.
JB: Vision may well be my new favourite MCU character. From his God-like introduction to casually handing Thor Mjolnir before they headed off on their finals mission, to his great little speech at the end, Whedon handled him absolutely perfectly. Paul Bettany hasn’t got the career I think he deserves, so him getting to actually be on screen with such a great character was really nice to see.
RS: I agree: out of all the new heroes and villains introduced in the film, Vision made the biggest impact. In retrospect he only appeared in the final act of the film, but he was by far one of the most memorable parts of the film.
AM: Let’s not forget he shoots a damn laserbeam out of his forehead. Watching him whiz about, cape fluttering behind him, taking out robot after robot with his forehead-beam was probably the most ‘comic-book on screen’ moment I’ve ever seen (opening slow-mo cover shot, notwithstanding) and it just worked so well. I’d argue that his character arc is the central focus of the film given the way he balances Stark and Ultron, and all the various religious imagery surrounding him was just another piece of Whedon script wizardry. Dinosaurs/Evolution/Extinction/Religion.. it all slotted together so pleasantly.
RS: As for the twins… I think they got a decent slice of the cinema cake. Wanda gets to have a nice, creepy, show of her powers and prove she’s quite the fighter, and Quicksilver gets a few shots of cool fast-running effects. Does he do anything as cool as Fox’s Pietro? Nah, but he’s cool enough and he gets an heroic ‘twist’ death saving Hawkeye.
AM: The twist death took me by surprise and I couldn’t help but nod in agreement. It made sense. Also, always fun to see a male character get ‘fridged’ to give his female counterpart more depth and power, as opposed to the hackneyed other way around.
RS: They both have sympathetic backstories (mainly the story they tell to Ultron of the Stark bomb), and they do have a natural transition from villain to hero. I hope we get the ‘Hawkeye’ treatment for Wanda in the sequel though.
AM: I’m a sucker for a cool backstories–the simpler, the better.
JB: Given that she and the Vision are most likely going to be the heavy hitters on Cap’s Civil War team, I reckon we’re going to get a solid emotional arc from Scarlet Witch next time out, as well as possibly an expansion of her powers for some crazy visuals.
Did Ultron measure up to villains past?
JB: Ultron is my favourite villain yet in the MCU. He still doesn’t quite match the Nolan Batman villains, but he was properly threatening and convincingly motivated. The trailers made him out to be a lot darker than he eventually was, and I reckon his unforeseen quippiness might put some people off. However, Spader’s voice work sold me on every aspect of Ultron’s character.
RS: It’s hard to say he’s my favourite villain, especially against D’Onofrio’s Fisk and Hiddleston’s Loki; but he’s definitely in the top 3. He’s got the intimidation of Spader’s Reddington, with the slight snark of Garfield the Cat.
JB: I have slightly less love than everyone else for Fisk in Daredevil (I should note I haven’t seen the entire series yet though), and the general weakness of Thor 2 means that I just value the screen time of Ultron more than that of Loki. But yeah, they make up a pretty tight top 3.
AM: As much as I loved Spader in the role, he wasn’t quite as threatening as I was expecting as you said, Jack. They did a great job managing to balance his obviously human flaws with his twisted mechanical logic, but I think he fell a bit out of focus behind all the subplots; just a bit more screentime in the second act would have made a world of difference. The collective threat of Hydra in Cap 2 is still my favourite antagonist in any of the Marvel films, but Ultron is definitely a close second. Loki, though great, was a bit spoiled by Thor 2 and a Big Bad whose whole deal is just betraying everyone all the time doesn’t stand up to the law of diminishing returns very well.
Easter Eggs and the Future of MCU:
RS: Looks like Ulysses Klaw is quite the… arms dealer *SNORT* But in all seriousness Wakanda was the only real tease. I did find out however, and this is quite a cool fact, that since Phase Two is the ‘Empire Strikes Back’ of the MCU, every film in phase two (Including Serkis in this one) has an act of dismemberment as homage to Luke’s fight with Vader. Pretty nifty.
JB: Now you’ve got me trying to think of all the arm loss scenes over the last few films. There really weren’t too many Easter Eggs in Ultron, and it didn’t overdo it with setting up the future of the franchise. I feel that Whedon probably had to fight pretty hard for that, and the film stands alone incredibly well. The Wakanda bit and the fight over the creation of Vision were the big set-up moments. Cap squaring off against Iron Man was a great moment of nerd excitement.
AM: Whedon really made the hokey “we’re only strong as a team” theme hit home again and again. Some of the most distressing moments in the film were watching the team fall apart, just as some of the most joyful to watch scenes were them in perfect synchronicity (the hammer lifting scene was one of my favourite sequences). Knowing that the Civil War is looming definitely seemed to help set up the mood and characterisation for the imminent schism.
JB: Having Vision save Wanda from the collapsing city was a nice little nod to their relationship in the comics, and I’m betting we’re going to see more of that as the MCU goes on. Also, god damn you Whedon for cutting just before Cap said ‘assemble’. I get that it was a tongue in cheek tease, but the catharsis of hearing that phrase out loud would have been simply wonderful.
RS: It’s more character driven this time around and film is on point, though you lose that hype and level of fist-pumps you get in the first one. A grand start to the Blockbuster season: 4.5 Stars (do we do .5s?)
AM: We do for you, Rupert, just this once. I loved the Bradshaw review, which basically said that if all subsequent superhero films keep up Whedon’s finesse we’re A-OK. As far as the genre goes, Marvel just keeps pushing the envelope and as a superhero film it is almost flawless. There were a few faults–Thor’s stories always rub me the wrong way, and this time around was no different. So, Thor’s unexplained spelunking notwithstanding, I’m going to have to give it a big fat 5/5.
JB: I was far more hyped/fist-pumpy this time around. Marvel had a hell of a task to keep up the sort of quality that their last two films had got us used to, and Age of Ultron ended up being my favourite MCU movie to date. It was everything I wanted out of both a blockbuster and comic adaptation, so a big 5/5 from me.