This is neither a review nor defense of Avengers: Age of Ultron. This is an analysis piece in which I explain how wrongly we’re looking at Marvel.
I spoil everything except Ant-Man.
Next year’s big splash, Civil War, is right around the corner yet has no clear road leading to it. Whereas Phase I was effectively about “is what we’re doing possible?” which The Avengers answered decisively: “hell yeah!” the question of “what’s next?” never left Phase II. That might be a problem in itself, but it illuminates another one – Marvel’s perception.
Marvel has become known as today’s ultimate producer-driven model, with Emperor Kevin Feige directing the directors and setting the goal post limits. Film Twitter and jaded critics have stressed it because of the television formula – i.e. “were it not for the sub-genre variety this would be a corporate assembly line of movies with none standing out as a uniquely creative vision, a la Guillermo del Toro’s Hellboy.”
This tired talking point isn’t wrong but it is massively overstated. We’ve elected to perceive the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and Phase II in particular, as an attenuated string of lucrative one-stop story points than a holistic illustration of broader ideas.
Consider how little of the story Phase II actually changes. We have three more infinity stones and some new worlds, but the core remains. The twist in The Winter Soldier at the time likely felt akin to overhauling the foundation of a skyscraper, but Hydra went from being the central threat to the function of Batroc to bare relevance in Ant-Man. Thanos went from a cameo to a nebulous presence in Guardians to putting on the Infinity Gauntlet.
So if Phase II simply rearranges its game board and adds a few pieces, what have we been watching? In last year’s ranking piece I said that Phase II is about scope expansion and character introspection. Iron Man Three is about how Iron Man is supposed to exist in a post-Avengers universe; The Winter Soldier is about Steve Rogers’s struggle to adapt while resisting post-9/11 cynicism. Guardians is about misfits brought together by family issues. Ant-Man is about how even bad guys can be heroes.
And Age of Ultron? Well, this is where our wired perception of the MCU (Phase II in particular), being no more than the sum of its parts, becomes truly misleading, for this film is the apex of Marvel’s self-reflection and commitment to upholding the responsibility that has come with its ubiquity – House Marvel’s coronation speech to the genre realm The Avengers won it.
It’s easy to think that Ultron comes down as an easy cash-grabbing sequel, but if that was the case, why is this film the same length as its predecessor? The Avengers spun a fabric of complex character drama to earn a spectacular payoff while subtly powering the engine of its own hype. What’s Ultron’s excuse? If Marvel just wanted to reignite the fireworks and do Avengers Disassembled with Ultron and the Miracle Twins swooping in, wrecking the tower, breaking our heroes, and then creating Vision to finish them, only for Vision to turn and reunite the team for one last victory with the future uncertain, that’s an hour and forty minute movie. To some extent, that’s even what the trailers were selling.
A shorter film would have helped it at the box office (100 minutes is the sweet spot for maximum show times) and have made the raw serializing easier, given what comes next. Whedon and Feige had seemingly every reason to make a safe and easy party sequence which would have made just as much cash. They didn’t.
One of Ultron’s flaws is that it feels a little too held back for such a comic-book-y movie. It doesn’t top the Battle of New York. Whedon even cut out a spectacular Hulk sequence because it didn’t fit. The question rises… why hasn’t this ostensibly producer-dictated studio settled for indulgence yet? Sure, Marvel needs to last long enough for its coup de grâce – Infinity War – but that just means the movie needs to be passable. What’s going on?
Superheroes and their films have not always been received well, and it’s easy to see why. A key assumption to them is that the world is so dangerous that the people must invest their hopes in an unaccountable brute vigilante, framing him as a righteous individual rising to the occasion. As they go on, these films get more violent, have bigger and flashier toys, and their worlds get nuttier & gloomier.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe does not do this.
From the spinning rims to space guns to a helicarrier, Marvel’s ultimate weapon turns out to be a handful of freaks. The Avengers’s central conceit is that good ol’ fashioned teamwork almost always advances a better solution than amassing and stockpiling weaponry. S.H.I.E.L.D.’s secret continuation of Hydra’s weapons initiative is said to be the reason Loki came to Earth in the first place. What the film was literally calling “Phase II” was the unpleasant contingency Nick Fury assembles the Avengers to prevent. When it looks like the battle is lost and the shadowy council launches a nuke, the team redirects it and seals their victory.
Kismet then that Phase II is more about Marvel disarming itself. It begins with Iron Man Three.
The film features a reclusive Tony Stark, after having obsessively constructed a suit for every threat, trying to be Iron Man in a shared cosmic universe that the demons he and his ego created are literally exploiting for political power. Three films of increasingly cooler suits but with Stark finally learning how to be a hero, he has now internalized the problem the wrong way, locking himself into a singular self-destructive life. The film strips them away and makes an organic problem-solver out of him, resolving that as the real essence of Iron Man’s strength and heroism, not the reactor in his chest powering his metal cocoon.
When Stark first said “I am Iron Man,” he meant “I was in the suit.” When he says it in Iron Man 2 he is again asserting his bond with the suit. This time it means “Iron Man is me; I am no longer confined to the suit.” His PTSD didn’t die (it never will); he learned to deal with it with the help of the people around him. The suit is just a vehicle.
Marvel’s first move after their triumph of the century was to look inward at one of its biggest weapons and straight-up morph it. If that doesn’t repudiate every “same-old-capes***” scoff out there I don’t know what does. Those glorified house-party toys in Stark’s basement would be an easy example of that “fascist superheroes” applesauce, but Iron Man Three goes without them for the full duration, until trotting them out for a background pyrotechnical carnival before blowing them up for the larger metaphor. Even when he used the suit for the mid-air rescue (where the film momentarily forgot that his mission to save the president had failed), it was framed as a physical limitation to overcome. More to the point, Ultron reveals what this was for – to mature him so he can screw up on an even more global level, because he’s still Tony Stark.
Continuing with this theme, The Winter Soldier begins with Fury showing a skeptical Cap all the awesome new military tech S.H.I.E.L.D. has in its security arsenal, and then reveals that they are actually the tools of HYDRA’s new world order. This is today’s world, and Cap makes it his purpose to change it. The film ends with S.H.I.E.L.D. exposed and dismantled, with Black Widow telling Congress that she, Cap, and the Avengers, for all of their faults, are better, more trustworthy global defenders and peacekeepers than a corrupt monolithic military industrial complex pointing giant guns at everyone’s head. It’s no accident that when next we see Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D., they have come as a civilian rescue crew and armed with Rhodey.
While Dark World and Guardians leave Earth to enhance the universe, the meat of Phase II is character-centric introspection, where Marvel resolves to retract its claws. An odd path for a bunch of happy-meal popcorn flicks with Bruckheimer-levels of big budgets to take, but sure, I guess that running theme makes them the same. What are the Buy n Large producer overlords of this art-sapping toy line thinking?!
When viewed only as a product of its linear franchise, Age of Ultron appears on its face as just a film about a disastrous miscommunication between heroes culminating in a villain whose bane is the next evolutionary generation, and forming the centerpiece for a new team. Yet those aren’t the terms the film establishes for itself.
Devin Faraci has already spilled a lot of internet ink on the specific themes Ultron toys with, and this is where I admit that I’m piggybacking off most of his words (hyperlinked below) and hopefully synthesizing them into a larger point that I think he (and everyone else) missed.
The film begins with Stark’s PTSD rearing its ugly head again as his worst fears come to life in front of him. No longer the naïve care-free showboat of Iron Man nor the insecure misanthropic workstation junkie of Iron Man Three, Stark seizes the moment and spearheads the next step in the evolution of global security because the Avengers are too stagnant a force for it, busting runaway Hydra cells all the live-long day with no plan for the real threat.
Ultron represents a nihilistic extreme of Stark’s entire character evolution. Every move he makes is about proving himself, whether it’s the “more than a man” gotch’a on Scarlet Witch, playing tag-you’re-it with the Avengers (Stark in particular), violently upgrading himself in front of Black Widow, or turning a city into an extinction-level meteor. He uses Stark witticisms and takes it personally when his allies abandon him.
In other words, Ultron is a literal embodiment of Stark’s nuanced heroism having run amok – a consequence of that exact reckless vigilantism the skeptics fault superheroes for. Obviously this isn’t the first time a hero unintentionally created his villain, but here the theme is clear, further hammered in by the Twins’ origin story, orphaned as children by Stark’s bombs.
It’s considerably rushed but what’s important is the duality of perspective. We see the Avengers cleaning up by hunting the scepter and dismantling another “Phase II” type weapons project, but the twins and the people of war-torn Sokovia see an invasion by an unfairly mighty force backed by dirty American money. The heroes and liberators, for all the good they did, left a lot of rubble in their wake and, as Faraci explains, became the faces of imperialism, something global audiences undoubtedly recognize when they look to America. Ultron thus does for the Avengers what Iron Man Three did for Stark and The Winter Soldier did for S.H.I.E.L.D. – looking inward.
Ultron addresses the popular sentiments against superhero films by creating a crisis of image and making our self-doubting heroes ask themselves hard questions about their culpability with it. Whereas Iron Man Three was about trying to make Tony Stark a person again, Ultron beseeches similar empathy for all of our heroes. I shan’t repeat Faraci’s words on the subject because he explains it perfectly, and this is about the resolution.
Most good superhero movies that show even a trace of this consciousness resolve it just by having the heroes make the “right” choice, stop the bad guy, save the world, etc. in an emotionally satisfying way. As such they often take themselves for granted and do the bare minimum of the things that actually make the heroes real heroes, like Rocket Raccoon shooting the falling bombs in Guardians, or Bruce Wayne saving Coleman Reese in The Dark Knight.
Age of Ultron increasingly highlights those would-be small deeds with each major action set piece. In the first, Stark dispatches the Iron Legion to protect civilians. In Wakanda, Stark catches a falling elevator and lets the people out before swinging it, and drops Hulk on a building only after confirming that it’s clear. In Seoul, Cap orders Quicksilver to get civilians out of the way and Scarlet Witch to stop the train, while he braces incoming rubble from the front. The movie milks the awesomeness of it, making instant heroes out of the twins.
For the final showdown – you already know it – Ultron makes it not about saving the world, but saving people while saving the world. Not only that, but Ultron’s plan is almost hilariously designed to tempt the young overeager filmmakers looking to devise some delicious destruction porn. He carves out the perimeter of a made-up city into a fault line and launches it into the sky!
Joss Whedon, however, understands how soulless that can be if there isn’t a crucial human element involved. A seasoned filmmaker, he knows nothing brings the genre’s healthy skeptics out for blood faster than a CGI-plastered explosion fest with no auteur focus. Under Whedon’s direction, the Avengers head into battle with their top priority being to safeguard those caught in the crossfire. The highlights get to be Iron Man carrying a family in a bathtub, Thor and Cap working together to save a falling woman, Quicksilver sacrificing himself to save Hawkeye and the boy, and of course, the arrival of Nick Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D. on that helicarrier.
Contrast this with Avengers, where this helicarrier, one of the film’s most fantastical elements is presented with pomp for its own sake but only used as a base of operations.
Here the helicarrier’s arrival has meaning, not just because it resolves narrative clarity at the perfect moment. Yes, the time between Stark planning to vaporize the city and Nick Fury’s arrival is an uncomfortably messy stasis period. Yet at this ultimate high point, Ultron not only answers its own central question that Cap explained in his battle speech (“Ultron thinks we’re monsters, that we’re what’s wrong with the world. This isn’t just about beating him; it’s about whether he’s right…”) in a grand payoff, but also slams down Marvel’s royal decree. Superhero movies cannot assume our empathy or trust. They must do the real work to earn it.
On its face the two Americas theme is as clear as it was in the beginning. Cap’s America, the country of the Marshall Plan, redeems itself for the sins of Stark’s America, the corrupt warmongering empire Sokovia resents, and establishes an optimistic legacy of responsibility over neglect. Yet the film’s and franchise’s display of self-consciousness collectively create an even greater mission statement. After spending half of Phase II and the exhausting length of Ultron lowering its weapons and inviting us to see the proud triumphant heroes of The Avengers as flawed, doubting, and stumbling human beings whose legacies are interwoven with that of America itself, Marvel resolves to show what real stakes and real heroism look like, and how they pay off.
It can be this, or even something as simple as that mid-air rescue in Iron Man Three.
Thus, with Ultron, Joss Whedon actually uses the American imperial allegory as familiar cinematic language to reflect his film’s real ethos. This wasn’t about the Avengers earning their praise or some political statement; this is a message aimed straight at the superhero blockbuster genre at large. Superhero films will be mindful of their image, and their filmmakers will work to prove the skeptics and “fascist” cat-callers wrong. Superheroes, comic-book stories, movies, and their mass cultural consumption can be – and are – a force for good.
The ending reaffirms this, with the Vision speaking to Ultron’s last form. Superheroes are worth following because they’re flawed characters with evolving story arcs. They’ll err, as all humans do, but if they’re really heroes they’ll embrace their responsibility and create a better divine legacy, like a new and more colorful team. Their films can thrill us and also inspire us to hope for the best –action blockbusters with real moral centers.
I am not here to tell you that Age of Ultron is better than or equal to Avengers, or that its flaws are mitigated by this greater compelling idea. I’m not here to call Ant-Man a lesser film because it doesn’t have this. On the contrary, Ant-Man is the perfect follow-up to this because it moves away from the big scale and imbues itself with a tremendous amount of raw heart, proving Marvel’s pledge in its predecessor true. Ultron follows in the spiritual footsteps of The Godfather Part II, expanding the thematic underpinnings of the world at large to make for a more enriching cinematic experience, and somewhat sacrificing the momentary spectacle everyone celebrated in the original masterpiece. There was plenty to chew on in this dense compendium-tier roll of digitized lore-laden craziness but the genre statement went unrecognized, despite how much it governed the entire narrative function straight from the core…
…A statement that goes amiss when all we choose to see is a linear corporate puppet franchise.
The Avengers birthed the team from the belief that the collective extraordinary whole could be greater than the sum of its parts, and then conquered the world. Age of Ultron showed us the kind of king Marvel intends to be.