Monday, May 4, 2015

Avengers: Age of Ultron

I'm torn.

On the one hand, I can go into the review of a movie like Avengers: Age of Ultron as a fan, and simply crow about how amazing it is to see things I know and love up on a big screen.  "Look," the younger version of me that used to collect action figures and thought that stuff made in the 90's wasn't horribly dated, "they referenced Wakanda!  It's the Hulk fighting Iron Man!  There's a Jocasta reference!  This is the best!"  On the other hand, if I do my best to look at it as if I knew nothing about comic book characters other than what they've presented in the films so far, I'm less enthused about it.

But then I wonder if it's me, not the movie, that's having troubles.  Maybe I'm just jaded still after so many years of terrible comic book movies that I find it hard to believe there can be one that really reaches greatness, even after the first Avengers movie smashed through box office records like, well, like the Hulk smashing through drywall sheets.  Maybe it's my inner critic that just feels the need to nitpick things because I hold the sequel to a movie that broke box office records in the previously-referenced metaphoric way to high standards that I feel the need to be strict where I'd be lenient with other films.

Maybe I should just boil it down this way: Did I enjoy myself?  "Yes, But."

You know the plot by now: in the standard "we make/are directly linked to our own worst threats" formula for a lot of Marvel movies, an AI named "Ultron," originally intended to help save the planet, decides that the best way to save it is wipe out the weak, fleshy things living on it and replace it all with superior, robotic life.  The Avengers have to team up and defeat him before he can cause an extinction-level event on the planet.

If I treat Avengers: Age of Ultron as just a silly action movie where characters in bright costumes punch robots and each other, I'm doing it a disservice.  There's some very easy analogies to pick up in conversations between Iron Man/Tony Stark, Captain America/Steve Rogers, and even Ultron himself.  Tony wants to make a protective force that can destroy any threat to the planet before it has a chance to attack.  Steve warns that when people "try to win a war before it starts, people die."  It's clear Joss Whedon is managing to play off of both movies to previously feature these characters, with Iron Man 3 showing Tony Stark rattled by the idea of threats from "beyond" being able to destroy everything (an idea that even has its roots in the previous Avengers film), and Captain America is still dealing with the fact that an agency almost launched a plan to systematically kill anybody on the planet who might a "threat" to its rule, regardless of how minor.

If you want to get analytical, you can also look at Tony as the United States' "War On Terror" initiative, while a comment from Ultron about Cap being "God's righteous man, pretending you can live without a war" being a comment on America itself.   A moment that stood out to me is when the Scarlet Witch (a new character), in an attempt to explain why Tony Stark shouldn't be given a piece of extremely advanced technology, supplies the line that "Ultron can't tell the difference between saving the world and destroying it.  Where do you suppose he gets that from?"

I think that line resonated with me because in the more recent superhero movies I've become keenly aware of how much devastation there is when super-powered beings fight.  Between invasions in New York, crashing helicarriers in Washington, D.C., fights between the army and the Hulk on college campuses, and all the fights that take place in this movie, it's refreshing to have at least one character point out that they have to be more aware of collateral damage than they have been.

(This moment might have been an acknowledgement of the sheer massive amount of damage to happen in DC's Man of Steel movie, I wouldn't put it past Joss Whedon to try to take a jab at the Distinguished Competition while also referencing previous Marvel films.)

This is, I think, embodied in two moments in the film. Early on, the Avengers do a military-esque strike against the forces of Hydra.  When the bad guy's plan involves firing on a nearby village to distract their attention, the Avengers stand there surprised that the fight could possibly have spilled over into populated areas.  Later, during the Hulk/Iron Man fight, there's little to no effort by Iron Man to either lure the Hulk out of town or calm him.  He even utilizes (and destroys) an uninhabited building under construction in his attempts to stop the Hulk's rampage.  The movie does take the time to let us know that there's nobody in the structure before it comes down, but then it immediately cuts to a wide shot of the neighborhood, showing that there's an awful lot of people in the streets around it.

The fact that it's the Hulk, towards the end of the fight, who seems to be aware of the chaos and damage he's doing, is rather telling.

To the film's credit, this actually is addressed towards the end of the film.  Instead of simply sweeping in to a city, all guns blazing, the Avengers instead take an approach rarely used in film: they evacuate the civilians first.  Saving lives is their top priority, not simply "ending the threat" regardless of what else happens.

All the characters you know and love (except for Loki) from the first movie are back, along with new additions like the aforementioned Scarlet Witch and her twin sibling Quicksilver.  New supporting characters are brought into play, and characters given small roles in the first movie get much larger roles this film.  I have heard several complaints (and I can't really disagree with them) that the Black Widow once again gets regulated into "token relationship role" and seems to consider "the ability to be a mother" to be her most defining trait.  I realize she isn't anywhere near the same "power level" as your Hulks, Thors, and Iron Mans, but there were multiple moments where the movie could clearly have used an infiltration specialist, and the fact she went underutilized is too bad.

I can comment that the movie felt crowded, that action jumps were too quick (something I can blame on third party production crews, not Marvel itself), that certain parts of the film were dark enough I had difficulty figuring out what was happening, that there are some rather sizable plot holes that never get addressed, and that while I applaud it for not hiding its geek cred the way so many comic book-based movies do, I think there's a lot there that might push away people who don't know the Avengers outside of the films themselves, these are all relatively minor squabbles.  A lot of it didn't occur to me until the drive home from the theater, or until I discussed it with coworkers the next day.

But the one thing that I think diverted my attention was that while I love Joss Whedon's distinctive dialogue and banter, it felt out of place during some of the more serious scenes.  Having characters pause while trying to prevent a deadly swarm of robots from slaughtering civilians to make witty comments, or focus on a person climbing out of a car Thor saved and heaving on the ground felt like they broke the mood the movie was attempting to build up.  Having Thor, towards the end of the largest action sequence in the film, suddenly stop being serious and look like he's attempting to make a sly wink towards the camera just left me wondering why the comedic moment was necessary.  If it's a serious situation, it's okay to be serious.

As a whole, I enjoyed Avengers: Age of Ultron.  I found the underlying philosophical questions interesting to think about while the movie set up its next set piece for a large action sequence, and comparing and contrasting the motivations of the heroes and villains makes for a neat character study.  There are things I think could be cut from it without seriously hurting the film (honestly, I really wish they would just get on with the whole "Infinity Gems" and Thanos business, because at this point it's all hype, no substance), and I know the movie had to originally be cut down from a whopping three and a half hours so there's plenty of story left out that might have filled some of these holes, but I wonder if some of those instances they cut might have patched over some rough areas and just smoothed it out.

Personally, I think Marvel's been doing some amazing things with film-making that are breaking a lot of the standard "rules" that film-makers needed to follow for years (the whole idea of a "shared universe," for example), and I hope to see them continue to work on shaping and reshaping Hollywood as an industry and make us rethink just what a "superhero" movie needs to consist of, and I hope other studios take the good lessons while learning from where Marvel stumbles.  I do want to see more from this giant toy box that Marvel has created, I just hope it doesn't burn itself (or us) out by piling on too much at any given time.

No comments: