Avengers: Age of Ultron and the Art of Disappointment

Ensign Lestat's Film Log, 10/05/2015

May 1 was marked in my calendar as 'Avengers Day' because on this fateful day 'Avengers: Age of Ultron' would finally arrive. After a year dodging spoilers (unsuccessfully for the most part), I was very excited for this film. But anxious all the same - I love films, they're my favourite entertainment. The press tour had already been wrought with problems. The reviews from the premiere were positive, but restrained. Didn't help that I was concerned about the new entrants.
AoU opens with a giant action set-piece. The camera weaves through the action, from one Avenger to another. We're in a fictional Eastern European town and the Avengers are up against some big bads with tanks and guns. You are explicitly reminded of these guys' powers and abilities, as well as introduced to two brand new characters - Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). They're survivors of Hydra experimentation and have been kept safe in this facility by Strucker (Thomas Kretschmann) who we had been introduced to at the end of 'Captain America: The Winter Soldier'. Things go sideways for Hydra soon enough, and the twins deploy themselves in the attack.
EPIC!
Once the Avengers are back at base, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and his science bro Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) decide they must make the world a safer place. In their attempts to do so they employ the Ultron programme and henceforth are the reason for all the subsequent incidents in the film.

Ultron (James Spader) wakes up angry and scared. The information and data filtered to him gives him a skewed view of the world and after giving the Avengers a chastising speech, he takes off. The Avengers assemble (come on, I had to) and try and make sense of what Ultron is doing and where he's going. It all ends in a big climactic battle in a city that can be completely destroyed because it is not New York.
Ultron - There are no strings on me.
Do I sound a bit bitter there?

There's a reason why I avoid trailers and promos and clips and TV spots and posters and GIFs and interviews - it's because they spoil everything. For an entire year prior to the release of a tentpole blockbuster, we are bombarded with spoiler-filled promos about it. It's not a teaser thrilling your senses about what's to come (they give that away in the overlong title of the film, usually). No, it's got to be every good scene of your film, plastered across the internet.

Scrolling through the IMDB page of AoU, there are no less than 30 different videos - each one revealing yet another thrilling nugget of information from the film. I went through half (for research purposes, of course), and it felt a lot like watching the film for a second time. The plot, sub-plot, characters and sets are all in there. Why, after being bombarded with this, would anyone want to spend any money going to the theatre to watch the full feature? You'd have missed only a handful of insignificant scenes.
Again with the spoilers?
Why I start with this is because, the majority of the thrills of watching AoU is the cinematography, the action and camera-work. It appears to be a Joss Whedon signature, as the camera and the editing showcase how the team work together, and which roles they all fall into. But that's not it, it's also the humour and the little nuances to each character that draws the viewer into the film. But if you go by the trailers, these will seem the most tedious parts of the film, because you've already watched all the funny scenes, and it looks like it's going to be one rollercoaster ride of action scenes, so you couldn't care less about the character nuances, because you're not expecting any.

AoU is a quintessential sequel - it's bigger, the stakes are higher, there are more characters, we get to know more about existing characters. It also spends a lot of time laying the ground work for future films (Black Panther and Avengers 3 are the ones I picked up on, anyway). We now know the team work well together, but it doesn't mean they don't have secrets and insecurities about their positions. As we meander our way from country to country in the search for Ultron, we find out more about these characters. Scarlet Witch's unique abilities also give us a terrifying insight into the characters - their darkest moments and greatest fears. (It's funny, but I had a premonition about this film including flashbacks for character development, and in a way AoU does something similar to that).
Scarlet Witch works her magic.
I've come across a lot of positive headlines about the film - not really gone through many of them - it seems the majority of people enjoyed the film, but have their reservations about several aspects of it.

I loved this film - it was genuine fun and entertainment. There were so many moments when I just gaped open-mouthed at the wondrous camerawork (that's a big deal for me), especially considering the same weaving camera is what makes the final battle scene in 'The Avengers' so special for me. I know I said wow out loud at a few moments, and my sister and were thrilled by several character appearances. I laughed out loud countless times - this film really loves its humour, including a running gag about Captain America (Chris Evans).
The Star-Spangled Man... Who doesn't have a plan.
But, as much as I want to fanwash my viewing of the film, let's be honest, this film could have been better. Way better, I might add. It ups the entertainment value, but detracts from everything else. Character development is poorly handled, the story is told primarily through exposition (it was one stop short of the narrator starting with 'Dear Diary'), and let's not start with the female characters. Head, meet desk.

The trouble is Whedon - so shoot me, I think the man just isn't right for this kind of job. He has the universe-building, character-reading down pat, but when it comes to relaying the story, he just cannot do it right. The tone of the first film felt off throughout (even though I still love it), because it had a tortured villain play the clown. Here too, the villain is a comic, but the undertone strives to be dark and gritty. This ain't 'The Dark Knight' - it's not going to be. But, in its own colourful, optimistic universe of aliens and Asgardian gods, the story told can be touching and heartbreaking. We know this is possible, because they did it with TWS.

Directors Anthony and Joe Russo may have ruined AoU for me. They made a realistic and relevant film, while paying heaps of fanservice and building character arcs for TWS and the films to come. A man with a metal arm isn't that far off from a robot army, and a similar play would have worked for AoU. This is a film about ideologies and fears. Stark essentially creates Ultron out of fear (brought on by a Scarlet Witch-induced vision), the twins and their hatred is borne out of fear, the Hulk is in a constant state of fear, and three of the Avengers clash on ideologies throughout. But that isn't built up. RDJ gets top billing and most of the screen time, but no arc - a lesson should be learnt, but he comes away remorseless and unscathed. In The Avengers he had a brilliant arc.

The end of the film sets up the next phase of the MCU, it's going in a completely new direction, and is giving way to newer faces and a much more diverse audience.

My biggest grudge against this film is that it fails to be memorable. Marvel's post-credits scenes have ceased to intrigue (with the exception of the post-credits scene in TWS which facilitated character development, and the one in 'Thor: The Dark World' which directly benefited both that film and this one). No one cares about Thanos, because, three films in he's done absolutely nothing but show up - he wasn't even important in 'Guardians of the Galaxy', which would have made sense.

Let's get to the sticky part - the ladies. The older I get the more finicky I am about female representation. And this being a Joss Whedon vehicle, it's pretty darn pathetic. Whedon is heralded as a feminist (even though he distanced himself from the word and knocked it down as well) and creator of fabulous strong female characters. Yeah... that's happening in an alternate universe, because I don't see it. By dint of him writing in female characters, people worship him, but it's not the case. His female characters are poorly written and have pathetic roles in the script. There are spoilers ahead, so beware.

Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) is an amazing character - an agent of SHIELD, who does the job. When SHIELD goes down, she takes a job with Stark Industries. I'm not sure what her role is because she appeared to be the secretary doling out info to the Avengers. She gets a couple of badass moments, but they don't do her character justice.
You do not mess with Maria Hill.
Helen Cho (Claudia Kim) is a brand new character to the franchise. She's a geneticist, who comes in as a doctor, but turns out to be more awesome at her job than originally expected. She's the only female character in the film to come out unscathed by the Whedon writing - she's quick-witted and efficient, but that's because she's a powerless side character and a damsel in distress.

Laura Barton (Linda Cardellini) is Hawkeye's (Jeremy Renner) secret wife. They've got two kids with a third on the way. Right, that's the smartest move when you're part of an organisation battling aliens. Clint's personal life was not foreshadowed before and comes as a real surprise. Their introduction would have made sense if it was similar to at least one of the comics story where they get killed and Barton goes off the rails (I remember reading that in one of the Ultimates comics for sure). But then we'd have the 'Women in Refrigerators' issue, but how Laura Barton remains sane living on her own with 2/3 kids in the middle of nowhere baffles me. It's ideal for Hawkeye, but what about her? Did she know what she was getting into? The Barton family is such an extra cog in the wheel that I'm still trying to get my head around why they even exist.
Hawkeye's average day in the office - Good thing he's got a family to go home to.
Finally, we come to Black Widow (Scarlet Johansson). I felt like she came into her own in TWS where she was given her level of work to do. She's smart, resourceful, strong and never backs down. She met Captain America toe to toe, and successfully gained his shattered trust. I had issues with her portrayal in the first Avengers film and unsurprisingly Whedon was able to top that pathetic writing with AoU. The sole female Avenger's story arc in this film is her falling in love with the oldest guy on the team (sorry Ruf) and then being jilted by him. Yes, that's what it's come to. Romanoff's flashback (ala Scarlet Witch) is her dark days in the Red Room - but not those of her killing innocent people, which one would think would really play on a person's mind, but the fact that part of the assassin graduation, she had to get sterilized. Shocker! The world's coming to an end and this is what's on your mind.
Black Widow - She's badass, but please let us not show it.
The disparities in the visions the different Avengers see is very interesting to analyse.

The first person to fall victim to Scarlet Witch is Tony. He sees the dying Avengers and the end of the world. Steve, his greatest rival on the team, accuses him of not doing enough to save them. He also sees the portal opening up to reveal the Chitauri forces. Tony's PTSD and fear of losing all those he holds dear is allegedly the reason he makes Ultron. Allegedly. He wants The Avengers to end, and the only way to do so is for them to have 'peace in our time'.

Thor (Chris Hemsworth) would have been an unlikely candidate to fall under the Witch's spell, but his vision is one that intrigued me the most. The entire feel of Thor's Hel was so starkly different from the actual universe that it made me wonder if someone else had directed it. I certainly like the look of that hell-ish world. Creepy dancers heralding the end, and Heimdall (Idris Elba) blaming Thor for all that had happened. Heimdall's entry in this film was the only surprise left for me. Despite my best efforts, all the important characters of note were already revealed to me, but I love the fact that Heimdall was here.
Thor dreams of Hel.
I would love it if the next Thor movie encapsulated that evil look from Thor's vision. It was spectacular due to its uniqueness. That scene was all that poor Thor got in the way of character development, and it seems to have been made for the sole purpose of foreshadowing the third Thor film. Thor is a seriously under-used character in these Avengers films. He is very different from the others, but he gets no gravitas. He's the muscle, the brawn, and occasionally the funny man, but that's it.

Steve's flashback got me excited at first, but that didn't last. His is a mixed bag. We've won the war, let's celebrate. Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) turns up and they try and enjoy that dance he promised her. Steve seems uncomfortably obsessed with Peggy, even though, by now he knows she's lived a full life. Wouldn't it have made more sense for Steve to be pining over the life and legacy taken away from his best friend Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan)? We know what a blow it was to him in TWS. That and the knowledge that Hydra was still going strong and killing people. Those are dark places that I'm sure Steve would be playing over in his head. Strange that they were not where he goes to. I'm not sure what Stan is up to right now, but it would have made for a much more compelling sequence if Bucky had shown up (and foreshadowed 'Civil War'?). What Steve gets is his happy ending, before he finds himself all alone in the dance hall. That one scene made more sense than the rest. The Witch was messing with his head, all right.
Sweet dreams are made of these... Or not.
Banner also gets worked over by the Witch, but we don't see his vision. We see his apparent loss of control, which seemed no different from his usual antics as the Hulk - poor execution.

What I find interesting is that two of those visions are about their greatest fears - losing loved ones, betraying their duties. Steve's is more complex - much more like a dream. But the Widow's? Hers is a retelling of actual events. She doesn't twist the past, she doesn't fear for the future. I don't agree with their choice of vision for the Widow. It irks her much more that she was a killer, in all the films that's the noose around her neck. Suddenly in this one it's about a choice being taken away from her when she wasn't in a position to make it. Tying female characters and their reproductive abilities together is what has always annoyed me. I just don't think it's an essential part of a female character's story - some female characters, sure, I guess, others, not at all. One of the reasons Kara Thrace (Katee Sackhoff) in Battlestar Galactica appealed to me so much was that even when they attempted to intertwine reproduction into the storyline, she still remained stoically apart from it. It was brilliant, because it didn't define her.

In a million years the Widow's family life would not have occurred to me, but for Whedon that appears to have been the only way to show this character had feelings and emotions. Head, meet desk again.
What I want to do every time I remember what they did with Widow's story.
It's been a week since the film's global release and there has been a lot said about it. The overwhelming feeling is that while the film was enjoyable, it was extremely disappointing. The action scenes were spectacular, but as said before, that doesn't make a film good, great or relevant.

Whedon has said before that no matter how dark or gritty you intend to make a scene, you must add humour to end it. I loved the quips in the film, but it came to a point where quips were the only thing keeping us glued to our seats.

Ok, the quips and certain additions to the cast. I was concerned about adding Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver. But, strangely enough, they were a revelation. SW is introduced with some creepy-horror movie moves. But they don't take it forward, which is a shame. She's badass in using her powers to mess with the Avengers. But she also takes the initiative, she's the decision-maker for herself and her brother. She's strong and she has a mission. She and her brother's goals are intertwined, but she doesn't depend on him. She's treated much better by Whedon than BW, which is a travesty, considering which of these ladies is more popular.
Scarlet Witch - Anarchy Assault
Of course, since she's a female character, she must have the frightened woman hides and gets lectured moment. I would have preferred it if she was angered by her trust in Ultron, but nope, she's pretty much just scared and she gets a long lecture from Hawkeye (it's hilarious, but annoying) about being a hero and doing her job. Sigh, the internet is right, we really can't have nice things.

The big problem with the film, and the source of confusion for people not familiar with Marvel and it's contractual issues, was Quicksilver. We've already had a Quicksilver before, in 'X-Men: Days of Future Past', and he was very well received. Here, with the choice of Taylor-Johnson, I was worried that he'd be too camp, or hammed up. But, he wasn't. He was funny and charming. Quicksilver is gung-ho throughout the film, though the tone of the character keeps shifting (as it does with most of the characters). My sister, a huge Quicksilver fan, gave him the seal of approval near the end, with a cheery 'the character's too awesome for any actors to ruin it' line. True that is. He's also unceremoniously killed off. It's a Whedon film, so someone's got to die. But, as beautifully choreographed as his death scene is, people are upset that his death has no impact. It doesn't even fuel Scarlet Witch to make a move different from what she was already set out to do (okay, a slight change, but not by much).
Now you see me.
Olsen and Aaron together make a believable pair. Together they tried to play up the Maximoffs' creepy connection to each other. Since they're friends in real life, their chemistry as siblings was palpable. I love that the one time they actually get to talk (most of the time they only speak a line at a time) they finish each other's stories - it was very twin-like. I really loved these two in the film, they were fantastic, and it's a pity we won't be seeing Quickie again because, to be honest, two viewings in, I'm a bit in love with the guy.

Killing Quicksilver instead of Hawkeye is particularly egregious considering we're shown in elaborate detail that Hawkeye has a wife and family, so where's the impact of the death (barring that we love the guy, and why you kill him!)? Granted, it's old hat to kill off the one guy with a family, but it comes across as a red herring.

What's annoying is that the safe house scene could have been cut to a quarter of its time by just deleting the family. Hawkeye's entrance with the 'Honey, I'm home!' could have easily been a tongue-in-cheek (or coded) call to Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), who was hiding out in the house as he's supposed to be dead. What's silly is that Fury turns up eventually (in the barn) anyway - so why'd we have to have the bit with the family? It adds a dimension to Hawkeye, but not to the film. It's additional screen time wasted on 'character development'. Not very convincing (rather more contrived).
Fury - Back in Charge
Also, a bit off point, but why does Fury call for Tony to meet him; he works with Captain America, and CA is the one making all the decisions for the team (by committee, but you get the point).

The film is overburdened by characters and cameos. Some of them we could have and should have seen more of. Thor is hardly in the picture, barring the aforementioned tantalising Hel scenes. He's just the brawn with no arc. His arc was taken away from him in the first Avengers film as well, despite the fact that his brother was the villain. Sucks to be Thor.
Sad Thor.
The role of the twins (I should stop calling them that, considering I hate that term as well) is also curtailed, which is disappointing considering they're a breath of fresh air - unique, mysterious, fascinating. They've got powers (they're the Enhanced) which gives them brand new moves.

The extra cog in the wheel is Vision (Paul Bettany). He's a beloved character, and he's played by the long-standing unseen voice of Bettany. The birth of the physical being that is Vision in the form of Bettany is a fitting gift to his ever-present but invisible performance. As much as he is a beautiful, ethereal and unique, he still feels like he's tacked on, for the exclusive benefit of the forthcoming films. Though, there's no denying how fabulous he is and his banter with Thor made the third act especially dynamic.
Vision
Spader is incredible as the voice of Ultron - his voice intonations perfectly capture his character's feelings. He's funny and cocky, but menacing as well. However, he's not allowed to be too menacing (I assume that anyway) which detracts from the character.

One thing lacking in both the Avengers films is the presence of the villain. Loki (Tom Hiddleston), for all his beauty and pathos, was never a dark and menacing villain (I don't mean he has to be the Joker and shoot people in the spine). Ultron suffers the same fate. They are comical and whiny and petulant. They want their way and think they know best. But... world domination/destruction are serious business. Neither of this villains can be taken seriously (I'm saying that as someone who loves the first film). Their villainy is not all-encompassing. They lack, and hence do not remain creeping under your skin. They do not evoke fear. Fear among the heroes or the civilians. They just do things. I love Loki the villain, but he's not scary. Neither is Ultron.
Never not a good reason to insert a picture of Loki.
There's something to be said of how all the actors balance their acts as comics and heroes. Intermingling quirks such as Tony's squee at discovering a secret door, and BW's 'beep beep' when on her bike are the moments that make the film. The party scene did a lot to show how far the team have come since the first film, as well as enable a well-needed relaxing point after an exhilarating opening. I loved how Tony and Thor have a competition over who's girlfriend is busier/ more accomplished ('Jane's better') - so much more evolved than men competing over which one's the prettier girl. Add to that the super-fun Hammer contest. Thor's expression when Steve nudges Mjolnir is priceless. Is he insecure or is that some residual arrogance seeping through? We learnt more in those down time scenes than in the exposition-filled character development scenes.
You are all... not worthy.
Those are just the main characters. We get a cameo by the future villain of Black Panther. Selvig (Stellan SkarsgÄrd) shows up briefly to assist Thor. I think he led him to the pool that Thor proceeded to strip and swim in (not shown in detail, unfortunately) - but not sure what the point was.

Rhodey (Don Cheadle) shows up at the party and then later to help in the climactic battle. That was probably his audition to become a new Avenger. Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) is also at the party hinting at his continued search for Bucky. But in the end he's also a new Avenger. This was exciting yes, because the Falcon's entrance can never not be breathtaking (need to stop saying that), and Anthony Mackie has the widest smile I've ever seen on a person's face on the big screen, but... why wasn't Sam invited to the climactic battle. This struck me especially the second time I watched the film, because, despite Sam's brilliant work in TWS, it makes no sense for him to join/be recruited as a new Avenger when in this film he actively suggests he's not interested in being an Avenger and is not shown doing what he does best - being the Falcon. And to be honest, out of that Helicarrier, it would have been outstanding if two flying people had come out - Rhodey and Sam. Asking for too much?
Sam Wilson - Time to party, but not to avenge. Where's the justice?
This film really struggles with balancing it's obeisance to the past with its acknowledgements to the future. It puts paid to the saying, 'Too many cooks....' Too many characters means some get left behind, but those placed front and centre are greatly underserved or worse, poorly served. Too many hands behind the scenes mean the tone of the film and its characters keeps changing. Changing allegiances, changing plans, changing motivations.

The fans deserved better, because we're an intelligent lot who've come to appreciate the nuances of the Marvel film. In an era defined by Chris Nolan's gritty and realistic Batman trilogy, the Marvel films with their airy brightness are an anti-thesis. We're so used to this stuff pretending to be intelligent that it comes as a bit of a shock when a film doesn't even pretend to do that.

Disappointment and frustration are what mark this film. I spent several days after my first viewing waking up to remind myself NOT to think of AoU. It's not memorable and not favourable to anyone of the female persuasion. The one female Avenger you're given is down to the worst tropes in action movie history - the barren romantic love interest pining about the lack of a family life, and calling herself a monster for not being able to. Oh, and she gets kidnapped and locked in a cage (I kid you not) by the villain and has to be rescued by her beloved. Black Widow, a damsel in distress? Headdesk/Headwall/HeadanysolidobjectIcanfind
Keep calm and... oh, forget it.
After watching this film for a second time, I was reminded of all the elements and scenes that I loved. Those are the moments that usually make me fall in love with a film and help me gloss over the pathetic bits; but in this one, it just exacerbates them. Why? Because how can something so good have been so aggravating five minutes ago, and will be just as aggravating (if not more so) five minutes hence?

The action scenes with the camera weaving through the heroes, highlighting them working together - it's a thing of beauty, bookending the entire film. The opening scene and the climactic battles are breathtaking. That's a stupid word, but trust me, no other word can describe it. The simplest part of making these films is that we already love these characters, and the portrayal of their powers is what we want to see on the screen. Put that there and we're in love. But, that can't be it (as I've reiterated before).
THIS!
At the same time, the Hulkbuster vs. Hulk fight is overlong and tedious. Barring a couple of funny quips from Tony (and his expressions, of course), the scene, or rather the length of it, doesn't add much to the film. And what is up with that destruction and devastation? It was horrifying, and made the length of the scene if more frustrating! Come on, Avengers, have a care for the little guy.

Tightening of the film is what would have worked with this film. Apparently, the original script was over three hours long. That I don't understand. It doesn't need to be that long, because we don't need all that amateurish exposition.
*Incoherent screaming*
I worry about the upcoming films, not because Whedon has left (it's about time he did, because he's getting worse), but because the future directors and writers may continue to worship at his altar and make worse decisions for their characters. They also may not have as much influence as him to make even the good decisions that he did (wait, were there any) and are likely to just go by what the woolly-headed Marvel execs say.

This never-ending, interconnected MCU seems to be going down the drain. Where last year I was filled with hope and anticipation for the coming years, I now dread how the next venture will turn out. I love parts of AoU, but for the most part, I'm frustrated and angered. They've effectively ruined all that was great about BW (aside from her fighting skills), they killed off the best new thing about the film (cocky Pietro), Hulk's done a runner (good thing too, as I couldn't have stomached another 'lullaby' scene) and made Tony remorseless for all the death and destruction he caused. Which, by the way, would have made for an extremely compelling reason for him and Cap to fall out and lead to the events that would be 'Civil War'. But no, we profess their love for each other as they part ways, instead.
Randomly insert gif of my favourite moment in the entire film - The Captain!
I love that the film cuts Cap off before he completes 'Avengers Assemble', I hope they do allow him to say that at least once, and I hope he does so in a momentous occasion where every possible Avenger can hear it.
Well, at least we had Quicksilver to make us fall in love with something.

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