One day, we’ll get the Avengers party movie. Maybe. Hopefully. The best scene of Joss Whedon’s 2015 blockbuster Avengers: Age Of Ultron arrives early on, after the Avengers bust up a HYDRA compound in Eastern Europe and retrieve Loki’s stolen scepter. They’ve all returned to the Avengers Tower in New York, and they just enjoy each other’s company. That’s it. Nothing really happens. It’s glorious.
Stan Lee gets drunk. People make fun of War Machine for telling a story that doesn’t really go anywhere. Everyone sits around trying to lift Thor’s hammer, and Thor briefly freaks when Captain America budges it just the tiniest bit. Black Widow suddenly starts heavily flirting with Bruce Banner, almost out of nowhere. (That whole thing would’ve been better if the movie treated it as a drunk office-party one-off rather than the beginning of a tragically doomed love story, but it’s fun nonetheless.) After going to great pains to build the Avengers’ team chemistry in his previous movie, Whedon spends a couple of minutes basking in it. Then, of course, Ultron suddenly appears, possessing one of Tony Stark’s robots, and starting to wreak havoc. There’s plenty of other good stuff in Age Of Ultron, but it never quite recovers after the party ends.
There’s a sort of logic to action movies: You tolerate the scenes of dialogue and exposition to get to the fights. The idea, I suppose, is that you can’t have a movie that’s nothing but action—though Mad Max: Fury Road and The Raid: Redemption, among others, have proven that that’s possible. Standard logic says you need scenes where you build character and chemistry and plot and motivation, and these things aren’t easy to do in the context of an action scene. But the action scenes are the reason why people turn up to those movies. They’re the reason you keep your finger on fast-forward when you’re rewatching a Mission: Impossible movie.
The movies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe have inverted that whole dynamic. The action scenes are grand and elaborate and impressive, but they’re not what gets anyone in the door. Instead, the bits of Marvel movies that people love, the bits that keep them coming back, are the scenes in between the action. They’re the throwaway jokes, the deep breaths, the moments of quiet bonding. The action scenes themselves can be obligatory or stapled on. They can also be overly loud and showy, and they can take away from the rest of the movie. That’s what happens in Age Of Ultron. That’s its grand and fatal flaw.
Age Of Ultron is, by virtually any measure, a vastly successful movie. It pulled in about $1.5 billion globally, making the fourth-highest-grossing movie of 2015, globally speaking. It was the second-most-expensive movie ever made, and yet it still turned a tidy profit. It helped keep the characters in the forefront of people’s minds, and it kept the Marvel machine chugging along. People, by and large, liked it.
Whedon took on the thankless task of building a coherent narrative with an even more crowded cast than he’d had in the first Avengers movie, and he made sure everyone got moments to shine. He effectively seeded in bits that foreshadowed the next few years of Marvel movies. (Before rewatching, I’d forgotten that Ulysses Klaue, Andy Serkis’ delightful secondary Black Panther villain, was even in the movie.) But within the context of Marvel’s remarkable run, Age Of Ultron is half a misstep, a loud and overwhelming spectacle that ultimately doesn’t leave much of an impression.
A few days after the movie came out, Whedon said that the experience of working with Marvel had become “really, really unpleasant.” He and the studio had come into conflict over a few key scenes. Whedon didn’t like the scene of Thor having visions in a cave, and Marvel wanted to keep it. Marvel didn’t like the different Avengers’ dream-sequence scenes, and Whedon wanted to keep them. (All of those scenes are, honestly, pretty bad, and none of them really serves a purpose. They should’ve listened to each other and cut them.) Marvel also wasn’t thrilled about the extended interlude at Hawkeye’s farm—a crucial pause that still comes off awkwardly in the context of the movie. When you’re watching the movie, it’s pretty clear that different creative people were working against each other, fighting to make sure they got their shit in. It’s messy and disjointed, and it keeps the movie from coming together as a whole.
There’s also a surprising amount of stuff in the movie that just doesn’t work. After watching a couple of times, I’m still not sure whether the Scarlet Witch implanted the idea to create Ultron in Tony Stark’s head; the movie introduces the possibility without ever really exploring it. The bit where a pre-physical-form Ultron attacks a pre-physical-form JARVIS— envisioned as two balls of light shooting beams at each other—just sucks. Tony Stark continues to wear the worst cool-guy shit in the world; the T-shirt with Bruce Lee DJ-ing triggered instant revulsion in me.
Ultron himself is a problem, too. Whedon had a smart idea in getting a cold, predatory James Spader to voice him. But the character himself still comes off as a messily conceived plot device. His entire motivation, to create a peaceful world by destroying the Avengers and maybe humanity, never coheres as anything other than generic villain nonsense. Ultron is supposed to be a sentient being created partly out of the minds of Tony Stark and Bruce Banner, but that doesn’t quite explain why we see an all-powerful robot having rageful breakdowns. The character design is gallingly ugly. I could go on.
But even Ultron isn’t as bad as the Vision, an utterly useless waste of space right down to his convoluted origin story. Pity Paul Bettany, who came into the Marvel Cinematic Universe on day one, with a cushy voice gig, and who then found himself spending hours in makeup chairs, being turned red. In the comics, the Vision is a layered character, a confused automaton stumbling toward his own humanity. In the movies, he’s a vast energy-sucking blank, probably the most useless character to appear in multiple MCU movies. I continue to detest the bit where he tosses around Thor’s hammer like it’s nothing, thus invalidating the whole cool buildup where nobody else is worthy to handle the thing.
These aren’t quite quibbles, but they aren’t fatal flaws either. Age Of Ultron is still a fun movie, a pleasant way to spend an afternoon. There are moments of comic-book bullshit that continue to make my heart sing, like Iron Man getting his Hulkbuster armor from a missile fired by a satellite, and Black Widow dropping out of a Quinjet on a speeding motorcycle. The action scenes themselves, often conceived in extended slo-mo tracking shots, have a video-gamey element, and the CGI becomes a bit much at times, but they’re also intricately planned-out to the tiniest detail. We see the characters making split-second decisions that fit what we know about them, and their camaraderie comes through in battle. Even Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s Quicksilver, a nothing character with a dumb accent and powers that looked cooler when they were in X-Men: Days Of Future Past, gets in one genuinely moving mid-fight moment. It’s the moment where he dies, but still.
The movie sets up future movies so delicately that you almost don’t know what you’re seeing as you’re seeing it. The mere mention of Wakanda should be a giant red blinking arrow, but it’s only in there as a casual aside. Captain America and Iron Man bicker the way that they did in the first Avengers, but that bickering reveals a central schism. Tony Stark thinks of himself as a hard-bitten realist, but the preemptive moves he makes ensure that things turn out worse—something that continues to happen in real life, with other self-identified realists. Steve Rogers sees this and tries to stop it, but Stark never listens. And there’s also the presence of the looming off-world danger that nobody can name but everyone can feel—something that would become a whole lot more concrete when Thanos and his envoys finally showed up a few movies later.
And one of the intriguing things about Age Of Ultron, and about almost all the Marvel movies that followed, is the way it works in conversation with the other superhero movies of the era. In Man Of Steel, Zack Snyder showed us a vision of Superman who protects the whole of humanity while allowing vast numbers of humans to die. There’s wide-scale devastation in Age Of Ultron, too. That devastation, and the guilt that Tony Stark feels over it, has wide-reaching implications in future Marvel movies. But the film also takes pains to show the Avengers doing everything they can to protect on-the-street bystanders, even if it means putting their lives on the line to do it. I don’t think anyone in the movie would ever come out and say it, but that works as a full-on rebuke of Snyder’s movie, of his whole deal.
Unlike Snyder, Whedon understands and respects his characters, and he knows how to use them to weave a narrative. That’s great. And yet Age Of Ultron never hits the same sweet spot that the first Avengers did. It also underscores the magnitude of what the Russo brothers later pulled off in Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War, movies with even more characters to juggle that still have better action scenes, better character moments, and better comic relief.
Age Of Ultron would’ve been better without Ultron. It would’ve been better if we’d never left the party. Maybe one day we’ll get a movie like that: a pure Dazed And Confused-style hangout movie, one that doesn’t need a supervillain or an exploding city or maybe even a plot. Maybe a couple of superheroes can sneak off to foil a supermarket robbery. Maybe there’s a brief and drunken punch-up when a couple of them push each other’s buttons too hard. Maybe there’s a hookup that’s not supposed to happen. But we don’t need anything more than that. Marvel has already invested a ton of work into storing up endless reservoirs of goodwill for its characters. They’ve done it so well that I wish, sometimes, that they’d let those characters just be.
Other notable 2015 superhero movies: Marvel’s other movie that year was the long-gestating Ant-Man, a heist comedy that was originally supposed to come from the giddily inventive auteur Edgar Wright. Wright left the movie when he and Marvel couldn’t get on the same page, and we tend to look at that as one of the great lost opportunities of superhero movies. But Peyton Reed’s Ant-Man, with its antic tone and its fun supporting cast and Paul Rudd’s charismatically clueless lead performance, remains an unlikely blast. And anyway, Marvel eventually did figure out how to work with distinctive directors. It just took a little while.
In non-MCU Marvel news, Josh Trank made one of the all-time colossal fuckups when he tried to turn the story of the Fantastic Four, Marvel’s zippy and colorful Silver Age first family, into a dark-and-gritty body-horror plod. Trank’s Fantastic Four, which he disowned immediately upon release, only barely counts as a movie. It’s a series of cosmic-stoner musings, held together with tragically shitty special effects, leading up to absolutely nothing other than the standard-issue everyone-stares-at-a-beam-of-light final set-piece. It remains mind-boggling that no movie has yet managed to figure out a remotely compelling use for Doctor Doom, an all-time top-three comic-book supervillain. The one thing I like about Trank’s Fantastic Four is the still-developing tradition of hiring tremendously overqualified future stars to play the Human Torch, and then those actors (first Chris Evans, then Michael B. Jordan) finding much better roles within the MCU proper.
Matthew Vaughn’s slick secret-agent splatter-fest Kingsman: The Secret Service probably doesn’t technically count as a superhero movie, but it shows Vaughn doing much better things with Mark Millar’s edge-lord nihilism than the director managed with the actual superhero movie Kick-Ass. Kingsman finds more effective ways to deploy both freewheeling wit and indiscriminate gore-explosions, and the scene of Colin Firth brutally murdering a whole church full of motherfuckers is an all-timer.
And then there’s Batkid Begins, the documentary about what happened on the one day that an entire city got together to make a kid feel like a superhero—a movie that gets at the whole idea of why we care about these movies, and these characters, in the first place.
Next time: Deadpool takes brutal and often-stupid delight in skewing the entire superhero-movie institution while still existing within that tradition.