“You didn’t see that coming?”

ultron

**This post contains spoilers for Marvel’s “Avengers: Age of Ultron” under the cut. Proceed at your own risk.**

Believe it or not, I don’t ask a lot of my superhero shows and movies. Pretty much all I want is character consistency. Since I come from a place of mostly ignorance regarding the original comics, I have no expectations for big character moments or backstories outside of what I’ve already seen in previous episodes or movies. At the end of the day, I am the easiest fan to win over. The banter and action sequences and sweeping shots are just bonuses to me — just keep the characters true to themselves, and give them room to evolve as people. It’s really an easy task, right?

Avengers: Age of Ultron was a good movie. I think if it had come out two years ago, I might’ve called it “great.” Unfortunately, it came out after Iron Man 3, aka the Tony Stark Character Study, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, aka the movie that set the standard for all future Marvel movies, so it’s been downgraded to mostly “good.” What we didn’t know, but should’ve expected, was that Ultron had a lot, maybe too much, to wrangle from the other phase 2 movies. And it had too much to live up to.

Phase 2, by all accounts, has been a continual buildup to Ultron. We started with Iron Man 3, where yes, Tony struggled with PTSD and an identity crisis, and it ended with him getting his shrapnel removed and blowing up his suits. He also saved the President of the United States, which, after leveling New York City earlier in the year, made superheroes and villains an even more prominent feature on the world map.

Thor: The Dark World, while not anywhere near the level of Iron Man 3 or Captain America: The Winter Soldier in terms of quality, still advanced an ongoing plot of its own: the Infinity Stones. By finding the aether, Thor first discovered that someone is out trying to collect these elements. This is after the tesseract was resurrected on Earth, and while Loki was (unknowingly?) running around with another Infinity Stone in the form of the Scepter.

It bears mentioning that even Guardians of the Galaxy, which has only a very subtle tie to the Avengersverse as we know it currently, advanced the plot of the Infinity Stones by finding and retrieving another stone, the Orb. Without any of the Avengers knowing it, Peter Quill and his ragtag bunch of friends had contributed to their building problem.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier was the most centralized of the Phase 2 movies, taking place mostly in Washington D.C. with a brief trip up to New Jersey. Iron Man crossed the country, Thor crossed realms, and the Guardians crossed the galaxy, but somehow it’s CA:TWS that seemed to cause the most overarching and long-reaching damage to the immediate Avengersverse. They took down SHIELD. They dumped their secret files onto the internet, exposing the secrets of Natasha, Clint, and even Steve. Fury was burned and working underground. Every Avenger should’ve been affected by this change in the system, even Thor (who was, to our knowledge, still on Earth when this all went down).

But there’s no mention of that in Age of Ultron. A year has passed, sure, but there are absolutely no consequences from the file dumps or the fall of the biggest security agency in the world. They’re on a mission to retrieve the Scepter, which should logically be a continuation from Thor: The Dark World, but it’s oddly disconnected. Whether that’s the fault of Thor and a failure to feed into the next part of the story, or of Ultron for not establishing it better, is up for interpretation. Either way, the real, Earth-bound story of The Winter Soldier should’ve informed the narrative of Ultron and it didn’t, which made this movie feel like more of an offshoot of the Guardians or Ant-Man variety.

More specifically to Steve, there should’ve been at least one mention of Bucky, in passing or in his nightmare, to keep the character consistency. I don’t get Joss Whedon’s preference to have Steve constantly thinking of Peggy and never considering Bucky as the other part of him that broke during the war, but it seems blatant at this point. It reads as almost resentful of Steve’s differing backstory from the one Whedon must’ve crafted in his own mind, so instead of having Bucky be a bit of a presence with Steve — kind of like this spectre that follows him around, someone he casually mentions and gets thoughtful about — we have Falcon making a vague reference to him, and Peggy appearing in a nightmare. I get the logic, since Peggy symbolizes the life Steve thinks he lost, which is why I would’ve settled for at least a mention. A real mention. From Steve.

This movie also did nothing to advance us into Phase 3. I assumed throughout the movie that the schism between Tony and Steve would come about as a direct result of Tony creating Ultron and then Vision, and that the movie would end with some sort of standoff and a blame game as Tony and Steve came to grips with their diverging ideologies. It’s true that none of this would’ve happened if Tony hadn’t created Ultron, and that would’ve been a natural launching pad for Steve to stand up and tell Tony that mere mortals can’t play gods and gatekeepers. In fact, it would’ve been nice to see Tony accept more responsibility for this when all was said and done — as much as I appreciate jokes about elevators not being worthy of Mjolnir, that was precious time that Tony should’ve spent admitting to his friends that he messed up, he messed up big time.

Instead, everyone’s already moved on. Clint’s gone home to the farm, Hulk’s still flying in stealth mode somewhere, Natasha is staring at blank walls, and Thor is headed back to Asgard. Tony and Steve shake hands and “gaze into each other’s eyes” according to Natasha, and the movie ends exactly as it began: with everyone getting along. (Yeah, Tony is ostensibly leaving the team, but we know he’s appearing in Captain America: Civil War so even that is an empty plot resolution.) The expectation was that Age of Ultron would put us on the direct path to the Civil War storyline, but with that movie filming right now, suddenly it feels like it’s happening way too soon. (Unless Ant-Man unexpectedly sets the stage? Anything is possible!)

In the scope of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which came about because of the first Avengers movie, this one just doesn’t mesh. It feels more like a “bottle movie,” if such a thing exists: something that is self contained and exists as a standalone within a larger story. Again, that term should’ve applied to Guardians of the Galaxy before it was ever applied to an Avengers movie, but even Guardians did more to advance the Phase 2 plot than Age of Ultron did.

These are reasons why, to me, at this point in the overall Marvel Cinematic Universe story, this movie is just “good.” It may sound like I disliked it, but I didn’t! I actually really enjoyed it, and I laughed a lot. As a standalone, it was great. It had heart, it had wit, it had great battle sequences, and I don’t think anyone was particularly out of character. They all worked as a team for a year, so it made sense that they’d easily banter during battle, have little fights, and try to decompress as a team.

So while I spent the first part of this review sounding like I didn’t like the movie, here are things I DID like, along with some other stray observations.

– This shot:

Bruce/Natasha DID come out of nowhere, it’s true. It really did feel like I’d missed an entire movie building up their story, and a lot of their scenes were so dense and heavy-handed that it reeked of trying to make up in intensity what it lacked in build-up. It didn’t totally work. However, I get Bruce/Natasha on paper. She pretty much showed her hand to Steve in CA:TWS: “Who do you want me to be?” She doesn’t have to ask Bruce that question, he lives a duality that only she can understand, but he has a gentleness and a moral compass that appeals to her in this post-SHIELD world. Seeing it onscreen though, the heavy flirting and the open conversations, it was jarring. Natasha is not an open person, her moments of vulnerability with Steve in CA:TWS were hard won on Steve’s part, so again, some build-up or backstory would’ve been nice.

– While I’m at it, I’ll go ahead and tackle the “sterilization” conversation that’s set Tumblr aflame. I think it’s written vaguely but I interpreted it as Natasha telling Bruce, “Sterilization was another way, in a long list, that they tried to dehumanize me.” She’s not a monster from sterilization; she’s a monster from the entire process. That being said, I don’t think it would’ve been too much to ask for more specific dialogue, just to avoid these sorts of misunderstandings. (And if it was intended that way, then shame on Joss Whedon.)

– Last thought about Nat: I really expected to see her trying to live a normal, non-spy life and her struggles with the world knowing her secrets. I really didn’t expect such a strong romance storyline, I really thought it’d just be flirtations like she did with Steve in CA:TWS. It’s yet another reason it felt a little bit like we missed a movie in between. (Maybe, one day, they’ll make a Black Widow movie that takes place around Christmas 2014. Let me have my dream!)

– I really wish we had gotten to see Bruce/The Hulk’s nightmare as he tore apart an African city. We saw everyone else’s (save Clint), why couldn’t we see Bruce’s?

– Hulk can fly a plane! And make emotional decisions not based in rage!

Tony, well, Tony deserves his own post on characterizations, being “caught in a loop” as Bruce put it, and being his own worst enemy, but I’m not the right person for that. Tony was definitely Tony in this movie, just more of a team player, and that was a good thing. I’ve found over the past two years that I’m a bit of a Tony Stark apologist, I think I over-identified with him in Iron Man 3. I understood his logic perfectly through this entire movie, especially his deep need to prevent the alien invasion that caused him so many panic attacks, but I also lack Tony’s ego, so I can’t relate to actually building a watchdog AI robot.

– In his nightmare of the dead Avengers, he checks Steve’s pulse, and it’s Steve who wakes up and blames him for everything. I don’t think this was a coincidence.

– Aside from the complete lack of Bucky mentions or moments, I think Steve was very in-character. He’s capable of one-liners and wit, he’s allowed to have moments of levity, and I thought the “Language!” running gag was funny. I don’t think his aversion to cursing means he’s a stuffy old man, I just think it’s part of his polite nature.

– I love that Cap was able to budge Mjolnir. He’s almost worthy!

– Cap also has a cool new wrist thing that calls his shield back to him the way Mjolnir responds to Thor.

– On the flipside of that last point, Cap moved noticeably differently in this movie with regard to his shield than he did in CA:TWS. It’s hard to explain, but in CA:TWS, it was grittier, rougher, more street-level-type shield-wielding, whereas in Avengers: Age of Ultron it was more obvious that he was dealing mostly in special effects. I did like that bit where he turned around to use the shield on his back to deflect a shot… kind of like a turtle. A patriotic turtle.

– My favorite parts of the movie were where Steve and Thor teamed up in fights. I think they have a great friendship and I appreciated that it translated onscreen in battle. That’s the kind of subtlety and build-up I would’ve liked from the Bruce/Natasha story, by the way.

Thor went off on his own side adventure, which was weird because he went to Selvig and then they went to magic waters where he had a “vision.” I think the distinction is important, because we know Wanda’s brought out everyone’s fears, but that’s never what Thor calls it; instead, he calls it a “vision.” And while the rest of them scatter and retreat in on themselves after they recover, Thor takes off to relive those fears, because he knows he’s missing something important. His story felt the most edited, by far, but he capitalized his time onscreen by being the comic relief, especially every time he referred to his own godliness. They need to give Hemsworth more of those sorts of moments in his standalone Thor movies.

– “The gates of hell are filled with the screams of his victims!” It just warrants repeating because Thor’s failure to read the situation was hilarious.

– Heimdall cameo! I was so happy to see Idris Elba, even if he was yelling at Thor.

Clint Barton has a secret family and a farm. He’s unexpectedly the most well-adjusted Avenger, and it actually makes a lot of sense. He’s the only one on the team that isn’t “enhanced” or “damaged” in some way — serum, gamma radiation, metal suit, deity, and a broken and rebuilt human who was trained to be an assassin. Clint is just a human who is great at fighting, strategy, and archery, he’s not carrying around the same baggage as everyone else, so why wouldn’t he have a wife and kids? It also elevates the stakes for his current and past actions — all the way back to Thor when he was perched off of that crane in the rain, he had a wife at home that no one (except Natasha) knew about.

– My entire theater yelled “Ohhhhhhh!” then laughed and cheered when Vision handed Mjolnir to Thor. It was a great moment, especially seeing everyone’s reactions as they stood there in mute shock.

Apologies for the low quality, but it’s totally necessary to include this reaction.

– Speaking of Vision, he was great! How great is Paul Bettany?! I want more Vision in the future! (I’m gonna miss JARVIS though.) And Vision can fly?? Was this ever explained? Is it because of the cape?

 

Wanda and Pietro were great additions, and I’m sad that Pietro died. Their backstory was compelling, especially their completely understandable hatred of Tony. I daresay I liked this Quicksilver better than his X-Men counterpart, and I look forward to more Scarlet Witch shenanigans in the future. (Her scene when Pietro died was incredible.)

Maria Hill was great as usual. I think the Avengers would’ve fallen apart if she wasn’t around to keep them in line.

– As for Ultron himself… I don’t care for James Spader, and his voice and the way Ultron moved and spoke, I was very aware the entire time that it was James Spader. This made him less sinister and more… creepy… to me. Not creepy in a dangerous way, either, just creepy in a… Spader-y way. And the way he kept cracking jokes was just awkward.

– In fact, I actually watched the movie in a theater that had a very captive and responsive audience, and I always feel lucky when that happens because it elevates the movie experience for me. I noticed three key things in terms of audience reaction: 1) The “Ohhh!” response to Vision as I listed above, which was by far the biggest reaction to any scene 2) A noticeable lack of reaction to Natasha and Bruce kissing, just a complete non-response from the entire theater, and 3) more than half of Ultron’s little jokes or asides fell flat. I think in time, Ultron’s not gonna hold up as a particularly compelling villain. Not compared to the likes of Loki, Ronan, Malekith, or even Aldrich Killian from Iron Man 3. I’m sorry, but Ultron should blow that list out of the water — what’s more terrifying than an AI set to destroy the world?? — but he doesn’t, at least not to me. He never scared me. Heck, The Winter Soldier was more chilling, and he turned out to be more of an antihero than a villain!

– I enjoyed seeing the guy who stood up to Rumlow in CA:TWS working with Fury and Friends on the helicarrier.

What did you think? Was I too hard on the movie? Too easy? What do you think of Clint’s secret family? Are you angry with Joss Whedon? Did it live up to the hype?

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