Friday, April 8, 2016

The Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

Director: Joss Whedon
Writer: Joss Whedon
DP: Ben Davis
Editor: Jeffry Ford, Lisa Lassek
Producer: Kevin Feige
Score: Brian Tyler, Danny Elfman
Starring: Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr., Mark Ruffalo, Scarlett Johansson, Chris Hemsworth, Samuel L. Jackson, James Spader, Elizabeth Olsen, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Paul Bettany, Don Cheadle, Anthony Mackie, Jeremy Renner
Distribution: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Length: 2 hrs. 21 min.

The titular villain of The Avengers: Age of Ultron believes that humans are so weak and helpless that they must be destroyed for intelligence on Earth to "evolve." Ultron was created to protect humans, but he judged that the fact that they needed protection meant they weren't worth protecting. The Avengers, then, must stand up for the worth of humanity.

Ultron comes about from Tony Stark's hubris. Early in the film, he becomes seized with a fear that the Avengers in their current state will be incapable of protecting humanity from future existential threats. So, he teams up with Bruce Banner and uses the Mind Stone, a powerful item recovered in their heroic efforts, to create Ultron, an artificial intelligence designed to help the Avengers protect humanity. Unfortunately, Ultron betrays Tony Stark and decides to replace the human race with his own race of robotic beings that all share one mind.

While Tony faces his hubris, the other Avengers wrestle with other fears that separate them from other people: namely, the Hulk worries over his lack of control over himself, and Thor over the sheer destructive potential of his own power. The Avengers' isolating internal struggles contrast with the perfect synchronicity of Ultron's multiple bodies, and they cannot win unless they cooperate and complement each other.

Eventually, the least prominent Avenger, Hawkeye, takes the rest of them to meet his family, demonstrating that the trials they face need not separate them, as long as they accept their own limitations. The members of Hawkeye's family are barely characters; the film treats them more like accessories, vessels for declarations of theme that serve their purpose as items to advance the Avengers' character arcs, but do nothing else.

By that point the film has written itself into a corner and must use a literal deus ex machina - an actual godlike figure emerging from an actual machine - to give the Avengers the power they need to defeat Ultron. Of course, there's nothing inherently wrong with using a deus ex machina, and in this case there's an argument that it arises directly from the Avengers' learned ability to cooperate, seeing as it comes from a collusion of all their powers.

So, the Avengers proceed to face Ultron one last time, now with the help of the physical manifestation of their overcoming obstacles. The final battle sequence contrasts with the previous ones in the film; instead of portraying espionage, discord between allies, or desperation, it portrays the Avengers' acts of heroism, and a battle against a relatively abstract enemy.

And yet, it doesn't feel quite right. The final battle suggests that the Avengers are capable of a good that lies beyond any of their individual claims to greatness, but this is a point already made quite clearly in 2012's The Avengers. For all that Ultron is supposedly an evil born from what the Avengers were doing before, and the film's insistent nods to development, it feels as though they ultimately defeat Ultron by doing the exact same thing they were doing before. They fight a monolithic enemy in the form of countless faceless footsoldiers; they fight amongst themselves, resulting in an elaborate and highly destructive action setpiece; their struggles lead them to chew each other out, but eventually they unite against a common enemy. All of these echo the earlier film, and not to Age of Ultron's benefit. (It doesn't help that the film rolls back any character development that took place in the superior Iron Man 3.)

The other thing that makes it feel like nothing has changed is the film's mitigating: for all that Ultron represents Tony Stark's hubris, it's a simplistic evil; it's hard for it not to be when it wants to destroy the entire planet. And Tony Stark isn't actually responsible for Ultron; the Mind Stone is, as is the brainwashing he received from Scarlet Witch, the film's telepathic villain whose abilities also afflict Thor and the Hulk. No one can really blame these characters for what they do. This may even account for why the film rolls back Iron Man 3, but that film's existence only makes things feel even less justified.

This becomes even more vexing in light of the film's globe-trotting plot. The Avengers' self-pity dominates the film across Asia, Africa, and Europe, but is unrelated to the mass urban destruction inflicted on these places. For all that it harps on humanity's need for protection and Tony Stark's feelings of inadequacy, nothing in the film beyond its narrative takes much concern with their ability to protect people. The conflict is resolved by having the Avengers come into contact with Hawkeye's family, people who have no concern for mortality or transience - witness their total lack of stress over Hawkeye's deadly profession (and compare their attitude to the probable attitudes of the thousands of people whose livelihoods are destroyed in this film). And while the aforementioned deus ex machina arises from their cooperation, it comes not to reward their heroism, but for managing to steal an object from someone more powerful than them.

Instead of introspection, we get Ultron demoralizing them with the sheer force of its power, followed by them picking themselves back up and beating it into submission - and the film beatifying their efforts. At the end of the day, the MCU leaves no room to question the Avengers (Hawkeye's family certainly don't question him or the potential stress his "avenging" could place on their livelihoods); the conflicts that take place therein are preternatural, and increasingly cosmic. Age of Ultron doesn't let us forget this: the constant references to past and future Marvel movies in the dialogue reminds us of all the other battles that couldn't have been resolved by anyone besides the Avengers. As long as that's true, it's very difficult to take seriously any questions the MCU might raise against them.

The references to other films also make the film feel awfully slight. If not for them, I might think I was being unfair to the film; the Marvel Cinematic Universe, after all, runs on the strength of its characters, and even if the film's conflict is ultimately simplistic, maybe it's enough to put the characters in a new situation, one in which we've never before seen them. But the references trivialize it by revealing the artifice (not that this is necessarily bad, but it has no place here), and what happens in this film isn't so significant compared to what future films have in store, or the near-destruction of the entire universe in Thor: The Dark World. The utterly tone-deaf humor doesn't help either, nor does the ugly visual combination of high key lighting and dull colors.

Finally, the film has such empty-headed gall, such a gross lack of self-awareness, that it elects to end with slow pans over marble statues of the Avengers. This is probably the most pretentiously self-important thing I've ever seen in a film. As if its critique of the Avengers wasn't superficial already, the film insists on assuring us that they have overcome, to the point that it poses them as literal objects of worship.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe is a unique and interesting beast, and it's become both popular and profitable for it. Between the expansive-yet-interconnected world they've created, the amount of time spent with each character across multiple films, and the characters' archetypal personalities, Marvel can create conflicts that feel larger-than-life while letting the audience have their own stake in them. This has allowed them to make some films I would consider successful, but the way they've applied it in The Avengers: Age of Ultron bothers me to no end.

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