Several weeks have passed since the latest film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe dropped, so I feel comfortable now releasing my review with commentary.
Let me start by saying that I’m disappointed with the amount of hate and nitpicky criticism this movie is getting. If you’ve been reading this space for the last few weeks you are probably aware that I have grown out of that phase of fanboy life and as a fanman I intend to separate myself from that as much as possible. I will not be calling anyone out nor will I be insulting or overly-critical in any way but I will be rebutting points that I’ve seen floating about the ‘net regarding the film that I believe qualify as hate and nitpicky criticism.
First, I have to give credit to the writing and production crew of the entire MCU for the way the movie was so cleverly interwoven with the “Agents of SHIELD” show. If you’re a fan of the MCU movies and haven’t checked out the show yet I really do urge you to check it out. As a “spy show” it stands well on its own but when taken as it was originally conceived; more tales from the MCU for those who aren’t getting enough from the films themselves, it performs that job well too. I’m sure it would not take more than a cursory search of the web to find a timeline with recommended viewing order so newcomers would be able to see and appreciate how well embedded into the films’ mythology it is.
Once again, Joss Whedon has put together another great instance of a comic book on film, done correctly. One of my favorite things about comic books is how your mood can run the gamut of emotions during the course of single twenty-two paged issue. Whedon’s clear understanding of the medium the source-material comes from is on display here. Like many comics I’ve ever read, the intro scene opens in the middle of an action sequence that began before the reader, or in this case the viewer, got there. The purpose is to convey to the audience the idea that the Avengers’ work is never done. “We join our heroes as they battle the mighty forces of Hydra at their secret mountain laboratory.” Throughout this scene and the rest of the movie, his sense for entertaining and engaging dialogue is on display. While there were places in “Avengers” where I felt like I was watching characters from “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” in cosplay, here the dialogue never felt overdone. As a soldier I have a different perspective on the “combat chatter” as well which is: it’s not uncommon for soldiers to showcase their sense of humor to cope with the dangerous situations they find themselves. I once read that the developers of the game “Army of Two” wrote in-game dialogue after listening to recordings of real soldiers in combat situations only to dial it down after focus testing because testers thought it sounded too macho and therefore ridiculous. Basically, that’s a lot of words to just say, “I thought the dialogue was perfect.”
Regardless of your personal feelings on movies being screened and subsequently released on home video in 3D, the tracking shot of every Avenger passing by the camera all at once, slowed dramatically just long enough to let us appreciate it, looked great. Several action sequences use the combined 3D and slow-mo affect to equal effectiveness throughout the movie. The final standoff against Ultron’s seemingly endless supply of robot bodies being one of them.
Hawkeye fans, among whom I count myself, will be pleased to note that his role in the film as well as on the team was greatly expanded. I’ve seen several complaints that the references to him as the glue or backbone of the team were unnecessary, at best, or ham-fisted, at worst. Let me tell you that as a devoted comic reader myself, they did exactly what they were supposed to do and whether they were ham-fisted or not is irrelevant. Remember that we’re still dealing with an art form, the source material that is, which was originally intended for children. The scenes exist to help ground the movie in reality a little bit but also to teach a little something. The ham-fisted aspect comes from the fact that subtlety gets in the way of the message, not just for children but even the casual viewer who isn’t fluent in Marvel lore. Anyone who would like to argue that the presence of blood, gore and foul language in the comics or the movies makes me wrong is welcome to do so. Without any hyperbole or arrogance I can, and will, argue that those three elements alone do not make comic books “for adults.” Without digressing too far let me just say that comic books that are truly created for adults contain much more complex factors and are typically even referred to by another name in order to provide parity. You would be forgiven for not being aware of the distinction, but that would not make the assessment that comics containing blood, gore, and foul language are “adult entertainment” any less wrong.
We finally got to see two of the smartest men on the planet working together! Not only do we get to witness Tony Stark and Dr. Banner use their combined intellect to solve problems, we also got to see them disagree. While that might seem like a minor issue let, from my perspective I can say that it is not. The Marvel Comics brand has been tackling complex issues for decades. In the comics Dr. Banner is considered one of the smartest men on the planet and simultaneously the most dangerous because of the big green guy that lives in his head. Previous MCU movies have touched on this but not to the degree that this one did.
One of the greatest things this film does is reminds us that these are human beings, superpowered as they are; real people dealing with very unreal circumstances. The introduction of the twins Wanda and Pietro Maximoff highlights this wonderfully. These characters are known to comic readers as the Scarlet witch and Quicksilver and their movie forms are true to the spirits of the comics. Together these characters turn the Avengers against their own inner demons and we see the culmination of each characters’ own fear and insecurity. Banner frets over the damage he’s done and the potential future danger he represents. Stark is still trying to escape his past as a weapons builder, something that the twins force him to deal with directly once again. Captain America is aware that he’s a man out of time and believes he has no place. Thor is still struggling to understand his purpose as the next ruler of Asgard and the responsibility he feels to Jane Foster and the people of Earth. Black Widow regrets her past as a Soviet assassin. In one of my favorite moments, as Scarlet Witch forces the rest of the Avengers are forced to see their worst nightmares. when she tries it on Hawkeye he says something like, “Nope, don’t do mind control,” a clever nod to the last Avengers film.
Comic books being what they are, there are plenty of massively over-powered villains from comic lore to choose from, but the choice of Ultron makes sense on many levels. He is the embodiment of the entire team’s worst nightmare, again something the people behind the scenes were trying to convey. He also represents a real-world fear that many of us have regarding technology today. Head executive producer Kevin Feige has already publicly stated this film is the culmination of the collective beating that the team took in their solo films between Avengers flicks. Those solo films basically dealing with each character’s “dirty little secrets” and coming to a head here. Where “Avengers” showed the coming together of a group of alpha personalities to save the world from an outside threat, MCU Phase 2 and “Age of Ultron” demonstrates that even those alpha personalities have insecurities and sometimes the biggest threat to the world is us. Humans built Ultron; humans created WMD’s; humans experimented on other humans; humans created the Hulk; trained children to be assassins; tried to nuke New York City.
I’ve heard it said that Ultron wasn’t given his proper due because he wasn’t given a chance to develop properly as a character. To that I say, “What’s there to develop?” He’s an evil, intelligent robot bent on destroying humanity, what else do casual viewers need to know? I’ve read a criticism of this movie saying that Ultron was misrepresented and that he, like many comic book villains in a film space, was disposed of too quickly. To that I say “Misrepresented how?” The argument it presented was that a robot so smart and powerful should have succeeded but his own poor choices in the film is what led him to be defeated, yet he addresses the reasons given in the movie that stopped him from making better choices, and then just offhandedly dismisses them. Obviously he saw the same movie I did and this is where I declare the nitpicking begins. Ultron was not a super-smart artificial intelligence bent on destroying the world because he was right, it was because he was more human than even the character would admit. He displays thinking and mannerisms obviously inherited from his “father” Tony Stark, yet threatens to kill anyone who makes the comparison. He comes to the conclusion that humanity must be destroyed from a flawed premise and uses a straw man argument to justify it. The movie very clearly demonstrates that he isn’t stable. He is exhibiting the traits of a psychopath and behaves accordingly and I don’t think the evidence was subtle at all. While he most definitely could have found a more efficient or quicker way to eliminate humanity, that isn’t in Tony’s nature, so it wouldn’t be in his either; it makes sense that he would make massive, over-the-top gesture. I think he even says in the movie that subtlety isn’t his style. To the idea that he was disposed of too quickly I’ll say, “What is your definition of too quickly?” These movies are telling stories in 120 minutes what comic books might take six all the way up to twenty-four issues to tell. A proper translation that would give us the proper sense of time passing would be impossible, not to mention tedious. Meanwhile, his onscreen death, while dramatic, was by all means not definitive and we could very easily see the character again in the future. That scene exists to give the audience their closure for this movie and this movie only. The nature of the character is that he is impossible to kill. That’s something I think even casual viewers would notice if they chose to devote the time to it that we fan-persons have. Every time he resurfaces in the comics, he is defeated and “killed” yet some intrepid writer will always manage to create a clever way to bring him back. We’ve already seen a retcon happen in the MCU, it wouldn’t be impossible for it to happen again.
Another article stated that the scenes between the action were slow, tedious and filled with unnecessary moments that never paid off. Welcome to the world of comic books! Sometimes the writers are just filling space to get to the next plot point. Sometimes entire issues of a series can feel like that. Off the top of my head right now I can think of a dozen plot threads in various series that were dangled before me and then never revisited again because of a change in writing staff, editorial fiat, or something similar. I would argue that while those scenes were not intended to be taken that way, they make the movie even more true to its source material. The sub-plot of the romance between Banner and Widow was left unfulfilled because that’s real life! However, it could also be picked up by another film in the future, something else that comics do frequently, and something else that Whedon excels at. Lastly, any regular comic reader will tell you that a twelve-issue miniseries has a couple, possibly up to five, issues that do feel like filler to get us to the next action-packed issue. You could argue, and many have, that this movie feels like that, we’re just facilitating the progress toward Phase 3 and the ultimate battle with the big bad guy. In this case, my nitpicky critics, you would be right but that doesn’t take away from this movie, nor does it make it bad.
I did have one complaint about the movie and I’m sure I’ll be lambasted for being cliché, but I was sorry that it had to end. I have literally no complaint, I just don’t want to have to wait until June to see “Ant Man.”