There’s a moment in the climatic fight of Avengers: Age of Ultron where Thor bellows defiantly, “Is that the best you can do?” At that moment I was wondering the same of the filmmakers and executives behind Marvel’s latest mega movie. Anyone who knows me knows that I’m a genre film fan. I live for big budget, popcorn movies, but I expect those big budget popcorn movies to have character development, a compelling plot, and striking action that is well lit and properly framed. I expect the movie to flow and progress organically, and can easily cite prime examples of the past as benchmarks for such qualities: Raiders of the Lost Ark, Die Hard, Terminator 2, The Matrix, The Dark Knight, The Avengers…etc. Ultron seems to be on cruise control the entire time and suffers from trying to pack in way too much. The problem is, at this point, the novelty of seeing all of our beloved heroes on screen together isn’t new, and it’s not enough to carry the movie.
This is further compounded when comparing it to Marvel’s other recent releases, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and Guardians of the Galaxy. Both of those movies excelled in character development and story structure, which makes Ultron’s missteps all the more puzzling. How is it that Winter Soldier’s scene of Nick Fury being ambushed on the streets of D.C. is somehow more intense and compelling than thousands of evil robots fighting a team of superheroes in a floating city? It’s not that less is more, or that the spectacle isn’t impressive (it is). It’s the simple fact that nothing feels at stake. There’s no real tension or drama. We know these characters are invincible and never going to die (save for an inevitable recasting some years down the line). In every single action sequence, our heroes are quipping and bantering with each other. It’s fun at first, but when it never changes throughout the film, the audience never feels like the characters are taking the threats seriously, so why should we? There needs to be variety. It’s important to create sense of danger and foreboding; that’s what gets us invested. It’s not easy, but it’s not supposed to be. Ultron doesn’t really try, however, and what we get is a movie that has an uneven, rushed pace and feels hallow and unsatisfying.
One of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s best movies is Total Recall. What makes Recall so unique compared to some of his other films is that in Recall, Schwarzenegger’s character is on the run the entire time. He’s still a massive, buff, hulking presence, but the movie makes him vulnerable and always on the defensive. It’s incredibly effective and really ups the ante. If this huge, action star is on the run, he must definitely be in trouble. Ultron desperately needed elements like this. This is supposed to be the “darker” sequel where the heroes are put to the test, challenged in a way they’ve never been before, but they never are. Sequences are over just as soon as they begin and while the movie has lines of dialogue inferring that they took a beating, or suffered a setback, it doesn’t match what happens on screen. As evil as Ultron is supposed to be, he never truly poses a real threat to our heroes.
Another confusing element is how Ultron ignores the other Marvel movies, when a huge part of the draw to these films is that they’re all connected in the same universe. At the end of Iron Man 3, Tony Stark hung up the Iron Man suit, but at the beginning of Ultron, he’s back, no questions asked. Winter Soldier had Captain America and Falcon setting off to find Bucky Barnes, but in Ultron, Captain is out and about with the Avengers and never references it save for a single throw away line from Falcon about their “missing persons case.” I get that Ultron needs to stand on its own and develop its own story, but you can’t ignore what we as an audience have already seen. Another issue is the romance between Bruce Banner and Black Widow. It comes out of nowhere. Two characters having a romantic connection is great, it’s refreshing, but it needs to be organic. You can’t all of a sudden say, “Oh yeah, Hulk and Widow like each other now.” We want to see the relationship develop from the beginning. It’s lazy to throw us into the middle and say it’s been going on for a while. What’s funny is they had the perfect opportunity to plant the seeds of the relationship in another movie. A running gag in Winter Soldier was Window constantly trying to set up Captain America on a date. There easily could have been a reference to her growing interest in Banner.
The rushed pacing brings the film down throughout, but the most glaring example is in the first act when Ultron is introduced. Ultron is created through a fluke, becomes active and sentient, then homicidal and attacks, all within a few minutes of screen time. He’s evil, accept it! Why is he evil? Why does he want to kill the Avengers? “Ultron bad! Avengers good!” isn’t exactly compelling motivation. Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch have sworn revenge on The Avengers because of Tony Stark’s weapons development, but when they realize Ultron wants to destroy the world, they ignore their original hatred and intent and join with the Avengers without a second thought.
I have always had an problem with action movies that stage impressive fights and sequences and then ruin them with excessive shaky cam or poor lighting. Ultron’s introductory fight suffers from the latter. The scene is so dark and poorly lit, that everything that happens becomes a blur. You can’t follow what’s going on until after it’s happened. It’s confusing because the movie employs a veritable army of effects artists and technicians and this could have easily been fixed by upping the wattage on set. The movie also forgoes the bright, vibrant color pallet from the first film in favor of washed out grays and browns. The movie doesn’t pop visually like the first Avengers movie and while I have no problem with a movie shifting gears into a darker tone, a huge draw for the original Avengers was how bright, vivid, and comic book-esq it was. Ultron mistakes faded colors for a more serious tone and the movie is all the more visually dull because of it.
A very confusing choice is who the movie decides to focus on. These team up movies are an event, the culmination of several stand alone films, years in the making. So why on earth does the movie dedicate so much screen time to Hawkeye (one of the least interesting characters)? I know there was a running joke after the first film as to how ineffective Hawkeye is compared to the rest of the team, but it’s almost as if Whedon took it upon himself to prove to everyone that Hawkeye is essential. The problem is, he isn’t. He’s a dull, uninteresting character played by Jeremy Renner, an actor with all the charisma of chipped paint. There’s a small group of fans that love Hawkeye but it’s a very small group. The fact that the movie goes out of its way to focus so much time on him, ignoring much more interesting characters such as Captain America, Thor, Hulk, Iron Man, and Black Widow is unnecessary and disappointing. What’s further confusing regarding character development is the main event, Tony Stark. Tony is directly responsible for the creation of the movie’s antagonist, a killer robot that brings about wanton destruction and misery around the world, and he never ever brought to task about it. There is never a moment of remorse or sorrow; his actions have no consequences. He plays the same note the entire movie: rapid fire, quipy dialogue. There was a real chance to develop Tony’s character here, to have him change and evolve into what is going to be Captain America’s main adversary in Civil War. He could have further isolated himself from the team, who are tired of his brash and selfish ways, but instead, the movie glosses over any real interpersonal conflict with our main characters in favor of bunching them up together for the finale.
And then there’s Vision…why is Vision in this movie? He’s not introduced until the 3rd act and is suddenly supposed to be beholden to both the Avengers and the audience? We’ve got enough going on but we need to introduce someone else? It’s too much.
I was disappointed because Marvel Studios has been on a roll recently, and The Avengers is supposed to represent the very best of what they’re capable of. While I enjoyed aspects of it, the effects, some of the dialogue, James Spader’s delightfully evil performance (one of the best voice over performances in recent memory), the fight between Hulk and Iron Man, the individual elements didn’t add up to a satisfying movie experience. They had so much money and resources poured into this movie, and yet, the script left a lot to be desired. This has always confused me. The script is your starting point, your blueprint. It needs to be good from the get go. A good script can be made great or amazing in the right hands, but a bad script can only hope to become decent. Too many elements and characters to juggle, introducing plot devices that set up future movies instead of focusing on the story at hand, and squeezing it all into a reasonable running time isn’t a recipe for quality. It will make all the money in the world, but that doesn’t make it good. We deserve better.